Beyond the Iron House:
Lu Xun and the Modern Chinese Literary Field

By Saiyin Sun

Reviewed by Kirk A. Denton
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2018)

Saiyin Sun, Beyond the Iron House: Lu Xun and the Modern Chinese Literary Field New York: Routledge, 2017. ix-xii + 212 pp. ISBN: 978-1-138-67082-2 (Hardcover) ISBN: 978-1-315-61743-5 (E-book).

In a 1936 essay entitled “Death” (死) written about a month before he died, Lu Xun included a sort of last will and testament in which he prescribed arrangements for his funeral and his legacy. It reads in part:

1. Do not, on account of the funeral, accept a penny from anyone—old friends exempted.

2. Just quickly put the body in the coffin and bury it at once.

3. Do not hold any commemorative activities.

4. Forget me and mind your own lives. If you don’t, you’re just fools. . .[1]

Once dead, of course, things were out of Lu Xun’s control. Against his wishes, his funeral became a highly scripted affair that garnered lavish attention in the Shanghai media, and commemorative events have been held every year on the anniversary of his death. Far from forgotten, Lu Xun has been remembered more than any other modern Chinese writer. That process of remembering Lu Xun has been a contested one, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—and Chairman Mao himself—were key agents involved in the construction of Lu Xun into a “Chinese Gorki,” as David Holm puts it.[2] Lu Xun’s iconic status in China is best captured in the fact that there are no less than six museums—one each in Shaoxing, Nanjing, Beijing, Xiamen, Guangzhou, and Shanghai—devoted to commemorating his life and works.

Inevitably, in making Lu Xun serve the interests of the revolution and the new socialist state, his image and his writings have been retroactively reshaped to fit a rigid political mold. One of the consequences of this process was to turn Lu Xun into the leading spokesman for and literary representative of the May Fourth movement, which itself was intimately intertwined in state historical narratives with the birth of the CCP and the revolutionary movement that led to the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It also enshrined Lu Xun’s critique of Chinese tradition as “true” and his vituperative discursive style as de rigueur.

Saiyin Sun’s book, Beyond the Iron House: Lu Xun and the Modern Chinese Literary Field,[3] was written in reaction to Lu Xun’s larger-than-life status as an icon of the May Fourth and of the revolution in China. It should be said that much of recent Western scholarship on Lu Xun was also written as a counter to the mainland politicization of Lu Xun, but that scholarship has shaped Lu Xun into a new iconic image—that of an accomplished literary modernist. Most representative of these works is Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Voices from the Iron House—a title that Sun seems to be riffing on in her own title—which stresses Lu Xun’s expression of existential irony, his radical formal experimentation, his literary complexity and ambiguity, and his profound moral introspection, characteristics that fit poorly with the uncompromising and obdurate Lu Xun of the Mao era, especially the Cultural Revolution.

Sun wants to reject all these appropriations and return us to the historical Lu Xun and his real place in the years corresponding to the height of the New Culture movement. Stripped of the mythic layerings, Lu Xun becomes a very different writer, one far less original and significant than conventionally asserted. One of Sun’s conclusions is that “Lu Xun remained quite an obscure figure during the May Fourth period, contrary to the common perception that he ‘took the new literary scene by storm’ and was ‘catapulted’ into ‘nationwide prominence as a writer and a leader of New Literature’ in 1918 with the publication of ‘Diary of a Madman’ and that by 1920 his ‘reputation as a writer was firmly established’” (15). I find this part of Sun’s argument—that the “consensus” over Lu Xun’s greatness was formed well after the May Fourth—almost trite. Haven’t the reputations of most (if not all) writers who would go on to “greatness” largely been forged post hoc?

