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



Corroded at the core and wavering spiritually, our once- glorious nation seems destined to wither away of its own devices amid the throes of internecine quarreling among the heirs to our civilization. Yet throughout the empire not a word is spoken against this, silence reigns, and all channels are blocked.[1] Rash doctrines have deluded the minds of the people, whilst reckless demagogues heighten the pitch of their rhetoric by the day, spreading their poison and wielding their daggers as if nothing short of the imminent collapse of our ancestral land could sate them. Yet throughout the empire not a word is spoken against this, silence reigns, and all channels are blocked. As I have not yet abandoned hope for the promise of the future, I remain eager to hear the voices of the hearts[2] of all thinking men and earnestly entreat them to share with me their illuminating thoughts.[3] For this inner light can break through darkness and silence, while the voices of the heart can provide deliverance from falsehood and chicanery. In human society such voices function like a clap of spring thunder that bestirs the hundred plants to bud; like the crack of dawn in the east, they herald the passing of the night. While I do not expect such a feat from the populace at large, I cherish the hope that one or two scholars will take a stand, setting an example for the restand affording the people a chance to escape oblivion. This hope, though humble and small, is like the sole remaining string on a broken lyre or one lone star in the autumn sky. How much the worse off would we all not be if even such a tiny glimmer of hope were denied us? Only peaks solid as Sumeru[4] or mighty as Mount Tai[5] can withstand the impact of extrinsic forces, other sentient beings[6] cannot remain unaffected.

Whenever violent gales rip through a valley or the strong rays of the sun beat down upon a shallow river, changes are bound to occur in all things that feel their force--this is the nature of matter. Such changes are even more apparent in the realm of living creatures. As the sun’s energy arrives with spring, ants begin crawling about on the ground; in late autumn, the chirping insects fall silent. All flying and crawling creatures alter their activities in response to external factors, as dictated by biological principles. Though human beings are superior to other living things, they inevitably have their own particular emotional and physical reactions to the impact of external forces, like all other living things. People generally experience a sense of elation in spring; they concentrate in summer; with the desolation of autumn, their spirits sink; and as with the hibernation of creatures, in winter they grow somber. Sentiments are thus affected by seasonal change, sometimes resulting in grievance and conflict. Yet no external events, be they natural or human, have the power to alter a man’s convictions so long as his words come from the heart. If something runs counter to his beliefs, though the entire world might sing it with one voice, he cannot chime in. His speech must give substance to his own views, not circumscribe or contain them, because of the sheer forcefulness of the thoughts and ideas which illuminate his heart and stir in his mind like the great waves of a mighty ocean. Consequently, once his voice arises, the whole land will reawaken and that strength could well prove greater than any other natural force, stirring the mortal world and startling it into an awakening. This awakening will mark the beginning of our rise out of the present situation. Only when one speaks from the heart, becoming master of one’s own soul, can one begin to have an individual identity; only when each person possesses an individual identity will the public approach a total awakening. However, if everyone leans in the same direction and ten thousand mouths sing the same tune, this singing cannot come from the heart, it is mere chiming in with others, like the meshing of gears in a machine.[7] Such a chorus is more dis- turbing to the ear than the groaning of trees or the clamorous cries of cer- tain birds because it emphasizes the profound silence in the background. Yet China at present is an all-too-perfect example of just such a silence. The chaotic situation throughout China has given ample opportunity to foreign marauders: amid the ravages of the wars that ensued, people could scarcely survive. Men of integrity grew haggard,[8] while learned scholars retreated into the abyss of silence and isolation.[9] It is, in fact, difficult to determine whether the ideals of old[10] are still cherished by our people, but appearances suggest that weariness, inertia, and passivity have prevailed among them for a long time. Now the situation is changing again: different ideas and strange new things are gradually coming into China. Out of concern for the fate of their endangered nation, men of ambition travel to Europe and America in the hope of borrowing elements of Western culture that can be adapted for their native land. Though they breathe fresh air and are exposed to new ideas abroad, the blood that flows within them remains that of descendants of the Yellow Emperor. Luxuriant plants may wither in confinement, yet flourish again through nourishment from without. Consequently, due to the revitalization of the old and the selective introduction of the new, a liberal and enlightened spirit prevails. On the one hand, we are broadening our own horizons; on the other, we are considering the possibilities traditional things hold for their native land. Once such ideas are articulated, they may well continue to gain force until, like a thunderbolt, they shake everything around them. Dreamers will continue to dream on in their slumber, but those who have awakened will agree that this is the correct path to follow, thus the people of China may yet be spared the terrible fate of national extinction through reliance on this company of learned men.

