Lu Xun 1881–1936), the pen name of Zhou Shuren, is generally regarded as China's greatest writer of the modern period. He was China's first major stylist in vernacular prose (other than the novel) and was known as an essayist and short story writer and was 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 can also be spelled Lu Hsin and Zhou Shuren can be spelled Chou Shujen.

Lu Xun was a short story writer, editor, translator, novelist, literary critic, essayist, poet, and designer. A leading figure of modern Chinese literature, he wrote in Classical Chinese but is best known for writing in vernacular Chinese. In the 1930s, he became the titular head of the League of Left-Wing Writers in Shanghai and is regarded as the pioneer of modern leftist Chinese literature. His poetry, essays and novels focused on China’s need to modernize through revolution. 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.

It was common in pre-modern China, for Chinese to have many names and different names at different stages of their life. The famous writer Lu Xun was born "Zhou Zhangshou". His courtesy name was "Yushan" but he later changed that to "Yucai". In 1898, before he went to the Jiangnan Naval Academy, he took the given name "Shuren" —which means "to be an educated man". He chose "Lu Xun" as his literary pseudonym when his fiction novel "A Madman's Diary" was first published, in 1918.

Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC); Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site ; English Translation PDF File ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China ; China Culture Online ;Chinatown Connection ; Transnational China Culture Project

Impact of Lu Xun

After the 1919 May Fourth Protests, Lu Xun's writing began to exert a substantial influence on Chinese literature, popular culture and politics. He fit in well with the May Fourth Movement, which was made up primarily of leftists.He was highly regarded by the Communists. Mao Zedong was a great admirer of Lu Xun's writing and named the first major Chinese Communist Party cultural institution — the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts — after him in 1942. Lu Xun was acclaimed by the Chinese government after the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. Alhough sympathetic to socialist ideals and shared many of the goals of the Communists, Lu Xun never joined the Communist Party of China.

Sebastian Veg wrote in China Perspectives: More than any other modern writer, Lu Xun remains at the heart of intellectual discussions in China today. There are several reasons for this. One is that no sooner had Lu Xun breathed his last breath than the Chinese Communist Party began to build him into its own narrative of national revival, structured around the interpenetration of revolution and nationalism. Lu Xun’s biography, which spanned the crucial juncture from late-imperial reformist gentry to nationalist revolution, the New Culture, and finally to the rise of communism as a response to many of the problems that had prevented China’s full transformation into a modern democracy, began to serve as an explanatory model for the entire historical evolution of the first half of the twentieth century...As is well known, this instrumentalisation of Lu Xun in the service of reducing the historical complexity of his time peaked during the merciless exploitation of his name and works during the Cultural Revolution. [Source: Sebastian Veg, China Perspectives, September 2014]

“The other, more substantive reason for Lu Xun’s current relevance is that he confronted many of the dilemmas that China still faces today. Questions related to democracy, to Westernisation, and to the individual as the yardstick of a modern value system, have all been deferred rather than rendered obsolete by the historical events of the last 60 years. Lu Xun’s reflections on these and other questions remain evocative to us because they are never ideological, but rather always seek to tease out the contradictions or tensions between different theories and approaches.”

Lu Xun’s Early Life and Family

Lu Xun in 1930

Lu Xun was born into a family of landlords and government officials in Shaoxing, Zhejiang; not so far from Shanghai. His family's wealth declined as he grew up. Lu was the oldest of four brothers, one of whom died when he was in his 20s. He had an elder sister. Lu Xun’s family — the Zhou family — had been wealthy for centuries primarily through landowning, pawnbroking, and by having several family members promoted to government positions. His paternal grandfather, Zhou Fuqing, was appointed to the Imperial Hanlin Academy in Beijing: the highest position possible for aspiring civil servants at that time. [Source: Wikipedia]

Zhou's mother was a member of the same landed gentry class as was the case with Lu Xun's father. Because formal education was not considered socially appropriate for girls, She never received formal education, but she still taught herself how to read and write. The surname "Lu" in"Lu Xun", was the same as his mother's surname, "Lu".

Lu’s father, Zhou Boyi, passed the lowest, county-level imperial examinations (the avenue to wealth and social position in imperial China), but failed to pass the more competitive provincial-level examinations. In 1893 Zhou Boyi was caught attempting to bribe an examination official. Lu Xun's grandfather was arrested and sentenced to beheading for his son's crime. The sentence was later commuted, and he was imprisoned instead. After the incident Zhou Boyi was stripped of his position in the government and forbidden to ever again take the civil service examinations. Ironically, the Zhou family stopped Lu's grandfather from being executed by paying through regular, expensive bribes until he was finally released in 1901.

After the family's bribery scandal, Zhou Boyi became a heavy drinker and opium user. As his health declined, local doctors attempted employed a series of expensive quack cures, including monogamous crickets, sugar cane that had survived frost three times, ink, and the skin from a drum. Despite these expensive treatments, Zhou Boyi died of an asthma attack at age 35 in 1896.

Lu Xun’s Early Education

Lu's early education was based on the Confucian classics, in which he studied poetry, history, and philosophy—subjects which, he later said were neither useful nor interesting to him. Instead, he enjoyed folk stories and traditions: local operas, the mythological creatures and stories in the Classic of Mountains and Seas, and the ghost stories told to him by an illiterate servant who raised him, Ah Chang (whom he called "Mother Chang"). [Source: Wikipedia]

Lu aspired to take the imperial civil service exam, but due to his family's relative poverty he was forced to attend government-funded schools teaching "Western education." Upon graduation, Lu went to medical school in Japan but later dropped out. He became interested in studying literature but was eventually forced to return to China because of his family's lack of funds. After returning to China, Lu worked for several years teaching at local secondary schools and colleges before finally finding a job at the Republic of China Ministry of Education. [Source: Wikipedia]

Lu Xun half-heartedly trained for the Chinese civil service and took one examination in 1899, but then abandoned pursuing a traditional Confucian education or career. He wanted to study the prestigious "Seeking Affirmation Academy", in Hangzhou, but was forced by his family's lack of funds to study at a tuition-free military school, the "Jiangnan Naval Academy", in Nanjing, instead. The military school specialized in Western education. When his mother discovered this she wept and relatives looked down on him and Lu was told to change his name to avoid disgracing his family. Lu attended the Jiangnan Naval Academy for half a year, and left it became clear he was being trained to work in an engine room, a dirty job he considered degrading, and the quality of teaching was low. After leaving the school, Lu took the lowest level civil service exams and and finished 137th of 500. He intended to sit for the next-highest level, but changed his mind after he became upset over the death of one of his younger brothers.

