Lu Xun

views updated May 23 2018


Pseudonym for Zhou Shu-ren. Nationality: Chinese. Born: Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, China, 1881. Education: Kiangnan Naval Academy, Nanjing, 1898-99; School of Railways and Mines, Nanjing, 1899-1902; studied Japanese language in Japan, 1902-04, and medicine at Sendai Provincial Medical School, Japan, 1904-06; continued private studies in Japan, 1906-09. Career: Teacher in Shao-xing, 1910-11; served in the Ministry of Education, Beijing, 1912-26; taught Chinese literature at National Beijing University, 1920-26; taught at Amoy University, 1926; taught at University of Canton, 1927; then lived in international settlement of Shanghai; editor, Ben-lin (The Torrent), 1928, and Yiwen (Translation), 1934; also a translator of Japanese and Western works, and a draftsman/designer. Died: 19 October 1936.



Hsienshang chuanchi [Complete Works]. 20 vols., 1938; supplements edited by Tang Tao, 2 vols., 1942-52.

Selected Works. 4 vols., 1956-60.

Chuan ji [Complete Works]. 10 vols., 1957-58.

The Complete Stories. 1981.

Short Stories

Na han. 1923; as Call to Arms, 1981.

Pang huang. 1925; as Wandering, 1981.

Gushi xin bian. 1935; as Old Tales Retold, 1961.

Ah Q and Others: Selected Stories. 1941.

Selected Stories. 1954.

Wild Grass (prose poems). 1974.

Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. 1990.


Zhong gno xiaoshuo shi lueh. 1924; as A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, 1959.

Silent China: Selected Writings, edited by Gladys Yang. 1973.

Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk. 1976.



in A History of Modern Chinese Fiction 1917-1957 by C. T. Hsia, 1961.

Critical Studies:

Lu Hsün and the New Culture Movement of Modern China by Huang Sung-k'ang, 1957; Gate of Darkness by T. A. Hsia, 1974; "The Technique of Lu Hsun's Fiction" by Patrick D. Hanan, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 34, 1974; The Social Thought of Lu Hsün 1881-1936 by Pearl Hsia Chen, 1976; in Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era, edited by Merle Goldman, 1977; Lu Hsün's Vision of Reality by William A. Lyell, 1976; The Style of Lu Hsun by Raymond S. W. Hsu, 1979; Lu Xun and His Legacy edited by Leo Ou-fan Lee, 1985, and Voices from the Iron House: A Study of Lu Xun by Lee, 1987; The Lyrical Lu Xun by Jon Eugene Kowallis, 1996; Lu Xun and Evolution by James Reeve Pusey, 1998.

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The first modern Chinese author to write Western-style fiction, Lu Xun, is acknowledged as the country's preeminent twentieth-century man of letters. In addition to writing fiction, he was a prolific essayist, literary critic and theorist, and translator.

In 1902 Lu Xun went to Japan to study medicine, but after profound introspection he decided instead on a literary career. Along with his brother, he published two volumes of translations of European short stories and launched a Chinese literary magazine. Here and in other writings he forcefully argued that China was suffering from profound moral and spiritual decay. If it were to successfully regenerate itself, he believed, it must understand the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest and, like Japan, modernize. China could effect such a rebirth, a Nietzschean heroic endeavor, if, among other things, it discarded its slavish, retrograde attachment to a past whose principles had been reduced to little more than empty sham and meaningless piety. With the failure of his various literary ventures, Lu Xun returned to China in 1909, becoming a biology teacher and later a civil servant and writing in his spare time.

During this period China was passing through some of the most tumultuous political milestones in its modern history. These included the dissolution of the corrupt Qing dynasty in 1911, the establishment of the republic in 1912, and the seminal May Fourth Movement of 1919, initially a student protest against the Versailles Peace Conference's recognition of Japanese territorial claims in China. The movement, however, came to presage other major political and intellectual developments, including the rise of the Communist party. These events, individually and cumulatively, profoundly affected Lu Xun, who was in the midst of a highly creative period during which he wrote his finest literary works, the 25 short stories that appeared in the collections Call to Arms (Na han; 1921) and Wandering (Pang huang; 1925).

