Daggers and Spears: Lu Xun and Nietzsche on Cultural Revolution By James Luchte


Part I: Nietzsche and Chinese Thought

O my brothers, not long will it be until new peoples will arise and new fountains rush down into new depths.
For the earthquake—it chokes up many wells, it causes much languishing: but it brings also to light inner powers and secrets.
The earthquake discloses new fountains. In the earthquake of old peoples, new fountains burst forth.
Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘On the Old and New Law Tablets’, 25.



Lu Xun was nineteen when Nietzsche died in 1900. He had already begun to write poetry, in classical Chinese style, and came into contact with Western literature in Nanking, where he attended a mining school. It was not until the following year however that he, with a government stipend to study mining in Japan, intensified his relationship with the available threads of world literature, European, British, Russian – and Nietzsche. The work of which he had the most access was Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Japanese renditions of his thought, including the Untimely Meditations. Lu Xun travelled to Japan at the right time – amid the chaos of the post- war years and the reformation toward modernity, Japan sought to become an industrial and military power with the aid of Western, i.e. ‘Modern,’ science, including Western medicine and literature. Lu Xun immediately recognized the political and cultural significance of literature, especially that of the English Romantics, Byron and Shelley (to the exclusion of the more introspective poets Wordsworth and Keats) in their individuality and defiance of a corrupt and oppressive cultural and political order. He found a similar though deeper message in Nietzsche, one simultaneously of a poetic and philosophical order. Yet, it is the meaning of this influence, and of Nietzsche’s message, that has remained controversial. This current writing will be an attempt to dissolve this controversy through the exposure of the intellectual and artistic affinities of Lu Xun and Nietzsche upon their own respective and overlapping topoi. It could be argued that Nietzsche had his most immediate impact in Japan, which already by 1903 (at a time which Lu Xun was already in Japan) had a ‘Nietzsche Dispute’, and had experienced ‘Nietzsche fever.’ Such an intellectual event could hardly have been missed by Lu Xun, and his first essays of 1907 and 1908 mention Nietzsche, echo Nietzsche, yet, from the perspective of a Chinese radical democratic ‘Mara’ poet. Lu Xun is not served well by the name of ‘China’s Nietzsche’ – unless, that is, it is clear what we mean by ‘Nietzsche’. Such clarity seems to have been lacking in many of the early receptions of Nietzsche, especially in regards to the notion of the Übermensch, which in the context of the early Japanese reception resembles more closely Zarathustra’s ape, a caricature of Zarathustra, of which Nietzsche had already anticipated, and which he warned would be due to poor reading, in his own prophesy of widespread mis-understanding of his philosophy. In this light, I will cast into the light the caricature of Nietzsche in order to exorcise it from our subsequent discussions.


Amid the cultural vacuum of the scientistic and positivistic turn of the mid-19th century in Europe, there was widespread popular cultural and political resistance, a struggle which erupted with the widespread establishment of industrial capitalism, of the proletarianization of large proportions of the population as they were stripped of their customary rights to the land, either killed outright or huddled into small rooms in the city, destined to work in factories. In the midst of this radical transformation of the social topos, there emerged differing contradictions, and responses, novel forms of social relationships and struggle – the emergence of the entrepreneurial class with the commodification of the subject and of nature, eroding not only customary land rights, but also cultural memory, traditions in disarray, myriad dying cultures shattered in the wake of the Kronian power of fire and steel.

It was in the midst of such a context that Nietzsche emerged, and he was quite honest as to his political filiations and disaffiliations, non-affiliations. Nietzsche sought a ‘grand politics’, one of cultural creativity, revolution and transfiguration, not of the state, which he calls the new idol, nor of the invisible hand, the market. He was averse to political parties, mocking the party man who in the end can speak only party. Nietzsche was a young student when he began to write his first poems and became a Professor of Classical Philological at the age of 25. Poetry and poetics remained central to his work and could be regarded as its explicit meaning with respect to the centrality of creativity, of making, poiesis. Reflecting upon his first work from 1872, The Birth of Tragedy, in a new 1886 Preface, “Attempt at Self-Criticism,” Nietzsche wrote that he wished he had written the latter work as a song. It is significant that his magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is composed in poetry in the form of a symphony, indicating the Dionysian power at the heart of his work. It was Nietzsche’s intention to create, through the Dionysian power of music and poetics, a counter-movement against and within nihilism in order to re-awaken the wellsprings of culture, of creativity, in the creation of ‘new peoples’.

That such an intention was shared between Nietzsche and Lu Xun would be relatively uncontroversial, except for those who, while not reading Nietzsche, spew vitriol upon what they regard as his philosophy. Yet, I would like to make a stronger argument of kinship between the two writers and influence upon Lu Xun by Nietzsche’s philosophy. The usual caricature of Nietzsche is of a power-obsessed megalomaniac, who in his abhorrence of the common man, sought to enact an aristocracy based upon violence and cruelty. It is the übermensch, or the “superman,” who, in this caricature, symbolizes this tyrant – and comparisons with various twentieth century dictators, in such a context, becomes sufficient to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy. The caricature in many ways is a creature of political diatribe and journalistic distortions, misunderstandings, built up over decades. To be fair to the early Japanese reception, under the guiding hand of scholars such as Zhang Binglin—who became the inspiration for Lu Xun’s infection of China with ‘Nietzsche fever’—materials were sparse, with Lu Xun reading “The Prologue” of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, accounts of Untimely Mediations and accounts of Nietzsche and others in surveys of European thought and history. Yet, one is less forgiving to more recent commentators who have maintained the caricature of Nietzsche and maintaining the controversy, or even embarrassment, over the relationship between Lu Xun and Nietzsche. Indeed, it is significant that Lu Xun not only read Nietzsche in the context of diverse world literature, especially the romantics, but also that he himself translated the Prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra into Chinese.

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