Saturday, April 30, 2011

Essay: Ideas and Values of Robert Pirsig as influenced by Eastern Thought with an emphasis on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I recently took some university courses. I thought that it might be of general interest to convert a few of my assignments into blogs. In 2008 I took a Humanities course titled ‘East Meets West’. There was an assignment on this subject:
A systematic analysis of the similarities between the ideas and values of Robert Pirsig and those of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Includes how he was influenced by these varieties of eastern thought with an emphasis on his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance / An Inquiry into Values.
As in all of my assignments, it was a struggle to be both succinct and complete in my writing. The essay that I turned in looked much like this:
Robert Persig was influenced for many years by eastern thought and religion before he sat down to write his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance[1] masterwork.  His background included an extensive education in both philosophy and religious studies.  In Zen’s prefatory Author’s Note he says that the book is not particularly factual about Zen Buddhist practice, and “it’s not very factual on motorcycles either.”  This is a book where the subtitle – An Inquiry into Values – might describe the theme better than the primary title does.
Mr. Persig was also heavily influenced by his studies of Greek philosophers and his personal descent into madness.  His attempt to meld his inner madness into a complete functional human being; reminded me of how various prophets and philosophers have meditated upon the division between body and soul, tried to explain Ying and Yang or attempted to bridge the divide between the current human plane of existence and the unknown future that awaits us after death.
Robert Persig’s Zen is fundamentally about junctures and gaps and how they are bridged.  He is not particularly interested in how a hypothesis is hatched, a plan is started or a destination is reached.  He is very interested in the process and the journey.  He puts relatively little importance on either classical or romantic ways of thinking.  He is very interested how the thinking meshes into a syncretic whole that he labels as Quality.
Though this essay is not intended as a biography or book review, a quick description of the author and his story is required to appreciate the Eastern influences.
Robert Persig was born just over eighty years ago on September 6, 1928 in Minneapolis.[2]  According to his personal story, as related in Zen, he was an exceptionally brilliant child and a gifted student.  As a teenage biochemistry student he was flummoxed when he realized that as classical science proved or disproved a series of hypotheses, each one that was knocked over would lead to an infinite number of new possible hypotheses.  As Alexander Elliot wrote, “man is not a problem solver so much he is a problem maker”.  (Elliot, Alexander "Zen and the art of what?”  p. 129)
Young Persig could not handle that his scientific study was making the world more complex rather than simpler.  What should be the “hardest part of scientific work, thinking up hypotheses, was invariably the easiest”.  As one possible theory was disproved a flood of new possibilities would become manifest.  They increased as he went along.  Phaedrus-Persig soon abandoned his study of chemical science.
This was followed by a stint in the US Army which included a posting in Korea.  There Persig received an introduction to Eastern thought.  He writes about an influential book on Oriental philosophy that he read at this point.  He says that the book compares Western and Eastern components of man’s existence and that these components correspond to classic and romantic modes of reality.[3]
After his return to the United States he rejoined the university system to study philosophy.  To polish his American studies he studied Oriental philosophy at Benares Hindu University in India.  He remained an empirical scientist but he had “been exposed to a lot”. (Persig  p. 141)
After his studies in India, Persig returned to the United States.  He taught rhetorical English at a university in Montana followed by an attempt to get his doctorate by study at the University of Chicago’s Department of Philosophy.  Through all this time he thought on the nature of Quality.  He studied the way that objective and subjective ways of thinking worked together.  He practised the art of motorcycle maintenance.  He also became quite unable to handle the reality of normal society.  In other words he became insane.
In 1960 Persig was finally admitted to a mental institution.  In 1963, he was treated with a series of electroshock procedures.  During these treatments – according to the Zen narrative – Robert Persig became separated from his earlier personality and much of his earlier memories.  He gives the name of Phaedrus to this earlier ‘insane’ personality and writes of himself in the third-person.  In a way Phaedrus can be thought as a previous incarnation of Persig the author.  Eastern religions have much to say about previous and future incarnations.
In July 1968[4] Persig headed out from the city of his birth on a journey to the West.  He started the trip with his motorcycle, his son, a couple of friends and Phaedrus.  During the course of his motorcycle journey, he leaves his friends behind, he does a lot of thinking about Quality, he unites his rational self and his irrational Phaedrus self, and he confronts the fears of his 12 year old son.
This story of this journey might be intended as a reflection of the Toaist journey of discovery to the Western mountains and the Toaist appreciation of nature.  Persig does not explicitly say this though.
In 1874 a type of summer camp for adults was founded on the banks of Chautauqua Lake, New York.  This spawned a series of travelling road shows that combined entertainment and education.  These road shows took place over several days and became known themselves as Chautauquas.  They included lectures presented in a manner and style that would allow the ordinary citizen to understand difficult subjects. [5]  Robert Persig designed his Zen book as a form of Chautauqua meant to both entertain and elucidate.  Elliot points out that in classic Zen practise an artist or performer will follow the concept of a “masterpiece of the past” and then “as with Zen swordsmanship, archery, and tea, the whole point is in the performance itself. In the doing, that is to say, not the product.” (Eliot  p. 126)  A hundred years after that first Chautauqua show, Persig published his own skillful modern version of an entertaining presentation that also provides instruction.
