Lu Xun's Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence: Books

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Lu Xun's Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence. By Gloria Davies Harvard University Press. 448pp, Pounds 24.95. ISBN 9780674072640 and 73944 (e- book). Published 25 April 2013

In the period covered by this work, roughly 1927 to 1936, the word "revolution" was used in China by both Nationalists and Communists with great frequency: as proper nouns (the former's National Revolutionary Army), as organisational structures (the latter's Leninist revolutionary vanguard) and in many slogans. Cultural movements were equally fond of the word. In the 1910s, the new elite repudiated the classical tradition and called for a literary revolution. Later, leftist writers reversed the two words and called for revolutionary literature.

Among these competing uses of "revolution", its appearance in the title of Gloria Davies' book is perhaps best understood as parallel to a phrase such as "my war", calling up a picture of one individual's experience in large, complex events. This seems to be the author's intent: following Davies, we watch the writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) choose his words carefully to express ideas that were bound to be seized on, for one reason or another, by one group or another.

It was not surprising that his words were so closely watched. His fiction, supplemented by essays, had been the first to give to readers in a transitional China an understanding of themselves. They were none the less welcome for their bracing and critical nature, and they brought him a following that made him the pre-eminent literary figure in a pioneering generation.

In the final decade of Lu Xun's life, which is the subject of this book, accelerating extremism made voicing any political stance complicated: tricky for him to articulate and for his readers to follow - and for any scholar to treat. Examining these writings is an intellectual challenge worthy of admiration, and its difficulty is amplified by the fact that in this period Lu Xun's writings consisted only of essays: he had ceased to write the fiction central to his reputation. Perhaps for this reason, until now there has been no book-length study in English of the essays or - amounting to nearly the same thing - of "the later Lu Xun". …

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