I like to bash icons as much as the next academic, but I have to admit, as a lover of Lu Xun’s writings—his inventive and intellectually complex short fiction, his multilayered prose poems, and his probing and, sometimes, playful essays—I chafed a bit (okay, a lot) while reading this book. I understand and applaud Sun’s desire to dig beneath the political veneer and discover a truer Lu Xun. But when she writes that Lu Xun and his promoters “managed to reinforce some of the worst sides of the intellectual traditions they inherited, and they are at least partly responsible for a loss of individual intellectual independence and dignity, spirit and character in twentieth-century China and beyond” (23), I can’t help ask, How does this square with the Lu Xun I have always cherished, the one who embodies the very values Sun says he is responsible for eroding: intellectual autonomy, skepticism, and radical critique? Sun’s views here seem to echo those of Wang Xiaoming, who famously attacked May Fourth discourse as a hegemonic force that sought to silence all opposition.[4] But were May Fourth intellectuals really so hegemonic, or were they simply arguing their position in an intellectual field rife with contending voices promoting various positions? Or maybe the fact that this bothers me at all suggests that I have fallen prey to the kind of “blind worship” (166) that Sun finds Lu Xun scholars guilty of?

Others have debunked Lu Xun the icon, but Sun does it more forcefully and with more solid scholarly evidence. Each chapter tackles a particularly thorny facet of the Lu Xun mythology, peeling back the layers to reveal a more fallible and human writer. Chapter 2 is a detailed look at the famous split between the Zhou brothers. Lu Xun and his younger Zhou Zuoren 周作人 collaborated as “kindred spirits” on numerous projects in the 1910s and early 1920s, but in 1923 suddenly had a falling out. Sun recounts the various theories about the origins of the split—money, sexual impropriety, etc—and rejects Qian Liqun’s 钱理群 recommendation to ignore the causes, the truth of which can never be known, and simply see both brothers as “beautiful human minds.” Sun instead seems to fault Lu Xun for the breakup. But, considering the same evidence, what’s remarkable to me is the degree to which the brothers continued to collaborate, despite their personal differences, on the journal Yusi, on debates surrounding the Women’s Normal College incident, and other matters.

The chapter goes on to discuss Lu Xun’s involvement with the journal Yusi, which Sun is quick to point out Zhou Zuoren was the real intellectual force behind. She then concludes:

Most of Lu Xun’s major discourses, such as his conception and critique of tradition and of the ills of China, if subjected to scrutiny, lack intellectual depth and foundation as a result of the fabrication or misrepresentation of social reality. Although one cannot object to the fact that literary texts can work powerfully even when they are based on complete fabrication and misconception, we can ask nonetheless what combination of circumstances and rhetoric make them work even when they are based on falsehood (52).

One can certainly take issue with Lu Xun’s representation of China and Chinese tradition, but shouldn’t we also recognize that the essentializing he was guilty of was endemic in May Fourth discourse more generally? Furthermore, shouldn’t we do more than pay lip service to the sense of crisis that pushed May Fourth intellectuals like Lu Xun to write polemically and immoderately? And the fact that Lu Xun’s ideas were later enshrined as “truth” should not be blamed on Lu Xun himself, or his particular mode of thinking, but on the politics driving that enshrinement. Sun recognizes this: “The later elevation of Lu Xun’s discourse to the ‘preeminent position,’ along with the process of suppression, distortion, and elimination of alternatives, was the real problem” (70). But then she immediately turns the onus back on Lu Xun himself: “Lu Xun’s stubbornness, his factionalism, and his intolerance for alternative paths frequently seemed to suggest that intellectual freedom and individuality should be suppressed” (70).

Chapter 3 explores the debates between the Yusi (雨丝) group—comprised of Lu Xun, Zhou Zuoren, and others—and the Contemporary Review (现代评论) and Crescent Moon (新月) intellectuals, such as Chen Yuan 陳源 and Xu Zhimo 徐志摩. Sun presents a detailed discussion of the petty squabbles between these groups, the point apparently being to bring Lu Xun down a few pegs and show how much more reasonable, fair-minded, and tolerant those on the other side were. Sun’s conclusion is that “the irrational rivalries between different journals and the extreme factionalism and partisan practices were more of a Lu Xun problem than a general ‘May Fourth’ one” (89). But it takes two to tango, and what emerges, at least in my reading of Sun’s description of the squabbles, is vigorous, if sometimes petty and vindictive, debate from both sides. As Michel Hockx has described it, ad hominem attacks and insults were part and parcel of Republican era literary discourse, not just a “Lu Xun problem.” Hockx remarks that the attitude of writers of the time toward abusive criticism was ambiguous: “On the one hand, abuse was deplored and considered distasteful; on the other hand, virtually all literary figures of the time employed it regularly as part of their critical vocabulary” (my italics).[5]

