Liang Yuchun was given the nickname of “the Chinese Elia,” but it would be more fitting to call him the Chinese “Citizen of the World.” Though he never set foot outside China in his short lifetime, he was more universalist, at least in his authorial persona, than any other writer of his age; that is to say, his interest was in humanity, not in his countrymen, except in that they were human too. To encounter his essays for the first time is to experience nothing less than shock at the ease with which he transcended national barriers and communed with the best of humanity in other lands. He felt he needed to, to stay human himself.
Born in 1906 in Fujian province, Liang died of scarlet fever less than four years after graduating from Peking University with a degree in English. His country thereby lost a rare intelligence, a sensitive and generous soul, and the most fluent writer of baihua (the vernacular language) in the whole of the Republican period (1912–49). Those qualities are first-rate qualifications for an essayist, and indeed his work was immediately recognized as something special, but the fact that he produced only two volumes of essays (one posthumous) inevitably contributed to his subsequent relative neglect, which was compounded by the rapid politicization of Chinese literature: he was a “citizen of the world” before his country was ready for him. However, his essays have been reprinted in Taiwan since the 1970s and in the People’s Republic since the 1980s.
By his own confession, Liang was addicted to the English essay. He read the world’s great novels with enjoyment, but once read they rested peacefully on his bookshelf, without being subjected to further “violent perturbation” at his hands. Montaigne and the whole succession of English essayists were, in contrast, his constant companions. While still an undergraduate he completed Yingguo xiaopinwen xuan (A selection of English essays, preface dated 1928), an annotated translation, with matching English text, of ten
examples from Joseph Addison to Robert Lynd. He also wrote, in 1928, a startlingly perceptive appraisal of Charles Lamb, whom he regarded as the greatest of English essayists—hence the “Chinese Elia” tag. More volumes of English essays followed, as well as translations of English poetry and novels (including Moll Flanders). His own essays were published under the titles Chunlao ji (1930; Spring wine) and Lei yu xiao (1934; Tears and laughter).
From Liang’s comments on the essayists selected for his anthologies it can be seen that he valued goodness in the author and acute and penetrating observation of life in his work. He found that the English essay told the truth, got behind appearances, and did battle with falsity and hypocrisy. In his own writing he followed suit. He also wrote on subjects popular with English essayists (“vagabonds,” for example), though in his own way. If in style his work resembles that of any English essayist, it is Hazlitt’s rather than Lamb’s: his words stream out seemingly under their own power, healthy, expressive words of the mother tongue. Like Hazlitt, too, he was given to standing conventional assumptions on their head: tears are preferable to laughter, the philosophy of death is more interesting than the philosophy of life, jovial people are not funny, and so on. On the other hand, he could also write in the droll style of the English “silver age,” as on the pleasures of staying in bed.
To give a brief example of his work, “Mao gou” (“Cats and Dogs”) is half droll, half serious. After saying how afraid he is of both animals, he associates them with the cities he knows: Shanghai is a dog. When you stand on the Bund and close your eyes, you may well visualize a vicious dog stretched out before you. Dogs represent the seamy side of reality. The darkness of reality in Shanghai makes you jumpy, as if there really is a mad dog at your heels. Peking, however, is a cat. It represents the fallen soul. Peking has a mustiness about it which makes people lax, not wanting to think or do anything, just content to stay put and muddle through life. It is as if a big cat has stamped a black mark on every soul, condemning them for eternity.
Other authors have expressed similar feelings, but none so imaginatively.
In sharp contrast with the healthiness of Liang’s language is the morbidity of his thoughts. Looking up from the bottom of the heap, first as a student, then as a lowly lecturer, it is understandable that he should have been depressed by the pretense and pretentiousness of what he saw, but his pessimism was far more basic than that. In “Yige ‘xinlike’ de weixiao” (A cynic’s smile) he points out, “to see through people’s masks is common enough, but what is the good, when you discover that compared to their masks people’s true visages are so boring, so dull, so little fun?”—and that is just for starters.
Given this dim view of existence, we find that unlike his beloved Charles Lamb, the wise, kindly light leading his readers through the dark vale, Liang offers only the analogy of “a spark between the darkness before and the darkness after” to describe our universe. The great and glorious compensation is that when he blows upon that spark it burns with as pure a flame as one could hope to find in any literature.
Born in 1906 in Minhou, Fujian province. Studied English literature at Peking University, 1924–28. Began publishing essays in liberal and left-wing magazines, from 1926.
Lecturer in English (specializing in Francis Bacon and Charles Lamb), Jinan University, Shanghai, 1928. Returned to Beijing to work as a librarian, 1929. Possibly married, with one child. Died (of scarlet fever) in Beijing in 1932.
Essays and Related Prose
Chunlao ji 1930
Lei yu xiao, 1934
Liang Yuchun sanwen ji (Liang Yuchun’s collected prose), edited by Qin Xianci, 1979
Translation of essays in: Renditions 43 (1995):124–32; The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, edited by Joseph S.M.Lau and Howard Goldblatt, 1995:647–50
Other writings: translated from the English, including the anthology of English essays
Yingguo xiaopinwen xuan (1928) and works by Daniel Defoe, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Qin Xianci, editor, Liang Yuchun sanwen ji (Liang Yuchun’s collected prose), Taibei: Hongfan Bookstore, 1979 (contains essays on Liang by his contemporaries)
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