The Ironic Inflation of Chinese National Character:
Lu Xun’s International Reputation, Romain Rolland’s Critique
of ‘The True Story of Ah Q,’ and the Nobel Prize

By Paul B. Foster


Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 13, no. 1, pp.140-168


This paper examines the irony that the “international” fame of both “The True Story of Ah Q” (A Q zhengzhuan) and its author, Lu Xun, rose in response to a few laudatory comments about the work made by the 1915 French Nobel Laureate for literature, Romain Rolland [1866-1944]. The trajectory of the dissemination of Rolland’s praise, from the French translator Jing Yinyu through Lu Xun’s associates Sun Fuyuan and Sun Fuxi and western critics in China at the time, is traced to demonstrate a discourse of “international” valorization of “The True Story of Ah Q.” Rolland’s praise took on a life of its own, being reiterated, retranslated, and exaggerated in the process, by foreign as well as Chinese critics. This discourse produced an enhanced perception of international prestige for the work and its author in Chinese literary circles. Examined through the lens of Lu Xun’s critique of Chinese national character, Rolland’s praise proves to have enabled the Ah Q characteristic of “fame by association” in Chinese literary circles. Moreover, despite Lu Xun’s scathing attack on national character in “The True Story of Ah Q” itself, examination of this trajectory of Rolland’s praise demonstrates that Lu Xun in fact enjoyed “fame by association” with Rolland. Lu Xun disproportionately reciprocated Rolland’s praise by translating and publishing works on him in his journal Mangyuan (Wilderness). Though he may have been the strongest critic of national character, Lu Xun could not stand outside the national character discourse, but was subject to it himself. The trajectory of Rolland’s praise appears to have ultimately resulted in the suggestion that Lu Xun be nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. Although “The True Story of Ah Q” was a negative depiction of the Chinese national character, the discourse of national character led to its valorization as a “positive” example of modern Chinese literature and exalted Lu Xun as an exemplar of Chinese national character in the Chinese imagination-a Nobel Prize contender.

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