Class Readers








Lu Xun's 'Toward a Refutation of Malevolent Voices'

Translated and Annotated by Jon Eugene von Kowallis


boundary2, vol. 38, no. 2 (summer 2011) pp. 39-62


Single Page




The eradication of superstition is a theme that has been pursued most vigorously of late. This subject has been lavishly discoursed upon by our learned gentry and has also been dealt with in a vast quantity of books. But all these fail to provide us with any definition of a “true” belief system at the outset; unless such a definition is established, how can we make comparisons which will reveal the misleading nature of superstition? For people living in this mortal world, with the possible exception of the ignorant and feebleminded, those who are not satisfied by material life alone will inevitably have spiritual needs. In ancient times, the common people in India thought that flashes of lightning from out of the dark clouds of a storm were a sign that Indra was battling his enemies, hence, in this case, reverence was born of fear. The ancient Hebrews observed the vastness of nature and were awed by it, so they developed teachings such as the divine origin of things and methods of invoking divine intervention; their later religion had its first inception here. In spite of the fact that our men of aspiration in China regard all this as superstition, I for one am of the opinion that such things are indicative of the desires of a people who sought to improve themselves by means of transcending a wholly relative and limiting reality in order to enter the lofty realm of unlimited absolutes. The human heart requires something to fall back upon; without some form of faith, the wherewithal to endure is absent, hence the creation of religion was inevitable. In the case of China, a universal reverence for natural phenomena has always been regarded as the basis of culture. Worship of heaven and earth was the foundation for the systematic development of rituals and ceremonies. The reverence for heaven and earth, extended to the countless host of material things, provided a basis for all wisdom and moral principles, as well as our state and clan systems. In fact, the extent of its influence is immeasurable. Because of this, Chinese people have never slighted their native place, nor did social classes ever form; it was held that plants and rocks all had mysterious supernatural properties, and, possessing this metaphysical significance, they were viewed as different from ordinary objects. The wide range of things thus revered in China was unparalleled in the world. This trait has, however, just about been lost in the course of the countless deprivations our people have suffered. At present it is to be found only in the written accounts of the ancients and among a few peasants who still preserve the ways of their ancestors. It is next to impossible to find it among the literati. If some claim that the objects of the Chinese people’s veneration are confined to the corporeal and extend neither to the intangible, nor to a single almighty being, but rather to numerous images, and that their beliefs are all superstition and delusion, I would pose the question: why must a single god without form be regarded as the true god? Religions were created by people out of a desire to improve themselves; no matter if they worship many gods or one god, tangible or intangible deities, the intention of fulfilling man’s spiritual need to uplift himself is still the same.

Human beings, in their observation of phenomena and in their investigation of the material world, felt as though every thing embodied some mysterious inspiration from which we derive poetry and song as well as everything that is beautiful or ingenious. Those with an understanding of spiritual matters still return to this point today, yet people in China had already arrived at such an understanding some four thousand years ago already. If these things are to be denounced as superstition, then what constitutes the “true” faith? Our gentry, at a time when the country is on the decline, have become spiritually blocked and interested only in petty gain. Though they are alive physically, they are dead spiritually. Thus they are ignorant of the mysteries and curiosities of life, as well as indifferent to the appeal of nature, bowing only before the emoluments of office. They take themselves as the yardstick by which to measure other people and then are greatly shocked to find that others have something to believe in; they therefore seek to blame everything from military reversals[22] to national humiliation on these believers and find satisfaction only in destroying other people’s sources of inner strength through slander and fabrications. They fail to realize that on the basis of historical evidence, it is apparent that the most damage to the fabric of society, to the nation, and to the altars of our ancestors has been caused not by the rural peasantry and little people, but by our faithless gentry. Thus the most urgent task before us today is to rid ourselves of this hypocritical gentry; “superstition” itself may remain! Then there are others who claim to have found definitive solutions, trumpeting science as the absolute criterion for determining truth. Having heard a little about chemistry they proclaim: “Phosphorous is an element [that glows in the dark], there is no such thing as a ‘will-o’-the-wisp.’” After paging through a book or two on physiology, they announce: “The human body is composed of cells, so how can there be a soul?” Though their own knowledge is far from complete, such people insist upon interpreting all phenomena on the basis of a smattering of chemistry and a dash of physics, the most rudimentary principles of which they misconstrue. They fail to understand that the ineffable principles governing the myriad changes in the world simply cannot be contained in a primer on the natural sciences. Is it not sheer fantasy to attack religion simply on the basis of so meager a knowledge of science? There have, in fact, long been people in Europe and the West who proposed the creation of a religion based on science. The German scholar Haeckel,[23] through his studies in zoology, established monism—the theory that all phenomena in the universe arise from a single underlying principle.[24] He proposed erecting a shrine to rationality, the true Trinity of the nineteenth century. What were its three components? Truth, goodness, and beauty. He believed that rites and ceremonies continued to have a function, that is, to enable people to cope with present- day realities and encourage them to make further advances. Nietzsche, on the other hand, stimulated by Darwin’s theories of evolution, attacked Christianity and created an entirely different philosophy, that of the Übermensch.[25]

