Reader questions and comments on Lu Xun’s essay, and our responses
Last month, as part of ‘Lu Xun week’ to mark our launch, we published our first story club feature: a new translation of a 1926 essay by Lu Xun, What Happens After Nora Walks Out? Now we bring you the follow-up: a selection of questions and comments on the story from readers who wrote in, with our replies from our editors. Think of it as a digital version of a book club meeting (but with less interrupting and daytime drinking). We hope this inspires you to revisit the original essay, and understand it in a new light. Scroll down to see the randomly selected winner of the giveaway prize, who will receive a copy of the new Lu Xun collection the story comes from. And look out soon for the November installment of story club, with a very different kind of Chinese story to discuss. – The Editors
Steve Bewcyk asks: How does this talk of dreaming relate to the “China dream”?
Alec Ash replies: Well that’s an interesting parallel to think about. As I see it, the central metaphor that Lu Xun draws in this story is Nora as China: newly independent, but what now? Nora leaves with “nothing but a crimson woolen shawl like you young ladies,” as he rather patronisingly says to his audience. It can seem at times from the essay that Lu Xun wonders if she wasn’t better off staying. “The most painful thing in life is to wake from a dream and find there is no way out,” he writes, and “if there isn’t a way out in sight, it is important not to wake them.” This is, as several readers noticed, reminiscent of the famous iron house passage of Lu Xun’s preface to his story collection Call to Arms:
“Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?”
If China can not be awoken and modernise, goes the implication, it is a cruelty to show it the shackled nature of its existence, just like Nora’s as a doll in a house. In that respect, Nora is not only waking from a dream to discover that reality is harsher, but her own “dream” of independence is flawed in Lu Xun’s cynical view, as not enough others share in it.
The modern “China dream” is a little different, first articulated by Xi Jinping in 2013 as “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. That has some parallels to Lu Xun’s dream for China, although it’s much more state-led that the iconoclastic writer would have approved of. The interesting part is how the term has taken on a life of its own among individual Chinese who want more personal freedom, fulfillment and material success – just like Nora did. Some of those dreams also come up again the cold hard reality of life in China, where competition and inequality is intense, and every freedom has its limit. I can’t help but wonder: if Lu Xun was alive today, would he think that China is still in an iron house, or free of it? Either way, I feel he wasn’t being entirely sincere when he wrote “it’s not a good idea to dream about the future,” as after all he spent much of his writing life agitating for a dream of a better China.
Nick Stember replies: I think you’ve really touched on why Lu Xun is an unlikely hero for China today, and also why we choose this essay to kick off the China Channel. As you may already know, over the last couple of years Lu Xun has been disappearing from Chinese textbooks, and while figures like Ah Q are still well-known, his work isn’t widely read in the original.
Wang Ban, a literary scholar at Stanford, has written about Lu Xun’s relationship to modernity and nationalism at some length in the first chapter of his 2004 monograph Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, and History in Modern China. Ban takes three points as his touchstones for understanding the writer: tradition, memory, and hope. We tend to oversimplify Lu Xun as someone who was opposed to tradition, but he had an equally dim view of Western science and democracy in service of (what Ban calls) “capitalist modernity.” So in Ban’s reading of Lu Xun’s work, he talks about how Lu Xun saw history as a winding path, rather than a straight line. Not every step forward was in the right direction, and I think his take on Nora reflects this. Obviously, the liberation of women is a laudable goal, and perhaps even inevitable, but he’s making the point that without larger social and economic change, individual freedom is constrained.
Xi Jinping’s China Dream is something very different from what Lu Xun was advocating for, and it comes from a different, albeit related, historical context. In terms of Chinese nationalism, Lu Xun (like many thinkers of his time) saw the world in terms of evolutionary theory. He was worried that China was being devoured by the colonial powers, concession by concession, “like a silkworm burrowing into a mulberry leaf.” At the same time, Lu Xun clearly never had any nostalgia for the imperial past, and I don’t think he would have wanted Pax Sinica either, with China as a cultural and military superpower, predicated on the total domination of civil society by the Party. This is what Xi’s China Dream is really modeled on, rather than the more prosaic goals of the American Dream. But of course, there is an intentional conflation of the two ideas (as with Trump’s Make America Great Again), and neither really gets at what Lu Xun was trying to tell us.
