Shiao-ling YU

Woodblock print from the Lu Xun Memorial Exhibit. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Lu Xun is the best known of modern Chinese writers both at home and abroad. A pioneer in the May Fourth Movement–inspired new literature of the early 1900s, he specialized in the short story, endowing this genre with new form and content. He also experimented with form, writing prose poetry and many volumes of satirical, combative essays known as zawen ??.

Born into a declining scholar-official family in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, Lu Xun (his real name was Zhou Shuren ???; he was the older brother of Zhou Zuoren, a leading essayist and social critic) received a traditional education before entering modern-style schools in Nanjing. In 1902 he was sent to study in Japan on a government scholarship. He studied medicine for two years before switching to literature because he felt that only literature could cure Chinese people’s “spiritual illness.” As a writer, he would wield his pen like a surgeon’s scalpel to dissect this illness so that a cure might be found. Most of his best-known stories were devoted to the exposure of what was wrong with the Chinese society and the Chinese national character. His other literary endeavors included a study of the history of Chinese fiction and translations of Russian, East European, and Japanese writers.

His Fiction: Exposing China’s Spiritual Illness

“Diary of a Madman” (“Kuangren riji” ????), the first story Lu Xun wrote in the vernacular language, borrows its title from the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol and records a madman’s delusion that people all want to eat him. Beneath this pseudo-medical case of persecution complex, the story is a devastating indictment of traditional China as a cannibalistic society and traditional Chinese culture as a man-eating culture. On every page of Chinese history the Madman sees the words “Confucian virtue and morality,” but in between the lines are the words “eat people.” After the Madman is cured he no longer has this strange vision and becomes an official. The implication of this story is clear: It takes a madman to see the truth and have the courage to tell it. In saying what the sane people dare not say, the writer is also a madman. Lu Xun gives his story a double structure: The fragmented diary has a preface written in classical Chinese by an implied author. The conventional values voiced in the preface form an ironic contrast to the Madman’s insight. To counter this gloomy view of Chinese culture, the story ends with a plea to save the children.

Closely related to the theme of cannibalism is the story “Medicine” (“Yao” ?), in which an executed revolutionary’s blood is used as “medicine” to cure consumption. A blood-soaked bun becomes a symbol of the ignorance and cruelty of the Chinese masses. The revolutionary who sacrificed his life for his countrymen is jeered by them as another madman. The futility of his sacrifice is further revealed when the two bereaved mothers meet in a graveyard—the one whose son had taken the “medicine,” the other whose son had provided the “medicine.” The death of the two young men (whose surnames Hua ? and Xia ? stand for an old name for China) indicates Lu Xun’s pessimistic view of the Chinese revolution. The revolutionary’s blood cannot cure his benighted countrymen. The story “My Old Home” (“Guxiang” ??), based on a trip that Lu Xun took to his hometown, raises the question of the barriers between intellectuals and peasants. The first-person narrator’s fond memory of the happy and idyllic time that he shared with his childhood playmate Runtu ?? forms a sharp contrast to the invisible wall that now separates them. Runtu addresses the narrator as “Master,” and the two old friends face each other in awkward silence. Unable to bridge the social divide between himself and his peasant other, the narrator pins his hope on the future. In a note similar to the Madman’s plea to save the children, he hopes the younger generation will have a new life.

The story “New Year’s Sacrifice” (“Zhufu” ??) also features an intellectual first-person narrator and a peasant protagonist. Whereas Runtu’s physical and moral deterioration could be attributed to his hard life as a peasant, the tragedy of the peasant woman Xianglin Sao ??? in this story is caused by the ignorance and superstition of the Chinese peasantry. Having lost both of her husbands and her young son, she is regarded as a cursed woman by the villagers and her employer. Her ostracism is so complete that even the harrowing tale of her baby being eaten by a wolf fails to elicit any interest, let alone sympathy, from her audience after her story loses its sensational appeal. Her repeated attempts to verbalize this shocking event in her life make her a laughingstock in the village. In despair, she turns to the narrator for enlightenment on what happens after a person dies. His well-meaning but evasive response fails to ease her torment. The story ends on an ironic note: Xianglin Sao is found dead just as the villagers prepare to celebrate the New Year. The woman they tormented to death symbolically becomes the “sacrifice” they offer to the gods to secure good fortune. The ineffectual intellectuals and suffering peasants portrayed in these two stories represent the two major themes of modern Chinese literature. The use of the mediating first-person narrator in these two stories is also an innovation not found in traditional Chinese fiction.

