All I See Around Me is the Same Old Darkness: Gloria Davies on Lu Xun

By Jeffrey WasserstromNovember 4, 2013

All I See Around Me is the Same Old Darkness: Gloria Davies on Lu Xun

GD book photoTHE NEED to include something about Lu Xun in this series was obvious to us from the start, since many inside and outside of China describe him as the country’s most important and influential 20th-century literary figure. Then, just to underline the strangeness of doing a project like this without bringing him in somehow, he was the Chinese writer that The Daily Beast included in an October 19, 2013, piece on 16 great writers who never became laureates, meaning he shared space online with James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and others who routinely get mentioned in essays like that one. The person we’ve turned to for enlightenment on this political as well as artistically important figure is Gloria Davies. She was an obvious choice, as the author of a major new study of the author, Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence, which was published earlier this year by Harvard University Press.


JEFFREY WASSERSTROMYou've recently published a major study of Lu Xun, so I'd like to ask you to reflect on an imaginary scenario. What if Lu Xun, sometimes called the Chinese writer who should have been the country's first laureate, and described by Japanese laureate Oe Kenzaburo as the "greatest writer Asia produced in the 20th century," had been chosen for the award in say 1929? You don't have to say if you think he should have won — or whether you agree with Oe's assessment — but how would you describe for those who have never read him what makes him a world-class writer? What might a commentator have said, if he had won that prize then, was the basis for the Nobel committee's decision?

GLORIA DAVIES: Actually 1927 was the year when Lu Xun was asked if he would accept a nomination for the Nobel Literature Prize. A note in Lu Xun’s collected works tells us that when Sven Hedin, a member of the Swedish Academy, visited China that year, he discussed the nomination with Liu Bannong, an acquaintance of Lu Xun’s in Beijing. The question was then posed to Lu Xun by his former student and confidante Tai Jingnong. Lu Xun declined the invitation to be nominated.

There’s no doubt that Lu Xun was a “world-class writer,” to use your term, which I take to mean someone whose writings readers everywhere would find (and in Lu Xun’s case, have found) compelling. The Story of Ah Q (completed in 1922), Lu Xun’s best-known work outside China, was arguably the reason why he was considered for the Nobel prize. Romain Rolland, who won the Nobel Literature prize in 1915, had publicly praised the work in 1926 after reading an abridged French translation of it. Ah Q  a short work — had an electrifying effect on Chinese readers of Lu Xun’s time. Of the character Ah Q, Rolland wrote that once you’ve encountered him, “you can’t bear to part with him.” Simon Leys puts it best in an essay written in the 1970s:

In getting to know Ah Q, those Western readers for whom China is most alien will discover a valuable fact that remains obdurately hidden from both the Yellow Peril theorists and from the apostles of Red China: this fact is that the Chinese too are human, or to put it another way, we are all Chinese.

Some may now consider this comment obsolete since China is so much with us today in the news and in movies. But as you pointed out just recently, dreams as well as nightmares of China have persisted to this day.

Was he the “greatest writer Asia produced in the 20th century”? Well that’s a claim that I think Lu Xun would have rejected because he never privileged literary virtuosity and was fundamentally opposed to the idea of any one writer standing in for a given culture, let alone representing an entire region. He saw literature less as a craft than as an act of communion, or intimacy, between reader and writer: a means of commemorating and sharing human experience. He also drew attention to how the written text mediates between the living and the dead.

Around the time of the proposed Nobel nomination in late 1927, he gave a lecture in which he recalled how moved he was by the letters he had received the previous year from several former students who had joined the revolutionary cause then underway in Guangzhou. Many had died in 1927. He spoke admiringly of “the rusting of their words and phrases,” reading into this linguistic deterioration acts of genuine communication. In an essay about these same students, he wrote that they “refused to embellish their prose” such that the resulting “roughness” of their language expressed how “frustrated, sorrowful, and enraged” they felt while nonetheless conveying something “graceful and pure.” Yet, for all his promotion of a “rough and ready” (cubao) poetics, Lu Xun’s own writings were formidably erudite.