Disillusioned by the republicans' false promises of major political, social, and economic reform in China, Lu Xun became committed to the Marxist idea that literature should be used as a powerful means of social and political change. Though never formally a member of the Communist party, he espoused its utilitarian notion of literature throughout his writing career. An overarching theme of his stories is the dichotomy between the high-sounding sentiments preached by traditional Chinese writers and thinkers and the degrading state of poverty and adversity in which the common Chinese person, the overwhelming majority of the population, subsisted. The stark, overwhelming realism in these works is reminiscent of nineteenth-century Russian writers, many of whom Lu Xun had read and, in one important instance, even consciously imitated.

Lu Xun's first important short story, "Diary of a Madman" ("Kuangren riji"; 1918), caused a major literary stir. Now considered a defining, epoch-making work, it was daring, even revolutionary, in its use of colloquial (pai hua), as opposed to classical (wen-yen), language. The work legitimized the colloquial as a viable—even desirable—vehicle for literary expression. In fact, Lu Xun uses both types of language in the story, the classical in a brief two-paragraph introduction and the colloquial in the remaining 13 sections.

The theme, too, was remarkable. To an extent "Diary of a Madman" was modeled, something the author later acknowledged, on the 1834 story of the same name by Gogol. The protagonists in both works are officials. Gogol's Poprishchin comes to believe that he is the king of Spain, and Lu Xun's unnamed, institutionalized madman is eventually released and goes off somewhere to accept an "official post," in traditional Confucian thinking work reserved for learned, right-thinking men. This kind of irony is typical of Lu Xun's stories. His protagonist is obsessed with cannibalism, fearing that people, even his family, want to eat him. He even discovers by reading a book that the dominant note throughout Chinese history has been, in spite of its revered espousal of piety and righteousness, "Eat people." Cannibalism is a particularly powerful, evocative concept among the Chinese, possibly because of its periodic appearance in times of war, famine, and turmoil, and it reappears in many of Lu Xun's later works. In "Medicine" ("Yao"; 1919), for example, which centers on the traditional Chinese idea that consumption can be cured by feeding the patient human blood, consumptive Little Shuan is given the blood of a young executed revolutionary. But the cure does not work, and he dies. Later the mothers of the two sons meet in the cemetery where they have come to pay traditional respects to their dead children in, ironically, the very kind of rite the ideology of the dead revolutionary seeks to destroy.

"The True Story of Ah Q" ("Ah Q zheng zhuan"; 1921) is considered by many critics to be the acme of Lu Xun's literary art. The first of his works to achieve popularity in the West, the story not only added a new icon to Chinese popular culture but also a new word to the language. "Ah Q-ism" came to be the name for the ability to rationalize humiliation and degradation, treating them as their opposite. In trenchant satire posing as clownish burlesque, the story presents the outrageous antics of the vile, cunning Ah Q, whose power of reasoning is compromised. Bullied by the powerful, he then mistreats those who are weaker than he is. Lacking self-awareness and the ability to see things as they really are, he believes, for example, that China is the most supremely moral country in the world and that the Chinese Revolution of 1911-12 was a success. He is eventually executed for a crime he did not commit, just when he might, finally, have come to a real understanding of the world around him, namely, that China was morally corrupt and that, politically, little had changed except the labels by which the new oppressors called themselves. On the surface the story is humorous, even mirthful, but at its deeper levels it is profoundly sad and disturbing.

"Soap" ("Feizao"; 1924) satirically depicts the duplicity and dishonesty of Siming, a member of a right-wing group that seeks to reinstate the Confucian classics in Chinese education, while he himself sends his son to a progressive school where the boy is learning English. Siming also represses his reactions to a dirty but pretty beggar girl he sees on the street. It is obscenely suggested among the men ogling her that, scrubbed down with two bars of soap, she could easily be taken home as a "servant." Displacing the beggar girl in his consciousness, he purchases a single bar of soap for his unwashed, unkempt wife. The soap will thus not only make his wife clean, but the seemingly generous gift will cleanse his lust as well.