Phaedrus-Persig remained an empirical scientist but he had been exposed to Eastern thought.  “He became aware that the doctrinal differences among Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism are not anywhere near as important as doctrinal differences among Christianity and Islam and Judaism.” (Persig  p. 141)  Just a couple paragraphs later, the author says that
The illusion of separation of subject from object is best removed by the elimination of physical activity, mental activity and emotional activity. There are many disciplines for this. One of the most important is the Sanskrit dhyana, mispronounced in Chinese as "Chan" and again mispronounced in Japanese as "Zen."
In other words, the subject and object are just parts of one whole system; their interaction can be studied by contemplation and meditation, and this method of study is known as Zen.  A dictionary[6] definition says that “enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition rather than through faith and devotion”.  Study and activity (or the lack of such activity) are more important than prayer or faith.
According to R.Z. Sheppard’s review[7] of Zen: “Pirsig is no orthodox Zen Buddhist”. For Persig motorcycle maintenance is the equivalent of a meditative tea ceremony. 
Briefly, motor maintenance requires a good deal of quiet concentration so that the underlying principles of the engine are allowed to fill the gap between the object (engine) and the subject (mechanic). A Zen monk would say that under such conditions, the fixer and the fixed are no longer opposing objects but one reality.
Phaedrus-Pirsig never thought small. His aim was to do nothing less than revamp the whole scientific method that operated from the premise that the observer and what was observed must be separate realities. (Sheppard)
Just as the story has the major theme of Persig melding with his Phaedrus self it has a secondary theme where Persig and his son Chris, “who up to this point have seemed like subject and object, are united by what might be appropriately described as the underlying quality of familial love” (Sheppard).
One of the oriental themes is that Quality matters.  Otherwise one might simply throw things together without caring about the results.
“Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context that they thought was completely different.  Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, photons and quants are to modern man.” (Persig  pp. 33 - 34) Persig’s own ghost (Phaedrus) was real to him and belonged entirely to him.  To Persig, Phaedrus was something entirely his own.  (In a similar way, everyone has dreams that are entirely different from than those that anyone else has.  Dreams belong only to one person and one self).  Persig had a hard time giving up his personal ghost.
Persig writes about a man dividing a handful of sand into understandable parts. “This and that.  Here and there.  Black and white.  Now and then.  The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.” (Persig  p. 79) On the next page he explains that Classical understanding is concerned with the piles of sand and the classification of the same.  “Romantic understanding is directed toward the handful of sand before the sorting begins.  … It’s necessary to see that part of the landscape, inseparable from it, which must be understood, is a figure in the middle of it, sorting sand into piles… To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely.” (Persig  p. 80)
In a later discussion, the author writes about the Japanese state of mu. It is a way of answering a question with something other than yes or no.  He postulates that nature can have states other than the digital on or off.  There is something outside of Ying and Yang and that something is the entire whole or mu. (Persig  p. 327)
The Buddha exists independent of analytical thought but Persig says that the Buddha also “exists within analytic thought, and gives that analytic thought its direction”. (Persig  p. 81)  Persig pursued his personal ghost named Phaedrus; but he also says that Phaedrus spent his entire life pursuing “the ghost that underlies all of technology, all of modern science, all of Western thought. It is the ghost of rationality itself. … whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness.” (Persig  p. 82)  Being rational is incoherent.  The ultimate purpose of life is an impossible paradox; “one lives longer in order that he may live longer.  There is no other purpose.  That is what the ghost says.” (Persig  p. 82).[8]
The book on the surface seems to be about a physical journey across a physical world.  It is also about a journey to “the high country of the mind” (Persig  p. 125) where one has to become adjusted to the thin air of uncertainty.  The sweep of possible questions and possible answers goes on obviously much further than the mind can grasp.
Persig compares the Zen Buddhist practise of “just sitting,” and the motorcycle maintenance practise of “just fixing”. (Persig  p. 303)  When a person cares about what he is doing he must break out of the separateness between a person and his work.  “Peace of mind produces right values, right values produces right thoughts.  Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.” (Persig  p. 304)
As the book continues, it introduces more and more influence by classic Greek and Western philosophy.  There are discussions of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Thoreau and Poincaré.  Persig finally pulls the East and West into the same philosophical space, “Quality! Virtue! Dharma!” he declares are simply different words for the same concept. (Persig  p. 386)
While studying this book for this essay, I came to realize all the ways that the author was heavily influenced by Buddhism – especially the concepts of the Japanese Zen tradition.  Robert Persig tried to combine Western classical thought and Eastern romanticism.  He tried to meld the art of doing and the state of just being.
I saw little in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that was influenced by Hinduism or classic Confucianism.  I found places where it might have been influenced by Taoistic concepts of a journey through life and the reverence of nature and natural surroundings.  Persig did not directly refer to the teachings of Hinduism, Confucianism or Taoism.  He does write a lot about Greek philosophical concepts.
He showed that the universe is not just Ying / Yang or black / white or good / evil. There is also an overriding Quality, Virtue or Buddha quality that stands outside, and also consists of, the entire whole.  (Some things in this plane of existence are a somewhat difficult for human beings to fully grasp and understand).  He did all this in a Chautauqua that teaches difficult religious and philosophical concepts while entertaining with a good story.

