Lu Xun and Evolution by James Reeve Pusey

How often does one read a book whose genre is roughly equal parts philosophy, biology, Chinese history and literature? Not very.

Caveat lector. This book is not an ordinary monograph in Chinese intellectual history. It is not just about China. It is not just about Lu Xun. It is certainly not an introduction to Lu Xun, or to his works. It is not an intellectual biography. It is not “an appreciation.” It is not a study of Lu Xun’s genius or his art (although both will shine through). It is a philosophical critique of Lu Xun’s thought and a philosophical and political critique of what Chinese in the People’s Republic have done, and may yet do, with Lu Xun’s thought, and it is a reflection on philosophy and biology.

Some non-fiction books barely scratch the surface of a whole discipline, explaining the same terms and repeating the same well-trodden foundational anecdotes. It’s refreshing, once in a while, to read something truly niche.

Also refreshing is the author’s use of language play. For a serious book, it sure has a lot of jokes. Frequently, the same word is used in two senses in the same sentence. It’s self-indulgent and self-referential, but I find it charming. Any stupid old book could be distant, detached, and dry; this one feels like it was written by a real live human being who really, really likes to write, and who cares deeply about the topic at hand.

The topic at hand is an analysis of Lu Xun’s understanding of the implications of evolutionary theory for his country. Do ideas about evolution suggest that the Chinese have an inevitable destiny, good or bad? Do those ideas suggest that they are the makers of their own destiny, and should strive to evolve, individually or as a whole country? What ideas about evolution did people have in Lu Xun’s time, and which did he encounter, and how did he interpret them and incorporate them into his work throughout his writing career? How have his writings since been used, reused, and reinterpreted?

See below for scattered notes on the content and style of this treatise.


Who was Lu Xun?

Maybe that seems like an obvious question and maybe that seems like an obviously dumb question, depending on your familiarity with Chinese history and literature. Pusey says:

He was the best Chinese writer of his day, and he remains the best twentieth century Chinese writer to this day. That is a fact, I think, beyond cavil. One does not have to like every word that Lu Xun wrote. One does not have to accept Chairman Mao’s pronouncement that Lu Xun was “a great thinker and a great revolutionary” or that he was “New China’s sage.” But who can seriously contend with the Chairman’s contention that Lu Xun was “a great writer”? (xi)

So he was a popular writer? Yeah.

[His books] have almost always been in the bookstores, where they have had a staying power matched only by that of the works of the Chairman himself, and the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. Late in the Cultural Revolution, there even appeared in the bookstores a small, red book of quotations from Lu Xun, untitled, but the very same size as the other one. (xii)

There you have it. Lu Xun had his own little red book!

In China and in pockets scattered across the world, there’s an entire academic discipline devoted to the study of Lu Xun, just as there is a one devoted to the study of The Dream of the Red Chamber (aka The Story of the Stone).

Though his work was embraced by the Communists, Lu Xun had some Confucian values. He recommended that China renounce international aggression on the basis of the “negative statement of the Golden Rule, ‘Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you'” (103).

Even careful thinkers are capable of sustaining contradictions, though.

Lu Xun said that human beings, “true human beings,” would be human. He also said that it would not be inhumane to be inhumane to the inhumane, because the inhumane were not human. He was therefore at once for humanity and “inhumanity.” And he used Darwin in defense of both. (127)

In Lu Xun’s typical metaphor, these ideas were expressed as “Do not eat people” and “Beat dogs in the water”. (129)

Were Lu Xun’s recommendations actually scientifically founded? Pusey says no. “Lu Xun’s pseudo-scientific language… has helped support a pseudo-scientific superstition” (134).

When Lu Xun’s work was sanctified by the Communist Party, he was effectively silenced. His work was used to buttress Marxist theory, and was officially thought to be important only for that reason, which made it hard to study Lu Xun for any other reason (149).

As time passes, perhaps his writing will continue to be studied, but differently.


