The eldest of three surviving children, all boys (a sister died in infancy and a brother around age two), Zhou was born into a gentry family on 25 September 1881 in the town of Shaoxing (known in ancient times as Kuaiji in the former kingdom of Yue) on China's southeastern seaboard; today it is in the province of Zhejiang. His name at birth was Zhou Zhangshou; he was also known as Zhou Yucai. Under the pen name Zhou Zuoren the middle brother, Zhou Kuishan, also achieved prominence as a writer. The Zhou clan were absentee landlords, and Zhou Zhangshou's grandfather had risen to the upper echelons of the imperial civil service through the examination system. His mother was literate and eventually unbound her feet in response to an anti-foot-binding campaign. With her independent spirit she obviously made a stronger impression on Zhou than did his alcoholic, opium-smoking father, Zhou Boyi, for he adopted her surname, Lu, as part of his best-known pen name.
From the age of six Zhou was tutored in the Confucian classics--first at home by an uncle, then in a clan-run, one-room schoolhouse. There his teacher encouraged his extracurricular reading in texts such as an illustrated edition of the Shanhaijing (Classic of Mountains and Oceans), an ancient book about fantastic creatures and imaginary foreign countries; it became his favorite book as a child. These works, along with ghost stories; tales of the Taiping Rebellion of 1851 to 1864, which had a major impact on Shaoxing; and regional opera and local legends nurtured his interest in literature. In an unfinished biography Tang Tao stresses the importance of his growing up in the Shaoxing region for the formation of his unique personality and interests.
In 1893 Zhou's grandfather Zhou Fuqing was denounced by a personal enemy and arrested for abetting cheating on the imperial civil-service examinations. Although the offense was relatively common in those days, the law called for harsh punishment. Zhou Fuqing was initially sentenced to death, and because of fear of further reprisals against his family, Zhou Zhangshou and Zhou Kuishan were sent into hiding at the homes of maternal relatives in the countryside; the third brother, Zhou Jianren, was too young to be sent away. The experience became a traumatic memory for him: "I was sometimes even called a beggar," he recounts in "Lu Xun zizhuan" (Lu Xun's Autobiography), written in 1930 and published in volume eight of Lu Xun quanji (1981, The Complete Works of Lu Xun). In the preface to the short-story collection Nahan (1923, Outcry; translated as Call to Arms, 1981) he writes that "those who come down in the world will probably learn in the process what society is really like."
Returning home six months later, after the danger had passed, Zhou watched as the family's resources were drained in appeals for clemency for his grandfather. The death sentence was eventually commuted, but the grandfather was imprisoned for almost seven years. Meanwhile, Zhou's father became ill. As the eldest son, Zhou was sent to a pawnshop with family heirlooms that he offered to a broker who handed the money down contemptuously. He then proceeded to an herbalist to procure the exotic medicines that had been prescribed for his father by a traditional physician of high repute in the locale. By the time his father died in 1896, these experiences had turned Zhou against traditional Chinese medicine for the rest of his life.
Because of the family's economic straits, in the spring of 1898 Zhou was withdrawn from the traditional studies that prepared young men for the old civil-service examinations and sent to the government-funded Jiangnan shuishi xuetang (Jiangnan Naval Academy) in Nanjing, where he could study on a scholarship. At this time he took the name Zhou Shuren. Within a year he transferred to the Kuangwu tielu xuetang (School of Mines and Railroads), run by the Jiangnan lushi xuetang (Jiangnan Army Academy). There he was impressed by the notion that Western science had served to prompt the enthusiasm for the reforms of the Meiji era (1867 to 1912) in Japan. He also gained a critical exposure to the nineteenth-century European doctrine of "social Darwinism" through Yan Fu's 1896 translation--more precisely, adaptation--of T. H. Huxley 's Evolution and Ethics (1893). Reading about the "survival of the fittest" in the wake of China's defeat by Japan in 1895 and by the army of the Eight Allied Nations that suppressed the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 contributed to his vision of China as a weak nation pressed upon by dynamic competitors while being ruled by an effete dynasty bent on preserving its own privileges.
Zhou graduated from the School of Mines and Railroads in January 1902. The following month he received a scholarship, administered through the office of the Qing Dynasty viceroy for the Jiangnan region, to study in Japan. For the first two years he studied Japanese at the Kōbun Institute in Tokyo. His fellow provincial Xu Shoushang, who attended the school in 1902 and remained a friend for the rest of his life, recalled that Zhou's desk was covered with books, including the poetry of Qu Yuan; a work on George Gordon, Lord Byron ; a biography of Friedrich Nietzsche (probably by Tobari Chikufû); and works on Greek and Roman mythology. From this testimony it seems that Zhou's attraction to the writers he later called the "Mµra poets" was already forming. Mµra was Zhou's more neutral, Sanskrit-based translation of "satanic," the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey 's pejorative epithet for Byron and his school of poetry. Aside from Byron, whom Zhou placed at the head of his list, the group included Byron's friend and fellow Englishman Percy Bysshe Shelley , the Russians Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov , the Poles Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki, and the Hungarian Sándor Pettöfi, who wrote revolutionary verse around 1848. What Zhou appreciated most about this group of romantic poets, as he expresses it in his nine-part 1908 treatise "Moluo shi li shuo" (translated as "On the Power of Mµra Poetry," 1996)--published in Henan, a Japanese journal published by Chinese students and collected in his Fen (1927, The Grave)--was their passionate commitment to justice for the "captive nations," the oppressed peoples of Greece, Eastern Europe, and the Baltic held down by the Ottoman Turks, Tsarist Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He drew a connection between the fates of these countries and the condition of China under the rule of the alien Manchu Qing Dynasty; the legacy of Mongol, Manchu, Western, and Japanese invasion; and the shame of subjugation. He suggests that China needs to produce figures like Byron--"jingshenjie zhi zhanshi" (warriors in the spiritual realm)--with the courage to awaken the nation to its plight and shake its people out of their lethargy and self-deception. In mid 1903 he published in two issues of Zhejiang chao (Zhejiang Tide), a monthly magazine edited by Chinese students in Japan, the article "Sibada zhi hun" (The Soul of Sparta), in which he calls on the youth of China to learn from the self-sacrificing spirit of the ancient Spartan resistance against the invading Persians at Thermopylae; it is included in his Jiwai ji (1935, Collection of the Uncollected). But he remained disposed toward writing and study rather than direct engagement with political causes.