"Zhufu" (1924), translated into English as both "New Year's Sacrifice" and "Benediction," is characteristic of Lu Xun's unsentimental clarity in depicting the misery of peasants, especially women. The unnamed narrator, a kindly, educated man, has come to visit his well-to-do family a few days before the New Year and meets a family servant, Xianglin's wife, on the street. Terrified and disoriented, she wants to know for sure whether dead people assume the form of ghosts. Her story is gradually revealed. Widowed, she ran away from her dead husband's family because of abuse. After remarrying, she lost her second husband as well as her baby son, who was eaten by a marauding wolf. She came to work as a servant in the narrator's family home, where she showed herself to be an excellent worker. A fellow servant, smugly self-righteous in her profession of Buddhism, suggested to the family that Xianglin's wife not be allowed to help prepare the holiday festivities for fear that she would bring the family bad luck. The household chores of Xianglin's wife were gradually reduced, and she has been dismissed just prior to meeting the narrator on the street. She dies shortly thereafter, alone and unmourned, the New Year's sacrifice of the title. The work has a profound sense of numbing futility and tragic inevitability about it, for the chasm between the sensitive intellectual and the suffering peasant seems insuperable.

Women's issues are raised in "Divorce" ("Lihun"; 1925), in which Aigu, a strong-willed, articulate woman, has refused on several occasions to divorce her philandering husband. Summoned from her village to his town, she is accompanied only by an elderly uncle, since no one else from her family, including her many brothers, can accompany her. There, facing a tribunal of elders, her husband, and all of his relatives—all men—she is browbeaten and harassed into accepting the divorce. Throughout, various educated men hurl pious Confucian sayings to support their actions and decisions, which, of course, favor themselves and other men. In the end she has not received a fair hearing, not to mention justice.

Lu Xun's stories grimly and unsentimentally chronicle the spiritual and mental turmoil that he and his contemporaries experienced as they revolted against their past. His works, which have profoundly affected virtually all subsequent Chinese fiction in the twentieth century, are bitter but sensitive indictments of a China, caught between tradition and modernity, gambling with its very soul.

—Carlo Coppola

See the essays on "Regret for the Past" and "The True Story of Ah Q."

Lu Hsün

views updated May 17 2018

Lu Hsün

Lu Hsün (1881-1936) was the pen name of Chou Shu-jen, a Chinese author and social critic. Best known for his pioneering short stories in the modern style and his prolific output as a polemic and personal essayist, he was a prominent man of letters and cultural leader.

Modern Chinese literature began with the literary revolution of 1917, initiated by Hu Shih and his friends. It aimed to replace the classical styles of poetry and prose with the vernacular form of writing (paihua). The new literature became a reality with the so-called May Fourth movement of 1919, when students held nationwide demonstrations against their government's feeble stand at the Paris Peace Conference in response to their newly awakened national consciousness. Lu Hsün achieved instant fame for his articulation of this new consciousness in a disciplined vernacular prose which has remained unmatched for its verve and trenchancy. He was also noted for his scholarship, especially in the field of Chinese fiction, for his voluminous translations of European and Japanese works, and for his occasional poetry in the classical style.

Lu Hsün was born in Shaohing, Chekiang Province, the eldest son of an impoverished family which had nevertheless retained the tradition of learning. Like so many youths of the declining Ch'ing dynasty, he took to practical studies to strengthen his nation despite his earlier training in, and personal liking for, literature. In 1902 he sailed for Japan on a government scholarship after spending some 5 years in Nanking as a student in the Kiangnan Naval Academy and the School of Railways and Mines.

In 1904, having completed 2 years of language study in Tokyo, Lu Hsün entered the Sendai Provincial Medical School, believing that medicine would enable his countrymen to strengthen themselves. Early in 1906, however, he came to the conclusion that their spiritual health was more vital than their physical health and that only with his pen could he combat their apathy and backwardness. All along, of course, he had been reading Western literature through Japanese and German translations: Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and such Russian writers as Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, and Leonid Andreyev would remain influential throughout his writing career.

Early Literary Ventures

After an abortive attempt to launch a magazine, Lu Hsün wrote a series of didactic essays in the classical style subsequently collected in the volume called Fen (Tomb). Chou Tso-jen, his younger brother also studying in Japan on a government scholarship, was then his literary collaborator; they translated two volumes of European short stories, mainly by Russian authors.

Lu returned to China in 1909 and taught science in middle schools. In 1912, following the establishment of the republic, he accepted a post in the ministry of education and moved to Peking, where he engaged in antiquarian research in a state of apparent discouragement. But his literary ambition revived with the Literary Revolution. In May 1918 his story K'uang-jen jih-chi ("A Madman's Diary") appeared in the leading intellectual journal of the time, Hsin Ch'ing-nien (The New Youth). It was a sensation not only because it was the first Chinese story in the Western manner but because it indicated the Chinese tradition as one of inhumane cannibalism, despite its supposed respect for the Confucian virtues.

