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“Living” environment in literature not reflecting author’s real living condition

By Wang Yuchun | 2013-08-01 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
  Lu Xun
As one of the major Chinese writers of the 20th century and a leading figure of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun and his works made a significant contribution to baihua (written vernacular Chinese) as well as classical Chinese literature. In Lu’s famous novel The True Story of Ah Q, Lu described the poor and frustrating life of Ah Q in a whole chapter; but recently, the real “luxury” life of the author Lu Xun himself came into the public eyes and draws researchers’ interest.
The paradox from the economic perspective
For the past few years, books such as Intellectuals’ Economic Life, Intellectuals and Renminbi Era, How to make a living in Lu Xun’s Age observed and analyzed the living conditions for modern intellectuals from the economic perspective, which rose readers’ intensive attentions especially their interests in Lu Xun’s real living conditions. These works overturned the public’s stereotype about lower living standards of Lu Xun, who actually benefited thousands of money from his yearly copyright tax: Lu Xun enjoyed shopping in Liu Li Chang Street (Glass Street in Beijing) searching for antiques, calligraphies and paintings; Lu were fond of food and feasted on delicious restaurants for himself and others; Lu were really generous by giving his mother presents and financing his relatives and old friends; he had female housekeepers and cart drivers when he lived in his siheyuan (refer to Chinese quadrangles or courtyard house in Beijing) in his early days; for his later period, he lived in a three storied house of the Mainland New Village in Shanghai and hired two female servants for his partner Xu Guangping and younger son Zhou Haiying; old Lu and his family often went to cinema by taxi and went for a drive outside and attended banquets. Lu’s luxury life style was different from readers’ stereotype about his tough and strong mind indicating in his collections like Wandering (Pang Huang in 1925) and some poems.
Readers’ traditional perceptions and imaginations about Lu’s living are mostly aroused from Lu’s literal narratives conveying poor living conditions in his works. Lu Xun’s works are full of his sympathy for unfortunate people who had the hard livelihood: in his short story Medicine (Yao in 1919) he described a patched sheet implying the fact that the family of Hua Laoshuan were short of money; in another famous short story called Kong Yiji (in 1919), he vividly pictured a poor and pedantic figure Kong Yiji who usually wears a long gown and stands to have a drink, and inSadness he told a love tragedy under the social economic pressures. Through vivid on-the-spot report style works such as prefaces, postscripts, memorial proses and prose poems, Lu described poor and frustrated life of modern intellectuals. Lu’s interpretation of people’s suffering and distressed mental problems were full of his works. For instance, in the author’s preface of his collection Call to Arms (in 1922) Lu represented a life hardship from a fairly well-off family to a poor and exhausted life. In Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk (Zhao Hua Xi Shi in 1932 a collection of essays about his youth) presented Lu’s memories of his miserable childhood. Furthermore, Wild Grass (Ye Cao in 1927) reflects cold and gloomy lives of people. 
Therefore, the writers’ self-interpretations and others’ observations from the economic perspective became a paradox. Why this paradox exists and how we understand the living environment of intellectuals in May Fourth Movement represented by Lu Xun?  
Avoiding one-sided views
For quite a long time, realism was regarded as an important writing formula of creation for new literature promoted by May Fourth Movement in 1919. Readers were usually used to treat literary works as authors’ narrative autobiographies and a mirror of the real social life. Based on one-sided views, readers were falling into a wrong track interpreting authors’ works. But in fact, Lu’s narratives about poor living conditions and miserable lives were on the basis of his multiple imaginations and constructions filling with his ambitions and love for this national state China. As a result, if readers mixed and mingled Lu’s narratives of poor people in a hard livelihood with Lu’s real daily life, their analysis or conclusions and book reviews were far away from true historic facts at that time.
Another reason for the formation of paradox is originated from an over-representation of subjective attitudes and intentions during works creations or research. From the perspective of literary creations under the grand construction of enlightenment literature ideas, the description of people’s hardship is a self-realization and initiative selection of many May Fourth Movement writers like Lu Xun. Book scenes of criticizing cruel capitalists and recreating people’s bitter lives were a common occurrence during that time. For the same reason, the potential intention of researchers probing into Lu Xun’s living conditions from the economic perspective is demonstrated in two different aspects. On the one hand, it tends to challenge previous literary narratives of people’s difficult living situations. On the other hand, it reveals to pay a close attention on living conditions of modern Chinese intellectuals and a potential comparison of modern Chinese intellectuals with those during May Fourth Movement. Under such subjective intentions, it is easily to be understood that how Lu Xun’s superior living conditions stand out in the public and this are definitely made widely known. This so-called extravagant life of Lu is exaggerated via the transmission of mass media. Not a few reprints and comments for propaganda are behaved as a medium of exaggerating facts: “Lu Xun’s general income was 408 ten thousands Yuan all his life”, or “Lu Xun’s annual salary was equivalent to approximately 34 ten thousands Yuan RMB in 2009 at the age of 30”. No matter this calculation or converting into contemporary money values is accurate at mathematical point of view, the emphasis on the details of specific numbers of Lu Xun’s income will, undoubtedly, lead to a one-sided understanding of living conditions of Lu Xun as well as all intellectuals during May Fourth Movement.
The investigation of writers’ living is actually related to politics, economy, culture and life in every regard for one period, which requires a comprehensive analysis. The traditional research avoiding mentioning writers’ economic life leads to the neglection of their problems of living issues. To be compared, if there are more emphasis on economic conditions it will cause biases on interpretations of writers’ works in some degrees. For example, it is indicated in the book Intellectuals’ Economic Life that the reason why colleagues of the magazine La Jeunesse or New Youth (an influential magazine initiating the New Culture Movement and May Fourth Move in the 1910s and 1920s) were not asking for pays is that they all had a stable income as middle classes. Thus, the book concludes that the release of New Youth was to initiate New Culture Movement and to promote science and democracy instead of making profits. In reality, as one great intellectual representative of the May Fourth Movement, Chen Duxiu (a leading figure in the anti-imperial Xinhai Revolution and the May Fourth Movement for Science and Democracy) founded Anhui Suhua Bao (a newspaper promoting revolutionary ideas using vernacular Chinese) in 1904 and took all responsibilities of editing, layout design, proofreading and mailing newspapers all by himself. He never complained about the harsh living conditions in which he could only have some porridge for three meals and a sheet covered with bugs. However, Chen still persisted in his ideal faith that if he continues to publish magazines or newspapers for ten years it would change people’s thoughts nationwide. Both Chen Duxiu’s thought about “the most notable and graceful life” is “to go to jail out of office and then go to office out of jail” and Lu Xun’s comments on “true intellectuals should always “stand with the people who live in the bottom of the society and be critics forever” cannot be simply interpreted from the simple economic perspective. It is obvious that analyzing Lu Xun without considerations about his economic life is incomplete; on the other hand, it is a misunderstanding of Lu Xun when overemphasizing his economic life but ignoring the investigation of his spiritual world.
It is an improvement that investigating modern literature from the economic perspective. However, it is more important for researchers to focus on the spiritual world and value orientations of intellectuals during the May Fourth Movement.
Writer Wang Yuchun from Faculty of Humanities Dalian University of Technology.
Translated by Zhang Mengying