Excerpt: “A Friend in Deed”

AAS Publications is pleased to announce the release of A Friend in Deed: Lu Xun, Uchiyama Kanzō, and the Intellectual World of Shanghai on the Eve of War, by Joshua A. Fogel. In this volume from our Asia Shorts series, Fogel, a professor of history at York University (Toronto) and specialist in Sino-Japanese relations, examines the friendship between leading Chinese author Lu Xun (1881–1936) and Uchiyama Kanzō (1885–1959), a prominent Japanese bookstore owner in Shanghai. The two men met at Uchiyama’s store in 1927, and Lu Xun quickly became a near-daily visitor; on days when he didn’t show up to sit and chat with others in the bookstore, Uchiyama would visit Lu Xun’s residence to check on the writer. Over the nine years of their friendship, Uchiyama assisted Lu Xun in finding safe houses numerous times as he evaded arrest warrants and the threat of assassination from both the Nationalists and Japanese authorities in Shanghai. The pair collaborated on exhibitions of woodblock prints as they attempted to popularize this art form in interwar Shanghai, and Uchiyama sought to get Lu Xun’s work translated into Japanese. Uchiyama’s wife Miki and Lu Xun’s partner Xu Guangping were also brought into each other’s orbits and shared, if not a true friendship, at least a friendly relationship.

All of this took place against a backdrop of increasing tension in the buildup to the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). In the excerpt below, Fogel discusses how despite their apparent differences—Lu Xun was and remains the most famous Chinese writer of the 20th century, while Uchiyama Kanzō was a poorly educated store owner—the two men forged a deep and sustained bond.

Uchiyama revered Lu Xun, not because he was a leftist or a radical or a great writer but because he was his close friend, someone with whom he shared countless conversations on a wide variety of pertinent political and cultural questions, and because he was someone who stood for human values Uchiyama himself shared, even if the two men ultimately based those values on different systems of thought. And certainly it should go without saying that Lu Xun’s extraordinary stature as a writer played a role in Uchiyama’s reverence. The fact that Uchiyama was Japanese and owned a huge bookstore was also certainly important in all this. Nonetheless, Uchiyama never staked out a hard-and-fast political stance, something that can only have been extremely difficult given the tensions of the time. In one reported instance, Lu Xun asked his friend, “If Confucius were alive today, do you think he would be pro-Japanese or anti-Japanese?” Is there a bigger softball question? Uchiyama replied, “Probably, sometimes pro-Japanese and sometimes anti-Japanese, don’t you think?” And, Lu Xun responded by laughing knowingly. 1 Uchiyama offered Lu Xun a relaxing space where he could chat to his heart’s content, and a special chair in which to effectively hold court, within the ferocious infighting of the Chinese cultural world of the time. The fact that Uchiyama had dropped out of elementary school and Lu Xun was arguably China’s leading intellectual seems not in the least to have been an impediment to their friendship. The fact that their relationship did not fall back on shared highbrow intellectual ties may actually have meant that, bookish concerns notwithstanding, they simply admired and liked each other.

It is also fascinating that, despite their mutual affection, Uchiyama and Lu Xun did not agree on some major issues. Uchiyama rarely removed his rose-colored glasses and was unfailingly uncritical when it came to evaluating Chinese society and culture. Given the times and his clientele, it might have been unwise to do so, but cynicism aside, it seems clear to me that Uchiyama firmly believed what he wrote about China and the Chinese. Lu Xun was an utterly virulent critic of China and the Chinese, the people he loved but with whom he was exceedingly impatient. When Sino-Japanese tensions mounted in these last years of his life—like they never had before—he was more than ready to lay the lion’s share of the blame on the Chinese themselves: they lacked integrity and any sort of abiding morality, they were hopelessly weak and lethargic, they always fell back on a flimsy sense of their centrality in the world and their own importance, and they were wildly ignorant of the world at large. These character failings had come home to him in observing the behavior of his fellow Chinese students in Japan, for they seemed to lack big ideas or thoughts and struck him as utterly careerist.2

