Article abstract: One of twentieth century China’s great men of letters, Lu Xun pioneered a new literary tradition in China and offered a defiant indictment of Chinese character and traditions. He is honored by the Chinese Communists for his formative impact on young Chinese intellectuals and the revolutionary movement.
Zhou Shuren (pen name Lu Xun) was born into a family with commercial and minor official connections in Shaoxing, China, in 1881. He and his two younger brothers received an early classical Chinese education based on Confucian texts. Although his family’s financial situation deteriorated during his early years because of his grandfather’s imprisonment for official bribery and the death of his father in 1897, Lu Xun was able to acquire a solid grounding in traditional Chinese history and literature and studied the illustrious history of his local district. His mother, a literate woman of indomitable character, held the family together during Lu Xun’s first seventeen years and had a powerful influence on him throughout his life.
As was typical of many intellectuals of his generation, Lu Xun turned to modern learning after his early grounding in Confucianism. After enrolling briefly in the Kiangnan Naval Academy in Nanjing in 1898, he transferred to the School of Railways and Mines, graduating in 1901. He then won a government scholarship to study medicine in Japan. After two years of Japanese language study in Tokyo, he entered the Sendai Provincial Medical School in the summer of 1904. After witnessing the humiliation of China in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Lu Xun turned his attention to literature as a means of awakening the Chinese people to the need for revolutionary change. Between 1906 and 1909, he sought to rescue China from its moral and physical ills. Disappointed by the failure of the masses to respond to his writings, however, and discouraged by the failure of the Revolution of 1911 to overthrow autocracy, he abandoned his crusade to change China and spent most of the years 1909 to 1919 publishing studies of traditional Chinese literature and art.
Lu Xun burst into national prominence during the Cultural Revolution launched by the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Invited by a friend in 1918 to contribute to the leading periodical Hsin ch’ing-nien (new youth), Lu Xun authored his famous story “K’uang-jen jih-chi” (“The Diary of a Madman,” 1941). This was a searing indictment of the traditional Chinese family system, using the fantasies of a madman as a literary vehicle. The story epitomized the frustrations of Chinese youth with petrified Confucian social values and conventions and set the basic agenda for a generation of Chinese writers. Based loosely on Nikolai Gogol’s story of the same title, “The Diary of a Madman” moved far beyond Lu Xun’s earlier writings, since it was written in Western literary style. Thus launched on a national career, Lu Xun continued to write short essays on the Chinese public scene for the next few years. His best-known effort, “Ah Q chong-chuan” (“The True Story of Ah Q,” 1926) was published in 1921. This story satirizes the Chinese penchant for self-deception. Ah Q, an illiterate peasant outcast in the era of the 1911 Revolution, is constantly humiliated yet believes himself to be the most noble of men. He symbolizes China itself, which lies prostrate in the face of superior Western technology yet still maintains its cultural superiority.
These writings initiated the most creative period of Lu Xun’s life, the years between 1919 and 1926. In these years, he wrote about two dozen short stories designed to stimulate nationalistic consciousness among China’s youth. His acerbic, realistic stories were based on his own youth in Shaoxing and focused on young rebels struggling against the oppression of traditional society. He was extremely popular among young people, and liberal scholars recognized his great talent. He was relentless in his determination to avoid self-delusion and to carve out a new kind of humanistic morality. He launched an even more explicit attack on the evils of the old society in the essays that he wrote in those years. Using an impassioned, witty style, he called on the Chinese to abandon those elements of traditional society that were preventing China from creating a new, rational order. He called for the abolition of the traditional family system, which enslaved women and youths, and argued that China had to cease venerating the past at the expense of the present and future.
Lu Xun’s convictions led him into political controversies concerning student rights, culminating with his role in the March 18, 1926, incident in which demonstrating students were massacred by the warlord government of Duan Qirui (Tuan...
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