The Chinese novelist Lu Xun (1881–1936) wrote in the early 1920s that his goal was to “change the spirit” of his countrymen, and that literature was the best means to this end. Lu Xun’s use of the vernacular and choice of overtly political themes threw Chinese literature into modernity. Or so the standard account of modern Chinese literature goes.
David Der-wei Wang, the editor of A New Literary History of Modern China, argues persuasively that literary modernity did not suddenly appear in China with the publication of Lu Xun’s work. To begin with, Lu Xun was not the first Chinese writer to write political fiction; literature with political themes, written in service to a project of national rejuvenation, was already present as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Another essay in this collection, on a debate within the late Qing-dynasty intelligentsia on the proper relationship between politics and literature, challenges the idea that Lu Xun’s innovations were inspired by foreign influences. Still another essay boldly asserts that a fiction genre mockingly referred to as “Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies” dealt with politics more directly than Lu Xun and his school did during the same period. The overall effect is to put Lu Xun in his place in more than one sense. He emerges as just one of many contributors—albeit an especially important one—to the development of modern Chinese literature.
The title of this new collection presents the reader with an obvious question: Is A New Literary History of Modern China a historical account of literature in modern China, or a history of modern China as seen through the lens of its literature? As it turns out, it’s some of both. Although most of the volume consists of scholarly essays about China’s literature, it also includes material one would not usually find in such a collection of literary scholarship. Using the techniques of fiction, Ha Jin tells the story of how Lu Xun wrote his groundbreaking short story “Diary of a Madman.” There is an essay by Li Juan about her own experiences among the Kazakh-speaking natives of Xinjiang, as well as Wang Hui’s deeply personal reflections on death.