Lu Xun World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2468

Literature to Lu Xun was neither a political vehicle nor an aesthetic game, but a medium for promoting social change. Three questions that preoccupied Lu Xun throughout his writing career were What is wrong with China? What defects dwell in Chinese national character? and What blocks an individual’s spiritual development?...

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Literature to Lu Xun was neither a political vehicle nor an aesthetic game, but a medium for promoting social change. Three questions that preoccupied Lu Xun throughout his writing career were What is wrong with China? What defects dwell in Chinese national character? and What blocks an individual’s spiritual development? Although Lu Xun’s essays, which have the lyrical fluidity of Roland Barthes’s personal essays and the sarcasm of Henry Louis Mencken’s satirical essays, form a large part of Lu Xun’s writing, his short stories and prose poems represent the core of his literary creativity. “The Diary of a Madman” heralded the iconoclastic May Fourth movement. It diagnosed the disease of China as ubiquitous cannibalism. The protagonist finds, in his paranoid sensitivity, that China has a four-thousand-year history of eating people. All Chinese, including himself, he discovers, are participating in the game of eating and being eaten. This cannibalism cannot function without its victim’s collaboration. Lu Xun urges the spiritual transformation of every Chinese. Lu Xun observed that the Chinese national character has been affected by China’s being twice enslaved by barbarians. In The True Story of Ah Q, he represents what he considers to be the vices of every Chinese, which include egomania, self-deluding optimism, and a tendency to bully the weak and cower before the strong. In “Gong yiji” (1919; English translation, 1960), Lu Xun ridicules the inability of old intellectuals to adapt themselves to a changing society. In “Gudu zhe” (1925; “The Misanthrope,” 1954), he warns intellectuals against collaboration with corrupted authority. In “Yijian xiaoshi” (1919; “An Incident,” 1954), he examines the smallness of the self in contrast with the nobility of a rickshaw man.

Lu Xun gave special attention to the plight of women in his time. He actively participated in debates concerning women’s liberation and published such famous essays as “Nala zouhou zenyang” (1924; “What Happens After Nora Leaves Home?” 1959) and “Wode jielie guan” (1924; “My Views on Chastity,” 1959). In “The New Year’s Sacrifice,” Lu Xun portrays a country woman who is driven mad by the joint forces of feudal marriage, religion, superstition, and the gullibility of the villagers and herself. In “Regret for the Past,” Lu Xun offers criticism against women’s caging themselves and against men’s abandoning women. Although the spearhead of his satire is always aimed at a larger system beyond the individual’s power, the individual can still choose to act differently. For this reason, Lu Xun can, to some extent, be considered an existentialist.

Considering Lu Xun’s social concerns, one may assume that his writing would fall into the category of realism. In fact, the styles of his writing are various and are influenced by writers whose works do not follow the tenets of realism. “The Diary of a Madman,” for example, is influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s subjectivity, Nikolai Gogol’s irony, and Leonid Andreyev’s psychological symbolism. The story established Lu Xun as the father of Chinese modern fiction and as the first Chinese writer in the Western modernist tradition. In “Medicine,” Lu Xun employs what has been called symbolic narrative. In The True Story of Ah Q, he uses the form of a mock epic. In “Toufa de gushi” (1920; “The Story of a Hair,” 1941), he uses a sustained monologue. In the collection Gushi xinbian (1935; Old Tales Retold, 1961), Lu Xun uses parody to rewrite Chinese myths and legends with modern ironic sensitivity.

Lu Xun’s short fiction is famous for composite characterization and humor. Although most of his protagonists represent individual types or even national types, they are extremely vivid and concrete. Ah Q is an example. The author’s impressionistic eye captures, in blurred but emotionally accurate detail, a protean Everyman in China at the beginning of the twentieth century. The character’s composite nature is manifested by the narrator’s inability to trace a family name for Ah Q. Ah Q’s spirit and psychology, however, not his appearance or rootlessness, make him a national type. Ah Q embodies the Chinese slave mentality. This diseased mentality produces a typically Chinese black humor that can turn any defeat into a self-deceiving, spiritually consoling, victory. This humor resorts to escapism for survival.

