Lu Xun: What is Revolutionary Literature?
"Only When Revolutionaries Start Writing Will There be Revolutionary Literature"
A speech delivered April 8, 1927, at the Whampoa Military Academy. From Lu Xun’s Jottings Under Lamplight.
Today I would like to say a few things on the topic of “Literature in Times of Revolution.” This academy has invited me on a number of occasions, but I have always put off coming. Why? Because I thought that the reason you gentlemen invited me was probably because I have written several works of fiction and am a man of letters, and so you would like to hear something about literature from me. In truth, that’s not who I am, and I really don’t understand much about literature. My formal studies were first in mining, so the results might be somewhat better if you asked me to speak on the mining of coal than on literature.
Naturally, because of my own interests, I also read some literature from time to time, but I never learned anything that might be of use to you gentlemen. Added to that, my experience in Beijing over these past few years gradually led me to start doubting all the old literary discourses I am familiar with. That was when they opened fire and murdered students and censorship was especially tight. I thought: Literature, oh literature, you are a most useless thing. Only those without power talk about you; no one with real strength bothers to talk, they just murder people. Oppressed people who say a few things or write a few words will be killed. Even if they are fortunate enough not to be killed, and shout out, complain of their suffering, and cry out against injustices every day, those with real strength will still continue to oppress, abuse, and kill; there is no way to deal with them. What value does this literature have for people, then?
The natural world also works this way. When a hawk hunts a sparrow, it is the hawk that is silent while the sparrow squawks. When a cat preys on a mouse, it is the cat that is silent while the mouse squeals. The result is still that those who cry out are eaten by those who remain silent. If a writer does well and writes a few essays, he might garner some fame for himself in his time or earn a reputation for a few years. This is like how after a memorial service, no one mentions the feats of the martyr; rather, everyone discusses whose elegiac couplets are best. What a stable business this is.
“Literature, oh literature, you are a most useless thing. Only those without power talk about you; no one with real strength bothers to talk, they just murder people.”
However, I’m afraid that the literary specialists in this revolutionary place are always fond of saying how close the connection between literature and revolution is. For example, they say literature can be used to publicize, promote, incite, and advance the revolutionary cause, and thus bring about revolution. Still, it seems to me that this sort of literature has no strength because good literature has never been about following orders and has no regard for its effects. It is something that flows naturally from the heart. If we write literature according to a preselected topic, how is that any different from the formal prose of an imperial examination? It has no value as literature, not to mention no ability to move people.
For revolution to occur, what is needed are revolutionaries; there is no need to be overly anxious about “revolutionary literature.” Only when revolutionaries start writing will there be revolutionary literature.
Still, it seems to me that, after all, there is a relationship between revolution and writing. The literature in times of revolution is not at all the same as literature in times of peace. When there is revolution, the contours of literature itself change. However, only real revolution can change literature; a small revolution won’t because it doesn’t revolutionize anything, so neither can it change literature. Everyone here is used to hearing the term revolution. But when the term is mentioned in Jiangsu or Zhejiang, the people who hear it become fearful, and those who speak it are put in danger. In truth, though, there’s nothing special about revolution; only with it can society reform and humanity progress. That humans were able to evolve from protozoans and civilizations to evolve from barbarism is precisely because there is never a moment without revolution. Biologists tell us: “There is no great difference between humans and monkeys; humans and monkeys are cousins.” But why have humans come to be humans, while monkeys remained monkeys?
The reason is that monkeys refuse change—they insist on walking with their four limbs. Perhaps there was once a monkey who stood up and attempted to walk on two legs. But many other monkeys said:“Our ancestors have always crawled. We forbid you to stand!” And then they bit the monkey to death. Not only did they refuse to stand, they also refused to speak, all because they had to follow old behaviors. Humans are different. They finally came to stand and speak, and they emerged victorious as a result. Now, things are not finished yet. So I say that revolution is nothing special. Every race that has not yet gone extinct is earnestly engaged in revolution on a daily basis, even if it is only a small revolution.
What influence does real revolution have on literature, then? We can roughly divide things into three periods.
(1) Before the revolution, all literature is, in the main, attuned to the inequities and suffering in various social conditions. So this literature complains of suffering and cries out against inequities. There is no dearth of examples of this sort of writing in world literature. However, this literature that complains of suffering and cries out against inequities has no influence on the revolution because it has absolutely no power to it; the oppressor pays it no mind. Even if the mouse were to produce excellent literature from its squeals, the cat would still unceremoniously devour it.
