Lu Xun’s Revolution:
Writing in a Time of Violence

By Gloria Davies

Reviewed by Eileen J. Cheng
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2015)

Gloria Davies. Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013. 448 pp. Contents; Note on Translation; Guide and Chronology; Notes; Acknowledgments; Index. ISBN: 9780674072640 (Cloth). $35.00 • £24.95 • €31.50

Gloria Davies. Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013. 448 pp. Contents; Note on Translation; Guide and Chronology; Notes; Acknowledgments; Index. ISBN: 9780674072640 (Cloth). $35.00 • £24.95 • €31.50

Gloria Davies, in the introduction to Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence, impresses upon readers the enormity of the state sponsored “Lu Xun Studies” in mainland China and the wealth of materials on his writings available in print and digital form the world over. The formidable scale and size of what might be referred to as the “Lu Xun industry” belies the fact that more work remains to be done to chip away at the façade of an icon, to shed light on the complexities of Lu Xun as a thinker, writer, artist, cultural critic, and an intellectual force to be reckoned with in his time and ours.

Lu Xun’s Revolution, as Davies aptly characterizes it, is “part biography, part history, part literary analysis” (13). It is an erudite study that examines the “last phase of Lu Xun’s career often referred to as his ‘years on the left’” (5) through a close analysis of his zawen (polemical essays) and the historical conditions of their emergence. Although Lu Xun’s polemical essays have been examined in detail in Chinese scholarship, works in English on the subject have been sparse. The book’s close readings and rigorous contextualization of Lu Xun’s later zawen provide valuable insights on the character and work of “the father of modern Chinese literature” and the controversies he was embroiled in during the last decade of his life.

Chapters 1 to 4 are consistent in tone and style. They provide background analyses of larger historical events from 1927 to the year of Lu Xun’s death, 1936. Chapter 1 examines his ambivalent relationship to the revolutionary discourse of the time and to the notion of revolution itself, especially during the period of the Northern Expedition. Chapter 2 recounts his associations and conflicts with various literary groups, such as the Creation Society and the Crescent Moon Society, and his friendships with Yu Dafu and younger members of the Chinese Communist Party after his move to Shanghai in 1927. In particular, it highlights Lu Xun’s discomfort with what he saw as the adulteration of the notion of revolution and the commercialization of literature. Chapters 3 and 4 further expand on some of the themes introduced in earlier chapters, detailing Lu Xun’s complicated relationships with some of his former students, such as Gao Changhong and Rou Shi, and intellectuals such as Jiang Guangci, as well as his close association with the journal Threads of Talk (Yusi) and the Beixin Press. Chapter 4 examines Lu Xun’s troubled relationship with members of the League of Left Wing Writers and explores the “two slogans” debate after the demise of the League. It concludes by showing how quickly Lu Xun was canonized by the CCP immediately following his death and how many adversaries who survived him were later persecuted, their criticisms of Lu Xun frequently used as evidence of their crimes.

While Lu Xun’s complicated relationships to these various intellectuals, groups, and associations will be familiar to Lu Xun specialists, rarely have they been examined in such detail and with such sound historical contextualization. In these chapters, Davies sifts through and engages an impressive array of Chinese and Western scholarship. In many of her close readings, she provides illuminating analyses of the essays along with the historical pulse of the times; she also deftly examines Lu Xun’s linguistic experimentation and his technique as a prose “stylist.” The picture of Lu Xun that emerges is that of an intellectual force to be reckoned with, attacked by adversaries, courted by allies and the CCP, and feared by the Nationalist party, all the while ambivalent about the notion of revolution and the efficacy of writing itself.

Departing from the largely chronological survey of the first four chapters, Chapters 5 and 6 take a more thematic approach. Chapter 5 deals with the relationship of wenyan to baihua and analyzes Lu Xun’s linguistic style, with a focus on some of the works collected in Wild Grass. Chapter 6 examines “Lu Xun’s polemical intention to present Chinese writing as a foundational injustice, designed for the sole purpose of enslaving an illiterate majority to the whims and fancies of a lettered few” (283). It also analyzes some of his works that invoke ghosts and spirits, including “Wu Chang: Life is Transient” (1926) from Morning Blossoms Plucked at Dusk (1928) and several prose poems from Wild Grass (1927). Davies argues that “these depictions allow, indeed invite, us to read his critical legacy as a form of second sight: an act of summoning plebeian spirits as champions to keep baihua safe from the clutches of power” (13).

