Lu Xun

Literature of a Revolutionary Period

A talk given on April 8 at the Huangpu Military Academy 1

Written/Presented: April 8, 1927
Source: Chinese Literature Number 9, 1977 pages 3-9
Online Version: Lu Xun Reference Archive, September 2005
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Mike B.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2005). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The subject of my short talk today is "Literature of a Revolutionary Period". This college has invited me here several times, but I kept putting off coming. Why? Because I believed you invited me as I am the author of a few short stories, and you wanted to hear from me about literature. Actually I am not an author and have no special knowledge. The first subject I studied seriously was mining, and I could probably give you a better talk on coal-mining than on literature. Of course, my own liking for literature makes me read a good deal of it, but I have not learned anything from my reading which would be useful to you. And my experience in Peking in recent years has gradually undermined my faith in the old literary theories on which I was brought up. That was the time when students were shot and there was a strict censorship, when to my mind only the weakest, most useless people talked about literature. Those who are strong do not talk, they kill. The oppressed have only to say or write a few words to be killed; or, if lucky enough to escape, all they can do is shout, complain or protest, while those who are strong go on oppressing, ill-treating and killing them, and they are powerless to resist. What use is literature to people then?

It is the same in the animal kingdom. When a hawk catches a sparrow, the hawk is silent, the sparrow is the one to cry out. When a cat catches a mouse, the cat is silent, the mouse is the one to cry out. And the one that can only cry ends by being eaten by the one that is silent. An author if he is lucky may write a few things which win him a name during his lifetime or an empty reputation for some years — just as after the memorial service for someone who has died for the revolution, no mention is made of the revolutionary's actions but everybody can discuss the merits of the funeral couplets — this is a very safe business.

However, I suppose writers in this revolutionary place like to claim that literature plays a big part in revolution and can be used, for instance, to propagandize, encourage, spur on, speed up and accomplish revolution. But to my mind, writing of this kind lacks vigour, for few good works of literature have been written to order; instead, they flow naturally from the heart with no regard for the possible consequences. To write on some set subject is like writing a paku essay,2 which is worthless as literature and quite incapable of moving the reader.

For revolution we need revolutionaries, but revolutionary literature can wait, for only when revolutionaries start writing can there be revolutionary literature. So to my mind it is revolution which plays a big part in literature. The literature of a revolutionary period is different from that of ordinary times for, in a revolution, literature changes too. But only great revolutions can effect this change, not small ones which do not count as revolutions.

Everyone here is used to hearing about "revolution", but if you use this word in Kiangsu or Chekiang you will terrify people and endanger yourself. Actually revolution is nothing strange, and we owe all social reforms to it. Mankind could only progress, evolve from protozoa to men, from barbarism to civilization, because of ceaseless revolutions. Biologists tell us: "Men are not very different from monkeys. Apes and men are cousins." How is it then that men have become men while monkeys remain monkeys? It is because monkeys will not change their ways — they like to walk on all fours. Quite likely some monkey once stood up and tried to walk on two legs, but many others protested, "Our ancestors have always crawled. You're not to stand up!" Then they bit him to death. They refused not only to stand but also to talk, being conservative. Men, however, are different. They eventually stood up and talked, and so they won out. But the process is still going on. So revolution is nothing strange, and all races not yet moribund are trying to revolt every day, though most of their revolutions are merely small ones.

What influence do great revolutions have on literature? We may divide this into three different periods:

(1) Before a great revolution, nearly all literature expresses dissatisfaction and distress over social conditions, voicing suffering and indignation. There are many works of this kind in the world. But these expressions of suffering and indignation have no influence on the revolution, for mere complaints are powerless. Those who oppress you will ignore them. The mouse may squeak and even produce fine literature, yet the cat will gobble it up without any consideration. So a nation with only a literature of complaint is hopeless, because it stops short at that. Just as in a lawsuit, when the defeated party starts distributing accounts of his grievances his opponent knows that he cannot afford to go on and the case is as good as wound up, so the literature of complaints, like proclaiming one's grievances, gives the oppressors a sense of security. Some nations stop complaining when it proves useless and become silent nations, growing more and more decadent. Witness Egypt, Arabia, Persia and India all of which have no voice. But nations with inner strength which dare rebel when complaints prove useless wake up to the facts and their lamentations change into roars of anger. When such literature appears it heralds revolt, and because people are enraged the works written just before the outbreak of revolution often voice their fury their determination to resist, to take vengeance. Literature of this kind heralded the October Revolution. But there are exceptions too, as in the case of Poland where although there had long been the literature of vengeance3 the country owed its recovery to the Great War in Europe.

(2) During a great revolution, literature disappears and there is silence for, swept up in the tide of revolution, all turn from shouting to action and are so busy making revolution that there is no time to talk of literature. Again, that is a period of poverty when men are so hard put to it to find bread that they are in no mood to talk of literature. And conservatives, staggered by the high tide of revolution, are too enraged and stunned to sing what passes with them for "literature". Some say, "Literature is born of poverty and suffering", but this is a fallacy. Poor men do not write. Whenever I was short of money in Peking, I made the rounds to borrow some and wrote not a single word. Only when our salary was paid did I sit down to write. In busy times there is no literature either. The man with a heavy load and the rickshaw man with a rickshaw both have to put them down before they can write. Great revolutions are very busy and very impoverished times, when one group is contending with another, and the first essential is to change the existing social system. No one has the time or inclination to write. So during a great revolution the world of letters is bound to lapse into a temporary silence.

