Lu Xun: What is Revolutionary Literature

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“Only when revolutionaries start writing will there be revolutionary literature.”

Editor’s Note: A speech by the Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) delivered in 1927 at the Whampoa Military Academy (re-presented in lithub.com). Known for his short stories and trenchant essays, Lu Xun is considered to be one of China’s greatest modern writers. In 1926, he had to flee the country after protesting against the killing of some students in a demonstration. What he says in this speech from his book Jottings Under Lamplight (HUP) is as applicable to nations and regimes today as it was in the early 20th century.

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I thought: Literature, oh literature, you are a most useless thing. Only those without power talk about you; no one with real strength bothers to talk, they just murder people. Oppressed people who say a few things or write a few words will be killed. Even if they are fortunate enough not to be killed, and shout out, complain of their suffering, and cry out against injustices every day, those with real strength will still continue to oppress, abuse, and kill; there is no way to deal with them. What value does this literature have for people, then?

The natural world also works this way. When a hawk hunts a sparrow, it is the hawk that is silent while the sparrow squawks. When a cat preys on a mouse, it is the cat that is silent while the mouse squeals. The result is still that those who cry out are eaten by those who remain silent. If a writer does well and writes a few essays, he might garner some fame for himself in his time or earn a reputation for a few years. This is like how after a memorial service, no one mentions the feats of the martyr; rather, everyone discusses whose elegiac couplets are best. What a stable business this is.

However, I’m afraid that the literary specialists in this revolutionary place are always fond of saying how close the connection between literature and revolution is. For example, they say literature can be used to publicize, promote, incite, and advance the revolutionary cause, and thus bring about revolution. Still, it seems to me that this sort of literature has no strength because good literature has never been about following orders and has no regard for its effects. It is something that flows naturally from the heart. If we write literature according to a pre-selected topic, how is that any different from the formal prose of an imperial examination? It has no value as literature, not to mention no ability to move people.

For revolution to occur, what is needed are revolutionaries; there is no need to be overly anxious about “revolutionary literature.”

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