Why should we read Lu Xun? Because he is a “founder of discursivity,” to use Michel Foucault’s useful term. Not many qualify for this distinction. Foucault’s candidates were Marx and Freud. Founders of discursivity are those rare individuals whose writings have a formative, paradigm-shifting effect on the ways we read, think and write. Would “class,” “ideology,” “ego” and “superego” be part of our mental furniture were it not for Marx and Freud? Lu Xun has had a similar effect on the language of mainland China and, in particular, on Chinese intellectual discourse. One sees traces of his legacy everywhere, from the haunting characters that populate his prose fiction to the vivid tropes in his essays of human fallibility and repressive power.

To give an example, Lu Xun’s figuration of Chinese tradition and, by extension, literary (classical) Chinese, wenyanwen, as an “iron house” walled-in by an archaic orthodoxy remains a potent metaphor in China today. He wrote that the inhabitants of the iron house were consigned to death by slow suffocation. In the 1910s, he was one of several pioneers of baihuawen — the experimental Europeanized “vernacular” based on the northern Chinese dialect then being promoted as an egalitarian national tongue. Spoken and written Chinese today originated in baihuawen.

Lu Xun, more than most, highlighted the discordances between so-called “high” and “low” Chinese. His own language was an inventive hybrid of wenyan and baihua. Writing mattered to him, first and foremost, as an assault against authoritarian pedagogy. The intensity of his style is clear in such lines as:

A writer must attack what strikes him as false with the same intensity as he promotes what he holds to be true. Even more fervently than he embraces what he loves he should embrace what he hates, just as Hercules held the giant Antaeus in a tight embrace in order to break his ribs.

For Lu Xun, writing involved the ordeal of self-examination. To read him is to experience the Chinese language at war with itself. What he defended was a language of common use, democratic and polyphonous, available to all yet owned by none. His critical engagement with the Chinese language resonates with Jacques Derrida’s statement: “I have only one language; it is not mine.”


Did I pick the right moment in history for that scenario (he'd have beaten out Thomas Mann, if he had won that year, by the way)? Would it have seemed more appropriate somehow to you if he'd won it earlier or later?

Lu Xun’s declination of the invitation puts paid to any idea of there being an appropriate time for his Nobel win. It was a glittering prize he eschewed for several perennial reasons outlined in his reply to Tai Jingnong on September 25, 1927. Among other things:

If it’s something I’m getting on the cheap because I’m Chinese, leaning on nothing more than the word “China,” it would be no different to Chen Huanzhang [a contemporary whom Lu Xun evidently disliked] receiving a PhD in the US for writing a thesis on “The Economic Principles of Confucius and His School.” It would be a joke.

To be honest, I don’t feel there’s anyone in China yet capable of getting a Nobel prize. Sweden had best ignore us, leave us out of it entirely. If it’s a case of yellow-skinned people deserving special treatment, it would have the contrary effect of encouraging false pride among the Chinese, leading them to think they’re on a par with great writers from other countries. The result would be disastrous.

One sees in these lines a subtle parody of the Western taste for “things Chinese” limned with despair about the situation in China at the time. Lu Xun goes on: “All I see around me is the same old darkness: I’m somewhat weary and worn-out.”

Let’s not forget that in September 1927 he also observed that as “the young seem especially prone to dying this year” they should avoid appearing “too intense.” He was grieving deeply for young Communists who had been rounded up and executed by Chiang Kai-shek’s men in Guangzhou. In Shanghai, Chiang’s Nationalist troops were helped by the city’s gangsters, thanks to an alliance between Chiang and Shanghai’s leading crime boss, Du Yuesheng. One account places the number of Chinese Communists who were either imprisoned or condemned to death from April to December 1927 at around 70,000.


Looking over the Nobel Prize winners from Lu Xun's lifetime, I noticed a couple of names of people he either met or certainly thought about, such as Tagore (1913) and Shaw (1925). Anything interesting to tell our readers about his interactions with or feelings about either or both of those writers?

