Lu Xun, Cultural internationalism, leftist periodicals and literary translation in the 1930s

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Literary translation is a much-discussed subject in Chinese studies, but, for reasons that demand investigation, translations of foreign literature into Chinese tend to get far more attention from Chinese studies scholars than translations of Chinese literature into foreign languages. This happens in spite of abundant evidence of a long history of translation and circulation of Chinese literature in the other direction, beyond linguistic and national borders. For example, according to Donald Gibbs and Yun-chen Li's A Bibliography of Studies and Translations of Modern Chinese Literature, 1918-1942, anglophone translations of modern Chinese literature were done as early as during the Republican period (1911-49) when the Chinese versions of this literature had just been published, often with the help of Chinese writers themselves. The works of at least thirty Chinese writers and poets of the contemporary period were translated into English within the three decades between 1919 and 1949 (Gibbs and Li). These translations were published in journals such as Asia, Life and Letters Today, People's Tribune, T'ien Hsia, and China Forum, based in such different places as New York, London, and Shanghai. In addition, close to twenty poetry and short story anthologies as well as individual collections were published in these same cities. Although these figures cannot represent the entire picture of the global circulation of modern Chinese literature since only English translations are counted, they still give us a glimpse of how active translingual and transnational cultural activities were during the Republican era. In Writing Diaspora and her other work, Rey Chow criticizes area studies' nationalistic tendency of privileging China or Mandarin Chinese as the fetishized object of study. The neglect shown towards foreign language translations is a manifestation of this problem; however, there are also some other complex issues involved. For instance, what was the motivation behind the translation of Chinese literature, particularly that of the contemporary period, during the Republican era? Why was translation more frequently conducted from Chinese into certain target languages (English, Russian, Japanese, etc.), and not others? Why were some writers translated more frequently than others? These questions are related to the geopolitical world order of that particular time period and the understanding of culture's relationship to this geopolitical order from the perspective of translators and writers. Therefore, addressing these questions demands a broader perspective than that which is offered by the traditional approach to translation as "a system of meaning-value." In their preface to a special issue of Public Culture, Dilip Gaonkar and Elizabeth Povinelli criticize the fl aws of traditional theories of translation "as an exemplar of theories of meaning," stating that: [t]hese theories of meaning-value continually orient us toward a theory of the sign, mark, or trace and away from a theory of the social embeddedness of the sign, of the very social practices that these histories wish to describe. In other words, no matter the richness of these social studies, theories of translation continually return to the question of how to translate well from one language to another. . . . (Gaonkar and Povinelli 393-94) In lieu of this traditional conception of translation, they suggest that translation can perhaps be thought of as "a complex, multifaceted signal phenomenon-signaling the interior content of aesthetic form and message and exterior political and social commitment to the circulation of this form and message as well as entailing the cultural logic of the circulatory matrix itself" (393). They also propose to approach translation as "transfi guration" to emphasize "the functions of indexicality and mimesis" in the process of transmitting a cultural sign from one context to another (395). Taking the cue from Gaonkar and Povinelli, I argue in this chapter that the anglophone translations of modern Chinese literature in the 1930s can be read as a case of circulation and movement of cultural materials across national and linguistic borders. This movement not only challenges the traditional and conceptual divide between "China" and "abroad" as separate geographic regions, but also draws critical attention to the oftentimes unquestioned connection between Chineseness and Chinese literature, for "What counts as the Chinese language?" and "How does literature in circulation inspire nationalist or internationalist consciousness?" are questions that arise in the process of movement. Although both the left and the non-left conducted translation projects of modern Chinese literature in the 1930s, this chapter will only focus on the translation projects related to the political history of internationalism, because, through practices such as collaboration and reprinting, the anglophone internationalist journals present a perfect case for the study of transnational circulation and movement of literary materials for a certain political agenda. The editors of leftist magazines such as China Forum and China Today tried hard to establish close contact with important Chinese literary fi gures such as Lu Xun and Mao Dun, and succeeded to a certain extent to integrate the Chinese Leftist Writers' League into internationalist alliances. Although Lu Xun did not know English well enough to compose articles in English, some of his essays were intentionally written for such English-language magazines as China Forum, China Today, or New Masses. They were translated into English by other leftist activists including the well-known Agnes Smedley. The involvement of Chinese writers in left-oriented internationalist journals is more than a question of translation, but an issue of forging transnational alliance by means of literary translation, circulation, and reading. This cultural dimension of transnationalism actually presents a more complex picture of the history of internationalism. Whereas conventional histories of internationalism tend to focus on major political organs such as the Communist International, Communist Parties in various parts of the world, and important political fi gures such as Stalin, Trotsky, Sun Yat-sen, or Mao Zedong, approaching this history from the point of view of translation and cultural circulation foregrounds a different group of players-writers, translators, editors, and readers. In addition, the focus on the cultural form in circulation, in this case the periodical, and language offers a necessary correction to the negligence towards these issues that contributes to the ideology of internationalism as an all-too-easy notion of global unity based on common faith in the liberation of the oppressed. Internationalism as a political history gave defi nition to a particular use of Chinese literature at a given historical moment; however, it did not render the anglophone leftist magazines into single-dimensional and homogenous texts. The politics of translation and reading intersected with and sometimes interrupted internationalism as a global discourse, which had a certain unitary logic and center. From the point of view of translation, internationalism seemed more than a discourse of unifi cation; it was also a constant process of negotiation of difference and disjunction. Contrary to perhaps even the editors' understanding of literature, literature or translation was not a transparent vessel carrying political messages; rather, as Brent Edwards argues with regard to the cultural exchange in the African diaspora, "the cultures of black internationalism can be seen only in translation" (Edwards 8). This statement is applicable to Chinese internationalism as well. Recent scholarship on internationalism and proletarian literature shows a tendency to re-examine the definition of the left and the logic of internationalism from various perspectives. In the fi eld of American literature, for instance, the works of Cary Nelson, Paula Rabinowitz, James Murphy, and Michael Denning continuously call into question the definition of the "left" by incorporating concerns of gender, race, regional difference, and mass culture.1 Approaching the history of the literary left in the United States from a literary-historical perspective, Michael Denning describes the "cultural front" of the left as being shaped by "cultural industries and apparatuses" and "the alliance of radical artists and intellectuals who made up the 'cultural' part of the Popular Front" (Denning, xix). The term "cultural front" summarizes the methodology of Denning's book, one that moves away from an exclusive focus on individual "fellow travelers" and their political commitments to a consideration of cultural mechanism and its relationship with the democratic social movement-the Popular Front. However, these revisionist perspectives on the left have not appeared much in scholarship with regard to China. This chapter aims to fill this gap by showing that the archive of Chinese internationalism might be considered as a transnational and translingual cultural front-a platform of intersection between the local phenomenon of Chinese modernity and the universal goal of a world revolution. From this perspective, this archive is not dead history, but is continuously renarrated and appropriated for contemporary needs. A small anecdote might serve to illustrate the contemporary relevance of some internationalist narratives as a form of transnational culture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationChina Abroad
Subtitle of host publicationTravels, Subjects, Spaces
PublisherHong Kong University Press, HKU
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9789622099456
StatePublished - 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'Lu Xun, Cultural internationalism, leftist periodicals and literary translation in the 1930s'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this