Ai Weiwei, Lu Xun, and the Hope of Hopelessness

This China Digital Times post has been sitting open in my browser for several days now. If you’re stuck behind the GFW, it’s a question and answer Chinese artist and social commentator Ai Weiwei did with a private Chinese BBS forum, full of social questions and snappy answers. It’s worth a read, but one question and answer jumped out in particular:

jencoxu: Do you still have any hope for China? Do you think the next round of reforms will be top down or bottom up?

Ai Weiwei: I never had any hope for China. I am only resisting the hopelessness China is imposing on me.

“I never had any hope for China.” In the same interview, he also said “I think we have a 100% bastard government.” Strong words, to be sure, and words that remind me of another Chinese firebrand that seemingly had nothing but negative things to say about China and Chinese culture: Lu Xun.

Lu Xun, China’s most famous modern writer, remains widely studied in China despite the fact that he died over a half-century ago. In large part because he was already dead when the Communist Party took control of China (he was a CCP supporter, ideologically), he has been held up and idealized as an artist with the courage to criticize the state of things in China. Still, reading his fiction gives the impression that he was about as “hopeless” as Ai Weiwei. In fact, he famously refused initial encouragement from a friend to become a writer by comparing criticizing Chinese society with waking up prisoners in an iron house before they were about to suffocate (our translation):

[I said,] “Suppose there is an iron house, without a single window and extremely difficult to destroy. Inside there are some people sleeping soundly, who will all soon suffocate, but entering death from such a sound sleep they will not feel they have died tragically. Now, yelling, you startle a few people out of sleep; you’re just forcing these unfortunate few to face their miserable deaths without hope of escape, and yet you believe this isn’t doing them a disservice?

Yet, Lu Xun did begin writing fiction, albeit fiction with a deeply cynical streak and a thick vein of hopelessness running through it. His earliest work, “Diary of a Madman”, compared Chinese culture to cannibalism, and one of his most famous stories, “The True Story of Ah Q”, concerns a ‘typically Chinese’ protagonist self-centered and stupid enough that he ends up waiting placidly for his own execution on wrongful charges. Lu Xun may have used the F word less than Ai Weiwei, but his early work wasn’t any less harsh or critical.

Ai Weiwei, too, has expressed hopelessness through his works. Certainly, his photographs of himself flipping the bird towards Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen or his more recent short film F*ck You Mother, Motherland don’t seem to hold out much hope for the possibility that things are going to change.

Yet both men, I believe, do have hope for China. When Lu Xun compared China to an iron house that was suffocating the Chinese people quitely, his friend appealed to him, and he was forced to admit that while he still felt hopeless, hope couldn’t be completely discounted. The full story, from Lu Xun’s preface to A Call to Arms (our translation):

[My friend Qian came to me and said:] “I think you could write some articles…”

I understood his meaning. They had just started [the magazine] New Youth [新青年 Xinqingnian], but at that time there was no one endorsing or even opposing it; I thought perhaps they felt lonely, but said, “Suppose there is an iron house, without a single window and extremely difficult to destroy. Inside there are some people sleeping soundly, who will all soon suffocate, but entering death from such a sound sleep they will not feel they have died tragically. Now, yelling, you startle a few people out of sleep; you’re just forcing these unfortunate few to face their miserable deaths without hope of escape, and yet you believe this isn’t doing them a disservice?”

“On the contrary, since a few of them are awake, you cannot say there is no hope of breaking and escaping the iron house.”

Although I remained firmly convinced [that the people in the iron house would simply suffocate], hope cannot be completely written off, because hope lies in the future.

Later, in “Old Home” (a short story known to many Chinese people as Runtu because of the name of one of its main characters), he famously wrote (translation by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi):

Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist . It is just like roads across the earth. Actually, the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass the same way, a road is made.

In essence, I understand his meaning to be that one must soldier on even in the absence of any real hope, as hope arises naturally as others begin to take up the same cause. Others will likely disagree, but I see this as fundamentally similar to what Ai Weiwei often says, and what he seems to be doing with some of his art. His hopelessness isn’t really hopelessness, and what is often misread as contempt for the government and disdain for those who disagree with him isn’t really just Ai being “an asshole” (in the words of one of our frequent commenters). He’s trying to change things, and on occasion, he seems to be drawing some ideas from the harsh social criticisms made by Lu Xun a century ago.

Ai Weiwei is not Lu Xun, and there are many differences between the two men and their approaches to both art and social activism. Still, it’s fascinating to see that Lu Xun’s hopeful hopelessness is still alive and kicking in China nearly a century after he penned “Diary of a Madman” for New Youth.

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0 thoughts on “Ai Weiwei, Lu Xun, and the Hope of Hopelessness”

  1. Right, if they were truly without hope then they wouldn’t feel the need to point out China’s shortcomings. I don’t know about Ai Weiwei being compared to Lu Xun though. Lu Xun was at least a decent novelist, Ai’s art projects are just.. awful.

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  2. Yes, although I think Ai has done some great and thought-provoking stuff, I wouldn’t compare him to Lu Xun.

    Lu Xun is on a very short list for my all-time favorite authors, though. It’s pretty much just him and Hemingway, actually. Oh, and Jorge Luis Borges.

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