Academic journal article Criticism

"A Fierce Silence Falls": Lu Xun's Call to Arms

Academic journal article Criticism

"A Fierce Silence Falls": Lu Xun's Call to Arms

Article excerpt

We need not be surprised to hear groans, sighs, weeping, or pleading. But when a fierce silence falls, we should be on our guard.

-Lu Xun, "Stray Thoughts" (1925)1

It is almost impossible not to think of art in positive terms as an addition to the world, a gain in knowledge, an advance in understanding, a register of feeling, a contribution to culture. But some artists make an equal investment in negativity - in omission, absence, silence. The art of Kafka, Mallarmé, Beckett, and Hemingway, for instance, is remarkable equally for what it does not say as for what it does, for the holes and gaps in the representational texture as well as for that texture itself. In these writers, the dialectic of presence and absence often creates an atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty, as the unspoken complements and even competes with the spoken for the reader's attention. All of these artists were notoriously apolitical, which makes it particularly interesting that one who should be added to their order, the Chinese author Lu Xun (1881-1936), was an enthusiastic supporter of the 1911 Revolution, a leading figure of the 1919 May Fourth Revolution, and a famous advocate of the Chinese Communist Party. When we turn to his fiction, too, we find heavy satire, explicit outrage, and the fine-grained depiction of a distinct landscape. Yet amid these markers of a fully "positive" literature, we also find elements of elision, quiet, and concealment. The purpose of this essay is to identify Lu Xun's silence not just as a modality of his celebrated practice of understatement, but as a specific technique, an exact moment, a purposive departure in which the unsaid enters, and comes to dominate, the text.


Lu Xun is commonly considered the greatest Chinese author of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, he was a deeply reluctant writer for whom the act of composition was unnatural and painful. When in 1918 Lu Xun's friends did finally persuade him to write, the words, as he later put it, "[did] not pour out of me but [had] to be squeezed out."2 What he forced onto the page consisted of nothing more than those fragmentary memories that he could not forget, try as he might; and he insisted that he only set down these thoughts "from time to time to humour my friends."3 Even during the main creative period of Lu Xun's life, he often threatened to fall silent for lack of will. "As far as I am concerned," he wrote in the 1922 preface to his first collection of stories, Call to Arms (1918-22), "I no longer feel any great urge to express myself."4

In Lu Xun, the unwillingness to divulge was as much a principle of artistic expression as it was an element of personal identity. An extreme expressive restraint emerges even in what Lu Xun did write, although this deadened or muted style did not reflect a lack of feeling. On the contrary, Lu Xun manufactured the chill that typifies his fiction only by erasing from the text his own burning shame, loneliness, and moral indignation. It was this anguish from which Lu Xun drew the creative energy he possessed, but he buried this emotion in his mode of characterization.5 For Lu Xun held that it is precisely when passion is most overwhelming that it must be hidden, both in order not to discourage others and because any attempt to express it would only reveal what one critic has called the "inadequacy of his means of expression."6 In a way, Lu Xun was describing himself when he wrote of Dostoevsky, "His passion [is] so white-hot that it seems ice-cold."7

Lu Xun's expressive reticence reaches perhaps its most wrenching point in a passage near the beginning of the preface to Call to Arms. After he recounts four years of boyhood trips to the pharmacy to buy medicine for his ill father, Lu Xun writes,

On my return home I had other things to keep me busy, for our physician was so eminent that he prescribed unusual drugs and adjuvants: aloe roots dug up in winter, sugarcane that had been three years exposed to frost, original pairs of crickets, and ardisia that had seeded . …

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