An Irishman's Diary

 

It is 70 years since the Irish Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw met China's leading writer Lu Xun - an encounter still remembered here in Shanghai as an important intellectual meeting of East and West, writes Patrick Smyth

The two people least impressed with the event were undoubtedly the two writers themselves. Shaw spent barely 24 hours in the city, and that under protest, while Lu Xun's account of his visit noted wryly how little the famous Fabian had to say, despite the storm of interest his arrival provoked.

But for the beleaguered intellectuals of cosmopolitan Shanghai, under threat from Japanese invaders and the equally murderous campaign by erstwhile allies of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), the world-renowned writer's visit was a sign the world had not forgotten them.

Last Wednesday Shaw's day in Shanghai was remembered in a formal ceremony at the home of Sun Yat Sen, the revered father of Chinese nationalism, whose widow, Song Qinling, was Shaw's hostess. A formidable figure in her own right, she was involved with Shaw in sponsoring an international movement against war and fascism. After the bloody KMT attack on Shanghai's Communists in 1929, she had broken with the nationalists and was hoping, with friends in the League for Civil Rights, to enlist the writer's support.

Last week's commemoration was organised by the Irish Consul-General, Geoffrey Keating, and Academica Sinica Europea, which promotes European-Chinese understanding. Prof Nicholas Grene, head of Trinity College's English department, read aloud Lu Xun's account of the visit. (The previous evening he had regaled an audience in Shanghai's Blarney Stone bar with a talk on Shaw's ambivalent feelings about his native land - "an Irishman, despite himself.")

Shaw, it emerged, was a reluctant guest. He told Song: "I have no desire to see anything or anyone in Shanghai except you; now that I have seen you why should I go ashore?" But he did agree to lunch at her home in Rue Molière with five or six others including Lu Xun. He struggled manfully with chopsticks, the latter noted.

Shaw empathised with Song's criticism of the KMT's refusal to make common cause with the Communists against Japan, jokingly suggesting that she was "an enfant terrible" and asking if they had yet tried to deny her the title of "Sun Yat Sen's widow".

"Not yet," she replied, laughing, "but they would like to." But he would not back the League of Civil Rights, and he declined Song's offer to show him areas devastated by the Japanese. One bombed area was like any other, he said, recalling "my own native Dublin after Easter Week".

Later he met journalists and artists and agreed to be photographed. Lu Xun can be seen standing stiff as a ramrod; he noted later that "as we stood side by side I was conscious of my shortness. And I thought, thirty years ago I should have done exercises to increase my height'." Lu Xun's description of the event reflects his own contempt for the literary hangers-on and partisan press who swarmed around the celebrity. "The next day's papers were infinitely more striking than Shaw's actual conversation," he observed.

"Apparently the interpretation of English varied according to each listener. For instance, on the question of China's government, the Shaw of the English press said that the Chinese should choose for themselves rulers they admired. The Shaw of the Japanese press said there were several Chinese governments. The Shaw of the Chinese press said no good government could win the people's hearts.

"Judging by this, Shaw is not a satirist but a mirror."

Most papers were hostile to the Western writer: "Everyone had gone to hear satire which would suit him; instead of which he had heard satire which annoyed and injured him. So they all used satire to strike back at Shaw, declaring he was nothing but a satirist." Nonetheless, Lu Xun insisted, Shaw was worth any number of his detractors: "Shaw lines up ladies and gentlemen in the limelight, tears off their masks, strips them of their fine clothes, and then, grabbing each by the ear, announces triumphantly to the audience, 'Look. A Vermin!'"

Leading Chinese writers, such as Lu Xun and Mao Dun, and the radical writers' May the Fourth Movement, knew Shaw's work well, just as they knew and admired the work of the Irish literary revival. Its themes of struggling against oppression and redefining a national spirit, albeit often in deeply romantic terms, chimed with Chinese perspectives. The works of Synge and Wilde were available in translation and both Lady Gregory's The Rising of the Moon and Yeats's Cathleen Ni Houlihan were performed in universities and theatres. Juno and the Paycock played to packed houses in Shanghai in 1936.

Lu Xun's own literary contribution, particularly his use of bai hua - the vernacular instead of classical Chinese - and his withering dissection of suffocating Chinese social attitudes reflect a similar determination to reinvent the world and a belief in the power of words. His classic work The True Story of Ah Q brilliantly depicts through the vicissitudes of a hapless peasant one of the great failings of Chinese psychology - a slave mentality based on an infinite capacity for self-delusion and self-abasement.

On a day in February 1933 these two worlds and traditions touched ever so briefly in Shanghai.