In 2005, Penguin paid $100,000 for the English-language rights to Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem, a coming-of-age tale set in Inner Mongolia. It was a record sum for a Chinese novel. In 2008, the same publishing house issued, amid much brouhaha, Zhu Wen's I Love Dollars, a lively look at the dark side of China's boom. And it has just announced plans to bring more Chinese writers to the attention of international readers by expanding its Beijing operations.
Clearly, Penguin is bullish about Chinese literature good news if you think, as I do, that the country's growing global profile should be matched by greater awareness of its cultural offerings. But to me the best news of all is the recent publication, as a Penguin Classic, of The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China. It's a work that has nothing to do with introducing an up-and-coming writer, but rather seeks to widen appreciation of the long-dead Lu Xun the pen name of Zhou Shuren, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1936 at the age of 55.
Lu Xun was a towering figure in Chinese letters who deserves to be much more widely read outside his homeland. This affordable volume comprises, over 416 pages, his complete fiction. Julia Lovell's are arguably the most accessible translations yet of such famous stories as "The Divorce," "New Year's Sacrifice" and the eponymous tale of Ah-Q (an opportunistic, inept sometime participant in the 1911 Revolution). Together, they give Lu Xun his best shot to date of achieving renown beyond the Chinese world. If it succeeds in this, the book could be considered the most significant Penguin Classic ever published.
Here's why I make that grandiose-sounding claim: Lu Xun is critically regarded as the most accomplished modern writer of the most populous nation on earth, and a grasp of his work is thus extremely useful in forming an understanding of much of humanity. In addition to stories, he wrote poetry, an extended history of Chinese literature and hundreds of essays, including small masterpieces like his eloquent 1926 tirade against the warlord government of the time for gunning down unarmed patriotic student protesters. His stories are wide-ranging in style and subject, from the touchingly nostalgic and straightforward "My Old Home" (a poignant look at the gulf that grows over time between two Chinese villagers of different classes) to the fiercely polemical, stylistically experimental "Diary of a Madman" (which offers a crushing indictment of the stultifying effects of Confucianism). Above all, Lu Xun is not just a great writer. He is an essential writer the kind whose works provide the clues an outsider needs to unlock the cultural code of a nation, and whose work becomes embedded in a nation's DNA. Herman Melville and Mark Twain are two of America's great writers, for instance, but only the latter is essential. Foreigners striving to understand the American psyche might find it useful to know about Ahab and the whale, but they must know about Huck Finn and the mystique of the Mississippi River.
England's George Orwell is another essential writer, and one with whom Lu Xun shares important traits. Each introduced new terms into the political lexicon: Ah-Q-ism (a proclivity for self-delusion) is as readily understood in China as references to Big Brother are elsewhere. Each author spent most of his adult life as an independent thinker of the left, criticizing dogmatism and hypocrisy wherever it appeared on the political spectrum. Each championed plain forms of writing. And each penned an ironic novella about a revolution that claimed to be about changing everything, but ended up altering only the titles (in the Ah-Q tale) or the species (in Animal Farm) of the bullies in charge.
Perhaps the most interesting Orwell Lu Xun parallel concerns 1989's Tiananmen crisis. Audiences outside China, appalled by the government's use of lethal force against the students and the cynical cover-up campaign that followed, found it natural to criticize the Orwellian behavior of China's leadership. In China, it was just as natural for critics of the government to voice their outrage via quotations from Lu Xun's famous essay on the slayings of 1926 allusions that all educated Chinese recognized as a potent way of saying that the current regime was little better than the hated warlords of old.
One key contrast with Orwell, however, is that Lu Xun threw in his lot with the communists late in life. This meant that he became one of those rare Chinese writers from the pre-1949 era whose stories stayed in print and whose essays remained in textbooks. That special status has also meant that the work of virtually all current Chinese authors owes a debt of some kind to the stories in the Penguin collection. Jiang Rong readily admits, for example, that Wolf Totem was inspired in part by Lu Xun's writings. And though Zhu Wen denies this kind of link, Lovell, who has translated both writers, argues persuasively that in Zhu's stories of 1990s China we see an "obsession with a heartlessly congested society that seems to have trickled directly down from Lu Xun."
By all means, immerse yourself in Wolf Totem (if you don't mind slow-paced tales), I Love Dollars (no caveat there, it's a rollicking read) and other contemporary Chinese works in translation. But if you want to get the most out of them, you'll need to know about The Real Story of Ah-Q. In fact, there's only one thing missing from the collection, and that's a sticker on the front proclaiming READ ME FIRST.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom's newest book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, will be published by Oxford University Press early next year