Liz Carter senior contributor

Chinese Literature Textbooks Modified to Curb ‘Deep Thinking’

A statute of Lu Xun (Via Flickr/Yunher).
A statute of Lu Xun (Via Flickr/Yunher)

Recent changes to China’s teaching curriculum have made the news: an essay by the father of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun (1881 – 1936), has gone missing from new editions of middle school textbooks. Citing the need for more “age-appropriate” material, the People’s Education Press has removed Lu Xun’s essay “The Kite” from its most recent edition, replacing it with an essay entitled “Autumn Nostalgia” by Shi Tiesheng.

In recent years, Lu Xun’s writings have been disappearing gradually from official language and literature textbooks, sparking some concern among parents of school-aged children. In surveys conducted by Sina News, a popular news website, and Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, an overwhelming majority of respondents expressed displeasure with the changes, noting that “Lu Xun’s works are classics, and represent the ‘spirit of the Chinese people.’鲁迅的作品是经典,代表“民族魂”

Why, given both Lu Xun’s popularity and his accepted status as one of China’s top modern authors, would his works be disappearing from the educational curriculum? An article analyzing the changes published by Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-run media, noted that, “Middle school students should not be reading anything too deep.初中生的阅读不宜过于深刻” Zhao Yu, an author quoted in the article, voiced his agreement with the decision, stating that, “We shouldn’t make students undertake reflection and critical thinking too soon; instead, we should let them gradually accumulate knowledge.别让孩子过早涉入思考、判断等阅读领域,要让他们逐渐积累自己的见识

The most upvoted comment on the article as published by Sina, one of China’s top news portals, had a different take: “Lu Xun’s articles have been pulled again; this shows that some people have begun to fear that ordinary people are waking up and gaining awareness. [Expletive]! The sun hasn’t even risen, and some people are already afraid of the light.鲁迅的文章又被撤了,说明有些人开始害怕百姓的觉醒、百姓的领悟。TMD! 原来天根本还没开始亮,只是有人怕天亮!

Online, a minority of netizens supported the changes, citing the negativity of Lu Xun’s writing – his reflections often bordered on despair, and presented the darker side of society – while others argued that his realism offered a necessary glimpse of the world as it actually was. As one Weibo user wrote, citing a catchphrase promoted by the government in recent months, “It can’t all be ‘positive energy.不能一味的正能量’”

Lu Xun’s tone and style aside, the article removed this year, “The Kite,” has particular significance. According to Dr. Paul B. Foster in his book Ah Q Archaeology: Lu Xun, Ah Q, Ah Q Progeny, and the National Character Discourse in Twentieth Century China, the essay, about an incident in which Lu Xun broke his brother’s kite as a child, “tells a personal story of the negative psychological consequences of forgetting…Enlightenment entails the development of a historical memory, and…it also demands the unwillingness to lapse back into forgetfulness, even if the consequence requires living with the truth of his evil deed.”

Historical memory has become a touchy subject lately, as attempts by Chinese authorities to promote unity and nationalism have achieved only limited success. Moves by government bodies to promote ideological conformity, control journalists’ political beliefs, and instill patriotism early have shown that the Chinese Dream promoted by the nation’s new leaders tolerates little dissent.

Lu Xun’s place in such a narrative is an uneasy one. His essays were held up by no less than Mao Zedong, who declared that the late writer “China’s modern saint” and situated his works prominently in the state-sanctioned literary canon. Yet Lu Xun, who died over a decade before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, was a lifelong skeptic and cynic, especially about politics. Unfailingly critical of attempts to co-opt movements and ideas, the writer spared no one and nothing from his sarcasm and mockery. Even now, many of his works have relevance as critiques of social and political phenomena that have reemerged.

Much like Chinese authorities today, Lu Xun himself was conflicted about the effect his voice might have on future generations. Reflecting on whether or not to speak out, he posed an analogy:

Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?假如一间铁屋子,是绝无窗户而万难破毁的,里面有许多熟睡的人们,不久都要闷死了,然而是从昏睡入死灭,并不感到就死的悲哀。现在你大嚷起来,惊起了较为清醒的几个人,使这不幸的少数者来受无可挽救的临终的苦楚,你倒以为对得起他们么?

Perhaps in the spirit of an early Lu Xun, Sina Weibo user @lvyiyao voiced a sarcastic support for the removal of his works from children’s textbooks: “It’s actually better for the children. Ignorant swine are far happier than humans who know what’s going on.确实是为孩子们好,懵懂的猪比清醒的人幸福多了

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Liz Carter

Liz Carter is a DC-based China-watcher and the author and translator of a number of Chinese-English textbooks available on amazon.cn. She and her cat Desmond relocated to DC from Beijing, where she studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University, after learning that HBO was planning to adapt Game of Thrones for television. She writes at abigenoughforest.com and tweets from @withoutdoing.
  • Sascha

    good report on a tummyache of a subject. this has been a while in the making, and there is opposition to the process … the real winners are Waldrof et al who offer an alternative. http://www.chengduliving.com/evolution-of-the-chinese-education-system/

  • http://www.theatlantic.com/wendy-qian/ Wendy

    Glad I had the chance to read him while I was in middle school and “Kong Yiji” remains to be my favorite story / character.

    I hope that Lu’s literary status won’t be affected by the textbooks changes, and those who are interested can find ways to read him. Though I must point out that satirical literature is strong and wide-spreading; a lot of people model their own writing off of Lu’s style. Even if Lu Xun’s work has been changed, his presence will still be felt through contemporaries.

  • Dubai

    Very interesting article. I tried in vain to read one of his essays when learning Chinese and gave up half way through. Need to revisit.

  • Matthew Cooper

    Yeah, this is a pretty naked attempt at imposing ideological conformity. Speak up too loud on behalf of the people who don’t have anything, and you’re likely to end ‘harmonised’ or in gaol. After a trial that completely respects the rule of law first, of course.

  • Dax

    ”If China is not to perish, then as history tells us, the future holds a tremendous surprise for the murderers. This is not the conclusion of an incident, but a new beginning. Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood. Blood debts must be repaid in kind: the longer the delay, the greater the interest.” -Lu Xun (allegedly. I can’t seem to find a source)

  • Charles Laughlin

    This is a great article. I wrote a reaction to this news in Chinese last night, which you can find here http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_3eaae03d0101l69x.html

  • nolan0

    Great written article. I could find out some useful information on your blog.