Bibliography and references used in this Essay
Eliot, Alexander  "Zen and the art of what?"
Eastern Buddhist 9.1 (May 1976)
: pp 124-130.
Gregory, Dave  “Unit 2 / Robert Persig’s Quest for Quality”
Humanities 360: East Meets West Study Guide
Athabasca, AB
Lin Yutang. (ed) The Wisdom of China and India
New York, NY: The Modern Library, 1955.
Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.
Schuldenfrei  “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Originally printed in Harvard Educational Review, vol 45, no 1 February 1975
Sheppard, R.Z. “The Enormous Vrooom”  Time
New York, NY  April 15 1974
Review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Steiner, George "Uneasy Rider"  The New Yorker
New York, NY  April 15 1974
Review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Toynbee, Philip  “Voyage of Discovery.”
Review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Original printed in The Observer no 9561 October 17, 1974.

[1] This book will be referred to from here forward as Zen.
All the Zen references here are to the 2005 edition as detailed in the bibliography.
[2] The general biographic details of Robert Persig’s life are based on the endnotes of the 2005 Zen edition.
[3] Persig says that the book he read was The Meeting of East and West by F. S. C. Persig.  Interestingly enough, he doesn’t mention the subtitle, An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding, which might have influenced Zen’s subtitle: An Inquiry into Values.
[4] Coincidentally, this journey occurred in the summer 40 years ago when Persig was almost exactly half of his current age
[5] Details on the Chautauqua movement are from
[6] From definition of ‘Zen’
[7] Sheppard, R.Z. “The Enormous Vrooom”  Time Magazine
[8]  In Zen religious practice such a paradox, containing aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, is known as a koan and used as a subject of mediation.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Essay: Similarities and Differences between Buddhism and Taoism

In the past few years I took some university courses. One Humanities course was titled ‘East Meets West’. I thought it might be of general interest to convert some of my essays into blogs. This example looked at the question: 
What are the most fundamental similarities and differences between Buddhism and Taoism?

Buddhism and Taoism have many similarities with some fundamental differences.  They were both based on the teachings of two particular master sages born in Asia more than 2500 years ago.  They are both concerned with the correct paths for right-thinking people and both preach simplicity and contemplation.  Yet Taoism is more concerned with the riddle of life here and now while Buddhism is more concerned with breaking the eternal cycle of pain and suffering.  Taoism’s basic teachings are mystical aphorisms for contemplation; while Buddhism presents many laws and precepts that can be followed to affect a person’s karma or destiny.
Buddhism is generally based on the teachings of a very real person named Siddhartha Gautama.  The dates for his birth and death are commonly given as 563 BCE to 483 BCE.  He became known as a Buddha or the Awakened One after his personal enlightenment.  His teachings were written down by others a few hundred years after his death.  While different schools of thought – such as the greater vehicle of the Mahayana Tradition and the Zen monks with their contemplative puzzles – have interpreted and expanded Buddha’s teachings in many ways, these schools are all based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
In Siddhartha’s early life he had lived a pampered life hidden from the pain of others.  Later, he spent years struggling with ritual and ascetic practices without ever overcoming the suffering of human existence.  Finally he sat under a tree, meditated, cleared his mind and looked within himself.  With his insight he saw the folly of struggle and realized the middle path.  He overcame the temptations of Mara.  He saw all that there was to be known and was ready to take the path to the ultimate stage of Nirvana; but he hesitated.  He was now ready to leave this earth of dirt and suffering but in the past he had pledged to bring peace to the world.
The Buddha realized that there many who would welcome his message of the way to overcome pain and suffering; he knew that there were many who could overcome Samsara or the eternal wheel of birth, death and reincarnation.  He stepped back from the brink and began to teach others his Middle Way.
 Taoism is based on the writings and ideas of Lao-Tse (604-531 BCE), who was said to be a contemporary of Confucius. Some scholars have disputed the existence of a single historical person; since, once again, his teachings were written down and reinterpreted a few centuries after his death.  Chuang Tzu was the most famous interpreter and recorder of the teachings of Lao-Tse
Lao-Tse saw himself as the Old Master showing others the path to contemplation and enlightenment.  Just as Siddhartha Gautama stopped on the path to enlightenment, Lao-tse stopped on his path to the Western mountains.  At the urging of a gatekeeper, Lao-Tse stopped for three days and wrote the small book of teachings that would bear his name.  This book illustrated the methods for people to achieve inner peace and calmness.  Like the teachings of Buddha, his words seem simple and at first glance many of his concepts seem quite easy to understand. In practice though it has been quite hard for people to understand and follow his simple words.
Neither Buddhism and and Taoism spend much time worrying about the details of earthly existence.  The disciple Malunkyaputta[1], noted a number of points that the Buddha had not discussed.  These included whether the world is eternal or infinite and if the soul exists without the body.  Buddha said discussing these moot points is like a man who has been shot with an arrow and then does not want it taken out until he has learnt the name and caste of the man who wounded him.  Buddha said that “I have not explained what I have not explained… and what have I explained?”  He had explained misery, “the origin of misery, the cessation of misery, and the path leading to the cessation of misery have I explained”.  Everything else was of much less importance.
Buddha’s offerings to his disciples included an Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths.  He provided practical hints for meditation.  Other earthly details were not for him to worry about.  For his disciples, the knowledge of details was to be achieved through self-awareness, observation and meditation.
Similarly, Lao-Tse taught the power of repose and acceptance.  He said that great things are achieved by becoming as tranquil as still water.  He warned about gaining too much useless knowledge.  He wrote that the “reason that it is difficult for the people to live in peace / Is because of too much knowledge.”  He was a master of keeping things simple.  As it is written in one translation:
I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.
Perhaps the biggest difference between these two religious paths is that Taoism seems more concerned with what is happening here and now.  Lao-Tse provided advice for governors regarding their relations with their country’s people.  He was concerned with living with the Tao of nature in the world we currently inhabit.  Buddha is concerned with stopping the endless cycle of reincarnation.  He was more concerned with inner peace and what comes at the end of this current existence.  His advice to princes and kings is simply to give everything away and prepare for the next world.
Buddhism is concerned with achieving a state of Nirvana or perfect peace of the mind.  Taoism is concerned with achieving acceptance of the nature of Tao which is the fundamental nature of the universe.
In conclusion, both Lao-Tse and Buddha taught the power of inner peace, acceptance and contemplation.  Buddha was more concerned with escaping from the pain of this world.  Lao-Tse was more concerned with overcoming by acceptance and the lack of struggle.

