Lu Xun’s two published collections of short stories, Cheering From the Sidelines, (1922) and Wondering Where to Turn (1925) reveal him as one of the supreme masters of the short story to rank alongside Chekhov and Maupassant, and the greatest writer of modern China, at once that country’s Dickens and Joyce.
Dickens because, like the great Victorian, Lu Xun creates characters who enter the folklore and become symbolic, mythological, and yet remain rooted in the contemporary. You can see Lu Xun’s characters all around you every day, but it took Lu Xun’s descriptions to make you notice they are there. Who can forget Ah Q once you have read his story, and not see him in all the louts, layabouts and betel nut chewers who hang around at taxi ranks and MRT station entrances of the poorer neighbourhoods? Like Dickens, Lu Xun is the master of realism and atmosphere, with Dickens’s same ability to delineate and capture character in one swift fleeting gesture. Like Dickens too, Lu Xun is motivated by a deep compassion for the suffering of the poor and disenfranchised and by the desire to achieve some kind of social change through his writing.
Joyce because, at the same time as being China’s greatest realist writer, Lu Xun is also its greatest innovator in linguistic and formal terms, its greatest Modernist. Lu Xun was the first writer to write serious literature in the speech of the common people, an innovation that seems less creative unless you know that for thousands of years the common speech was not regarded as being suitable for literature, and that literature was the domain of classical Chinese, a language that the common people could not read. In the way that Joyce wove classical references into the hidden fabric of his language, Lu Xun cites the classics, usually to satirise them and to expose what he sees as their nullity. In the story A Warning to the People, describing a public execution, the focus is on the crowd. The victim is there wearing the customary placard detailing his crimes, but none of the bystanders can read it. The crowd is ultimately distracted by a traffic accident and disperses to take an interest in other things. The decapitation is never described, but it is there nonetheless in all the opportunities the text takes to display the word ‘head’ in a myriad of different connections. This lifts the text out of the realm of mere reportage into the realm of great literature.
This translation, with excellent introduction and explanatory notes, really brings the text to life for a non-Chinese audience, and captures the blend of bitter cynicism and compassion that is Lu Xun’s unique voice.