Writers can awaken a nation.
The Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, George Santayana told us that “Those that don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
What lessons can the West learn from the East and the writings of Lu Xun?
Lu Xun, the pen name of Chinese philosopher Zhou Shuren, died a full decade before the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Yet, his words were the foundation on which modern China has been built. A writer, essayist, poet, and literary critic, Lu sent a wakeup call to the Chinese people about the anchors that were preventing their nation from soaring. His perspective was a broad view of the world not shared by many of his countrymen in his day.
Lu Xun set out to be a medical doctor, but tossed that dream aside to take up writing, understanding that there was no value in curing diseases in Chinese people’s bodies as the greater need was to change their minds and souls if they were to survive and prosper in a modern world.
Lu is considered the father of modern Chinese literature. His works were lauded by Mao Zedong, who declared the late writer “China’s modern saint.” Lu Xun’s writing gave China fuel to leave the past and catapult into the future of modernity.
Despite being widely acknowledged as the greatest Chinese writer of the twentieth century, few in the West know of his work. The first serious author to write using modern colloquial Chinese, his words struck a chord across the whole spectrum of Chinese society, from the elite and the common man.
Lu Xun dedicated his life to writing, teaching, and “encouraging young people as the major hope for China's future.” As I speak to my Chinese colleagues and friends, young and old, about Lu Xun, they recall reading his essays and memorizing his sayings as a vital part of their education, building a sense of pride about China’s future. His writings were a constant attack on social injustice and political corruption.
Lessons we might all reflect on Today
Lu Xun challenged the Chinese status quo, making biting and honest assessments on nearly all aspects of China’s old ways, customs, culture, and its calcified, bureaucratic institutions. His work and thinking represent the spirit of the Chinese people. While Lu was extremely critical of Chinese tradition, he strongly advocated modernization and a repudiation of the old order to move forward.
There are rumblings today in China that some are weary of Lu Xun’s words. Is it because “some people have begun to fear that ordinary people are waking up and gaining awareness once again?” Certainly, as the Chinese people and the world have witnessed, current leader Xi Jinping’s ‘Dream for China’ leaves little room for tolerance for dissent. Lu Xun’s voice drips dissent.
Speaking in 1927 Lu Xun, 6 years after the founding of the Communist Party, felt the Chinese people had not found a voice. “They were all living in what he called wushengde Zhongguo, ‘voiceless China.’” He implored: “Youth must first transform China into a China with a voice,” “They must speak boldly, move forward courageously, forget all considerations of personal advantage, push aside the ancients, and express their authentic feelings.”
He was calling for the Chinese people to “stand up,” before Mao declared the “The Chinese people have stood up”, at the gates of Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949 forming the new People’s Republic of China.
As the World Turns
Clearly, China has shaken off its Century of Humiliation and is standing tall, albeit with shaken legs as its leaders navigate an aging society, environmental challenges, ethnic tensions, border disputes, a global economy whacked by the tsunami of uncertainty caused by COVID-19, and the geopolitical juggling of a new world order.
China stands on the precipice of being a great power in the 21st century. Clearly China is a nation confidently and proudly moving forward on its own terms. The growth and development over the past 40 years is phenomenal and universally acknowledged.
The question for the Chinese leaders and Chinese people will be, “what type of power will it be”?
In a speech to the nation marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Party Chairman and President Xi Jinping proclaimed, "No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead." Still, at the same time, he said the country would, "follow the path of peaceful development." Referring to his country's policy of opening to the world, he said China would "work with people in all countries to build a community with a shared future for mankind.”
It is the first part of Xi’s proclamation, that “No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead” that has frightened many in the West. Clearly, the current U.S. administration has gone full speed ahead with a “blame China strategy” for coronavirus as a means of frightening Americans into supporting measures to maintain dominance.
Yet many argue with the problems in America today. It is time for the American people to wake up and stand up screaming, “I’m mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.”
In a few weeks, the American people will again vote for a president who will either strengthen or further crack the foundation of our democracy, as the world watches on.
Who will Serve as the 21st Century US version of Lu Xun?
Who will be America’s version of a Lu Xun, who sounds the alarm that the path we are now pursuing will not only be ineffective in holding China back, but more importantly, will not move the U.S. boldly into the future?
There are people who see America walking into an abyss. They see the final days of a great Democracy dying and, like Paul Revere, are frantically sounding the alarm, yet they still see average Americans “blowing it, sleepwalking into collapse letting the fascists steal your futures.”
As I have stated more than a decade ago, “China’s rise does not need to come at America’s demise.” Yet, America needs a strategy and plan that is more developed than “blaming China” —which seems to be the prevailing attitude in the Trump Administration today.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus reminds us, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Simply because the U.S. has spent the better part of the last century leading the world economically, militarily, and technologically, is no guarantee that we have a God-given-right to remain the world’s leader.
In the 21st century, who, like China’s Lu Xun, will “speak boldly, move forward courageously, forget all considerations of personal advantage, push aside the ancients, and express their authentic feelings?”
The relationship between China and the US is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. Both nations can benefit from learning from the other.