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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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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,...

(This entire section contains 1988 words.)

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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 Ch’i-jui). Lu Xun was forced into hiding after this incident and was listed as a dangerous radical. He fled from Peking (now Beijing) to south China, where he briefly taught at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou (Canton). He resigned his position there in April, 1927, following the Kuomintang’s bloody purge of leftist elements from the Party. Many of his students were killed or arrested by the Kuomintang. Until this incident, he had been convinced that China could move gradually toward a liberal, democratic society. Thereafter, however, he was convined that China would have to take a more radical approach to change.

Lu Xun moved to Shanghai in October, 1927, and remained there until his death from tuberculosis on October 19, 1936. It was there that he developed his relationship with the political Left. He had apparently concluded during his Guangzhou days that the Communist Party was the driving force of the Chinese revolution, and he took the first two years after he moved to Shanghai to explore Communist ideology and strategies for change. While he never made a completely systematic study of Communist literature, he became convinced by 1929 that China’s future lay with the Communists.

By the end of 1929, Lu Xun began to cooperate with the Communists. Between 1929 and 1936, he engaged in several activities supportive of the Communist cause. In February, 1930, he joined the Freedom League, a group that protested Kuomintang restrictions on freedom of speech. In March, 1930, he helped to establish the League of Left-Wing Writers. Among other pro-Communist activities, he joined the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, headquartered in Moscow. He was acquainted with several important Chinese Communist leaders and supported their causes throughout these years. He never joined the Communist Party. He remained an independent thinker and was always skeptical of Communist motives. He was drawn to the Communists because of his hatred of the Kuomintang dictatorship and his conviction that the Communists meant to bring about a social revolution and free China from foreign oppression. He was not an orthodox Communist, since he did not agree fully with the Communist analysis of China’s ills and placed the blame for China’s humiliations on China itself rather than on imperialism. He refused to join the party because he believed that revolutionary writers have the obligation to work toward the goals of the revolution free of undue interference from party hacks. His attacks on the increasingly authoritarian Kuomintang regime made him a marked man. He lived in virtual hiding in Shanghai while he continued to revile the Kuomintang’s censorship, its campaign of terror against its critics, and its failure to resist Japanese aggression.

Although he did not produce any new creative work during his last years in Shanghai, Lu Xun had already attained his reputation as China’s leading literary figure, and he helped many younger writers become established. During the 1930’s, he perfected his essay style, translated foreign fiction and literary theory, wrote classical poetry, and maintained his lifelong interest in traditional Chinese crafts. He was particularly interested in woodblock engravings and published two collections of traditional woodblocks. He hoped to encourage a new national art that would retain its traditional Chinese spirit but that would incorporate new Western techniques.


Lu Xun is important for his penetrating insights into Chinese national character, society, and culture. He is noted for the originality of his mind and for the techniques that he used to translate his intellectual and psychological insights into literature. His literary reputation rests on a relatively small body of published work, primarily his short stories and his prose poems. His political reputation relies on his role as a social critic, especially during the last years of his life in Shanghai.

Lu Xun was a complex man. In public, he projected a self-confident persona, defiantly indicting Chinese character and traditions. He remained unflinching in his criticism of the Kuomintang dictatorship even in the face of obvious official hostility after 1927. A handsome man with penetrating eyes and a full, flowing mustache, Lu Xun appeared to be a model of revolutionary courage. He always seemed to know precisely what he wanted. The Communist Party has chosen to cultivate this public image and to reduce the complexities of his personality and thought to a simplistic set of heroic traits. In his public life, Lu Xun sought to develop a new spirit of self-respect and self-confidence in China. This would serve as the basis for national regeneration. In this way, he became a symbol of China’s quest for a mature, modernized society.

There was a private side to Lu Xun, however, which was considerably more complex and problematical. He had a deeply tragic view of life and society, which caused him to feel hemmed in by the forces of reaction and repression and to harbor genuine doubts about the prospects of victory for the revolution. His personal life was filled with spiritual anguish, doubts, and obsession with death. His political commitment to communism grew out of his search for national regeneration and not out of mere ideological conviction. His integrity was based on his determination to avoid self-delusion, combined with his habit of ruthless self-scrutiny. He looked facts fully in the face, and his morality grew out of concrete human situations. His contributions to the political revolution notwithstanding, it is the conflicts and contradictions in his writing that mark his place in modern Chinese history. He will be remembered for his deep insights into Chinese character and for his ability to express his own psychological anguish in literature and poetry.


Goldman, Merle, ed. Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977. This volume of essays sets the literary renaissance of the 1920’s in perspective. It contains a fine essay on Lu Xun’s educational experiences.

Hsia, Tsi-an. The Gate of Darkness: Studies on the Leftist Literary Movement in China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968. Hsia deals with several of the May Fourth era writers in this book. His essay on the power of darkness in Lu Xun’s writings explores the private anguish that Lu Xun experienced throughout his life.

Huang, Sung-k’ang. Lu Hsün and the New Cultural Movement of China. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1975. This is a pioneering book on Lu Xun’s impact on the May Fourth generation of writers. It explores his relationship with younger writers who succeeded him.

Lee, Leo Ou-fan. The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973. Lee places Lu Xun in the context of the May Fourth Movement. He and the other writers were part of a conscious social group who practiced literature as an independent profession.

Lee, Leo Ou-fan, ed. Lu Xun and His Legacy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. The product of an international conference marking the centennial of Lu Xun’s birth, this volume contains important essays on the many aspects of Lu Xun’s life. It is an indispensable source.

Lyell, William A., Jr. Lu Hsün’s Vision of Reality. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. A good biographical treatment, this book introduces Lu Xun and his stories to the general reader.

Wang, Shiquing. Lu Xun: A Biography. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984. This is probably the best brief biography of Lu Xun available in English. The book does, however, present the official Chinese Communist appraisal of Lu Xun.