Lu Xun Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3740

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...

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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.

“Kong yiji”

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 tea shop highly approve of his arrest and beheading. His widowed mother, who loved him dearly, was powerless to help her son.

Influenced by his admiration for the Russian writer Andreyev, Lu Xun sought to emphasize the story’s purport through the use of symbolism. Since the two boys in the story are linked in the action purely by accident, Lu Xun reinforces the connection through their surnames, “Hua” and “Xia,” which as “Huaxia” literally means “glorious and extensive”; this compound is also an ancient name for China. It is a story of the opposition between the old China—the China of darkness, superstition, and lethargy under foreign rulers—and the new China—the China trying to emerge into the light, the China of the awakened, of the revolutionary. The symbolism is especially dense at the conclusion of the story, when the two mothers meet at the graves of their sons, who are buried opposite each other. Natural flowers are growing on the grave of the Hua boy, but on Hsia Yu’s grave has been placed a wreath of red and white flowers. When Xia You’s mother perceives the wreath, she cannot understand its presence. She believes that her son has wrought a miracle as a sign of the wrong done to him, that he desires that his death be avenged. Perplexed, she looks around her but sees only a crow perched on a leafless bough. She tells her son that heaven will surely see that a day of reckoning will come. Uncertain of his presence, though, she requests him to make the crow fly onto his grave as a sign to her that he is really there. The crow remains still perched on its bough, as if made of iron. Mrs. Xia and Mrs. Hua have, in their mutual grief, formed a bond of sympathy. Mrs. Hua now suggests that the two of them might as well leave for home. As they depart, they hear a loud caw behind them. Startled, they turn their heads to look behind them. They see the crow stretch its wings and fly off toward the horizon.

The True Story of Ah Q

The True Story of Ah Q is Lu Xun’s longest and most important story. It originally appeared serially on a weekly basis in the Beijing Chenbao (weekly post) in its Sunday supplement; these circumstances may have been responsible for its rambling, episodic plot and other literary defects. The story made a powerful impact, however, on its Chinese audience. It saw in the protagonist, Ah Q, what Lu Xun wanted it to see: the embodiment of all the weaknesses of the Chinese national character, which just prior to the fall of the Qing Dynasty had constituted a national disease. Ah Q is a homeless peasant who lives in the temple of the tutelary god of Wei village. Since no one knows his true surname, the narrator calls him simply “Ah Q” because the foreign letter “Q” resembles a man’s head with a queue, or pigtail, hanging down. Thus, “Q” is a pictograph of every Chinese man during the rule of the Manchus, since the conquerors required Chinese men to shave their heads and wear queues. Ah Q is a Chinese Everyman.

Ah Q is a dunce whose foolish actions result in repeated humiliating defeats. He just as repeatedly glosses over these defeats by convincing himself that, if he has been physically overcome, he has nevertheless won a “spiritual victory.” Ah Q is a perfect antihero, but he is an unusual one in that he is, as William A. Lyell, Jr., has pointed out, “victimizer as well as victim.” He is bullied and mistreated by those stronger than he, but he, in turn, bullies and mistreats those who are weaker. Like the other inhabitants of Wei village, he follows the Chinese social principle: Pa chang qiruo (fear the strong, bully the weak). He is opposed to revolutionaries until he learns that the village power elite is terrified of them. He tries to join them, but they arrest him for thievery. He is condemned to death, not by the sword but by the rifles of a firing squad. He tries to be brave, but, his soul ripped, he is about to utter, “Help.” Yet, as Lu Xun writes, “Ah Q never said that. Blackness had already covered his eyes. He heard the shots ring out and felt his body scatter like a heap of dust.”

Ah Q may personify the Chinese social sickness of his time. According to the perceptive scholar, Lee Oufan Lee, Ah Q’s life revolves around subsistence in a world that he does not understand. He is only a face in the crowd without spirit, interior self, or self-consciousness. His negative qualities combine to depict a slave mentality. He may suggest how the people of Wei village responded to the Republican Revolution of 1911. He suggests as well why the revolution eventually failed.


On the whole, the stories collected in Lu Xun’s second volume Wandering are superior to those of his first. He himself favored them and pointed out the reasons for their superiority: his having outgrown his foreign influences; his more mature technique; his more incisive delineation of reality; and his having cooled his personal anger and sorrow. Of the eleven stories included in Wandering, three of them are particularly noteworthy: “Zhufu” (“The New Year’s Sacrifice”), “Zai jiulou shang” (“Upstairs in a Wineshop”), and “Lihun” (“Divorce”).

“The New Year’s Sacrifice”

“The New Year’s Sacrifice” is the story of the tragic lot and cruel treatment accorded a peasant woman, Xiang Linsao, who, widowed at twenty-six, is forced to remarry against her will, is then widowed a second time, has her infant son carried off by a wolf, and is hired as a servant by a scholar-gentry family named Lu. The head of the Lu family, Hanlin, the neo-Confucian scholar Fourth Uncle Lu, thinks that Xiang Linsao, as a twice-married widow, is impure and unfit to touch any food or implement connected with the family ancestral sacrifices. Despite her religious efforts to atone for her “sin,” she is rejected by the Lus and turned into a beggar. She dies in poverty just as the Lus are about to invoke a New Year’s blessing. The news of her death annoys Fourth Uncle Lu. In anger, he berates her for dying at such an unpropitious time. He remarks to his wife, “You can tell from that alone what a rotten type she is.” Thus, this renowned neo-Confucian scholar and rationalist reveals himself to be an inhumane, unfeeling, superstitious, rigid traditionalist whose narrow and inflexible morality is the executioner of a good, simple-hearted peasant woman. The twice-widowed woman is the victim of tradition and superstition. Being a widow, she must bear the stigma of carrying the ghosts of her two husbands; in fact, it may even be believed that she caused their deaths. When she asks the noncommittal narrator if he believes a person’s soul goes on after death, she seems to be clutching for meaning in a realm of existence beyond the world she has known, where she can be reunited with her child who was eaten by wolves.

