Nearly all Lu Xun’s short stories were written between 1918 and 1925. The time they deal with is from the eve of the Republican Revolution of 1911 until the May Fourth movement of 1919. The characters they present are mostly women whom Lu Xun considers victims of traditional Chinese society—he calls them “unfortunates”—whether a failed litteratus, a maudit révolté (cursed rebel), an unlucky ricksha puller, or a young village woman plagued by widowhood. Although Lu Xun seems more comfortable as a writer when he deals with the downtrodden, he also sometimes concerns himself with certain members of the ruling class, the scholar-gentry either in or out of office, who are opportunists, compromisers, or oppressors of the common people. Although the stories usually focus on a single protagonist and expose either his or her misery or hypocrisy and cruelty, sometimes they also condemn the entire Chinese populace. This view is developed in “The Diary of a Madman,” in which the protagonist goes beyond tradition and sees the people as cannibals—the weak devouring the strong. Lu Xun was a moralist who viewed contemporaneous China as a sick and degenerate society badly in need of treatment. Ironically, the young man’s concern for the health of China gains for him the diagnosis of “mad.”
Lu Xun is usually termed a “realist” as a writer of short fiction. Communist critics call him a “critical realist,” a “militant realist,” and even a Socialist Realist. Although Lu Xun sought to make his stories conform to reality as he had experienced it and wanted his readers to credit them as based on the truth, he was not realistic in the sense of the fiction of the great European exponents of nineteenth century realism and naturalism, such as Ivan Turgenev, Gustave Flaubert, and Émile Zola, in whom he never showed any interest. His realism was very personal and highly subjective. He was not interested in the material but in the spiritual. In his short stories, he probes into the human spirit as that has been affected by environment and tradition. If one considers the men he took for his intellectual mentors, T. H. Huxley, Max Stirner, Søren Kierkegaard, Henrik Ibsen, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Brandes, Lord Byron, Gogol, and Andreyev, one sees a curious thing: The majority are associated with the anti-Romantic spirit of individualism, and only two of them, Huxley and Brandes, with the anti-Romantic spirit of positivism. Lu Xun had an ironic view of reality that was highly subjective and tempered by strong Romantic elements. It was this view that attracted him to writers such as Gogol and Andreyev, both of whom attempted the fusion of Romanticism and realism and then the fusion of realism and symbolism, and Lu Xun adopted similar practices. Therefore, as a writer, Lu Xun might be more usefully termed a subjective realist or an expressionist rather than a social realist. He was surely not a Socialist Realist. One wonders how he would have taken Mao’s Yen’an Forum Talks of 1942. A satirist must exaggerate, draw sharp contrasts between good and evil. Although he exposed the faults of Chinese society, Lu Xun never offered any remedy except that it should honor the individual and free the spirit.
Lu Xun’s short stories, for the most part, grew out of his personal experience. He enhanced this subjectivity by the power of his imagination and taut artistic skill. His stories are characterized by their brevity but above all by their compactness of structure and their pithy, sharp style, in which each word is needed and apposite. His prose is strongly imagistic, especially in its visual appeal. Lu Xun seldom employs the figures of metaphor or simile; when he does use such a figure, however, it is usually highly effective. He makes use of historical and literary allusion, and one or more such allusions are to be found in the vast majority of his stories. He sometimes resorts to symbolism. Dialogue is usually kept to a minimum. Irony is a pervasive element in nearly all Lu Xun’s stories, with satire a frequent weapon used in defense of individual freedom. He shows unusual skill in fusing an action with its scene. Although description is suppressed, atmosphere emerges strongly.
Lu Xun was a highly sensitive man with a strong sense of justice. He was not content to endure evil with passive indifference. A sedentary literary man (a wenren), he admired action more than anything else but had no heart for it himself. An acute observer of human nature, but one with a limited range, he had a special knack for sketching what he saw with deft, swift strokes of his pen and with a minimum of words. He was a very gifted writer of short fiction but a mediocre thinker. His thinking fell short of complete clarity. A “wanderer” in the wasteland of hopes and broken dreams, he was at first inspired by Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche but misunderstood both. His later excursions into Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilich Lenin curtailed his imagination, aroused in him resentment and prejudice, and ran counter to his natural instinct for freedom, independence, and appreciation of individual worth. It was unfortunate that as a creative writer he thought that changing the face of China was more important than painting its portrait. As an individual, he could do little about the former but could have done much about the latter. He never realized this truth until the last year of his life.
Perhaps Lu Xun’s major weakness as a writer of fiction is his fondness for nostalgia, his lapses into sentimentality, and his inability always to deal fairly with persons other than the downtrodden. If in his short fiction Lu Xun had depicted humanity as he found it in all its richness, splendor, and nobility together with its poverty, stupidity, and moral degeneracy—in a spirit that extended charity to all and with a sense of the kinship of all human beings that included tolerance and a readiness on his part to pardon, leaving moral lessons for others to proclaim and class distinctions for others to condemn—he might have been a great writer rather than simply a gifted one whose full potential as a creative artist was never realized.
“The Diary of a Madman”
Of Lu Xun’s stories collected in Call to Arms, “The Diary of a Madman,” although it made its author prominent, is not one of his best. The first story to be written in the Western manner, it is more clever in conception than effective as a well-constructed tale. As C. T. Hsia, a judicious critic, has pointed out, the story’s weakness lies in the author’s failure to provide a realistic setting for the madman’s fantasies.
The story “Kong yiji,” about a failed scholar who has become a wine bibber at a village tavern, where he is the butt of jokes, is a much stronger story than “The Diary of a Madman.” Kong yiji has studied the classics, but he has failed to pass even the lowest official examination. With no means of earning a living, he would have been reduced to beggary except for his skill in calligraphy, which enabled him to support himself by copying. He loved wine too much, however, and he was lazy. When he needed money, he took to stealing books from the libraries of the gentry. For such actions he was frequently strung up and beaten. After being absent from the tavern for a long time, he reappears, dirty and disheveled, his legs broken. Partaking of warm wine, he is the butt of the jokes and taunts of the tavern yokels. He departs from the tavern, but he is never seen again. It is presumed that he has died. As a commentary on the Chinese social order, the story presents a man who is a part of the detritus left by the examination system. At the same time, he must take responsibility for his own weaknesses of character. In addition, the story shows how cruel and unfeeling people can be to those who are less fortunate than they.
“Yao” (“Medicine”) is another powerful story. It shows especially careful construction and makes effective use of symbolism. The story concerns two boys who are unknown to each other but whose lives follow equally disastrous courses to become linked after their deaths. Hua Xiaozhuan is the tubercular son of a tea-shop owner and his wife. The boy is dying. Anxious to save his life, the parents are persuaded to pay a packet of money for a mantou (steamed bread-roll) soaked with the blood of an executed man, which is alleged by tradition to be a sure cure for tuberculosis. The beheaded man is young Xia You, the son of the widow Xia. A revolutionary seeking the overthrow of the Manchu or Qing Dynasty, he was betrayed to the authorities by his conservative Third Uncle, who collected a reward for his treason. Thus, the blood of a martyr and hero, a representative of the new order, is used in the service of a superstitious and useless medical cure. If the parents are ignorant and superstitious, they also truly love their son and try by all the means they know to save him, but he dies, regardless. Nobody has sought to save Xia You from execution; indeed, all the customers at...
(The entire section is 3740 words.)