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In the New Culture Movement (1917-23), literary writing style was largely replaced by the vernacular in all areas of literature. This was brought about mainly by Lu Xun (1881-1936), China's first major stylist in vernacular prose (other than the novel), and the literary reformers Hu Shi (1891-1962) and Chen Duxiu (1880-1942). [Source: Library of Congress]

“The late 1920s and 1930s were years of creativity in Chinese fiction, and literary journals and societies espousing various artistic theories proliferated. Among the major writers of the period were Guo Moruo (1892-1978), a poet, historian, essayist, and critic; Mao Dun (1896-1981), the first of the novelists to emerge from the League of Left-Wing Writers and one whose work reflected the revolutionary struggle and disillusionment of the late 1920s; and Ba Jin (b. 1904), a novelist whose work was influenced by Ivan Turgenev and other Russian writers. In the 1930s Ba Jin produced a trilogy that depicted the struggle of modern youth against the ageold dominance of the Confucian family system. Comparison often is made between Jia (Family), one of the novels in the trilogy, and Hong Lou Meng. Another writer of the period was the gifted satirist and novelist Lao She (1899-1966). Many of these writers became important as administrators of artistic and literary policy after 1949. Most of those still alive during the Cultural Revolution were either purged or forced to submit to public humiliation.

The League of Left-Wing Writers was founded in 1930 and included Lu Xun in its leadership. By 1932 it had adopted the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism, that is, the insistence that art must concentrate on contemporary events in a realistic way, exposing the ills of nonsocialist society and promoting the glorious future under communism. ]

19th and 20th Century Chinese Writers

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Rickshaw Boy by Lao She
The May 4 movement of 1919 started out as student protests against a decision at the Paris Peace Conference, after the first world war, to award Japan control of German concessions in China's Shandong province. It soon encompassed a broader debate about how China should modernize. It spawned a host of writers famous throughout the Chinese world, including Lu Xun.

Other writers associated with a brief period of modernization around the time of Hundred Day Reform in 1898 include Kang Youwei, an iconoclastic interpreter of Confucian philosophy who influenced Emperor Guangxi; and Liang Qichao, a gifted writer who was smuggled into Japan after the Emperor's arrest. Both men mixed politics and literature but eventually turned their backs on radical politics. Kang became interested in cosmology; Liang in history.

In a review of “Red-light Novels of the Late Qing“ by Chloe F. Starr, John Christopher Hamm of the University of Washington wrote: “As a mere reader of fiction, I always found the late Qing and early Republican novels set in the world of courtesans and their clients rather rough going. Anything but ‘sexy,” they seemed to portray characters ranging from the pitiable to the contemptible, playing out programmatic fates in a world whose claustrophobia-inducing narrowness was intensified by the plots' indefatigable repetition of trivial detail and the narration's pose of somewhat precious self-awareness.”

Lao She has had several books translated into English, most notably “Cat City” and “The Rickshaw Boy”. The later is a delightful novel written in the 1930s about a Beijing rickshaw driver. Lao wrote about working class people and met with Mao on a few occasions. Even so he was attacked and humiliated by Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution and was either murdered or committed suicide.

Zhang Xianliang, the author of the sexually-explicit “Half of Man is Woman” is writer many say is worth checking out. Luo Guanzhong wrote the great historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, set in the Tang Dynasty.

Ba Jin (1905-2005) was a prolific writer whose books are required reading for most Chinese middle school students. He wrote throughout his century-long life and us best-known for his semi-autobiographical trilogy “Family” 1937); “Spring” (1938) and “Autumn” (1940), about the struggle of a large family to break away from the control of its elders.

Xu Zhimo (1897-1931) was one of China's most distinguished poets of the twentieth century. In November 1931 he died tragically in a plane crash on his way from Nanjing to Beijing for a literary event. He attended Columbia University in the United States.

Lu Xun


The essayist and short story writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) is considered by many to be China's greatest 20th century writer and the founder of modern Chinese literature. . Lu was trained as doctor and gave up his medical career he said to devote himself to curing social ills with his writing. He loved Jules Verne, and translated his stories into Chinese beginning in 1903 as part of an effort to help China develop an appreciation of Western sciences. Lu eventually gave up writing and took up politics. He allied himself with the Communists around the time of his death in 1936.

Lu Xun is regarded as the pioneer of modern leftist Chinese literature. He was born in Zhejiang province, which is considered a a breeding ground of many Chinese artists and intellectuals. Today there is a literary awards named after him: the Lu Xun Award for short stories.

Lu was "noted for his acerbic tongue and critical nature." He wrote in a simple, straight-forward style that contrasting sharply with the complex, classical language that was fashionable at the time he wrote. He resolved to diagnose Chinese society and culture through literature. Like George Orwell, wrote biting social satire and sought to change what they viewed as a corrupt, backward and foreign-dominated China. Among Lu Xun’s more memorable characters is Ah Q, an allegorical, starving man on the street meant to represent the conflicts raging in China at the time.