For Lu Xun, freedom was of paramount importance – freedom not only to do as you please, with whom you please, but also freedom from deprivation and want, from war, from ignorance, from everything. Wang Ban connects this back to Enlightenment thinkers, like Herder, Rousseau, Hegel and Schiller, which I think is a really fascinating way to think of Lu Xun. He’s a critic of the East and the West.
Jennifer Toppins writes: I read this essay after reading Miss Sophia’s Diary, by Ding Ling, and it stands out to me that Lu Xun subordinates the distinctly female need for self-actualization to China’s larger early 20th century facelift. As in, Nora’s struggle, or the “female” struggle, is not theirs alone, but it is merely part of the larger problem of economic rights. On the one hand, this seems encouraging: women are recognized as an important part of the whole, and their struggle is made to be important in the eyes of men. However, it does dismiss the specific struggle of the Chinese female at the turn of the century; by boiling down Nora’s transformation (or the needs of the Chinese woman) to mere economic rights, we are forgetting the importance of a new awareness about the category “woman” – and how that needs to be overturned for long-lasting gender equality.
Of course, this seems to be in keeping with what I understand about Lu Xun the writer: his most famous works do not really have important women characters, and all the major action is undertaken by men. He is also a pessimistic writer, and it seems in keeping with his sombre moods.
Nick replies: Ding Ling and Lu Xun certainly make an interesting comparison: in 2007, Tani Barlow published a collection of their writing, The Power of Weakness: Stories of the Chinese Revolution, which actually includes this speech by Lu Xun, alongside Ding Ling’s writing. Ding Ling, who many see as having taken on the mantle of realist fiction after Lu Xun’s death, was also an early advocate for the emulation Lu Xun at Yan’an. She ran into some trouble with Mao for this, and there are a lot of dark jokes about what would have happened to Lu Xun if he’d lived to see the communists come to power.
I’m not sure I agree that Lu Xun was “boiling down Nora’s transformation … to mere economic rights” though. As he says a couple of paragraphs before the bit about money, “dreams are what we need if we cannot find a way out.” Lu Xun certainly saw the value of stories like Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. Why else would he go to the trouble of writing about it? Rather than dismissing the struggle for women’s rights, on the topic of gender equality, Lu Xun is actually being quite radical in this essay by suggesting that “sons and daughters” should share the inheritance of their parents equally. From our perspective today, living in North America or Europe, that might seem self-evident, but it wouldn’t have been the case at the time and place where Lu Xun was writing. To use a baseball metaphor, dreams are the windup, but money is the follow-through.
Finally, “awareness” is a tricky word that I’m not sure Lu Xun would have cared much for (see the iron cage metaphor that Alec references above) and I would argue that there are actually quite a few important female characters in his stories, from Xianglin’s wife in ‘The New Year’s Sacrifice’ to Zijun in ‘Regrets for the Past’ to Fourth Shan’s wife in ‘Tomorrow’. You’re right, of course, that the men are usually the ones who make the decisions, but this isn’t accidental. The absence of female characters with agency in his stories is meant to reflect of the social reality of China at the time, rather than provide a happy fantasy, as in the ending to Ibsen’s play. In fact, I think you could read this essay as Lu Xun’s response to his critics (myself among them) who just wanted him to write something a little more upbeat.
Satoshi Takahashi asks: The word “mutton” in a translation always stops me dead. As a speaker of American English, the word sounds archaic and weird. It does make me wonder what sort of lamb is being eaten at the “Beijing mutton shop” in Lu Xun’s talk. Is it mutton? Is it hogget? Is it goat meat? Is it lamb? In my own limited experience, I would judge many of the animals hanging outside northern China’s “mutton shops” to be mostly younger animals, and quite a few were young goat, not sheep. Are there different words for lamb and mutton in Chinese?
Anne replies: Americans aren’t too fond of mutton, but it’s actually eaten regularly in northern China. Mutton is rich, good for warming up in Beijing’s bitter winters. It isn’t just the climate that makes mutton popular, though. It’s also the culinary influence of the peoples the Great Wall was built to keep out: the Mongols and the Manchu, who conquered China and ruled as the Yuan and Qing dynasties, respectively.