(3) When the revolution has triumphed, there is less social tension and men are better off, then literature is written again. There are two types of literature in this period. One extols the revolution and sings its praise, because progressive writers are impressed by the changes and advances in society, the destruction of the old and the construction of the new. Rejoicing in the downfall of old institutions, they sing the praises of the new construction. The second type of writing to appear after a revolution — the dirge — laments the destruction of the old. Some consider this "counter-revolutionary literature", but I see no need to pass such a harsh sentence on it. Though a revolution has taken place, there are many of the old school in society who cannot change overnight into new people. Since their minds are full of old ideas, when their surroundings gradually change, affecting their whole mode of life, they think back to the good old days and hanker after the old society. Because they keep harking back, they express most old-fashioned, outmoded sentiments, and create this literature. All works of this kind are mournful, expressing the writers' discomfort. The evident success of the new construction and the ruin of the old institutions make them chant dirges. But this longing for the past and this chanting of dirges means that the revolution has been carried out. Without a revolution, the old people would still be in power and would not chant dirges.

Only China today has neither type of literature — either dirges for the old or praise for the new; for the Chinese revolution is not yet accomplished. This is still the transitional period, a busy time for revolutionaries. There is still a good deal of the old literature left, though, practically everything in the papers being written in the old style. I think this means that the Chinese revolution has brought about very few changes in our society, scarcely affecting the conservatives at all, and therefore the old school can still hold aloof. The fact that all — or nearly all the writing in the Canton papers is old proves that society here is equally untouched by the revolution; hence there are no paeans for the new, no dirges for the old, and the province of Kwangtung remains as it was ten years ago. Not only so, there are no complaints or protests either. We see trade unions taking part in demonstrations, but with government sanction not revolting against oppression. This is merely revolution by government order. Because China has not changed, we have no songs of mournful yearning for the past and no new marching songs. In Soviet Russia, however, they have both types. Their old writers who have fled abroad write mostly dirges for the dead, while their new literature strives to make headway. Though no great works have yet appeared, there is already a good deal of new writing and they have passed from the period of raging to that of paeans. Praising 6 7 construction follows upon the completion of the revolution, but we cannot yet predict what will come later. I suppose it will be a people's literature, for as a result of the revolution the world belongs to the people.

In China, of course, we have no people's literature, nor does it exist yet anywhere in the world. Neatly all literature, songs and poems are for the upper-class, who read them on full stomachs, reclining on their couches. A talented scholar leaves home and meets a beautiful girl, and the two of them fall in love; some untalented fellow makes trouble and they go through various trials, but finally all ends well. Reading like this is thoroughly delightful. Or the books may deal with interesting, happy upper-class people, or ridiculous lower-class people. A few years ago New Youth published some stories about the lives of convicts in a cold land, and professors did not like them they do not like to read about such low characters. A poem about rickshaw-boys is low-class poetry, a play about law-breakers is a low-class play. In their operas you find only characters like talented scholars and beauties. A talented scholar wins first place in the court examination and a beautiful girl is made a lady of the first rank; so the scholar and the lady are happy, the professors who read this are happy too, and low-class people, I suppose, have to be happy with them.

Some writers today use the common people — workers and peasants — as material for their novels and poems, and this has also been called people's literature when actually it is nothing of the sort, for the people have not yet opened theft mouths. These works voice the sentiments of onlookers, who put words in the people's mouths. Though some of our present men of letters are poor, they are all better off than workers and peasants, otherwise they would not have had the money to study and would not be able to write. Their works may seem to come from the people, but in fact they do not: they are not real stories of the people. Now some writers have started recording folk-songs in the belief that here we have the authentic voice of the people, for these are sung by the common folk. However, old books have had a very great indirect influence on our common folk, who feel boundless admiration for those country gentlemen with three thousand mu of land, and often adopt these gentlemen's views as their own. Gentlemen frequently chant poems with five or seven characters to a line, so this is the common metre for folk-songs too. This is as regards their form, and as their content is very decadent too they cannot be called true people's literature. Present-day Chinese poetry and fiction are not really up to the standard of other countries. I suppose we have to call them literature, but we cannot talk of literature of a revolutionary period, still less of people's literature. All our writers today are literati, and our workers and peasants go on thinking the same way as the literati until they are liberated Only when they achieve true liberation will there be a true people's literature. This is why it is wrong to say, "We already have a people's literature."

You gentlemen are actual fighters, fighters for the revolution, I think you had better not admire literature just yet. Studying literature will not help in the war — at most you may write a battle son which, if well written, may make pleasant reading when you rest after fighting. To put it more poetically, it is like planting a willow: when the willow grows and gives shade, peasants knocking off work at noon can eat and rest beneath it. The present situation in China is such that only the actual revolutionary war counts. A poem could not have frightened away Sun Chuanfang,4 but a cannon-shell scared him away. I know some people think literature has a great influence on revolution, but personally I doubt this, literature is after all a product of leisure which does, it is true, reflect a nation's culture.

Men are seldom satisfied with their own occupation. I have never been able to do anything but write a few essays, and I am tired of that; yet you who carry rifles want to hear about literature. I myself would naturally rather hear the roar of guns, for it seems to me that the roar of guns is much sweeter to listen to than literature. This is all I have to say. Thank you for hearing me out.

1. The Huangpu Military Academy was founded after Sun Yat-sen reorganized the Kuomintang with the help of the Chinese Communist Party in 1924. To start with it was jointly run by both parties and trained many officers for the Northern Expeditionary Army. After Chiang Kai-shek's coup on April 12, 1927, the academy was taken over by the Kuomintang.

2. A form of essay set in the imperial examinations of the Ming (1368-1644) and Ching (1644-1911) Dynasties. These essays, divided into eight sections, were stereotyped and devoid of real content.

3. Referring to the works of such early 19th-century Polish poets as Mickiewicz and Slowacki.

4. Sun Chuan-fang (1884-1935), a warlord active in Kiangsu and Chckiang. In 1926, he was defeated by the Northern Expeditionary Army in Kiangsi.

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