a thoughtful piece by my friend Sheila Melvin about China’s literary giant Lu Xun

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Caixin OnlineSociety & CultureTwo or Three Things about Mr. Lu Xun
10.31.2014 15:51

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Two or Three Things about Mr. Lu Xun

The remarkable re-emergence of Confucius in China has been quietly paralleled by the slow diminishment of the status of Lu Xun
By Sheila Melvin
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Back when I first came to China, Lu Xun was an inescapable presence – it was almost as though he were still alive. Everyone I knew had a favorite Lu Xun story and many could quote him at length. "The True Story of Ah Q" – a scathing critique of national character that Lu said he wrote to expose "the weakness of my fellow citizens" – was perhaps his best known work, but "A Madman’s Diary" with its chilling conclusion – "Save the children…" – was a close second. My personal favorite was "Medicine," the heartbreaking tale of a poor, benighted family desperate to prevent their son from dying of consumption. To this day, thanks to that story, I cannot see a mantou without imagining it soaked in human blood (I don’t eat a lot of mantou) and every time I notice a crow on a bare tree branch I imagine a mother in a graveyard praying for a sign from heaven – and not getting it. (Nobel Prize-winning author Mo Yan wrote an updated version of "Medicine" called "The Cure" that is set in new China and is even more harrowing, and damning, than Lu’s original.)

Lu Xun’s status in modern China was sanctified by Mao Zedong, who deemed him to be "a great Chinese saint – the saint of modern China, just as Confucius was the saint of old China." In Mao’s estimation, Lu Xun "was not only a great man of letters, but a great thinker and revolutionary… On the cultural front, he was the bravest and most correct, the firmest, the most loyal, and the most ardent national hero, a hero without parallel in our history."

Of course, Lu Xun died in 1936 – before the Communist Party came to power – and by the 1942 Yanan Forum on Arts and Literature, Mao had already begun what the scholar Merle Goldman called "the distortion of Lu Xun for political purposes." While still praising Lu Xun to the heavens, Mao noted that, though the writer’s use of "burning satire and freezing irony" was the correct response for someone living "under the dark forces and deprived of the freedom of speech," for those living in the Communist areas "where we can shout at the top of our voices" such a critical approach was no longer needed. According to Julia Lovell (in the introduction to her translation of The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun), Mao once even acknowledged that the actual Lu Xun would not have survived new China, but would "either have gone silent, or gone to prison." That is certainly true – but at least much of his writing, however manipulated, did survive; to see his unflinching social criticism and indelible fiction starting to go silent now, 25 years into the era of reform and opening, is discomfiting.

In 2007, it was reported that Beijing was removing "The True Story of Ah Q" from teaching materials for high school seniors; in 2009, newspapers reported that the number of Lu Xun’s essays included in the curriculum was steadily declining; in 2013, People’s Education Press removed Lu Xun’s essay "The Kite" from seventh grade textbooks. Meanwhile, of course, study – or, more often, cherry-picking and pseudo-study – of the works of "the saint of old China" has become ever more popular, with writers like Yu Dan turning Confucius into a happiness-preaching, self-help guru (and becoming millionaires in the process). Confucius Institutes have opened around the world and some Chinese parents are sending their children to Confucius Schools, where they dress in ancient robes and recite the sage’s aphorisms. This year, Chinese President and Chairman of the Communist Party Xi Jinping even gave a speech at the official commemoration of Confucius’ 2,565th birthday.

Of course it is important to study Confucius, whose influence on Chinese culture is enduring. And yet, somehow, the more I hear about Confucius, the more I miss Lu Xun. Indeed, while I can honestly say that I have never once wondered what Confucius would think of any given situation, I increasingly find myself playing the "What would Lu Xun say?" game. This is a question that has been asked for years, starting, perhaps, with the literary critic Hu Feng’s 1941 essay "If He Were Still Alive." (Hu Feng was mentored by Lu Xun, but jailed in the 1950s for a period that would last 25 years and from which he never recovered.) It springs from the fact that Lu Xun, who managed to wield an acid-tipped pen with both wisdom and compassion, would have just the right response to anything that leaves most of us speechless– and, most importantly, wouldn’t be afraid to give it.

If only, for example, Lu Xun were here to offer a blistering response to the recent characterization of unmarried women over the age of 27 as "leftovers" – or that of women pursuing advanced degrees as "yellowed pearls," which was unbelievably promoted by the Chinese Women’s Federation. Lu Xun wrote a number of thoughtful essays on the status of women. He denounced the "thigh culture" that eroticized women and turned them into sexual objects and he scoffed at the hypocrisy of men who "advocate equality between the sexes in order to escape the shackles of traditional thinking" but nonetheless insisted on transliterating the surnames of foreign women with "soft and beautiful characters." He mourned the suicide of the 25-year old actress Ruan Lingyu with a quote from her suicide note, "Gossip is a Fearful Thing," excoriating the way women’s private lives were sensationalized by the media. And, reacting to the widespread popularity in China of Henrik Ibsen’s "A Doll’s House," in which Nora leaves her husband and children for a life of independence, he wondered "What Happens After Nora Leaves." In the China of his day, Lu concluded sadly, "Nora" would either have to become a prostitute or return home.

I thought of Lu again when I saw a young actor tearfully apologizing on television after he, and others, were banned by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television for crimes related to drugs and prostitutes. Certainly I don’t condone either activity – and neither would Lu Xun – but neither do I see much fairness in throwing stones at young stars who are far from the only sinners. As Lu Xun once wrote, "That gentlemen sigh when they meet is only natural. But now even murderers, incendiaries, libertines, swindlers and other scoundrels shake their heads in the intervals between their crimes and mutter: ‘Men are growing more degenerate every day!" He also asked bluntly, "What purpose is served by upholding chastity?" and went on to criticize those who tried to address such matters by "the weird idea of inviting the ghost of Mencius to devise a policy for them."

In addition to being instructed to be more moral, artists have also recently been asked to focus on embodying traditional Chinese culture and to reflect Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuits. I am sure that Lu Xun would object to such advice. He was a committed cosmopolitan who recognized that artistic inspiration has no political or geographical boundaries. He lived for years in Japan, he read and spoke Japanese and German, and he devoted much of his creative energy to translating and disseminating works from the West. And, though he certainly had political opinions, he remained profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that artists should take orders from politicians.

"I have always felt that art and politics are often in mutual conflict," he wrote. "At first, art and revolution were not opposed to each other; they shared the same discontent with the status quo. Yet politics attempts to maintain the status quo, so it naturally stands in the opposite direction of art, which is discontented with reality."

Our world still needs Lu Xun.

Sheila Melvin is a newspaper columnist

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