Lu Xun combined the prose and poetry of classical Chinese to invent the hybrid genre of prose poetry. The collection Wild Grass, which represents his most famous contribution to this genre, was written between 1924 and 1926, published in 1927, and published in English in 1974. In the face of severe censorship, Lu Xun had to “use rather ambiguous language” to paint “small pale flowers on the edges of the neglected hell.” “Hell” refers to Chinese society and to the abyss of his psyche, with its ceaseless dark vision, pessimism, and despair. Lu Xun’s prose poetry does not intend to make the reader share in his despair; instead, it reveals to the reader Lu Xun’s struggle with the paralysis caused by the darkness or despair and encourages the reader to struggle together with Lu Xun for hope. His prose poetry is full of binary images of darkness and light, hope and despair, life and death. In “Si huo” (1925; “Dead Fire,” 1974), he dreams that he revives a dead fire with his body warmth, setting the fire free even as he is crushed to death by a large stone cart. Such, in a metaphorical sense, was Lu Xun’s self-sacrificing mission as a writer.

“The Diary of a Madman”

First published: “Kuangren riji,” 1918 (collected in Call to Arms, 1981)

Type of work: Short story

A man who suffers from a persecution complex discovers ubiquitous cannibalism in Chinese society.

The story contains thirteen fragments from the diary of a man who has lived in confusion for thirty years and suddenly gains spiritual insight from the moon. This lunatic sensitivity leads him to paranoia. Barking dogs, people’s glances, children’s stares, a mother’s cursing words to her son, a brother’s caring, and a doctor’s treatment—all converge, in his mind, into a sinister scheme about eating him. On a sleepless night he reads through a Chinese history with “Virtue and Morality” written on each page but finds the words “eat people” between the lines. Then he discovers his brother’s accomplice in the plan for eating him and realizes that his mother is also collaborating. He even discovers his unwitting involvement in eating his sister’s flesh. The story ends with the madman’s desperate cry: “Save the children.” In addition to revealing the cannibalistic nature of four thousand years of Chinese history and its governing ideology and ethics, “The Diary of a Madman” exposes the ubiquity of such cannibalism and how everyone is an accomplice in the game of eating and being eaten.

Lu Xun uses realistic characterization to compose an intriguing story and symbolic realism to convey his moral concern. In a preface to the story that is fiction cloaked as nonfiction, the author states that he copied out a part of a patient’s diary for the purpose of medical research. Lu Xun’s previous study of medicine and his knowledge, in his own life, about a mad cousin undoubtedly helped him to portray convincingly a paranoid person’s symptoms. In turn, the camouflage of framing the story as a medical case history enables Lu Xun to be detached from the story, eliminating the burden of spelling out the point of the satire. The tongue-in-cheek preface is of vital importance to the story. First, it is written in classical Chinese, a foil to the vernacular style of the diary. Second, its explanation of the recovery of the madman and his acceptance of an official post gives the story a bitterly satiric irony. When the diary ends with the madman’s realization of his own part in the cannibalism and of the urgency of saving the children, one expects him to change the system by changing himself as the first step. Instead, he not only denies the truth but also abandons the “madman” who discovered the truth. Many critics believe that this denial reveals Lu Xun’s pessimism. On the other hand, the story’s implicit denunciation of the cannibal/madman/government official exemplifies Lu Xun’s hope in his readers’ abilities to see and to change. Once the truth is revealed, it can never be fully covered up again. “The Diary of a Madman” was an overnight sensation in China largely because of its revelation of cannibalism. The diarist’s surrender makes clear Lu Xun’s deliberate warning to the reader against any collaboration with authority after learning the truth.

“The Diary of a Madman” was Lu Xun’s first story. In the preface to the first collection in which it appeared (Na-han, 1923; A Call to Arms, 1941), Lu Xun compares China to an iron house with many people asleep inside. Although they will soon die of suffocation, if one cries out to wake a few up, one only makes them suffer more. Lu Xun nevertheless chooses to “call out, to encourage those fighters who are galloping on in loneliness, so that they do not lose heart.” To Lu Xun, writing was an act of defiance against fate.

“Regret for the Past”

First published: “Shang-shih,” 1926 (collected in Wandering, 1981)

Type of work: Short story

In the feudalistic world of early twentieth century China, two cohabitants meet their tragic fate.

