[EXCLUSIVE] Eileen J. Cheng: “Lu Xun and Radical Art” and “Tombstone Inscriptions” 墓碣文

TH: We are pleased to present an exclusive essay by Eileen J. Cheng entitled “Lu Xun and Radical Art” and her English translation of Lu Xun’s “Tombstone Inscriptions” 墓碣文, included in Wild Grass and Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk. “Tombstone Inscriptions” is printed here with the permission from Harvard University Press.

Lu Xun and Radical Art

by Eileen J. Cheng

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”
—Bertolt Brecht

To understand modern China, you have to read Lu Xun 鲁迅 (1881-1936). The “father of modern Chinese literature” is detached, clinical, and China-obsessed, as critical of his society and people as he was of himself. An adjective commonly used to describe Lu Xun and his writings is leng 冷—cold. But where is the human behind the titan? What about his passions? Is there a way to go beyond the platitudes we recycle about Lu Xun and see his works afresh?

The prevailing representations of Lu Xun as the quintessential Chinese writer present a limited view of an intellectual who was deeply engaged with the world from the start. His profound, dense, and stylistically brilliant literary experiments were defined by his engagement with the global circulation of ideas and texts. A passionate promoter of the arts, his engagement with art was all-encompassing and went far beyond the short stories for which he is best known. He was a pioneer in literary forms. Other than short stories, he wrote classical poetry, imaginative short pieces, prose poems, an experimental memoir, and incisive journalistic essays that chronicled the society of his times. A scholar of Chinese literature, he wrote a textbook and edited anthologies of classical Chinese fiction. A calligrapher and designer, he paid close attention to cover art, illustrating some of his own books and those of others.

Lu Xun was also a consumer, collector, and promoter of world art. In addition to ancient Chinese books and stone and bronze rubbings, he collected and exhibited woodcut art, most of it Eastern European. He sponsored woodcutting workshops for local artists, revitalising a native art form in the process. His initial aspiration was not to be a creative writer, but a translator. He introduced foreign literature—particularly from “oppressed nations”—and a significant portion of his vast collection of books included Buddhist texts and world literature. Indeed, his translations exceed his own voluminous literary output. His first, Jules Verne’s De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865) was published in 1903, translated from the Japanese translation of the English version. On his deathbed, he was translating Nikolai Gogol’s Mjórtvyje dúshi (Dead Souls, 1842), unfinished, from the German and Japanese renderings.

For Lu Xun, translation was a painful process. He describes his role as a translator through his revision of the myth of Prometheus: he stole the foreign fire to cook his own flesh so that this flesh might be chewed on by his readers. But the labour of the creative act —as translator, extending to Lu Xun’s work as writer and artist—is not simply an exercise in sadomasochism. This self-incineration recalls another myth, that of a phoenix emerging from the flames. Art, engaged with purpose, transforms and revitalises the self, potentially awakening others in the process. Immersing himself in art made Lu Xun’s life more bearable, infusing it with a sense of beauty, wonder, and meaning. Yet the all-consuming labour of that engagement—widely, deeply, and critically—along with the furious pace of his work, likely hastened his death. What kept Lu Xun’s passion alive was his faith in the regenerative power of art—to shake us to the core, to awaken us to our entrapment and role in perpetuating a cruel and unjust world; yet at the same time, art allows us to see beyond this world, to imagine different ways of seeing and being that allows for a world that could be otherwise.