The proposals of Haeckel and Nietzsche, though based on science, were still tainted with distinctly religious and fantastical elements, and thus implied an alteration in, but obviously not the elimination of, faith. Thus, up until the present, these [scientistic] doctrines have failed to have a major impact. This is because science has been unable to provide deeper answers, and its tenets do not satisfy the needs of the greater public. Nevertheless, those who first advocated these ideas openly were determined men of great learning and high moral character who had the conviction and the courage to stand by what they believed without fear of offending their contemporaries. They were indeed men of talent. By contrast it should be obvious that those who live today by wine and food alone are completely deluded and illogical in their efforts to deprive others of their faith, though they may clad themselves in scientific jargon about elements and cells like armor. Yet I fail to understand why people who have heard their views still hold them in esteem and praise them. Nevertheless, this group is actually not the worst of the lot, for there are even more despicable groups which take the destruction of Buddhist temples as their sacred mission. Since our people are awakening, education should be promoted, but our “men of aspiration” are almost always poor, while the rich are as a rule miserly. As the work of national salvation must be accomplished without delay, certain people have decided that temples and ancestral shrines must be pressed into service as schools.[26] Thereupon, they advocate the eradication of superstition, follow with the destruction of the idols in the temples, then set themselves up as heads of the schools. That done, a teacher is engaged and made to do all the work—and so a school is established. Yet the value of Buddhism is universally accepted by all persons of insight, so what grievance could they possibly nurture against Cathay that would put them into such a rush to eradicate its doctrines from our soil? Before we seek to assert that Buddhism has made no contribution to the populace, we should first reflect upon the decline of their moral character, and realize that if we want to save them, instead of trying to destroy Buddhism, we should hasten to spread it. In addition, what is the present state of schools in China?