Nonetheless, this basic disagreement does not seem to have inhibited the development of their friendship in the least, and I would cautiously suggest that it may have enhanced it—though only if mediated by enormous mutual respect. Unlike the Shanghai Communists, who worked overtime to make his life miserable, Lu Xun had no need or desire for sycophants. Real friends were rare and rarer still under such fractured conditions. Lu Xun certainly had some Chinese friends, but given his negative view of the Chinese national character (a concept much more current then than now), the many Chinese political groups that distrusted him (Communists, Nationalists, collaborationists), and his affinity for the Japanese national character, perhaps he gravitated toward a sympathetic Japanese such as Uchiyama, even if Uchiyama was not an intellectual.3 Beyond all of this, I just think Lu Xun and Uchiyama Kanzō simply enjoyed each other’s company. Lu Xun put it quite simply another way: “If I didn’t have Uchiyama as a patron, I’d never be able to carry on with all of my activities”; and, although Uchiyama denied ever giving Lu Xun money outright, there was no denying the risks he took moving Lu Xun and family from apartment to apartment, and even into his own store.4

There is another, perhaps inchoate, element behind their friendship, namely, their relationships with the women in their lives and the relationship between the two women. Uchiyama Miki has left us nothing written, except as related by others, and Xu Guangping wrote little overall and nothing significant that I have seen about her ties to Miki. Nonetheless we know that Miki reached out to Xu when she and Lu Xun settled in Shanghai and when she (Xu) was going through a difficult pregnancy. That Miki offered Xu and her infant son and husband a series of safe houses cannot have gone unappreciated. All the evidence we have points to the fact that the two men loved the women in their lives dearly—even if Lu Xun occasionally assumed a posture of teacher toward Xu Guangping—and would have been proud or at least highly supportive of the efforts of one to help the other. Lu Xun and Xu only lived conjugally for nine years, but the Uchiyamas continued to come to Xu’s aid, at one point when her life seemed threatened, several years after Lu Xun’s death. In this sense the Uchiyama–Lu Xun friendship even transcended the latter’s passing.

If I might conclude on a personal note, I found something significant in the beauty of this friendship—apart from the obvious transcendence of the Sino-Japanese divide, which I have been plumbing for decades—in the absence of agreement on political, social, intellectual, and economic viewpoints. In our fractious age, in which we infrequently maintain friendships with those with whom we disagree, the beauty of the Uchiyama–Lu Xun bond rings out loud and clear. In the end, perhaps one should allow the mystery of friendship to remain intact. There is beauty in this mystery—indeed.5


1. Uchiyama Kanzō, “Ro Jin sensei o omou,” 31; Cao Juren, “Neishan shudian,” 350.

2. Uchiyama recalled in a memoir written some sixteen years after Lu Xun’s death (“Ro Jin sensei e no tsuikai,” 247–48) a discussion in which the name of the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, who was born in 1868 and died only three months before Lu Xun himself, came up. Gorky had said, “Dostoevsky was great and Tolstoy was a genius . . . but Russia and its people are far more important and valuable.” To this Lu Xun added, “We will have genuine progress in China only when the soul of the people is valued and exalted.”

3. On the subject of national character, Uchiyama shortly after Lu Xun’s death recalled a discussion between them: “Eroshenko [the anarchist-Esperantist who spent several years in Japan and China], whom you know, once said something very interesting: ‘The Japanese are extremely submissive and follow what their superiors say. This is especially true of officials. Thus, this is a national character easiest to govern. The Chinese, by contrast, are the opposite, doubting immediately anything someone says to them. They especially don’t trust what officials say. Thus, this is a national character most difficult to govern.” Uchiyama knowingly agreed. Uchiyama Kanzō, “Ro Jin sensei o omou,” 32.

4. Uchiyama Kanzō, “Ro Jin san,” 299.

5. Just a final note. Recently, I came across a similar phenomenon of two men of decidedly different backgrounds and concerns who nonetheless forged a surprisingly close friendship: Lionel Trilling (1905–75) and Jacques Barzun (1907–2012), two humanities professors at Columbia University. See Kystal, “The Improbably Friendship That Shaped a Generation of Literary Scholarship.” This was brought to my attention by Bill Tsutsui. Similarly, Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908–1954) and Avraham Sutzkever (1913–2010), in the Vilna ghetto, enjoyed a friendship under extraordinary circumstances despite divergent political points of view; see Fishman, The Book Smugglers, 10–11. Also, in more recent time, we have the extraordinarily close friendship between the two associate justices of the United States Supreme Court: Antonin Scalia (1936–2013) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933), both brilliant jurists whose views of the law could not be [more] different. Perhaps such relationships are surprising only in an era such as our own.