Zhou Zuoren owed his prominence in the New Literature movement, which took off around 1919, to his education in “Western learning” under the patronage of the imperial government. Like his brother Lu Xun, he had spent long years in Japan as a student, where he had been among the few in the Chinese contingent to interest himself seriously in Western culture and literature. Wedded to Western humanism, and equipped with a knowledge of English as well as easy access to Japanese scholarship (which was the first to channel knowledge of Western trends to the Orient), his was a voice that his compatriots, especially the younger ones, wanted to hear. In literature he above all championed the cause of the essay, as a vehicle for sane and civilizing discourse.
Zhou’s first important pronouncement on the essay, however, emphasized the aesthetic aspect, in order to point out that the essay could stand as an art form alongside poetry and fiction, rather than being simply a medium for controversy, although at that stage he was no stranger to controversy himself. In “Mei wen” (1922; Belles-lettres) Zhou looked to Western paragons, especially English essayists, whose work was an extension of their personality. He commended in particular their “genuineness,” a quality sadly lacking in contemporary Chinese compositions. “Genuineness” was to remain for Zhou a sine qua non; however, from roughly 1930 onward his attention was focused almost exclusively on the compositions of his own Chinese tradition known as xiaopin wen (“little form” compositions), a free form that the educated elite had used down the ages to express their private thoughts and feelings and record their own experiences, released from the obligation to speak “on behalf of the sages.” For most of Chinese history this kind of essay had been regarded only as a diversion, at certain times as the authentic voice of literature. Yuan Hongdao and Zhang Dai represented the latter standpoint, and Zhou was responsible in no small measure for their revival. But whether English or Chinese, and whatever label it was given, the true essay excluded service to any cause; to be written by individuals for individuals, it displayed man in all his humors and diversity, but since it put a premium on “naturalness” and “sincerity,” in this diversity there was community: it was the ideal medium for a “literature of humanity.” This did not mean, of course, that the essay was limited to discussing man and his works: it extended to the world of creation in which man found himself.
Zhou Zuoren published over two dozen books of essays, naturally not all of the same kind. From initially applying “scientific common sense” (derived largely from Western sociology, psychology, and anthropology) to issues of the day and his own country’s habits and practices, he tended more and more toward bookishness and isolation, having persuaded himself that literature was “useless” and that any attempt to prove otherwise would only cause pointless “vexation of spirit”—as well as court danger. Perhaps unwittingly, Zhou described what was to become his typical manner as an essayist as early as 1923, when he distinguished two types of writer produced by his home province of Zhejiang: the one magisterial, trenchant in judgment, pungent in expression (which fits Lu Xun), the other mild and gentlemanly, easy and unaffected, given to mixing the amusing and the serious (which fits himself).
The essay “Shuili de dongxi” (1930; Things in the water) fairly represents the image projected by Zhou in mid-career. Its subject is the superstition in his home district of many waterways concerning “river ghosts,” spirits of the drowned who seek release for themselves by drowning others, who will become their substitutes. Unlike the common run of ghosts, these are rather attractive in appearance: they take the form of “little people” who may be seen playing in groups on the river banks, until they are disturbed, when they “plop” into the water like frogs. Zhou thinks these river ghosts may have something in common with the “river lads” (kappa) of Japanese superstition, a kind of demon who also pulls people under water. Up to this point he has treated the subject as an amusing curiosity, an item of folklore personalized by reference to his own childhood recollections, and told with many apologies for imprecision and disclaimers of authority.
But finally he feels he has to draw a moral, like the essayists of old, and explains that his real interest is not in the ghosts but in their connection with the mundane world of the people who believe in such things, which he hopes Chinese sociologists will investigate.
This is indeed a “gentlemanly” essay. It apologizes for trespassing on the reader’s attention, is elaborately unassuming, and exhibits unprofessional vagueness (as illustrated by the title). By fitting into the Chinese tradition of scholarly “notes” on regional customs, and using wholly Chinese language structures (as opposed to the Europeanized Chinese already in vogue), it disguises the fact that in presentation it is more like the quizzical type of English essay popular in the early 20th century than any xiaopin wen.
