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

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