Lu Xun liked to poke fun at Chinese reactions to foreign luminaries. He wrote in November 1924 that “when India’s sage-poet Tagore graced us with his presence in China,” several of his contemporaries suddenly exuded “an air of cultivation and spirituality” as if they had been transported by “the fragrance from a large bottle of good perfume.” Tagore visited China in April and May that year, and Lu Xun attended one of his lectures. He noted that despite the pomp, ceremony and excitement that had attended his arrival and tour of China, by November Tagore had long ceased to be newsworthy. Tagore’s visit was hosted by Xu Zhimo and other members of the Crescent Moon Society (about which Lu Xun had already formed a negative opinion). By 1925, Lu Xun was locked in a fierce verbal battle with one of the Crescent members, Chen Xiying, and he derided the whole group thereafter as pampered “pugs” of Beijing’s warlord government.

Lu Xun had mixed feelings about Tagore. On the one hand, he saw him as a poet with a singular voice. On the other, he was tacitly critical of Tagore for idealizing Eastern spiritual civilization in China and India.

On George Bernard Shaw, Lu Xun wrote considerably more. In 1933, the year of Shaw’s visit, Lu Xun wrote six essays about him, the most famous of which is the thoroughly delightful “Watching Shaw and Those who Watched Shaw.” All six have appeared in English translation (with a preface by the translator Florence Chien) in the 1992 issue of the journal Shaw. (I use some of her translations below). Lu Xun liked Shaw and saw in him a kindred spirit who defended Communism as the best prospect of a hopeful human future. In these six essays, Lu Xun provides not only engaging and favorable impressions of Shaw but also critical reflections on such issues as the effects of celebrity and fame on how literary works are received, the pretensions of “upper class Chinese” and the media’s pursuit of sensationalism.

When the two writers met in Shanghai on February 17, 1933, their first words to each other reportedly were:

(Shaw): “They call you the Gorky of China but you are more handsome than Gorky!”

(Lu Xun): “As I grow older, I will become still more handsome!”

In his “Watching Shaw” essay, Lu Xun described the lunch hosted for Shaw by Madam Sun Yat-sen that day. He made a point of noting how throughout lunch Shaw kept working at using chopsticks until he “finally got hold of a morsel tightly”: “he looked from face to face expectantly, but few, unfortunately, observed his success.” Lu Xun wrote that lunch was accompanied by the usual conversation topics yet chose to repeat one of Shaw’s remarks: “friends are the best because a lasting relationship can be maintained with them, whereas parents and siblings are not of one's own choosing, so a distance has to be kept.” (Lu Xun fell out with his younger brother Zhou Zuoren in 1923, with whom he had previously been very close. They were never reconciled.)

More humorously, Lu Xun noted that Shaw’s height (at 6 feet 2 inches) made him acutely self-conscious about his own shortness (at 5 feet 2 inches). He wrote that as he stood next to Shaw when pictures were taken, he thought to himself that if he were 30 years younger, he would “exercise rigorously” to make himself taller.


Do you have a favorite Lu Xun work as a reader? A favorite piece you like to teach? I'm curious in part just to see if you choose a single work or two different ones.

There are simply so many! For teaching undergraduate students, one can’t go wrong with the short stories. They are a wonderful introduction to Lu Xun. I would love to see his essays taught in both undergraduate and graduate courses. The later combative essays (the focus of my 2013 book) offer valuable insights into the strengthening grip of orthodox views about baihuawen, intellectual inquiry and literary practice on both the Right and the Left. Graduate students can learn a great deal about Chinese intellectual polemics from reading these essays. In fact, they are essential for understanding why Lu Xun to this day continues to arouse partisan passions in Chinese intellectual circles.

As for a personal favourite, it would have to be Wild Grass — his collection of experimental compositions. He described them as “prose poems” in 1932, noting self-consciously that this was “something of an exaggeration.” In Wild Grass we see Lu Xun pushing baihuawen to its expressive limits. It’s a wonderful work and I devote several pages to it in my book. As you would know, Wild Grass is something of a holy grail for students and aficionados of Lu Xun. Everyone tries to crack the code of his enigmatic uses of language in this anthology that has attracted, over the years and across languages, an abundance of dissertations, expositions and monographs.