But if “Shuili de dongxi” was the kind of essay most readers of the time associated with Zhou Zuoren, it was not one of his best. His finest essays combine a similar sort of relaxed humor with deep sadness, most often over the cruelty of ignorance, whether directed against the self or others. In another essay on a related theme, “Gui de shengzhang” (1934; The aging of ghosts), he collects from written sources a number of contradictory anecdotes on the question of whether or not ghosts continue to age in the spirit world, culminating in long excerpts from the diary of a gentleman who corresponded via a planchette with members of his family who died, until even those spirits departed and left him more alone than ever. This transition from the mildly amusing to the equally ridiculous but profoundly affecting shows Zhou Zuoren in his true colors, all mannerisms shed. Despite his evident superiority to his matter, he evinces no trace of condescension: honest foolishness is treated with polite respect; pain is shared.
No admiration is demanded from his reader, with whom he shares his knowledge and thoughts on equal terms, and enters into a closer relationship and talks of more serious things as the “conversation” progresses. Fortunately for the reader, Zhou always has things to say that we never knew before, so farreaching was his curiosity and learning; hence, even when his style becomes excessively dry, as it did in the 1940s, reading him remains a real education.
Also wrote under the names Zhitang and Yaotang. Younger brother of the essayist Lu Xun. Born 16 January 1885 in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. Studied at the Jiangnan Naval Academy, Nanking, 1901; studied in Japan, 1906–11. Married Habuto Nobuko, 1909 (died, 1962): one son and two daughters (one died in youth). Returned to Zhejiang province, 1911, and worked in the educational service, teaching English in Shaoxing;
professor of literature, from 1917, and dean of the department of Japanese literature, from 1931, Peking University. Contributor to various journals, including Xin qingnian (New youth), from 1918, Xiaoshuo yuebao (Short story monthly), from 1921, Yuzhou feng (The cosmic wind), Lunyu (Analects), from 1932, and Renjian shi (This human world); founding member, Wenxue yanjiu hui (Literary association), 1921, and Yusi magazine, 1924. One of the leaders in the May Fourth movement for intellectual reform.
Collaborated with the Japanese invaders during the Sino-Japanese war (1937–45): commissioner of education, North China, 1940–43; after the war tried for collaboration by the Chinese government and imprisoned, 1945–49, then pardoned. Lived in Beijing for the rest of his life. Died in Beijing in 1967.
Essays and Related Prose
Ziji de yuandi (One’s own garden), 1923; enlarged edition, 1928
Yutian de shu (A rainy day book), 1925
Yishu yu shenghuo (Art and life), 1926
Tan long ji (Speaking of dragons), 1927
Tan hu ji (Speaking of tigers), 2 vols., 1928
Yong ri ji (Passing the time), 1929
Kanyun ji (Gazing at the clouds), 1932
Ku yu zhai xu bawen (Prefaces and postscripts from the Driving Rain Studio), 1934
Ye du chao (Notes from night reading), 1934
Ku cha suibi (Bitter tea essays), 1935
Ku zhu za ji (Bitter bambo jottings), 1936
Feng yu tan (Wind and rain), 1936
Gua dou ji (Melons and beans), 1937
Bingzhu tan (Talks by candlelight), 1940
Yaotang yulu (Jottings by Yaotang), 1941
Yao wei ji (Bitter taste), 1942
Shufang yijiao (A corner of the library), 1944
Bingzhu hou tan (More talks by candlelight), 1944
Yaotang zawen (Random essays of Yaotang), 1944
Ku kou gan kou (Bitter and sweet), 1944
Lichun yiqian (Before spring), 1945
Guoqu de gongzuo (Past work), 1959
Zhitang yiyou wenbian (Zhitang’s writings during 1945), 1961
Zbitang huixiang lu (Zhitang’s memoirs), 1970
Translations of essays in: Renditions 26 (1986), and in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, edited by Joseph S.M.Lau and Howard Goldblatt, 1995:601–15
Other writings: poems, a textbook on the history of European literature (1918), a book on the sources of modern Chinese literature (1932), works on his brother Lu Xun, and correspondence.
Pollard, D.E., “Chou Tso-jen and Cultivating One’s Garden,” Asia Major 11, no. 2 (1965):180–98
Pollard, D.E., A Chinese Look at Literature: The Literary Values of Chou Tso-fen in Relation to the Tradition, London: Hurst, 1973
Qian Liqun, Zhou Zuoren zhuan (A life of Zhou Zuoren), Beijing: Shiyu wenyi chubanshe, 1990
Wolff, Ernst, Chou Tso-jen, New York: Twayne, 1971
Zhang Tierong, Zhou Zuoren pingyi (A balanced view of Zhou Zuoren), Tianjin: Tianjin renmin chubanshe, 1996
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