It was Lu Xun who introduced the best-known description of the familiar essay to China when he published a translation of the Japanese scholar Kuriyagawa Hakuson’s Chule xiangya zhi ta (Out from the ivory tower) in 1925. Using Western sources, this work pictured the essay as a transcription of a good conversation around a winter fire among friends, in an atmosphere of slippered ease. Ironically, Lu Xun’s own reputation as an essayist was of the opposite kind: that of a warlike, biting, often deadly polemicist.
Lu Xun had all the qualifications to be a good polemicist. On the personal level, he easily imagined himself slighted or traduced, and bore long grudges; he had a brilliant mind and, never having had a job which kept him busy, had devoted many years to reading Chinese history and literature, and through Japanese (he was a student in Japan from 1902, to 1909) to learning about the foreign experience, which gave him a superior stock of allusions and analogies. Moreover, under the imperial regime he had learned how to plan a composition and to use rhetorical devices. That he was able to mock and abuse the authorities without being arrested he owed to the relatively civilized regime in Beijing up to 1926, and subsequently to the protection of the International Settlement in Shanghai, which he moved to in 1927, as well as latterly to his nationwide fame.
The May Fourth movement (1919) was a kind of revolution against the “feudal” culture which the 1911 revolution had not seriously disturbed. As one of its pioneers, Lu Xun won his spurs as an essayist by laying into the establishment, and there was much in the conduct of national life to keep him embattled thereafter. When he joined the United Front around 1930 he committed himself to fight the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government until the end of his days. A great deal of his polemical work dealt of course with current affairs and needs lengthy footnotes for present-day readers, but his habit of relating current ills to perennial complaints and deeprooted vices makes these writings appreciable without knowledge of the detail. Since China at that time was at the mercy of the colonial powers, especially Japan, the story that events told was one of weakness and subservience. This situation Lu Xun summed up in memorable words. Perhaps his most famous dictum was that China had only known two phases in its history: the one when its people were happy being slaves, the other when they were unhappy because they could not be slaves.
Lu Xun became known as dedicated to “hot abuse” and “cold sarcasm,” but what raised his polemical essays above those of his contemporaries, aside from his powerful intellect, was his way of marshaling his words like troops on a battlefield, now feinting an attack, now feigning weakness, now holding, now retreating, finally springing a trap, all very much as the ancient manuals on the art of war recommended. The repetition of key phrases, with some variations (like Mark Antony’s “an honourable man”), was one of his standbys, but patterns were rarely repeated. General characteristics of opponents were often subsumed in animal behavior (e.g. Pekinese dogs, packhounds, wasps), a trick he borrowed from traditional satirical parables. His most flexible and reliable resource, however, was a more or less total command of the Chinese language, classical and modern: the ability to mix and switch registers was used very effectively to mock and shock. There is no doubt that as a polemicist Lu Xun was world class.
Though the greater part of Lu Xun’s many volumes of miscellaneous essays were littérature engagée, he also displayed other sides. When in the mid-1920s he went through his dark night of the soul, the experience resulted in a collection of prose poems entitled Ye cao (1927; Wild Grass), which some regard as his finest work while others denigrate it as derivative. The tone seems to have been set by Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–85; Thus Spoke Zarathustra), to which Lu Xun was very attracted in arly adulthood. Stark and barren landscapes, symbolic figures and images, and strange encounters and cryptic speeches dominate the collection.
More accessible are the backward-looking essays of Zhao hua xi shi (1928; Morning blossoms picked at eventide), which affectionately recall the background of his early life, and the more ruminative essays scattered throughout his collections, which are not without wit and humor. Though Lu Xun dissociated himself from the deliberate humor of the magazines that Lin Yutang was responsible for in the 1930s, he had a fund of wit which he used facetiously as well as cuttingly, as can be deduced merely from the title
“You Zhongguo nüren de jiao tuiding Zhongguo ren de fei zhongyong, you youci tuiding Kong fuzi you weibing” (1933; To reach the conclusion from women’s feet that Chinese people do not follow the golden mean, and thence further to conclude that Confucius suffered from his stomach). Humor of a generous kind can also be found in his work, though he was reluctant to admit it. A case in point is “A Jin” (1935), which takes its title from the name of the feisty woman servant who came to live and work opposite. Lu Xun was ideologically inclined to take the side of the working class, and had often written compassionately of the fate of weak and helpless females, but A Jin did not conform to type. He had to learn to give the house where she worked a wide berth, as she was in the habit of tossing things over her balcony, and the nights, when he did most of his writing, were disturbed by her lovers who came calling. Before she moved away he was forced to confess ruefully that this A Jin had made him revise beliefs he had cherished for the better part of his lifetime. The essay is one long complaint, but it is an index of its humanity that the reader feels that the author did not really regret his encounter.