References used in this Essay
Lin Yutang. (ed) The Wisdom of China and India
New York, NY: The Modern Library, 1955.
Novak, Philip. The World's Wisdom: Sacred Texts of the World's Religions
San Francisco, USA: HarperSanFrancisco 1994
Tao Te Ching as translated by Stephen Mitchell Tao Ching
Harper Perennial; compact edition
(Quotation from this translation was retrieved

[1] This paragraph largely based on Page 63 and 64 of The World’s Wisdom.
[2] Stephen Mitchell translation chapter 67.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Essay: Lu Xun, Kita Ikki and their struggles for the “national souls” of China and Japan

A few years ago I took some university courses. I thought that it might be interesting to convert a few of my assignments into blogs. For a course titled 'The Pacific Century' I wrote an essay for the assignment question:
Describe and discuss the ways in which Lu Xun and Kita Ikki struggled for the “national souls” of their respective countries in their writings and their actions.
Which of the two was the more influential, and why?
This is what I wrote:


Lu Xun was the pen name of a Chinese writer of short stories and political criticism who became a left-wing hero.  As a young man he spent about five years in Japan and was inspired by the modernization that he saw there.
Kita Ikki was the pen name of a Japanese writer and polemicist who became a prophet of the right.  He spent about eight years in China and – after seeing the aftermath of the 1911 revolution – he was inspired to make things happen differently in Japan.
They were contemporaries.  They both believed in educational and language reform.  They both wrote about the distribution of wealth and revitalizing the souls of their respective nations.  They were both revolutionary thinkers “cheering from the sidelines”.  Both of them had influence that continued after their deaths.
Ultimately though, they were quite different.  Some of Kita Ikki’s ideas spurred a decade of Japanese militarists; but many of his arguments – such as breaking the economic power structure, increasing social welfare and democratic reforms – were never convincingly written or followed.  His influence, even in Japan, was never strong except for a narrow group of right-wing academics and hot-headed troops.
Lu Xun was a far more compassionate and intelligent writer with universal appeal.  He changed the soul of China and is often listed as one of Asia’s greatest writers.  His stories are still popular and influential today.


Early History of Lu Xun

He was born September 25, 1881 at Shaoxing, Zheijiang Province and given the name Zhou Shuren.  His father had tuberculosis and died after taking local herbal remedies.  Shaoxing was drowning in superstition.[1] 
China’s future Premier Zhou Enlai shared the same family name and the same ancestral home town.  From a biography of Zhou Enlai:
“Shaoxing was, still is, a lovely city with a crisscross of canals, and charming old houses.  It was a great center of trade and learning … It provided the Empire with its best civil servants, cultured and competent”.[2]
From 1898 to 1901 Zhou Shuren studied at a naval academy and the School of Mines and Railways.  He learned that the West had things such as modern science that China had not.  He travelled to Tokyo in 1902.  There he saw ways that an Asian country could modernize.  He became a medical student at Sendai University.  As he later wrote:
“I dreamed the beautiful dream that on my return to China I would cure patients who, like my father, had been wrongly treated; and if war broke out, then I would serve as a doctor in the army and simultaneously strengthen my countrymen’s faith in reform”.[3]
While at Sendai he saw photos of a Chinese crowd that was watching some Chinese spies being beheaded.  He saw no expression on their faces.  Wanting to change the national spirit more than he wanted to fix bodies, he returned to China to become a writer.[4]  For his writing he took the pen name of Lu Xun (also spelled Lu Hsun).
He saw that China was no match for the destructive power of the west.  He believed that literature should be on the vanguard of creating new nations.  He said that culture was a prison house with no escape.  He looked squarely into the soul of the Chinese people.[5]
By 1909 he was a teacher at Zhejiang Bi-level Normal School in Hangzhou city.  In 1911 the Xinhai revolution overthrew the Qing imperial dynasty.  In 1912 Lu Xun moved to Beijing to take a position with the Department of Education.  By the twenties he was a professor at Beijing University.[6]