Reformers such as Yan Fu and Liang Qichao had written about the potential for popularizing new knowledge through fiction, and in 1903 Zhou began a project aimed at the popularization of science. He first made abridged translations of two Jules Verne novels (1903, 1906) in the hope that reading science fiction would inspire an enthusiasm for scientific invention among Chinese youth. Also, thinking back on his father's illness and death, he decided that he could persuade people in China of the validity of reform by curing their illnesses with Western medicine. Thus, in the autumn of 1904 he entered Sendai Provincial Medical Academy in northern Honshû. But his dream was shattered in his second year of medical studies. In biology classes lantern slides were used to show magnified photographs of microbes; if time remained at the end of the period, the instructor might show slides of news events. The 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War was then being fought in Manchuria (known in Chinese as Dongbei [the Northeast]); Lu Xun writes in the preface to Nahan that one day the students were shown a slide of a Chinese man about to be beheaded by the Japanese for spying for the Russians. He was dismayed at the crowd of Chinese onlookers, "those people milling around who had just come to enjoy the spectacle of seeing someone's head lopped off":
I dropped out of school before the semester was over and went back to Tokyo, because this one slide had convinced me that the study of medicine was no longer important. For it matters little how physically strong the bodies of a citizenry racked by its own ignorance may be. As they are in their present state, they are good for nothing more than to serve as victims or provide the audiences at such spectacles. So it is not necessarily lamentable even if large numbers of them perish from illness. The most important task that lay ahead, then, was to change them in spirit; and since I thought that literature might serve this purpose, I decided to promote a literary movement.
In June 1906 Zhou made a brief trip back to China in response to a letter from his mother, who had feigned illness to get him to return for an arranged marriage to Zhu An, the daughter of a local gentry family. Unhappy but feeling unable to refuse, he went through with the ceremony. A few days later, he returned to Japan, taking his brother Kuishan with him but leaving his bride behind.
In the summer of 1908 the Zhou brothers attended lectures by the exiled scholar and former newspaper editor Zhang Taiyan (pseudonym of Zhang Binglin) on the ancient etymological dictionary Shuowen jiezi. Zhang, who had served time in prison for publishing Zou Rong's subversive Geming jun (1903; translated as The Revolutionary Army, 1968), peppered his lectures with anti-Manchu remarks, deriding the ruling house as descendants of primitive tribesmen from the periphery of the civilized world who had usurped the Chinese throne and whose cruelty, ineptitude, and misrule had brought the nation to the verge of collapse in the face of pressure from the imperialist powers of the West and Japan. But Zhang's racial orientation held little appeal for Zhou, who was more interested in developing a critique of what had gone wrong with China internally. Zhang's influence can be most directly seen in the laconic style of prose that Zhou had begun developing from reading Zhang's works.
The major essays of Zhou's early period were published in 1908 in Henan. In "Wenhua pianzhi lun" (translated as "On Imbalanced Cultural Development," 2005) he analyzes the rise and problems of the West, drawing conclusions relevant to China's modernization process. "Moluo shi li shuo" deals with the role literature can play in a nation's cultural, political, and social transformation and may be viewed as a literary manifesto written at the outset of his career. In "Po e'sheng lun" (translated as "Toward a Refutation of the Voices of Evil," 1986) he criticizes China's gentry for blaming the country's backwardness on the "ignorance and superstition" of the peasants, rather than admitting their own responsibility. He also critiques social Darwinism as a pseudoscientific theory used by the industrialized nations to justify their subjugation of weaker countries. Henan was banned by the Japanese government at the request of the Qing authorities before Zhou could publish a sequel to "Moluo shi li shuo."
In 1909 the Zhou brothers published their first short-story translations in two volumes under the title Yuwai xiaoshuo (Tales from Abroad); the works are rendered in an erudite style of Classical Chinese. The work presents an informed selection of stories by Oscar Wilde from England; Edgar Allan Poe from the United States; Guy de Maupassant and Marcel Schwob from France; Hans Christian Andersen from Denmark; Sergei Stepniak (pseudonym of Sergei Kravchinski), Vsevolod Garshin , Anton Chekhov , Fyodor Sologub, and Leonid Andreev from Russia; Henryk Sienkiewicz from Poland; Milena Mrazovic from Bosnia; Argyris Ephtaliotis from Greece; and Juhani Aho from Finland. Zhou Shuren conceived of the collection and chose the stories but translated only two by Andreev and one by Garshin; the rest were translated by Zhou Zuoren, then edited for style by Zhou Shuren.
During this period Zhou Shuren was most influenced by Sienkiewicz and Nikolai Gogol . From Sienkiewicz and Gogol, according to Zhou Zuoren's "Guanyu Xu Xun zhi er" (1937, On Lu Xun II), he learned the technique of maintaining a distance in the treatment of cruelty and oppression. He was also impressed by Andreev, Garshin, and the Japanese authors Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ogai. From Natsume, Zuoren observed in 1936 in "Guanyu Lu Xun zhi er" Zhou Shuren obtained a model for "the poignant wit and subtle beauty" of his satire.
Although Zhou Shuren had placed high hopes on these translations to inspire his compatriots, the sales figures in Tokyo were only twenty copies for volume one and no more than that for volume two. The book fared no better in Shanghai. Zhou later noted that the foreign fiction for which Chinese readers had acquired a taste mostly comprised the works of H. Rider Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle , which turned on suspense, adventure, and sensation. Part of the problem, however, was that the abstruse language used by the Zhou brothers under the influence of Zhang Taiyan's archaistic style proved a challenge even to highly educated readers; another part lay in their penchant for literalness, which made their translations somewhat choppy; and yet another part was their lack of a distributor in China, where the books were sold through a silk-goods shop.
Because he believed that China had much to learn from abroad, Lu Xun's translations over a period of four decades were vast and wide-ranging; in terms of volume they dwarfed his creative output. He worked mostly from Japanese but also from German versions, producing ten substantial volumes of translations of Eastern European, Russian, Japanese, and Western European texts. In addition to Verne's science fiction, they include Vasilii Eroshenko's tales for children (1922); Kuriyagawa Hakuson's Kumon no shôchô (1924, Symbols of Anxiety), a Freudian-influenced work on the psychological aspects of literary creation; the critical works of Anatoly Lunacharsky (1929), Georgii Plekhanov, and Katakami Shin (1929); Maksim Gor'ky's Russian fables (1935); Gogol's Pokhozhdeniia Chichikova, ili Mertvye dushi (1842, The Adventures of Chichikov, or Dead Souls ); and Chekhov's stories (1936).
In 1909 Zhou Shuren returned to China and took a job teaching science at the Zhejiang liangji shifan xuetang (Zhejiang Normal School) in Hangzhou, partly to finance Zuoren's university studies in literature. Zuoren had married Nobuko, their Japanese former servant, and had decided to remain in Japan.
