Lighting Up the Past5 min read

Liz Carter reviews Jottings under Lamplight, Lu Xun’s essays

Lu Xun is considered the father of modern Chinese literature, but until recently his essays, the format in which he was most prolific, were not widely available in English translation, with most other translations focusing on his short stories. Jottings Under Lamplight, a new collection from Harvard University Press, brings 62 of his essays, grouped thematically, to English readers, aiming to “provide lucid and accurate translations for specialists and allow a more general readership access to Lu Xun’s works.”

The only other widely available collection of Lu Xun’s essays in English is Simon & Schuster’s Selected Essays of Master Lu Xun, published in 2014. In contrast to Jottings under Lamplight, Selected Essays is a slimmer volume of 38 works, apparently grouped in chronological order, though no explanation is given, at least in the ebook version. Essentially, it is an international distribution of the translations by the husband-and-wife team of Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi, completed between about 1950 and 1980 for China’s Foreign Languages Press, without noticeable editing.

Jotting under Lamplight is far superior in terms of selection and organization. Not only is there almost twice the material in one still-manageable volume, but the choice of essays provides a more comprehensive understanding of the author. Selected Essays reprinted without alteration the same selections chosen by government-run Chinese publishing houses for translation and foreign consumption, omitting many of Lu Xun’s more politically heterodox essays. For example, in the omitted speech-turned essay ‘The Divergence of Art and Politics’ (1927), included in Jottings Under Lamplight, Lu Xun writes, “Politicians would like to bar the public from thinking, but that savage age is long gone … Since politicians always blame the writer for ruining their social unity, such a biased view makes me unwilling to talk to them ever.”

Such omissions are understandable given the Yangs’ explicitly stated goal of helping the reader understand Lu Xun’s “role as the founder of modern Chinese literature, his ideological development from a revolutionary democrat to a communist, and his great contribution to China and humanity.” Prolific translators in China for decades, the Yangs remained firmly committed to the goals espoused by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through seven years of imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution, only becoming disenchanted with the CCP following the 1989 Tiananmen killings.

It is highly unlikely that Lu Xun, who died of illness in 1936, would have been comfortable as a symbol of communism, let alone with Mao Zedong’s pronouncement in 1966 that the author was “the commander of China’s Cultural Revolution.” Though sympathetic, especially in his later years, to the communist cause, Lu Xun never joined the Party, and often expressed skepticism of political movements in general and his own suitability as a role model in particular.

All this is to say that Jottings under Lamplight is a long-awaited, well-curated selection of some of Lu Xun’s best essays. It lays bare his ambivalence and uncertainty, rather than glossing over them. Perhaps most dear to my heart—and the reason I prefer his essays to his short stories—is the collection’s full showcasing of his sense of humor. Lu Xun was a master of high snark. He was sometimes the target of his own signature withering remarks. While he had his sound bites, longform humor was his forte, be it protracted metaphors (in ‘Why “Fair Play” Should Be Deferred’ or ‘My Hopes for the Critics’), convoluted but crushing takedowns (‘A Glimpse at Shanghai Literature’), and snide references to his own previous works or to the works of others (‘This Is What I Meant’). In this collection these vicious little gems shine.

The selection of essays encompasses a great variety of subject matter, and is organized into five broad categories: essays on Lu Xun himself and his writing; in memory of the departed; on tradition; on art and literature; and on modern culture. Standbys such as the ‘Preface to Outcry’ (1923) and ‘On “Gossip Is a Fearful Thing”’ (1935) are included, as are less well-known pieces such as ‘The Evolution of Men’ (1933), which discusses the suppression of the female libido as a form of oppression. Presciently, ‘The Glory to Come’ (1934) warns of the long-term impact of colonialist narratives about China in foreign film and literature.

But Jottings under Lamplight is not without its omissions. Lu Xun’s 1930s essays ‘On “Hard” Translation’ and ‘The Class Nature of Literature’ could have been a good addition and would have made these works available in English for the first time. The 1924 essay ‘My Moustache,’ which is included in Selected Essays, may not have added much in terms of insight into Lu Xun as a person, but it is an enjoyable and quite funny essay about the politics of style.

While the fourteen different scholars from a variety of backgrounds and specialties who have translated the essays in Jottings under Lamplight bring a wealth of perspectives and knowledge to the table, the collection as a whole sometimes feels uneven for the same reason. The work of Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi has its faults, but at least they rendered Lu Xun in one fairly consistent style. In particular, I enjoyed the essays brought into English by Nick Admussen and Bonnie S. McDougall, both highly accomplished translators who have managed to produce writing not only faithful to the original, but also a joy to read.

The ultimate strength of Jottings under Lamplight is not that it replaces the work of the Yangs but that it builds on it, for readers who would like to learn more about Lu Xun and the era of Chinese history in which he wrote. Lu Xun remains largely unknown among English-language readers, but hopefully increasing access to his works will generate more interest in one of the 20th century’s most influential figures. One can only hope that he was wrong when he wrote in his 1934 essay ‘In Memory of Wei Suyuan’, “Neither publishers nor readers like translations.” ∎

Lu Xun, Jottings under Lamplight, edited by Edited by Eileen J. Cheng and Kirk A. Denton (Harvard University Press, September 2017).