Lu Xun transferred to another government-funded school, the "School of Mines and Railways", and graduated from that school in 1902. Here he was exposed to Western literature, philosophy, history, and science for the first time. He voraciously studied English and German and read influential authors of the time like T. H. Huxley, John Stuart Mill, Yan Fu, and Liang Qichao. He was particularly taken by the novels Ivanhoe and Uncle Tom's Cabin, which have contributed to his personal beliefs and philosophy. He did very well at the school even though he didn’t study so hard and occasionally experienced racism directed at him from resident Manchu bannermen. After graduating Lu Xun planned to become a Western doctor.

Lu Xun in Japan

In 1902, Lu Xun left for Japan on a Qing government scholarship to pursue an education in Western medicine. After arriving in Japan he attended the "Kobun Institute", a preparatory language school for Chinese students attending Japanese universities. After encouragement from a classmate, he cut off his queue (which all Han Chinese were legally forced to wear in China) and practiced jujutsu in his free time. His earliest surviving essays, written in Classical Chinese, were published while he was attending this school, and he published his first Chinese translations of famous and influential Western novels, including Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 1904, Lu began studying at the Sendai Medical Academy, in northern Honshu, but remained there for less than two years. He generally found his studies at the school tedious and difficult, partially due to his imperfect Japanese. While studying in Sendai he befriended one of his professors, Fujino Genkurō, who helped him prepare class notes. Because of their friendship Lu was accused by his classmates of receiving special assistance from Fujino] Lu later recalled his mentor respectfully and affectionately in an essay, "Mr Fujino", published in Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk. This essay, today one of his most publicly renowned works, is in the middle school literature curriculum in China. The Sendai Medical Academy is now the medical school of Tohoku University.

While Lu Xun was attending medical school, the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) broke out. After one of his biology classes Lu was shown a scene in which a Japanese soldier was about to behead a Chinese man who had allegedly spied for the Russians. The Chinese who were there looked apathetic. In his preface to Nahan, the first collection of his short stories, Lu explained how viewing this scene influenced him to quit studying Western medicine, and to become a literary physician to what he perceived to be China's spiritual problems instead: At the time, I hadn't seen any of my fellow Chinese in a long time, but one day some of them showed up in a slide. One, with his hands tied behind him, was in the middle of the picture; the others were gathered around him. Physically, they were as strong and healthy as anyone could ask, but their expressions revealed all too clearly that spiritually they were calloused and numb. According to the caption, the Chinese whose hands were bound had been spying on the Japanese military for the Russians. He was about to be decapitated as a 'public example.' The other Chinese gathered around him had come to enjoy the spectacle.”

In March 1906, Lu Xun abruptly and secretly terminated his pursuit of the degree and left college. At the time he told no one. He moved to Tokyo and pursued his own intellectual interests. He read a lot of Nietzsche and the essays he wrote at this time were influenced by his philosophy.

Lu Xun’s Early Non-Literary Career

Lu in 1934

Lu intended to study in Germany in 1909, but did not have sufficient funds, and was forced to return home. Between 1909 and 1911 he held a number of brief teaching positions at local colleges and secondary schools that he felt were unsatisfying, partly to support his brother Zuoren's studies in Japan. Lu spent these years in traditional Chinese literary pursuits: collecting old books, researching pre-modern Chinese fiction, reconstructing ancient tombstone inscriptions, and compiling the history of his native town, Shaoxing. He explained to an old friend that his activities were not "scholarship", but "a substitute for 'wine and women'". In his personal letters he expressed disappointment about his own failure, China's political situation, and his family's continuing impoverishment. He began drinking heavily, which he would do the rest of his life. [Source: Wikipedia]

Shortly after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China in 1911, Lu got a job at the national Ministry of Education and moved to Beijing, where he lived from 1912 to 1926. While there he contributed to the renovation and expansion of the Beijing Library and helped establish the Natural History Museum and the Library of Popular Literature. Together with Qian Daosun and Xu Shoushang he designed the Twelve Symbols national emblem in 1912. After Yuan Shikai declared himself the Emperor of China in 1915, Lu was briefly forced to participate in rituals honoring Confucius, which he ridiculed in his diaries.

In 1920, Lu began to lecture part-time at several colleges, including Peking University, Beijing Normal University, and Beijing Women's College, where he taught traditional fiction and literary theory. His lecture notes were later collected and published as a “A Brief History of Chinese Fiction”. He was able to work part-time because he only worked at the Education Ministry three days a week for three hours a day. In 1926, Lu began teaching at Xiamen University, but he was disappointed by the petty disagreements and unfriendliness of the university's faculty. In January 1927, he moved to Guangzhou, where he was hired as the head of the Zhongshan University Chinese literature department. After a few months there he resigned for political reasons and moved to Shanghai. At that time he was one of the most famous intellectuals in China and from then on was able to make a living from writing.

Lu Xun’s Personal and Family Life

In June 1906, Lu's mother heard a rumor that he had married a Japanese girl and had a child with her, and feigned illness as a pretext to ask Lu to return home, where she would then force him to take part in an arranged marriage she had agreed to several years before. The girl, Zhu An, was illiterate, and had bound feet and had little in common with Lu, Lu Xun married her, but they never had a romantic relationship but Lu took care of her economic needs for the rest of his life. Several days after the wedding, Lu returned to Japan with his younger brother, Zuoren, and left behind his new wife. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 1919, Lu moved his family from Shaoxing to a large compound in Beijing. There he lived with his mother, his two brothers, and their Japanese wives until 1923, when Lu had a falling out with his brother, Zuoren, after which Lu moved with his wife and mother to a separate house. Neither Lu nor Zuoren ever publicly explained the reason for their disagreement, but Zuoren's wife later accused Lu of making sexual advances towards her. Some writers have speculated that their relationship may have worsened as a result of issues related to money, that Lu walked in on Zuoren's wife bathing, or that Lu had an inappropriate "relationship" with Zuoren's wife in Japan that Zuoren later discovered. After the falling out with Zuoren, Lu became depressed.

