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Records of a Minor Historian: Lu Xun on Zhang Taiyan

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image of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China

Lu Xun, nearing his death, wrote two essays commemorating Zhang Taiyan. Both are rather unconventional eulogies, which engage the style, themes, and conventions of traditional biographies. Keenly aware of the depictions of his teacher as a conservative Confucian scholar and a political reactionary, Lu Xun provides a counter image. By associating his teacher with prominent revolutionaries and framing his idiosyncratic behaviors and political choices in later life as the product of failed ambition, Lu Xun harks back to the figure of the “mad genius” lauded as exemplars in the classical literary tradition, an image that resonates as well with the gallery of “modern” misanthropes and madmen in his short stories. Cast within a lineage of awakened eccentrics often deemed insane in their own times, Zhang emerges in Lu Xun’s essays as a revolutionary par excellence: an outspoken rebel who, after the founding of the Republic, remained a fearless critic of the establishment; an uncompromising radical at heart, who remained committed to the ideals of a true social transformation long since forgotten by those around him. In making the “worthiness” and relevance of Zhang Taiyan as a historical figure legible to modern readers through his engagement with traditional biographical conventions, Lu Xun also affirms the value of a traditional literati culture which continued to structure his worldview as a modern intellectual and writer. For his portrait of the “master of classical studies” as a radical revolutionary, however partial, was an attempt to ensure that Zhang’s name would remain relevant to posterity, leaving open the possibility that his teacher’s “precious records” might also be transmitted and still find knowing readers in later ages.


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