The teachers are themselves often lacking in knowledge, and understand very little of the West. Many are in fact merely hoodwinking people by putting on the appearance of being modern and progressive. Teachers of ancient history now lecture to their students about how the Yellow Emperor fought against “that chieftain what’s-his-name ‘You,’” evidence of their decidedly limited knowledge of the Chinese written language.[27] Those teaching geography allege that “the earth often gets punctured” but that “repair work is possible.” Neither do they understand that there is a difference between the actual shape of the earth and that of a classroom globe. But once they acquire all this “modern knowledge,” their students’ egos become inflated, and they style themselves as pillars of the Chinese state. Though they have no experience in government, their pride in themselves exceeds that of the founding fathers of entire nations. Their aspirations exceedingly base, their only goal is to pass the civil service examinations.[28] A China which will have to rely on such men for her future is a nation in a precarious state indeed! Although the monastic orders have been in a state of decline for some time already, Buddhist monks still maintain a much more unsullied and scholarly way of life than the students in such schools. In southern China, there are other “men of aspiration” who are even more extreme, wanting to ban the “parades of the gods”[29] conducted by the peasants. The farmers toil year- round almost without rest; when there is a break in their work finally, they hold festivals of thanksgiving to indulge the gods and themselves. Animals are slaughtered as part of sacrificial rites and celebrations, through which the farmers replenish themselves spiritually and physically. But our self- styled men of aspiration now raise the charge that such gatherings are a waste of money and time; they dash about calling for the abolition of these festivals and the expropriation of their funding for the use of the public treasury. Alas—no more expedient means of self- enrichment has been devised than this movement to “smash superstition”! It would be one thing if people were sinking into hopeless indulgence and addictions that sapped their vital energies, marred their dispositions, and dulled their perceptions. But it is something else entirely if good, honest people[30] who have labored throughout the entire year seek a form of spiritual sustenance. That is why our farmers hold lavish feasts at year’s end as a gesture of thanksgiving to heaven—to drink their fill in celebration of the bounties that they have received, and obtain a respite for mind and body, in anticipation of beginning work anew. Yet now even this will be denied them, and they are to be reduced to a life of toiling like cattle and horses under the yoke. But human beings cannot tolerate such fetters and are bound to find some other means of giving vent to their frustrations. This is, moreover, a matter of self- consolation, in which no outsiders are entitled to interfere. Even tyrants are loath to interfere with poets chanting their verses, nor do they prevent dancers from bending and stretching in order to limber up their bodies. Yet when farmers seek a normal outlet, our men of aspiration leap forth to intervene. Acting in this manner, such “principled” men are a far worse scourge than tyrants. Among the perpetrators of these indiscriminate actions, those who try to destroy religious beliefs through slander and distortion are the better of the two groups; those who would ban religious practices outright are the basest.[31] As to the numerous types which fall in between, I will delineate the following as a few examples. First, there are those who ridicule mythology. They slander the myths of Greece, Egypt, and India alike, asserting that these were invented merely as devices to dispel boredom or to amuse. Myths were devised by ancient peoples who, observing the wonders of nature, gave rein to their imagination and anthropomorphized their inventions, creating original stories in the classic genres of antiquity, bizarrely impressive. Though it is not appropriate to accept such tales as true, it is a far greater mistake to ridicule them.

That the peoples of high antiquity had such vivid imaginations should be a source of awe and inspiration to later ages; the arts and humanities of Western Europe have been greatly enriched by myth and legend; philosophy and literature have been strengthened and beautified in innumerable instances by the presence of these elements. If one desires to understand the Western humanities, the study of mythology is of prime importance, for if their myths are not understood, it will be impossible to appreciate their arts. If we remain ignorant of their arts, how can we come to terms with the intrinsic [value of their] civilization? To claim that Egypt perished because of superstition and to couple this with a denunciation of its entire ancient civilization would be infantile. Those who fail to understand the differences between antiquity and the present are beneath contempt. Secondly, certain persons have, in the name of scientific inquiry, questioned the [intelligence behind the construct of] mythic dragons in ancient China. In terms of intellectual derivation, this is simply a case of picking at the expectorations of foreigners. In the eyes of those who understand nothing but money and power, China’s decline transforms even her rocks and flowers into objects of contempt. Finding fault with anything Chinese, they attempt, on the authority of zoological tenets, to disprove the existence of dragons. The dragon as a creature was created by the imagination of the ancients, and any attempt to classify it according to zoological category only exposes the ignorance of those who would propose such an endeavor. What is more, since these people are our own compatriots, what motivates them to peddle such theories? That the people of our country came up with such things should not be a source of shame or embarrassment—the richness of their imagination is something we can boast about. Ancient India and Greece, and more recently the nations of eastern and northern Europe, all came to possess a wealth of myth and fable that few other countries can match. The national character of all these peoples is distinguished and refined, ranking among the highest in the world, nor do we notice the rest of the world ridiculing them. The only source of shame for us should be that, unable to cre- ate myths and supernatural beings ourselves, we now import them from abroad, thinking our own ancients’ imaginings poor by comparison. Alas that if the dragon, our national emblem, is reviled in such a manner, then no other relic of our culture shall survive. The double- headed eagle of Russiaand the lion rampant of England have been spared such vilification onlybecause these two countries have fared differently from ours in terms ofpower. Persons who use science as a cloak to conceal their own desires for wealth and power should not be included in serious discussion but rather be spat upon outright. And now there are yet another lot who want to do something entirely unprecedented in our history: to have their own religiondesignated[32] as the means by which to strengthen the faith of all the Chinese, while they themselves remain the spiritual captives of others, and their faith lies not in their own hands. Though they also present themselves as men of aspiration who are smashing superstition, they are mere henchmen for the establishment of a new orthodoxy.



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