In 1923 he lost his front teeth in a rickshaw accident, and in 1924 he developed the first symptoms of tuberculosis. In 1925, Lu began what may have been his first meaningful romantic relationship, with one of his students at the Beijing Women's College, Xu Guangping. After moving to Guangzhou in 1927, his first act was to hire Xu as his "personal assistant" at Zhongshan University.

Xu Guangping gave birth to a son, Haiying, in September 1929. She was in labor with the baby for 27 hours. The child's name meant "Shanghai infant". His parents chose the name thinking that he could change it himself later, but he never did so. Haiying was Lu Xun's only child. Before the birth, Lu visited his dying mother, and reported that she was pleased at the news of Guangping's pregnancy.

Lu Xun’s Early Literary Career

After returning to Japan in 1906 Lu took informal classes in literature and history, published several essays in student-run journals, and in 1907 he briefly took Russian lessons. He attempted to found a literary journal with his brother, New Life, but before its first publication its other writers and its financial backers all abandoned the project, and it failed. In 1909 Lu published a translation of Eastern European fiction, Tales from Abroad, but the book sold only 41 copies of the 1,500 copies that were printed. In 1911 Lu wrote his first short story, “Nostalgia”, but disliked the result so much he threw it away. His brother Zuoren retrieved it, and had it successfully published two years later under his own name. [Source: Wikipedia]

Between 1912 and 1917 while he was a member of an ineffectual censorship committee, he informally studied Buddhist sutras, lectured on fine arts, wrote and self-published a collection of folk stories from the Tang and Song dynasty among other things. . He collected and self-published an authoritative book on the work of an ancient poet, Ji Kang, and wrote A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, a work which, because traditional scholars had not valued fiction, had little precedent in China.

In 1917, an old friend of Lu's, Qian Xuantong, invited Lu to write for New Youth, a radical populist literary magazine that had recently been founded by Chen Duxiu, which also inspired a great number of younger writers such as Mao Dun. At first Lu was skeptical that his writing could serve any social purpose, and told Qian: "Imagine an iron house: without windows or doors, utterly indestructible, and full of sound sleepers — all about to suffocate to death. Let them die in their sleep, and they will feel nothing. Is it right to cry out, to rouse the light sleepers among them, causing them inconsolable agony before they die?" Qian replied that it was, because if the sleepers were awoken, "there was still hope — hope that the iron house may one day be destroyed". Shortly afterwards, in 1918 Lu wrote the first short story published in his name, Diary of a Madman, for the magazine.

After the publication of Diary of a Madman, the story was praised for its anti-traditionalism, its synthesis of Chinese and foreign conventions and ideas, and its skillful narration, and Lu became recognized as one of the leading writers of the New Culture Movement. Lu continued writing for the magazine, and produced his most famous stories for New Youth between 1917 and 1921. These stories were collected and re-published in Nahan ("Outcry") in 1923. In 1925 he founded a journal, Wilderness, and established the "Weiming Society" in order to support young writers and encourage the translation of foreign literature into Chinese.

In the 20 years after the 1911 revolution there was a flowering of literary activity with dozens of journals. The goal was to reform the Chinese language to make universal education possible. Lu Xun was an active participant. His greatest works like Mad Man's Diary and Ah Q exemplify this style of "peasant dirt literarature". The language is fresh and direct. The subjects are country peasants.

During the short time he lived in Xiamen in the mid 1920s , Lu wrote his last collection of fiction, “Old Tales Retold” (which was not published until several years later), and most of his autobiography, published as “Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk”. He also published a collection of prose poetry, Wild Grass. The short story “The True Story of Ah Q” was published in 1927 and earned him acclaim abroad despite a poor English translation and annotations that were nearly double the size of the text.

Lu Xun as China’s Most Famous Writer and Intellectual

20111122-Lu Xun.jpg
When Lu left Guangzhou for Shanghai , he was one of the most famous intellectuals in China. In 1927 Lu was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature but rejected the possibility of accepting the nomination. Later, he renounced writing fiction or poetry in response to China's deteriorating political situation and his own poor emotional state, and restricted himself to writing argumentative essays. After moving to Shanghai, Lu rejected all regular teaching positions (though he sometimes gave guest lectures at different campuses), and for the first time was able to make a living solely as a professional writer, with a monthly income of roughly 500 yuan. He was also appointed by the government as a "specially appointed writer" by the national Ministry of Higher Education, which brought him an additional 300 yuan/month. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Eileen J. Cheng wrote: “Lu Xun was “an intellectual force to be reckoned with, attacked by adversaries, courted by allies and the Chinese Communist Party, and feared by the Nationalist party, all the while ambivalent about the notion of revolution and the efficacy of writing itself.” This is particularly evident in his relationship “with the Creation Society and the Crescent Moon Society, and his friendships with Yu Dafu and younger members of the Chinese Communist Party after his move to Shanghai in 1927. Lu Xun was especially irked by “what he saw as the adulteration of the notion of revolution and the commercialization of literature. Lu Xun had complicated relationships with some of his former students, such as Gao Changhong and Rou Shi, and intellectuals such as Jiang Guangci. He was closely associated with the journal “Threads of Talk” (Yusi) and the Beixin Press and had troubled relationship with members of the League of Left Wing Writers See Political Aactivity Below. [Source: Eileen J. Cheng, Pomona College, MCLC Resource Center Publication, January, 2015; Review of the Book: “Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence” by Gloria Davies (Harvard University Press, 2013)]

Despite the unfavorable political climate, Lu Xun contributed regularly to a variety of periodicals in the 1930s, including Lin Yutang's humor magazine The Analects Fortnightly, and corresponded with writers in Japan as well as China. Although he had renounced writing fiction years before, in 1934 he published his last collection of short stories, “Old Tales Retold. Lu completed volumes of translations, notably from Russian.

