A Lesson From Lu Hsun

World Soil Day

T Vijayendra

December 5, Is Celebrated as the world soil day (WSD). The proposal for a global day to celebrate soil was first recommended in the year 2002 by the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS). Under the framework of the Global Soil Partnership, and the leadership of the King of Thailand, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) lent its support to the establishment of WSD. The day was envisaged as a global platform to raise awareness about issues related to the management of soil resources.

In 2013, WSD was unanimously endorsed by the FAO Conference. The conference also requested the UN General Assembly (UNGA) for the official adoption of the WSD. The UNGA then designated the first World Soil Day on 5 December, 2014.

It was decided to mark WSD on 5 December as it was the official birthday of the late King of Thailand, H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who had officially sanctioned the event.

“Fertility of the soil is the future of civilisation.”—Albert Howard (1873-1947).

Unfortunately the present civilisation is bent on destroying this fertility through chemical farming. Working with soil is considered ‘dirty’ work. It is embedded in people’s language! One may get a lesson in humility and working with soil from Lu Hsun (1881-1936), the great Chinese author who in the context of literature makes this point.

Wherein does Lu Hsun’s greatness lie? The best clue is his 1924 talk, ‘Waiting for a Genius’. It is a small piece, easily available on the net and this writer strongly recommend to all those who are concerned about soil and literature in India. Below is given a longish quote from that essay to make the point.

‘It seems to me that among the many requests shouted at writers and artists today, one of the loudest is the demand for a genius. And this clearly proves two things: first, that there is no genius just now in China; secondly, that everybody is sick and tired of our modern art. Is there really no genius? There may be, but we have never seen one and neither has anyone else. So judging by the evidence of our eyes and ears we can say there is not—not only no genius, but no public capable of producing a genius.’

‘To my mind, then, before we expect genius to appear, we should first call for a public capable of producing a genius. In the same way, if we want the trees and lovely flowers we must first have good soil… The soil actually, is more important than the flowers and trees, for without it nothing can grow. Soil is essential to flowers and trees…’

‘A public like this is dust, not soil, and no lovely flowers or fine trees will grow from it.’

‘Although, many people are already tired of hearing the names of Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, how many of their books have been translated into Chinese?’

‘Unhappily, quite a number of them (critics) are carpers rather than critics. As soon as a work is sent to them, (they) lose no time in penning a most superior verdict: “Why, this is too childish. What China needs is a genius!” Later even those who are not critics learn from them and raise the same clamour. In actuality, the first cry of even a genius at birth is the same as that of an ordinary child; it cannot possibly be a beautiful poem. And if you trample something underfoot because it is childish, it is likely to wither and die. I have seen several writers reduced to shuddering silence by abuse. There was doubtless no genius among them, but even the run-of-the-mill I would like to keep.’

‘It seems to me that while genius is largely inborn, anyone can become the soil to nurture genius. For us to provide, the soil is more realistic than to demand the genius; for otherwise, even if we have hundreds of geniuses they will not be able to strike root for lack of soil, like bean-sprouts growth on a plate.’

‘To be the soil we must become more broad-minded. In other words we must accept new ideas and free ourselves of the old fetters, so as to be able to accept and appreciate any future genius. We must not despise humble tasks either. Those who can write should naturally do so; others can translate, introduce, enjoy, read, or use literature to kill time. It may sound rather odd to speak of killing time with literature, but at least this is better than trampling it underfoot.’

‘Of course the soil cannot be compared with genius, but even to be the soil is difficult unless we persevere and spare no pains. Still, where there’s a will there’s a way, and here we have a better chance of success than if we wait idly for a heaven-sent genius. In this lies the strength of the soil and its great expectations, as well as its reward. For when a beautiful blossom grows from the soil, all who see it naturally take pleasure in the sight, including the soil itself. You need not be a blossom yourself to feel a lifting of your spirit…’

Lu Hsun himself followed this advice he gave to others. He extensively translated from foreign languages into Chinese. He completed volumes of translations, notably from Russian. He particularly admired Nikolai Gogol and made a translation of Dead Souls. His own first story’s title, “Diary of a Madman”, was inspired by a work of Gogol of the same name. Lu Hsun’s translations were important in a time when Western literature was seldom read, and his literary criticisms remain acute and persuasively argued.

Then he worked tirelessly with his students and young writers, helping them politically, financially and with constructive criticism of their work. He really believed in building the soil for Chinese literature.

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Vol 54, No. 28, Jan 9 - 15, 2022