"Autumn Night" & "A Splendid Tale", by Lu Xun
The twenty-four “weeds” in 《野草》 (a slim volume first published in 1927) include ballad-like poems, theatrical dialogue, dream narratives, and personal memoirs. Some have the tightly condensed plot of a fable or folk tale; others are static, describing the details of a particular image from all possible angles. All are rich in ambiguity, inviting the reader to interpret them in his or her own way, while defying any attempts to pin them down to a single explanation.
In recent decades Lu Xun scholarship, both inside and outside of China, has crystallised around the text of Weeds (traditionally translated as Wild Grass): in the 1980s it was the key text in the efforts of Wang Furen (王富仁) and Sun Yushi (孫玉石) (professors at Beijing Normal University and Peking University, respectively) to reclaim Lu’s work from orthodox Maoist interpretation; Gloria Davies’ 2013 book Lu Xun’s Revolution devotes an entire 40-page chapter to Weeds, which she considers indispensable in understanding Lu’s struggle between conflicting impulses towards composition in wenyanwen (classical Chinese) and baihua (colloquial Chinese); and in 2014, Nicholas Kaldis offered a summary of fresh discoveries made regarding the influence of Freud and Nietzsche in The Chinese Prose Poem – the first book-length work devoted to Weeds in English.
In the last few years, Lu Xun’s once incontrovertible position as the father of modern Chinese literature has started to look increasingly insecure. Several of his best-known works, previously mainstays of the Chinese secondary school syllabus, have disappeared from the national curriculum – including his most famous novella, “The Real Story of Ah-Q” (阿Q正传), in 2007. The exact reasons for the decision have not been made clear, but perhaps – as Julia Lovell has speculated – it is “to redirect [students’] impressionable young minds from Lu Xun’s dark introspection towards a more exuberant self-confidence.”
—Dave Haysom & Karmia Olutade
The original Chinese texts have been uploaded to genius.com, with explanatory annotations and comments on the translation process: 《秋夜》 | 《好的故事》
In my backyard, I can see two trees standing outside my walls. One of them is a jujube tree. The other is also a jujube tree.
The night sky above this scene is strange and high. I have never seen a sky so strange and high. It is as if he is about to depart from the land of the living; people would no longer see him when they lift their faces. But for now, it is exceptionally blue, steely, beaming the eyes of dozens of stars. The sky’s mouth hooks up into a smile, seemingly pleased with its own profundity, then scatters the multitude of dew upon the wild flowers and weeds of my garden.
I do not know the names of these blooms and grasses, what people summon them by. I remember a little pink flower. It is in bloom now, further belittled by the frigid night air, trembling and dreaming, dreaming of spring’s arrival, then autumn’s, dreaming of the gaunt poet who wipes the eye with the final petal on her stem, telling her that though autumn has come, and winter, spring will still break through with careening butterfly wing and the carousing bee verse. And so she flashes a smile, even though she has been frozen a pitiful red, shaking still.
The jujube trees, they have shed bare their leaves. Earlier, a couple of children came to knock down the fruit that others had missed. Now, not a single one remains. Even the leaves are gone. He knows the dream of the small pink flower, spring follows autumn. He knows too, the dreams of the fallen leaves, autumn follows spring. He has lost all his leaves, he is nothing but sticks, and he is no longer arched, loaded with the first fruit and foliage. He is comfortable. But there are still some branches bent away, each flaunting their own scrapes and tears from the jujube hitters, unlike the longest few arms of this tree that mutedly, metallically plunge into the side of the strange and high sky. The devilish eyes of the heavens blink back in reply. The metal arms bayonet into the plump, round moon, and the moon pales into a disturbing white.
The twinkling devilish eyes of the sky grow bluer and bluer, unsettled, wanting to leave the land of the living, to avoid the piercing jujube tree, leaving only the moon. The moon too, is furtively rolling east, seeking refuge. And the branch which has nothing is still quietly cutting into the strange and high sky, determined to murder, no matter how those bewitching eyes flutter.
Wa! A vile bird flies past on patrol.