Therefore, at a time when literature merely complains of suffering and cries out against inequities, the race will have yet to find hope because it remains limited to complaining of suffering and crying out against inequities. This is similar to the situation in a court case when the defeated is reduced to asserting that an injustice is being rendered—his opponent then knows that he no longer has power to fight anymore and that the case is closed.
Similarly, literature that complains of suffering and cries out against inequities amounts to such an assertion of injustice and makes the oppressor feel at ease. Some races simply don’t bother to complain of suffering or cry out against inequities since doing so is futile, and they become silent and gradually fall into decline: the Egyptians, the Arabs, the Persians, and the Indians have all lost their voices! As far as races that are defiant and powerful are concerned, since complaining of suffering and crying out against inequities is useless, they see the light and progress from sorrowful laments to shouts of anger. Once this angry literature arrives on the scene, resistance is soon to follow. They are already enraged, so works of literature from this period when the revolution is about to erupt are often accompanied by sounds of rage. This literature wants to resist, and it wants revenge. There was quite a bit of such literature just before the Russian Revolution. Of course, there are also exceptions, for example, Poland. Although the Poles early on had a literature of revenge, it took the Great War in Europe for Poland to become independent.
(2) When revolution arrives, there will be no literature, no voice anymore. This is because, under the influence of the revolutionary tide, everyone has shifted from shouting to action, everyone is busy with revolution, and there is no leisure for discussing literature. Seen from another angle, when life is destitute and people think only of finding nonexistent food to eat, who would be in the frame of mind to discuss literature? Because they have taken a blow from the revolutionary tide, those who long for the past are furious and can no longer indulge in their sort of literature. Some say, “literature is written in times of misery,” but this is not necessarily true; it may be that in times of misery there is no literary output.
In Beijing, whenever I was in dire straits, I went all over looking to borrow money and couldn’t write a single word. It was only once my salary was paid that I could sit down and write. It is also impossible to write when you are busy: a porter with a load must put it down first before he can write; a rickshaw puller must park his rickshaw first before he can write. Revolution is an extremely busy state. At the same time, poverty is widespread during a revolution. This faction is fighting that faction. It is absolutely necessary to first change the social conditions. No one has the time or the mind to write literature. So in times of revolution, literature must temporarily fall silent.
(3) When the revolution is successful, social conditions have improved, and there is abundance in people’s lives, then literature can be produced again. There are two kinds of literature in this period. The first kind acclaims and lauds the revolution. It sings the praises of revolution because progressive writers find it meaningful when they reflect on how society has changed, and progress will contribute to the collapse of the old society and the establishment of the new. On the one hand, they are pleased to see the collapse of the old system; on the other hand, they praise the establishment of the new one. The second kind of literature, which mourns the eradication of the old society—the elegy—is also a kind of literature you find after a revolution. Some feel that this is “counterrevolutionary literature,” but it seems to me that there is no need to label it as such a serious crime.
Although the revolution is in progress, there are still a great many old-style people in society who can’t possibly be converted right away into new-style people. Their minds are full of old thoughts and things. As their environment gradually changes, affecting everything about them, they then recall the comfort of the old times and become nostalgic for the old society. Accordingly, they will create a sort of literature using ancient and stale language. This sort of literature is tragic in tone, expressing the unease in their hearts, witnessing the victorious establishment of the new alongside the destruction of the old system, so they start singing elegies. But this nostalgia and elegiac literature shows that revolution is in progress. If there were no revolution, these old-style people would be ascendant and would not, therefore, sing elegies.
Nonetheless, China has neither of these two types of literature: elegies for the old system or songs lauding the new system. This is because the revolution has not yet succeeded, and we are still engaged in it. However, the old literature remains quite prevalent: nearly everything in the papers is in the old style. I think this is indicative of the fact that the revolution in China has not had a great effect on society and has had no great influence on old-style people, so they can transcend world matters. The literature discussed in Guangdong’s papers is all in the old style; very rarely is new literature taken up. This is evidence of the fact that Guangdong’s society has not been influenced by the revolution. There are no songs lauding the new, no elegies for the old. Guangdong today remains the same as the Guangdong of ten years ago.
