Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Five top books on modern China

Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China and Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford, is the author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction.

One of five top books on modern China he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
Call to Arms
by Lu Xun

Let’s go back to the time when the Republic of China was still young, and around the time when China’s Communist Party was founded in 1921. Your first book choice is Call to Arms. It’s the first collection of stories by one of modern China’s most major and influential writers, Lu Xun. Why should everyone know the name of Lu Xun and how does Call to Arms sum up the mood of its time?

Lu Xun should be known to a wide range of readers overseas for two reasons. One – in a sense the more boring reason – is that he is politically very important. He’s always been brought up by the Communist Party as being the single most important writer of the 20th century in China. That’s partly because his message is about how China needed to radically reject its past associated with the Confucian system of ethics that underpinned the old empires, and instead embrace something more new and radical. You can see how that appealed to people involved in the Communist project.

But the real reason why people need to appreciate Lu Xun is that he was a very interesting and subtle writer. Interestingly, although the Communist party were very keen to get him on board, he never actually joined the party. I think this is because one element that runs through his writing which is absolutely core to his being is a very black, nuanced, sardonic sense of humour. Speaking of Communist literature, he once said – probably with a smile on his face – that the Communist idea of a perfect poem went as follows: “O steamwhistle! O Lenin!”

This particular collection consists of a series of short stories, most of which have very subtly – not in a way that shoves the message in your face – an underlying current of ideas about modern China. One of the most famous is “The Diary of a Madman”, homage in part to Gogol’s original in the 19th century, and based on the same idea that a public official who has suddenly gone crazy but actually sees things much more clearly than his supposedly sane counterparts, colleagues and family.

In this case, what he suddenly sees, in the light of the moon while he’s in his mad state, is that the whole of Chinese culture has consisted of cannibalism. He looks between the lines of the great Confucian classics of literary tradition, and sees that the secret message is “go and eat people”. This is clearly a metaphor for Confucian thinking – for the old-fashioned way in which Chinese society had been bound up in expectations of the past, which had almost become encrusted on society and from which they needed to break free.

These short stories were a real indictment of Chinese society as a whole. I should add though – and Lu Xun himself saw the irony – that when Call to Arms was first published, I think the first edition sold a grand total of 40 copies, so it didn’t exactly turn China upside-down on publication. Although there are many very fine English translations, the latest one from Penguin classics translated by Julia Lovell has a very colloquial, lively feel in its translation.
Read about the other books Mitter tagged at The Browser.

The Page 69 Test: Rana Mitter's Modern China: A Very Short Introduction.

--Marshal Zeringue