Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

Free and Easy Wanderings: Lu Xun's "Resurrecting the Dead" and Its Precursors

Academic journal article Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews

Free and Easy Wanderings: Lu Xun's "Resurrecting the Dead" and Its Precursors

Article excerpt

Lu Xun's "Resurrecting the Dead," the final story in his Old Tales Retold (1936), is one of his rare works written as a play. Following a brief discussion of Lu Xun's ambivalent attitude towards the theater, this article focuses on the background of this tale. While all commentators point to the anecdote in Ch. 18 of the Zhuangzi of Master Zhuang's encounter with a skull as the ultimate source of Lu Xun's composition, they are only rarely aware of the rich development of that tale in later centuries. After the theme had been taken up by poets of the second and third centuries, it became popular once again with the founding fathers of Quanzhen Daoism who turned the skull into a full-length skeleton. By the Ming dynasty at the latest this had given rise to the legend of Master Zhuang's resurrection of a skeleton. Once the skeleton has come back to life, it accuses Master Zhuang of having stolen its belongings and takes him to see a magistrate. When Master Zhuang turns his accuser into a skeleton once again, the magistrate is convinced of the ephemerality of existence and decides to pursue the life of religion. While this legend was largely replaced by a different tale of Master Zhuang from the seventeenth century onward, it continued to circulate in various forms. Lu Xun must have been acquainted with some versions of the legend, and our reading of his "Resurrecting the Dead" gains from a comparison with these Ming versions.

Lu Xun (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.) (1881-1936), in the eyes of many the greatest writer of modern Chinese literature, held a highly ambivalent view of drama. On the one hand he remained fascinated throughout his life by the Mulian (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.) plays of Shaoxing Opera he had watched in his hometown as a child, but near the end of his life he was viscerally disgusted by the attempts to present the female impersonator Mei Lanfang (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.) abroad as the embodiment of Chinese culture. He supported the introduction of the modern spoken drama (huaju (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)) and the active borrowing from the west, but he also remained critical enough to spot the conspicuous weaknesses of many of the early experiments in this field. While he used most of his energy in writing short stories, prose poems and critical essays, he also spent considerable energy on the translation of foreign plays, both in the early twenties and shortly before his death. It is probably no coincidence that his own two attempts to write in the manner of a play date from roughly these same two periods in his life. He included his Guoke jil^iThe passer-by) in his collection of prose poems Yecao (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)(Wild grasses) of 1927, whereas his Qisi (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)(Resurrecting the Dead), the topic of this paper, is his last piece of creative writing and the final text in his Gushi xinbian (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)(Old Tales Retold).1

The Playwright Lu Xun

The action of "Resurrecting the Dead" takes place on a stretch of desolate land strewn with grave mounds, not far from the capital of the ancient state of Chu. Enter the famous philosopher Master Zhuang (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.), who is described in the following terms: "a dark and gaunt complexion, a few graying strands of beard, a Daoist cap, a linen gown." Master Zhuang has been invited by the king of Chu and has been on the road for many days. As he passes through the area he discovers a skull and decides to bring it back to life. When he calls on the Master of Fate, ghosts warn him of the consequences, as does the Master of Fate, who is described in the same terms as Master Zhuang. But the latter insists and recites a magical spell, made up from the four opening lines of the Thousand Character Text and the four opening lines of the One Hundred Surnames. …

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