Addressing an audience at the Hong Kong YMCA in February 1927, the writer Lu Xun (the pen name of Zhou Shuren, 1881–1936) warned that despite ten years of literary revolution and the promotion of a written vernacular language, Chinese people had still not found a voice. They were all living in what he called wushengde Zhongguo, “voiceless China.” “Youth must first transform China into a China with a voice,” he declared. “They must speak boldly, move forward courageously, forget all considerations of personal advantage, push aside the ancients, and express their authentic feelings.”
Lu Xun was only one of the many writers and thinkers who argued that for China to become a modern country free of the deadening legacy of Confucian authoritarianism, a new language and literary culture were essential. Ten years earlier, Hu Shi, a young graduate scholar who had studied philosophy under John Dewey at Columbia University, published a manifesto advocating the literary use of vernacular Chinese. Inspired by Hu Shi’s call, Lu Xun helped lay the foundations of modern Chinese literature in a series of stories and tales written in the evolving vernacular.
His story “A Madman’s Diary” (1918) is a dark record of a man who sees in the Confucian classics and the traditional world nothing but violence, hypocrisy, and cannibalism, real as well as metaphorical. “Save the children!,” his call at the end of the story, has resonated through Chinese cultural and political debates for the past century. Equally famous is “The True Story of Ah Q” (1921–1922), whose protagonist is an ill-educated rural buffoon. He bullies those weaker than himself but is servile in the face of power. The name Ah Q is still evoked to lambast the hauteur, as well as the weakness, of the national character.
By 1927, Lu Xun was beset by doubts about the future, not only of China as a country but of its culture as well. Two years before the Hong Kong speech, he summed up his ambivalence in a short meditation on the Great Wall, the ultimate symbol of an unchanging China:
I have always felt hemmed in on all sides by the Great Wall; that wall of ancient bricks which is constantly being reinforced. The old and the new conspire to confine us all.
When will we stop adding new bricks to the Wall?
The Great Wall of China: a wonder and a curse!
China’s political maelstrom—in 1927 the governing Nationalist Party and its former Communist allies split during a bloody purge of leftists—cast a shadow over Lu Xun’s creative life. Simon Leys, one of the most insightful writers on his work, comments:
The political situation of the twenties and thirties was a…
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