Widely recognized as modern China’s preeminent man of letters, Lu Xun (1881–1936) is revered as the voice of a nation’s conscience, a writer comparable to Shakespeare and Tolstoy in stature and influence. Gloria Davies’s portrait now gives readers a better sense of this influential author by situating the man Mao Zedong hailed as “the sage of modern China” in his turbulent time and place.
In Davies’s vivid rendering, we encounter a writer passionately engaged with the heady arguments and intrigues of a country on the eve of revolution. She traces political tensions in Lu Xun’s works which reflect the larger conflict in modern Chinese thought between egalitarian and authoritarian impulses. During the last phase of Lu Xun’s career, the so-called “years on the left,” we see how fiercely he defended a literature in which the people would speak for themselves, and we come to understand why Lu Xun continues to inspire the debates shaping China today.
Although Lu Xun was never a Communist, his legacy was fully enlisted to support the Party in the decades following his death. Far from the apologist of political violence portrayed by Maoist interpreters, however, Lu Xun emerges here as an energetic opponent of despotism, a humanist for whom empathy, not ideological zeal, was the key to achieving revolutionary ends. Limned with precision and insight, Lu Xun’s Revolution is a major contribution to the ongoing reappraisal of this foundational figure.
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About the Author
Gloria Davies is a literary scholar and historian of China at Monash University in Australia. She is also Adjunct Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter Two: The Shanghai Haze
On 11 September 1927, sixteen days before leaving Guangzhou for Shanghai, Lu Xun completed the essay “On ‘Intensity.’” He wrote it as an oblique commentary on the daily terrors of “Party purification” and included “words of warning to the young”: as if on the eve of his departure the author was fulfilling his final duties as a mentor. Using intensity to mean a display of revolutionary fervor, Lu Xun placed the word in quotation marks to highlight its ominous interpretability.
He advised his readers that as “the young seem especially prone to dying this year,” they should take special pains to avoid appearing “too intense.” This was so, he explained, because they lived in a society where “what is praised as right and proper one day can turn overnight into a crime punishable by caning.” Accordingly, it had become a risky liability to show intensity and he urged the young “to proceed with the utmost care.”
These cautionary words present a bitter reversal of the expectations placed on Lu Xun by the Guangzhou authorities and the students at Sun Yat-sen University. They had hoped that he would play a major part in nurturing a revolutionary spirit among young writers and critics. Instead, he now enjoined his charges to divest themselves of any desire for revolutionary change. In its place he offered erudite comments on discursive tactics inspired by the literary inquisitions during China’s imperial past, using these to allude to the modern perils of “dangerous writing” (weixian wenzi).
In particular, he warned young writers not to imagine they could procure any modicum of safety by pretending that they were only “letting out a sigh of regret” (ketan ye fu), and thereby ameliorate or in some way disguise their intense emotions. He wrote that while this tactic of “letting out a sigh” might have worked for their hoary predecessors in the Ming and Qing epochs, it was clearly unsuited for the treacherous modern age at hand. In this context, he advises: “the sighing of slaves might well be harmless but the master will feel nervous all the same.” Alluding to the self-censorship at work in his own writing, he instructs the reader to approach his essay as nothing more than “the letting out of a regretful sigh.”
In “How to Write,” completed around the same time and published in October 1927, Lu Xun utilized a similar form of indirect yet profoundly affective language to commemorate Bi Lei, the student who had celebrated Lu Xun’s arrival in Guangzhou by calling for an intensification of revolutionary shouting. Bi was arrested with forty other students on the campus of Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University on 18 April 1927. At the time, Lu Xun had pleaded unsuccessfully with the local authorities for the students’ release. He never saw Bi Lei again. In this essay, he recalls Bi as an energetic young man whom he had suspected of being the author of several essays written in praise of Communism, each published under a different pseudonym, and that Bi had once presented him with a dozen issues of a local Communist journal, Youthful Vanguard. He writes that, from these memories alone, “one can surmise that Mr Bi Lei was most probably a Communist Party member.” He then mourns the seventeen year-old with the simple words: “I suspect he has long departed from this world, that young man from Hunan, so slight and thin and with his wits about him.”
These elements from Lu Xun’s essays of late 1927 indicate the parameters of criticism he felt he could allow himself while the Nationalists were systematically widening their anti-Communist purge. In this context, his sparse words of mourning offer a useful example of his tacit criticism. By calling attention to Bi Lei’s slightness and alertness, he gestured to the ruthless barbarism that extinguished this young life.
Table of Contents
Note on Translation vii
Guide and Chronology ix
Introduction: The Sage of Modern China 1
1 Eyes Wide Open 22
2 The Shanghai Haze 66
3 Guns and Words 119
4 Debating Lu Xun 170
5 Lu Xun's Revolutionary Literature 228
6 Raising Revolutionary Specters 282