When the 1911 revolution began, Zhou was teaching in a middle school in Shaoxing. He was among the first to realize that though the Qing Dynasty had been overthrown, little else had changed. In fact, the nightmare scenario he had foreseen in his essay "Wenhua pianzhi lun" seemed to be materializing in the form of a republic. Warlords, old-style gentry, and opportunists of every sort took over the government at the national and local levels, and the weak, far from being liberated, became victims. He addresses the failure of the revolution in several of his short stories and particularly with the black humor of his novella "A Q zheng zhuan" (1923, The True Biography of A Q; translated as "Our Story of Ah Q," 1941).
Zhou's classmate from Japan, Xu Shoushang, obtained a position for Zhou at the new Ministry of Education through Cai Yuanpei, who was also a native of Shaoxing. The ministry was initially located in Nanjing but moved to Beijing in 1912. The move came at a particularly fortunate juncture for Zhou, because tension had arisen between him and Wang Jinfa, a petty warlord who had taken power in Shaoxing. Zhou left his wife behind and lived at the Shaoxing huiguan (Hostel), where many of his fellow townsmen boarded and congregated when in Beijing. In response to a program initiated by Cai, he wrote an article on the necessity of promoting aesthetic education, "Ni bobu meishu yijian shu" (1913, A Proposal for the Dissemination of the Arts), and lectured on aesthetics. The liberal Cai was forced to resign from the ministry under pressure from Yuan Shikai, the dictatorial president and former Qing general who had betrayed the dynasty (and later betrayed the republic by attempting to proclaim himself emperor). As the political situation grew increasingly discouraging, Zhou retreated into the study of antiquity. He researched Buddhist writings, copied ancient bronze and stone inscriptions, and collated historical materials about his native region.
Yuan Shikai's death marked the beginning of the Warlord Era of 1916 to 1927, a period of political chaos in which military men seized territory and fought for control of Beijing and national power. In 1919 the warlord government in Beijing agreed to terms dictated by Japan at the Versailles peace conference after World War I, and protests by college students in Beijing spread nationwide. The date of the Beijing demonstration, 4 May 1919, was adopted to name the broad cultural and political reform movement of the 1910s and 1920s. Two years before 1919, the "May Fourth Era" in literature began with demands for "literary reform" and "literary revolution" by Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu, both of whom gave early encouragement to Zhou's literary career. Hu and Chen argued that Chinese literature should abandon Classical Chinese and ancient models in favor of vernacular language and innovation. Chiefly at the urging of Chen and of Qian Xuantong, a former classmate from the course taught by Zhang Taiyan, Zhou began in April 1918 to contribute stories to Xin qingnian (New Youth), a liberal magazine with a nationwide circulation; it was a principal mouthpiece of the New Culture Movement, which was closely allied with the May Fourth Movement. He first used the pen name Lu Xun for the story "Kuangren riji" (translated as "A Madman's Diary," 1981) in the May 1918 issue of Xin gingnian.
The readers of Xin qingnian were mostly young intellectuals eager to resolve the contradiction between the dictates of tradition and the imperative to change. Lu Xun had grappled with this problem for years, and this experience, more than anything else, gave him the ability to strike a responsive chord with his readers. In a short time he became nationally famous. Aside from his personal experiences, the material for his stories was drawn, he explains in "Wo zenme zuoqi xiaoshuo lai" (translated as "How I Came to Write Stories," 1959), first published in his Chuangzuo de jingyan (1933, The Experience of Creation), "from the plight of unfortunates in a sick society. It was my intention to expose this sickness and suffering so as to draw attention to it, in the hope that a cure might thereby be sought." His goal was not to castigate tradition but to criticize its misappropriation.
From 1918 to 1926 Lu Xun wrote stories in which the Shaoxing of his childhood--variously referred to as "S Cheng" (S-town), "Luzhen" (Luville), and "Weizhuang" (Nowheresville)--is reworked into a fictional microcosm for all of China, and its inhabitants are transformed into representational types. The stories are in many ways thematically related to his essays of this period, examining the cruelty of conventional attitudes and beliefs. V. I. Semanov points to what makes Lu Xun's social critique so thoroughgoing: his stories "not only show disgust for those who prevent 'the little guy' from struggling or even crawling up the social ladder, he brands the slaves themselves for naively believing that they will secure freedom from the hands of their masters."
Lu Xun was a conscious stylist: he went over his stories again and again, working hard on wording and striving to eliminate inconsequential detail. The stories are often stark and have been compared to a traditional woodblock print in which the characters are delineated with a minimum of lines and an economical use of shading. His first story to appear in Xin qingnian, "Kuangren Riji," was collected as the first story in Nahan. Although it borrows elements from Gogol's "Zapiski sumasshedshego" (1835, The Diary of a Madman), it differs significantly from its Russian predecessor both in form and in content. The story established the theme with which Lu Xun became identified by most of his Chinese readers: the denunciation of traditional ethical codes as hypocritical cant formulated by the oppressors to justify an inhumane order that permits the strong to prey on the weak. A scholar treated as a paranoiac by his family and the community notices that the work of Chinese history he is reading "contains no dates or periods, only the words 'benevolence,' 'righteousness,' and 'morality' [ren, yi, and daode] scrawled throughout its pages." Continuing his reading far into the night, he makes out in the spaces between the lines of printed characters that the whole of history "is filled with two words: 'Eat people!'" The reader of the story suspects that the madman sees more clearly than those who try to ignore the brutal aspects of society. Lu Xun later wrote that he had used cannibalism in this story as a metaphor for exploitation and inhumanity. "Kuangren Riji" was structurally innovative, taking the form of a quirky, random diary, and it quickly engendered discussion among Chinese intellectuals concerning the "cannibalistic" nature of their society's traditional social mores and the old family system. Largely owing to its Western-influenced technique, as well as the fact that it was written primarily in the colloquial language, "Kuangren Riji" is considered China's first "modern" short story.
"Kong Yiji" (translated as "Kong Yiji," 1981), written in March 1919, was published in Xin qingnian in April 1919 and is included in Nahan. The title of the story is the rather singular name of the protagonist: yi and ji are the first characters in a child's calligraphy primer, and Kong is the surname of the sage known in English as Confucius; hence, the name means something like "Confucius ABC." A scholar who has failed the official examinations and ekes out a meager living copying books for wealthy families, Kong Yiji is accepted neither by the gentry nor by the peasants, with whom he is forced to stand to drink his wine in the Xianheng (Prosperity for All) Wineshop. The narrator, a boy employed by the shop as a wine warmer, initially joins the crowd in laughing at Kong but gradually develops a guarded sympathy for him. In the end Kong is beaten so severely for stealing the books he was entrusted to copy that he is crippled; he eventually disappears from the town altogether. The narrator is left to wonder if he really is dead, as rumor has it. Lu Xun called this story his favorite, which underscores the value he placed on the qualities of brevity, subtle suggestion, and irony, as well as the importance he gave to its theme of man's inhumanity to man.