Mutton was common fare in Khanbaliq, the Mongol-ruled city that we know today as Beijing. Southern Chinese cuisine came into vogue in the seventeenth century, only to be displaced by the red meat and poultry favored by the Manchu, according to Thomas Höllmann in The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine. Edward Wang writes in Chopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History that it was the Manchu who brought mutton hot pot to Beijing. And I distinctly recall a Chinese literature class in college where our professor explained that the Manchu loved to tuck into “big hunks of meat,” including unctuous slices of duck wrapped in pancakes—Peking duck.
Let’s also address the terminology that is so troubling to you. Lu Xun writes, “You’ll often find people standing outside a Beijing mutton shop watching open-mouthed as a sheep is being skinned.” Lu Xun uses the words yangrou and yang, “mutton” and “sheep.” Not lamb (gaoyang or yanggao), not goat (shanyang). As for hogget—sheep one or two years of age, or their meat—it’s hard to say, as Mandarin doesn’t have a direct equivalent. But the slack-jawed masses would have drooled over an older animal, anyway.
Mike “Love” Klein asks: Lu Xun has been so overpraised and overinterpreted by Party ideologues and academics in the PRC that actually reading his work can be a bit of a letdown. What I really want to ask is: Why the hell are you celebrating Lu Xun? I’m balls-deep in Chinese literature and Lu Xun bores the shit outta me, especially if it’s Lu Xun rapping about an Ibsen play he just read and it’s all an allegory or something about the Republic.
Liz replies: To be honest, I hate Lu Xun’s short stories, which are arguably less reliant on historical knowledge about early 20th century China. I’m not saying he’s a literary genius or that he can’t be boring. His essays, though, I find really interesting because they make the history of that time period feel more personal. We have a lot of history books about what happened 50-100 years ago, but there’s something important about what people were writing about and thinking about as it was happening. I basically agree though – Lu Xun is not the best gateway drug for Chinese literature. I tend to think of him like I do Battlestar Galactica: it takes a bit of bearing with things to get the real payback. Zhu Wen’s short story collection I Love Dollars comes to mind as something that may be better in terms of immediate appeal and accessibility.
Alec replies: First off, I have every faith that the timeless themes of Battlestar Galactica will be studied by schoolchildren for centuries to come. But honestly, I’m glad someone asked this question. What’s all the fuss about Lu Xun? Certainly if you ask anyone in China under the age of 35, they will invariably have been too bored stiff by him in school to actually like his writing, just like Harper Lee or F Scott Fitzgerald in American schools, perhaps. But I put that down not just to the truism that teaching something tends to destroy all joy for it, but rather how Lu Xun has been appropriated by the Chinese education system as a symbol of the Party, with everything given a heavy allegorical meaning, generally of casting off feudalism and – implicitly – embracing communism. Julia Lovell wrote about his in her introduction to the Penguin edition of Lu Xun’s stories, which we excerpted here.
But if you actually read Lu Xun, you find that he’s equally scathing to everyone, and there is no simple political message. In the case of this story, it’s asking questions but not answering them – Should Nora have left Torvald? Will the Republic survive? – and so I think the way to appreciate him is to try to divest ourselves of all of the baggage, all of the praise and ideology that you mention, then go back and read the texts as if we’re a blank slate. Maybe then Mike, you’ll be feeling the “love”.
Nick replies: ‘Equally scathing to everyone,’ I love that. New motto for the China Channel maybe? More seriously though, like Liz, I’ve always had trouble enjoying Lu Xun as a fiction writer, and like Mike, I’ve often felt let down by actually reading his work after all the praise that gets heaped on. I think the trick is finding someone with something actually interesting to say about Lu Xun, like Yuan Tengfei who talks about how Lu Xun made a living, and jokes the KMT should have dealt with Lu Xun the way the communists dealt with rightists in the 1950s. (Somebody actually followed this up with by linking back to an essay by Chen Mingyuan on how much money Lu Xun made!) So that was part of our thinking when we choose this essay, and really part of our larger mission here at the Channel, which is (rather than being ‘equally scathing to everyone’) to bring things from the past into the present, and show how a lot of things said about China today aren’t as new as you might think. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between Republican era China and the PRC today, whether we are talking about women’s rights, or income inequality, or corruption.
