LU Yan

Zhou Zuoren in 1912. Zhou was part of the New Culture Movement whose writings championed humanistic over imperial values and the vernacular over classical language.

Zhou Zuoren, a leading essayist and social-cultural critic, influenced the development of modern Chinese literature by advocating “Human Literature” (its focus on humanistic as opposed to imperialist values), and by experimenting with styles that blend the unpretentious of the vernacular with the elegance of the classical.

Zhou Zuoren, a leading essayist of the twentieth century, was one of the major leaders in the New Culture Movement, a cultural critic, and a controversial writer. Born into a scholar-official family whose fortune was in sharp decline after centuries of social prestige, Zhou Zuoren grew up in Shaoxing County, Zhejiang Province, and received a traditional education in Chinese classics. After failing entry-level civil service examinations between 1898 and 1900, Zhou was ready for change and decided in 1901 to enroll in Nanjing’s Jiangnan Naval Academy; there he studied English, mathematics, natural sciences, and military and naval history.. In 1906 Zhou went to Japan on a government scholarship intended to support his study of architecture. Zhou instead turned his energy to studying language. In 1910 he returned to China without earning a degree but with language skills in Japanese, English, Russian, and Greek.

Zhou’s return to China coincided with the 1911 Revolution, an event that marked not only the beginning of Republican China (1912–1949) but also decade-long chaos that would stimulate the New Culture Movement. In 1917 he accepted a professorship in the College of Arts at Beijing University, a tenure that Zhou retained until 1945. In 1925 Zhou was instrumental in expanding the curriculum in literature to establish the Department of Eastern Literature in Beijing University. From the 1920s to the 1940s he also taught at Yenching University and Beijing Normal University as a guest professor.

Already an experienced and published translator of Western literature, Zhou entered his most productive and innovative years as a writer in Beijing. He contributed regularly to the magazine New Youth with translations of literature from Russia, Japan, Poland, Hungary, and the United States. He was co-translator and co-compiler with Lu Xun (the pseudonym of Zhou Shuren, Zhou Zuoren’s elder brother), of Yuwai xiaoshuo ji (Short Stories from Abroad), China’s first such publication. Most important to his growing influence was his article, “Ren de wenxue” (Human Literature), published in New Youth in 1918 and viewed by his contemporaries as the article that conceptualized a goal of the rising literary revolution, as the literary experiments in the May Fourth era began to be called then. Between 1919 and 1920 he was active in promoting the “New Village” in China, a utopian experiment that was initiated by the Japanese Shirahaba School and influenced Chinese youth with anarchist idealism. He was one of the founding members of the Literary Research Association when it was established in Beijing in 1921. He also was one of the founders of an influential literary weekly, Yusi (Threads of Talk), when it was launched in 1924 and remained, in practice, its editor-in-chief. Throughout the 1920s Zhou contributed regularly to the literary supplement of Jing Bao, one of the major newspapers in north China.

Experiments with the Essay

Beyond his “Human Literature,” Zhou’s enduring contribution to modern Chinese literature lies in his experiments with the essay. His knowledge of traditional as well as foreign literature and languages evidently influenced his choice of style and genre. Yet his attention to style was also a direct reaction to the politicization of the May Fourth Movement, which turned some literary pursuits into propaganda. Zhou, an outspoken advocate for vernacular reform, took the view that the best style should be presented in the vernacular yet be inclusive of the elegance of the classical. He praised the style of the natural and the unpretentious and valued “taste,” “simplicity,” and even “austerity” in essay composition. His own essays, which were published and compiled into thirty volumes during his life, reflected such values. At Beijing University, Xie Bingxin, Xu Dishan, and Yu Pingbo were among those the best-known writers whose style was influenced by Zhou.