"Yao" (translated as "Medicine," 1981), written in April 1919, was published in Xin qingnian in May 1919 and collected in Nahan. "Yao" begins in the late Qing era and involves the beheading of a revolutionist, an intellectual concerned for the welfare of his people. The execution is depicted only indirectly, through the description of the reaction of the crowd as seen from a distance by an old man. The old man then warily approaches the executioner, "whose entire body was [clad in] black," to buy a mantou (steamed bun) dipped in fresh blood--a traditional cure for the tuberculosis from which his young son suffers. After the boy dies, exposing the belief in the cure as a superstition, his mother meets the revolutionist's mother in the graveyard where their sons are buried. Mistaking a Western-style wreath left there in secret, perhaps by his comrades, for a sign from the spirit world, the revolutionist's mother prays to her son to make a crow perched on a branch fly down to his grave as a sign that his death will be avenged. At first nothing happens; but after the mothers decide to leave and walk twenty or thirty paces away together, the silence is pierced by a loud caw from the crow. As they turn to look, startled, it "spread its wings, stood up, then flew off straight as an arrow into the distant sky."
In his History of Modern Chinese Fiction (1971) C. T. Hsia points to this scene as an important turning point for China. Milena Dolezelová-Velingerova concludes her structuralist analysis of the story by speculating that the crow represents "a frightening but cathartic symbol of revolution." One might also interpret its flight away from the grave as a sign that the path ahead will be determined not by the spirit world but by human initiative.
In 1920 Lu Xun was invited to teach Chinese literature at Beijing University. Other institutions in the capital followed suit--most notably, Beijing nüzi gaodeng shifan xuexiao (Beijing Women's Higher Normal School), where he began teaching in October 1923.
"Guxiang" (My Old Hometown; translated as "My Old Home," 1981), written in January 1921, was published in Xin qingnian in May 1921 and collected in Nahan. It was, in part, inspired by Lu Xun's trip south in December 1919 to help his mother sell off the family home and join him in Beijing; his wife also joined him at this time. It is an artistic re-creation of his feelings on his last trip home. The opening paragraph reads:
I braved the bitter cold, to return over two thousand li to the old home I had left over twenty years ago. Though it was late winter, as we gradually neared my hometown, the weather became wet and overcast, and a cold wind blew through the cabin of our boat, howling, while all one could see through the cracks in the boat's covering were a few desolate villages, scattered far and near, under the pallid yellow sky. My heart was unable to hold back the feeling of sadness that came over it.
Attempting to reconnect with the poverty-stricken Runtu, a childhood friend who can now only meekly address him as "Lao Ye!" (Master!), the narrator learns that there is no going back. But his nephew, Hong'er, makes friends with Runtu's youngest son, Shuisheng, causing the narrator to muse:
although there is such a barrier between Runtu and myself, our children still have much in common, for wasn't Hong'er thinking of Shuisheng just now? I hope they will not be like us, that they will not allow a barrier to grow up between them. But again I would not like them, because they want to be one, to have a treadmill existence like mine, nor to suffer like Runtu until they become stupefied, nor yet, like others, to devote all their energies to dissipation. They should have a new life, a life we never experienced. . . .
As I dozed, a stretch of jade-green seashore spread itself before my eyes, and above a round golden moon hung from a deep blue sky. I thought: hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.
The Communists shortened the last sentence to an axiom that they then ascribed to Lu Xun: "Lu shi ren zou chulai de!" (A road is formed by people walking it!).
The best known of Lu Xun's fictional creations is the nine-part novella "A Q zheng zhuan," serialized in the weekly literary supplement of the Beijing newspaper Chen bao (Morning Post) in 1921 under the pseudonym Ba Ren (A Simple Man) and collected in Nahan. It is a tragicomic tale of a homeless coolie whose given name is written with the Latin letter Q, suggesting pictographically (and perhaps also as a pun on the English word queue) the head of a typical Chinese man during the last years of the Qing era with his queue, or pigtail, hanging down. In that sense A Q is "John Chinaman," a representative both of the victimization of his nation and of its own benighted thinking: A Q is victim and oppressor at different points in the story. But in another sense he is a new Everyman, an international symbol of human folly whose penchant for self-delusion is crystallized in his "jingshen shengli fa" (method of attaining psychological victories): whenever he is humiliated by a rival, he quickly turns the experience around in his mind and imagines himself to have come out on top. The novella ends with A Q's ignoble execution, by firing squad instead of beheading, under the newly proclaimed republic. The disappointed crowd of onlookers in Weizhuang conclude that they have followed the cart to his execution for nothing.
"A Q zheng zhuan" is often read as a national allegory, but when it was published, several individuals thought themselves to be the butt of the satire; some wrote letters to the newspaper in protest. Lu Xun was clearly influenced by the "national character" discourse in vogue when he studied in Japan at the turn of the century, as discussed by Lydia He Liu, and also by Eastern European models, such as Sienkiewicz's "Bartek Zwyciezca" (1882, Bartek the Victor), as Patrick D. Hanan explains; but A Q is Lu Xun's own unforgettable creation. The novella was made into a motion picture in 1981 with a screenplay by the playwright Chen Baichen that preserves much of the humor of the original.
In July 1923 Lu Xun and Shou Zuoren, once his closest companion, had a permanent falling-out. Although a charge of sexual harassment against Lu Xun brought by Zuoren's wife, Nobuko, precipitated the break, both Bonnie S. McDougall and Zhou Haiying, Lu Xun's son, argue that there is no real evidence for such an incident having occurred. Perhaps Zuoren simply used the accusation as a excuse to throw off his older brother's smothering influence; as David E. Pollard observes, Zuoren was an academician in his own right and wanted to develop as a writer in different directions from Lu Xun.
In 1923-1924 Lu Xun published Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilüe (translated as A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, 1959); the pioneering work of its type, it remains largely unsurpassed today. In 1924 he and Lin Yutang founded the literary journal Yusi (Threads of Talk).
