If you were to muse on the contribution of Japan to world literature in the 20th century, a host of authors’ names — from Soseki to Tanizaki, from Endo to Murakami, from Akutagawa to Kawabata — might come rushing to mind. Yet you might not realize that one of the most revolutionary moments in modern world literature occurred in Japan, but involved not a Japanese, but the most celebrated of all modern Chinese authors.
The scene: a biology class at Sendai Medical College in January 1906. The lecture finished, some lantern slides of photographs from the recent Russo-Japanese War that had raged in northeastern China were shown to medical students.
In one of the slides, Chinese bystanders apathetically surrounded a Chinese prisoner about to be executed as a traitor for providing information to the Russians. The Japanese classmates shouted and whooped “banzai” in approbation but, seated among them, a solitary Chinese student secretly burned with shame at the sight of his countryman humiliated in this way. What particularly appalled him was the attitude of the Chinese onlookers in the image who, though physically fit, seemed spiritually diseased.
Common medicine, the Chinese student realized, was never going to change this situation. What his countrymen needed was spiritual medicine. In that moment, he realized he needed to dedicate himself to something that would truly enlighten and modernize his nation: literature.
That student was Lu Xun, now widely regarded as the most important writer of modern Chinese literature, commemorated with major museums in both Beijing and Shanghai. He was born in Shaoxing in 1881 and died in Shanghai in 1936, and is best known for his savage satires on the plight of his native China in the early 20th century.
In his short stories “A Madman’s Diary” (1918) and “The True Story of Ah Q” (1921), Lu penned his devastating critiques of the disappointments of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and China’s ongoing social malaise.
He also wrote many wonderful stories looking back to his youth in rural China, such as “Nostalgia” (1909), in which his childish imagination is terrorized by Confucianism and thrilled by his house servant’s memories of the Taiping rebels, or the affecting portrait of a destitute, petty scholar in “Kong Yiji” (1919).
But it was Japan that unleashed Lu’s literary talent. As a young man, he was dismayed by some of the practices of traditional Chinese medicine and determined that he would bring the enlightenment of Western medicine to China. He arrived in Japan to study medicine in 1902, aged 21, and after concentrating on learning the Japanese language, proceeded in 1904 to Sendai Medical College.
Yet by 1906, Lu had abruptly abandoned those studies. Whether the lantern slide incident was the actual trigger or a bit of later self-mythologizing is hotly disputed, but what is clear is that Lu began proposing a radical new agenda: Literature was a nation’s true medicine.
Why literature and not philosophy or politics? And what prompted him to turn to literature that year?
The answer can be found in Japan’s own relation to literature, which was a relatively new and revolutionary concept in Japan in 1906. People had of course been writing plays, poetry and entertaining stories since ancient times, but the notion — imported from the West — that these could be collectively grouped together and comprise a discipline worthy of the profoundest contemplation was a new one in Japan in the late 19th century. Lu had arrived in Japan when it was in the grip of this literary renaissance.
Deeply disillusioned with the stifling influence of Confucianism on his return home, Lu’s first attempt to bring literary enlightenment to China was not to write his own stories, but to translate into Chinese, often via the medium of Japanese or German, stories from Britain, America, France, Finland and many countries of Eastern Europe. But his 1909 collection, “Tales from Abroad,” managed to sell just 41 of the 1,500 copies printed.
Among his later translations were pieces written by Natsume Soseki and, partly inspired by Soseki’s memoirs of Britain, in 1926 Lu penned a memoir of his instructor in biology in Sendai called “Fujino Sensei” in which he recounts how Fujino went to the trouble of personally correcting Lu’s weekly lecture notes.
In a famous parting scene, which has captivated the imaginations of Japanese readers ever since, Lu describes being called to his Japanese tutor’s house and receiving a photo of Fujino Sensei with the kanji characters, “sekibetsu” (sadness of parting) written on the back. After returning home to China in 1909, Lu hung it in pride of place on the east wall of his study in Beijing — pointing toward Japan — and wrote that he gained constant inspiration from gazing at it.
During the early decades of the 20th century, in which the Japanese Empire ever more strongly encroached upon China, the writings of Lu were a reminder of the close cultural ties and the warmth of human spirit that could exist between the two nations.
Lu’s writings were first published as a collection in Japanese in 1924 and Rojin, as he is known in Japan, was nowhere greater appreciated outside of China than in Japan itself.
Author Osamu Dazai wrote in 1945 a novel called “Sekibetsu” about Lu and, in 1991, the writer Hisashi Inoue published a play, “Shanghai Moon,” describing Lu’s deep friendship with the Japanese bookseller and publisher Kanzo Uchiyama in Shanghai in the 1930s. Lu even hid in Uchiyama’s bookshop in 1934 to avoid a round-up of left-wing writers.
The sense of literary mission that Lu acquired in Japan never left him. The greatest change he effected was in shifting our understanding of the power and potential of literature itself, of pushing aside the pieties of moralistic philosophy, and presenting literature as something which can move nations, probe the human mind and be the hands-on, skeptical and ever-questioning application of human wisdom.
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