The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Oliver presents … Lu Xun *

* (restored)


Zhou Shuren was born in 1881 to a wealthy family in Zhejiang province. By 1918 he had seen his grandfather disgraced and nearly beheaded for bribery, watched his father slowly die due to the ineptitude of traditional Chinese medicine, and, while studying medicine in Japan, saw a series of photographs showing a group of Chinese passively watching the beheading of one of their countrymen by a Japanese soldier. This latter event changed his life, and Zhou gave up on his ambition to become a doctor and instead took up writing.

“I no longer believed in the overwhelming importance of medical science. However rude a nation was in physical health, if its people were intellectually feeble, they would never become anything other than cannon fodder or gawping spectators, their loss to the world through illness no cause for regret. The first task was to change their spirit; and literature and the arts, I decided at the time, were the best means to this end. And so I reinvented myself as a crusader for cultural reform.”

Under the pen name Lu Xun, he wrote ambiguously ironic short stories and incisive political articles. He never wrote a novel, but worked tirelessly in almost every other literary form including translation, poetry, criticism and essays. Mao was one of his greatest admirers and after his death he became an icon of the Chinese Communist Party, although Lu had never joined the CCP and might be better understood politically as a liberal. Despite his canonisation, the ironic subtlety of his writing was unwelcome in Communist China. Mao wrote that “…the style of the essay should not simply be like Lu Xun’s. [In a Communist society] we can shout at the top of our voices and have no need for veiled and round-about expressions, which are hard for the people to understand”. However, his work has been part of the school syllabus for many years and most Chinese will be familiar enough with Lu’s stories to casually describe someone as being an Ah-Q or a Kong Yiji.

Lu Xun marks the beginning of modernism in Chinese literature. His work straddles two worlds; the dying Qing dynasty that would be swept away by revolution and the unsteady Republic that replaced it. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote, “Lu Xun is critically regarded as the most accomplished modern writer of the most populous nation on earth, and a grasp of his work is thus extremely useful in forming an understanding of much of humanity.”



Short stories

Diary of a Madman

Lu Xun’s first work written in Chinese vernacular (aka simplified Mandarin), Diary of a Madman shows both his affinity for foreign fiction – Diary is of course influenced by Gogol’s short story – and his ability for weaving criticisms of Chinese society within compelling narratives. Lu was infatuated was fiction from other countries. His advice to China’s youth was to “read no Chinese books. Or as few as you can. But read more foreign books.”

The Diary itself is a false document, presented as a medical curiosity in Lu’s preface (written in traditional Chinese). The protagonist slowly begins to see the whole of Chinese history as being secretly cannibalistic, his writing twisting within a paranoid fever.

“I will offer, as something like the supreme example of this process of allegorization, the first masterwork of China’s greatest writer, Lu Xun, whose neglect in western cultural studies is a matter of shame which no excuses based on ignorance can rectify. […] What is reconstructed [in Diary of a Madman] is a grisly and terrifying objective real world beneath the appearances of our own world: an unveiling or deconcealment of the nightmarish reality of things, a stripping away of our conventional illusions or rationalizations about daily life and existence.” – Frederic Jameson





One of Lu’s tales of the woes of Chinese medicine. A couple with a consumptive son stake their last hopes on a blood-soaked bun bought from a practitioner of that ancient art. The quest to get hold of the cure is told in a dream-like mystical manner, and the possibility of the spirit world is tantalisingly held – up until the last, cruel moment.

“[H]e rarely depicts problems with the accustomed logic of the real world, but does so rather with methods such as prophesy in reverse, reductio ad absurdum, falsification, pointed mockery and curse, to tear up the given logic of this world and to show it to people in laughter.” – Wang Hui




The Real Story of Ah-Q

Have you ever known anyone who manages to convince themselves that they have won, even when they have lost? Then you’ve met an Ah-Q. Pompously optimistic, cowardly, self-satisfied and stupid, Ah-Q is Lu Xun’s most searing satire on Chinese society. His blankness above all reflects that which Lu saw in the faces watching the execution in the photograph. Ah-Q’s name itself is one of blankness; ‘Ah’ (阿) being potentially both a respectful and disrespectful diminutive, and ‘Q’ not only stands for a character the author can’t remember, but also possibly for the queue worn by males under Manchu rule. The letter Q itself perhaps represents the blank face and long pigtail of the hero.

Ah-Q’s character traits, from his prudish misogyny to his meek acceptance of his fate, are all backed up by a half-remembered Confucianism, and told in a deeply ironic mock-heroic style by Lu Xun.

“[The Real Story of Ah-Q] shows the capacity of allegory to generate a range of distinct meanings or messages, simultaneously, as the allegorical tenor and vehicle change places: Ah Q is China humiliated by the foreigners, a China so well versed in the spiritual techniques of self-justification that such humiliations are not even registered, let alone recalled. But the persecutors are also China, in a different sense, the terrible self-cannibalistic China of the ‘Diary of a Madman,’ whose response to powerlessness is the senseless persecution of the weaker and more inferior members of the hierarchy.” – Frederic Jameson






Lu Xun wanted to “be a mirror for the present, a record for the future” and in this regard his essays are as important as his short stories. He saw his mission in life as being devoted to saving the Chinese people, but he was not a romantic. A severe critic who did not believe in forgiveness or ‘fair play’, Lu had the unsentimental air of a contemptuous doctor diagnosing the maladies of the people while begrudging their foolishness for not following the cure. In contrast to the latter Maoist era that he would not live to see, he criticised the left and the right when he saw their failings.

