- Reviewed by
A quarter century ago the American academy basically ignored modern Chinese literature. C.T. Hsia's History of Modern Chinese Fiction (Yale, 1961) had just been published, and Hsia himself had just been appointed Associate Professor at Columbia. But Columbia and he were alone. Programs in Chinese literature at other universities generally ended their coverage at the nineteenth century or earlier. If anyone noticed modern Chinese literature, historians and social scientists did, who used it primarily for "data" on society.
The field has grown impressively in the 1970s and 1980s. About a dozen major universities now devote a full position to modern Chinese literature, and many smaller colleges are including it in their curricula by combining it with language teaching or another field. Intellectually, the field has struggled forward on the horns of a dilemma between two somewhat divergent approaches. Should modern Chinese literature continue to be viewed as source material for the study of Chinese thought and society? Or should it be evaluated as artistic work for its technical merit and universal messages? The world of Chinese letters itself has not always been the best guide for answers to these questions. A great many works of modern Chinese literature clearly have been inspired by concern for China's social and political problems and are so viewed by Chinese writers, readers, and critics. On the other hand, perhaps no wish is dearer to the hearts of contemporary Chinese writers than that China achieve a respectable place in modern international letters. In this regard technical and artistic considerations are paramount.
The two books under review are the best works in the field of modern Chinese literature to appear in the quarter century since Hsia's History. Both have been [End Page 753] researched so thoroughly and written with such depth, sophistication, and multifaceted sensitivity that they simply render obsolete the old debate over the "history" approach versus the "art" approach. Both books use both approaches and add new ones as well. They demonstrate by example how the arguments of the past can be transcended and how our final picture is richer when multiple angles are considered. Each book finds unity in its focus on the literary corpus of one major writer. Lu Xun (1881-1936) and Shen Congwen (1902-1988) are arguably the subtlest writers of fiction in twentieth-century China.
Lu Xun already enjoys a wide reputation as modern China's foremost writer. Indeed it is the ghost of an inaccurate reputation that serves as a sustaining inspiration for Leo Lee's superb book. In 1942, six years after Lu Xun died, Communist Party leader Mao Zedong praised him as "the major leader in the Chinese cultural revolution . . . not only a great writer but a great thinker and great revolutionary." After the revolution in 1949, this accolade from the top began to generate an ocean of fatuous hagiography that departed increasingly from the reality of Lu Xun's life and work. The "hero" view of Lu Xun has influenced even Japanese and Western scholarship.
Although Leo Lee is fully familiar with the hagiographies, he sets them aside and bases his arguments on Lu Xun's original texts. He has carefully studied not only Lu Xun's short stories but also his less well known poetry, prose poems, and essays. He deftly reveals their art and offers enlightening comparisons with other literatures, both Western and classical East Asian. The end result is a splendidly rich portrait of a man who struggled not only with the "outer" world, including his hopes and ideals for China, but also with his inner doubts, ambivalences, dark fears, and existential worries. Lee modestly characterizes his book as a mere "outline" of what there is to be said. And so it may be. But the book's strength is also to establish Lu Xun as a prodigiously creative artist that no study of any length can presume to "cover."
In sharp contrast to...