Saturday, 18 February 2012

Lu Xun and critiquing Chinese culture


Whenever we bring the subject of Chinese literature we always think about the classic novels like Journey to the West or Romance of Three Kingdoms. Especially from what we've been taught from our parents or Chinese school. It's understandable why these classics would fascinate many who are interested in Chinese literature. They capture the imagination of many who would wonder about the mystical ancient times intertwined with fairy tale element that can only be seen in costume dramas and Wuxia films. However for me some of the most interesting literature were written from around a 100 years ago. During the time China was going through great changes and modernisation. It was during the same time that Chinese literature went through a major revolution itself. One of the most prolific and influential writer to come out of this period was Lu Xun (魯迅) who is also deemed to be the founder of modern Chinese literature.

In the early 20th Century translated Western literature (especially Leftist writings) has became widely read and this had a lot of influence on Lu Xun during his early period of education. He and many of the writers of this era played a great role during the May Fourth and the New Culture Movement in popularising the use of vernacular Chinese writing over classical Chinese form. This can be seen in his most famous works such as 'A Madman's Diary' and 'The True Story of Ah Q'. Lu Xun's works usually deals with social commentary on Chinese society through the use of satire and irony. His fictional works might contain simple narratives but the essence behind it are very complex, they're not always straightforward.

I wasn't too sure how I came across Lu Xun, but when I first learnt about him I felt that I've discovered something refreshing. It had also made me view Chinese culture from a very different perspective but in a good way. His criticism of Chinese culture was harsh and relentless. Just like his peers during the New Culture Movement he was in favour of abandoning the traditional Confucius values and feudalistic society and replace them with Western values of democracy, liberalism and scientific advancement. Mao Zedong was a one of Lu Xun's biggest fan and praised him in some of his accounts, both carried the same view of denouncing the old Chinese culture. This was very evident in Mao's Cultural Revolution.

What I have realised from Lu Xun is the importance of critiquing your own culture (in a constructive way as oppose to bashing it of course). Understanding Chinese culture is more than just memorizing all Chinese dynasties or knowing how to celebrate Chinese New Year or reciting Tang poems off by heart. It's important to look at the cultural implication and historical context as well. One cannot possibly understand culture fully without learning its flaws as well as its strengths. Lu Xun's commentaries on traditional culture and society were usually negative but realistic and brutally honest. Despite that he is by no mean a traitor. He was patriot who actually cared about his country and the people living in it. All his intentions was to help the advancement and progression of Chinese society, this had gained him many support during the turbulent time.

In his famous novella 'The True Story of Ah Q, the lead character Ah Q was metaphorically used to represent the national character of China during this period; a pitiful character, a deluded peasant who consider his defeats as moral victories over the victors and save face through self-deception. Lu Xun's criticism wasn't just directed at China of that period but also the whole entity of Chinese culture.
The novella also strongly criticised the alleged historic-cultural burden of China, which was formed by the long history of absolute authority of the feudalist order. The feudalist social structure, order and culture were solidified through its two thousand year dominance. As a result of this, enormous social pressure brought on by group punishment and the rigidly-interpreted Civil Service Test both encouraged conformist ways and social hegemony in the Chinese culture. According to Lu Xun, people molded by such cultural environment were obsessed with saving face, were proud of the past without any new accomplishments, and accepted without questioning the injustices imposed by authority.
In 'The Diary of a madman' Lu Xun referred to 'the oppressive nature of Chinese Confucian culture as a "man-eating" society where the strong devour the weak.' Certainly this is not something our parents would want us to learn. Are Lu Xun's work still relevant to Chinese today or is it just an insight into the past. I think this is worth debating. However I think as long as Confucianism remains in Chinese culture I think his criticism still have some relevance in the modern age. A lot of scholars that study Chinese society nowadays still reference Lu Xun's works.

One thing I liked about the author is upfront and might I say his rebellious attitude. His work helped me approach Chinese culture differently but not necessarily in a negative kind of way. We shouldn't be afraid to confront the flaws within our cultural society even though it might hit some nerves, it's required to help society progress. Otherwise we'll be all like 'Ah Q'. Despite being in agreement with his harsh criticism it doesn't make me resent Chinese culture as such, but instead gave me a broader understanding of it. For that I am thankful to have discovered the literature of Mr Lu Xun.

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