The shift from the first four chapters, which mostly focus on Lu Xun’s zawen written from 1927-1936, to chapters 5 and 6 with their thematic examinations of what have been commonly referred to as his sanwen shi (prose poems) in Wild Grass, mostly written from 1924-1926, is somewhat abrupt. Given that the experimental pieces collected in Wild Grass—including a poem, a play, short anecdotes, personal essays, prose poems, and an array of other writings that defy simple classification—differ vastly in form, style, content, and language from his zawen, an analysis of the forms of writing would have been illuminating for readers.[1] One might well argue that the works collected in Wild Grass, written in disparate forms and at an earlier period of Lu Xun’s life, reflect a radically different aesthetic and philosophic sensibility from that of his later zawen.

Indeed, some of the pieces collected in Wild Grass do not always lend themselves well to substantiating Davies’ claims. For example, Davies reads Wild Grass as Lu Xun’s “poetic expressions of faith in the emancipatory potential of baihua” (230). While this may be an apt interpretation of some of the pieces in Wild Grass, the varying forms, styles, linguistic media, and content of the collection as a whole are not so easily distilled into a panegyric for baihua.[2] Some of Davies’ own observations suggest as much. She notes how Lu Xun was “deeply attached to [the] classical literary language” (230); “His essays feature a plenitude of allusions drawn from guwen and wenyan and literary puns opaque to the untutored reader. In particular, the experimentalism of Wild Grass demands a connoisseurship quite at odds with his desire to create an egalitarian language” (250).

Lu Xun’s continued engagement with the classical language and traditional literature toward the end of his life is apparent as well in the last of his creative writings, collected in Old Tales Retold (1936), which Davies mentions in passing.[3] While ostensibly about the past, these rewrites of old tales, fables, and legends are often allegorical representations of many of the same contemporary events Lu Xun wrote about in his zawen. This particular reader would have liked to see an examination of the four creative tales Lu Xun wrote between 1934-1935 in tandem with his zawen. Analysis of these tales would have more fully showcased his unique ability to capture the pulse of his times through a variety of forms and linguistic registers and added an extra layer of complexity to Davies’ solid readings of his zawen.

These are small quibbles with a formidable work that makes an important contribution to Lu Xun studies, particularly in its nuanced and incisive readings of a large corpus of Lu Xun’s zawen written in the decade before his death. Lu Xun’s own daunting standards for literary scholarship are cited by Davies: “Prose, ideally, should be considered not only in relation to the author’s entire oeuvre, but in relation to his person as a whole. We must also include the state of the society in which he lived. This would lend a proper rigor to our considerations” (17)—a challenge that Davies’ examination of Lu Xun’s zawen written in the last decade of his life admirably takes on and largely lives up to.

Eileen J. Cheng
Pomona College


[1] Lu Xun himself was quite attentive to the issue of form in his writings. As Mao Dun noted, Lu Xun was a literary vanguard in the creation of different forms. See Yanbin (Mao Dun 茅盾), “Du Nahan” 讀吶喊 (Reading A Call to Arms) in Zhang Mengyang 張夢陽 et al., Lu Xun yanjiu xueshu lunzhu ziliao huibian 魯迅研究學術論著資料彙編1913-1983 (A corpus of data of academic theses and works on Lu Xun, 1913–1983), 5 vols (Beijing: Zhongguo wenlian, 1985), 1.36.

[2] Some essays can be raised as examples to the contrary. For example, “Epitaph” can well be read as an affirmation of classical Chinese and its importance as a key to understanding one’s past. For such a reading, see Eileen J. Cheng, Literary Remains: Death, Trauma, and the Refusal to Mourn (Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press, 2013), 224-227.

[3] Also note how Lu Xun increasingly turned to classical-style poetry as a vehicle to reinterpret the culture of his times in the 1930s. See Jon Eugene von Kowallis, The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-style Verse (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996).