I wrote this piece about thirty-five years ago for what could, I think, properly be called an ultra-left publication, though I suppose I knew that my style was too individualistic to fit well there. Lu remains worth reading. Julia Lovell's translation of Ah Q published by Penguin Classics is markedly better than the old Foreign Languages Press version and is, of course, more widely available.
Now that the fantasy of people’s rock and roll has faded around the bend following folk music, and religious hypocrites seem to have cornered all the tribal rituals but football, where is people’s culture? Old anthologies of socialist poetry tend to seem like Alfred Lord Tennyson in his cups, and the new Chinese opera sounds rather like Russian movie sound tracks imitating Hollywood. Such vestigial fingerlings of outworn style are short-lived, lasting only until the artists’ cadences are redefined to fit the next new scene. As in any evolutionary process, the first shoots of new growth are peculiarly instructive. Anyone looking for new ways of reading or writing literature can learn from Lu Xun (Hsun before the days of pin-yin) whom Mao called “the bravest and most correct on the cultural front.”
The pattern of his life is significant and familiar, almost an archetype of growth: born in 1881 with semi-genteel village origins (though he was later mythologized as dirt-poor) he had wide interests and liberal ambitions and set out to study of Western medicine in imperial Japan. He turned then to the reformist avant-garde literary work ending in breakdown, anomie, and solipsism resolved finally in communist rebirth. His youthful affinities with the “progressive” West are reflected in the early stories’ reminiscences of Chekhov, Gogol, and Joyce, but these associations wither as the depth of his involvement with his own village and its people deepens and grows profound.
His story “A Madman’s Diary” is a fancy dress paranoid terror trip that would be existential were it more trivial. But listen! This paranoid’s delusions are true. He describes a world of people set on devouring one another. Right now, out in the street, he sees the tell-tale glow in their eyes, the predatory gleam and the answering fear. And it’s true. We all see that look daily. The Internationale asks, “how many on our flesh have fattened?” As a surreal image of Angst it couldn’t have gotten much further than Night of the Living Dead done with class, but fleshed out in the real world it’s a frightening vision of individualist economics and all the psychological corollaries ride along gratuit. The most frightening phantoms are the real ones.
The central character in “The True Story of Ah Q” is one of the most brutalized of village street people. At first the story struck me as similar to Cossery or the Bowles/Muhammed Mrabat tales (and see their new piece “Hadidan Aharam” for a startling apocalypse of the social order in blood), but it soon develops to a new pitch of implications under the uncompromising pressure of Lu’s social analysis. The picaresque adventures of this beggarly lumpen are detailed now humorously, now poignantly, while social upheaval rumbles in the background like far-off thunder. The revolution, it seems, reached Ah Q’s time and place in grotesquely distorted disguises, so, apart from the wry commentaries on the shapes, it takes little direct role in the plot. The people are not aware of their possibilities, but it isn’t very long before the reader realizes with a shock that those grotesques have portrayed the old order with such burning accuracy that a portion of Ah Q’s experience has become one’s own. Just as the relations of the lowest, most wretched of the townspeople present only a naked parody of the voracious thievery and genteel violence going on over their heads, so the revolution itself enters only in motley.
For the moment, Ah Q, with a fragmentary glimpse of revolutionary potential can imagine only revenge and role reversal. A larval revolutionary, he sets himself up to be killed like a real one, taking a rap for the town gentry who have installed themselves as the new “communist” regime. He dies under the voracious wolf-like eyes of his fellow townspeople who can’t yet distinguish their comrades and friends from their natural enemies.
These and sixteen other stories, all revealing and suggestive, are included in the Selected Stories in a smooth enough translation from Beijing for something like $1.50. Read them, think about them, write a story of your own. The Bicentennial would be an appropriate time for some new flashes of American culture.
Lu Xun did not limit himself to the Zhdanov brand of “socialist realism.” His Old Tales Retold tropes on Chinese traditional lore from mythology and history in an unpredictable variety of ways: some are delivered straight; others are turned inside out or slyly rapiered in close embrace. Another good cheap book. And should you wish to explore the whole field of Chinese fiction which was, from its origins, antagonistic to the court and scorned by the scholars, you might have a look at Lu’s history of the genre, so far as I know, the only such work available in English.