Given that no one who writes as extensively as Lu Xun did can maintain consistent quality, the fact that so many of his essays bespeak a mind fully engaged to give of its considerable best makes it hard to dispute the claim common in his homeland that Lu Xun was 20th-century China’s best essayist.
Born Zhou Shuren, 25 September 1881 in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. Older brother of Zhou Zuoren. Studied at the Jiangnan Naval Academy, Nanjing, 1898–99; School of Mining and Railways, Nanjing, 1900–02; Japanese language at Kobun College, Japan, 1902–04; medicine at Sendai Medical School, Japan, 1904–06; continued private studies in Japan, 1906–09. Married Zhu An, 1906 (arranged by his mother; probably never consummated). Taught in Hangzhou, 1909–10, and Shaoxing, 1910–11. Worked at the Ministry of Education, Beijing, 1912–26. Contributor to various journals, including Xin qingnian (New youth), from 1918. Lecturer in Chinese literature, Peking University, 1920–26, Beijing Women’s Normal College, from 1923, Xiamen (Amoy) University, 1926, and Sun Yatsen University, Canton, 1927: resigned in protest at Jiang Kaishek’s seizure of power. Lived in the International Settlement, Shanghai, from 1927. Founder, Yusi (Thread of conversation), 1924, and Mangyuan (The wilderness), 1925; cofounder, Zhaohua she (Dawn blossoms press), 1928; editor, Benliu (The torrent), 1928, and Yiwen (Translation), 1934. Founding member, League of LeftWing Writers, 1930, China Freedom League, 1930, and member, League for the Defense of Civic Rights, 1933. Died in Shanghai, 19 October 1936.
Essays and Related Prose
Refeng (Hot air), 1925
Huagai ji (Unlucky star), 2 vols., 1926–27
Fen (The grave), 1927
Zhao hua xi shi, 1928
Eryi ji (And that’s that), 1928
Erxin ji (Two hearts), 1932
Sanxian ji (Three leisures), 1932
Wei ziyou shu (False freedom), 1933
Nanqiang beidiao ji (Mixed accents), 1934
Zhun fengyue tan (Pseudo-frivolous talk), 1934
Huabian wenxue (Fringed literature), 1936
Qiejieting zawen (Essays of Qiejieting), 3 vols., 1936
Selected Works, translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, 4 vols., 1956–60
Silent China: Selected Writings, edited and translated by Gladys Yang, 1973
Translations of essays in: The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, edited by Joseph S.M.Lau and Howard Goldblatt, 1995:587–600, and in Renditions 26
(1986):125–31, and 31 (1989):140–47
Other writings: the volume of prose poetry Ye cao (1927; Wild Grass), many short stories, a history of Chinese fiction, classical poetry, and correspondence. Also translated works from the German and Japanese.
Collected works editions: Lu Xun xiansheng quanji, 20 vols., 1938, revised edition, 1973, and supplements edited by Tang Tao, 2 vols., 1942–52; Lu Xun quanji, 10 vols., 1956–58; Lu Xun quanji, 16 vols., 1991.
Castro, Angela, Three Early Essays of Lu Hsün (M.Phil. dissertation), London: University of London, 1968
Lee, Leo Ou-fan, Voices from the Iron House: A Study of Lu Xun, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987:89–129
Pollard, David E., “Lu Xun’s Zawen” in Lu Xun and His Legacy, edited by Leo Ou-fan Lee, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985:54–89
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