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Lu Xun wrote prolifically throughout his life, producing essays, verses, reminiscences, and translations of other writers as well as the short fiction for which he is known in the West. The bulk of Lu Xun’s writing consists of polemical essays, written between 1907 and 1936, directed against aspects of Chinese...

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Lu Xun wrote prolifically throughout his life, producing essays, verses, reminiscences, and translations of other writers as well as the short fiction for which he is known in the West. The bulk of Lu Xun’s writing consists of polemical essays, written between 1907 and 1936, directed against aspects of Chinese culture and politics of which he disapproved. These writings have been collected from time to time and make up more than twenty volumes. Varying in style, these essays were published in newspapers and magazines and are journalistic in design compared to the sensitive, imaginative, and carefully constructed short stories.

Much of Lu Xun’s writing as a whole consists of the translations of foreign authors, a practice he continued during his entire career. His translations were rendered from Japanese or German, the only foreign languages he knew. As early as 1903, he translated the science fiction of Jules Verne. In 1909, he and his brother, Zhou Zuoren, collaborated in publishing Yuwai xiaoshuo ji (collection of foreign stories). In two volumes, it included works by Anton Chekhov, Leonid Andreyev, Vsevolod Mikhaylovich Garshin, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Guy de Maupassant, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allan Poe. In the 1930’s, Lu Xun translated works by many other Russian authors. He and his brother also issued an anthology of Japanese authors titled Xiandai riben xiaoshuo ji (1934; a collection of modern Japanese short stories), which included works by Mushakoji Saneatsu, Kunikida Doppo, Mori gai, and Natsume Sseki.

Lu Xun also produced autobiographical sketches in Zhaohua xishi (1928; Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk, 1976) and prose poems and reminiscences in Ye cao (1927; Wild Grass, 1974). He composed verses in wenyan (classical Chinese) as well as in the vernacular, baihua. According to the late scholar and critic, Zian Xia, Lu Xun’s classical verses are superior to those in the vernacular and are at least equal to his best pai-hua prose. Lu Xun also kept copious diaries, which have been published in facsimile in twenty-four volumes.

Lu Xun maintained a lifelong interest in graphic art. In 1929, he published a volume of British wood engravings and another which featured the work of Japanese, Russian, French, and American artists. In 1934, he published selected works of young Chinese artists in Muke jicheng (the woodcut record). He also published, in collaboration with Zheng Zhenduo, two collections of traditional-style stationery by the seventeenth century artist Wu Zhengyan. He developed a strong interest in the wood engravings of socialist artists in Western Europe and the Soviet Union, and he published books on the form.


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Lu Xun is generally regarded as one of the most important of modern Chinese writers. His short story “Kuangren riji” (“The Diary of a Madman”), modeled on Nikolai Gogol’s story of the same title, was the first Chinese story written in the style of Western fiction and Lu Xun’s first story written in the modern vernacular. His reputation as a short-fiction writer rests primarily on two volumes of stories written between 1918 and 1925, Call to Arms and Wandering. After these, Lu Xun wrote little fiction. His best-known story is the novella The True Story of Ah Q.

Lu Xun developed a narrative style of pointing without commentary, allowing silence to generate meaning within the form of the short story, a method reminiscent of Poe, who may have influenced Lu Xun’s sense of structure. Like many Chinese writers of short fiction, Lu Xun was influenced by Western masters of the form, especially those whom he translated. It was Lu Xun, however, who pioneered the movement in short fiction that helped launch a new literary era in China, and his assimilation of Western ideas became the new reality in Chinese fiction.

Lu Xun’s tales often tend toward satire, and his sense of irony is masterful and pervasive. Reminiscent of the traditional Chinese painter, Lu Xun renders a whole person from a few deft strokes and evokes atmosphere without elaborate detail. Considered a pioneer of modern Chinese realism, he has been translated more than any other modern Chinese writer. Because he believed that the literature of a nation reflected its character or spirit, he also believed that in order for his country to emerge from centuries of torpor there must be a reawakening in its literature. The prevailing view of Lu Xun has been that he was a writer who considered literature to be propaganda for social ends; Mao Zedong called him “not only a great writer but also a great thinker and a great revolutionist.” It is true that Lu Xun was fervently committed to his nation’s future and the development of Chinese society, but his fiction is redeemed from didacticism by his humanism and the high quality of his art.