Lu Xun’s Political Activity

When Lu was in Japan in the 1900s and 1910 had an ambiguous attitude towards Chinese revolutionary politics and it is not clear whether he joined any of the revolutionary parties which were popular among Chinese expatriates in Japan at that time. He experienced anti-Chinese racism, but was simultaneously disgusted with the behaviour of some Chinese who were living in Japan. In March 1926 there was a mass student protest against the warlord Feng Yuxiang's collaboration with the Japanese. The protests degenerated into a massacre, in which two of Lu's students from Beijing Women's College were killed. Lu's public support for the protesters forced him to flee from the local authorities. Later in 1926, when the warlord troops of Zhang Zuolin and Wu Peifu took over Beijing, Lu left northern China and fled to Xiamen. While in Guangzhou he served as a guest lecturer at Whampoa Academy. He made contacts within the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party through his students. After the Shanghai massacre in April 1927, he attempted to secure the release of several students through the university, but failed. His failure to save his students led him to resign from his position at Zhongshan University, and he left for the Shanghai International Settlement in September 1927. [Source: Wikipedia]

In Shanghai in the late 1920s, Lu began to study and identify with Marxist political theory, made contact with local Communist Party members, and became involved in literary disputes with other leftist writers in the city. In 1930 Lu became one of the co-founders of the League of Left-Wing Writers, but shortly after he moved to Shanghai other leftist writers accused him of being "an evil feudal remnant", the "best spokesman of the bourgeoisie", and "a counterrevolutionary split personality". The CCP may have secretly initiated these attacks, but later called them off. The League continued in various forms until 1936, when the constant disputes among its members led the CCP to dissolve it.

In a review of “Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence” by Gloria Davies, Sebastian Veg wrote in China Perspectives: Davies argues” Lu Xun became increasingly critical of revolutionary doctrine after 1927, in particular because of its growing estrangement from baihua (the written vernacular). She documents Lu Xun’s quarrels with two younger disciples: Sun Fuyuan (who published the journal Threads of Thought, Yusi) and Li Xiaofeng (because of an essay he wrote about Lu Xun without consulting him). Davies gives interesting arguments about Lu Xun’s “indifference to Marxism as a system or a science” and explains his Marxist turn as “more a radicalisation of his humanistic disposition than a conversion to Marxist theory”, a position close to contemporary Chinese liberals.” Davies “deals with Lu Xun’s stormy relations with the Left, beginning with the polemics of 1928 with the Creation Society (Chuangzao she), during which Lu Xun was “pronounced a fascist who called for the murder of young people” by one Du Quan, most probably a penname for Guo Moruo, and was called “outdated” by Qian Xingcun. Quoting Wang Furen, Davies highlights Lu Xun’s endorsement of ren (Confuciansm). Quoting Wang Furen, Davies highlights Lu Xun’s endorsement of ren, benevolence and humanity. [Source: Sebastian Veg, China Perspectives, September 2014;“Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence” by Gloria Davies (Harvard University Press, 2013)]

In January 1931, the Kuomintang passed new, stricter censorship laws, allowing for writers producing literature deemed "endangering the public" or "disturbing public order" to be imprisoned for life or executed. Later that month Lu went into hiding. In early February, less than a month later, the Kuomintang executed twenty-four local writers (including five that belonged to the League) that they had arrested under this law. After the execution of the "24 Longhua Martyrs" (in addition to other students, friends, and associates), not surprisingly Lu' became adamantly anti-Kuomintang. In 1933 Lu met Edgar Snow. Snow asked Lu if there were any Ah Q's left in China. Lu responded, "It's worse now. Now it's Ah Q's who are running the country." In 1935 he sent a telegram to Communist forces in Shaanxi congratulating them on the recent completion of their Long March. The Communist Party requested that he write a novel about the communist revolution set in rural China, but he declined, citing his lack of background and understanding of the subject.

Lu Xun’s Last Years, Death and Legacy

Lu was a heavy smoker, which may have contributed to the deterioration of his health. year. By 1936 he had developed chronic tuberculosis, and in March of that year he was stricken with bronchitic asthma and a fever. The treatment for this involved draining 300 grams of fluid in the lungs through a puncture. From June to August, he was again sick, and his weight dropped to only 38 kilograms. He recovered somewhat, and wrote two essays in the fall reflecting on mortality. These included "Death", and "This Too Is Life". A month before his death, he wrote: "Hold the funeral quickly... do not stage any memorial services. Forget about me, and care about your own life – you're a fool if you don't." Regarding his son, he wrote: "On no account let him become a good-for-nothing writer or artist."

At 3:30 am on the morning of October 18, 1936, Lu woke with great difficulty breathing. Dr. Sudo, his physician, was summoned, and Lu Xun took injections to relieve the pain. His wife was with him throughout that night, but Lu Xun was found without a pulse at 5:11 am the next morning, October 19. Lu's remains were interred in a mausoleum within Lu Xun Park in Shanghai. Mao Zedong later made the calligraphic inscription above his tomb. He was survived by his son, Zhou Haiying. He was posthumously made a member of the Communist Party for his contributions to the May Fourth Movement.

Shortly after Lu Xun's death, Mao Zedong called him "the saint of modern China," but used his legacy selectively to promote his own political goals. In 1942, he quoted Lu out of context to tell his audience to be "a willing ox" like Lu Xun was, but told writers and artists who believed in freedom of expression that, because Communist areas were already liberated, they did not need to be like Lu Xun. After the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, Communist Party literary theorists portrayed his work as orthodox examples of communist literature, yet every one of Lu's close disciples from the 1930s was purged. Mao admitted that, had Lu survived until the 1950s, he would "either have gone silent or gone to prison".