In her zeal to demythify Lu Xun, Sun sometimes goes too far, often without solid evidence. One section of this chapter deals with the publication in Jingbao fukan 京報副刊 of a series of book recommendations by famous writers and intellectuals for China’s youth. Some seventy intellectuals filled out the questionnaire issued by the supplement, and the results were published in the order received. As it happened, Hu Shi’s and Xu Zhimo’s responses were published before Lu Xun’s, which was the tenth to appear. About this Sun concludes: “Given his demonstrated propensity for factionalism and narrow-mindedness, and the fact that it was his former student [Sun Fuyuan 孫伏園] who was the editor, Lu Xun must have felt displeased, to say the least, to see Hu Shi and Xu Zhimo topping the list and himself bringing up the rear” (88). This is just conjecture on Sun’s part—while we know Lu Xun could clearly be petty, no evidence is provided to support her suggestion that he was so small-minded as to be upset by the order in which the questionnaire responses were published.

Lu Xun’s response to the questionnaire was the radical “Must-Read Books for Young People” (青年必讀書),[6] in which he recommended young readers “read fewer Chinese books—if at all—and read more foreign books.” Sun reads the “essay” as evidence of Lu Xun’s totalistic iconoclasm, relative to the rest of the literary field, which was far more moderate and reasonable in proposing a mix of Chinese and foreign works. But Lu Xun’s relationship with tradition was more nuanced than Sun seems to suggest; it constituted an active engagement with the past rather than a total rejection of it, as Eileen Cheng, whose 2013 book is not cited, has argued.[7]

At one point in chapter 3, Sun comes perilously close to blaming Lu Xun for the persecution of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution: “Even when Lu Xun’s ‘attack’ did have grave consequences in reality (e.g., the sufferings and even deaths of many intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution as a result of his discrediting them), it was ‘not his responsibility’ because he was only ‘expressing his personal views’” (94)—the ironic use of scare quotes here suggesting that he was somehow responsible. Sun then backpedals and hedges such statements by saying that it was only because of his post hoc canonization by the CCP that Lu Xun’s words took on such power that they could lead to political persecutions years after his own death.

Lu Xun-designed cover of Gao Changhong’s Adventures in the Mind.

Chapter 4 deals with Lu Xun’s relationship with Gao Changhong 高长虹. Gao and Lu Xun became friends in late 1924 when the former was editing a journal called Tempest (狂飆). Then, in 1926, the relationship began to sour because Gao felt that Lu Xun was suppressing his literary activities and Lu Xun felt that Gao was using his fame to promote those activities. I won’t go into the detailed blow-by-blow account—which includes rumors that Gao harbored a secret love for Xu Guangping, Lu Xun’s common-law wife—of the breakup that constitutes the bulk of this chapter. Rather, I focus on what is perhaps Sun’s most radical claim: that in his writing of the prose poems in Wild Grass (野草), Lu Xun was influenced by Gao’s own prose poems, collected in Adventures in the Mind (心的探險), which Lu Xun edited and designed the cover for. Sun presents convincing evidence that Lu Xun read Gao’s poems before or while he was composing the poems that would become Wild Grass and goes on to describe commonalities in narrative structure, theme, and imagery between Gao’s poems and Lu Xun’s. “The unique and experimental styles attributed to Lu Xun as the father of modern Chinese literature,” she concludes, “may turn out to be not quite so unique if we care to look beyond him, to other writers of his time” (112). Sun doesn’t quite go so far as to claim that Lu Xun cribbed Gao’s work, but she does question claims of Lu Xun’s literary originality. Although this kind of scholarly sleuthing is valuable in debunking the Lu Xun myth, one problem with this assertion is that Lu Xun was already experimenting with the prose poem form years earlier in 1919, when he published some eleven short texts in New Youth (新青年), several of which would evolve into poems eventually included in Wild Grass. This is a good five years before Gao had even entered the literary world.

