A Comparative Study of Lu Hsun’s and Sun Yat-Sen’s Ideas of Advancing China in a Cultural Sense
China in the early twentieth century witnessed the rise of two giants, Sun Yat-sen in politics and Lu Hsun in literature - A Comparative Study of Lu Hsun’s and Sun Yat-Sen’s Ideas of Advancing China in a Cultural Sense introduction. After the sudden collapse of Qing Dynasty and the end of imperial system, the nation now faced a new question of whether it would be necessary to launch a culture revolution to supplement the political revolution of 1911 as part of the greater efforts to fully modernize China.
Sun followed such trend and incorporated certain ideas of culture self-examination into his revolutionary agenda while the less optimistic Lu tried to evoke “a few light sleepers”( Selected Stories of Lu Hsun: Preface to Call to Arms, Lu Hsun, (Norton Library, 1977), 5) out of the “unconscious” population to reinvestigate certain aspects of Chinese culture by fiercely attacking the downsides of the so-called traditional Chinese society in his novels.
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This paper will discuss three major cultural issues concerning 1) young generation; 2) civil service exam; and 3) traditional morality where Lu’s depictions of Chinese society significantly contradicted Sun’s political arguments. Based on these observations, it is obvious, as the author will argue at the end of the paper, that “the head-bowed willing ox” Lu was more genuinely trying to mobilize the public towards a more complete self-reflection of their own culture than the revolutionary leader Sun in the 1920s cultural revolution.
Sun and Lu gave almost contrasting ideas about the current situation of young Chinese and their contributions to the revolution. Sun complained that young Chinese, just as their counterparts in Europe and America, were turning to cosmopolitanism which he believed would be detrimental to the construction of a powerful and united China. Sun warned that these liberal young Chinese were bringing China to a wrong direction with a likely catastrophic result.
The invasion of Manchus to dominate China three hundred years ago was so successful, Sun alarmed, partly because “Chinese intellectual class had cosmopolitan ideas”. Sun Yat-sen: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism , Thedore De Bary and Richard Lufrano, Volume Two of Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through The Twentieth Century, Second Edition, (Columbia Press, 1960),322) Lu, on the other hand, was more worried about the fact that young people, who should be the most active thinkers and political participants of the society, were still being suffocated by the backward education their traditional family teaching forced upon them.
Young people, as Lu wrote in Madman’s Diary, would just uncritically accept what their parents have taught them and begin to voluntarily defend the traditional value system where they actually share no interest. This “bewildering and upsetting” phenomenon cannot be ended until “our children are saved”. ( Selected Stories of Lu Hsun: Madman’s Diary, Lu Hsun, (Norton Library, 1977), 18) In this sense, Lu believed that the only way to advance the current backward Chinese society would be to awaken the “light sleepers” of the population, namely the young Chinese.
Civil Service Exam, which had already generated heated debates during the second half of the nineteenth century, was marked as another dividing issue for Sun and Lu to reevaluate their culture. Though receiving most of his education abroad, Sun was enthusiastically supporting the dynastical keju system and even incorporated it into his innovative “Five-Power” Constitution. “The selection of real talent and ability through examinations has been characteristic of China for thousands of years.
The time-honored system has proved to be so effective, Sun argued, that the new democracy must keep such good tradition in order to pick up the greatest minds of the time to serve the public. ( Sun Yat-sen: The Five-power Constitution , Thedore De Bary and Richard Lufrano, Volume Two of Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through The Twentieth Century, Second Edition, (Columbia Press, 1960),325) Lu was apparently more suspicious of the real effects generated by the selection process of Civil Service Exam.
In the short story of Kung I-chi, Lu portrayed the miserable life of Kung who repeatedly failed to pass the exam of county level as to cast serious doubts over the “merit-based” system of Civil Service Exam. Kung devoted his youth entirely to prepare for the exam and studied nothing but the Confucian classics. After so many times of failure, Kung, with no way of making a living, became poorer and poorer.
