'In the last 70 years, China has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.’ This polemical statement — used frequently in Pakistan as shorthand for China’s revolutionary transformation — in fact, reveals little about the Chinese polity in the first half of the 20th century.

But historical details matter: what was happening in China shared broad similarities with elsewhere in Asia. How the people of China responded was also similar to their counterparts elsewhere in Asia, which makes the present compilation of essays by Lu Xun (1881-1936) all the more valuable, both to lifelong students of Chinese history such as myself, as well as those interested in global history and who believe in a global humanity.

In the early 20th century, China was a victim of imperialism and wracked by warlordism, both of which undermined central authority. The majority of China’s population was peasantry, who lived in extreme destitution. The urban labour class fared little better. Two thousand years of rule by imperial dynasties had ended in 1912. In its place a Republican regime had emerged; yet it was not the proverbial dawn-of-a-new-era that progressives had hoped for.

Chinese writers produced evocative accounts of the time, foremost amongst whom was Lu Xun. Jottings Under Lamplight, edited by Eileen J. Cheng and Kirk A. Denton, compiles 62 of Lu Xun’s essays, many of them translated into English for the first time. Although Lu Xun is best known for his short stories, this recent volume collects and makes accessible his essays in one place.

A translation of essays by one of the foremost Chinese writers in early 20th century adds a textured understanding to debates on tradition and culture, art and literature, beyond the polemics of today

Lu Xun has long been classified as one of the ‘May Fourth’ writers who wrote about working-class lives in an accessible, easy to read manner. While Lu Xun rightly belongs in this group, the value of this collection is that it illustrates the extensive contributions that he made to contemporary debates on tradition and culture, art and literature through the 1930s.

The story of how Lu Xun became a writer, well known to China specialists, may not be familiar to readers; it is worth recollecting here for the context it provides. Lu Xun grew up in poverty. As a child, he saw his father suffer from prolonged illness and be treated unsuccessfully by quacks. Lu Xun decided to study medicine, at the turn of the century moving to Japan for medical school. Japan had modernised rapidly following the Meiji restoration of 1868 and many Chinese students studied there.

While in Japan, Lu Xun attended a slide show where one image depicted a Chinese man about to be decapitated by a Japanese executioner; the man had been accused of being a Russian spy. In the backdrop, a crowd of Chinese looked on. For Lu Xun, the bystanders represented the apathy of China. How could he study medicine, he asked himself, when it was the Chinese nation that was ill? “Citizens of an ignorant or weak nation, no matter how healthy and sturdy their bodies, can serve as nothing more than subject matter for or spectators of meaningless public displays.” Lu Xun concluded that “our most important mission lies in transforming their spirits.” He abandoned medicine for literature.

Lu Xun could weave the personal and the political; that he was able to do so was because he broke down the barriers between what he observed and himself. The result, I think, is often poetic.

But Lu Xun’s is more than the story of an awakening or a sudden redemption. In his literary incarnation, he struggled with questions of culture, critical of how Chinese culture had held back China, yet unable to fully break from it. He suffered from loneliness and despair, coming to the realisation that he was “by no means a hero who could rally the masses with a battle cry and a raised fist.” In his initial years, he struggled to make his mark as a writer.

In Lu Xun’s telling of his story, it was by chance that he found his voice: after having initially failed as a writer, for years he described himself sitting under an old locust tree from which a woman had hanged herself. He spent his days copying out ancient inscriptions by hand. One day, he was visited by an old friend to whom he confessed that his mindless copying of manuscripts had no purpose.

His friend asked Lu Xun to write for a new publication. Imagine an iron house, his friend extolled, in which people are about to die in their sleep through suffocation. “But if a few people are awakened, you can’t say there’s absolutely no hope,” the friend added. Lu Xun was forced to concur: “When it came to the matter of hope, I had no way of blotting out its existence. Because hope is something that lies in the future.”

Lu Xun’s prose is powerful. In part this is because, like other progressive writers at the time, much — although not all — of what he wrote was in the vernacular and not the highly stylised classical Chinese of the literati. Another reason was because Lu Xun could weave the personal and the political; that he was able to do so was because he broke down the barriers between what he observed and himself. The result, I think, is often poetic. Consider: “Yet what a shame that my sights are so narrow; so many important events happened this year in China alone that I have yet to write about, it’s almost as if they hadn’t affected me at all. I have long wished that Chinese youth would step up without a shred of fear to criticise Chinese society and civilisation.” Lu Xun continues, the despair — and resignation — now amply evident: “It is now deep into the night as the year draws to a close, so that it seems the night itself is about to expire. My life has already been wasted on writing these pointless things, and what I have received in return is the increasing desolation and hardening of my soul.”

The story of China is a story that shall be instantly recognisable across the global South. Lu Xun witnessed the erosion of Qing imperial power, China’s humiliation at the hands of imperial powers (which included Japan, too), the Republican revolution of 1912 that had promised drastic change, but after which the new China slid further into chaos. Reading Lu Xun adds a textured understanding of the past beyond the polemics of today, in the process affirming a global history and a global humanity. A century on, Lu Xun deserves wider readership around the world and this new volume is a welcome step in that direction.

The reviewer teaches history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences

Jottings Under Lamplight: Lu Xun
Edited by Eileen J. Cheng and Kirk A. Denton
Harvard University Press, US
ISBN: 978-0674744257
344pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 19th, 2020