Even if only one of them remains alive, China still has a hope of survival. Be that as it may, as time goes on, our state of silence continues unabated And a thorough search in every direction fails to turn up any men of the sort needed. There are none who speak from their hearts; none who respond to outside stimuli. This benighted silence has transformed us into [a people half dead and half alive. The brutal suppression of dissent[11] in the past has finally taken its toll, and the resultant process of decay will continue, obliterating all hope of regeneration. This is a matter of truly lamentable and grievous proportions. Yet I am also aware that those who would find fault with my views will have much to say against this. They will point out that for more than a decade China has been subjected to grievous humiliation [by foreign powers], but that because of this the intellectuals are gradually awakening from their dreamlike sleep, articulating the meaning of a [modern] nation and the significance of a [responsible] citizenry; a nascent pub- lic spirit and concern for the welfare of others has sprouted, and our will for independence and self- preservation has been fortified as the tide of public sentiment surges by the day--people are willing to speak out and express their opinions more and more. Foreign visitors to China are all amazed at how adept we have shown ourselves to be at reform. The inland gentry, on coming into contact with the material civilizations of alien regions and their products, take to imitating their customs and languages. Strutting down the street in top hats and tuxedos, they greet Westerners with a handshake and a smile, all quite convincingly. Those who dwell in the hinterland and are versed in the new ideas and trends are quick to lecture their compa- triots on the duties of citizens of a twentieth-century nation.[12] Their listeners all nod in approval and spare no effort in striving toward a timely completion of the goals set out for them. In addition, the gentry edify the people daily with newspaper articles and, on occasion, even attempt to enlighten them with books. It is held that these publications, although employing phraseology that tends to be awkward and obscurantist, so much so that readers cannot fully understand what is being said, will still serve as effective tools for the introduction of modern civilization to China. If they can revamp and retrain our armed forces, and successfully develop industry and commerce, before long the nation will attain wealth and power. We are still in a preparatory stage at present, yet everything is changing. Were persons long dead to view the present situation from their graves, they would be astounded at how much better the ideas and developments of today seem compared with those of the past, regretting only that they had died too soon. So “what do you mean [those opposed to my view would ask] by asserting that ‘silence still reigns [in China],’ et cetera”? If all the arguments to the contrary are correct, then China at present is indeed a nation of tumult and clamor. But let us inquire into the nature of the opinions being expressed throughout society and the measures actually being taken by people. Neither voices of the heart nor illuminating ideas are anywhere to be found. Because the times and circumstances are different, the means of survival have changed with them: some people, fearful of suffering hunger and cold, rush to take up dishonest ways, donning the cloak of reform in order to conceal their naked self- interest. The situation may be compared to a wood- man boasting about his ax, while ascribing the country’s weakness to the farmers’ use of plowshares; or hunters praising the blunderbuss, while alleging that the people’s poverty is caused by fishermen who are enamoured of nets. Then there are those who have traveled in Europe.

If they happen to have learned to make devices to narrow women’s waists, like corsets and girdles, then they will encourage the cult of chastity by asserting that such fashions are “civilized” and maintain that refusal to adopt them is but barbarism. If those people really were woodmen, hunters, or corset makers, that would be alright; but in actuality they are incompetents who have not even mastered a trade. Deep inside they are foul and vacuous and can but spread hearsay and half- baked truths in order to hoodwink their contemporaries. Despite the growing number of persons who tout [reform] and the even greater number of those who chime in, these people do nothing to alleviate our desolation. In fact, the daily quantity of poison they produce is by itself sufficient to accelerate the decline and fall of China. One can but conclude that the misery they are bringing about is actually much worse than silence. Thus what is of primary value and offers us the greatest hope at present is that men of learning might appear with their own convictions and the subtlety and critical distance necessary to insulate themselves from the pompous claims and rash deceptions that presently abound and thoroughly critique [our] civilization.[13] These men would of necessity possess unwavering faith in their own principles and never be swayed by the praise or the condemnation of society. If the world lauds them, they must not be taken in by its flattery; if it reviles them, they should not feel disheartened; if people wish to follow them they should be allowed to do so, but if instead they hurl laughter and mockery at them in order to isolate them from others, they must not fear that either. The possibility of bringing light into our gloom and darkness, and striking the spark that can illuminate the inner- souls of our compatriots all hangs on this. When each person realizes his or her own identity and no longer merely drifts with the tide, this will enable China to stand on her own feet. As the situation exists today, the citizens of old and vanquished states that were formerly ignored or held in contempt by our men of ambition have all entered a state of self- awareness. They can speak from the depth of their hearts in clear and sonorous tones with their spirits running high and will, in time, no longer be subjugated through the powers of force and deception. So why does China alone persist in this solitary silence? Is it because this road is unwalkable, so our men of learning [hindered as they are by the obstacles before them] cannot make their presence felt? Or is it that the learned prefer to keep their mouths shut since sincere and heartfelt sentiments are being drowned out by the din created by so many [self-proclaimed authorities]? Alas that judging from the historical record, we can see that there has always been the need for a vanguard to open and clear the way. But the deluge of filthy water that has flooded the land carries even our bravest heroes down into the muddy depths. The once-fertile and rich land of China has become a dismal stretch of waste. The soul of the Yellow Emperor groans forth in lamentation, and our race has abandoned its spirit: not even the promise of sincere voices or illuminating thoughts is evident. Even though things are thus and most of our failures have come about by our own doing, it is still preferable for us to attempt to launch a single skiff of our own making than to wait for others to build a giant ark [to save us]. That I have not yet abandoned hope for the promise of the future is my impetus in this writing.



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