27 April 2009

appreciations 1: Lu Xun

(first in a series of brief "appreciations" of under 200 words, with, sometimes, a sample of work)

Marxism Is the most Lucid and Lively Philosophy, 1974, woodblock portrait of Lu Xun by Li Yitai

Lu Hsün, or Lu Xun — my edition of his complete works is getting a little dusty with age — is one of the great modernist writers, and one of the world’s greatest short fiction writers, yet a writer no one in the United States seems to read. His The True Story of Ah Q is a masterpiece in what is “not” said, as well as a sensitive portrait of underclass life in China in the early 20th Century. It is the place, if you will, where Joyce meets Steinbeck, where the aesthetics of vision and writing combine with a social vision that is so clearly shown that it need not be said. I was fortunate to be introduced to his work in classes in the Asian Languages department when I was an undergraduate, and I teach his work in introductory literature classes whenever I can. If you seek him out, you might want to start with the most anthologized works, Ah Q and Diary of a Madman, but don’t stop there. Read other stories, and read his piercingly honest essays, including his late essay on sickness and dying, and his social commentary.

from The True Story of Ah Q:
Then a man in a long coat brought a sheet of paper and held a brush in front of Ah Q, which he wanted to thrust into his hand. Ah Q was now nearly frightened out of his wits, because this was the first time in his life that his hand had ever come into contact with a writing-brush. He was just wondering how to hold it when the man pointed out a place on the paper and told him to sign his name.

"I — I — can't write," said Ah Q, shamefaced, nervously holding the brush.

"In that case, to make it easy for you, draw a circle!"

Ah Q tried to draw a circle, but the hand with which he grasped the brush trembled, so the man spread the paper on the ground for him. Ah Q bent down and, as painstakingly as if his life depended on it, drew a circle. Afraid people would laugh at him, he determined to make the circle round; however, not only was that wretched brush very heavy, but it would not do his bidding. Instead it wobbled from side to side; and just as the line was about to close it swerved out again, making a shape like a melon-seed.

(translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. In Lu Xun: Selected Works. Beijing, Foreign Languages Press, 1956)


At 7:27 AM, Blogger Gary said...

I love Lu Xun. I've done rewrites of a number of his poems, trying to figure out how he managed to so flatly state such sharp perceptions.

I also love his take on Jingpai (Beijing style) vs. Haipai (Shanghai style)--something I've been wanting to write about in the context of some of our contemporary lit battles.

Great portrait, thanks.

At 10:14 PM, Blogger charles said...

Nice to get such a comment from someone working on Lu Xun's poetry! Good luck in your "rewrites" -- do you mean translations?

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