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Literary Remains

Death, Trauma, and Lu Xun's Refusal to Mourn

Eileen J. Cheng

Publication Year: 2013

Lu Xun (1881–1936), arguably twentieth-century China’s greatest writer, is commonly cast in the mold of a radical iconoclast who vehemently rejected traditional culture. The contradictions and ambivalence so central to his writings, however, are often overlooked. Challenging conventional depictions, Eileen J. Cheng’s innovative readings capture Lu Xun’s disenchantment with modernity and his transformative engagements with traditional literary conventions in his “modern” experimental works. Lurking behind the ambiguity at the heart of his writings are larger questions on the effects of cultural exchange, accommodation, and transformation that Lu Xun grappled with as a writer: How can a culture estranged from its vanishing traditions come to terms with its past? How can a culture, severed from its roots and alienated from the foreign conventions it appropriates, conceptualize its own present and future?

Literary Remains shows how Lu Xun’s own literary encounter with the modern involved a sustained engagement with the past. His creative writings—which imitate, adapt, and parody traditional literary conventions—represent and mirror the trauma of cultural disintegration, in content and in form. His contradictory, uncertain, and at times bizarrely incoherent narratives refuse to conform to conventional modes of meaning making or teleological notions of history, opening up imaginative possibilities for comprehending the past and present without necessarily reifying them.  

Behind Lu Xun’s “refusal to mourn,” that is, his insistence on keeping the past and the dead alive in writing, lies an ethical claim: to recover the redemptive meaning of loss. Like a solitary wanderer keeping vigil at the site of destruction, he sifts through the debris, composing epitaphs to mark both the presence and absence of that which has gone before and will soon come to pass. For in the rubble of what remains, he recovered precious gems of illumination through which to assess, critique, and transform the moment of the present. Literary Remains shows how Lu Xun’s literary enterprise is driven by a “radical hope”—that, in spite of the destruction he witnessed and the limits of representation, his writings, like the texts that inspired his own, might somehow capture glimmers of the past and the present, and illuminate a future yet to unfold.

Literary Remains will appeal to a wide audience of students and scholars interested in Lu Xun, modern China, cultural studies, and world literature.

12 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Prologue: The Owl

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pp. 1-2

Lu Xun was fond of owls.2 An illustration he designed for his essay collection Graves (Fen, 1926) prominently features an owl.3 The owl is perched on a square insignia, embossed on four sides.4 On the bottom right corner of the ornate frame are two trees, next to the numbers 1907–25 encrypted in black, ...

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Introduction: History, or What Remains in the Present

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pp. 3-16

Political canonization can have bizarre consequences for a writer’s literary afterlife: key aspects of his works that contradict official narratives may be elided; some of the writer’s most outstanding attributes may be overlooked. Lu Xun—the pen name by which Zhou Shuren (1881–1936) is known—is a case in point.2 ...

Part One: Re-membering the Past

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1. The Limits of Subjectivity: Death, Trauma, and the Refusal to Mourn

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pp. 19-36

Official histories are filled with accounts of heroes whose bravery and sacrifice are acknowledged posthumously. Yet the sacrifices of martyrs and revolutionaries in Lu Xun’s fiction and essays are ascribed no such noble meanings, nor relayed through coherent or logical narratives. ...

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2. The Illegitimate Preface

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pp. 37-57

In “Liberation of the Preface” (Xu de jiefang, 1933), Lu Xun in his typical satirical manner pokes fun at his contemporary men of letters.2 Alluding to the commercial transactions that formed the economic backbone of Shanghai’s foreign concessions, he portrays certain types of writers as literary “compradors,” ...

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3. (Un)Faithful Biographers

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pp. 58-78

Despite the humiliation he suffered in his lifetime, the grand historian Sima Qian rested secure in the knowledge that he could hide his magisterial history in “a famous mountain and await the man who understands it.”2 He professed that the satisfaction he gained from this assurance—of both the successful transmission of his text ...

Part Two: New Culture through the Prism of Tradition

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4. Death by Applause: Eulogizing Women

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pp. 81-110

The name of Fan Ainong, whose image surfaces as that of a dedicated revolutionary unrecognized by his times, would have languished in obscurity were it not for Lu Xun’s moving eulogy.1 Lu Xun’s essay honoring his friend also alludes to the death of two prominent revolutionaries from Shaoxing—Xu Xilin (1873–1907) and Qiu Jin (1875–1907). ...

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5. The Abandoned Lover

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pp. 111-139

In the world of classical poetry, the pursuit of a lover was a commonplace allegory for a minister’s desire to serve his ruler. The abandoned woman often served as a symbol of the spurned minister, a thematic trope whose earliest traces can be found in the verses of Qu Yuan. ...

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6. The Journey Home

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pp. 140-166

Guxiang, the native place, plays a prominent role in Lu Xun’s writings. Fourteen of the twenty-five short stories collected in Call to Arms and Hesitation have the hometown as a background.1 All but one of the essays in Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk are set in Lu Xun’s native home of Shaoxing. ...

Part Three: Dialogic Encounters

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7. Mocking the Sages

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pp. 169-191

Lu Xun’s creative literary experiments came largely to a halt in 1926. Around this time, his views took a sharp turn to the left and his writings became increasingly political and polemical; by 1930 he had emerged as a leading figure of the League of Left-wing Writers (Zuoyi zuojia lianmeng).1 ...

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8. Disenchanted Fables

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pp. 192-218

Lu Xun had a lifelong interest in mythology and the supernatural, as well as in folk customs and religious practices. Among his fond childhood memories recorded in Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk was his acquisition of a copy of the Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shan hai jing), an early collection of myths and fables.1 ...

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Epilogue: Remembrance, Forgetting, and Radical Hope

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pp. 219-234

In an essay titled “Death” (Si, 1936), Lu Xun claims not to have contemplated the prospect of death much until the twilight of his own life.1 The presence of death, however, is ubiquitous in his writings. As I noted in Chapter 1, beyond the function of death as a symbol of a bygone age, ...

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pp. 235-238

Many debts were accrued on the long and pleasurable journey that led to the publication of this book. Thoughts for the project gradually crystallized over years of intermittent, often random, conversations with Theodore Huters and my engagement with his brilliant scholarship on Lu Xun. ...


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pp. 239-278


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pp. 279-284

Works Cited

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pp. 285-302


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pp. 303-314

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837808
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835958

Publication Year: 2013