Lu Xun & World Literature

A review of Literary Cartographies: Lu Xun and the Production of World Literature, by Daniel M. Dooghan.

In his entry in the 2004 report on the state of the discipline, Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, David Damrosch, doyen of world literature studies, reproduces a table showing the MLA citation index of Lu Xun 鲁迅 (1881 – 1936) over the previous four decades. According this bibliography, Lu Xun was referred to in 3 articles between 1964 and 1973, in 12 articles from 1974 to 1983, in 19 articles from 1984 to 1993, and in 22 articles between 1994 and 2003 (David Damrosch, “World Literature in a Postcanonical, Hypercanonical Age,” in Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Haun Saussy (ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, p. 49). Without question, in what may be the disciplinary “age of world literature” even more than “an age of globalization,” Lu Xun has entered into a certain kind of canonicity. Investigating and interrogating the specifics of that canonicity, and the ways in which Lu Xun is framed, understood, translated, and transformed via such canonicity, is the subject of Daniel Dooghan’s fascinating, revealing, and provocative dissertation, Literary Cartographies: Lu Xun and the Production of World Literature (University of Minnesota, 2011).

Dooghan’s take on Lu Xun in the nexus of world literature largely presents a post-Marxist phenomenology, which is to say that he continually interrogates whether a “true” or “authentic” Lu Xun can be known amidst the presentations of his writing in competing domains of cultural power. As he writes in “World Enough,” the conclusion to Literary Cartographies, “the question asked here is not who is Lu Xun, but why are there so many, and by what means are they produced?” (p. 276). Answering these questions at once through the lens of modern China’s most canonical writer and that writer’s representation of, and by, world literature, leads this dissertation into ambitious territory, with the potential to help reshape our paradigms for discussing both world literature and individual authors within the world literary network.

Despite appearances to the contrary, Dooghan asserts in his introduction, “this is not a single author study” (p. 16). Rather,

Lu Xun is the vehicle for a broader argument about world literature. The lives that his works have led in both Chinese and translation are of paramount concern for this project. The vast resources available to the researcher made asking after those lives much easier … Yet the exceptionally rich cultural traffic that passes through Lu Xun, either personally or via his writings, offers a ready-made test case for a theory of globalization on a cultural rather than economic level. (p. 17)

To put the test-case to the test, Dooghan structures his investigation of Lu Xun and world literature in two parts: “Lu Xun Reading World Literature” and “World Literature Reading Lu Xun.” Such a division points to the necessity of understanding the formation of world literature both in terms of input and output. It is all the more fitting given the dissertation’s focus on a “node,” as Dooghan calls him, of world literature who, in contrast with many other figures of international literary networking, not only has been translated and re-interpreted in translation, but who also translated broadly and deeply as an integral part of his own literary output.

In Chapter 1, “A Node in the Network,” Dooghan presents an overview of his proposal for an interdisciplinary model of reading Lu Xun in the context of world literature and world literary studies. The form this takes is reading “Lu Xun’s writing, specifically ‘A Madman’s Diary [狂人日记],’ as the beginning of an inquiry into global literary production,” and, as he explains,

Rather than draw on the categories to which Lu Xun has conventionally belonged, this project intends to account for Lu Xun’s work without rooting it in categories whose own beginnings are shrouded either in the mists of prehistory [or] the dictates of academic fashion. (p. 42)

The question, then, hits at the heart of hermeneutics and how we read; focusing on certain elements of the Chinese context of “A Madman’s Diary” and other texts will yield a national literature, while focusing on international aspects yields a version of world literature. Or as Dooghan explains it, “If we emphasize the text’s links to European science and philosophy, we risk effacing the historical exigencies that prompted the text’s production. If we read the text as an expression of Chinese history … we efface the transnational character of the text.” And yet, “The choice is a false one. The decision to read ‘Diary’ as an expression of Chinese nationalism or Europhilia is not inherent to the text. Although the text supports both readings by virtue of its textual linkages, any reading is by definition exterior to it. Interpretations are among the epiphenomena that accrete to texts, and can become nodes in the network themselves.” (p. 60)

One way to get to the bottom of Dooghan’s epiphenomena is to look into translation and its inherent entanglements with power and international politics, to “show that translation for Lu Xun is not just a linguistic activity, but a cultural one as well” (p. 72). In Chapter 2, “Lu Xun’s Theory of Translation,” Literary Cartographies offers a detailed reading of Lu Xun’s writings on translation, specifically his essay “‘Hard Translation’ and the ‘Class Character of Literature’” 「硬译」与「文学的阶级性」. The upshot of Lu Xun’s translation methodology is that he uses translation to break written Chinese of certain ossified habits, and create out of that break a new form of Chinese that can accommodate the fuller expressions of world writing. While Dooghan reads Lu Xun on translation as similar to some of the bigger names in Western literary and translation theory, such as Walter Benjamin, Wilhelm von Humbolt, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Viktor Shklovsky, he nevertheless concludes that Lu Xun’s views and practices on translation “complicate the received categories of Western translation studies,” which “are usually dichotomous — word-for-word vs. sense-for-sense, foreignizing vs. domesticating, faithful to source vs. target language — and as such, are inadequate to fully describe Lu Xun’s work on translation….” (pp. 108–109).

