Lu Xun World Literature Analysis - Essay

Lu Xun World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2468 words.)