Selected Modern Chinese Essays: When Lu Xun Was a Child

◎ Wang Shijing

As a child, Lu Xun was in the charge of a nurse called Mama Chang. She was an honest country woman. At first she must have been a young widow in the countryside, who went to town to seek a living for herself after her husband died and she lost her land. Nobody knew what her name was. As Lu Xun’s grandmother called her “Achang”, other people also called her by the same name. But the children usually called her “Mama Chang”. She was so full of mysterious lore and had so many rules of behaviour that the children sometimes found her quite puzzling. For instance, if someone died, you should not say he was dead but “he has passed away”. You should not enter a room where someone had died or a child had been born. If a grain of rice fell to the ground, you should pick it up, and the best thing was to eat it. On no account must you walk under the bamboo pole on which trousers or pants were hanging out to dry. She would not let the children get up to mischief. If they pulled up a weed or turned over a stone, she would say they were naughty and threaten to tell their mother. In the beginning, the children did not think much of her. Lu Xun was especially angry with her when she inadvertently stepped on and killed his favourite little mouse. However, one thing which unexpectedly made Lu Xun feel respect for her was that she often told the children stories of the “Long Hairs” (the Taiping Rebellion). Another thing which inspired Lu Xun with a still greater respect for her was that she was able to produce from nobody knew where an illustrated edition of the Book of Hills and Seas, which Lu Xun had been longing for day and night.

Lu Xun had been longing for an illustrated copy of the Book of Hills and Seas for sometime. The whole business started with a distant great-uncle named Yutian, who was living in the same compound. A fat and kindly old man, he liked to grow flowers such as chloranthus and jasmine. The old man was a lonely soul with no one to talk to, so he liked the children’s company and often even called them his “young friends”. He owned a big collection of books, one of which was called The Mirror of Flowers with many beautiful illustrations of flowers and trees. The children found this book most attractive. But the old man told them that the illustrated edition of the Book of Hills and Seas was even more attractive, with pictures of man-faced beasts, nine-headed snakes, three-footed birds, winged men and headless monsters who used their teats as eyes… Unfortunately, he happened to have mislaid it. Eager as they were to look at the book with such strange pictures, the children did not like to press him to find it. None of the people the children asked knew where to get it, and the children had no idea where they could buy it themselves. The main street was a long way from their home, and the New Year holiday was the only time in the year when they were able to go there to look around, but during that period the bookshops were closed. As long as the children were playing, it was not so bad, but the moment they sat down they would think of the Book of Hills and Seas. Probably because Lu Xun harped on the subject so much, even Achang got wind of it and started asking what this Book of Hills and Seas was. Lu Xun then told her about it.

About a fortnight or a month later, Mama Chang came back after some leave at home and the moment she saw Lu Xun, she handed him a package. “Here, son!” she said cheerfully. “I’ve bought you that Book of Holy Seas with pictures.” What an unexpected piece of news! To young Lu Xun it was even more thrilling than the New Year holiday or a festival. He hastened to take the package and unwrap the paper. There were four small volumes and, sure enough, the man-faced beast, the nine-headed snake… all of them were there. Although the paper was yellow and the drawings very poor — so much so that even the animals’ eyes were oblong, and both the engraving and printing were very crude, nevertheless, it was Lu Xun’s most treasured book. Later, in a highly impassioned essay Lu Xun paid tribute to this country woman of peasant origin and described his own deep affection for her.

The book was indeed something extraordinary. Lu Xun received it from Mama Chang’s hands along with her incomparably deep affection for him. It touched the young Lu Xun more deeply than any other book he had read.

Of all the children at home, his grandmother loved Lu Xun most. On summer evenings when Lu Xun was lying on a small wooden table under an osmanthus tree to enjoy the evening cool, she would sit by the table with a palm-leaf fan in her hand. Waving the fan, she would tell him stories or ask him riddles. She was very familiar with folk tales. The cat, she said, was the tiger’s teacher. Originally the tiger couldn’t do anything, so he turned to the cat for help. The cat taught him how to pounce and catch his prey the way that he caught rats. After these lessons the tiger said to himself, “Now that I’ve mastered all the skills no other creature is a match for me except my master the cat. If I kill the cat I shall be king of the beasts.” He made up his mind to do this, and was about to pounce on the cat. But the cat, knowing what he was up to, leaped up onto a tree. The tiger was left squatting below and glaring upwards. The cat had not taught all his skills: he had not taught the tiger to climb trees. His grandmother also told Lu Xun the story “Flooding Jinshan Monastery”. A man named Xu Xian rescued two snakes, one white and one green. The white snake changed into a woman to repay Xu’s kindness and married him, while the green snake changed into her maid and accompanied her. A Buddhist monk by the name of Fa Hai saw from Xu’s face that he had been bewitched by an evil spirit, so he hid Xu behind the shrine in Jinshan Monastery, and when Lady White Snake came to look for her husband the whole place was flooded. In the end Fa Hai trapped Lady White Snake, and put her in a small alms-bowl. He buried this bowl in the ground, and built a pagoda over it to prevent her getting out. This was Leifeng Pagoda by West Lake. The story made young Lu Xun uncomfortable. He was deeply concerned at the injustice done to Lady White Snake, and his one wish at that time was for the pagoda imprisoning Lady White Snake underneath it soon to collapse. Later, Lu Xun used this folktale in an essay opposing the reactionary rule of the forces of darkness.