The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China by Lu Xun

I enjoyed this very rich collection which is the complete fictional works of Lu Xun (Penguin Classics Ed'n, 2009 ) . I have just re-read it but I need to say that introducing it for discussion has been more daunting than other books I have jumped in and had opinions about. I think it is the cross cultural experience which makes me timorous so I apologise upfront for any ineptitude of my comments about these stories to anyone more familiar with the cultural and literary background here so masterfully represented.

First-we need to note , we are reading a book in translation which rings smoothly in English with fine prose and good story lines and content. There are many favourable commentaries acknowledging the work of the translator , Dr Julia Lovell , a Lecturer in Modern Chinese History and Literature at the University of London. You can find interviews with her by googling her name or the title. She talks of Lu Xun in one of her interviews as China's "Dickens and Joyce rolled into one" because of his range of social comment and criticism and the new form of language in which it was expressed.

Lu Xun , 1881 - 1936, came from a privileged background of the classical ,Confucian upper class educational and professional tradition. His break with that tradition to write in vernacular prose rather than using the classical tradition of the time set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Of course it was an iconoclastic period in modern Chinese history so he found both acceptance along with much antagonism at times. I will just add one startling , seminal fact about his professional life and then leave the rest for you to follow through for yourselves either in the introduction to this edition or the many short summaries in the usual google sources.

Lu Xun set out to study Western style medicine in Japan ,which in itself was radical given his family background and expectations. However an epiphany when seeing a Japanese lecturer (during the time of the Russo-Japanese War) showing a film of a beheading of a Chinese Nationalist by a Japanese executioner with a passive crowd of Chinese people watching - changed his point of view. He became concerned with the mental health of his countrymen rather than the physical. He determined to become a story telling writer.

Lu Xun met his goal well. His 34 stories in this collected edition are full of irony and black humour . The whole makes up a very rich body of work. He uses his talents to explicate social norms which are stultifying the progress of his people as he sees it. I think he makes many universal observations however despite the special and particular mores of his nation and its immense cultural history. This universality comes through particularly in the rich characterisations of the principal characters and also in the many smaller players in the stories. Ah-Q for instance is so puffed up and stupid he could indeed be a Dickensian player in another setting. I am empathetic to poor old Ah-Q and I think the reader is drawn by this empathy to look keenly at the situations applying to him and what made him the way he is. "Diary of a Madmen" as a comparison is rather Freudian and highly satirical and I am reminded of "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift . I find Lu Xun uses many vivid literary ways to get his points across.

By contrast again some of the stories in the large sub collections in the work "Outcry" and "Hesitation" are poignant and lyrical . Try "My old home" for instance with its nostalgia plus yearning for a new life for a new generation and ending with a beautiful and insightful description of "Hope" as "an intangible presence that can neither be affirmed nor denied - a path that exists only where others have already passed".

The wry humour of "The Divorce" in the "Hesitation" collection makes an observation of the human condition and psyche over and above the sad human comedy and social inequality it evokes.The public authoritarian figures in the story and the economically yet excellently drawn lower class characters just jump from the pages- they are so real and dare I say, modern.

The final collection in this complete fictional works of the author is called "Old stories retold". I liked these stories very much - whilst the "creational" mythological ones are a bit obscure, the re-tellings of Daoist, Confucian legendary myths/tales are marvellous. For example, two Daoist tales "Leaving the Pass" and "Bringing back the Dead" are both approachable and strong reminders of the ancient cultural tradition we are reading about. "Bringing back the Dead" - a cautionary tale if ever there was one is told in dramatic dialogue format which would be a perfect little drama piece to enact." Leaving the Pass" about "Laozi" the mythical founder of the Daoist tradition, ca 600 BC is a witty telling of a venture of the Master as he tries to negotiate a Customs House Police Barracks and needs to sing for his supper by teaching his captors the ways of wisdom . I think the joke is that he unwittingly (or not) bored them to tears and was sent on his way. Universality comes out clearly in these re-told ancient myths just as well as with the "modern" tales in the collection.

I would recommend the Introductory essay to gain an overview of Lu Xun's career. His avowed position as a social critic and reformer took place throughout the formative and tumultous period of modern China's development with revolutions, civil wars and ultimately the rise of Mao Zedong and Communism . After his death in 1936 he was feted by the Communist hierarchy and became a cultural hero. It is fascinating to consider what he would have thought about it all - he was such a complex man.
In the short afterword Yiyun Li ,an awarded Chinese American writer who was educated in Beijing , speaks of re-reading Lu Xun in English "in this great volume of translations and in the original" and coming once again under his spell. She wonders however whether "the posthumous fame would have pleased Lu Xun" She is questioning the role he set for himself and whether literature can change social behaviour as such.

In summary , there is perhaps doubt on whether his literary prowess worked to change the outlook or fortunes of the Chinese people but his storytelling has left a very witty literary legacy to ponder and wonder at through the characters and situations he created. I would be very pleased to receive any comments about favourite stories a reader may like to share.

1 comment:

John Kennedy said...

Thanks for your informative posting, Faye. I did find this collection interesting, and I am glad that you provided an incentive to read something I would probably not have thought of without your prompting.

The collection strikes me as remarkably diverse in both style and subject matter, a quality which I think you imply. It is almost hard to believe one man wrote all the stories, even allowing for the fact that they were written over a a fairly extended time period.

I enjoyed the irony and humour of the Ah-Q story which gives the translated volume its name. Many, probably most, of the stories are a bit sad, of course. 'In Memoriam', the story of a doomed relationship, seemed particularly poignant to me.

For me, a good deal of the interest of the book lies in the insights it provides into Chinese life in the inept last years of Manchu imperial rule and the first decades of never very successful republic which the communists overthrew in 1949. Lu Xun, writing as an 'insider' does to a remarkable extent give the non-Chinese reader an insight into what it was like to live through tht period as an ordinary person. (We may of course have the translator to thank in part for this.)

The final stories, which amusingly 'update' Chinese mythology and early history by introducing into the old tales elements of the mores and customs of Lu Xun's own time, puzzled me at first, but after the first one or two I enjoyed the humour and felt the pathos.

I read this book on a Kindle, the first time I have read a book of short studies on such a device. I suspect traditional print has the edge where such a collection is concerned. It is hard to refer back and forth in the collection when it is on a screen, and it is not easy to check how long a short story is, owing in part to the mystifying Kindle custom of not providing the usual page numbrs