Zhou Zuoren, as an author and historical figure, straddled the ancient and the modern. A writer profoundly concerned with the future of China, he looked back to ancient and pre-modern literature, and forward to Western thought, in order to innovate a new writing form: xiao pin wen (the essay) (Pollard, 123). His methodology of appropriating the past in order to mold the future served as a template for his literary philosophy (Pollard, 115).
Zhou, like his brother (Lu Xun), saw literature as a tool to culturally innovate; however, he was more focused on the integration of content and form than his brother. Indeed, one can see this analytical thread in several of Zhou’s essays. In “Relentless Rain”, Zhou writes about seemingly quotidian things in letter form; both the content and form differ from an essay, but yet at the same time accomplish a connection between the author and reader in spite of the differences (Zhang, 142).
Zhou also uses the content to distinguish his thought from the past: In the essay “Reading in the Lavatory”, Zhou uses a quote from Hao Yixing that reading on the toilet is indeed a proper thing to do- although this is used as a literary mechanism (with humorous results), Zhou is experimenting with literary forms to show how the less formal essay can indeed dialogue with the past, while being relevant for contemporaneous readers (Zhang, 165).
“Zhou saw the essay as a means to integrate literary forms that had flourished in the West, while at the same time drawing on the existing (feudal) literary tradition of China. This focus on integrating the past with the future found himself at odds with many in the May Fourth Movement who saw a break with the past and linear evolution towards a more vernacular literature as inevitable.
To Zhou, however, the birth of the Chinese essay was a reinvention of past indigenous writing forms infused with the western insight that the banal could stand aside the more prestigious essay form. Zhou’s contribution to literature extends far beyond this insight: by looking to use the essay as a cultural connector of China’s past and future (Pollard, 116).
Pollard, D. (1973). “Essay” in A Chinese Look at Literature, The Literary of Chou Tso-jen in Relation to the Tradition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973, 105-120
Pollard, D. (1973). “Kung An School” in A Chinese Look at Literature, The Literary of Chou Tso-jen in Relation to the Tradition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973, 105-120.
Zhouren, Z. (1973). “Relentless Rain,” “Reading in the Lavatory,” On ‘Passing the Itch’,” “The Ageing of Ghosts,” “In Praise of Mutes,” (Sub-titles) in The Chinese Essay, edited and translated by David E. Pollard (1file)