The true story of Ah Q and semiconductors

A Japanese university hopes invoking the memory of a famous Chinese writer will help attract top engineering talent.

Published July 17, 2007 10:05PM (EDT)

Tohoku University's reputation as one of the world's elite centers of materials science research is slipping, reports Asahi Shimbun. This is no trivial matter. Materials science is the stuff of semiconductors and nanotechnology, the kind of bread and butter industrial know-how that Japan Inc. cut its teeth on. One problem: Japan's declining population means a smaller pool of college and graduate school students to choose from.

In mainland China, however, students abound. For a several years now, Tohoku has hoped to lure some of the smarter Chinese graduate students to its campus by playing up its historical connection with 20th century China's most famous modern writer, the critic, essayist and short story author Lu Xun. Perhaps most famous for "The True Story of Ah Q," a savage satire that poked a sharp stick at some soft spots in Chinese culture, Lu Xun began his writing career while he was an expatriate student in Japan. Almost exactly a century ago, he studied medicine at Tohoku University. In 2004, Tohoku set up an academic award for Chinese graduate students in Lu Xun's honor.

The connection is far from gratuitous. Although Lu Xun abandoned medicine for literature, his time in Japan was formative -- his very first published writing occurred during this period -- including, remarkably, "Soul of Sparta," an adaptation of the classic Greek tale of Spartan King Leonidas' doomed battle against the invading Persians, better known to contemporary action-adventure fans as "300." He also wrote an essay, "The Lessons of the History of Science," whose theme is as relevant today as then; one biographer, David Pollard, summarized it as follows: "China had no future if she clung to the notion that she could match the foreigners simply by manufacture and armaments, without a change in the culture: fundamental scientific research, presently heeded, was essential to her survival."

His bond with one professor of anatomy at Tohoku University, a professor Fujino, was profound enough to inspire a short story memorializing him, "Fujino Sensei."

Tokyo was not so extraordinary after all. When cherry blossoms shimmered in Ueno, from the distance it really resembled light, pink clouds; but under the flowers you would always find groups of short-term "students from the Chinese Empire," their long queues coiled on top of their heads upraising the crowns of their student caps to look like Mount Fujiyama. Others had undone their queues and arranged their hair flat on their heads, so that when their caps were removed it glistened for all the world like the lustrous locks of young ladies; and they would toss their heads too. It was really a charming sight.

"Tokyo was not so extraordinary after all."

In "Literary Authority and the Modern Chinese Writer," Wendy Larson performs an extensive exegesis on that opening sentence.

This sentence, coming at the beginning of the narrative, implies a predetermined image of a foreign land that is radically different from China, an "other" that is conceptualized as the binary opposite of the "China" which has formed the basis of the author's negative experience to this time. When Lu Xun arrives in Tokyo and sees Chinese students learning ballroom dancing, he realizes that Japan cannot be this ideal "other": it cannot meet his expectations in providing the environment in which he can disregard the disquieting issues of nation and race, but actually pushes him toward a recognition of nation and race as ontological categories unavoidable in the interpretation of experience. Although the Chinese students who have disguised their queues and are attempting to alter their cultural manifestations through the acquisition of new manners and styles are one example of a temporarily successful identity change, Lu Xun ridicules this alternative as absurd and meaningless. He has rejected "China" and the past, but a viable option is unavailable to him in this alienated context.

The Chinese-Japanese relationship is so fraught with tension rooted in ancient and recent history, in economic conflict and cultural aspirations, that it comes as something of a shock to see it this way. In "Fujino Sensei" is Lu Xun really suggesting that Japan is not different enough to allow him the possibility of escape from a culture whose shortcomings he is rebelling so strongly against? Lu Xun also observes in his story that some of the anatomy textbooks used in his medical school were Chinese translations reprinted in Japan -- "So [the Japanese] had not started translating and studying new medical science any earlier than in China." His foray in Japan reinforces a sense that China could make other choices, and follow a different path.

And now Tohoku University, calling upon the luster of Lu Xun's reputation, hopes to boost its own technical prowess by attracting the best and brightest from the mainland. Even as tempers continue to soar over Japan's efforts to rewrite or ignore its 20th century Chinese misadventures, one hopes that this twist of history would have brought a smile to the man's face. For if ever there was a Chinese writer who could wield irony like a samurai swinging his katana, it was Lu Xun.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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