Not only is this the case, there isn’t even any literature that complains of suffering or cries out against inequities. All we ever see are reports of unions marching in protest, but even this is limited to what has been permitted by the government; it isn’t resistance to oppression but rather revolution by imperial order. There has been no change in Chinese society, so there are no nostalgic laments, nor are there any battle hymns for the new. These two types of literature exist only in Soviet Russia. The majority of the literary works written by their old-style writers who have fled to foreign lands are mournful and nostalgic laments. The new literature, by contrast, is vigorously moving forward. While there are no great masterpieces yet, even now there are a large number of new works that have already left angry shouts behind and transitioned to the period of singing in praise. It is impossible to know now exactly what the effect this literature extolling the establishment of a progressive, revolutionary society will be, but we may conjecture that it likely will be a people’s literature, since a world for the masses is the goal of revolution.
Of course, there is no people’s literature in China; indeed, there is no people’s literature anywhere in the world yet. All literature that exists now—songs, poetry, and whatnot—in the main is written for the elite. With full bellies, they recline on a couch and read. A scholar encounters a beauty, and the two fall in love. A scoundrel appears causing mischief and creating misunderstandings, but it’s happily ever after in the end. It’s so pleasant to read such things. If the literature doesn’t describe such elite pleasures, then it ridicules the lower classes.
A few years ago, New Youth published a few stories describing the life of a criminal in the barren north. A number of college professors were displeased on reading them since they don’t like reading about this sort of low-class person. If a poem describes a rickshaw puller, then it is lowbrow; if a play includes criminal events, then it is lowbrow. For these professors, the characters in a play should be restricted to scholars and beauties: the scholar is ranked highest among imperial examinees, the beauty is ennobled as a lord’s wife. They like the idea of scholars and beauties, so they are fond of reading such literature and are filled with delight after reading it. The lower classes have no choice but to share in their delight. If today someone writes a novel or poem about the people—workers or peasants— we call it people’s literature.
But in truth this is not people’s literature for the reason that the people have not yet begun to speak. This is the writing of someone else observing the life of the people and adopting the people’s manner of speaking. There are some writers before us who, although poor, are still better off than workers or peasants, otherwise they couldn’t afford to read or write. On first glance it seems that this is the people’s voice. But this is not the case; these are not true stories of the people.
“There is no people’s literature anywhere in the world yet. All literature that exists now—songs, poetry, and whatnot—in the main is written for the elite.”
Nowadays there are also people who transcribe the mountain songs and folk ballads that the people sing. They imagine that this is the true voice of the people since this is what ordinary folks sing. But the fact of the matter is that they have to a large extent been indirectly influenced by ancient books. The ordinary folks greatly admire the immense holdings of land of the local gentry; and so they often model their own thoughts on that of the gentry. The gentry recite poetry of regulated verse in either five or seven-character lines. Accordingly, the majority of the mountain songs and folk ballads sung by the ordinary folk also have five or seven characters per line. This is to speak merely of form; in terms of plot and theme, it’s all very hackneyed and worn out, and we can’t call this a true people’s literature.
Chinese fiction and poetry today just isn’t comparable to that of other countries. Since nothing can be done, all we can do is call it literature, but it doesn’t qualify as literature in times of revolution, let alone people’s literature. The writers today are all scholars. If workers and peasants are not liberated, their thought patterns will remain the same as those of the scholars. We must await the true liberation of the workers and peasants before there can be a true people’s literature. Some say, “China already has a people’s literature,” but this is wrong.
You, gentlemen, are true fighters, are warriors of the revolution. For now, I think, it is best not to hold literature in overly high regard. Studying literature doesn’t benefit the war. At best, a war song, if written well, can be read while resting between battles and may provide some amusement. To put it somewhat more grandly, it’s like planting a willow tree: once it has grown tall, providing broad and dense shade from the sun, the farmers, having plowed until noon, might sit under the tree to eat their meal and rest. The present state of affairs in China is that we are in the midst of a revolutionary war. A poem will not scare off Sun Chuanfang, but a cannon shot might send him scurrying for cover. Of course, some say that literature gives strength to the revolution, but personally I have my doubts. Literature has always been a product of leisure. To be sure, though, it can reflect a nation’s culture.
For the most part, people aren’t satisfied with their present occupations. I have no abilities other than writing some essays, and I have grown tired of doing it. But you, gentlemen, grasping your rifles, want to hear a speech on literature.
For myself, I’d naturally prefer to hear the sound of artillery. It seems to me that the sound of artillery is a much finer thing than the sound of literature. This is the end of my speech; thank you, gentlemen, for listening to the end.
Translated by Andrew Stuckey.
From Jottings Under Lamplight, ed. Eileen J. Chang and Kirk A. Denton. Used with permission of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2017 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.