Lu Hsün Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Hsün, Lu 1881-1936

(Also transliterated as Lusin, Lu Hsin, or Lu Xun; pseudonym of Chou Shu-jen, also transliterated as Zhou Shùrén; also wrote under pseudonym of Chou Ch'o and Xun Xing)

Chinese short story writer, poet, and essayist.

Lu Hsün is widely considered one of modern China's greatest writers as well as a favorite of the people. Writing at a time of great political and cultural upheaval, Lu Hsün in his stories exposed the hypocrisy and corruption of the feudal system while sensitively depicting the backward condition of the common people. His most famous character, the servile yet self-important Ah Q, achieved an archetypical status in the society, symbolizing all that the Chinese saw as contemptible in their national character. The name Ah Q itself came to be a popular expression of disdain. Although he died more than a decade before the revolution and some dispute his devotion to the Communist cause, his writing was embraced by the political elite. Mao Zedong held up Lu Hsün as a great hero of Communism, and a personality cult emerged around the author which persists to the present day.

Biographical Information

Lu Hsün was born in Shao-hsing, Chekiang province, to a wealthy family, which went into rapid decline during his boyhood. His grandfather, a court official, was sent to prison for bribery, several relatives became addicted to opium, and his father died after a prolonged illness. Lu Hsün received a traditional education, attended the Kiangnan Naval Academy and graduated from the School of Railways and Mines in Nanking. In 1902 he went to Japan on a scholarship to learn Japanese language at the Kobun Academy. While a student Lu Hsün was deeply influenced by Western literature and philosophy. He translated two Jules Verne novels into Chinese and began writing articles extolling modern science as the solution to his country's backwardness. Upon graduation in 1904 he enrolled in medical school, planning to help improve conditions in China through medicine. Within a few years, however, he quit medical school and turned to literature, deciding that China had greater need of a poet to heal its soul. Lu Hsün returned to China in 1909 and began teaching at a school in Shao-hsing. After the 1911 overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty he accepted a position in the Ministry of Education in the new Republic. He subsequently joined Hu Shih, Ch'en Tu-Hsiu, and others in the New Culture Movement, which advocated the development of a vernacular literature. In 1918 Lu Hsün published "Kuangren riji" ("Diary of a Madman"), his first major work and the first Chinese story written in the Western style.

In succeeding years Lu Hsün taught at various colleges, including Peking University, Sun Yat-sen University, and the University of Canton. He continued writing scholarly and artistic works, helped establish and edit several literary journals, and translated a number of Western works, including Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls. In 1930 he became a founding member of the League of Left-wing Writers. Throughout the last decade of his life Lu Hsün had an irregular relationship with the Communist cause, alternately being condemned by and collaborating with the Communist cultural leaders. He died of tuberculosis in Shanghai in 1936.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Lu Hsün produced only three volumes of short fiction during his career: the collections of his original stories Nahan (Call to Arms) and Panghuang (Wandering), together with Gushi xinbian (Old Tales Retold), a collection of satiric renderings of traditional fables. His short stories consistently expose the ills and corruption of Chinese society while at the same time expressing the author's guarded optimism regarding the potential of the Chinese people. Lu Hsün himself wrote: "I collect my material from the unfortunate people in a society that is diseased. My purpose is to reveal the pain of the disease, with the hope that some attention may be aroused among people who in time may turn to think of a remedy." The eponymous character in his most celebrated story, "Ah Q zheng zhuan" ("The True Story of Ah Q"), exemplifies this objective, exhibiting many of the moral and personal weaknesses Lu Hsün believed were keeping China from moving into the modern world: indolence, ignorance, and slavish adherence to traditional forms of behavior. In "Diary of a Madman"—in which the central character fears everyone intends to kill and eat him—Lu Hsün suggests that feelings of powerlessness and victimization are inevitable consequences of China's rigidly hierarchical society. The first Western-style story in China, "Diary of a Madman" has also been called the first artistic work of the revolution.

Critical Reception

Apart from analyzing Lu Hsün's stories as social satire and assessing the degree to which they helped foster a climate of revolution in China, critics have extensively commented on their style, structure, and characterization. While Jaroslav Průšek has examined the ways in Hsün utilized Western literary forms and techniques in his stories, and P. Kratochvil has analyzed his relationship to classical Chinese styles and language, Wang Tso-Liang, has stressed his marriage of the two traditions. Lu Hsün, he has argued, "uses old words, even insists on using the old forms of common words . . . only puts them in a totally colloquial, at times, very Western syntax. As a result, the old coinages from the classics not only shine with a rich antique glow, but have a keen new edge that cuts deep into the marrows." Summarizing Lu Hsün's literary impact and influence, Marston Anderson has written that Call to Arms and Wandering "simultaneously made real the call for a new colloquial language in fiction, convincingly naturalized a foreign literary form, and fundamentally redefined for a generation of Chinese writers the value of the enterprise of fiction."