Nicholas Clifford’s profile of Simon Leys in the latest issue of Commonweal mentions the late Sinologist’s interest in a revolutionary Chinese writer named Lu Xun (1881-1936). During the Cultural Revolution, Leys sought to defend Lu Xun’s legacy from the attempts of the Chinese Communist Party—and intellectuals in the West—to appropriate him as a Maoist icon. Although Lu Xun maintained left wing and patriotic commitments throughout his career, he never joined the Chinese Communist Party. Mao himself allegedly admitted that Lu Xun would “either have gone silent, or gone to prison” if he lived through the anti-dissident campaigns of the 1950s.  

It’s a good thing that the Cultural Revolution-era debate on Lu Xun has settled on Simon Leys’s terms. The problem, however, is that his legacy is now under attack by a different kind of sanitizing exaltation. Gloria Davies, author of a recent biography on Lu Xun, writes that post-Maoist scholarship has often reduced his revolutionary polemics to “an example of mere intellectual factionalism.” So I’ll take Clifford’s essay on Simon Leys as an opportunity to ask: Who was Lu Xun and why should we know him better?

Julia Lovell's brief but illuminating introduction to her recent translation of Lu Xun's collected fiction is a good place to start. Lovell recounts how the social decay that marked late-imperial China played out on a microcosmic level in Lu Xun’s family. He was born into a gentry-class family in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, but his grandfather’s imprisonment for bribery and his father’s failing health laid a heavy burden on the family finances. It seems hardly shocking, then, that Lu Xun (whose given name was Zhou Shuren) abandoned the imperial examination system—the traditional path to success in China for an ambitious young man—that his forbears had followed.

A patriotic impulse to serve as an army doctor and his experience with his father’s quack doctors brought him to a medical school in Sendai, Japan. During his time in Japan, a biology professor used the last few minutes of class to display a slide image from the frontlines of the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905). The image showed a Chinese man about to be executed by Japanese soldiers, apparently for spying. Chinese laborers in the background of the photo stood by as spectators. The class, including Lu Xun, erupted in applause at the sight, in celebration of the execution of a perceived traitor.

Lu Xun’s anger at his countrymen, and his feelings of shame at his own complicity in his fellow students’ enjoyment, inspired him to abandon his medical studies to start a literary movement. He would write later in a Preface to a collection of his fiction writing, Call to Arms (1922),

The people of a weak and backward country, however strong and healthy they may be, can only serve to be made examples of, or to witness such futile spectacles; and it doesn't really matter how many of them die of illness. The most important thing, therefore, was to change their spirit…

The stakes were high for changing the spirit of his nation. Lu Xun was writing his Preface to Call to Arms in the aftermath of the failure of the 1911 revolution to create a unified, modern nation-state out of the ashes of the Qing dynasty. By 1916, there was a de jure national government in Beijing, but China was controlled de facto by various warlord regimes. These competing warlords ensured that China would not be able to effectively resist great power encroachments on Chinese sovereignty, such as Japan’s acquisition of Shandong province (previously a German sphere of influence in northeast China) in the Treaty of Versailles. This sparked student protests in Beijing on May 4, 1919, which evolved into a broader political and cultural force known as the May Fourth Movement. Lu Xun and a generation of intellectuals and writers dedicated to national rejuvenation and anti-imperialism emerged out of this era.

Lu Xun goes about his self-proclaimed mission by writing about victims at the mercy of gawking crowds. In “Kong Yiji” for example, a failed middle-aged scholar is incessantly mocked by the patrons at a bar where he drinks away what money he earns from side jobs and theft. The reader is lured into scapegoating of Kong Yiji by a complicit narrator. “Kong Yiji,” the narrator recounts, “contributed to our enjoyment.”  Lu Xun’s brutal realism is also present in “The Real Story of Ah Q.” A caricature of China’s weak “national character,” Ah Q, becomes a village scapegoat, suffering insult upon insult until the story concludes with Ah Q’s public execution. His stories do not offer cheap catharsis—Kong Yiji and Ah Q, like the other victims in his stories, are not sympathetic characters, and there is never redemption at the conclusion of his stories. Imagine Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but without the Grandmother reaching out to touch the Misfit.

What Lu Xun does offer is subtle counterarguments to the violence he depicts. He forces the reader to identify with the crowd committing the violence. Lu Xun hopes that in replicating for his audience his own Damascene moment watching the slide of the execution, they too will come to see the horror of their psychological participation in the violence and become foot soldiers in his campaign to change the spirit of their nation. Not only revealing personal complicity, the scapegoat, as René Girard has persuasively argued, “reveals the truth of the system, its relativity, its fragility, its morality.” In Lu Xun’s own summation, his aim was to expose the disease to draw attention to the cure.

But Lu Xun’s rhetorical strategies for bringing about cultural renewal are not the most interesting thing about his writing. The figure of the narrator in “The Real Story of Ah Q,” for example, reveals a deep ambivalence toward his role as heroic intellectual.

A sense that no one is innocent—including the narrators of his stories and Lu Xun—pervades his fiction. Lydia Liu at Columbia University writes that Christian missionaries introduced the nebulous category of “national character” into the Chinese lexicon. The ambivalence with which Lu Xun addresses this category in “The Real Story of Ah Q” (is the author/narrator endorsing this imperialist trope in service to anti-imperialist goals?) points to his self-aware complicity in the scapegoating of Ah Q.

Lu Xun thus evades simple characterizations as a writer seeking to “save China” or as "commander of China's cultural revolution," as he was called by Mao. This was the legacy of Lu Xun that Simon Leys upheld: the acerbic writer who had an emancipatory political vision, but also ambivalence about his role and the role of intellectuals in the revolution he sought. And it was this same doubt that allowed Simon Leys to see the folly of the western Maoist intellectuals.

Nicholas Haggerty is an editor of the News Lens International. He lives in Taipei.

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