Lu Xun and Japan

Society Culture

Lu Xun (penname of Zhou Shuren, 1881–1936), the man who would become the most influential Chinese writer of the modern age, boarded the Ta Chang Maru in Nanjing on March 24, 1902, and set sail via Shanghai for Japan. He arrived in Yokohama on April 4, and began his life as a student at the Kōbun Gakuin, an academy for Chinese students run by Kanō Jigorō, the famous founder of modern jūdō. This year marks 110 years since Lu Xun arrived in Japan. Whether there are plans to commemorate the anniversary in China or Japan, I do not know. But there can be no doubt that the time Lu Xun spent as a student in Japan was vital—not only for his personal development as a writer, but also in the wider context of the history of modern Chinese culture and thought.

Japan as Conduit to the West

Lu Xun’s arrival in Japan was more than an individual decision. It took place in the context of Sino-Japanese relations at the turn of the century, and reflected the wider cultural background of the time. Under pressure from the Western powers and Japan, and stung by a long succession of defeats and humiliations, the Qing government was determined to reform China’s political and social systems. As part of its efforts, the government actively encouraged young people to study overseas. In particular, there was a strong move to send students to study in the “East”—in other words, Japan.

In his book Quan xue pian (An Exhortation to Study, 1898), the Qing official Zhang Zhidong (1837–1909), a leading member of the reformist Self-Strengthening Movement, wrote: “Western learning contains its difficulties, but the most important parts have already been synthesized and translated by people in Japan. Since conditions in China and Japan are similar and the manners of the two countries close, it should be a straightforward matter for us to copy their example.” Zhang’s belief that Western learning should be subordinate to Eastern learning became an article of faith for most Chinese students in Japan.

Lu Xun would not normally have had much sympathy for Qing officials like Zhang Zhidong. But a look at his library makes it clear that his studies followed a path remarkably similar to that suggested by Zhang. According to a volume published by the Lu Xun Museum in Beijing in 1995, around a quarter of the nearly 4,000 volumes found in Lu Xun’s library after his death were Japanese. For Lu Xun, Japanese books were a vital intellectual resource.

Lu Xun owned relatively few books on Japanese literature per se—just 136. Surpassing this by far was the number of books on the philosophy, culture, and literature of Europe and Russia (and later the Soviet Union). It would be no exaggeration to say that for Lu Xun, Japan served as a pathway or conduit to Western learning.

A Diverse Intellectual Environment

But Japan was never just a transparent corridor linking China to the West. The European and Soviet thought and culture that Lu Xun absorbed from Japanese translations was heavily influenced by the intellectual climate of Japan at the time. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lu Xun turned his interest to postrevolutionary Russia and started to acquire a substantial collection of Soviet literary theory, most of it in Japanese translation. (He never learned to read Russian.)

In these years, Lu Xun was hard at work on Chinese translations of literary theory by writers such as Georgi Plekhanov (1856–1918), Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), and Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875–1933), all of whom fell from grace under the Stalin regime. Lu Xun had a high regard for Trotsky as “a critic with a deep understanding of literature,” and held his Literature and Revolution in particularly high esteem. Lu Xun continued to introduce Trotsky’s writings to readers in China, and frequently alluded to him in his own writings, even after Trotsky was purged from the party and expelled from the Soviet Union.

Interestingly, during this period Lu Xun also translated the literary criticism of many Japanese writers into Chinese, particularly writers associated with the Shirakaba (White Birch) movement, such as Mushanokōji Saneatsu (1885–1976) and Arishima Takeo (1878–1923). In his book Rojin to Torotsukī (Lu Xun and Trotsky, Heibonsha, 2011), Nagahori Yūzō notes that Lu Xun’s work on translations of Arishima overlapped with his period of absorption in Trotsky’s literary theory. Nagahori believes this was not a coincidence. According to Nagahori, the diverse intellectual environment that Lu Xun encountered in Japan was an essential part of his development as a writer, exposing him to a wide range of thinkers and helping him to build his own distinctive theory of literature.

(Originally written in Japanese on April 18, 2012.)

Japan China Lu Xun Zhang Zhidong Trotsky Tsinghua University Zhongchen Wang