Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Lu Xun: an Ambassador for the Arts

At the moment I am reading the complete fiction of Lu Xun. He is described as being important to Chinese Literature as Charles Dickens is to the British. I've just finished 'The Real Story of Ah-Q' and feel I am learning a lot about early twentieth century Chinese society and psyche.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is his biography which is written by Julia Lovell. He was born in one of the typical mansions of the Chinese grandee, part of a clan in the old Imperial China. His family lost wealth due to two reasons: the necessity of paying bribes to ensure his grandfather's stay of execution after he had been arrested for a crime; and then the payment of practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine unsuccessfully treating the ill-health of his father.

The formerly genteel Lu family became impoverished, and after failing to pass his civil service examination, Lu Xun turned from the Confucian education system to embrace Western knowledge at a college in Nanjing. Adoption of the western ways was thought by many to be a disgrace, and he was implored by a relative to change his name so as not to bring shame to the clan. The shame of becoming a 'fake foreign devil' features in his fiction, with, for instance, the wives of men who have cut off their long Confucian-style queue (or pig-tail) attempting suicide at their resulting loss of face.

Lu Xun was dissatisfied with the education he received at Nanjing, and so decided to go to Japan to enroll at a medical school there: it was at this medical school that the most interesting happened. At the end of a natural science class he happened to be shown a picture of a group of Chinese people apathetically watching the beheading of a compatriot who had been arrested as a Russian spy by the Japanese.

He said that the face of every Chinese watching this spectacle was 'utterly, stupidly blank'. As a result he 'no longer believed in the overwhelming importance of medical science.' No matter how healthy a people were if they were 'intellectually feeble' then 'their loss to the world through illness was no cause for regret.' His first task should therefore be to 'change their spirit; and literature and the arts.' He then abandoned his medical studies and set about curing China's spiritual ills.

This is the most defiant explanation of why culture is important (and why the Arts should also be supported) that I have ever read.


Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

That is fascinating, Clare. In the olden days in Europe (and probably elsewhere), people were fascinated with watching executions but one does not get the impression that the watchers were "blank". What an amazing anecdote. (Though I am not in agreement with the cause and effect part of his argument!).

Thu Mar 08, 08:17:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Maxine. I suppose another way of saying 'blank' would be 'inscrutable' - something of a racial cliche. What came to my mind was that perhaps these spectators were numbed by the atrocities they'd seen. I think I recall seeing such blank faces in footage of people facing months of war and famine. Perhaps Lu Xun was mistaking trauma for 'intellectual feebleness'.

Thu Mar 08, 08:59:00 am  

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