Lu Xun (or Lu Hsun, pronounced "Lu Shun"; 1881-1936) has
been considered China's greatest modern writer for most of the 20th century.
Many of the other authors of fictional works of social criticism popular
during the 1920s and 1930s have been at least partially discredited or
criticized during the various political movements in China since 1949,
but Lu Xun's reputation has remained consistently distinguished. Mao
Zedong (1893-1976) called him "commander of China's cultural
Perhaps it was because Lu Xun died relatively early in the Communist
movement that he has not been criticized for making the kinds of political "errors" for
which his colleagues have suffered. But the sophisticated complexity
of his writing style, which lends itself to various interpretations,
is also an important factor in his achievement of a position of preeminence.
Though he was an influential essayist, Lu Xun is best known for his short
stories. Chinese writers of the 1920s and 1930s were deeply distressed
by the social and political disasters they saw all around them. Some
put all their faith in an ideological movement and wrote propaganda pieces
advocating revolution. The most doctrinaire of these works of "revolutionary
literature" are hardly literary: They are more concerned with presenting
political solutions than with lifelike characters, realistic situations,
or deeper insight into human nature. Other writers felt less certain
of what solution to propose and used their fiction instead to vividly
and sensitively describe the current plight of the Chinese, with the
implied intention of stimulating readers to realize the necessity of
acting to eliminate such human degradation and corruption.
But Lu Xun chose neither of these options. In the early 1920s, he did
not feel absolute optimism that radical social change would occur in
China, and he did not project idealized revolutionary heroes or situations
in his fiction. Yet on the other hand, he also did not simply offer sensitive
descriptions of the sufferings of the Chinese people. Instead, through
vivid analogies and exaggerated characters, Lu Xun presented his personal
vision of Chinese society. The intensity and darkness of this vision
makes reading a Lu Xun story a moving and disturbing experience.
About the Author
Lu Xun is the pen name of the writer born as Zhou Shuren (Chou Shu-jen)
in 1881 to a family with a strong Confucian background. His grandfather
served as a high official in Peking (Beijing), and his father was also
a scholar. But Lu Xun's childhood was filled with hardship. Not only
did he endure the Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Rebellion ,
but his father suffered from chronic illness, and the family was so poor
they had to pawn their belongings to buy his medicine. Moreover, when
Lu Xun was thirteen, his grandfather in Peking was accused of complicity
in a bribery case and was detained in custody for seven years; every
fall during this period the family had to send money to the Ministry
of Punishment to insure that the grandfather would not be sentenced to
death. This overt corruption certainly influenced Lu Xun's contempt for
the traditional system of government.
In 1904, he went to Sendai, in Japan, to study medicine, but he soon
realized that China needed "spiritual medicine" even more than
treatment for physical ills. Lu Xun returned to Tokyo in 1906, and decided
to devote himself to education and literature rather than medicine, thus
expressing his lifelong dedication to teaching and encouraging young
people as the major hope for China's future.
Lu Xun's last story, "Divorce," was published in 1925. The
following year Lu Xun protested the killing of students in a demonstration,
and he had to flee. He went to Amoy (Xiamen), then Canton (Guangzhou),
then Shanghai, and continued to aid leftist students . From this time
until his death in 1936, Lu Xun supported political change through overt
action and "pen
warfare": He was a prolific writer of short, biting essays attacking
social injustice and political corruption. He avidly encouraged young
writers, translators, and artists, and was a particularly enthusiastic
supporter of woodblock prints which depicted the intense sufferings of
the Chinese people to show the desperate need for a revolution.
 The Boxer Rebellion was an uprising of Chinese people
against the existence of foreigners in China. They wanted to make all
foreigners leave China
 Leftist students were those who rebelled
against the political system and sought social and political change.
Acknowledgment: The consultant for this unit
was Dr. Marsha Wagner, Columbia University.