“Regret for the Past” is set in the 1920’s, when Chinese youth felt lost in their quest for free love. Cohabitation, the boldest gesture of free love, often resulted in the lovers’ being disowned by their relatives and in general ostracism. On December 26, 1923, Lu Xun gave a talk titled “Nala zouhou zenyang” (“What Happens After Nora Leaves Home?”) at the Beijing Women’s Normal College. His message, resembling Virginia Woolf’s in A Room of One’s Own, is that women must have economic rights. Without economic power, Nora, after leaving home, will either be a puppet in the hands of her sympathizers, die in poverty, or become a prostitute. Lu Xun’s desire for radical social and political reform led him to consider the practical steps and basic obstacles between Chinese society as it was and how he would have it.

“Regret for the Past” tells of Zijun, the woman, and Juansheng, the man. Zijun experiences romantic love with “a childlike look of wonder.” This naïve love, which enables the heroine, temporarily, to become her own mistress and defy her society, cannot survive long. Zijun escapes the fate of traditional marriage, but she falls into the cage of traditional married life. She becomes dependent on her man. She reduces herself to a housewife, devoting herself to waiting on him. Her fight with neighbors for her chickens and dog indicates how trivial her life has become. The dog, whose name means “Follow,” mirrors the fate of Zijun. Zijun’s body and mind are both vulgarized by poverty; ultimately, she fails to understand or follow her man. She is abandoned, as the dog is abandoned in a pit in the wilderness. The tragedy of Zijun lies in the fact that she does not have a profession with which to earn economic independence. Zijun, whose father takes her back into his home, dies, not from lack of livelihood but from the death of love. Without love she can no longer endure the sternness and cold glances of her hostile world.

It may be argued that while Lu Xun pities Zijun for her foolishness in making love her whole existence and in falling into a second cage after breaking away from her first, his mockery of Juansheng is merciless. Juansheng is cowardly and hypocritical as well as self-righteous. He uses imitative romantic passion and beautiful words of sexual equality to procure Zijun’s love. He constantly blames Zijun for her inability to communicate with him intellectually but never realizes that he has enslaved her and left her no room for growth. It never occurs to him that a woman should have a career or that they can fight together for survival. Instead, he treats Zijun as an obstacle to his starting a new life and even wishes her dead. The irony is that after Zijun’s death, he still wants his fresh start in life and yet remains unable to act. The romantic love that gave expectancy, meaning, and happiness to Juansheng’s empty life eventually leaves him in remorse. If he forgets Zijun and hides the truth, he will be doomed to eternal emptiness.

The subtitle of the story is “Juansheng de shouji” (Juansheng’s notes). The narrative is pure male subjectivity, saturated with egotism.


First published: 1924 (collected in Wild Grass, 1974)

Type of work: Prose poetry

Describing two tableaux, the author satirizes the apathy of the onlooker and the thoughtless participant in cruelty.

“Revenge” is written in the form of prose poetry—a subgenre of Chinese literature invented by Lu Xun. Lu Xun’s prose poetry can be seen as a poetic interpretation of the essay. The conflict between the loner and the crowd is a persistent concern in Lu Xun’s short stories. The loner is the writer, fighter, seer, madman, revolutionary, and revenger, while the crowd is the passersby, the onlookers, the cowards, the walking bodies without a soul. The gullible crowd is made up of either indifferent and passive spectators or fierce and cruel persecutors. Lu Xun admitted in 1931 that “Revenge” was written out of revulsion at the number of bystanders in society.

“Revenge” has two parts. The first part is typical of Lu Xun’s metaphorical lyricism. Visual images of thin, peach-colored skin with hot blood beneath convey the dualistic nature of human desire and revenge, forever locked in love and hate, or in embracing and killing. Lu Xun presents the reader with an allegorical tableau of revenge: “The two of them, stripped naked and grasping sharp knives, confront each other in the vast wilderness.” In Lu Xun’s short stories, the revengers always sacrifice their lives to gratify the passersby. In a symbolic twist, Lu Xun freezes the tableau. The two would-be fighters can neither embrace nor kill, and the passersby are reduced to an eternal standstill.

In part 2, he uses the story of the Crucifixion to expose the persecuting nature of passersby. The enemy’s torture brings Him pain but the senseless complicity of the passersby gives Him the greater agony. “Those who reek most of blood and filth are not those who crucify the Son of God, but those who crucify the son of man,” Lu Xun writes. The style of part 2 is quite different from that of part 1. It reads like a sermon, full of Biblical cadences, and is sensual, imagistic, and allegorical. Its fluid style and musical refrains make it a true prose poem. Its story, free from the restraints of realism, is timeless and metaphysical.

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Lu Xun Short Fiction Analysis