Despite his mighty legacy as the father of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun’s presence at Swarthmore is a humble one, manifesting in the new woodcut exhibition in the Cratsley Lounge on the second floor of McCabe. “Lu Xun: 1930s Woodcuts from Shanghai” showcases some of Lu Xun’s literary work in addition to 17 reproduction prints of his woodcuts in honor of the 80th anniversary of his death. Sponsored by the asian Studies department, the Chinese program of the department of modern languages and literature, Swarthmore College Libraries and the Luxun Museum in Shanghai, this exhibition is closely related to the “Lu Xun and His Legacy in 20th Century China” seminar conducted by Professor Haili Kong of the Asian Studies Department.
According to Kong, this exhibition has been some time in the making. Representatives from the Luxun Museum in Shanghai visited Swarthmore a couple of years ago, but it is only now that a collaboration between the college and the museum has occurred. The Luxun Museum played a major role in providing and transporting the reproductions to the college, as did some of the students in the Lu Xun seminar. The exhibition clearly serves as a visual representation of the content of the seminar, but its enjoyment need not be limited to those taking the course.
“I think it’s good because the visuality really attracts people,” said Kong. “It’s interesting to see the combination of literature and art … it’s very powerful [and will lead people] to rethink about China.”
Tianlu Chen ’19, one of the seminar students credited with helping to bring the exhibit to Swarthmore, agreed.
“It is fascinating to see how literature and art cooperated intimately in creating a path to a modern nation,” she said.
As for the Luxun Museum in Shanghai, it is described by the Lonely Planet as “[an] excellent museum [that] charts the life and creative output of author Lu Xun with photographs, first editions, videos and waxworks” — and woodcuts, evidently. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in content: the entire museum is a loving tribute to Lu Xun and his impact on modern Chinese culture, and it is located in the park where Lu Xun is buried.
Lu Xun himself was a writer, an essayist, a literary critic, and a poet. Born Zhou Shuren in Shaoxing, Zhejiang on Sept. 25, 1881, he took on the pen name Lu Xun when his first fiction was published in 1918. He began his formal education from the Jiangnan Military Academy in Nanjing, then transferred to the School of Mines and Railways, graduating in 1902. Lu then obtained a scholarship to study at the Sendai Medical Academy in Japan in 1904. While he was there, the Russo-Japanese War broke out, and it grew common for lecturers to show the students pictures of the war. In the preface to “Na Han” (which translates to “Call to Arms”), a collection of his short stories published nearly two decades later, Lu would recall one such picture of apathetic Chinese watching a Japanese soldier execute a Chinese man who was accused of spying for the Russians. This would lead him to quit studying medicine after less than two years at the academy and to become a writer in an attempt to resolve China’s spiritual issues.
After a brief return to China, Lu travelled back to Japan in 1906 and took informal classes in literature and history, and some of his essays were published in student-run journals. However, it was only in 1918 that his literary career truly took off with the publication of his critically acclaimed short story, “Diary of a Madman” in the “New Youth” magazine. By 1927, he was one of the most famous intellectuals in China, and he was considered for the 1927 Nobel Prize for Literature for his short story “The True Story of Ah Q.” However, he rejected this nomination and later renounced writing fiction and poetry in response to the declining political situation in China. It is not until 1934 that he would return to fiction, publishing his last collection of short stories and writing two final essays shortly before his death in 1936.
“I think Lu Xun is the greatest and most important writer in China,” said Kong. “[His work] really fit the situation in the early 1930s … [his content] was revolutionary in China.”
Whilst he is clearly recognized worldwide for his literary contributions, Lu Xun is less well known for being a founder of the “Modern Woodcut Movement,” and he passionately promoted the art form, which, of course, is the primary focus of the exhibition at Swarthmore. The exhibit itself is stunning; the black and white woodcuts contrast beautifully in depicting their human subjects to create a candid, poignant effect. Next to the woodcuts, McCabe’s collection of Lu Xun’s writing stands proudly in its glass case.
“An art form of chisel, ink, and sharp brightness contrast, the modern woodcut also fits perfectly into Lu Xun’s incisive writing style,” Chen explained.
During the event reception on Wednesday afternoon, October 19th — the actual date of Lu Xun’s death — visitors milled around admiring the artwork, then sat down in Cratsley Lounge with an assortment of Asian refreshments to discuss the exhibit and Lu Xun’s legacy. Clearly, the impact of Lu Xun is far-reaching, extending all the way around the world to our small liberal arts campus.
“[T]he event is extremely meaningful to me because it brings about the vivid history portrayed by Lu Xun’s contemporaries,” said Chen, who was at the reception. The connection to the seminar definitely helped establish context for the exhibition, allowing students to better appreciate the woodcuts.
“I’m very glad that this exhibit is being shown in McCabe… and I hope that people will be willing to dedicate a few moments of their time to learning more,” said Haili Han ‘19, who also attended the reception.
As a writer and an artist, Lu Xun spearheaded a cultural movement with his highly liberal content, thus playing a crucial role in the modernisation of Chinese literature and culture — a feat more than worthy of commemoration and appreciation via the carefully curated collection that will remain in McCabe till the end of October.
For more information on Lu Xun, modernity in China and woodcuts, Professor Haili Kong recommends Xiaobing Tang’s book, “Chinese Modern.”