“Upstairs in a Wineshop”

“Upstairs in a Wineshop” is the story of the chance reunion one winter evening of two former friends and colleagues upstairs in a village wine shop, back home after a ten-year interval. The story is obviously autobiographical and the unnamed narrator a mask for Lu Xun himself. The narrator arrives at the wine shop alone. He goes upstairs, orders wine and some dishes, and sits drinking and eating while looking out over the snow-covered courtyard outside. The atmosphere here is beautifully evoked by Lu Xun—inside warm wine and food, outside snow. The snow introduced at the beginning, the symbolism of the crimson camellias blossoming in the snow (suggesting the homeliness of the south as opposed to the strangeness of the north), and the snow and wind at the end that wash away the bittersweet taste of the remembrances of the past give to this story a special pictorial quality in respect to its text—reminiscent of those scholar-painters who did Wenrenhua (literary men’s painting), harmonizing text with picture. When the narrator’s old friend and colleague Lü Weifu appears by chance, each is surprised at meeting the other, and they greet each other warmly. Both recollect their younger days when they were avid reformers who had rejected the Old Learning in favor of the New. Now they are both middle-aged. To his dismay and disappointment, the narrator learns that his friend is changed, has lost his nerve and rejoined the Confucian establishment. He lives with his mother in a northern province where he tutors the children of a prosperous family in the Confucian classics. He also deceives his mother by making up white lies in order to shield her from a painful reality. Lü Weifu has given up “pulling the beards of the gods.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of “Upstairs in a Wineshop” is Lu Xun’s seeming ambivalence of his anti-Confucian position. As C. T. Xia has observed, although Lu Xun undoubtedly intended to present Lü Weifu as a weak-kneed, broken man, “the kindness and piety of Lü Weifu, however pathetic, also demonstrate the positive strength of the traditional mode of life, toward which the author must have been nostalgically attracted in spite of his contrary intellectual conviction.” Xia concludes that the story, then, with an irony contrary to its author’s intention, “is a lyrical confession of his own uncertainty and hesitation.”


“Divorce” provides a vivid portrait of a tough, uncouth, rebellious country girl as well as a picture of how the power structure of traditional Chinese society works in a rural setting to cow such a female rebel. As the story opens, a family feud has been going on for three years between the Xhuangs and the Shis. The girl, Aigu, born a Chuang, married young Mr. Shi. After a time, however, she and her husband did not get along and his parents disliked her. Soon, her husband took up with a young widow and informed his wife that he no longer wanted her. Since that time, she has been living with her father, Zhuang Musan, and her six brothers. For the past three years, the two feuding families have entered into negotiations several times without any settlement being reached. Preferring to be an unloved wife with honor rather than a dishonored divorcée, Aigu has insisted each time that her husband take her back despite an offer of money by the Shis to effect a separation, and until now her father has supported her position. Father and daughter are now traveling by boat to the village of Pang, where another meeting between the Shis and the Zhuangs has been arranged by Old Gentleman Wei in a final effort to produce a settlement of the family feud. When they arrive, Wei announces that Seventh Master, a prestigious urban relative of the Weis, visiting him for the New Year’s celebration, has agreed to preside over Aigu’s case and will attempt to persuade the Zhuangs to accept the terms of divorce proposed, with which he, Wei, already agrees. To make the settlement more agreeable, Seventh Master has persuaded the Shis to add ten dollars to the sum of money already offered to the Zhuangs. Although Aigu is confident that her father will again reject the divorce proposal, she becomes alarmed when he remains silent. In desperation, she speaks out in her own defense.

Seventh Master reminds her, however, that a young person ought to be more compliant in adjusting to reality, for “compliance produces riches.” Furthermore, he informs her, since her in-laws have already dismissed her from their presence, she will have to suffer a divorce, regardless of whether there is a money settlement. At this point, Young Shi takes the opportunity to remind Seventh Master that if Aigu acts in this manner here, she must have acted much worse in his father’s home. He complains that at home she always referred to his father and to himself as “beasts.” Indeed, she even called him a sishengzi (bastard). Aigu breaks in to deny this charge and counters that he called her a pinchuan (bitch).

At Aigu’s response, Seventh Master cries out a command: “Come in!” Silence immediately follows. Aigu is thunderstruck. A servant enters and hurries up to the dignitary, who whispers some order to him which nobody can understand. The man replies: “Yes, venerable sir,” and departs. Fearfully, Aigu blurts out to Seventh Master that she always meant to accept his decision. Wei is delighted. The families exchange wedding certificates and money. The servant enters and gives something to Seventh Master, who puts his hand to his nose and then sneezes; the whispered order was for snuff. Zhuang Musan and Aigu leave after refusing to take a cup of New Year’s wine.

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