I suddenly hear midnight laughter, hesitant, as if unwilling to rouse the surrounding sleepers. Yet the air all around echoes the laughter buoyantly. At this late hour, no one else is around, and I soon realize this sound is seated in my own mouth, and chased by the laughter, I quickly return to my room. I string the lamp up high.
The tinny taps against the back windows must be from the bugs hitting the glass headstrong. Not long afterwards, a few make it inside, most likely from the tears in the window paper. As soon as they enter, they start pinging against the glass of the lamp shade. One of them finally finds entrance at the top, and there he finds fire. But I thought this fire was real. Two or three rest on the paper top of the lamp cover and catch their breath. The lamp cover was freshly changed last night, a snowy paper, creased painstakingly into perfect waves. A scarlet gardenia is painted on one of the corners.
When the scarlet gardenia blooms, the jujube will dream the small flower’s dream again, and its jade green branches will soften and arch with fruit once more… I will hear midnight laughter again… I decisively snip through the tangle of my emotions and look at the bugs on the paper lamp cover again. Their heads are far bigger than their behinds, and like sunflower seeds, each of them is merely the size of half a grain of wheat. Their whole torso is a shade of emerald both adorable and pitiable.
I yawn and light a cigarette, spouting out the smoke towards the lamp to commemorate all these intricate, emerald heroes.
September 15th, 1924
A Splendid Tale
The lamplight is dwindling: this is the last of the oil. Though it is not a good brand of oil, anyway, and the light is dim through the thoroughly smoke-stained shade. The sound of firecrackers is not far off, and tobacco smoke surrounds me: it is a murky night.
I close my eyes and tilt back my head, leaning against the back of the chair with the hand that holds Primary Learnings resting on my knee.
In this haze, I see a splendid tale.
It is a tale at once beautiful, serene and captivating. So many beautiful people and beautiful goings-on, entwined like a sky of brocaded clouds – flying like a myriad shooting stars – unfolding into infinity.
I seem to remember once sitting on a little boat, following along a mountain track, traversing candleberry tree, fresh grain, wild flower, chicken, dog, shrubby tree, dead tree, thatched hut, pagoda, temple, peasant and farmwife, village girl, clothes drying, monk, woven hat, sky, cloud, bamboo… all of it mirrored in the clear blue of the brook, each stroke of the oars stirring in flickering sunlight – and the fish drift through the water, and it all ripples together. Both reflected and reflector, not diffracting but swaying, growing, fusing – on the point of fusing but then shying away, and returning somewhere close to their original forms. The edges are ragged like summer clouds, trimmed with sunlight, shining with a liquid-silver fire. Thus have been all the rivers I have been along.
And thus is the tale I now see.
On the water’s backdrop of blue sky all things are intertwined, stitched together into one single piece – forever vibrant, forever unfolding – whose end I cannot see.
Beneath the withered willow tree on the bank are a few skinny hollyhocks, probably planted there by the village girl. Bright red flowers and dappled red flowers all float within the water, suddenly fragmenting, lengthening, trailing reddening stains through the water, but never quite fading. Thatched hut, dog, pagoda, village girl, cloud… all floating too. The bright red flowers are stretched out one by one, now snapping with a splash into a ribbon of red. Ribbon threads into dog, dog threads into white cloud, white cloud threads into village girl… and then they spring back again. But now the dappled red flower is fragmenting and lengthening and will thread into pagoda, village girl, dog, thatched hut, cloud.
Now all the stories I know are coming into focus: they are beautiful, serene and captivating, and they are clear. On a blue sky there are countless beautiful people and beautiful goings-on, and one by one I see them and I know them.
So I shall look at them directly.
And just as am I about to look at them, I open my eyes with an abrupt jolt, and the brocaded clouds are rumpled and disordered as if someone has thrown a rock into the stream, the waves rising all of a sudden to pull this whole reflection to bits. A few final rainbow fragments remain visible as I unconsciously seize hold of the Primary Learnings that has almost dropped to the floor.
I dearly love this splendid tale, and from these remaining fragments I shall recover it, complete it, and preserve it. Casting the book aside, I stretch for my pen – but, somehow, apart from these vestiges I see nothing but dim lamplight. I am not on a little boat.
But I still remember that I did see a splendid tale, on that murky night.
February 24th, 1925