Coming Home - Where Family Overpowers All
Recently I had visitor from Hainan, China, Jiang Zhongqiang.
Jiang is from the South China Maritime Research Center, and has been
commissioned to write a book about the Congress Party. I told him to understand
the inner workings of the party he would be better off first studying the inner
workings of the Ming court.
When asked to elaborate I told him about Hai Rui (1514-1587), the honest
bureaucrat from Hainan who is buried in the provincial capital Haikou in a non
descript grave. We also spoke about the writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) who like Hai
Rui paid a heavy price for his uprightness.
Hai Rui was a scholar-official of the Ming dynasty. He is remembered as a model
of honesty and integrity in office. A play based on his career, "Hai Rui
Dismissed from Office" by Wu Han gained political significance in the 1961
after the Peking Opera staged it. Initially Mao applauded the play but when
people started seeing in it as an allegory of him and Marshal Peng Dehuai, the
Great Helmsman changed his mind.
Peng himself agreed with this interpretation, and stated: "I want to be a
Hai Rui!" in a 1962 letter to Mao requesting his return to politics. Wu
Han himself was purged for his troubles and died in prison in 1969.
Hai Rui was a scholar-bureaucrat. Like many educated Chinese he joined the
bureaucracy and soon gained a reputation for his morality, scrupulous honesty
and fairness. This won him widespread popular support, evinced among other
things by his being enshrined while alive; but he also made many enemies in the
Nevertheless, he was called to the capital Peking and promoted to the position
of secretary of the Ministry of Revenue. In 1565, he submitted a memorial
strongly criticizing the Emperor Jialing for the neglect of his duties and
bringing disaster to the country, for which he was sentenced to death in 1566.
He was released after the Emperor died in early 1567.
Hai Rui was reappointed under the Emperor Longqing but soon forced to resign in
1570 after complaints were made over his overzealous handling of land-tenure
He is not particularly celebrated in China anymore, which is not surprising
given the open corruption that flourishes there. Like in India now and wealth
is more celebrated than character in China. When I visited Haikou, Hainan in
2013, I asked my hosts to be taken to Hai Rui's grave. My hosts were surprised.
Perhaps he makes the communist mandarins feel uncomfortable?
Interestingly enough, Hai Rui had an Indian connection. He was descended a
native of Guangzhou named Hai Da-er (Haidar), and his mother was also from a
Muslim (Hui) family that originated from the India. Hai Rui himself however was
noted primarily as a Neo-Confucian and never discussed Islam in his Confucian
On April 2015, I drove out from Shanghai to Shaoxing in Zhejiang province and
crossed over the 36 kms long bridge across the Hangzhou Bay from Jiaxing to
Cixi. Cixi incidentally is the birthplace of KMT Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek.
The next town Shaoxing is the birthplace of Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong's devoted
But Shaoxing is a much visited tourist destination these days because it is the
hometown of the venerated writer Lu Xun, commonly considered the greatest
Chinese writer of the 20th century. Lu Xun was also an important critic known
for his sharp and unique essays on the historical traditions and modern
conditions of China.
Lu Xun was the pen name of Zhou Zorn, born in a wealthy Shaoxing family. This
home of the family Zhou is a much visited tourist site, not only for its simple
elegance and for the unique peep it offers into late 19th century upper class
family life in China, but also because it is the locale for several of Lu Xun's
His official biography in the brochure reads: "Lu Xun left his hometown in
1899 and attended a mining school in Nanjing; there he developed an interest in
Darwin's theory of evolution, which became an important influence in his work.
Chinese intellectuals of the time understood Darwin's theory to encourage the
struggle for social reform, to privilege the new and fresh over the old and
In 1902 he traveled to Japan to study Japanese and medical science, and while
there he became a supporter of the Chinese revolutionaries who gathered there.
In 1903 he began to write articles for radical magazines edited by Chinese
students in Japan. In 1909 he published, with his younger brother Zhou Zuoren,
a two-volume translation of 19th-century European stories, in the hope that it
would inspire readers to revolution, but the project failed to attract
interest. Disillusioned, Lu Xun returned to China later that year."
Lu Xun, was a contemporary of Munshi Premchand (1880-1936) and like him
excelled in short story writing. He began writing full time in 1918 and his
first published fiction was the now-famous short story "Kuangren riji" ("Diary
of a Madman").
Like the Russian realist Nikolay Gogol's tale of the same title, the story is a
condemnation of traditional Confucian culture, which the madman narrator sees
as a "man-eating" society. It was considered a tour de force that attracted
immediate attention and helped gain acceptance for the short-story form as an
effective literary vehicle.
Like Premchand, Lu Xun's stories were telling commentaries of the times usually
told with a sardonic sense of humor. In 1930 Lu Xun stopped writing fiction and
devoted himself to writing satiric critical essays, which he used as a form of
political protest. The same year he became the nominal leader of the League of
Although he himself refused to join the Chinese Communist Party, he considered
himself a tongluren (fellow traveler), recruiting many writers and countrymen
to the communist cause through his Chinese translations of Marxist literary
theories, as well as through his own political writing.
During the last several years of Lu Xun's life, the KMT government prohibited
the publication of most of his work, so he published the majority of his new
articles under various pseudonyms. He criticized the Shanghai communist
literary circles for their embrace of propaganda, and he was politically attacked
by many of their members.
In 1934 he described his political position as hengzhan or "horizontal stand",
meaning he was struggling simultaneously against both the right and the left,
against both cultural conservatism and mechanical evolution. Hengzhan, the most
important idea in Lu Xun's later thought, indicates the complex and tragic
predicament of an intellectual in modern society.
The celebration of the life and works of Lu Xun leaves its imprint all over the
lovely town of Shaoxing. Lu Xun rather than Zhou Enlai is the popular and loved
son of Shaoxing. All over Shaoxing you will see not only statues of Lu Xun but
also statues of characters from some of his more celebrated works. Even Lu
Xun's favorite restaurant is a popular eatery and it is very difficult to get a
Our party of four got a courtyard table after our local hosts told the owner
that the two Indians (Amb. TCA Rangachari and myself) came across the globe
just to pay homage to Lu Xun. The food was worth every word of praise Lu Xun may
have had for it. I had a dish of braised mushrooms with pork and rice, which
was a favorite of Lu Xun's.
I was at Ghalib's haveli at Ballimaran some months ago. Ghalib, like Premchand
many decades later, was the greatest commentator of the period. The haveli
where he lived the last nine years of his life is a sorry mess. It reflects
nothing of his immense popularity and greatness. As a chronicler commented: "Ghalib's last home lost its original flourishes of frescoes, alcoves and
archways, following several sub-divisions and additions over the years. Reduced
to a dimly lit gallery, a small verandah and a claustrophobic courtyard, it was
a coal-store at some time in the past. Ghalib would have chuckled."
Poor Premchand had to wait till 2016 to get a research center named after him
in Banaras. I am sure both would have said something pithy about how we
celebrate our scholars.