Lu Xun’s Writing and Contribution to Literature

“Lu Xun wrote using both traditional Chinese conventions and 19th century European literary forms. His work had an enormous impact on modern China. His two short story collections, “Nahan” (“A Call to Arms or Outcry”) and “Panghuang” (“Wandering”) were established classics and often viewed as marking the beginning of modern Chinese literature. Qian Liqun, a professor of literature at Peking University told the South China Morning Post: "For China's reformers and intellectuals of different generations, Lu's importance to the country lies not only in literature. His works fostered introspection in Chinese society and led to the questioning of orthodoxies and authorities," Qian said. "Even now, when reading his writings, you will feel powerfully inspired to think critically about society and the authorities of China's past, its present, or even of its future." [Source: He Huifeng, South China Morning Post, September 8, 2013]

Japanese Nobel literature laureate Kenzaburo Oe described Lu Xun as "The greatest writer Asia produced in the twentieth century." Lu Xun's importance to modern Chinese literature lies in the fact that he contributed significantly to nearly every modern literary medium during his lifetime. He wrote in a clear lucid style which was to influence many generations, in stories, prose poems and essays. Fredric Jameson cited "A Madman's Diary" as the "supreme example" of the "national allegory" form that all Third World literature takes in 1986. Gloria Davies compares Lu Xun to Nietzsche, saying that both were "trapped in the construction of a modernity which is fundamentally problematic".

Lu Xun was a versatile writer. He wrote using both traditional Chinese conventions and 19th century European literary forms. His style has been described in equally broad terms, conveying both "sympathetic engagement" and "ironic detachment" at different moments. His essays are often very incisive in his societal commentary, and in his stories his mastery of the vernacular language and tone make some of his literary works (like "The True Story of Ah Q") hard to convey through translation. In them, he frequently treads a fine line between criticizing the follies of his characters and sympathizing with those very follies. Lu Xun was a master of irony and satire (as can be seen in "The True Story of Ah Q") and yet can write impressively direct with simple engagement ("My Old Home", "A Little Incident").

Lu Xun’s had high standards for his own literary scholarship. “Prose, ideally, should be considered not only in relation to the author’s entire oeuvre, but in relation to his person as a whole. We must also include the state of the society in which he lived. This would lend a proper rigor to our considerations”, he said. Lu particularly admired Nikolai Gogol and made a translation of "Dead Souls". His own first story's title, "Diary of a Madman", was inspired by a work of Gogol of the same name. As a left-wing writer, Lu played an important role in the development of modern Chinese literature. His books were and remain highly influential and popular today, both in China and internationally. Lu Xun's works appear in high school textbooks in both China and Japan. He is known to Japanese by the name Rojin.

Lu Xun is typically regarded by Mao Zedong as the most influential Chinese writer who was associated with the May Fourth Movement. He produced harsh criticism of social problems in China, particularly in his analysis of the "Chinese national character". He was sometimes called a "champion of common humanity." Lu Xun felt that the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that oust the Qing rulers and led to the founding the Republic of China was a failure. In 1925 he opined, "I feel the so-called Republic of China has ceased to exist. I feel that, before the revolution, I was a slave, but shortly after the revolution, I have been cheated by slaves and have become their slave." He even recommended that his readers heed the critique of Chinese culture in Chinese Characteristics by the missionary writer Arthur Smith. His disillusionment with politics led him to conclude in 1927 that "revolutionary literature" alone could not bring about radical change. Rather, "revolutionary men" needed to lead a revolution using force. In the end, he experienced profound disappointment with the new Nationalist government, which he viewed as ineffective and even harmful to China.

Does Xu Lun Deserve to Be the Towering Figure He Is?

Some believe the adulation of Lu Xun is overblown and his high place in literature is higher than is deserved. A description of the book “Beyond the Iron House: Lu Xun and the Modern Chinese Literary Field” by Sun Saiyin of Tsinghua University, Beijing, reads: “Lu Xun was recognized in the literary field much later than has hitherto been argued. Neither the appearance of "Kuangren riji" (“Diary of a Madman”) in 1918 nor the publication of Nahan (Outcry) in 1923 had catapulted the author into nationwide prominence; in comparison with his contemporaries, neither was his literary work as original and unique as many have claimed, nor were his thoughts and ideas as popular and influential as many have believed; like many other agents in the literary field, Lu Xun was actively involved in power struggles over what was at stake in the field; Lu Xun was later built into an iconic figure and the blind worship of him hindered a better and more authentic understanding of many other modern writers and intellectuals such as Gao Changhong and Zhou Zuoren. [Source: “Beyond the Iron House: Lu Xun and the Modern Chinese Literary Field” by Sun Saiyin of Tsinghua University Routledge (2017)]

Julia Lovell wrote in the preface: “Sun Saiyin’s careful research into Lu Xun’s career stands “To carry out such a study shows significant intellectual courage. Given Lu Xun’s canonical status both inside and outside China, undertaking a reappraisal of the man and of his place in literary history is a task that would daunt many scholars. There is an intimidating mass of material already produced upon Lu Xun, in both Chinese and Western languages; it is a very considerable feat of scholarship and independent thinking to absorb this body of work, to look so carefully at original materials, and to draw fresh conclusions. In English, Bonnie McDougall began the task of looking behind political myth-making, to depict Lu Xun as a flesh-and-blood figure, in her study of the letters exchanged between Lu Xun and his partner, Xu Guangping. Sun valuably continues this enterprise by reconsidering, even more radically, received wisdom on the nature of Lu Xun’s personality and interactions with his contemporaries.

“Sun makes especial efforts to challenge portrayals of Lu Xun as a uniquely creative, original figure amongst his immediate peers, and to trace out the process by which he came to be acclaimed a “literary authority” during and after his lifetime. Her analysis raises very important questions about the construction of a modern Chinese literary canon, implicitly urging a careful re-evaluation of Lu Xun’s creative achievements and bringing other, less-studied writers (such as Gao Changhong) to critical attention. During the post-Mao period, literary scholars have been working to broaden understanding of the range of literary voices that made up 20th-century Chinese literature – a diversity that for years was obscured by the triumph of the Maoist literary line between 1949 and the late 1970s. Sun excitingly extends this wider academic project. Her research suggests many new and fruitful avenues for investigation into the richness of Chinese literature in the 1920s and 1930s: into the oeuvre of the tragic figure of Gao Changhong, and that of others like him.

