It is hard to know how Lu Xun would have reacted to the rapid transformation that has swept China in the past twenty or so years.
In disbelief, perhaps. After all, he once wrote: “China is very hard to change. Just to move a table or overhaul a stove probably involves shedding blood; and even so, the changes may not get made. Unless some great whip lashes her on the back, China will never budge.”
Born in 1881, Lu lived through one of the darkest periods in China’s long history: the humiliating post-imperial era that saw the country dominated by foreigners, warlords and civil war. It was also a time in which the nation’s 5,000 year-old culture was forced to come to terms with modernity. And until his death in 1936, Lu Xun was the most celebrated writer of his generation.
Indeed, thanks to his advocacy of the ‘modern’ over the ‘traditional’ he became Mao Zedong’s favourite literary figure. Ergo he became required reading in the nation’s schools. Chinese above the age of 35, can still quote him ad nauseum.
That’s why Penguin’s recent decision to publish a new translation of his work (in English) has caused a stir. The paperback joins the Penguin Classics series.
Jo Lusby, the publisher’s general manager in Beijing, told the China Daily that Lu’s fiction is a good place to start for readers seeking to understand China today. His work speaks both to “recent history and context” and to “a present spirit and personality.”
Lu Xun was a master of the short story, and Penguin has grouped his complete works under the single title The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China. TIME magazine says the new translation gives Lu Xun “his best shot to date of achieving renown beyond the Chinese world. If it succeeds, the book could be considered the most significant Penguin Classic ever published.”
The magazine goes on to add: “Lu Xun is not just a great writer. He is an essential writer – the kind whose works provide clues to the cultural code of a nation, and whose work become embedded in a nation’s DNA.”
It also draws comparisons with Mark Twain, arguing that anyone who wants to understand the American psyche needs to have read the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Lu Xun serves a similar purpose in Chinese literature.
TIME also believes that Lu shares key traits with George Orwell – thanks to the political tone of his work. But WiC thinks there is an equally good case for comparison with another English writer, the poet Philip Larkin. Both wrote of ordinary folk and championed plain yet lyrical language.
And ask a Chinese about Lu Xun (or a Briton about Larkin) and the word you will likely hear is ‘depressing’. In fact, Larkin once said: “I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity. Most people are unhappy, don’t you think?”
Lu Xun’s work might best be summed up as ‘beautifully depressed’. Take the descent of Xianglin’s wife into madness and beggary, the suicide of Zijun or the harrowing tale of seamstress Shan and her sick baby. Each tale leaves the reader feeling the glass of life is very much half-empty.
But if you only have time to read one thing by Lu Xun, it should be his short story about the hapless Ah-Q. A symbol of all that Lu believed was wrong with early twentieth century China, Ah-Q’s capacity for self-delusion still resonates today
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