In "Zhufu" (Benediction; translated as "The New-Year Sacrifice," 1981), written in 1924 and included in Lu Xun's second story collection, Panghuang (1926, Hesitation; translated as Wandering, 1981), the narrator is an intellectual who has come home for a visit after a long absence studying abroad and working in the capital. He is profoundly disturbed by his encounters with his conservative uncle and the unfolding story of one of the uncle's servants, Xianglin Sao (Sister-in-Law Auspicious Grove). The peasant woman is a widow whose son by her second husband was carried off by a wolf. As Xianglin Sao repeats her tragic tale over and over, the villagers tire of hearing it and begin to mock her; the uncle wants to rid himself of her because, as a widow, she is inauspicious. She presses the narrator with the question, "When people die, do their souls live on?" Not knowing the context of her question and hoping to comfort her, he suggests that there may, indeed, be life after death. The answer only increases her anxiety: Liu Ma, a rival servant in the household, has told her that because she was married twice, she will be sawed in two by King Yama of the Netherworld so that she can be divided between her two husbands in the hereafter. Cast out of the uncle's home, she wanders the streets. The story ends with a passage describing the narrator's reaction to the Lunar New Year celebration immediately after her death: "the doubt which had preyed on my mind from dawn till night was swept clean away by the festive atmosphere, and I felt only that the saints of heaven and earth had accepted the sacrifice and incense and were reeling with intoxication in the sky, preparing to give Luzhen's people boundless good fortune." If this ending is read ironically, the "benediction" of the title becomes a curse: the weak are trampled by the powerful, and heaven is indifferent.
Much of "Zhufu" has to do with the narrator's inability to communicate meaningfully with the townspeople; thus, it encapsulates the tragedy not only of Xianglin Sao but also of China's modern intelligentsia and their inability to change, or even influence, conditions in the country. This aspect of the story is lost in the 1956 movie adaptation; the screenplay by Xia Yan eliminates the narrator's character, concentrating on Xianglin Sao's tragedy and emphasizing an antisuperstition theme. The movie also creates positive characters among the workers and peasants; such characters are largely absent from the original story.
Lu Xun's only story set in Beijing, "Feizao" (translated as "Soap," 1981), was serialized in the 27 and 28 March 1924 issues of the supplement to the Beijing newspaper Cherbao (Morning News) and collected in Panghuang. It satirizes hypocrisy and sexist attitudes among conservative urbanites. Mr. Siming--his name means "Four Stone Tablets," signifying a moral exemplar--is an absentee landlord who spends his days bullying his wife and browbeating his son, whom he suspects of harboring liberal sympathies. One day he sees a young woman begging in the street, accompanied by an old lady. Moved by his mistaken idea that the young woman gives the money to the older one--her grandmother, Mr. Siming assumes--he and his associates in the Moral Rearmament League place an advertisement in a newspaper for a contest calling for the best essay in praise of filial piety. The uncontrollable laughter of a middle-aged friend at a reported remark about how much a good scrubbing with a cake of soap would do for the girl's sex appeal throws Siming's household into an uproar.
In "Zai jiulou shang" (In the Wineshop; translated as "In the Tavern," 1981), written in 1924, published that same year in Xiaoshuo yuebao (Short Story Monthly), and collected in Panghuang, the narrator returns to his hometown and goes to a wineshop; there he encounters an old friend from school, Lü Weifu. The character for Lü, two pictograms meaning "mouth" joined together, hints that he is an alter ego of the narrator. Lü has come back to town at the urging of his mother to move the grave of his younger brother, which is being threatened by a rising river. He hires a team of men to dig up the grave and discovers that nothing remains of his brother. Yü-sheng Lin is among the commentators who have speculated that the absence of any trace of the body, even hair, suggests allegorically that the substance of tradition is gone. Lü is also searching for a pure-hearted peasant girl from his past, Ah Shun, to whom he wants to give some velvet flowers. When he learns that she has died, he tries to leave the flowers for her younger sister, a superficial girl who rebuffs the stranger. Lü has compromised his ideals to make a living: his goal was to teach mathematics and modern subjects to the nation's youth, but he teaches the Confucian classics and the Nüer jing (Canon for Girls), because his students' parents do not want the subjects he learned abroad taught to their children. He concludes, "Just think: is there even one thing that turned out as we hoped of all we planned in those days?" At the end the narrator pays the bill and walks off in an opposite direction from Lü, refreshed by the cold wind and the snow beating against his face. One reading of this ending is that the narrator intends to struggle on, despite the disillusionment of his interlocutor.
"Guduzhe" (The Loner; translated as "The Misanthrope," 1981) was written in 1925 and first published in Panghuang. Wei Lianshi, who majored in zoology abroad, ends up teaching history in a middle school in S-town. A bachelor, he spends his evenings at home talking with a group of intellectuals. The narrator says:
I wanted very much to ask why he had remained single for so long, but I did not know him well enough. Once you got to know him, he was a good talker and full of ideas, many of them quite remarkable. But what exasperated me were some of his guests. As a result, probably, of reading [Yu Dafu's story] "Sinking," they went around referring to themselves as "young unfortunates" or "superfluous men"; and, sprawling on the big chairs like lazy and arrogant crabs, they would sigh, smoke, and frown all at the same time.
An overly sensitive idealist, Wei offends people and loses his job. He appeals to the narrator, who has gone back to Beijing and is powerless to help. Eventually, Wei becomes a private secretary to a warlord, whereupon he gains tremendous prestige in the community that once spurned him; the warlord-controlled press celebrates him in its society pages. Wei dies; when the narrator returns for the funeral, he is surprised to see Wei dressed in a uniform: "khaki military trousers with broad red stripes, and a tunic with glittering epaulettes. . . . In his awkward costume he lay placidly, with closed mouth and eyes. There seemed to be an ironical smile on his lips, mocking the ridiculous corpse." Wei's transformation from wen (literary) to wu (military) symbolizes the compromises made by a would-be reformer.
Female protagonists are featured in "Shangshi" (translated as "Regret for the Past," 1981) and "Lihun" (translated as "The Divorce," 1981). In "Shangshi," written in 1925 and first published in Panghuang, the young couple Juansheng and Zijun thwart convention in the early years of the republic by living together, but they are ground down by economic pressures after Juansheng loses his job because of the scandal their cohabitation creates. Zijun, the stronger of the two, urges him to work as a self-employed literary translator; but he loses heart and sends her home, where she is received with scorn. After she dies, Juansheng regrets having given up. He visits their old home on Jizhao hutong (Lucky Lane) and is startled by the unexpected return of their abandoned and half-starved dog. His closing reflection is an ironic play on Xianglin Sao's question to the narrator of "Zhufu" about life after death:
If only there really were ghosts, really were a hell! Then, no matter how the infernal wind roared, I would seek out Zijun and tell her to her face of my remorse and grief, to beg her for forgiveness. Failing this, the poisonous flames of hell would simply engulf me and fiercely consume all my remorse and grief.
In the whirlwind and flames I would put my arms round Zijun and ask her pardon, or let her take her revenge. . . .
In "Lihun," also published in 1925 in Yusi and included in Panghuang, the assertive Ai Gu (Loving Girl) is denied justice in her divorce "hearing" by the town patriarchs. The gentry adjudicators, headed by a man referred to as "Seventh Master," pretend to consult a person with a "Western education" to justify their decision, while Seventh Master, a self-styled antiquarian, rubs his nose with a jade anus-stopper recently excavated from a Han-era tomb.
