Eileen J. Cheng’s translation of Lu Xun’s fiction and essays collections Wild Grass and Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk brings a modern perspective to these texts in straightforward, vivid prose. The first book, Wild Grass, is a loosely-connected collection of experimental pieces; the second, Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk, is a memoir in eight essays that traces Lu Xun’s life from childhood to his time studying medicine in Japan.
Cheng has a deep familiarity with Lu Xun’s oeuvre: a Professor of Chinese at Pomona College, she has previously translated his prose collection Jottings under Lamplight and is currently researching the topic of “What it Means to be Human” in his works. Over the past twenty years, she has published a multitude of critical essays on Lu Xun’s writing, from “Performing the Revolutionary: Lu Xun and the Meiji Discourse on Masculinity” as well as “Recycling the Scholar-Beauty Narrative: Lu Xun on Love in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” These reflections bring together fluent literary criticism, political analysis, and historical reconstruction, to demonstrate why Lu Xun is deserving of his title as the most important writer of 20th Century China.
The release of Cheng’s translation of Wild Grass and Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk comes at a time when translated Japanese and Korean literature is being consumed at unprecedented levels in the United States. Japanese writers such as Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, and Mieko Kawakami have garnered an expansive and dedicated Western audience over the past decade; moreover, Japanese wartime classics such as Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human and Yukio Mishima’s Confession of a Mask are also finally receiving the popular global attention that they did not acquire at the time of their publication. In a similar vein, the Western readership of modern Korean and Korean-American best sellers such as Pachinko by Lee Min-jin and The Vegetarian by Han Kang has increased in tandem with the West’s consumption of K-dramas and K-Pop.
By contrast, consumption of Chinese media has lagged in the United States. We can speculate on the reasons: economic and Communism-related anxieties from the Cold War Era still endure, though faded, as a perennial blot on China’s record. Regardless, Chinese Americans still constitute a sizable minority of the U.S. population: according to Pew Research Center, Chinese Americans are the largest Asian origin group in the U.S at 5.4 million people, or 24 percent of the total Asian population.
Cheng’s long-standing project of studying and translating Lu Xun’s writing is thus incredibly important when nurturing a more nuanced understanding of Chinese culture, thought, and history in the United States. Moreover, while Lu Xun’s most famous pieces are polemics against the prevailing notions of 20th Century China (e.g. the New Culture Movement’s classic Diary of a Madman), his creative writing offers a perspective of his political thoughts and psyche that are both emotionally resonant and timeless.
Cheng leans into the timelessness of Lu Xun’s prose in her translation. Published four decades ago, the last English translations of Wild Grass and Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk read as archaic and obscure, employing sentence structures and vocabulary that have long since faded from modern literary conventions. Cheng utilizes her freedom as a translator to render Lu Xun’s works as beautiful in English as they are in Chinese, the smoothness of the prose imbuing the original text with a readability that older translations can no longer offer.
Still, Cheng ensures that the historicity of Lu Xun’s writing is not lost in translation. She opens her introduction to her translation of Wild Grass with a couple of poems from Ancient China, which deal with the theme of wild grass. Cheng writes that “wild grass, when it appears in classic Chinese poetry, is portrayed as an essential part of the natural landscape. With a short life cycle of growth, decay, and regeneration, it is often associated with the ephemeral nature of life. Its presence might evoke sadness or regret—over a departure, a short-lived reunion, a passing life. Coming alive every spring, wild grass might symbolize hope, vitality, and new beginnings.” In this opening paragraph, Cheng connects tenets of Ancient Chinese philosophy with timeless lessons that anyone can appreciate.
Cheng employs a similar line of thought in the introduction to her translation of Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk, where she pointed out that Lu Xun’s memoir “poses the following questions: What does it mean to be human? Whose lives are visible and whose are not?” Many may dismiss Lu Xun’s writing as a historical artifact, which they need not read if they don’t want to learn about a specific time or place. Indeed, such is the result of being associated so intimately with the development of a nation’s modern intellectual thought. However, all of Cheng’s decisions when translating these works—to translate his creative writing instead of political critiques; to modernize his writing instead of retain its anachronistic style; and to continually stress the ubiquitous applicability of his works—breathes new life into Lu Xun’s oeuvre, and opens up the possibility for revived public interest in his work in the United States.
Reading Cheng’s translation of these two books was an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience. Demystifying his writing, Cheng captures the magic, somberness, humor, and lyricism of his works, demonstrating that wisdom and playfulness coexist as often as they are diametrically opposed. This book is not just a testament to Cheng’s brilliance as a translator, but also to her masterful understanding of his works. I strongly recommend that people read this book if they get the chance, and are inspired to explore Lu Xun’s writing further.