Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lu Hsun: This Too is Life

Lu Hsun (1881-1936)
Lu Hsun is considered by many to be the greatest modern Chinese writer.
His writings portray the pov­erty and suffering of common people and unemployed intellectuals, becoming after his death a cultural hero. With the communists' conquest of the mainland in 1948, his books were reprinted by the hundreds of thousands and became a standard part of the school curriculum.
Yet, his work is quite individual since it grapples with the themes of individual loneliness, sadness, and regret.

This Too Is Life
This, too, happens during illness. There are things which a healthy or a sick man ignores, either be­cause he does not come across them or because they are too insignificant. But a man just recovering from a serious illness experiences them. In my case two good examples are the fearfulness of exhaustion and the comfort of rest.
I used often to boast that I did not know what it was to be tired. In front of my desk there is a swivel-chair, and sitting there to write or read carefully was work; beside it there is a wicker reclining chair, and lying there to chat or skim through the papers was rest. I found no great difference between the two, and often boasted of the fact. Now I know my mistake. I found little difference because I was never tired, because I never did any manual labor.
A relative's son, after graduating from senior middle school, had to go to a stocking factory as an apprentice. He was very unhappy about this, and the work was so hard that he had virtually no rest the whole year round. Too proud to slack, he stuck it for a year and more. Then one day he collapsed and told his elder brother, "I've just no energy left."
He never stood up again. He was sent home where he lay unwilling to eat or drink, to stir or speak. A Protestant doctor fetched to examine him said there was nothing organically wrong but the boy was completely worn out. Since there was no cure for this either, what followed, naturally, was a lingering death. I had two days like that, but for a different reason: whereas he was tired out by work I was tired out by illness. I had literally no desire for anything, as if nothing concerned me and all action would be superfluous. I did not brood over death, but neither did I feel alive. This, known as "the absence of all desire," is the first step towards death, and it made some who loved me shed secret tears. But I took a turn for the better when I wanted something to drink, and from time to time I looked at the things around me—the walls and the flies. Only then did I feel tired enough to need rest.
To lie just as one pleases, stretching one's limbs and giving a huge yawn before settling into the most comfortable position to relax in every muscle, is sheer delight. I had never enjoyed this before. I doubt if the healthy and lucky have enjoyed it either.
The year before last, I remember, after another illness I wrote "Random Talk after Sickness" in five sections and gave it to Literature; but since the last four sections could not be published the first was printed alone. The article started clearly with a (1) but stopped abruptly without any (2) or (3) to follow, so that anyone who thought carefully must have been puz­zled; but we cannot expect this thoughtfulness from every reader, nor even from every critic. And on the basis of the first section someone passed this judgment on me: "Lu Xun is in favor of illness." This time I may be spared, but to be on the safe side I had better announce here: "More is to follow."
Four or five days after I began to mend, waking in the night I called Guangping to wake her.
"Give me some water. And put the light on so that I can have a look round."
"What for?" She sounded rather alarmed, doubtless thinking I was rav­ing.
"Because I want to live. Understand that? This, too, is life. I want to take a look round."
"Oh. . . ." She got up and gave me some tea, hesitated a little and quietly lay down again without putting on the light.
I knew she had not understood.
A street-lamp outside the window shed a glimmer of light in the room, and I had a quick look at the familiar walls and the angles between them, the familiar pile of books and the unbound pictures beside them, while outside night took its course, and all that infinite space, those innumerable people, were linked in some way with me. I breathed, I lived, I should live on. I began to feel more substantial and experienced an urge to action— but presently I fell asleep again.
The next morning when I looked round in the sunlight, sure enough, there were the familiar walls, the familiar piles of books . . . normally I would look at these too as a form of relaxation. But we tend to despise these things though they are one part of life, ranking them lower than drinking tea or scratching ourselves, or even counting them as nothing. We notice rare blossoms, not the branches and leaves. The biographer of a famous man generally does nothing but emphasize his peculiarities: how Li Bai wrote his poetry and became tipsy, how Napoleon fought his battles and went without sleep, not describing them when sober or asleep.
In fact, a man who spends all his time getting tipsy or doing without sleep will certainly not live long. He can go without sleep or become tipsy some­times because at other times he is sober and sleeps. Yet considering these normal events as the dregs of life, people will not spare them a glance.
So the men or happenings they see are like the elephant's leg which made the blind man groping round the elephant fancy it was shaped like a pillar. The ancient Chinese always liked to have "the whole." Even when making "black chicken pills" to cure women's disorders, they used the whole chicken, feathers, blood and all. This method may be rather ridicu­lous, yet the idea behind it is not a bad one.
The man who strips off the branches and leaves will never get blossoms and fruit.
Annoyed with Guangping for not putting on the light for me, I com­plained of her to everyone who called. By the time I was able to get about again, I looked through the magazines she had been reading. Sure enough, while I lay ill in bed quite a few distinguished journals had appeared. Though some still published "Beauty Tips," "An Old Tree Sheds Light" or "The Secrets of Nuns" in the back, the first pages had some rousingly heroic articles. Writers now have a "most vital theme": even Sai-jin-hua who slept for a time with the German commander Waldersee during the Yi He Tuan Uprising has become canonized as a goddess in heaven to guard our realm.
Most admirable of all is the fact that the "Spring and Autumn" supple­ment of the Shen Bao which used to refer with such relish to the Empress Dowager and the Qing court, has also changed completely with the times. In the comments at the beginning of one number, we are even told that when eating melons we should think of our territory now carved up like a melon. Of course there is no gainsaying that at all times, in all places and on all occasions we should be patriotic.
Still if I were to think like that while eating a melon, I doubt whether I could swallow it. Even if I made an effort and succeeded, I would probably have prolonged indigestion. And this may not be owing to my bad nervous state after illness. To my mind, a man who uses the melon as a simile when lecturing on our na­tional disgrace, and the next moment cheerfully eats a melon absorbing its nourishment, is rather lacking in feeling. No lecture could have any effect on such a man.
Never having joined the volunteers myself, I can only guess at their feelings. But I ask myself: Does a soldier eating a melon make a point of eating and thinking at the same time? I doubt it. He probably just feels thirsty, wants a melon and finds it sweet, without giving a thought to any other high-sounding ideas. Eating the melon refreshes him and enables him to fight better than if he were thirsty; hence melon-eating does have something to do with resistance, but nothing to do with the rules on how to think laid down in Shanghai. If we ate and drank with long faces all the time, very soon we should have no appetite at all, and then what would become of our resistance?
Still there are men who will talk in this strange way, who will not even let you eat a melon normally. Actually a soldier's daily life is not entirely heroic; but when the whole of it is bound up with heroism, you have a real soldier.
August 23, 1936

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