The Writings of Lu Xun

According to the textbook “Lu Xun had unquestionably emerged as the most brilliant writer of the movement, and his words were guaranteed an inquisitive audience.” [7]
In his stories he wrote about a backward corrupt China.  His most famous satire was the “True Story of Ah Q”.  It portrayed the 1911 revolution as
“a muddled and inconclusive event, one controlled by charlatans and issuing in the deaths of the innocent and gullible.  Lu Xun saw it as his task to direct the searching beam of his critical gaze onto the cultural backwardness and moral cowardice of the Chinese.  He was harsh in his criticisms and often pessimistic in tone, even though his stories are full of compassion”.[8]
Lu Xun hated the Confucian legacy and attacked it with bitter satire.  He constantly reiterated the “Ah Q” theme, that the so-called “revolution of 1911” had changed nothing of significance in the Chinese character but had just brought a new set of scoundrels into office.  He felt that revolutionary political activism might one day bring about constructive social change, but he feared that the admixture of progressive thought with superstition and apathy made that possibility problematic.  He regretted bitterly the difficulties in China of speaking across class lines, and of keeping any hope alive in such a fragmented world.[9]
Lu was attacked for exaggerating China’s plight.  He said that reality was worse than his fiction.  Ancient culture was China’s greatest enemy.  In the story Diary of a Madman the lonely hero reads a history book.  The truth was written between the lines.  The “madman” writer saw people eating each other.  The writer saw society differently than others did.  After a “cure” the madman had no clear vision.  Only a madman could see the horrors. [10]
In 1927 Chiang Kai-shek and Kuomintang (KMT) troops took over Shanghai.  There was a general worker’s strike organized by the communist.  On April 13 the KMT troops fired on a demonstration and 100 workers and students were killed.  The Chinese seemed to be eating themselves just as in Lu’s story of the Madman.

Later History and Influence of Lu Xun

Lu Xun moved to Shanghai and lived in the relative freedom of the Japanese concession.  He wanted to ventilate China with Western ideas.
“Lu Xun devoted a great amount of time to the visual arts; he was especially drawn to the forceful simplicity and immediacy of the cartoon and the woodblock print, which he had long admired and now began to sponsor vigorously through the league of Left-Wing Artists, founded in the summer of 1930”.[11]
Lu was not a romantic.  He was a writer and not a direct revolutionary.  Significantly the title of his first book of stories is Cheering from the Sidelines[12].  He wrote that
“Revolution is a bitter thing, mixed with filth and blood, not so lovely or perfect as the poets think.  It is eminently down-to-earth, involving many humble, tiresome tasks, not so romantic as the poets think … it is easy for all who have romantic dreams about revolution to become disillusioned on closer acquaintance, when a revolution is actually carried out”.[13]
In 1931 China bombed the Chinese sector of Shanghai.  They invade Manchuria and set up Manchukuo.  There was great anti-Japanese feeling.  This culminated in massive ant-Japanese demonstrations in December 1935.
In the mid-thirties the Communists under the leadership of Mao Zedong battled the Nationalists under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek and retreated into Shaanxi province.  In 1935 and 1936 there was a storm of controversy around Lu Xun and the League of Left-Wing Writers.  “Lu Xun became enmeshed with Communist Party cadres in a battle of slogans.”  Lu was enraged after the League of Left-Wing Writers was disbanded in the spring of 1936.[14]
Many zawen were written – “the short, sharp, critical essays that had been Lu Xun’s stock-in-trade during the last years of his life, and in which he mocked or parodied aspects of the communist style.”[15]
He imagined people trapped in a closed iron room with no hope of escape.  They were in danger of suffocating in their sleep.  “In other words, they would slip peacefully from a deep slumber into oblivion, spared the anguish of being conscious of their impending doom.”  Should the writer awaken some of them to “a certain death fully conscious of what was going to happen to them”?  Lu Xun believed that though the writer was convinced that there was no escape he “couldn’t dismiss hope entirely, for hope belongs to the future.”[16]  He finishes his story Hometown[17] with the words that hope is “like a path across the land—it’s not there to begin with, but when lots of people go the same way, it comes into being.”[18]
According to Spence: “The central idea here was not far from Mao Zedong’s … But whereas Lu Xun believed that through his work the Chinese at least would die thinking, Mao insisted that they die fighting.”[19]  Lu died of tuberculosis – as his father did – in Shanghai on October 19, 1936.  10,000 people were in his funeral procession.[20]
Lu Xun’s name has often been invoked when the role of writers was discussed.  In 1942, Ding Ling[21] wrote about Lu Xun that “we have not sufficiently acquired his courage in sparing no details.  I think it will do us most good if we emulate his steadfastness in facing the truth, and his fearlessness.”[22]
The next year Mao Zedong argued that Lu Xun’s zawen weapon was never used to ridicule or attack “revolutionary people or parties, and his style in those essays was completely different from the style he employed against the enemy.”[23]  (Criticism was to be saved for external enemies).  Mao “often quoted Lu Hsun [Lu Xun], praised his courage and studied his writings. Some of Mao’s essays in the 1940’s show the influence of Lu Hsun’s sharp satirical style.”[24]
In the sixties Lu Xun was made into a cult figure revered by the Gang of Four.  By 1979 Deng Xiaoping took the apposing view that he was “a prescient critic of the Gang of Four’s own future machinations.”[25]
Whether or not one believes that Lu Xun was predicting the future in his essays; and whether or not one believes that he was only criticizing external enemies; it is quite obvious that his writing had great influence on China and other nations long after his death.  William Lyell writes that Lu was “More than just a great writer, and without a trace of the sentimentality that often clings to those who preach the brotherhood of man, Lu Xun was one of our century’s great internationalists.”[26]