The brilliance of this story was sustained by many of Lu Hsün's stories written during the period 1919-1926, collected in two volumes entitled Na-han (A Call to Arms) and P'ang-huang (Hesitation). This period also marked the flowering of the author's genius in other forms: a book of somber prose poetry called Yeh-ts'ao (Wild Grass); a volume of childhood reminiscences, Chao-hua hsi-shih (Morning Flowers Picked in Evening); and several essay collections containing his random thoughts on all aspects of the Chinese psyche and the Chinese scene.

Short Stories

Though Lu Hsün was claimed by the Communists as their hero, the stories in his first two collections are remarkably free of the cant of revolutionary optimism in their cautious affirmation of a kind of hope rooted in a profound despair over China's inability to change toward a better future. Most of these stories are about Shaohing and its rural environs, about the people Lu Hsün remembered from his childhood and his subsequent visits there. The most personal among the best stories is Kuhsiang ("My Old Home"), which records the author's awareness of the pointed contrast between the robust peasant companion of his childhood and what he subsequently becomes—a careworn family man given to superstition.

A more tragic story, Chu-fu ("The New Year's Sacrifice"), traces the fate of a peasant woman in a feudalistic setting which denies her even the illusion of happiness in an after world. Ah Q cheng-chuan ("The True Story of Ah Q"), the longest and most celebrated of the author's stories, presents in its hero a ubiquitous national type who lives in a slaphappy world of self-deception by pretending to have achieved "spiritual victory" when under manifest defeat. Its tragic and satiric thesis notwithstanding, the story is told with a great deal of humor. The most urbanely satiric of Lu Hsün's stories is Fei-tsao ("Soap"), which makes fun of the pretended righteousness of a Confucian gentleman.

Career after 1926

Along with many other intellectuals, Lu Hsün left Peking (and his professorship at National Peking University) when the city became a stronghold of reaction under warlord rule. He served briefly in universities in Amoy and Canton and eventually settled in Shanghai, where he stayed until he died of tuberculosis and various other illnesses in October 1936, at the age of 55. A staunch individualist, he had come under attack from the Communist writers soon after his escape from Peking. After a series of spirited debates with them, Lu Hsün finally joined the Communist cause and became the nominal leader of the League of Left-wing Writers when it was formed in 1930. An idol of the youth, he was now mainly a miscellaneous essayist, dissipating his creative energy in an endless series of polemics. He also translated a great deal and refrained from writing fiction except for a volume of satiric fables, Ku-shih hsinpien (Old Legends Retold), which sadly marked the decline of his talent.

Judging from his letters, Lu Hsün was definitely unhappy during the middle 1930s despite the constant care provided by his second wife, Hsü Kuang-p'ing: his health had deteriorated, and he was finally facing an enemy, the Communist cultural leadership in Shanghai, that he could not openly attack without betraying his basic pessimism and his superficial allegiance to the Communist cause. He was irked by that leadership, which had formulated policies without consulting him, and he also found these new policies incomprehensible. But he could no longer contain his anger following the dissolution of the League of Left-wing Writers, and shortly before his death he published an open letter exposing the duplicity of that leadership.

In his later life Lu Hsün wore a traditional Chinese gown, cropped hair, and a thick mustache. With all his irritability and irascibility, he was nevertheless extremely kind to young writers. Many of his disciples and protégés have written lovingly of his kindness and personal integrity.

Further Reading

An official translation sponsored by the Foreign Languages Press of Peking is Selected Works of Lu Hsün, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (4 vols., 1956-1960). Published by the same press is Selected Stories of Lu Hsün, by the same translators (1960; 2d ed. 1963). See also Ah Q and Others: Selected Stories of Lusin, translated by Chi-chen Wang (1941). Huang Sungk'ang, Lu Hsün and the New Culture Movement of Modern China (1957), though undistinguished, remains the only monographic study of Lu Hsün in English. The best discussions of him are in C.T. Hsia, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, 1917-1957 (1961), and Tsi-an Hsia, The Gate of Darkness: Studies on the Leftist Literary Movement in China (1968).

Additional Sources

Lyell, William A., Lu Hsün's vision of reality, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Wang, Shih-ching, Lu Hsün, a biography, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press: Distributed by China International Book Trading Corp., 1984. □