Lu Xun is one of those writers whom I don’t particularly enjoy but have a hard time setting aside. I am halfway through his stories and felt the need to share some thoughts.

He was alive during one of the most fascinating periods of history—the turning of the 19th century to the 20th. Though expected to grow up to become a Confucian civil servant, he rejected this path of family tradition, as well as a stint in medical studies. The death of his father after bouts of addictive substances and folk “medicine” weighed painfully upon him, but Lu did not see hope for China in merely following the old ways or even in the acquirement of knowledge or technology. He sensed true progress must originate in culture, and he set about to write modern Chinese literature to cast a light on the problems that tradition alone could not solve (or had caused).

Lu yearned for a better country while well aware of the brutality of his fellow men. The Chinese Civil War began during the last 9 years of his life, bringing such atrocities as the Shanghai massacre (1927) initiated by nationalist forces. Between these events and his critique of the status quo, it’s hardly surprising Lu sided in spirit with the communists, though ultimately he remained a politically complicated figure. As translator Julia Lovell writes in the Penguin paperback, his “spiky individualism” (p. xxxv) would have got him in trouble with the new regime if he had lived long enough, and Mao grew fond of dropping Lu’s name boastfully without acknowledging Lu’s own self-doubt.

This doubt orbited a desire for social improvement conflicting with his feelings of inadequacy in writing, the vehicle he had chosen to drive this change. Deeply cognizant he could not speak for the Chinese common man and woman, Lu never wrote the great proletarian novel—or any novel, for that matter. He stuck to short stories, focused largely on people living in rural villages or towns. Lu’s last work was a 1935 collection of retellings of Chinese legends (Old Stories Retold); he passed away from tuberculosis the following year. His legacy in China today may be dampened by the gloomy shadow his work throws upon the cultural landscape, where an optimistic angle is more politically expedient (ibid, p. xxxv).

Reading Lu, you can’t help but contrast him with some of his global contempories—Natsume Sōseki from Japan, Franz Kafka from Czechoslovakia, and James Joyce from Ireland. Sōseki’s The Gate feels more modern than Lu’s stories and somewhat more optimistic, especially in the marital dynamics. Lu writes with more realism than Kafka—I would go so far as to classify him as a naturalist writer, where social and environmental issues are at front and center of the plots. He shares melancholy and political awareness with Joyce’s Dubliners, but the styles are quite different—Joyce embraces the poetic with such impressionism as “Eveline,” while Lu’s stories are more mundanely framed and, in their rawness, even more tragic.

This collection from Penguin is called “The Complete Fiction,” but Lu does at times insert himself into the text, bringing varying levels of autobiographical elements which tease the boundaries of fiction. The first story, “Nostalgia,” gives us the first-person perspective of a young boy struggling under the dreary routines of Confucius, something from Lu’s own childhood. Likewise, marital squabbles in stories like “A Happy Family” and “Soap” read all too real (Lu had a less than happy marriage).

“Diary of a Madman” is a strange tale in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe, more of an anomaly. I wanted to like it more than I did, but I think Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” desensitized me to the kind of horror this story was depicting. “The Real Story of Ah-Q” is another popular one; it is a series of episodes in the life of a quirky villager who gets himself into all kinds of trouble. I found it a bit tedious, but it is a biting social commentary and tragicomic in tone, illustrating how political upheaval does not bring about any real change in society when the ruling elites simply assume different guises.

Many stories are presented as memories of a fictional village called Luzhen (in Lu’s translated words, “an old-fashioned backwater of a place,” p. 46). What’s remarkable about Luzhen is we don’t really have any physical anchors in the story—at least, I cannot recall any recurring characters except the narrator himself, and the village is not outwardly described in great detail. What does manifest itself is the idea of Luzhen and similar villages in the book: they are places where superstitions run high, education and wealth separate the classes with an overwhelming gulf between them, and women are both victims and perpetrators of abuse against them. It is not all grim, though. There are some beautiful memories of friendship (“My Old Home”) and some fond traditions gilded though the eyes of boyhood (“Village Opera”). Anyone who has had to part ways with childhood places will be greatly touched by these scenes, and it seems to me Lu had too much heart to have ever been a mere propagandist.

Lovell makes a comparison to Dickens in her introduction, and I think it is an apt one. In scope and style they are so different, but they both convey horror and charm at various times. The abuse suffered by the widow in “New Year’s Sacrifice” was almost unbearable to read, a nightmare of Dickensian proportions. This is followed by a story called “Upstairs in the Tavern,” in which a man laments his lost dreams and love, regret and romance mingled together. I don’t think anyone reading these tales would say “I wish we could go back to those good old days!” At the same time, Lu makes you realize that real people lived through these experiences and had their own highs and lows within the greater context of suffering.

In their frank depictions of poverty and prejudice, these are, again, not stories to enjoy. What I do appreciate about Lu is this realism and the sense that there are no easy answers to a nation’s problems—least of all, romanticizing the past. There are modern challenges that need new solutions, and as the saying goes, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” From my perspective, it is worrying to see some people toying with throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it come to change in society. Not all changes have been for the worse; some have been hugely beneficial, and more are needed.

The other thing I take from Lu is that it is perfectly fine not to be a novelist. I am sure he could have become the Thomas Hardy of China, but the fact he wrote short stories exclusively is really inspiring to me. I have completed drafts of several novels, but I prefer short form. It can say a lot in very little space; it can cover a single, gentle moment or a sudden and shocking death. It challenges you to care about someone in the same amount of time you might encounter a stranger in your daily life. When I start writing again, I will feel more confident in this choice of literary form.

My last lesson learned—East Asian literature is a wonderfully vast space for reading. In the drop of it I have dipped my toes in, I have encountered some powerful literature from Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and now China. My next stop will have to be Vietnam, to try to understand a bit more of my personal history. The more I read around the world, the more blurred some distinctions become, and you realize we all share more in common than we often remember.

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