Early History of Kita Ikki

He was born less than 2 years after Lu Xun on Sado Island in the Sea of Japan.  He was given the name Kita Terujiro.  He later adopted the pen name Kita Ikki for his published writings.  He was educated at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo.
From 1911 to 1919 he was in China where “as an observer for the Amur River Society, he had been deeply involved in post-1911 KMT politics.  The murder of his friend, KMT master strategist Song Jiaren[27], had deeply embittered him against the Japanese government.  In his book entitled A Private History of the Chinese Revolution he blamed the government for Song’s death because it had not backed the KMT.”[28]
Kita modified his overall thinking during his career.  The crucial turning point was his involvement in the 1911 Chinese revolution. [29]
In the 1920’s Japan was dancing to a modern beat.  Strikes were common.  There were struggles between left and right.  Kita retreated to Sado Island which was his childhood home.
This was a period of naturalism and realism in Japanese literature.  Some would say that Kita was a fanatic.  He was on cocaine the last thirty years of his life.  He started as treatment for childhood eye injury.  The use of cocaine lead to visions and seeing ghosts. Kita Ikki was “a frail, one-eyed visionary, clad in a Chinese robe”.[30]
Kita promoted a pan-Asian movement.  He wanted Chinese to free themselves from Western domination.  The Chinese did not see the Japanese as liberators.

The Writings and Influence of Kita Ikki

In Kita’s first major treatise, The Theory of National Purity and Pure Socialism, he proposed an identity between ancient political society and socialism and equated the traditional absence of private property with the diminished role of state structure.  To him the emperor symbolized the common ownership of property and hence a communal form of social existence.[31]
He became convinced of the importance of the imperial figure as a unifying principle of politics.  In his estimation the Chinese revolution failed precisely because of its leadership’s inability to establish a persuasive centralized political order.  …  While still in Shanghai, Kita began to draft his program for total political reorganization, in a tract called An Outline Plan for the Reorganization of the Japanese State.[32]  Unpublished until 1923, the book was heavily censored by the authorities, but clandestine uncensored copies circulated among his adherents.[33]
Kita Ikki had some leftist thoughts.  He believed in land reform for farmers and profit sharing with workers.  Kita was inspired by 19th century Japanese slogan: “Rich Nation Strong Military”.  Peace without war was not the way to heaven.  His book reached few people but his radical ideas spread like a slow fuse.[34]
In his Outline Plan “he advocated overthrowing the prevailing leadership in a swift and conclusive coup d’état.  By reconstituting the structure of authority, he believed, Japan would rid itself of Western political institutions and economic practices as a necessary condition for a final confrontation in Asia.”[35]
Underlying Kita’s writings is a sense of national crisis unleashed by capitalist and bureaucratic exploitation and leading to extreme inequality and misery in society.[36]
He saw the importance of the emperor not so much an institution that had survived from ancient times but as a symbol of community. … In Japan, Kita argued, the imperial institution had been preserved to represent the national culture, but its potential as a social monarchy had been suppressed by the rise of bourgeois and bureaucratic politics within the constitutional order. …. Kita was indifferent to the idea of a divine emperor.[37]
Kita’s theory of revolution depended on establishing the principle of a “people’s emperor” as a necessary condition for the eventual implementation of a socialist order. … The new socialist order in Japan would come without class warfare yet would include the new forces of industry and science.  A socialist revolution in Japan, moreover, would be the first step in a chain reaction leading to the liberation of all Asian countries from Western political and economic domination.[38]
The Japanese flag, he boasted, would one day be emblazoned on the minds of all Asian people … darkness … would be lifted in the near future when Japan engaged the West in a conclusive naval confrontation. …  Only through such an “ultimate war” would peace and power in Asia be secured.[39]
Once cleansed of foreign impurities, “he wrote, a revitalized Japan was destined to triumph in the cataclysm of nation-states at war.”[40]  According to Kita: “after making India independent and China autonomous, the Rising Sun Flag of Japan shall offer the light of the sun to all mankind”[41]
The destruction of privilege, the reconstitution of community, the regulation of working conditions, such as the establishment of an eight-hour workday, equality of employment for both men and women, and numerous other proposals shaped this theory of mobilization.[42]
Kita advocated the total abolition of the use of Chinese ideographs.[43]  He “warned that the English language poisoned the Japanese mind and should be replaced with Esperanto.”[44] 
He “ended his outline with a passage from the Lotus Sutra … calling attention to the saint’s determination to lead the populace from passion and chaos to light, knowledge and salvation…. Kita no doubt saw himself as a latter-day saint in a time of grave national peril.”[45]  