For a book about Lu Xun, there’s an awful lot about Haeckel, including this criticism, highlighting a contradiction in his theory:

[I]nstincts are not virtues. If all is instinct, there is no virtue. If all is natural law there is no duty. If all is natural law there is no moral law. If there is no free will, there is no disobedience. (49)

All very interesting, but what about Lu Xun? Realizing how deeply mired we are in supposedly relevant background info, Pusey reassures us:

[Ontogeny is a recapitulation of phylogeny] was Haeckel’s famous, fallacious law, a “law,” as Stephen Jay Gould has pointed out, of most unfortunately “pervasive influence,” … an influence pervasive enough to reach Lu Xun—to whom, fear not, we will return. (58)

Meanwhile, you can’t not think this is funny.

[Darwin] found no qualitative great leap forward in finchitude. He found no Uberfink. Viable divergent forms did not outfinch each other. Not even the thorn-wielding cactus finch can be said to have swashbuckled its way to the top of the finch family tree, because there was no top, because there was no set direction to finch evolution. (52–53)

The point, however, is that “evolution” is not the same as “progress”. Unfortunately, “in China, in Chinese, the two words, progress and evolution, became one” (71).

That confusion caused all sorts of ideological problems.


Long sentences

The second paragraph of chapter 1 only has two sentences. The second sentence is breathtakingly long but syntactically coherent. It’s as if, when you open the book, you’re getting on a train, the author’s train of thought, and wherever the twisty track goes, you’re going too.

Of course, in ordinary human terms—and what other are there?—the tragedy of the midnineteenth century Taiping Rebellion was a thousand times worse than that of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, but any patriot who had watched China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, the imperialists’ scramble for concessions after it, and the failure of the Reform Movement of 1898 after that, must have thought that the miserable unfitness of the Boxers and the murderous arrogance of the avenging armies of seven Western imperialist nations, including, alas, the United States, and of one Eastern apprentice-imperialist nation, Japan (a quick learner), meant the end.

English teachers everywhere intone that one sentence should have one thought. Some of us are capable of really complex individual thoughts, apparently.

Puns and word echoes

One imagines the editor shrugging, half sheepish, half amused.

Lu Xun was cautious, in word, and indeed, in deed. Except on the day he cut off his queue. That was a revolutionary act. And yet he was slow to act even then. He took his cue to cut his queue from his friend Xu Shouchang. (18)

It’s like the book is a rap or a poetry slam: language isn’t used transparently, to transmit meaning, the language itself is half the point.

Qiu Jin was captured, tortured, and beheaded…. [Lu Xun] seemed to believe that the applause she had won with her revolutionary rhetoric in Japan had gone to her head, and so she had lost it—vainly. (28)

I see what you did there. You shifted the meaning of a word from figurative to literal. And you did it again on the very next page (29): “Backers backed out”.

Page 45: “This was the clearest declaration he ever made of the source of his optimism—but it was riddled with riddles.”

Page 76: “He used one peculiar argument peculiar to Haeckel’s argument.”

Pop culture

A long description of Huxley’s materialist, reductionist approach to the origins of humanity ends on page 42 with a list of a handful of inorganic elements constituting unliving matter or substance. Pusey concludes the paragraph by saying “That is all there was. There wasn’t any more.” I don’t even know why that sounded familiar to me, but Wikipedia says it’s familiar to a lot of people.

On page 55 Pusey reprints some of the darkly comic rhyming lyrics of the pop song “Dead Ducks” by Flanders and Swann about the extinctions of dinosaurs, dodos, mammoths, auks, and, shockingly, humans.

After Mao in 1937 declared Lu Xun the Sage of New China, “everywhere the Party went Lu Xun was sure to go” (141). To come up with that quip, surely, requires an American scholar of Chinese studies. I can’t picture a Chinese scholar in China ever linking the Communists to Mary and Lu Xun to Mary’s little lamb.

When and Why I Read Lu Xun and Evolution

Picked this up for free from the shelf outside the public library at the National Library because Yu Hua’s book China in Ten Words has a chapter on Lu Xun.

Genre: non-fiction (philosophy, biology, Chinese history and literature)
Date started / date finished: 08-Jun-2018 / 18-Jun-2018
Length: 172
ISBN: 0791436489
Originally published in: 1998
Amazon link: Lu Xun and Evolution