With these chapters laying the foundation and setting the stakes, Dooghan moves on to section two, a meta-reading of how Lu Xun has been translated and framed internationally, with particular emphasis on English. In Chapter 3, “Early Representations of Lu Xun: Translations 1926–1942,” Dooghan reads the paratextual framing of Lu Xun in his earliest — now out of print — translations, including those by George Kin Leung 梁社乾, Kyn Yn Yu 敬隐渔, Chi-Chen Wang 王际真, Edgar Snow, and Lin Yutang 林语堂. “World literature might fail in its project to show us the world,” Dooghan argues, “but it can tell us how we perceive the world” (p. 167); in Chapter 4, “Lu Xun in Institutional Translation: 1942–Present,” the ideological battles grow fiercer but their representational politics more intricate, as the chapter traces the “legacy of the Cold War [that] continues to inform American discourse on China, and the reception of Lu Xun [that] has not been immune to its influence” (p. 169). Reading Lu Xun’s translations by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi 杨宪益, William Lyell, and Julia Lovell, as well as the introductions and critical apparatuses by these translators and Chinese-American novelists Ha Jin 哈金 and Yiyun Li 李翊云, who wrote commissioned introductions for two of Lu Xun’s collections in English, Dooghan concludes that “Lu Xun’s canonical status in China is the result of the ‘Yan’an Talks’ and the institutional critical apparatus that grew out of them” (p. 224); indeed, in what may be the dissertation’s most relevant section for readers still interested in Lu Xun as a canonical figure of national literature, the chapter begins with a contextualization of the stakes and strategies behind Mao’s framing of Lu Xun during the “Talks on Literature and Art” 在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话. The fact that Lovell and Li are still basing their discussions of Lu Xun on Mao’s epistemologies of him seven decades later testifies to the power of institutional readings.

In Chapter 5, “Lu Xun as World Literature” — which I would like to italicize, “Lu Xun as World Literature” — Dooghan’s critical gaze sharpens, and he takes on the contradictions embodied in various approaches to world literature within which Lu Xun gets framed. This approach allows for Dooghan to read Damrosch and the anthologies of world literature that feature Lu Xun, such as those published by Norton, Bedford, or Longman, but also to read the field of modern Chinese literary studies as an institutional force. Dooghan finds a central tension in the relationship between national and world approaches to literary studies, as witness the case in question: “the strength of Lu Xun’s identification with the Chinese writer is precisely what makes him an attractive candidate for inclusion into a world literary canon” (p. 225), he argues. But ultimately, Dooghan finds world literature — at least so far — to be a failed endeavor: as we know it today, world literature “is the resurgence not of a name or even the utopian project envisioned by Goethe”; rather, it marks “the reemergence of a utopian project, but it is the utopia of the gated community, not of the universal man” (p. 264).

The class-based criticism of utopianism brings Dooghan back to Marx and his reminders about the ineluctable questions of ideology and class as they pertain to literature and cultural production. And yet for all this, Dooghan, admirably, is not willing to cast the enterprise into the dustbin of history (or of literary studies). In the dissertation’s closing words, he writes of the importance, even the necessity, of world literature as an emerging discipline: “By examining how and why texts talk to each other, or just as importantly, how and why they don’t, we gain an incomparable, global view of the movement of peoples, texts, and ideas.” And then, echoing Marx at the end of The Communist Manifesto: “We have a world to gain” (p. 283).

Lucas Klein
Assistant Professor
Department of Chinese, Translation & Linguistics
City University of Hong Kong

Primary Sources

Lu Xun, Lu Xun Quanji 鲁迅全集 (The Collected Works of Lu Xun)
Lu Xun, Selected Works. 4 vols. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang (trans.) Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980.

Dissertation Information

University of Minnesota. March 2011. 303 pp. Primary Advisor: Timothy A. Brennan.


Image: Propaganda Poster by Chen Yaoyi, published by People’s Fine Art Publishers (1974). From the collection of Daniel Dooghan.


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