Lu Xun’s Works

Lu's novella, “The Story of Ah Q” (1921), was a brilliant and vicious satire on Chinese traditions. Set in 1911. at the of the beginning of the ill-fated Chinese republic, it was about a peasant who survives a number if disasters, viewing each one as a triumph. His dreams of revolution ends with his own execution.

“In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen“ was written Lu Xun in 1926. For decades, it had been in high school textbooks, and there was quite a bit of controversy when education authorities decided to remove it in 2007. There was speculation that the article was junked in part because it might remind people of a similar incident that occurred in 1989]

“In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen“ is about 22-year-old Liu Hezhen, a student activist campaigning for a boycott of Japanese goods . On March 18, 1926, she was a a member of a group of students in Beiping (Beijing) that staged a demonstration to protest the Japanese navy opening fire on Chinese troops in Tianjin. When protesters gathered outside the residence of Duan Qirui, a warlord who was chief executive of the Republic of China at the time, to submit their petition, a shooting was ordered and forty-seven people died.

Watching Magic Shows by Lu Xun

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In his short story “Watching Magic Shows “, Lu Xun wrote: “These shows roam all across the country, so the tricks are the same wherever they go. They need just two things to collect their money: a black bear and a child...The black bear is kept hungry to the point of emaciation, so that he seems almost to lack the energy to move. Naturally, he couldn’t be allowed to be strong; a strong bear cannot be tamed. Now, he’s half-dead and half-alive, but he’s still got an iron ring through his nose, and he’s made to do tricks tethered to a leash. Sometimes he’s given a little something to eat---a crust of wheat bun soaked in water---but the spoon is held above his head, so that he has to stand on his hind legs and stretch his neck and open his mouth wide, and only after all this work does he get a bite, for which the magic show collects a few more coins.” [Source: Developmental Fairy Tales By Andrew F. Jones, China Beat, May 4, 2011]

“No one in China talks about where these bears come from. According to a study done by some Westerners, they are captured in the mountains when they are still small. Grown bears are no good, because once they’re big, their nature can no longer be changed. But even the cubs need to be “trained,” and this “training” takes two forms: beatings and hunger. Later they die of mistreatment and abuse. I imagine that what the study says is perfectly true. We can see well enough that even though they’re still alive and performing tricks, they’re wretched to the point where they hardly even resemble bears anymore. In some places, they go so far as to call them “cur-bears” [gouxiong], so great is their contempt for them.”

“The child in these scenes also suffers, as grown-ups stand on his belly or twist his arms behind his back, until he pulls a face to show his pain and begs the spectators to save him. Six, five, four more, and three---and the magician has once again collected a handful of coins....Naturally, the child has also been trained, and the pain is feigned, just a plot cooked up in collusion with the grown-ups, and anyway, it never hurts to earn some more money.”

“They bang a gong to get the show started in the afternoon, and continue until the evening. When it’s over, the spectators disperse, and while some of them have spent some money, others have not...At the end of each show, I think to myself as I walk away: there are two kinds of moneymakers. One kind is abused to death until another is found as a replacement. The other kind will grow up to acquire a little child and a bear cub, and go on performing the same old tricks. It’s really very simple, and even seems a bit tedious when you think about it. Yet I go on watching these shows. What else would you have me look at, dear readers?

In his analysis of the story Andrew F. Jones wrote in “Developmental Fairy Tales“ wrote: “Lu Xun wrote this essay in October 1933 amidst a wave of intense anxiety and interest in the question of Chinese children. In academic journals and popular media alike, the figure of the child became a ubiquitous emblem of the nation and its developmental hopes. Nor was this equation lost on the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT), which had the previous year instituted for the first time a national “Children’s Day.” and had already begun to promote 1934 as “The Year of the Child.” Newspapers and illustrated magazines such as the best-selling weekly Young Companion (Liangyou huabao) had since the late 1920s regularly featured the activities of a nascent scouting movement, a “Children’s Army” (tongzi jun) typically pictured as projecting a military prowess in miniature that the KMT, having suffered the loss of Manchuria to Japanese military encroachment in 1931, sorely lacked. Parents were encouraged to send in photographs of their charges, to be judged competitively on the strength of their vigor and vitality. The slogan for one such competition, sponsored by an American baby formula brand, Momilk—“If you want to strengthen the nation, you must first strengthen the children”---quite neatly summed up the conflation of the child and the nation in the context of the emergence of a vibrant and aggressively commercialized urban media culture.”

Book: “Developmental Fairy Tales: Evolutionary Thinking and Modern Chinese Culture“ by Andrew F. Jones (Harvard University Press, 2011]

Image Sources: 1) Storyteller, Bukliin archives ; 2) Book, Calligraphy, Palace Museum Taipei ; 3) Encyclopedia, Li Bao, wikipedia; 4) Handscroll, Columbia University; 5) Tang party, University of Washington ; 6) Red Chamber TV, Hongloumeng; 7) Bei Dao, 8) Pearl Buck, Pearl Buck website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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