The Infinite Collection and the Mortal Collector:
Lu Xun, Antique Market Revolutionary

By Guangchen Chen

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no.1  (Spring 2020), pp. 108-137

This essay examines the eminent writer Lu Xun’s alternative identity as a collector of ancient texts and stone rubbings, and situates this aspect of his life in the context of Beijing’s antique market Liulichang in the early twentieth century.

Arguably the most celebrated writer of modern China, Lu Xun is famous for his fictions that critique the Chinese national character; they position him on the frontline of the crusade against the conservative ideologies of the past. However, his literary achievement and its “revolutionary” outlook overshadows his lifelong obsession with collecting ancient artifacts. Indeed, collector can be defined as the opposite of an author: the author creates, while the collector merely gathers; the author innovates, while the collector focuses on what already exists; the author expresses through language, while the collector mostly operates in the world of objects; the author tells stories that enfold linearly, while the collector places objects in spatial or conceptual juxtapositions. This essay amends such dichotomizations by demonstrating that Lu Xun’s collecting activities are a part of his effort to revisit Chinese literary culture in its myriad materiality and historicity.

Through reading his diaries and miscellaneous textual scholarship, this essay provides detailed analyses of key episodes in Lu Xun’s collecting life. They include his career at the Ministry of Education administering the Ming and Qing imperial archives, which provided him insights into the treachery relationship between power, knowledge and history; his rescue from Liulichang of “escaped” (yi) fragments of Wei-Jin period texts, which served for him as proof of the contingency of historical memory; and last but not least, his long-term engagement with the third-century philosopher Ji Kang’s oeuvre, whose textual instability allowed Lu Xun a glimpse into the open-endedness of literary creativity.

By investigating Lu Xun as a collector, this essay bridges the two ostensibly antagonistic aspects of his intellectual life. It argues that the collector bears uncanny similarity with its opposite, the revolutionary, because both tend to challenge smooth narratives and defy coherent value systems. As a dual process of innovation and “regression,” the collecting of antiquity disrupts the neat division between tradition and modernity that dominates discourses on Chinese literature in the May-Fourth period.