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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 10 - 20th Century Prose  


Politics and Literature in Modern China

Contemporary writers often seem to divide into two camps, those who insist on a totally aesthetic reading of their works, and the politically engaged authors who believe that artists have a moral duty to address the problems of real life in their work. Yet the dividing line between the two is not so simple. Even so determined a modernist as James Joyce, who declared through his protagonist Stephen Dedalus that the artist stood aside from life, "paring his fingernails," chose Ireland as his subject. Without espousing doctrinaire party politics, Joyce's works make a political statement by portraying the sterility of Irish life. Similarly, gifted writers who choose political topics generally see them in complex ways that defy clear-cut propagandistic interpretation.

The prevailing tension between engagement and detachment has special relevance in the twentieth century because such profound political changes have taken place. The rapid pace of industrialization and nationalization throughout the world has been typically painful in China. Ruled by an emperor until 1911, the country then experienced a prolonged civil war in the midst of global fighting. To this day, wrenching struggles to institutionalize Marxism have continued to bring strife and have weighed heavily upon artists and writers.

The question of how politics and literature related to each other was especially difficult for Chinese artists to confront, because literature had always played a political and social role in traditional Chinese society. (See the discussion of writing poetry for the civil service examination in the Chinese lyric section of the Versions of Romanticism chapter) The writer Lu Xun (1881-1936), generally considered the major writer of fiction in Chinese in the twentieth century, eventually gave up the craft of fiction and devoted himself to essays discussing the complex social problems of his era. He found it easier, in other words, to address ideological concerns in their own terms, rather than to risk having readers misunderstand his stories, finding "messages" he had not meant to send.

In the preface to his first collection of short stories, Call to Arms, Lu Xun writes in parables about his decision to become a writer at all.

From The Preface To Call To Arms

In S________ Hostel [the Shaoxing Hostel where Lu Xun stayed in Beijing from 1912 to 1919] was a three-roomed house with a courtyard in which grew a locust tree, and it was said that a woman had hanged herself there. Although the tree had grown so tall that its branches were now out of reach, the rooms remained deserted. For some years I stayed here, copying ancient inscriptions. I had few visitors, the inscriptions raised no political problems or issues, and so the days slipped quietly away, which was all that I desired. On summer nights, when mosquitoes swarmed, I would sit under the locust tree waving my fan and looking at specks of blue sky through chinks in the thick foliage, while belated caterpillars would fall, icy-cold, on to my neck.

The only visitor to drop in occasionally for a talk was my old friend Jin Xinyi. Having put his big portfolio on the rickety table he would take off his long gown and sit down opposite me, looking as if his heart was still beating fast because he was afraid of dogs.

"What's the use of copying these?" One night, while leafing through the inscriptions I had copied, he asked me for enlightenment on this point.

"There isn't any use."

"What's the point, then, of copying them?"

"There isn't any point."

"Why don't you write something? . . ."

I understood. They were bringing out New Youth [a magazine attacking feudalism and spreading Marxist ideas to bring China into the modern age], but since there did not seem to have been any reaction, favourable or otherwise, no doubt they felt lonely. However I said:

"Imagine an iron house having not a single window and virtually indestructible, with all its inmates sound asleep and about to die of suffocation. Dying in their sleep, they won't feel the pain of death. Now if you raise a shout to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making these unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you really think you are doing them a good turn?"

"But if a few wake up, you can't say there is no hope of destroying the iron house."

Questions for Discussion

  1. What is the point of copying inscriptions? What does this show about Lu Xun's artistic needs?
  2. Why does Lu Xun answer his friend indirectly? How does the story of the iron house comment on the invitation to write for a politically committed journal?