Lu Hsün Essay - Critical Essays

Hsün, Lu


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."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

"Huaijiu" ["Remembrances of the Past"] 1913

Nahan [Call to Arms] 1923

Panghuang [Wandering] 1926

Gushi xinbian [Old Tales Retold] 1936

Ah Q and Others: Selected Stories of Lusin 1941

Selected Stories of Lu Hsün 1954

The Complete Stories of Lu Xun 1981

Diary of a Madman and Other Stories 1990

Other Major Works

Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilue [A Brief History of Chinese Fiction] (history and criticism) 1924

Zhaohua xishi [Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk] (autobiographical sketches) 1947

Yecao [Wild Grass] (prose poems and sketches) 1953

Selected Works of Lu Hsun (short stories, prose poems, reminiscences, and essays) 1956

Silent China: Selected Writings of Lu Xun (short stories, reminiscences, poetry, and essays) 1973

Lu Xun quanji (complete works) 1981

Lu Xun: Selected Poems (poetry) 1982


Lu Hsün (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: A preface to Cheering from the Sidelines, in Lu Xun: Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, translated by William A. Lyell, University of Hawaii Press, 1990, pp. 21-8.

[The following essay was written in 1922 and published in the Beijing Morning Post in August 1923, the month Nahan (Call to Arms; here translated as Cheering from the Sidelines) was issued. Lu Hsün discusses the circumstances surrounding his earliest efforts at story writing.]

As a young man I had my share of dreams too. Later on I forgot most of them but saw nothing in the least regret-table about that. To be sure, reminiscence can afford us pleasure, but it can...

(The entire section is 2654 words.)

Wang Tso-Liang (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "Lu Hsün," in Life and Letters and the London Mercury, Vol. 61, No. 142, June, 1949, pp. 200-05.

[In the following excerpt, Wang praises Lu Hsün as a stylist and satirist.]

One must start from the point where Lu Hsün is invariably launched by his critics, namely, that he is a satirist. He could not choose but be one. He wrote his Ah Q and his 'miscellaneous essays' at a time when only satire could be effective. Satire is ever allied to surfeit; it thrusts open the inner corruption of a society at the very moment when the society has acquired, what with wigs and fine dress, wine and courtesans, a most civilized look. In the case of Lu Hsün' s...

(The entire section is 1434 words.)

John H. Weakland (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Lusin's 'Ah Q': A Rejected Image of Chinese Character," in The Pacific Spectator, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1956, pp. 137-46.

[In the essay below, Weakland discusses the significance of Ah Q as a symbol of Chinese national character.]

Modern Chinese fiction, which is often sharply critical of traditional Chinese patterns of living, offers valuable insight into what is rejected in past culture and character and also into imagined or envisioned counter-images for future realization. This, in turn, mirrors some of the qualities of the political character of the people. From a casual investigation, the literary and, by extension, political image of what should be...

(The entire section is 3867 words.)

Chun-Jo Liu (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "The Heroes and Heroines of Modern Chinese Fiction: From Ah Q to Wu Tzu-hsü," in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 2, February, 1957, pp. 201-11.

[In the following essay, Liu argues that Ah Q "represents the spirit of the Chinese people: a spirit that is fallen on evil days, a spirit that is paralyzed by the disease of indolence and ignorance. "]

When one thinks about the people that are portrayed by modern Chinese authors, one inevitably sees, foremost in the gallery, the image of Ah Q, the homeless farm hand who lives in a village temple, the tragic hero of a mock epic. The image, as one recent Chinese critic puts it, is similar to a caricature...

(The entire section is 1570 words.)

Jaroslav Průšek (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Lu Hsün's 'Huai Chiu': A Precursor of Modern Chinese Literature," in The Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 29, 1969, pp. 169-76.

[The following essay was originally presented as a conference paper in 1967. Průšek discusses Lu Hsün's distinctly modern handling of plot and language in the early story "The Past, " observing significant departures from traditional Chinese literature.]

This is not the first occasion on which I have considered the emergence of a modern literature in China. There can be no more fascinating subject in the history of Asian literatures than the profound rift separating the modern from the traditional literature and an...

(The entire section is 3068 words.)

Marston Anderson (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Morality of Form: Lu Xun and the Modern Chinese Short Story," in Lu Xun and His Legacy, edited by Leo Ou-fan Lee, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 32-53.

[The following excerpt is taken from an essay first presented at a 1981 conference marking the centennial of Lu Hsün's birth. Anderson here examines the social and ethical as well as literary implications of Lu Hsün's experimentation with Western literary forms in his short stories.]

Few works in literary history occupy as crucial a junction as the twenty-five short stories collected in Lu Xun's The Outcry (or Call to Arms, 1923) and Hesitation (or Wandering, 1926)....

(The entire section is 5949 words.)

Simon Leys (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Fire under the Ice: Lu Xun," in The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985, pp. 100-07.

[In this essay, which was originally written in 1981, Leys aims to refute the myth of Lu Hsün as a great Communist patriot and assert his importance as an artist and humanist.]

Lu Xun always vehemently rejected the role of messiah that some naïve or cunning admirers attempted to force upon him. Whoever actually reads him—his professional devotees never bother to do this, it seems—is struck at once by his disconcerting ambiguities. In fact, he was so paradoxical and contradictory, riddled with so many doubts,...

(The entire section is 2557 words.)

Jiang Deming (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Notes on Lu Xun," in Chinese Literature, Vol. 7, No. 7, July, 1982, pp. 94-104.

[In this excerpt, Jiang stresses Lu Hsün's sympathy for the working and oppressed classes as a primary inspiration for his writing.]

In 1920, Lu Xun published his short story "A Small Incident".

At that time he was not a Marxist but a revolutionary democrat. However, because he maintained close contacts with the peasants and had a relatively correct understanding of China's toiling masses, his stand differed from the humanism of certain bourgeois and petty-bourgeois writers. He did not condescend to the working people, or simply describe their "inferiority" or...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)

William A. Lyell (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: An introduction to Lu Hsün: Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, translated by William A. Lyell, University of Hawaii Press, 1990, pp. ix-xiii.

[In the excerpt below, Lyell relates some of Lu Hsün 's short stories to events in the author's personal life. In his essay Lyell translates the titles of Lu Hsün's collections Nahan and P'ang huang as Cheering from the Sidelines and Wondering Where to Turn, respectively.]

Late in 1911 . . . before leaving his hometown, Lu Xun wrote his first short story, "Remembrances of the Past.-' Though written in the literary Chinese idiom, this story is modern in most respects and presents a view of...

(The entire section is 4088 words.)

Further Reading


Huang Sung-K'ang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. 1957. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1975, 158 p.

Assesses Lu Hsün's place in the New Culture Movement.

Lyell, William A. Lu Hsün's Vision of Reality. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, 355 p.

Biographical and critical study of the author. Lyell devotes several chapters to Lu Hsün's short fiction.

Yang, Gladys. Introduction to Silent China: Selected Writings of Lu Xun, edited and translated by Gladys Yang, pp. vii-xii. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Brief biography of...

(The entire section is 554 words.)