Free Talk in Wartime Remotion: Lu Xun’s “Deference to Facts”

Leaving the palace. Image: Taipei Palace Museum Collection.

What set in motion the translocation of the Palace Museum collection before, during, and after WWII? Part of a nationwide debate, an essay by Lu Xun on the eve of the collection’s departure raises larger political questions. Typical of Lu Xun’s work, profuse in allusion, ‘Deference to Facts’ necessitates decipherments unearthing contemporary discourses. I here translate it and unpack its allusions, before proceeding to a commentary.

Lu Xun,Deference to Facts’ 
(in: Shanghai News / Free Talk, 6 February 1933)

Facts are often not so pretty as words.

This Free Talk, for instance, is not, as a matter of fact, free. Now that it is called Free Talk, it looks as though we are, at last, here to talk ever so freely.

Lately, the removal of antiques from Peiping, and the ban on students from fleeing, are cases in point. Order-givers are in the right, as are their critics. It is only on paper though, not the core of the matter.

If antiques are treasures because they are antique and unique, and therefore must be removed swiftly to safety, frankly it does seem valid. But we do not have two Peipings either, and this place is more antique than any extant antique. Yu was a reptile, so forget about the time of Yu; this place has existed since Shang and Zhou. But then, why has it been cast off, whilst only antiques are being escorted out? To be blunt, it is not for the ‘antiqueness’ of the antiques, but because they are portable and cashable after Peiping is lost.

College students, though the ‘society’s backbone’, do not have a market price. Were they worth 500 dollars each on Euro-American markets, they would have been packed into crates, chauffeured out of Peiping with antiques, and stashed into vaults of foreign banks in foreign concessions.

But college students are numerous and new, what a shame!

Cutting the crap, I parody Cui Hao’s Yellow Crane Tower. Thus it goes –

The rich have galloped out with culture
The city of culture alone remains here
Culture, once gone, returns not
Ancient city is desolate forever
Innumerable express trains departing
Inauspicious college students staying
At dusk, where to defend Yu Pass?
In bordels, not a soul makes a fuss

[allusions unpacked]
 [original Lu Xun text]

In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. Expecting further invasion, China debated whether to evacuate the Palace Museum in Peking (then Peiping). Backed by the Kuomintang government, the collection’s relocation to Shanghai and Nanking, the then capital, was initiated; yearlong inventorying and packing commenced.

Two assumptions had fuelled the argument: first, that Japan would invade Peiping; second, that when they did so, they would plunder the Palace. Neither was unfounded. Imperial Japan’s menace was evident, and memories of the 1860 looting of Yuanmingyuan and of the 1900 pillaging of Peking were vivid. Many who opposed the move did so not opposing these assumptions but because of them. As the people of Peiping took to the streets, they raged against the government’s Nonresistance Japan Policy, in line with which the removal of treasures signalled preemptive surrender. Treasures, in this light, concomitantly spelled sovereignty and its desertion. Protection paradoxically portended betrayal.

From antebellum hysteria on all fronts, Hu Shih, later ambassador to the US, took a distance. First, he considered, under international observation, cultural heritage may or may not be destroyed. Second, given the enormity of the Palace collection, its evacuation would be anything but facile, and who would be accountable for likely damage? Third, he knew no safe haven in Shanghai or Nanking, and a move south should be the last resort. Anticipating the 1954 Hague Convention regarding relocation, Hu Shih suggested defortifying the Museum and other cultural institutions.

The risks of transfer aside, two things were at stake: namely, the efficacy of international observation, and the likelihood of Japan heeding international rules; neither could be presumed. International law on wartime protection of cultural assets, moreover, was not in place in interwar years, the Hague Rules having proven obsolete after WWI. Thinking nonetheless in legal terms and in a global setting, thirty scholars pled for Peiping to be made a City of Culture and an undefended town, in a bid for immunity from military necessity.

Is it a City of Culture when its culture is sent into exile? So probes Lu Xun’s poem. With the move per se Lu Xun had no quarrel. With contradictory rhetoric he took issue. Juxtaposing the government’s disposition toward students and antiques (whilst differentiating movables from immovables), he laid bare the situation where humans were treated as things or still less. Whilst trains were taking things away, students were prevented from leaving and reviled for doing so. Students, claimed the government, were the ‘society’s backbone’, an implied demand for sacrifice. This Lu Xun could not stomach, having decried, in A Madman’s Diary (1918), his as a society where men eat men; and having refreshed, in earlier essays, the public’s memory of students who in 1931 petitioned to fight a just war but were soon murdered. ‘Who questioned their death?’, he asked, ‘Who uttered a word of protest?’

Free Talk was discontinued. Lu Xun died before full-scale Japanese invasion broke out. In the north, Peiping was occupied. In the south, the Kuomintang abandoned their capital, where Japanese soldiers rampaged through the city including its civilian safety zone, killing, raping, looting, and burning: the infamous Nanking Massacre. Having then been rushed westward with the government, the Palace collection was constantly on the run, dodging bombs in the hinterland before its post-WWII reinstallation. With the Civil War concluding, some 4,000 crates were shipped from Nanking via Shanghai to Taipei, the Kuomintang’s new capital. The remainder, partly retained in Nanking, mostly returned to Peking, the Communists’ new capital. Reportedly, not one of the 20,000 crates which left Peiping in 1933 was lost in the 1937–1947 vagrancy.

In the hinterland. Image: Taipei Palace Museum Collection.

The Palace collection embodied political legitimacy par excellence. Wartime debates over its location exposed the government’s illegitimacy. WWII fatally diminished the Kuomintang. However hard they later as one of the Allies and alongside the Communists fought Japanese fascism, as early as 1933 they could not ‘win’. Move the movable heritage, they were condemned. Leave it, they would be condemned also. Lu Xun’s critique underlines, in retrospect, that his was part of wider talks free enough to be unthinkable under later reigns. Mao who, for his own anti-Kuomintang purposes, had dubbed Lu Xun the ‘Saint of Modern China’, in 1957 told that he would surely imprison this Saint were this Saint still alive.


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