Other favourites would include “In Praise of Night” and several of the compositions in the anthology Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk. Indeed I find myself returning time and again to his reflections on the Chinese appetite for the supernatural as a longing for social justice. His essays on Wu Chang (a guardian spirit of the underworld from his hometown Shaoxing, whose name means “there is no permanence” or “life is transient”) offer valuable insights into Chinese ways of making sense of being human.


The last few years have been interesting ones for people concerned with Lu Xun's influence and legacy. A while back, Penguin issued Julia Lovell's new translation of his complete fiction, and in 2013 alone, in addition to Harvard publishing your Lu Xun's Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence, Hawaii brought out another significant new scholarly work on him, Eileen Cheng's Literary Remains: Death, Trauma and Lu Xun's Refusal to Mourn. All this suggests that international interest in him is as strong as ever, even if he still remains far from a household name in the West. At the same time, in China, there have been steady moves toward scaling back the amount of material by Lu Xun taught in schools, with the excuses offered including that he can bring up ideas that are too "difficult" for students. What do you make of all this?

I’m pleased to say that there is growing interest in Lu Xun in the Anglophone academy. Boundary 2, for instance, has published numerous articles about Lu Xun. But a good deal more needs to be done to encourage people to read him properly. Julia’s translation of his fiction is most valuable in this regard. Jon Kowallis translated Lu Xun’s classical-style verse in the 1990s and I’m looking forward to reading his translation of the early essays, out later this year. Of course there’s the classic four-volume set of Lu Xun’s Selected Works translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, not to mention the many other works by Lu Xun that this inimitable husband-and-wife team produced from the 1950s to the 1980s. But so many more of Lu Xun’s essays await willing translators. We should also be doing more to put him into conversation with influential thinkers and writers in the West.

As for the scaling back of Lu Xun in the Chinese school curriculum, opinions among parents and teachers vary and to a large extent mirror the range of views on Lu Xun among university academics. Some have argued that The True Story of Ah Q should be dropped because it no longer speaks to the experience of high school students in China today. Ah Q is a major sticking point in this ongoing controversy about how, and how much, Lu Xun should be taught at Chinese schools. I’m with the pro-Ah Q camp on this one. “Ah Q” has long been a word in the modern Chinese vocabulary; the character Ah Q, who became a cipher for China’s flawed “national character,” remains an unsettling psychic presence in the house of Chinese being. So it would be far better for students today to get to know this unattractive yet compelling spectre that continues to haunt the Chinese language. Or as one highly popular online post on this topic has it: ““Where one Lu Xun retreats, millions of Ah Q’s will grow.”


Finally, only if you feel like weighing in on this, a last question. Jason Diamond recently listed 50 works of fiction in translation that every English reader should have read —and unless I'm missing something, not a single Chinese novel or collection of short stories made the cut. What are one or two Chinese works, whether by Lu Xun or different authors, past or present, you'd have been happy to see mention?

Since you brought this up, I can only surmise that it’s a personal list, and that Diamond has read at least 2 translated Japanese works (he lists one each by Kenzaburo Oë and Haruki Murakami) but hasn’t yet got round to reading any Chinese works in translation. Lu Xun’s fiction, translated by Julia Lovell, The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales of China, should have definitely made the cut. There are certainly plenty of good works by contemporary Chinese writers available in translation. For instance, Hu Fayun’s Such is this World @sars.come (it is “come,” not “com”), translated by A. E. Clark, tells a heartwarming story about everyday Chinese experience as people started going online in the early 2000s. There’s also Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker: Real-life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, translated by Wen Huang.

The two Chinese Nobel prize winners, Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan, have had several of their works translated into English. Controversy has dogged both these awards so at the very least, Anglophone readers should read something by either writer to make up their own minds as to whether they deserved the Nobel.


LARB Contributor

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020). He is also the author of books such as Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (Penguin, 2016), co-author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2018, third edition), and the editor or co-editor of several titles. He is the advising editor on China for LARB, a member of the editorial board of Dissent Magazineand a co-founder of UCI’s Forum for the Academy and Public Life. He has written reviews and commentaries for newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, as well as for a wide range of magazines, journals of opinion, and literary reviews, including TLS and The Atlantic. He is an adviser to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and has been a featured speaker at Internazionale’s Ferrara Festival. Find him on Twitter at @jwassers.


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