Wang Hui, Tsinghua University Beijing

The Voices of Good and Evil: What is Enlightenment?
Rereading Lu Xun’s “Towards a Refutation of the Voices of Evil”

Foreword: Why should we re-read the text?

I will primarily discuss “Toward a Refutation of the Voices of Evil,” an early essay written by Lu Xun in classical Chinese prose style. It has been over a hundred years since the essay was first published in Henan magazine at the end of 1908. We first encountered Lu Xun’s texts in the Chinese Literature textbooks in Junior High school, and these texts were mostly his novels, prose, essays, prose poems, so on and so forth. Why do we have to read this particular essay that is written in classical prose style and thus extremely difficult to understand?

There are two different methods of reading a text. One is to treat the text as historical document: we could understand how the entire history progresses and develops by interrogation and research, tracking the text’s formation and its historical significance. Under such circumstance, the text basically serves as a clue for understanding history. This way of reading is most common in historical research, where a variety of theories and methodologies concerning reading histroical documents have been developed. The other approach to a text, however, focuses more on the theoretical connotation of the text itself, and how the concept, scope and topic, which the text raises, influences the contemporary. In other words, the second approach is trans-historical and trans-temporal. Reading the classic texts, we usually apply both methods interchangeably, but with different emphasis. The reason for the classic texts to be deemed as classic is that the texts have significance that could transcend spaciality and temporality, and they have possibility for re-interpretation. If there were no different interpretations, the classics could not have been identified as classics. In Wenshi tongyi (General Principles of Historiography), Zhang Xuecheng regarded zhuan and zhu as the premise of the formation of classics. [*1] In other words, the relationship between classics and zhuan & zhu is not a temporal one, as is often understood, that classics precede zhuan & zhu. Quite the contrary, classics could only become classics thanks to the zhuan & zhu composed by later generations. Otherwise, Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals) would have been some useless official records baring no value at all; Shijing (The Book of Odes) would have been a collection of folk music; I Ching (Book of Changes) would have been a book of divination; and Shangshu (Book of Documents) would have done no more than providing clues for later generations to understand history. Therefore, it is not that classics engendered zhuan & zhu, but that zhuan & zhu facilitated the formation of classics. This is a genealogical view of classical texts.

A text’s rebirth is achieved through interpretation. Although a text may possess the potential for transcending spatiality and temporality, it cannot voluntarily do so. Thus, a text’s classicization, i.e. its becoming a text that is alive, is not only the consequence of interpretation, but is also to become an event itself. There is no inevitable successiveness between the text’s emergence and the event of its becoming a contemporary classic. The relation between the text and the event of its classicization, therefore, has a two-fold significance: on the one hand, the event often happens coincidentally. If the text did not interpret the event, the event would be a coincidental event, and it could not formulate an event that could alter spatial and temporal relationship or meaning system. For example, if there had been no discussion of revolution and envisaging of the foundation of the Republic of China, the Wuchang Uprising [*2] would have been no more than one of the countless mutinies at the time. If there had not been Lenin and his comrades’ explanation and interpretation of Socialism, Self-determination of Peoples, and Imperialist Era, and the October Revolution would have merely been a limited armed mutiny or rebellion. In this regard, the text is not only the consequence of the event, but also the key element that catalyzes the event. On the other hand, the act of re-activating the text, or the phenomenon that the text is rejuvenated, is bound to emerge in a unique historical context. Once a text is created as a classical text, one that asserts influence and meaning onto our existence, the process and its consequence would generate new meaning and new action. In this sense, since meaning is generated through classicization, the classicization itself becomes an event.

Let’s get back to the question posed at the opening of this essay: now that many of Lu Xun’s works have already been deemed as the contemporary Chinese classics, why do we need to read such a difficult and unclassicized text? We should re-identify the essay’s themes and purposes after reading. The subtitle of the text indicates that this essay could be considered a unique answer to the question—“what is Enlightenment?” What is indeed Enlightenment? Is it national awakening or Cosmopolitanism? Is it Democratic Republic or individual self-sovereignty? Is it eradicating superstition, opposing religion or secularization? Is it the awareness of rights or the manifestation of immanence? In addition, who is the Enlightener? Is Enlightenment the elite’s call to the public, or the mutual stimulation between individuals? What is the medium of this calling or stimulation? “Toward a Refutation of the Voices of Evil" has offered unique answers to these questions.

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