Misreading Lu Xun

2018-11-01 Editor : Li Yan ECNS App Download

United States Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech on October 4 that laid out United States policy vis-à-vis China. The broad-ranging speech swept through the past and present state of U.S.-China relations. At one point, he turned his hand to modern Chinese literature to make a point, quoting one of its leading lights, Lu Xun. 

In "Hot Wind", a collection of short essays and commentaries, Lu Xun wrote that "There had been two ways for the Chinese people to treat foreigners: either as brutes or as emperors. They never called them friends, or thought they were just like us." Vice President Pence used this line, adding that he hopes "Beijing will reach back with deeds, not words, and with renewed respect for America." 

The quote comes from a collection of Lu Xun's works published between 1918-1924. Lu Xun was, as the vice president rightfully acknowledged, not a simple storyteller, but a great thinker whose incisive criticism of the national character of old China was based on his profound patriotism. The remark was a harsh criticism of the social atmosphere in China at a time when the country was burdened with outdated values, learning from other cultures was discouraged, and there was a lack of motivation for reform. 

When the quote is taken in context, it's clear that Lu Xun was not talking about China's relationships with other countries. Rather, he was critiquing contemporary Chinese society. He saw a tendency in the Chinese intellectual class to enthusiastically discard Chinese tradition and embrace foreign ideas regardless of how suitable they were for the nation's circumstances. Then, when the new ideas so rashly introduced failed to live up to expectations, they were abandoned and the intellectual class turned its back on reform. It need not be said that Lu Xun's argument has nothing to do with China's approach to international relationships, and even less to do with its relationship with the United States. 

In his speech, Vice President Pence also talked about the assistance that America provided to China in the later years of the Qing Dynasty. He said, with the tone of a benefactor, that "American missionaries… not only did they spread their faith, but these same missionaries founded some of China's first and finest universities." What he failed to mention is that the United States was a party to the Boxer Indemnity agreement, which was imposed on the weakening Qing by the invading Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900 following the domestic uprising against Western imperialism and the imposition of the Christian missionaries. The agreement cost China dearly, further weakening it and leaving it ill equipped to reform itself for the challenges that would accompany the end of the Qing Dynasty, including its legitimate need for self-defense. 

Looking forward to China's contemporary military modernization, the vice president criticized the growth of China's strength. But in the same breath, he praised his own administration's military expansionism, saying "We've been making the strongest military in the history of the world stronger still. Earlier this year, our president signed into law the largest increase in our national defense since the days of Ronald Reagan". This includes, he added proudly, modernizing America's nuclear weapons arsenal. 

But perhaps the grossest mischaracterization of China's history was made using not his own words, but those of President Trump, whom he quoted: "'We rebuilt China' over the last 25 years." This year marks the 40th anniversary of China's policy of reform and opening up, which has turned the country into the home of the world's second-largest economy, allowed it to develop into an unmatched manufacturing powerhouse, and raised 700 million people out of poverty. "Much of this success," the vice president said, "was driven by American investment in China." The idea that the Americans came to China and saved it, like the missionaries claimed to be doing all those years ago, is a nonsense. Hard work, determination, and a willingness to experiment is what brought China economic success. The result has been that for nearly two decades, China has contributed almost 30 percent of the world's economic growth, and helped the world to recover after 2008 when the global economy almost collapsed as a result of the crisis in the American economy.

China's government is striving to meet the aspirations of its people for a better life. To do so, it must base its policies on China's own national conditions and follow its own path. This is the message that Lu Xun was making when he penned the line that Mike Pence mangled during his speech. And it's a message as valuable today as it was when it was written all those years ago. 


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