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Memory, Violence, Queues: Lu Xun Interprets China by Eva Shan Chou (review)

From: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Volume 74, Number 1, June 2014
pp. 140-144 | 10.1353/jas.2014.0006

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A number of new books have recently come out in English about Lu Xun, notably the one under review, and studies by Andrew F. Jones and David E. Pollard. Moreover, there has been a resurgence of international conferences on Lu Xun, such as those sponsored by the International Society for Lu Xun Studies (ISLS). This indicates that although many feel that Lu Xun has been overstudied, there nevertheless remains a great deal of interesting work to be done on this epoch-making cultural figure.

Memory, Violence, Queues: Lu Xun Interprets China, by Eva Shan Chou, is published by the Association for Asian Studies in its “Asia Past & Present” series. The cover of this paperback, a fastidiously painted yet light and fresh watercolor by P. A. Staynes of a Beijing courtyard house that might resemble Lu Xun’s Beijing house, is fascinating in some of the same ways as the book itself. The brilliant, springlike coloring is unusual in its depiction of Beijing street space, which is usually depicted in dark earth tones or monochrome. In a way, some of Lu Xun's writings about his childhood and youth frequently contrast memories of the past that have a similarly disarming colorful freshness with a bleak, colorless, and dilapidated present. Even though Beijing residential space was not a common subject of Lu Xun’s writing, this unexpectedly bright and colorful image signals a refreshingly cliché -free perspective that challenges the easy modern dichotomies—old and new, West and East—that burden modern Chinese culture and its study. Considering how much is written about Lu Xun, particularly in Chinese, this is no mean accomplishment.

This is not to say that Chou does not consult and respond to existing scholarship on Lu Xun. Memory, Violence, Queues is a very well documented study that touches upon most of the important issues in Lu Xun studies, particularly those that have been at the center of vigorous discussion in recent years. This includes periods and activities in Lu Xun’s life that have not received adequate attention, such as his involvement with the woodblock print movement and his activities before the May Fourth Movement (including his educational years in Japan and his early career in teaching and administration in Zhejiang, Nanjing, and Beijing). It also includes an exploration of themes running deeply throughout his various creative projects that challenges the often simplistic, official readings and interpretations through which Lu Xun has entered the canon of national revolutionary culture in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In Chou’s own words, “This study is not a comprehensive survey or analysis of Lu Xun’s works but intends to provide an integrated view of a writer by selecting, as needed, from all the genres in which he wrote, from all time periods, and from works of different degrees of familiarity.... each chapter presents a certain interpretation of China that Lu Xun makes in particular works at a particular point in time” (p. 11).

The hard-won uniqueness of Chou’s argument results from her focus on a triad of themes: queues, violence, and memory. This triad sheds unusual light on violence and memory through sustained and fastidious emphasis on the more idiosyncratic image of the queue. Rather than being balanced equally among these three themes, Chou's study uses the specificity of the queue image in Lu Xun's writing as a fruitful point of departure in its approach to memory and violence. This leads Chou to unusual and pathbreaking readings of “Ah Q jzheng zhuan” (The true story of Ah Q), Lu Xun's classical style poetry and his involvement with the woodblock printing movement. Chou shows, moreover, how the woodblock printing movement in part conditioned the author's responses to later depictions of his works and characters, as well as depictions of the author himself.

Another unusual feature of this study is that rather than walking through the author's biography and career in a linear manner, it focuses intensely on three very brief periods in Lu Xun's life. After providing a useful and original overview of Lu Xun's career in Chapter 1, Chou in the following four chapters covers the years 1902–1903...



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