Lu Xun's position on women in Chinese society is even clearer in his essays than in his stories. He stresses the importance of economic and legal rights for women in "Nuola zou hou zenyang" (translated as "What Happens after Nora Leaves Home?" 1957), a lecture he delivered at the Beijing Women's Higher Normal School on 26 December 1923 and collected in Fen, and he attacks the hypocritical attitudes toward women in both traditional and contemporary society in "Wo zhi jielie guan," published in Xin gingnian (New Youth) in 1918 (translated as "My Views on Chastity," 1957) and "Lun Qin Lizhai furen zhuan" (translated as "The Case of Mrs. Qin Lizhai," 1961), included in Fen and Huabian wenxue (1936, Fringed Literature), respectively. These essays are but three of many examples.
In a 1925 political dispute Lu Xun sided with student activists against Yang Yinyu, the conservative American-educated woman chancellor of Beijing Women's Higher Normal School, which resulted in his being fired by the Ministry of Education. He was reinstated after a lawsuit, but the controversy continued in his bizhan (pen war) against Chen Yuan (Chen Xiying), a British-educated professor and prominent literary critic who supported Yang, and others, including Liang Shiqiu, who were associated with the conservative minister of education Zhang Shizhao. The debate spilled over into larger questions of philosophy and the role of the intellectual in society.
Sometime between July and October 1925 Lu Xun entered into a relationship with a former student, Xu Guangping, while remaining married to Zhu An. The product of this intense period is the volume of prose poetry Yecao (1927; translated as Wild Grass , 1974), a somberly lyrical work compared by Jaroslav Prùsek and Leo Ou-fan Lee with Charles Baudelaire 's Les Fleurs du mal (1857; translated as The Flowers of Evil, 1909). The twenty-three pieces in Yecao were written primarily between 1 December 1924 and 19 April 1926 and first published serially in Yusi; prototypes of several pieces, published in Guomin gongbao (National Gazette) in August and September 1919, are gathered as "Ziyan ziyu" (Talking to Myself) in the 1991 edition of Lu Xun quanjii. Lu Xun's "tici" (inscription or foreword) speaks in veiled terms of lives having been "trampled upon and mown down," perhaps during the Nationalist purge of the Communists on 12 April 1927 in Shanghai and on 15 April in Guangzhou, and of a "subterranean fire" that "is spreading, raging, underground," perhaps referring to the forces of the revolution, which had been driven underground. The foreword was banned by Nationalist censors in 1931 and not restored to the collection until the compendium Lu Xun sanshi nian ji (Lu Xun's Works over Thirty Years) came out in Shanghai in 1941 during the Gudao shiqi (Orphan Island period), when the International Settlement and French concession remained under the control of European powers and were encircled by the invading Japanese army.
The pieces in this short collection are often called "prose poems"; but perhaps it is more accurate to think of them as "poetic prose," because only one--a spoof--is in verse form, and several resemble short stories and autobiographical fiction. Since the 1920s they have been singled out by Chinese critics for the highest praise accorded to any examples of the new baihua wen (writings in vernacular Chinese) since the literary revolution began around 1917. The critic Tsi-an Hsia writes of "the strange beauty of 'frozen flames,'" an image in Yecao, and expresses the opinion that Lu Xun "let pai-hua [baihua] do things that it had never done before--things not even the best classical writers had ever thought of doing in wen-yan [Classical Chinese]." He suggests that the lyrical imagery of Yecao is imbued with "a kind of terror and anxiety, an experience which we might call modern." In Voices from the Iron House: A Study of Lu Xun (1987) Lee comments that the most successful of the pieces present a linguistic texturing that takes on metaphorical layers of meaning and constitute the essential core of Lu Xun's modernist project. Interpretations of the pieces have been many and diverse. Susanne Weigelin-Schwierdrzik and Katrin Sievers propose in their unpublished paper "The Hidden Message of Yecao" (1995) that some of the pieces were written in response to philosophical points in the works of Nietzsche. (Lu Xun had studied Nietzsche during his first years in Japan and had subsequently embarked on a translation of Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen [1883-1885; translated as Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, 1896]. His translation of the prologue into vernacular Chinese was published in Xinchao [New Tide] in September 1920; he had already translated the prologue and the first three sections of the book into Classical Chinese in 1918, but this translation was not published during his lifetime.)
Lu Xun's protégé Feng Xuefeng published a somewhat forced Marxist reading of Yecao titled Lun "Yecao" (On Wild Grass) three years after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, shortly before he was purged as a rightist. In "Yecao" yanjiu (1982, Research on Wild Grass) Sun Yushi cautions that "Yecao, like Lu Xun, is a product of an era and its history" and that only by acquiring a familiarity with the historical background of the works can one understand their meaning. Yecao is a product of the Warlord Era, when Beijing was under the repressive control of "Chief Executive" Duan Qirui; the warlords Zhang Zuolin, Wu Peifu, Cao Kun, and Feng Yuxiang vied for power; and Japan sought to increase its control over Manchuria and the whole of northern China. It was a bleak period in Lu Xun's life, as two of his former students at Beijing Women's Higher Normal School, Liu Hezhen and Yang Dequn, were among the more than forty people gunned down by troops of the Duan Qirui government on 18 March 1926 during a demonstration in front of Government House in Beijing to protest government compliance with Japanese interference in China. In "Yecao Yingwen yiben xu" (Preface to the English Translation Edition of Wild Grass), which is included in his essay collection Er xin ji (1932, Two Hearts), Lu Xun muses:
For the most part these are merely short reflections written on the spur of the moment. Because at that time it was difficult to speak out directly, occasionally their language became quite ambiguous.
To cite a few examples now, I wrote "Wo de shilian" (My Lost Love) as a satire on the fact that poems about lost loves were so prevalent then. Because I was repulsed by the number of people in society who just stood by and watched, I wrote "Fuchou" (Revenge) #1. Out of astonishment at the passivity of our youth, I wrote "Xiwang" (Hope). "Zhe yang de zhanshi" (A Fighter Such as This) was written as a reaction to those men of letters and scholars who abetted the warlords. "La ye" (The Dried Leaf) was written for those who loved me and wanted to preserve me. After the Duan Qirui government fired on unarmed demonstrators, I wrote "Dandan de xue hen zhong" (Amid Pale Bloodstains) while I was living in hiding. When the Fengtian and Zhili warlord cliques were fighting, I wrote "Yi jue" (The Awakening), after which I could no longer live in Beijing.