“The True Story of Ah Q” (“Ah Q zhengzhuan” ?Q??) is Lu Xun’s major work of fiction. In this so-called official biography (zhengzhuan) he adopts a mock epic structure to depict the physical needs and misadventures of someone from the lowest stratum of the Chinese society. Ah Q, whose real name Lu Xun professes not to know, is the Chinese Everyman. His ignorance, his cowardice, his habit of bullying the weak and cowering before the strong, and a long list of other character defects represent the negative traits in the Chinese national character. His self-delusion in turning humiliating defeats into “moral victories” has given rise to the expression “Ah Q spirit”—a spirit that has also infected the Chinese people. Furthermore, his inability to defend himself against the village bullies parallels China’s inability to defend itself against foreign countries. In making this character a symbol of national affliction and national shame, Lu Xun fulfills his mission of exposing Chinese people’s “spiritual illness.”

His Prose Poetry: Self-Examination

In his prose poetry collections Wild Grass (Yecao) Lu Xun turns his critical examination to himself. He once remarked that he dissected himself even more harshly than he dissected others. The twenty-three poems in this collection show more affinity with Western modernism than with classical Chinese poetry in their evocations of the subconscious. Some of the pieces are lyrical, others symbolic and allegorical, and together they reveal a surreal world of eerie dreams and frightening visions. He told his wife that these works expressed the “darkness” and “nothingness” that he felt. In exposing his inner torment to pubic view, Lu Xun was unique among modern Chinese poets. For him writing was a form of probing the self and society.

His Essays: Social Satire

Besides being a spiritual doctor to the Chinese people, Lu Xun was a cultural warrior. His zawen (critical and satirical essays) were his weapon against his critics and enemies from both the right and the left. Disillusioned
by the repressive Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang ???) regime, Lu Xun in his later years increasingly leaned toward the Communist cause. He was elected to a leadership position in the League of Left-Wing Writers, but he never joined the Communist Party. As a writer, he could not surrender his independence to party doctrines. He believed that good literary works cannot be produced by orders; he was also aware that the League did not produce any good works. Despite his reservations about leftist literature and his falling out with the Communist cadres who ran the League, he was canonized by Mao Zedong as “a great writer, a great thinker and revolutionary” (quoted in Hsia 1971, 29). The proletarian revolutionary literature needed a standard bearer of Lu Xun’s stature. However, Lu Xun’s legacy should rest on his literary achievements, not on the use of him for political purposes.

Further Reading

Denton, K. A. (Ed.). (1996). Modern Chinese literary thought: Writings on literature, 1893–1945. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Foster, P. B. (2006). Ah Q archeology: Lu Xun, Ah Q, Ah Q progeny and the national character discourse in twentieth-century China. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Hanan, P. (2004). Chinese fiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Essays by Patrick Hanan. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hsia, C. T. (1971). A history of modern Chinese fiction (2nd ed.). New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Lee, Leo- Oou-Fan. (Ed.). (1985). Lu Xun and his legacy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Lee, Leo- Ou-Fan. (1987). Voices from the iron house: A study of Lu Xun. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lyell, W. (1976). Lu Xun’s vision of reality. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Lyell, W. (Trans.). (1990). Diary of a Madman and other stories. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Pollard, D. E. (2002). The true story of Lu Xun. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.

Pusey, J. R. (1998). Lu Xun and evolution. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Widmer, E., & Wang, David Der-wei. (Eds.). (1993). From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and film in twentieth-century China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Yang, Xianyi, & Yang, Gladys. (Trans.). (1981). The complete stories of Lu Xun. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Yang, Xianyi, & Yang, Gladys. (2000). The true story of Ah Q. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.

Yang, Xianyi, & Yang, Gladys. (2003). Wild grass. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.

Source: Yu, Shiao-ling. (2009). LU Xun. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1353–1355. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Photograph of Lu Xun (Zhou Shuren, 1881–1936) one of China’s most influential and controversial essay writers.

LU Xun (L? Xùn ??)|L? Xùn ?? (LU Xun)

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