> Features > Culture

How Lu Xun inspired Kenzaburō Ōe

XU JINLONG | 2020-09-09
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Lu Xun on his 50th birthday in Shanghai, September 1930 Photo: FILE


Western influences upon Kenzaburō Ōe’s works have been widely discussed in academia, influences that include Francois Rabelais and his masterpiece The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Dante Alighieri and his monumental epic poem Divine Comedy, William Blake and his The Four Zoas and his Milton and Jean-Paul Sartre with his The Roads to Freedom. However, academics have long ignored a Chinese writer whose works strongly influenced Ōe. This writer is Lu Xun. 
 
In his later years, Ōe recalled that when his mother was a young woman, she was quite fond of modern Chinese literature. In the spring of 1934, Ōe’s mother and father Yoshitarō Ōe, who was deeply interested in ancient Chinese culture, came to Peking University from Shanghai to listen to a speech in English by Hu Shi (1891–1962), an influential Chinese scholar. This young couple lived in a small hotel in Beijing. In a conversation with the hotel owner’s husband about “Kong Yiji,” a short story by Lu Xun, the couple were surprised by a few details in the story—particularly how it describes the four different ways of writing the character 茴 (hui), which was derived from the term 茴香豆 (huixiangdou, or fennel flavored beans). The day before Yoshitarō Ōe passed away, he had a chat with his son. He talked about a great Chinese writer named Lu Xun and wrote down the character 茴 in four different ways in the ashes left in a brazier. 
 
In an anecdote narrated by Kenzaburō Ōe himself, when staying in Shanghai, his parents bought the first issue of the journal Yiwen (Translated Literature) published on Sept. 16, 1934. This was a Chinese literary journal dedicated to the translation of and commentary on foreign literature. Lu Xun and other influential writers worked at the journal as editors and translators. The journal became one of his mother’s favorite books, and now is a treasure in Kenzaburō Ōe’s possession.
 
Soon after the couple returned to Japan, Kenzaburō Ōe was born. However, Ōe’s mother was sick for a long time after she gave birth to her son. During her time in the hospital, she received a gift from her friend—a Lu Xun’s Selected Works published by Iwanami Shoten. Twelve years later, after Ōe graduated from primary school and was ready to enter middle school, his mother gave him the book as a gift, which had been hidden by his mother because it was regarded as a “book from the enemy’s country” during wartime. Since then, Lu Xun’s works have accompanied Ōe. 
 
Everyone who is familiar with Chinese modern literature may feel the presence of Lu Xun when reading Ōe’s works. According to Ōe, the novels and short stories by Lu Xun he has read “include ‘Kong Yiji,’ ‘Medicine,’ ‘A Madman’s Diary,’ ‘An Incident,’ ‘My Old Home,’ ‘The Story of Hair,’ ‘The True Story of Ah Q,’ ‘White Light,’ ‘A Comedy of Ducks’ and ‘Village Opera’…At that time, ‘Kong Yiji’ was my favorite story, because I share similar personality traits with its narrator, a waiter in the fictional Xianheng Restaurant. I was also fond of the local customs and the boys depicted in ‘Village Opera.’ The depiction of how those boys, on their way rowing back home after watching a village opera, stop the boat by the shore, steal some Arhat beans and enjoy the snack on the boat in the middle of the river, is full of childlike innocence. I was a teenager when reading this story, almost the same age as those boys, so I immediately fell in love with this depiction. Of course, the poor, failed scholar in ‘White Light’ also left an indelible impression on me.” 
 
Influenced by some elements from Lu Xun’s works that were homogeneous with existentialism when studying at Tokyo University, Ōe spontaneously absorbed the philosophy of existentialism after studying Jean-Paul Sartre. 
 
When talking about one of his first published stories in January 2009, Ōe said, “I made my debut as a writer during my days at Tokyo University, as a 23-year-old student when I published my short story titled ‘The Strange Work’ in the University of Tokyo Newspaper. In this story, I portrayed myself as a man in a state of grief—coming to Tokyo to learn French, still unable to find a stable job. I had been reading Lu Xun’s short stories recommended by my mother for a very long time. Influenced by his works, I imagined the inner world of the man in ‘The Strange Work’—a man who has been studying hard in order to pass the national civil service examination to get a good job; after repeated failures, the man is driven to despair; he turns his disappointment into a search for mythical buried treasure. He begins digging where he sees something shining in his house, then out of the city, and finally the distant mountains. Some may have deduced my influence—this is derived from a passage of Lu Xun’s ‘White Light.’” 
 
To his surprise, when Ōe returned to Shikoku to show the published story to his mother, his mother was very disappointed. “I hoped you could have become a novelist like Lu Xun and written a story with an end as beautiful as Lu Xun’s ‘My Old Home.’ Why is there no hope in your work?” “Lu Xun’s novels are just like letters from my closest friend. I read them every night. If you have read his Wild Grass (a collection of prose poems by Lu Xun), you should have known a story titled ‘Hope’ from that book,” said Ōe’s mother. On his way back to Tokyo, Ōe started to read the book given by his mother, which contained Wild Grass
 
Although Ōe’s mother introduced Lu Xun’s works to him, what made Lu Xun’s works so attractive to Ōe, a student majoring in French literature and obsessed with Jean-Paul Sartre, might have been the early existentialist thought found within this Chinese writer’s works. In a letter to Xu Guangping, his lover, Lu Xun confessed that sometimes he felt that “only darkness and nothingness is ‘substantial,’” but he went on to express his determination to fight against the despair. It is said that Lu Xun cultivated an ambiguous standpoint towards Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, a mixture of gloom and sadness, a standpoint similar to Sartre’s famous quotation “Hell is other people.” This may be the reason why Ōe compared Lu Xun with Sartre and said, “I’m full of confidence in Asian literature.” 
 
The article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Xu Jinlong is a research fellow from the Institute of Foreign Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
 
edited by REN GUANHONG