So it may also be said that these were mostly small pale flowers on the edges of a neglected hell, which of course cannot be beautiful. But this hell was bound to be lost. This became clear to me through the expressions and tones of a handful of eloquent and ruthless "heroes" who had not at that time realized their ambitions. At that point I wrote "Shidiao de hao diyu" (The Good Hell That Was Lost).
Afterwards I could no longer compose these sorts of things. In an age when things were changing daily, such writing, and even such reflections, were no longer allowed to exist. I think this is probably a good thing.
Although his statement ends on an ambiguous note, its import is to place these pieces within an historical context of political and artistic repression that grew worse after the Northern Expedition defeated the warlords and reunified China for the "Nanjing decade" of 1927 to 1937 under the centralized rule of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party. Xu Shoushang, who knew Lu Xun best, quotes him as saying that the prose poems in Yecao comprise nothing less than his personal philosophy. Yecao has a pivotal place in the development of modern Chinese literature, and its poems have been read as metaphors for the political and intellectual struggles of the time, philosophical musings, symptoms of despair, psychological nightmares, reflections of the zeitgeist of the mid 1920s, seminal works of modernism, and literary manifestations of Nietzschean ideas.
Lu Xun commemorated his former students killed in the 18 March 1926 demonstration in two of his most moving essays, "Jinian Liu Hezhen jun" (translated as "In Memory of Ms Liu Hezhen," 1957) and "Wuhua de qiangwei zhi er" (excerpts translated as "More Roses without Blooms," 1957), calling the date of the shooting the "darkest day since the founding of the Republic." The essays were published in Yusi in 1926 and included in his Huagai ji xubian (1927, Bad Luck II). A warrant went out for his arrest as a ringleader of the disturbances and forced him to go into hiding for several months. Chen Yuan, the educator and critic with whom he had clashed earlier, implied that he had manipulated the students into getting themselves killed for someone else's cause--that is, the cause of the Communists.
In August 1926 Lu Xun and Xu Guangping left Beijing. Largely at the initiative of Lin Yutang, Lu Xun had been invited to teach Chinese literature at Xiamen (Amoy) University in Fujian province, newly founded with donations from overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. Lin and the school's chancellor, Lin Wenqing, were sympathetic to his plight in Beijing and wanted to help him with the position. But Lu Xun grew restless in Xiamen; he was bored by his colleagues, felt that his academic duties were pointless, and resented the Western-colonial-educated Singaporean chancellor's veneration of Confucius and deference to wealthy donors. Also, he was separated from Xu Guangping, who had returned to her native Guangzhou to teach. "I was living alone in a stone house in Xiamen," he writes in the preface to Gushi xinbian (1936; translated as Old Tales Retold, 1961), "looking out over the ocean. I leafed through old books, no breath of life around me, a void in my heart." Though he continued to work on his fictionalized reminiscences for the collection Zhao hua xi shi (1928; translated as Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk, 1976), at this time he largely abandoned the short-story genre--a decision lamented in the field of Chinese letters ever since. He claimed to have despaired of the misinterpretations to which his fiction had been subjected.
Lu Xun had considered joining Xu Guangping in Guangzhou sooner than planned--their initial understanding was that they would spend two years apart--so when he received a formal invitation to serve as professor of Chinese literature and dean at Guangzhou's Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) University in late 1926, he accepted it with little hesitation. For some time Guangzhou had served as the base for a "second revolution"--the first being the revolution of 1911, which many progressive intellectuals considered to have failed. Under the leadership of the Nationalist Party and with the participation of the Chinese Communists and Russian advisers, a "Northern Expedition" to destroy the warlords and reunite the country was on the move.
In January 1927 Lu Xun, accompanied by several of his students from Beijing, arrived at Guangzhou amid much fanfare from the Nationalist authorities. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for the self-proclaimed revolutionary government was guarded, and appropriately so, for by 15 April of that same year, Chiang Kai-shek's purge of the Communists had spread from Shanghai to Canton, and Lu Xun suddenly became witness to more carnage. When his attempts at gaining the release of imprisoned students failed, he resigned his positions at Zhongshan University in protest. He never returned to teaching, devoting himself to polemical essays, translations, and other projects including editing (Lu Xun edited many journals during his career--fourteen, by one count) and promoting the works of young writers. In Beijing he had encouraged newcomers such as Tai Jingnong and Wei Suyuan, and he acquired more protégés in the last decade of his life, including Rou Shi, Xiao Hong, Xiao Jun, the translator Huang Yuan, and Communist activists Feng Xuefeng and Hu Feng). Lu Xun helped with their translating, edited their manuscripts, introduced them to publishers, and in some instances financed their publications or even gave them money for living expenses. A third project of Lu Xun's was the encouragement of a woodblock engraving movement in the arts. It is not without good reason that Lu Xun later became known as the father of the woodcut movement. He advocated this art form for its accessibility and ease of reproduction, organizing classes for artists and himself serving as a translator when lectures were given in Japanese. He published and popularized woodblock prints by leading artists in Europe such as Kaethe Kollwitz, as well as premodern examples of this nearly forgotten traditional art form in order to provide references for young artists.
In early autumn 1927 Lu Xun and Xu Guangping moved to Shanghai. Lu Xun thought that he could combine his efforts with those of leftist literary groups flourishing there, such as the Chuangzao she (Creation Society) and the Taiyang she (Sun Society). But the leadership of these groups, which were controlled by Guo Moruo and Cheng Fangwu, respectively, proved unwilling to halt the barrage of abuse they had been leveling at Lu Xun since the mid 1920s and continued to characterize him as a "feudal element" and an "outsider to the proletariat." Their motivation stemmed partly from jealously of an older, more successful writer who had become an independent leader of the Left (Lu Xun had made sarcastic jabs at the new, propagandistic "revolutionary" literature being turned out by younger writers who were members of these "editorial collectives") and partly out of a conviction that they, as members of the Communist Party, represented a discipline and an orthodoxy to which Lu Xun did not conform. According to Zhou Haiying's Lu Xun yu wo qishi nian (2001, Lu Xun and I through Seventy Years), in 1959 Cheng Fangwu told the Soviet scholar Nikolai Petrov that he and his colleagues had been incensed by Lu Xun's decision to go to Guangdong University in the wake of the defeat of the 1927 revolution, where he would be used for propaganda purposes by the Nationalists; but Cheng named the wrong university, and his dating was off by some months, as well: Lu Xun had gone to Zhongshan University, a more progressive institution than Guangdong University, several months prior to Chiang Kai-shek's putsch against the Communists.
