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Voices from the Iron House

January 31, 2010

Leo Ou-fan Lee. Voices from the Iron House: A Study of Lu Xun. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Christian Hess (2002)

In this compelling study Leo Ou-fan Lee sets out to complicate our understanding of Lu Xun, both as a human being, and in terms of the literature he produced. Focusing on such an extensively studied figure is not an easy starting point. Any scholar attempting to make true inroads into understanding Lu Xun is confronted with a seemingly insurmountable amount of secondary material on the subject. Yet the daunting task of providing new analysis is handled readily by Lee. The study is driven by Lee’s powerful conviction that Lu Xun, the deified writer of modern China, “has been essentially misunderstood in this process of deification” (p. vi). Lee’s mission is thus to rescue Lu Xun from previous scholarly interpretations which contribute to his misunderstanding. Combining biographical elements with convincing new interpretations of major themes running through Lu Xun’s work, Lee’s picture aims to restore “the artistic dimensions of his writings as literature, not ideology” (p. 191). This is the key in his attempt to “de-deify” Lu Xun. Such a picture, for Lee, returns Lu Xun to mortal status, full of “internal paradoxes and contradictions” (p. 191). What such contradictions reveal about Lu Xun and the time in which he lived are teased out in the chapters of this wonderful study.

The books ten chapters are broken into three sections. In Part One, although covering well-known facts about Lu Xun’s life, Lee skillfully fleshes out key influences on the early writer, including his research in traditional fiction. Part Two provides the bulk of Lee’s literary analysis, with three chapters that focus on the major literary styles employed by Lu Xun. It is here that Lee illuminates themes that he finds consistently in Lu Xun’s work. One such theme, captured by the brilliant title of the book, is that of the loner versus the crowd. Lee sheds light on Lu Xun’s personal affinity to the solitary loner figures, which are often contrasted with images of the crowd throughout much of his work. For example, Lee reads Lu Xun’s Madman in terms of this loner/crowd motif and concludes: “the Madman’s enlightenment becomes the curse of his existence and dooms him to a paradoxical state of alienation– rejected by the very people whose minds he wishes to transform” (p. 71). Lee finds this theme in many places, including the passage from which his title is drawn, with the “awakened few” struggling to wake up the “sound sleepers” suffocating in the iron house (p. 87). Lee concludes that the house is a double metaphor for both Chinese society and Lu Xun’s own mental state as one of the “awakened few” wondering how to “wake up” his countrymen, and for what purpose (p.194).

The final section of the book deals with this issue as it focuses on the relationship between literature and revolution. Challenging widely held views about Lu Xun’s position as a revolutionary, Lee points out that Lu Xun was a writer first, and a revolutionary second. Moreover Lee argues that in his early three-stage conceptualization of the role of literature in revolution, Lu Xun “in fact saw literature as being irrelevant to revolution” (p.136). What Lee uncovers is the tension that men like Lu Xun faced as they increasingly came to terms with revolution. This then is another major theme Lee finds in Lu Xun’s work, that of the struggles of the transitional intellectual. Lu Xun, he argues, was himself a man caught in an age of transition, and was very much “born into an old society and reluctantly drawn into the birth pangs of the new” (p. 194).

Rather than simply fitting Lu Xun into the teleology of CCP revolutionary victory, Lee discovers that his relationship to revolution was far more complex and fraught with tension (p. 149). What Lee finds is a man unable to place all of his hopes in the future, but who lived in the “dark present, on the eve of revolution” (p.173). This is extremely revealing, for it allows Lee to contribute a better understanding of Lu Xun’s ideas on revolution. Lee concludes that revolutionary victory simply did not enter into Lu Xun’s picture, rather he shows that for Lu Xun (in a striking similarity to later Maoism) “it is the prolonged process of revolution itself which defines the existential meaning of revolution” (p.188). Reviewers praised Lee’s groundbreaking analysis, particularly his ability to focus on archetypes in Lu Xun’s thought. Dolezelova-Velingerova appreciated Lee’s abandonment of prior secondary studies to forge his own view of Lu Xun’s psychological processes, but hoped for more discussion of his poetic language (Journal of Asian Studies, 47.3:604-606). Regardless, Lee has succeeded in doing something few other Lu Xun scholars have; to take Lu Xun off his pedestal and reveal the dark tensions he and other creative intellectuals faced as they braced and positioned themselves for the changes emerging on modern China’s historical horizon.

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