Assessment of Lu Xun Over the Years

Sebastian Veg wrote in China Perspectives:“Leaving aside the debates over his work that took place during his lifetime, Lu Xun has gone through three main phases of reception over the three quarters of a century since his death in 1936, all of which remain alive today. 1) The first phase consisted mainly of constructing what we may call the “official reading” of Lu Xun. Today, while he is no longer celebrated as the “commander in chief of [China’s] Cultural Revolution,” Lu Xun continues to be read and taught in China as a revolutionary fighter and patriot rather than as a complex writer of fiction and poetry, with an overemphasis on his political journalism of the 1930s rather than his fiction of the 1920s. In January 2012, for example, Peking University Professor Kong Qingdong referred to Lu Xun’s denunciation of xizai (Western fops) to justify his diatribe against Hongkongers’ propensity to embrace Western-style rule of law and values, showing that this reading and its implied interpretation of the New Culture movement remain useful in China today. [Source: Sebastian Veg, China Perspectives, September 2014]

“2) In a post-World War Two context in which Lu Xun had become canonised on the mainland while remaining banned in Taiwan, where he was labelled a communist writer, the first alternative readings of Lu Xun, building on annotations and biographical writings by contemporaries such as Cao Juren, who came to Hong Kong in 1950, began to emerge in Western academia in the 1960s. The Hsia brothers, in particular T. A. Hsia’s seminal The Gate of Darkness, first published in 1968, played a major role in unearthing the aestheticism in Lu Xun’s works such as Wild Grass, as did the writing of Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans (pen name Simon Leys). Leo Ou-fan Lee’s edited volume Lu Xun and his Legacy (1985) and his authoritative study Voices from the Iron House (1987) represent a culmination of scholarship undertaken in this perspective, in which psychological introspection, probing of gender roles, cosmopolitan connections, and nostalgia for vanishing local cultures take precedence over anti-colonialism and the celebration of left-wing martyrs. Theodore Huters and Marston Anderson’s contributions, in a different but related vein, almost simultaneously underscored the specific importance of moral dilemmas in Lu Xun’s aesthetics.

“3) In recent years, new readings of Lu Xun have emerged in China under the perspective of intellectual history. In the 1980s, pioneers such as Beijing Normal University professor Wang Furen (b. 1941) and Peking University professor Sun Yushi (b. 1935) had revived the humanist Lu Xun against the Maoists, but their readings remained within the politically acceptable orbit of critical realism. After 1989, there was a marked search for a different Lu Xun and a return to his early writings. Scholars such as Peking University professor Qian Liqun (b. 1939) and Tsinghua Professor Wang Hui (b. 1959) searched for a new contemporary relevance, taking particular inspiration from readings developed by Japanese Marxist critics such as Takeuchi Yoshimi (1910-1977), who enjoyed an ongoing “fever” on the mainland from around 2000. Younger scholars such as Kiyama Hideo(b. 1934) played an important role in highlighting the importance of Zhang Binglin (Zhang Taiyan, 1868-1936) and other heterodox thinkers in Lu Xun’s intellectual world, thus grounding the critical momentum contained in his writing not only in aestheticism but also in a set of complex intellectual debates in Lu Xun’s time. The development of un-orthodox (in the Chinese context) Marxist readings of Lu Xun also reflects the need for a critical outlook in a society that has undergone extreme commodification: such readings of Lu Xun, understood as the most articulate critic of China’s first modernity, with its ubiquitous economic exploitation and hijacking of the new polity by traditional authoritarian elites, has not only fuelled new-Left nostalgia for the revolution; it also serves to counteract the celebration of Chinese pride that has become the new national credo.

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.

Lu Xun’s “Wild Grass”, mostly written from 1924-1926. includes a poem, a play, short anecdotes, personal essays, prose poems, and an array of other writings that defy simple classification. Eileen J. Cheng wrote: The experimental pieces collected in Wild Grass differ vastly in form, style, content, and language from his zawen (essays). One might well argue that the works collected in Wild Grass, written in disparate forms and at an earlier period of Lu Xun’s life, reflect a radically different aesthetic and philosophic sensibility from that of his later zawen. [Source: Eileen J. Cheng, Pomona College, MCLC Resource Center Publication, January, 2015; Review of the Book: “Lu Xun’s Revolution: Writing in a Time of Violence” by Gloria Davies (Harvard University Press, 2013)]

“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 ousted 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.

Short stories: “Nostalgia” (1909); “A Madman's Diary” (1918); “Kong Yiji” (1918); “Medicine” (1919); “Tomorrow” (1920); “An Incident” (1920); “The Story of Hair” (1920); “A Storm in a Teacup” (1920); “Hometown” (1921); “The True Story of Ah Q” (1921); “The Double Fifth Festival” (1922); “The White Light” (1922); “The Rabbits and the Cat” (1922); “The Comedy of the Ducks” (1922); “Village Opera” (1922); “New Year Sacrifice” (1924); “In the Drinking House” (1924); “A Happy Family” (1924); “Soap” (1924); “The Eternal Flame” (1924); “Public Exhibition” (1925); “Old Mr. Gao” (1925); “The Misanthrope” (1925); “Sadness; “Brothers; “Divorce” (1925); “Mending Heaven” (1935); “The Flight to the Moon” (1926); “Curbing the Flood” (1935); “Gathering Vetch” (1935); “Forging the Swords” (1926); “Leaving the Pass” (1935); “Opposing Aggression” (1934); “Resurrect the Dead” (1935);

Essays: "My Views on Chastity" (1918); "What Is Required to Be a Father Today" (1919); "Knowledge Is a Crime" (1919); "What Happens After Nora Walks Out?" Based on a talk given at the Beijing Women's Normal College in December 1923; "My Moustache" (1924); "Thoughts Before the Mirror" (1925); "On Deferring Fair Play" (1925);

Lu Xun's works became known to English readers as early as 1926 with the publication in Shanghai of The True Story of Ah Q, translated by George Kin Leung, and more widely beginning in 1936 with an anthology edited by Edgar Snow and Nym Wales Living China, Modern Chinese Short Stories, in which Part One included seven of Lu Xun's stories and a short biography based on Snow's talks with Lu Xun. However, there was not a complete translation of the fiction until the four-volume set of his writings, which included Selected Stories of Lu Hsun translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. Another full selection was William A. Lyell. Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990). In 2009, Penguin Classics published a complete translation by Julia Lovell of his fiction, The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun, which the scholar Jeffrey Wasserstrom said "could be considered the most significant Penguin Classic ever published."

Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman”

On the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Diary of a Madman”, Emily Baum wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books: A hundred years ago, Lu Xun published a short story that would forever leave its mark on both Chinese fiction and Chinese history.”Diary of a Madman” (Kuangren Riji), Lu Xun’s first vernacular short story to appear in print, was published in the May 1918 issue of New Youth (Xin Qingnian), a radical journal edited by some of China’s foremost progressive thinkers. Modeled on Nikolai Gogol’s work of the same name, the story follows an unnamed protagonist’s descent into lunacy as he convinces himself that the people around him are harboring a secret desire to “eat men” – that is, that they are complicit in a feudal cannibalistic tradition. [Source: Emily Baum, Los Angeles Review of Books, China Channel, September 25, 2018]

“In both form and content, “Diary of a Madman” called attention to the conflict between tradition and modernity in an era of rapid cultural and political change. Confined to his room, treated by an old-style physician who feels his pulse (but prescribes no cure), and gawked at by neighbors and passers-by alike, Lu Xun’s madman demonstrates the “backwardness” of medical treatment for the insane in early twentieth-century China – a pressing concern for Lu Xun himself, who ardently condemned traditional Chinese medicine and briefly trained to become a Western-style physician before setting his sights on the curative powers of literature instead.

“Yet the central concern in “Diary of a Madman” has less to do with the nature of the madman’s treatment than with the forces that caused him to go mad in the first place. Convinced that his parents are engaging in cannibalism – and are grooming him to be cannibalized in the near future – the madman progressively loses his grip on reality. Or so we are told. Indeed, the brilliance of the story is that the protagonist, though ostensibly insane, is actually the only character to see the inhumanity of his “man-eat-man” society with an unimpeded view.

“Cannibalism does, in fact, appear with disturbing frequency in the literature of Chinese antiquity: aside from the expected cases of survival cannibalism during times of famine, filial children were praised for cutting off pieces of their flesh to nourish their ailing parents, while cases of revenge cannibalism (often perpetrated by rebels against state magistrates) occurred during periods of instability. More pressing for Lu Xun, however, was a metaphorical type of cannibalism, one meant to indicate the repressive feudal order of his time. For Lu Xun, Chinese society as a whole was cannibalistic, oppressing and devouring those who were least able to fend for themselves.

“It was also not by chance that Lu Xun chose to offer such a scathing critique through the character of the madman. Similar to the allegorical uses of madness in Western literature, the insane in modern Chinese fiction – by dint of their marginality – laid bare the social order even as they renounced it. In Lu Xun’s writing, the madman is the only character to offer a sober analysis of his family’s deep moral failings – and the only character, moreover, to extend a prescription for redemption. By acting as a foil to the benighted masses, madmen in the literary imagination have often been used to expose the rotten marrow of their political and cultural institutions, particularly in the Republican period (1911-1949) in which Lu Xun was writing. As intellectuals wrestled with the need to be both Chinese and modern, the madman’s expository role as “monster yet mirror” – to borrow a phrase from the late historian Roy Porter – became a crucial articulation of what it meant to be Chinese in an era of tumultuous change.

“Following Lu Xun’s lead, other authors of the time similarly deployed madness to critique the Chinese delusion of national and moral superiority. In Lao She’s short story “Sacrifice” (Xisheng), published in 1935, a haughty Chinese intellectual, holding utter disdain for those around him, is eventually fired from his work and divorced by his wife. Unwilling to face the source of his personal and professional misfortunes, the protagonist ultimately goes mad and is institutionalized. In Xu Zhuodai’s 1923 satirical short story ‘The Vain Lunatic’ (Xurong fengzi), meanwhile, an arrogant, spoiled schoolgirl is unwilling to confront her unfounded feelings of superiority, and subsequently descends into madness. In all three cases, madness appears less as pathology than as a metaphorical signifier of a stultifying and supercilious tradition.

“But it was Lu Xun’s madman, more than any other, who ultimately became the emblem of the modern era. While the protagonists in Lao She’s and Xu Zhuodai’s stories offer no hope for future redemption, Lu Xun’s madman at least extends its possibility. “Perhaps there are still children who have not yet eaten men?” the story concludes. “Save the children…” Criticizing the barbarism of his fellow countrymen, the madman simultaneously evokes hope for a more humane future: one in which the lucidity of his “madness” is exposed for the sanity that it truly is. It is an injunction that, one hundred years on, continues to feel strangely prescient. When real and fake, right and wrong have appeared to become hopelessly enmeshed, it can be difficult to remember where the line between madness and sanity lies. Lu Xun reminds us to not give up the fight.

"My Old Home" by Lu Xun

"My Old Home" Xun is set in 1920 on the occasion of Lu’s return to his old home in Zhejiang Province. Lu Xun describes the first time he met Runtu — when they were both small boys. Runtu’s father had brought Runtu along to assist with the preparations for the Lunar New Year festivities at the house of Lu Xun’s parents. Runtu, who lives by the sea, tells the young Lu Xun about trapping birds, collecting shells on the shore, and defending the watermelon crop from badgers, hedgehogs, and an unidentified wild animal known as a zha. [Source: “Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”, edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993); The translation originally appeared in “Selected Stories of Lu Hsun”, edited by Yang Hsien.yi and Gladys Yang (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1960); from Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

“Our family had only one part-time laborer. … And since there was so much to be done, he, told my father that he would send for his son Runtu to look after the sacrificial vessels. When my father gave his consent I was overjoyed, because I had long since heard of, Runtu and knew that he was about my own age....He was very shy, and I was the only person he was not afraid of. When there was no, one else there, he would talk with me, so in a few hours we were fast friends. Runtu’s mind was a treasure-house of … strange lore, all of it outside the ken of my, former friends. They were ignorant of all these things and, while Runtu lived by the sea, they, like me could see only the four corners of the sky above the high courtyard wall.