Later History of Kita Ikki

While Kita himself mostly pursued a quiet, apolitical life of teaching[46] his Outline Plan became popular with young army officers.
They were especially attracted to some of the most incendiary aspects of his plan, which called for the replacement of the ruling elite by a coup d’état, the suspension of the Constitution, and imposition of martial law.  His ideas combined democracy, imperialism, and fascism in a self-contradictory brew that nevertheless intoxicated a growing number of the enthusiasts in the military.[47]
On February 26, 1936, 1400 soldiers attempted a military coup.  They assassinated some key government leaders and called on the military to rise up.  “The main object of the rebels was to wipe out the leaders of Government and the elder statesmen who advised them and the Emperor.  They would thus, they believed, create a vacuum which only the army could fill.”[48]
They phoned Kita to inform him.  He was stunned.[49]  Although he had been informed of the plot, Kita Ikki had no direct role in it.[50]  The impetus of the movement was the “field-grade officers, most of them sons of the soil, their heads stuffed with martial dreams of grandeur but little formal education, their political philosophy a pungent and potent admixture of National Socialism, Fascism and medieval superstition.”[51]
Emperor Hirohito was under siege.  He denounced the rebels as traitors. “’I want them crushed, not martyred,’ he said”.[52] “There would be no public trial, no fighting speeches, and definitely no martyrdom.”[53] 

The rebels were defeated but their military leaders now had an excuse to take complete control of the country.  Kita was put away, tried in a military court, and executed as a communist in 1937.    (Lu Xun’s death was just a year earlier).
Enshrined thereafter as a martyr, Kita’s image resurfaced in future decades in conservative Japanese literature.  Nor did his death and that of the insurrectionists slow the momentum toward a military takeover of the government: Many officers who had been sympathetic to the goals of the rebels remained in the ranks.[54]
Military control expanded.  “Asia for the Asians” became a slogan for conquest.  Kita Ikki’s ideas were used to defend an apocalyptic war.


Both Lu Xun and Kita Ikki both started with good ideals.  Both saw the need for change in their respective nations.  They both had roles as writer revolutionaries.
Kita Ikki though was a naïve idealist who was shocked when his ideas were actually put into play.  In his imagination the image alone of the emperor and the rising sun should have been strong enough to inspire many Eastern nations to rise up and throw out Western imperialism.  He was a believer in symbols.
Lu Xun saw the failures of his fellow Chinese; but he also foresaw their ability to change.  He was a realist who never thought that revolution was going to be easy.  He was a believer in hope.
Lu Xun left a greater and more enduring legacy to his nation than Kita Ikki did to his.


Borthwick, Mark  Pacific Century: The Emergence of Modern Pacific Asia, 3rd Ed.
Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2007.
Gibney, Alex  The Pacific Century: Vol. 4 (Writers and Revolutionaries)
An documentary video series co-produced by
PBS and the Pacific Basin Institute, 1992.
Hall, John W., Marius B. Jansen, Madoka Kanah, and Denis Teitchett
The Cambridge History of Japan: Vol. 6: The Twentieth Century
Cambridge, UK: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1988.
Han Suyin  Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, 1898-1976
New York, NY: Hill and Wang (a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 1994.
Han Suyin  The morning deluge;: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese revolution, 1893-1954
Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company, 1972.
Lu Xun (translated with introduction and preface by William A. Lyell)
Lu Xun / Diary of a Madman and other stories
Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
Mosley, Leonard,  Hirohito / Emperor of Japan
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Spence, Jonathan D.  The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution 1895-1980
New York, NY:  The Viking Press, 1981
Totman, Conrad  A History of Japan, 2nd Ed (The Blackwell History of the World)
Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

