Reading Lu Xun Through Carl Jung

by Carolyn Brown


This book is in the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

Lu Xun, a founder of modern Chinese literature, lived through a pivotal moment in Chinese history. Schooled in the old order, he matured during its symbolic collapse—the end of the dynastic system—and lived through the wrenching transition into a new order that had not yet come into view. The Chinese state, weakened by massive internal rebellions, faced unprecedented military, commercial, and diplomatic pressure from Western powers. Devastating challenges in the material realm brought into question fundamental premises of Chinese identity. Why was China so weak and what could be done about it?

Initially inclined to look to the material realm for solutions, Lu Xun early rejected a medical career and staked his future on a conviction that literature offered a promising arena from which to convert minds and hearts to new ways of perceiving, ways that were better adapted to the current crisis. Yet when prompted to write short stories that might forward that agenda, he wrote the stories of Call to Arms and Wandering, which instead gave symbolic expression to the ambiguities and complexities that he experienced within himself. Although he came to doubt the power of literature to contribute to the urgent need for cultural transformation, the stories from these collections comprise an essential part of his legacy. His deep concern about human suffering and his commitment to truth-telling are underlying pre-occupations that run throughout his evolving understanding of this moment in China’s history.

Lu Xun attributed his motivation for a career in literature to his desire to cure the spirits of the Chinese people. Given Lu Xun’s explicit ambition to address China’s historical crisis, scholars have addressed in great depth his contributions to Chinese intellectual and literary history and probed his short stories as expressions of his ambition to help solve China’s crisis. He has been perceived as both an agent of change and an embodiment of his time. Yet generally scholars have not queried the psychological dimensions of his self-appointed task. If he imagined that curing spirits might even be possible, it would seem that he might have had at least an implicit psychological model of the disease, its causes, a process for healing it, and a vision of the cured state. Did he?

Scholars who study Lu Xun’s modern short stories have usually focused on the content and used the stories to understand Lu Xun the writer or to sheds light on his times; they have attended to the structure only to the degree that it illuminates these concerns.

This study executes a reversal, decentering the content and focusing on the structure as a primary means to understand the texts, and it seeks to understand the Lu Xun who presents himself through his work, not Lu Xun the full human being. The structure that emerges from a close reading of the stories does indeed present an implicit therapeutic model. Carl Jung’s theories of the normative human self articulate with some precision Lu Xun’s implicit vision of spiritual cure. Jung, one of three key founders of modern Western psychology, grounded his understanding of the human psyche in personal self-scrutiny and extensive clinical practice, and so his theories offer a validated psychological model for interpreting the textual evidence.

Reading Lu Xun Through Carl Jung thus deploys a new methodology and proposes a new model for interpreting Lu Xun’s two collections of modern short stories. The study demonstrates that in fact Lu Xun had a clear but implicit model of spiritual healing and cure. He began with the assumption that this psycho-dynamic paradigm might apply in all arenas of Chinese life and so tested out this premise imaginatively through his stories. The conclusion embedded in his fiction is that in the domains of nation and community, healing would not be possible without revolutionary change, but that healing was possible, although hardly likely, within the confines of family and the self. Viewing the stories of Call to Arms and Wandering through this lens often yields important new insights about individual stories. Even when it does not, the approach draws attention to the commonalities disguised by the great variety of plots, characters, and narrative strategies. Further, this approach incorporates and generalizes the more limited way of viewing the stories in terms of class analysis, and it complements the historical and biographical discussion of these works.

Perhaps more important is that understanding Lu Xun’s psychological model opens new ways of imagining the relevance of his stories to timeless human concerns. Contemporary scholars increasingly ask about Lu Xun’s value now that the overt subjects of his concerns have receded into the past, and they have also looked to understand his role in the context of the international intellectual currents of his time. Although not primarily concerned with the sources of Lu Xun’s creativity, this study does suggest resonances between the structure of his thought as revealed in the stories and that of key nineteenth-century European philosophers and writers. Even while being firmly grounded in his own times, Lu Xun evoked universal themes and archetypes of the human condition.

This book will appeal to scholars in Asian studies, comparative literature, and psychology.


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