LU XUN, A.K.A. LU HSUN, PEN NAME OF ZHOU SHUREN (1881—1936) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

LU XUN, A.K.A. LU HSUN, PEN NAME OF ZHOU SHUREN (1881—1936). Fiction writer, essayist, and poet. A leader in the May Fourth New Culture Movement and father of modern Chinese fiction, Lu Xun remains a cultural icon in China. Three of his formal residences have been turned into museums and his books incorporated into textbooks, read and memorized by millions of children in Chinese schools. In life and after death, he has had a sizable following, both in the official and academic circles. Born into a scholar-official family in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, Lu Xun received a traditional education in the Confucian classics. As a child, he witnessed the decline of his family, which might have contributed to his decision to enroll in the Jiangnan Naval Academy in Nanjing, a school that offered generous scholarships. As he was fully immersed in a curriculum that emphasized science and technology, Lu Xun became fascinated by Theodore Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics, translated into Chinese by Yan Fu. Upon graduation, Lu Xun received a government scholarship to study medicine in Japan. He frequented the anti-Qing gatherings organized by Chinese revolutionaries in Tokyo and became increasingly aware of the inadequacies of Chinese political and cultural systems. Soon convinced that medical science was not what the people of a weak and backward nation needed, he gave up his medical training and began using his pen, instead of the scalpel, to try to cure the nation of its spiritual diseases. Through publishing translations of European and Russian works by such well-known figures as Friedrich Nietzsche, Lord Byron, Percy B. Shelley, and Alexander Pushkin, Lu Xun and his comrades attempted to raise the spirit of the Chinese people and to encourage them to throw off the social and cultural shackles that inhibited their minds and souls. Literature became an expedient tool with which Lu Xun dissected his nation’s problems.

When Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu, and others used the magazine Xin qingnian (New Youth) as their platform to wage a literary revolution, Lu Xun submitted “Kuangren riji” (Diary of a Madman) to be published in its May 1918 issue and later became one of the editors of Xin qingnian. “Kuangren riji” was written in the vernacular, the language advocated by the New Culture and New Literature proponents. As the first short story written in the modern style in Chinese fiction, its publication was a milestone. Lu Xun’s genius in this work lies in his ability to convey an iconoclastic vision in a style that combines realism and symbolism, mixed with a pastiche of psychological theory and medical knowledge, maintaining throughout the narrative a cool distance of irony. The story contains a highly provocative message that denounces the long history of Chinese civilization as one that has been engaged in “eating people,” pronounced by a man who ostensibly suffers from a persecution complex. Further complicating the narrative is the preface, written in classical Chinese, claiming that the diseased man has fully recovered and is awaiting a new assignment by the government. With its narrative complexity and rich symbolism, “Kuangren riji” took a solid first step in the development of modern Chinese fiction. This and other short stories, including “Kong Yiji” (The Scholar), “Guxiang” (Hometown), and “Yao” (Medicine), later collected in Nahan (Call to Arms), put Lu Xun in the forefront of an iconoclastic movement whose main target of criticism was Confucianism and its impact on the national character of the Chinese. These stories established Lu Xun as an innovative writer and a great thinker who understood what afflicted the Chinese culture and people, earning him the accolade “the soul of the nation.”

Between 1924 and 1925, Lu Xun finished 11 short stories, collected and published in 1926 under the title Panghuang (Wandering). Most of the stories in this collection are about Chinese intellectuals and their sufferings, struggles, and failures. Juansheng and Zijun, the two young lovers in “Shangshi” (Regrets for the Past), best embody the hopes and disappointments of this class of people. They defy their families in pursuit of emancipation and individual freedom, but their marriage comes apart eventually, unable to survive the poverty that dogs them and the hopelessness pervasive in society. In the end, Zijun returns to her father’s house and soon dies in sadness and depression. Juansheng falls into deep remorse and grief. Their tragedy comes to represent the failure of individuality and reform embraced by the May Fourth generation of intellectuals.

In these two collections, Nahan and Panghuang, Lu Xun reveals to his readers a civilization in crisis. Its intellectual elites are impotent and its masses ignorant. Superstition, blind loyalty to tradition, inertia, cruelty to one another, easy resignation to fate, total lack of individuality, and a host of other problems force China to its knees, reducing it to a weakened and anemic nation, sick to its core. The memorable characters Lu Xun created, including the fervent revolutionaries such as the madman and the young man of the Xia family, the troubled intellectuals such as the narrators in “Guxiang” and “Zhufu,” the humiliated, old-fashioned scholar Kong Yiji, the miserable Xianglin Sao, and most important, the quintessential representative of the Chinese peasants, Ah Q, drive home the idea that the Chinese culture needs to be overhauled and replaced with something completely different. For his consistent effort at disseminating this message, Lu Xun has been called the “flag bearer of the New Culture Movement.” In addition to short stories, Lu Xun wrote a large number of essays in which he debated with conservatives and lashed out at foes, earning him the reputation of a sharp-tongued polemicist. The style of his essays is impeccable and the tone biting and satirical. Compared to his fictional works, his essays are greater in number and cover a much wider range of subjects.

Lu Xun’s legacy rests not only on his writings—three collections of fiction and 14 collections of essays, as well as poems, translations, and scholarly work—but also on his mentoring of young writers. He left a literary heritage that still exerts a powerful influence on Chinese writers today. He has come to embody the intellectual conscience of 20th-century China. However, being a fiercely independent man, proud and unforgiving, Lu Xun also had many detractors. His involvement with the left-wing literary circle endeared him to the Communists but antagonized the Nationalists. For many years, his books were banned in Taiwan. His critics find him confrontational and his body of literary output thin. Yet, even those who intensely dislike him cannot deny his significant influence on modern Chinese literature. See also ZHOU ZUOREN.