2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 107

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Generations of Wild Grass: Lu Xun's Ye Cao and Contemporary Chinese Literature

Organizer and Chair: Nick Admussen, Cornell University, USA

Lu Xun's prose poetic collection Wild Grass (Ye cao, 1927) grows more relevant to contemporary literature with every passing year. Polyvocal, genre-crossing, written in the shadow of violent censorship, mixing irony with sincerity and politics with aesthetics, Wild Grass is a microcosm of ideas, attitudes and tactics that remain at the heart of Chinese culture today. Unfortunately, this collection has received insufficient critical attention: the most current translation dates from 1974, and the standard critical monograph in Chinese (none has seen English publication) was written in 1982. Rather than simply reintroducing this key work to scholars of May Fourth literature, this panel's intent is to identify the collection's interactions with contemporary life and letters. The panel gathers Wild Grass scholars who are vitally engaged in contemporary literature as translators, book reviewers, scholars of popular culture, and specialists in the literary forms that rose out of Wild Grass, the zawen and the contemporary prose poem. Fittingly, the papers of this panel grow from a profusion of ideologies and methods, but they coalesce around three fundamental, unanswered questions: to what extent does Wild Grass refer to lived social and political experience? Is it criticism aimed Lu Xun's present and past, or an innovation intended to found a literary future? Finally, what is its form? Because the panel's papers come to different conclusions about these questions, we will eschew a discussant in favor of brief, jointly-authored intriguants for discussion that invite audience members to engage in the critical differences our essays represent.

Lu Xun's Dream Narratives: Rethinking Realism
Roy B. Chan, University of Oregon, USA

This paper argues for Yecao as Lu Xun’s poetic meditation on Chinese realism’s representational crisis and its possible formal resolution. The work of the late Marston Anderson has helped us immensely in understanding Lu Xun’s discomfort with the realist mode’s formal inability to reconcile observer and observed, its tendency to transform representational objects into objects of contempt, and its failure to spur dialectical ethical and political reflection on the part of the reader. Focusing on Lu Xun’s fantastic and bizarre works of dream-like prose poetry, I argue that his use of the dream trope allows him to address the fundamental problems of representation as well as suggest a radical way of recasting representation altogether. Yecao has often been considered as a site of non-realist, modernist experimentation: realism, however, should not merely be understood as a particular type of text, but as a mode of literary ideology that can exert its epistemological force upon a text that does not itself seem to be "realist.” For this reason, a discussion of Yecao as an engagement with realist ideology is essential. While Lu Xun was no stranger to psychoanalytic theories, I suggest that it is primarily the formal innovation of the dream trope, rather than its psychological implications, that is key in spurring Lu Xun’s rethinking of realism’s epistemological premises.

The Literary Life of Death in Lu Xun’s Prose Poetry
Nicholas A. Kaldis, State University of New York, Binghamton, USA

Lu Xun’s “Foreword” to his prose poem collection Wild Grass, a prose poem in its own right, pits death and decay against life and existence, and explores the consequences of this dualistic perspective through an extended series of binary images. Subsequently, roughly half the prose poems in the collection address issues of death and decay, the afterlife, and a host of other mortuary and eschatological images. Through a selection of close readings, this presentation will analyze the recurrent themes of mortality and death imagery in selected pieces from Wild Grass, arguing that Lu Xun’s artistic purpose in his prose poems was not to give vent to psychological darkness -- as has often been argued -- but to inject his own version of an existential ethic into a consciousness otherwise burdened with pessimism and nihilism. Rigorous interpretation of the poetry of Wild Grass yields a philosophical understanding of life that is dynamic, reflected in a poetic structure that is relentlessly faithful to this dynamic. Existence, as embodied in these prose poems, is not to be recovered from transcending the paradoxes of everyday experience, but from learning to dwell within contingency and contradiction. These poems provide new, often painful insights into the ambiguity and paradox of experience. Readers are forced to confront the extent to which routinization of thought, feeling, creative expression, and behavior can impede experience and the discovery of alternative possibilities. As Leo Lee puts it, “the reading process itself thus becomes an almost unending quest for meaning.”

Intractable Paradox: The Chinese Reception of Wild Grass
Charles A. Laughlin, University of Virginia, USA

Discussions of Lu Xun’s Wild Grass have been marginal participants in the history of Chinese-language reception of Lu Xun’s work, at least until recent decades. Underemphasis on Wild Grass served a larger project: writing modern Chinese literary history as an inexorable march toward revolutionary forms and content, and conceptualizing Lu Xun’s role in that process as pioneering forms that lead ultimately to the zawen satirical essay, understood as the apex of Lu Xun’s contribution to modern Chinese literature. But then what have Chinese commentators gotten out of Wild Grass in this process? What do Chinese readers across the twentieth century consider significant about this work, especially considering that it does not conform to the grand narrative of modern Chinese literary history? This paper examines Chinese readings of Wild Grass from shortly after its publication in 1927 to more recent rereadings of the work in the wake of the Era of Reform and Opening. While acknowledging efforts to cast Wild Grass into a narrative of Lu Xun’s struggle against reactionary political forces (and such readings are not entirely without merit), I will focus here instead on how these readings have constituted a counter-discourse in modern Chinese literary history that delves into Lu Xun’s formal explorations and how they contribute to the meaning of Wild Grass.

Misdirection is Direction -- the Poetics of Hinting in Wild Grass
Nick Admussen, Cornell University, USA

In the English preface to Wild Grass, written years after its first publication, Lu Xun is explicit about the fact that the collection was designed in part to share political ideals while eluding the oppressive literary controls of Beijing's warlords. He is also, however, recorded as appreciating the collection's "technique": past simply serving as a set of codes directed towards political allies, Wild Grass has flourished into a text whose intricacies and mysteries have outlasted many of Lu Xun's more straightforward zawen essays. Contemporary prose poetry, which has generally moved far afield from the tradition of Lu Xun, still engages in what Huang Yongjian calls the aestheticized "hint." Even official work with orthodox political positions is likely to engage in intentional, traceable misdirection; in avant-garde circles, readers enjoy work whose hints are partially or wholly inaccessible. This paper reads Lu Xun's "Such a Fighter" alongside several contemporary poems in order to theorize the aesthetic, political, and social reality of the misdirective portion of a literary hint. When poems engage in hinting, even if they are internally distant from or destructive of the surface matter that cloaks their intent, they unavoidably perform and validate that misdirective surface matter. The difference, then, between Wild Grass and more ephemeral literature of the Hundred Flowers period and later is not one of politics, but a difference in the design and nature of the vessels that contain politics.