“A Friend in Deed: Lu Xun, Uchiyama Kanzo, and the Intellectual World of Shanghai on the Eve of War” by Joshua A Fogel

Lu Xun

Toward the end of his life, Algernon Blackwood famously reminisced that “I used to tell strange, wild, improbable tales…” The tale of the friendship between Lu Xun and Uchiyama Kanzō would have met Blackwood’s standard—a look at Shanghai during those times, now nearly 100 years ago, suggests why.

By the 1920s, Japan had achieved an astonishing ascent, over only several decades, to the level of a world power, while China had fallen into abject disarray, riven by warlord factions and of increasingly acquisitive interest to foreign powers, especially Japan, an interest the May Fourth Movement (1919) was one response to. Anti-Japanese boycotts featured in China in 1915, at the time of the Movement and again in 1925.

One might therefore imagine that a small bookshop in Shanghai, not much more than a few upended crates and makeshift shelves, launched by a recently arrived Japanese couple, in 1917, wouldn’t have had a promising future. Now include the fact that the husband had dropped out of middle school, and that the couple, both having converted to Christianity a few years previously, initially opened the “bookshop” (rather too glorified a term at its founding) to provide Christian literature, in Japanese, to the Japanese expatriate population in Shanghai. As a hobby project for her, because his day job kept him on the road in east China, selling eye medicine, and therefore unable to help much in a project that targeted an especially small niche.

And if that’s not improbable enough, now imagine that the bookshop becomes a magnet for the leading literary figures of both China and Japan within ten years of its founding—another author, Paul French calls the Uchiyama Bookstore “ground zero for Asian literary modernism.” And that the towering literary figure of early 20th century China, Lu Xun, would first visit in 1927, and subsequently make the bookstore not only his professional base of operations and his sole publisher, but also hide there from the murderous clutches of China’s ruling Guomindang, and become the best friend and daily interlocutor of the bookstore’s Japanese co-founder, until Lu’s death in 1936.


A Friend in Deed: Lu Xun, Uchiyama Kanzo, and the Intellectual World of Shanghai on the Eve of War, Joshua A. Fogel (Association for Asian Studies, 2019)
A Friend in Deed: Lu Xun, Uchiyama Kanzo, and the Intellectual World of Shanghai on the Eve of War, Joshua A. Fogel (Association for Asian Studies, 2019)

Few are better able to tell the tale of this wildly improbable friendship than Professor Joshua Fogel, Canada Research Chair in modern Chinese studies at York University in Toronto. His exceptional academic career has “focused on the cultural relations between China and Japan,” and he is fluent in both languages. In his introduction to A Friend in Deed, Fogel writes,


Virtually every literate Japanese knows the name of Lu Xun (1881-1936) and virtually every educated Chinese, especially if he or she is from Shanghai, knows the name of Uchiyama Kanzō (1885-1959) and that of his bookstore, the Uchiyama Shoten [‘bookstore’ in Japanese—書店]—and the extraordinary friendship these two men shared. How is it that the close relationship between a highly educated left-wing writer and a poorly educated bookshop owner could loom so large in the consciousness of two peoples who won then on the verge of a horrific war?


And then, somewhat modestly,


While I will not be addressing this question directly, I think the nature of their friendship goes a long way toward teasing out an answer, and it is an answer that calls into question our (often uncritically) accepted narrative of Sino-Japanese relations at the time.


Fogel writes that he had long been interested in the Lu-Uchiyama friendship—he presented his first academic paper on the friendship at a conference in 2015, and was the January 2017 interviewee for Kanzo Uchiyama, Lu Xun and China-Japanese Friendship, a podcast hosted by Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. He therefore had sufficient time, by summer 2019, to tell the tale of A Friend in Deed with a concision famously envied by the many writers who have apologized for overly long letters, because the writers haven’t had time to write shorter ones.


Friend is the third in a series recently launched by the Association for Asian Studies, Asia Shorts, which aims at, as they say, “engagingly-written titles”, in an “accessible, jargon-free style suitable for non-specialist audiences.” The body of Friend comes in at just under 60 pages—the “common reader” (h/t Virginia Woolf) may therefore readily enjoy Fogel’s raconteur-like telling of the tale itself in a single sitting, but those interested in the evidence and background will find a wealth of further information in the dozen pages of endnotes and nearly 20 pages of bibliography.

Having posed the interesting question in the introduction, Fogel addresses it throughout the work.


I’m often tempted—but only tempted—to suggest that their friendship may have been based solely on Uchiyama’s extraordinary help in protecting Lu Xun (and Xu Guangping and their child) on numerous occasions, even at the potential risk of his own life, and Lu Xun’s equally extraordinary sense of gratitude. If that were the whole story, together with his genuine appreciation for Uchiyama’s creating ex nihilo an open sphere for conversation (mandan/mantan) in his book store at a time when this was becoming exceedingly difficult in China (and of course Japan) to say nothing of the thousand books Lu Xun purchased there, then we would understand Lu Xun’s reason for holding Uchiyama in such high regard, but we would still not understand Uchiyama’s motivation. The not so small mountain of scholarship in east Asia on the topic has neatly sidestepped this question, probably because scholars simply assume Uchiyama would have gravitated towards Lu Xun, just another planet circling the sun, revere him, and risk his life to help him. Who wouldn’t do as much for someone deemed a ‘sage’? But that just begs the question.


In a final chapter (they are roughly chronological), on Uchiyama Kanzō’s 23 years of life following Lu Xun’s 1936 death, Fogel offers his closing illuminations on the character of Uchiyama, and in his conclusion states that,


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 could share 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 …


In 2014’s Sino-Japanese Relations after the Cold War, scholar Michael Yahuda asserts that,


The underlying causes of conflict between China and Japan are unlikely to change—at least in the near future. In fact they are likely to get worse.


In such an era, when China-Japan relations seem continually fraught, Fogel’s Friend is a welcome window into a time when a single bookstore, and two wildly improbable friends, in deed and indeed, symbolized the potential of a better future for both peoples.

John Darwin Van Fleet’s first book, Tales of Old Tokyo, a scrapbook history of the city from 1853 to 1964, was published in 2015. His essay on the Uchiyama Bookstore and what it symbolizes in modern East Asian history, “A Wildly Improbable Bookstore”, appears in the 2019 edition of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society China. He serves as Director, Corporate Globalization, at the Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.