Eileen J. Cheng, professor of Asian languages and literatures, has translated and written extensively on the works of Lu Xun (1881-1936), known as the “father of modern Chinese literature.” Her most recent translations are of Lu Xun’s Wild Grass and Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk, published by Harvard University Press.
We asked Cheng about Lu Xun and the book and asked her to share an excerpt from the volume. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and condensed for length.
What prompted you to translate these works? What was the process of translating like for you?
I personally love these two volumes—they are literary gems that deserve to be on every book lover’s shelf. Lu Xun’s stories always generate heated and insightful discussions in class. I’m certain that students and readers in general will find much to love and meditate on in these two exquisite volumes. The messages in them—our shared and ephemeral existence in this world, the need for self-cultivation and care for others, and how to find meaning, beauty, and wonder in a cruel and unjust world—are timely and timeless and will resonate deeply with contemporary readers.
The process of translating was exhilarating. The work was done in the quiet hours of the night when I was most able to savor the beauty and wonder of these lyrical pieces without distraction. Reading and translating brought pleasure, solace, and comfort at times when they were much needed.
Tell us about Lu Xun.
It is commonly said that to understand modern China, you have to read Lu Xun. His stories expose what he perceived to be the ills of his people and the cannibalistic nature of Chinese society. Lu Xun’s masterpiece “Diary of a Madman” (1918) is credited as the first short story written in vernacular Chinese.
Lu Xun’s politicization in China and the more recent readings of his short stories as “national allegories” in world literature, however, fail to capture his all-encompassing engagement with art. He was a pioneer of literary forms. Besides short stories, he also wrote brilliant short pieces, an experimental memoir and incisive journalistic essays that chronicled the society of his times. A classical poet and scholar of classical Chinese literature, he wrote a textbook and edited anthologies of classical Chinese fiction. A calligrapher and designer, he paid close attention to cover art, illustrating some of his own books and for others.
He was also a promoter of world art. He collected, exhibited and promoted woodcut art—mostly Eastern European—and sponsored woodcut-making workshops for local artists, revitalizing a native art form in the process. His translations exceeded his own voluminous literary output. His first, Jules Verne’s De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865) was published in 1903, translated from the Japanese translation of the English version. On his deathbed, he was translating Nikolai Gogol’s Mjórtvyje dúshi (Dead Souls, 1842), unfinished, from the German and Japanese renderings.
How do Wild Grass and Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk figure into his body of works?
English readers familiar with Lu Xun know him primarily from his short stories and as a writer of “social realism.” Wild Grass—brilliant short pieces whose subjects include fauna, flora, telepathic corpses, a fire encased in ice—breaks that mold. So does his experimental memoir Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk, which celebrates the childlike heart and reveals the devastating costs of living in a society bent on eradicating it. Both volumes highlight the role that wonder, imagination, and creativity play in making our lives more livable and the potential of radical art to change our ways of seeing and being in the world. We see a more intimate, philosophical and personal side of Lu Xun. His creative imagination and sardonic wit are especially salient in these two volumes.
Read alongside his stories, the volumes showcase his versatility and virtuosity as an artist. Lu Xun restlessly experimented with different forms and linguistic registers. In Wild Grass in particular, he was able to put Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist ideas into conversation with those of a diverse array of foreign writers—Charles Baudelaire, Ivan Turgenev, Friedrich Nietzsche, Natsume Sōseki, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, the Hungarian poet Petőfi Sándor, the Dutch fairytale writer Frederik Van Eeden to name a few, all of whose works he translated. The result is a brilliant and bizarre collection of what might be considered a true specimen of world art.
Who would you recommend this book to?
Any book lover. The pieces are short and best savored in small bites when the mood strikes.
“Tombstone Inscriptions” (1925) below is excerpted from Wild Grass and gives readers a taste of Lu Xun’s macabre humor. The piece deals with some of Lu Xun’s favorite themes: death, the ephemeral nature of life and the necessity yet impossibility of pursuing self-knowledge.
I dreamed of myself facing a tombstone, reading the inscriptions carved on it.
The tombstone appears to be made of sandstone, crumbling at numerous spots and overgrown with moss. Only a few phrases remain:
. . . in a frenzy of boisterous singing catch a chill, in the skies see an abyss.
In all eyes see a void, in no hope find redemption . . .
. . . a wandering spirit transforms into a serpent, mouth with venomous fangs.
Bites not others, but bites itself, dies in the end . . .
. . . leave!
I go around behind the tombstone—only then do I see a lone grave, bereft of vegetation and fallen into disrepair. Through a big crack, I glimpse a corpse, chest and abdomen completely caved in, no heart nor liver within. Yet the face shows no trace of joy or sorrow but is hazy, as if shrouded in smoke. In my apprehension, I turn around, but not before seeing the remaining phrases on the backside of the tombstone—
. . . gouge out my heart and eat it, wanting to know its true taste.
The pain is so searing, how could I know its true taste?
. . . as the pain subsides, slowly consume it. But the heart now old and stale, how could I know its true taste? . . .
. . . answer me, or else leave! . . .
I’m about to leave. But the corpse sits up in the grave. Its lips don’t move, but says—
“When I turn to dust, you’ll see my smile!”
I flee, dare not look back, terrified to see him in pursuit.
Excerpted from WILD GRASS AND MORNING BLOSSOMS GATHERED AT DUSK by Lu Xun, translated by Eileen J. Cheng, edited by Theodore Huters, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2022 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.