Although he held the position of a radical iconoclast against Confucian tradition in his national debut in New Youth, Zhou took a more inclusive attitude toward Chinese literature by the mid-1920s when he turned to writing biji, essays based on informal notes and musings he made while reading. His writing subjects during the 1920s ranged from literature to folklore, religion, sexology, women, and current affairs, and his sympathy always went to the weak and the oppressed. In the late 1930s and early 1940s he even made use of writings in Confucian tradition to expound his ideas. Seemingly a dramatic change, Zhou’s approach to China’s cultural legacies initially resulted from his disillusionment over the government controlled by the Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party) in 1928, which used violence to suppress radical youth and the Communists. During the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945, known primarily outside China as the Second Sino-Japanese War, which was fought in the larger context of World War II beginning in 1939), Zhou again used his comments on the humanism in the Confucian tradition as a masked criticism of Japan’s invasion.

A proponent of cosmopolitanism toward foreign cultures, Zhou had been known as a Japanophile because of his writings and public activities in promoting Chinese understanding of Japan and Japanese culture since the 1920s. Yet through these writings he made a clear distinction between Japanese politics of his time, which angered him, and Japanese culture, which he admired. Many of his friends were disappointed that he chose to remain in Beijing when Japan invaded, and many more denounced him when he served as the minister of education of the North China Political Council in occupied Beijing. Testimony by underground resisters later revealed that he had been persuaded by them to take the job in order to prevent an energetic collaborator from stepping into this influential position. Zhou’s own writings that criticized in masked language the Japanese brutality during the war also provided corroborative evidence. Regardless of the solid evidence against the accusation of his collaboration, Zhou was sentenced to a ten-year jail term in the charged political climate after the war. He was released in early 1949 when the Nationalist government collapsed. Zhou chose to return to Beijing; he was able to publish essays, memoirs, and translated works from Japanese and Greek literature only under pseudonyms. He died in 1967 after being beaten and abused for months by the Red Guards.

Revival of Interest

In the 1980s the Chinese people renewed their interest in Zhou’s writings and life in what was termed “Zhou Zuoren Fever.” Not only were his works reprinted, but also hundreds of scholarly articles and several biographies were published. Although his literary accomplishments and his contributions to the literature revolution were appreciated, his service to a collaboration regime under Japanese occupation remained controversial as critics under the influence of nationalism refused to accept his failed “national character.” The revived interest in Zhou attests to both his importance as a writer in the modern Chinese literary movement and to the enduring difficulty of separating politics and culture in modern Chinese history.

Further Reading

Gunn, E. M. (1980). Unwelcome muse: Chinese literature in Shanghai and Peking, 1937-1945. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kiyama Hideo. (1978). Pekin Kujoan Ki: Nitchu senso jidai no Shu Sakujin [About the Living-in-Bitterness Studio in Beijing: Zhou Zuoren during the Sino-Japanese War]. Tokyo: Chikuma shobo.

Lu Yan. (2004). Re-understanding Japan: Chinese perspectives, 1895-1945. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Pollard, D. (1973). A Chinese look at literature: The literary values of Chou Tso-jen in relation to the tradition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Qian Liqun. (1990). Zhou Zuoren zhuan [A biography of Zhou Zuoren]. Beijing: Beijing shiyue wenyi chubanshe.

Zhang Juxiang & Zhang Tierong. (2000). Zhou Zuoren nianpu [A chronological biography of Zhou Zuoren]. Tianjin, China: Nankai daxue chubanshe.

Zhou Zuoren. (1974). Zhitang huixianglu [Reminiscences of Zhitang]. Kowloon, China: Sanyu tushu wenju gongsi.

Zhou Zuoren. (2002). Zhou Zuoren zibian wenji [Essay collections edited by Zhou Zuoren] (36 vols.). Shijiazhuang, China: Hebei jiaoyu chubanshe.

The longer the night lasts, the more our dreams will be.


Yè cháng mèng duō

Source: Lu, Yan. (2009). ZHOU Zuoren. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2648–2650. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

ZHOU Zuoren (Zhōu Zuōrén 周作人)|Zhōu Zuōrén 周作人 (ZHOU Zuoren)

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