Hu Ying writes: Despite Lu Xun’s jibe at the unnamed “Shanghai writer” who claims to have seen a version in which Nora returns home, soon after Ibsen wrote his play, the German actress Hedwig Niemann-Raabe refused to act the famous last scene of door slamming, claiming “I would never leave my children!” Her Nora collapsed at the sight of her sleeping children and did not leave. Although Ibsen would refute this version, it was staged and translated into several languages including Japanese.
When Lu Xun quotes Nora describing her children as her puppets, a real question is elided, a question that many women then as now face everyday: how to be her own person while being a mother. Just as Nora would like to be a real person rather than a puppet, so her children too might be considered real. Is there a way to think about them without sounding like Nora’s husband Torvald who tries to tie Nora down by pointing to her “sacred duty as a mother”? How to allow full rights for the mother as well as the children?
Nick replies: Fascinating!
Torvald’s attitude toward the children is a really fascinating part of the play, because at the end, when Torvald discovers that Nora has forged her father’s signature to borrow money (albeit to pay for his own medical treatment), he gives her an ultimatum: Nora can stay in the house, but only on the condition that she not see the children anymore. This plays into one of the themes of Ibsen’s play, which is the way a parent’s (im)morality can rub off on his or her children. At one point, Nora even considers killing herself to clear her name, and that’s the implicit choice she is facing at the end of the play. So if we look at Nora’s choice from this perspective, she’s actually doing her children a favor by removing herself from their lives, thereby saving them from the tragic consequences of being raised by a criminal. She doesn’t want her children to be her puppets, anymore than she wants to be the puppet of her husband.
In contrast, Ibsen brings two characters together in the course of the play: the widow Linde and windower Krogstad, who were once in love but financial circumstances forced apart. Mrs. Linde is childless, and when they marry, she agrees to become the mother to Krogstad’s children. In effect, Ibsen is arguing that a good divorce is better than a bad marriage. In most modern legal systems, of course, Nora wouldn’t be able to just walk away from her kids without making arrangements for child support, assuming custody was awarded to her husband.
Karoline Kan writes: I liked this story but was sad to see how relevant it still is to today’s China, almost one hundred years after the speech was first given.
When I traveled to my parents’ home during this year’s National holiday, we had an unpleasant conversation with my extended family about a girl’s right to her inheritance. When they talked about my future marriage – they assumed there would be one – my father’s sister joked that my parents should ask for a high caili [brideprice] from my future husband to show how precious I am to them. My mother said she would ask for nothing, and besides, she would give an apartment to me when they give another one to my elder brother. That hit my aunt’s nerve. She frowned and told my four-year-old nephew, “Tell your grandmother not to allow it, everything should be yours as the family’s male heir.”
I was offended. My parents are not rich, and I know they won’t have much to leave my brother and I. But I only ask to be treated the same as my brother. Yet many opposing voices from the extended family were from older female family members. In my small hometown it’s common for girls to give up their economic rights, and regard that sacrifice as a virtue. Why, so many years after Lu Xun’s speech, is it still not acceptable that girls should be treated the same as the boys, as Nora wanted to be?
Lu Xun was right when we wrote, “It’s too difficult to change China: blood will flow just by moving a table or mending a stove.” But I am more worried that people today are losing the fighting passion of young people in Lu Xun’s era. I have met so many women in China who are proud to be a vase, proud that their men buy them gifts, pay them tens of thousand of yuan in marriage caili, and reward them because they give birth to the man’s children (as if they are not hers as well). And I have met those who laugh at other women who “walk out” like Nora did. Of course, the meaning of “walking out” is different today from in Lu Xun’s time. A modern Nora will not die or become degraded, as working women are not rare in today’s society. The meaning of “walking out” today is rather to fight for a woman’s equal rights. It’s sad to see that feminism is still a stained word in China, even to many women. ∎
In the header image for this post, Nora (played by the actress Betty Hennings), dances the tarantella for her husband, Torvald (Emil Poulsen) at the 1879 premiere of The Dollhouse at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark.
And the winner of our book giveaway, randomly selected from among the readers who responded, is [drumroll] Satoshi Takahashi. He will receive a copy of Jottings Under Lamplight by Lu Xun, which includes this essay!