English readers familiar with Lu Xun know him primarily from his short stories and as a writer of “social realism”. Wild Grass 野草(1927)—brilliant short pieces whose subjects include fauna, flora, a shadow that wants to leave its master, telepathic corpses, and a flame encased in ice—breaks that mould. Read alongside his stories, the volume—along with his experimental memoir Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk 朝花夕拾(1928) and Old Tales Retold 故事新编(1936)—showcase his versatility and virtuosity as an artist. Lu Xun restlessly experimented with different forms and linguistic registers. In Wild Grass in particular, he put Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist ideas into conversation with those of a diverse array foreign writers—Charles Baudelaire, Ivan Turgenev, Friedrich Nietzsche, Natsume Sōseki, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, the Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi, the Dutch fairy-tale writer Frederik Van Eeden, to name a few—all of whose works he translated.  The result is a brilliant and bizarre collection of what might be considered a true specimen of world art, a philosophical meditation on life, death, and what it means to be human.

Fig. 1

Lu Xun notes wryly that he was unfit to be a guide or mentor, as he was certain about only one destination in life: the grave. [Fig. 1] Lu Xun’s obsession with death—copying tombstone inscriptions, collecting tombstone rubbings, and the prominence of death as a theme in his writings—is often associated with his pessimism and morbid tastes. Yet, the preoccupation with death also reflects his full embracing of life and its limits, leading him to examine the meaning of existence itself and the choices he would make on the journey, prompting readers to do the same.

“Tombstone Inscriptions” (1925), excerpted from Wild Grass (see below), reflects just such meditations. Informed by Buddhist ideas, the brilliant short piece deals with death, the ephemeral nature of all forms, and the necessity yet impossibility of self-knowledge. It displays Lu Xun’s macabre humour—reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, whose works he admired and translated. Space and time collapse as multiple I’s—the I-in-the-present, the I-in-the-dream, and the I-in-the-future, (the sentient corpse in the dream)—converge. Indeed, in “Tombstone Inscriptions,” readers, like the dreaming narrator of the piece, are asked to consider this existential conundrum: Confronted with the inevitability of death, what life would you choose to live? What kind of marks do you want to leave on this world?

Fig. 1: An illustration by Lu Xun—which resembles a tombstone with his name and the character “Grave/s” on it—from his essay collection 墳Graves (1929). The dates 1907-1925 on the illustration indicate the dates that the essays within the collection were written.

Tombstone Inscriptions

by Lu Xun, translated from the Chinese into English by Eileen J. Cheng

I dreamed of myself facing a tombstone, reading the inscriptions carved on it.

The tombstone appears to be made of sandstone, crumbling at numerous spots and overgrown with moss. Only a few phrases remain:

. . .in a frenzy of boisterous singing catch a chill, in the skies see an abyss.

In all eyes see a void, in no hope find redemption. . .

. . .a wandering spirit transforms into a serpent, mouth with venomous fangs.

Bites not others, but bites itself, dies in the end. . .

. . .leave!

I go around behind the tombstone—only then do I see a lone grave, bereft of vegetation and fallen into disrepair. Through a big crack, I glimpse a corpse, chest and abdomen completely caved in, no heart nor liver within. Yet the face shows no trace of joy or sorrow but is hazy, as if shrouded in smoke. In my apprehension, I turn around, but not before seeing the remaining phrases on the backside of the tombstone—

. . .gouge out my heart and eat it, wanting to know its true taste.

The pain is so searing, how could I know its true taste?

. . .as the pain subsides, slowly consume it. But the heart now old and stale, how could I know its true taste? . . .

. . .answer me, or else leave! . . . 

I’m about to leave. But the corpse sits up in the grave. Its lips don’t move, but say—

“When I turn to dust, you’ll see my smile!”

I flee, dare not look back, terrified to see him in pursuit.

Lu Xun was known to be fond of owls and used them as a symbol for himself.


Eileen J. Cheng is professor of Asian Languages and Literatures at Pomona College. Her most recent publication is a volume of translations and introductions to Lu Xun’s Wild Grass and Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk (Harvard University Press, 2022). Her other works include a co-edited volume of Lu Xun’s essays Jottings Under Lamplight (Harvard University Press, 2017) and a monograph Literary Remains: Death, Trauma, and Lu Xun’s Refusal to Mourn (University of Hawai’i Press, 2013).

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