[After the month of the Lunar New Year festivities, Runtu went back to his home by the seashore. Lu Xun, never saw him again until the 1920 visit home which is the subject of the story. The following set of, excerpts tell of that meeting between the two, now both middle-aged men.],

“One very cold afternoon, I sat drinking tea after lunch when I was aware of someone, coming in. … The newcomer was Runtu. … He had grown to twice his former size. His round, face, once crimson, had become sallow and acquired deep lines and wrinkles; his eyes too had, become like his father’s, the rims swollen and red. Delighted as I was, I did not know how to explain myself, and could only say: “Oh! Runtu, — so it’s you?” He stood there, mixed joy and sadness showing on his face. His lips moved, but not a, sound did he utter. Finally, assuming a respectful attitude, he said clearly: “Master!”“

"Watching Magic Shows" by Lu Xun

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.”

Parents Angry at Removal of Lu Xun From School Textbook

In 2013, an essay by Lu Xun was removed middle school textbooks, setting off an outcry among parents and intellectuals, who say the author is essential to understanding the national psyche. He Huifeng wrote in the South China Morning Post: “The People's Education Press, a government-backed publisher that supplies most of the mainland's textbooks, removed Lu's essay The Kite as part of revisions to its seventh-grade textbooks for Chinese and literature. For years, pupils and teachers have long complained Lu's works are too difficult for young people to understand and that his insights into Chinese culture, written almost 100 years ago, are losing their relevancy. The decision may please them, but others feel it is a step in the wrong direction. “Tens of thousands of people posted comments online overnight after a newspaper in Henan reported the editing decision. In two surveys conducted on Sina's Weibo, the mainland's most popular microblog site, more than 85 percent of respondents disagreed with removing Lu's essay. [Source: He Huifeng, South China Morning Post, September 8, 2013]

“It is a common experience for many teenagers to gain their first insight into the darker aspects of the national character through Lu's works - he vividly captures and dissects China's obsession with "face"; its superiority complex, servility before authority and its cruelty towards the weak. In 2009, mainland media looked into how prevalent Lu Xun's works remained in schools. They found that only three of his writings were included in the latest textbooks for senior high school pupils published by the People's Education Press. Previously, they included two of his most admired short stories The True Story of Ah-Q and Diary of a Madman. Su Huitao, who taught Chinese and literature in middle schools for 30 years before retiring, said about eight or nine of Lu's works were included in textbooks for most middle school pupils, and about seven in junior high school and three in high school. "That's a big reduction compared to editions we used in the 1980s and 1990s," Su said. "We were told by education officials that middle school pupils need to study 'age-appropriate' material and should not be reading such deep and abstruse works." Many pupils say they dislike studying his works, arguing his writing is indeed difficult and written in an archaic style that is difficult to learn. "His works are all about criticism of society in the early 1900s. That's too distant from our life," said a Shenzhen-based grade 11 pupil. "Our society is now peaceful and rich."

“Some parents and college students think learning Lu's works is a necessity for all young people. "I disliked Lu's works when I was a middle school student. But now that I am an adult, I find his works are like a seed. I hope every Chinese uses them to prompt self-reflection about our society when confronted with unfair social issues," said Liu Weilan, a Dongguan-based mother in her 40s said. "I felt sad and angry when I saw the authorities had taken take away The True Story of Ah-Q, Diary of a Madman and The Medicine from my child's textbook. Learning these works is a good way for teenagers to learn how to think critically. That's what I want my daughter to learn from school."

Lu Xun Letter Fetches More than $1 Million

In November 2013, a 220-character Lu Xun letter sold for more than $1 million, about three times its asking price, at the China Guardian fall auctions in Beijing. The letter, dated June 8, 1934 and on the subject of learning Japanese, was written to Tao Kangde, a magazine publisher who, like Lu Xun, was active in the intellectual scene in pre-Communist, Republican China. ““Can you believe that each character by the modern Chinese writer Lu Xun could fetch almost $5,000, the Chengdu Commercial News said. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Sinosphere Blog, New York Times, November 21, 2013]

““It was a reasonable price,” Song Hao, a senior manager in the rare books department of China Guardian, told the New York Times. The letter had been acquired — with difficulty, she said — from a private collector in China whom she declined to name. The auction house sold another item written by Lu Xun’s also fetching around $1 million renminbi, but artifacts related to Lu Xun are rare. ““There is very little of Lu Xun’s circulating in the market,” said Ms. Song, explaining the price. “And its provenance is solid. “Add on to that the fact that this letter is in his published collections, so it is very reliable,” she said. “And its contents are good. His advice on learning Japanese is of use today for people learning foreign languages.”

In the letter, Lu Xun is responding to Mr. Tao, who had asked him if he should study Japanese. Lu Xun advises him to learn a European language instead, saying there were more important literary works there than in Japan. “The full text, in translation, reads: “Mr. Kangde,

“About long-term study at a Japanese language school, I don’t know. My suggestion is, it’s all right if your Japanese is good enough to read scholarly treatises, since these can be picked up quickly. However, when it comes to reading literature, the loss outweighs the gain. New words and dialect frequently show up in novels, but there is no comprehensive dictionary. You have to ask the Japanese. That’s a lot of trouble. And then there are no great works to make the labor of foreign readers worthwhile.

“The time and effort needed to learn Japanese to the point that you can read a novel — and not just half-understand it –would be no less, I think, than to master a European language. And there are great European works. Why don’t you, sir, use the energy that would be spent learning Japanese to learn a Western language instead? As for the submissions for publication under various pen names, if I resend them, please use them as you see fit, sir. This person doesn’t care about payment.
Let this be the reply,
Best wishes for your writing,
Xun, I bow to you,
June 8

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Amazon

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 October 2021

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