Exclamation Points and Elliptical Hope: Reading
Wild Grass against Modern Chinese Punctuation Reform

By Xiaoyu Xia

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no.1  (Spring 2020), pp. 194-232

This essay locates Lu Xun’s Wild Grass in the context of modern Chinese punctuation reform, contemplating both the emancipatory and exclusionary effects of punctuation reform. On the one hand, the introduction of Western-style punctuation into Chinese writing allowed for authorial experimentation and enabled new interpretive spaces. On the other hand, the vernacular standardization process in the 1920s threatened to exclude ambiguities and individual idiosyncrasies that were at odds with the codified use of punctuation marks. These tensions became heightened in a debate on exclamation marks in 1924. The psychologist Zhang Yaoxiang diagnosed the onslaught of these marks in new Chinese poetry as a symptom of passivity and pessimism, proposing an unlikely project to straitjacket the public use of exclamation marks. The poets Zhang Yiping and Wu Shutian argued that exclamation marks also expressed active and positive emotions, such as hope. In his rebuttal essays, Lu Xun ridiculed the psychologist’s project to censor exclamation marks. Meanwhile, his inventive use of exclamation marks in Wild Grass refused to prescribe positive hope in a simplistic way, hence defending the affective ambiguity of these new-style punctuation marks. This essay argues that Lu Xun, though an active promoter and practitioner of new-style punctuation, nonetheless deviated from the language standardization process underway in the 1920s.