Chapter 5 shifts the focus to Gao Changhong’s literary criticism and his debates with Zhou Zuoren on issues of intellectual tolerance; Lu Xun fades into the background. The point of the chapter seems to be to raise Gao as a counterpoint to the Zhou brothers. Memory of Gao has been suppressed in the scholarship because of the infighting with Lu Xun, so Sun performs a valuable service by fleshing out Gao as a serious and productive intellectual—much more than a cardboard pariah. Still, Sun’s biases are clearly in favor of Gao. Whereas Zhou Zuoren can merely “sneer” in his essays, Gao’s are “eloquent and well argued, and written in a tone of considerable sincerity” (155). Gao becomes Sun’s antidote to the acerbic and self-serving style of Lu Xun and of a later Zhou Zuoren. Again, though, it takes two to tango, and Gao was also capable of being personal and vindictive in his critiques of the Zhou brothers.

Throughout the book, Sun argues that Lu Xun’s inflated reputation is not merely a product of the Maoist deification, it is also a product of Lu Xun’s own behavior in the literary field: his antagonism toward those he disliked; his vindictiveness; his factional mentality; his lack of tolerance toward intellectual diversity; and the like. One of the problems with this kind of icon bashing is that it can be guilty of precisely the kind of intellectual cherry-picking that Sun accuses Lu Xun of in his critiques of Chinese tradition or his attacks on other intellectuals. Sun engages in a reading of Lu Xun that often whitewashes his complexity, self-scrutiny, vacillation, and doubt—that is, the Lu Xun of his short fiction and the Wild Grass poems, which get next to zero attention in the book.[8]

This is decidedly not a book for a general reader, who might get lost in the myriad details about the internecine battles of the 1920s literary field in China. But for the specialist, it’s an entertaining and provocative read, even if some readers who, like myself, still cling to notions of Lu Xun’s literary greatness may bristle along the way. Sure, Lu Xun was no saint, and we should absolutely debunk his post hoc beatification, but what about his writing, particularly his short fiction? What about his wit and incisive political and cultural criticism? In her zeal to attack Lu Xun the icon, Sun’s attention veers away from the creative writing and becomes blind to the literary excellence and profound moral introspection that can be found in it. Beyond the Iron House: Lu Xun and the Modern Chinese Literary Field comes at a time when Xi Jinping’s China—with its renewed censorship, political dogma, hollow appeals to Confucianism, and confluence of economic and political power—needs Lu Xun’s wisdom and insight more than ever. So I say: The Age of Lu Xun Has Not Died!

Kirk A. Denton
The Ohio State University


[1] “Death,” tr. Eileen J. Cheng. In Eileen J. Cheng and Kirk A. Denton, eds., Jottings under Lamplight (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 66.

[2] David Holm, “Lu Xun in the Period of 1936 to 1949: The Making of a Chinese Gorki.” In Leo Ou-fan Lee, ed., Lu Xun and His Legacy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 153-79.

[3] This book is a republication of a book originally published by Tsinghua University Press in 2015. From what I understand, the present book is, effectively, the same, excerpt for minor changes.

[4] See Wang Xiaoming, “A Journal and a ‘Society’: On the ‘May Fourth’ Literary Tradition.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 11, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 1-39

[5] Michel Hockx, Questions of Style: Literary Societies and Literary Journals in Modern China, 1911-1937 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 190.

[6] For a translation, see Cheng and Denton, Jottings Under Lamplight.

[7] Eileen J. Cheng, Literary Remains: Death, Trauma, and Lu Xun’s Refusal to Mourn (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013.

[8] See for instance Theodore Huters, “Blossoms in the Snow: Lu Xun and the Dilemma of Modern Chinese Literature” Modern China (Jan. 1984) 49-77; and Nicholas Kaldis, The Chinese Prose Poem: A Study of Lu Xun’s Wild Grass (Yecao) (Albany, NY: Cambria, 2014).