[1] Gibney, Alex  The Pacific Century Vol. 4 (Writers and Revolutionaries)
[2] Han Suyin  Eldest Son  p. 13
[3] Spence, Jonathan  The Gate of Heavenly Peace p. 64 (quoting from Lu Xun’s Selected Works)
[4] Gibney, Alex  The Pacific Century Vol. 4
[5] Gibney, Alex  The Pacific Century Vol. 4
[6] Biographic details are from several sources especially the introduction by William Lyell to Lu Xun / Diary of a Madman and other stories
[7] Borthwick, Mark  Pacific Century  p. 177 [The section on Lu Xun is a selection from Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990)  pp. 318-319]
[8] Borthwick, Mark  Pacific Century pp. 177 – 179  (quoting Spence The Search for Modern China)
[9] Borthwick, Mark  Pacific Century p. 178  (quoting Spence The Search for Modern China)
[10] This paragraph and the next two were based on the video Gibney, Alex  The Pacific Century Vol. 4.
Other sources give quite different dates and casualty figures.  These were confusing times.
[11] Spence, Jonathan  The Gate of Heavenly Peace  P. 241
[12] Title as translated by William Lyell and discussed in introduction to Diary of a Madman and other stories.  Others have translated the title as Call to Arms or Cry Out
[13] Spence, Jonathan  The Gate of Heavenly Peace p. 64 (quoting from Lu Xun’s Selected Works)
[14]  Spence, Jonathan  The Gate of Heavenly Peace  pp. 257 - 258
[15]  Spence, Jonathan  The Gate of Heavenly Peace  p. 288
[16] Lu Xun (translated by William Lyell) Diary of a Madman… p. 27
[17] The title is translated elsewhere as My Old Town
[18] Lu Xun (translated by William Lyell) Diary of a Madman… p. 100
[19] Borthwick, Mark  Pacific Century p. 179  (quoting Jonathan Spence The Search for Modern China)
[20] Gibney, Alex  The Pacific Century Vol. 4
[21] According to an article at the Encarta Encyclopaedia:
Ding Ling (1904–1986) was assumed name of Chinese novelist Chiang Wei-Chih.
She was persecuted by both the KMT in the thirties and the communists in the fifties.
[22] Spence, Jonathan  The Gate of Heavenly Peace p. 288 (quoting from Hsia Tsi-an’s The Gate of Darkness, Studies on a the Leftist Literary Movement in China. Seattle, 1968)
[23] Spence, Jonathan The Gate of Heavenly Peace p. 293 (quoting from Bonnie S. McDougall’s Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art”. Ann Arbour, 1980)
[24] Han Suyin  The Morning Deluge  p. 353
[25] Spence, Jonathan The Gate of Heavenly Peace p. 360
[26] Introduction by William Lyell to Diary of a Madman and other stories  p. xxx
[27] According to an article at the Encarta Encyclopaedia:
Song Jiaren (1882-1913) was a Chinese political leader and advocate of democracy in China.  In 1904 Song fled to Japan where he studied law at Waseda University – which is where he probably met fellow Waseda student Kita Ikki.  Song was a founding member of the Tongmenghui (Revolutionary Alliance).   He returned to China in 1910.  The Tongmenghui and several smaller political parties merged to form the KMT. Song’s energetic campaigning won the KMT a majority of seats in 1912 elections, but his speeches angered President Yuan Shikai.  Song was assassinated in March 1913 at the Shanghai Railway Station.
[28] Borthwick, Mark  Pacific Century p. 197
[29] This and the next four paragraphs were based on Gibney, Alex  The Pacific Century Vol. 4
[30] quote from Totman, Conrad  The History of Japan p. 378
[31] Hall, John  The Cambridge History of Japan p. 717
[32] Hall, John  The Cambridge History of Japan p. 718
[33] Borthwick, Mark  Pacific Century p. 197
[34] This paragraph is based upon Gibney, Alex  The Pacific Century Vol. 4
[35] Hall, John  The Cambridge History of Japan  p. 719
[36] Hall, John  The Cambridge History of Japan  p. 718
[37] Hall, John  The Cambridge History of Japan  p. 719
[38] Hall, John  The Cambridge History of Japan  p. 720
[39] Hall, John  The Cambridge History of Japan  p. 721
[40] Totman, Conrad  The History of Japan p. 378
[41] Quote is from George M. Wilson Radical Nationalism in Japan: Kita Ikki 1883 – 1937  (Cambridge, MA HUP, 1969) as mention in The History of Japan (Totman, Conrad  p. 378)
[42] Hall, John  The Cambridge History of Japan  p. 721
[43] Hall, John  The Cambridge History of Japan  p. 721
[44] Totman, Conrad  The History of Japan  p. 378
[45] Hall, John  The Cambridge History of Japan  pp. 721 – 722.
[46] Totman, Conrad  The History of Japan  p. 378
[47] Borthwick, Mark  Pacific Century  p. 198
[48] Mosley, Leonard,  Hirohito  p. 140
[49] Gibney, Alex  The Pacific Century: Vol. 4 [video]
[50] Borthwick, Mark  Pacific Century p. 199
[51] Mosley, Leonard,  Hirohito  p. 133
[52] Mosley, Leonard,  Hirohito  p. 145
[53] Mosley, Leonard,  Hirohito  p. 146
[54] Borthwick, Mark  Pacific Century p. 199