Lu Xun (Lu Hsun) was the pen name of Zhou Shuren. Lu is widely regarded as one of modern China’s most prominent and influential writers. His work promoted radical change through criticism of antiquated cultural values and repressive social customs. Following excerpts from a lecture delivered to the Alumni of the Peking Normal University’s Middle School on January 17, 1924. In addition to writing, Lu worked as an editor, professor and dean of studies. He passed away in 1936.
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 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 on 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.
Genius is not some freak of nature which grows of itself in deep forests or wildernesses, but something brought forth and nurtured by a certain type of public. Without such a public there will be no genius. When crossing the Alps, Napoleon once declared, “I am higher than the Alps!” What a heroic statement! But we must not forget how many troops he had at his back. Without these troops he would simply have been captured or driven back by the enemy on the other side; and then, far from seeming heroic, his behaviour would have appeared that of a madman. To my mind, then, before we expect a genius to appear, we should first call for a public capable of producing a genius. In the same way, if we want fine trees and lovely flowers, we must first produce 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, just as good troops were to Napoleon. Yet judging by present-day pronouncements and trends, the demand for genius goes hand in hand with attempts to destroy it—some would even sweep away the soil in which it might grow.
I dare say at least nine-tenths of the present company would like to see a genius appear. Yet as things are at present it is not only hard to produce a genius, but hard to procure the soil from which a genius could grow. It seems to me that while genius is born, not made, anyone can become part of the soil to nurture genius. It is more urgent for us to provide the soil 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 grown 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, in order to accept and appreciate any future genius. Nor must we despise the humblest tasks. Original writers should go on writing; 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, everything depends on men’s efforts, and here we have a better chance of success than if we wait idly for a heaven-sent genius. In this lie 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-provided, always, that soil has a spirit too