The communists attacked Lu Xun at first as a bourgeois writer but later accepted him as a proletarian. After they established the Chinese People’s Republic in Peking, they considered him to be the Maxim Gorky of China. Mao Zedong referred to him as a “national hero.” In 1939, the Communists established the Lu Xun Academy of Arts in Yen’an. Following the fall of Shanghai to the Japanese in 1937, the magazine Lu Zun Feng (Lu Xun’s Style) was started by a group of Communist writers. After Communist troops shattered the Chinese Nationalist defenses of Shanghai in 1949 and occupied the city, the Lu Xun Museum was established in Beijing. Lu Xun’s tomb is located in northeast Shanghai.

Many books and articles have been written about Lu Xun. For his pioneering efforts in restructuring the Chinese short story and in developing vernacular speech into a new form of written prose, Lu Xun deserves to be considered the leader of the Chinese Literary Renaissance of 1917-1937. As a writer of short stories, however, he has formidable contenders in such colleagues as Chang Tianyi, Shen Congwen, and Mao Dun.

Discussion Topics

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Which of Lu Xun’s proposals for setting China right seems to make the most sense today?

What is the basis of Lu Xun’s assessment of China’s “slave mentality,” and how did he expect China to overcome it?

What are the proportions of prose and poetry in Lu Xun’s Wild Grass? What does the latter contribute to the former?

In “The Diary of a Madman,” can the reader successfully distinguish the character’s insight from his mental confusion?

Distinguish between Lu Xun’s tragic vision and his optimism. How convincing is the basis of his optimism?


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Chang, Lung-hsi. “Revolutionary as Christ: The Unrecognized Savior in Lu Xun’s Works.” Christianity and Literature 45 (Autumn, 1995): 81-93. Discusses Lu Xun’s fascination with the Christ figure, particularly as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Argues that by rereading his works and carefully considering the neglected aspects of those works, such as his use of the Christ figure, we may begin to really understand Lu Xun and his significance for modern China.

Chen, Pearl Hsia. The Social Thought of Lu Hsün, 1881-1936. New York: Vantage Press, 1976. Chronicles the development of Lu Xun’s thought against his cultural background, including his encounter with Western ideas, his belief in women’s rights, his involvement with liberal socialism, and his reevaluation of traditional Chinese culture. The preface, by Franklin S. C. Chen, is an essay on traditional China’s economic structure as it related to social thought.

Hanan, Patrick. “The Techniques of Lu Hsün’s Fiction.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 34 (1974) 53-96. Using a broad definition of “technique,” Hanan discusses possible influences of writers such as Nikolai Gogol, Vsevolod Mikhaylovich Garshin, and Leonid Andreyev, as well as Lu Xun’s use of symbols and different types of irony.

Kowallis, Jon Eugene. The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-Style Verse. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996. Examines the verse but offers insight into Lu Xun’s style.

Lee, Lee Ou-fan, ed. Lu Xun and His Legacy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. This collection of essays by various scholars discusses Lu Xun’s perception of traditional and modern literature, his development of form, and his intellectual and political views.

Lee, Lee Ou-fan. Voices from the Iron House. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. The stated purpose here is to “demythify” Lu Xun with the aim of evaluating his literary accomplishments on their own ground. Good discussions include biographical information but emphasize analysis.

Lyell, William A., Jr. Lu Hsün’s Vision of Reality. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. The first third of this book provides a biography, and the remainder is devoted to good basic discussions of Lu Xun’s fiction.

Pusey, James Reeve. Lu Xun and Evolution. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Explores the theme of evolution in the works.

Seminov, V. I. Lu Hsün and His Predecessors. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1980. Describes Lu Xun’s role as innovator in Chinese fiction from a moderate Soviet perspective.

Shiqing, Wang. Lu Xun: A Biography. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984. Traces Lu Xun’s life, particularly his political and intellectual development. Includes several photographs.

Tang, Xiaobing. “Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ and a Chinese Modernism.” PMLA 107 (October, 1992): 1222-1234. A reading of Lu Xun’s short story as a modernist text, particularly in the modernist time-consciousness it introduces; argues the story can be read as a manifesto of the birth of modern subjectivity as well as the birth of modernist politics in twentieth century China. Discusses the nature of the madness of the madman, the story as a search for meaning, and the modernism of the story as one that displaces the myth of a homogeneous nature culture.

Yn, Xiaoling. “The Paralyzed and the Dead: A Comparative Reading of ‘The Dead’ and ‘In a Tavern.’” Comparative Literature Studies 29 (1992): 276-295. Shows how both stories rely on opposing the themes of paralysis and death; claims that in both the theme of death undermines the theme of paralysis by making the protagonists ironic.

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Critical Essays