The criticism from the Left led Lu Xun to undertake a systematic study of Marxist literary criticism so that he could expose his detractors' lack of theoretical sophistication, and he translated theoretical works by Lunacharsky, Plekhanov, and Katakami. As Jon Eugene von Kowallis writes in The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-Style Verse (1996), to "provide examples by which Chinese writers and critics could better gauge their work, he translated representative pieces from both the proletarian and 'fellow traveler' schools in Russian fiction." But he rejected arguments that "geming wenxue" (revolutionary literature) and "shehui zhuyi xianshi zhuyi" (socialist realism) were valid literary forms for the China of his day. In "Geming shidai de wenxue" (translated as "Literature of a Revolutionary Period," 1957), a talk he gave at the Huangpu Military Academy on 18 April 1927 and collected in his Eryi ji (1928, And That's That), he commented that "the people had not yet opened their mouths" and that such works were merely the creations of "onlookers who put words in the people's mouths."
In 1928 the Nationalist regime began enacting laws to control the press, but literary journals remained relatively unaffected until the early 1930s. Having friends copy manuscripts for him so that his handwriting would not be recognized and using scores of pen names, Lu Xun managed to continue publishing critical essays that satirized the government and mocked its apologists. In 1929 Xu Guangping gave birth to a son, Lu Xun's only child; they named him Haiying ("Shanghai Baby").
The Nationalist regime embarked in the late 1920s on a systematic program of intimidation, harassment, assassination, arrest, torture, and execution to rid China of the threat of Communist subversion. The campaign, which affected not only the Communist Party but its liberal sympathizers and "fellow travelers," as well, came to be known as Baise kongbu (the White Terror). Lu Xun and many among his coterie were potential targets of this campaign. Throughout the 1930s Lu Xun had to move about Shanghai in secret because of the constant threat of arrest or assassination. Zhou Haiying writes of being told by former Nationalist assassin Shen Zui at a 1992 meeting of the Zhongguo renmin zhengzhi xieshang huiyi quanguo weiyuan hui (National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference), to which they were both delegates, that "at some point in the 1930s" he had been sent to watch Lu Xun's residence in preparation for killing the writer; but the plan was never carried out, because the Nationalists realized that Lu Xun was too prominent a figure to assassinate without repercussion.
Lu Xun's relations with the Communist Party's underground leadership in Shanghai were not smooth in his last years. Although the Communists needed him as an ally and wanted to use his name in their propaganda struggle against the Nationalists, they resented his deviationist positions--most notably during the "Battle of the Slogans" in 1936, when he refused to take the official Communist Party line on "Guofang wenxue" (Literature for National Defense) and proposed his own slogan, "Minzu geming zhanzheng de dazhong wenxue" (Mass Literature for the National Revolutionary War), instead.
In January 1936 Lu Xun returned to the short-story genre with Gushi xinbian, a collection of eight parodies written between 1922 and 1935 that deconstruct traditional attitudes and approaches to the sages and ancient legends of his culture, while making veiled comments on the present and speculating on the future of China. He died of tuberculosis on 19 October 1936.
After Lu Xun's death, the Communists spared no effort to claim him as their own. The campaign started with his lavish funeral: an organized march by students, workers, and dissidents turned into a tumultuous demonstration at which he was hailed as "the soul of the nation." In 1938 Mao Zedong praised him as "a sage for a new China." Mao further eulogized him in "Xin minzhu zhuyi lun" (1940, The Culture of New Democracy):
The chief commander of China's cultural revolution, he was not only a great man of letters but a great thinker and revolutionary. Lu Xun was a man of unyielding integrity, free from all sycophancy or obsequiousness; this quality is invaluable among colonial and semicolonial peoples. Representing the great majority of the nation, Lu Xun breached and stormed the enemy citadel; on the cultural front he was the bravest and most correct, the firmest, the most loyal and the most ardent national hero, a hero without parallel in our history. The road he took was the very road of China's new culture.
Mao was convinced that Lu Xun's contributions to the struggle for a revolution had been enormous; but the Communist government did not tolerate his brand of dissent in its own press, as became clear after Mao's 1942 "Zai Yan'an wenyi zuotanhui shang de jianghua" (Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art). Several of Lu Xun's protégés--including Hu Feng and Feng Xuefeng, both Communists--were persecuted in the early 1950s.
As Harriet C. Mills sums him up, Lu Xun
had but one subject--China. The main concern of his life was that China should become great and strong. For him greatness lay not in military power but in the creative energy of a healthy, educated and responsible citizenry. The cannibalism of the traditional society had sacrificed the many to the few. A new and more rational order had to take its place. But the new could not succeed until the old had been destroyed. The real urgency was to secure for the new the chance to be born. The defeat of the old was of more practical moment than the blueprinting of the new. His work is therefore in a sense negative. He was not concerned with the good in China, nor with the details of the future, but with what was wrong. It was the evil that threatened the future. His work is essentially a commentary on the attitudes and practices he felt most endangered China.
On 20 October 1980, during the political thaw after the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, a young writer, Zhang Yu'an, published the poem "Jiaru Lu Xun xiansheng hai huozhe" (translated as "If Lu Xun Were Still Alive," 1989) in the newspaper Renmin ribao (People's Daily). The poem asks whether Lu Xun would be honored or imprisoned if he were still alive and suggests that even if he ascended to a position of importance, he would not cut himself off from the people. It concludes, "He might be rather happier and more cheerful, / But he might too have felt new unease and wrath." The poem addresses--with the understatement characteristic of Lu Xun's style--a question frequently asked since the 1950s: what would have happened to Lu Xun had he lived to see the Communist victory? The seventh line, "In high office he would not forget to be an ox to a child," refers to Lu Xun's old-style poem "Zichao" (translated as "Laughing at My Own Predicament," 1996) in his Jiwai ji, in which the line "But bowing my head, I gladly agree, / an ox for the children to be" can be interpreted as expressing his desire to serve the oppressed and downtrodden; this imagery is discussed in Kowallis's The Lyrical Lu Xun. Playing on the titles of Lu Xun's two short-story anthologies, Zhang Yu'an goes on to say that in contemporary China, Lu Xun would feel new "Outcries" and new "Hesitations." The next line, "In jail he'd have written new 'Permitted Conversations' and 'Pseudo-Free Letters,'" refers to the titles of Lu Xun's essay collections Zhun feng yue tan (1934, Semi-Frivolous Talk) and Wei ziyou shu (1933, False Liberty), which protest the lack of press freedom under the Nationalist regime, and suggests that the Communists would have censored Lu Xun, too.
In an essay he wrote in the last weeks of his life, "Si" (translated as "Death," 1961), which is included in his Qiejieting zawen mobian (1937, Essays from Demi-Concession Studio III), Lu Xun says:
I remember also how during a fever I recalled that when a European is dying there is usually some sort of ceremony in which he asks pardon of others and pardons them. Now I have a great many enemies, and what should my answer be if some modernized person asked me my views on this? After some thought I decided: Let them go on hating me. I shall not forgive a single one of them either.