Although sometimes driven by poverty to steal books, Kung showed “exemplary behavior” in the tavern and never failed to pay up. Meanwhile, those people who did pass the exams and enjoyed social prestige as knowledgeable scholars, as Lu wrote, were nothing like the ideal people that the exam was originally designed to find. The old poor Kung I-chi was once caught stealing books from Mr.
Ting, the provincial scholar in the town. The ensuing punishments were startling as “the beating lasted nearly all night, until his legs were broken”. Such lynching was justified by Mr. Ting’s social prominence and another time-honored Chinese political system acclaimed by Sun as “very effective” to impeach – the censorate- failed to neither provide any legal help for the poor beaten man nor sue the powerful Mr. Ting.
By contrasting the two groups of people who had completely different experience in the Civil Service Exam, Lu raised the question that how people can possibly believe that the exam was really selecting prospective public servants. ( Selected Stories of Lu Hsun: Kung I-chi, Lu Hsun, (Norton Library, 1977), 20-23) As for the most controversial issue concerning traditional morality, there is a decisive split between Sun and Lu over the answer to whether such morality would be beneficial to China’s modernization.
Although Sun complained that China was a leap of loose sand and its people was trying to avoid confronting the reality of being colonized by foreign powers,( Sun Yat-sen: China as a heap of loose land & China as a “hypo-colony”, Thedore De Bary and Richard Lufrano, Volume Two of Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through The Twentieth Century, Second Edition, (Columbia Press, 1960),321-322) a combination of traditional morality and nationalism, Sun argued, would be just ideal for his party to organize a united front against foreign powers.
One’s traditional loyalty to princes, with the help of nationalism, could be easily transformed into a greater loyalty to the nation and his four hundred million Chinese fellows. Sun warned his followers that a new kind of foreign invasion by the name of “New Culture” was encroaching Chinese spirits that once helped their ancestors to “assimilate” those foreign conquerors throughout the history. Lu sincerely believed the opposite that the ongoing miseries of Chinese society largely resulted from the weakness of its own traditional morality.
Lu himself experienced the sudden death of his father during his childhood and such sinking from prosperity to poverty he claimed had helped him better understand the real world. ( Selected Stories of Lu Hsun: Preface to Call to Arms, Lu Hsun, (Norton Library, 1977), 1) He also drew his study abroad experience in Japan when he was deeply frustrated by the indifference of his people to see an individual Chinese beheaded by the Japanese army for spying on military secrets. Ibid, 2-3) In Madman’s Diary, Lu openly attacked the traditional Chinese “virtue and morality” that they did nothing but teach people to “eat people”. When the poor Kung I-chi with his broken legs showed up in the tavern for the last time, people continued to make fun of him and cared nothing about his health conditions. ( Ibid, Kung I-chi, 23)
In another Lu’s short story, Medicine, the cannibalism depicted in Madman’s Diary became the reality as people were buying rolls of steamed bread soaked with bloods from the executed revolutionists as medicine. Ibid, Medicine, 31) The spirits of Chinese people, Lu wrote in desperation, were too backward for the nation to be lifted alone. ( Ibid, 3) Based on the observations discussed above, it is not difficult to find that Sun Yat-sen and Lu Hsun took vastly different stances in the 1920s cultural revolution. Eager to lift the nation out of its current misery through the construction of a powerful central government, Sun resorted to nationalism and tried to reignite national pride among his Chinese fellows.
To the revolutionary Sun, establishing a united front of different classes against foreign powers would be far more important and urgent than launching a cultural war against the traditional Chinese society. As for Lu Hsun, it is obvious that he firmly believed in a priority of literal movement to liberate the minds of Chinese people before any concrete political progress can be achieved. In that sense, it may be safe to conclude that Lu was more genuinely pursuing a cultural revolution while Sun was merely building a conservative cultural ideology to assist his political revolution.