His love of foreign literature did not blunt his abilities as a critic. Ibsen’s The Doll House was at that time seen as being about ‘female liberation’, due to Nora’s climactic flight from her poisonous family. Lu simply asked, “What happens after Nora leaves home?” He recognised that it took more than grand individual gestures to change societal injustices.

“Revolution is a bitter thing, mixed with filth and blood, not as lovely or perfect as poets think.”

“In an increasingly specialized state of knowledge, in a cultural condition that has become increasingly controlled by the rules of the market and consumerist culture, Lu Xun’s acute sensitivity to social injustice, his profound criticism of the relations between knowledge and society, his continual concern with the relationship between culture and the public, his flexible cultural practice – all re-create in these new historical conditions the possibility for the intellectual’s ‘organicity’. This is the tradition of the great Chinese intellectual” – Wang Hui



Lu Xun’s Final Testament

If I were a great nobleman with a huge fortune, my sons, sons-in-law, and others would have forced me to write a will long ago, whereas nobody has mentioned it to me. Still, I may as well leave one. I seem to have thought out quite a few items for my family, among which are:


1. Don’t accept a cent from anyone for the funeral. This does not apply to old friends.
2. Get the whole thing over quickly. Have me buried and be done with it.
3. Do nothing in the way of commemoration.
4. Forget me and look after your own affairs–if you don’t, you are just too silly.
5. When the child grows up, if he has no gifts let him take some small job to make a living. On no account let him become a writer or artist in name alone.
6. Don’t take other people’s promises seriously.
7. Never mix with people who injure others but who oppose revenge and advocate tolerance.

There were other items, too, but I have forgotten them.

I remember also that during a fever I recalled that when a European is dying these is usually some sort of ceremony in which he asks pardon of others and pardons them. Now, I have a great many enemies, and what should my answer be if some modernized person asked me my views on this? After some thought I decided: Let them go on hating me. I shall not forgive a single one of them, either.

No such ceremony took place, however, and I did not draw up a will. I simply lay there in silence, struck sometimes by a more pressing thought: If this is dying, it isn’t really painful. It may not be quite like this at the end, of course; but still, since this happens only once in a lifetime, I can take it.




China’s Greatest Dissident Writer: Dead but Still Dangerous
Selected essays (in English)
Sunday in the Park with Lu Xun
Lu Xun, An Outsider’s Chats about Written Language
Follow the Footsteps of Lu Xun
Lu Xun: Father of Modern Chinese Literature





Lu Xun in his youth


Lu Xun as a graduate student at Columbia University in the U.S.


Lu Xun and Maozedong


Lu Xun addressing the masses in Beijing


Lu Xun with G.B. Shaw. “As we stood side by side, I was conscious of my shortness. And I thought: thirty years ago, I should have done exercises to increase my height.”


Lu Xun’s funeral


Woodcuts of Ah-Q by Zhao Yannian (1980)


A young Lu Xun translated Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, and wrote an unforgettable slogan in his preface, “Leading the Chinese people forward begins with science fiction!


Tomb of Lu Xun


This post was culled from various sources, especially Julia Lovell’s translation of The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Stories (which I highly recommend – it’s cheap!). See also the Lu Xun wiki and this biographical site.



p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Ha, if you say so. Has there ever been a moment when Ben Affleck was interesting when he was doing anything? ** Golnoosh, Hi, Golnoosh! Thank you so much again for the honor of being on your show. It was great fun and much more. I’m glad the asses in my post raised your appreciation of the ass. My favorite? Hm, I hadn’t thought about it. I do like those little Japanese kids getting ‘flushed’ down the giant toilet for some reason. I hope your weekend was a good one. Ours here was pretty much ruined by our psychotic, ongoing heatwave, but I got some writing done somehow. Awesome beginning to your week! ** Misanthrope, Did you? Huh. Oh, wait, happy birthday! G(e)orge on that quite delicious sounding cake for one thing. Get any good presents? My weekend was just trying to survive in what amounted to a giant bbq disguised as a city scape. But I survived. ** Daniel, Daniel! Always, always a total and great boon to have you here! What’s up, maestro? Thank you for the adds! Especially the one to your much missed blog. Everyone, Daniel Portland, occasional blog visitor and full time genius artist, has given us a few ass adds. They are: Yoko Ono. Film No. 4. 1966–67, a pic of a few books including his own ‘Booties That Matter’ here, and a trip to a great little ass-y post on his long dormant but still stellar blog. Here. Thank you so much! ** chris dankland, Hi, Chris! Yeah, discovering the ass lasers is what made me decide to make a post to house them basically. I know, I admit I am still proud of my adolescent cleverness in coming up with ‘Flunker’. Maybe I should use that as a novel title or something. You saw that old Dutch doc. I wonder if that still exists anywhere. That school, Flintridge Preparatory School for Boys, went from 5th grade to 12th grade. I went there from 8th grade to 11th grade when I got expelled. That’s a very interesting background story re: your life at that age. That must have been strange: the big switch. God about your schooling’s first week. Hoping that luck hangs around. You know, stupidly and for no good reason, I still haven’t seen ‘Mandy’. I’m gonna find it. Thanks! I hope your morning is a revelatory whirlwind of a thing. ** JoeM, Hi. During the months where Google had killed my blog and I was fighting to get it back, I made a pretty wide plea asking if anyone had archived the blog, and no one had. So I think the bulk of it that I haven’t yet restored exists only in a jumble on my hard drive. Like I said, I will try to restore an SPD. But, seriously, it will be a huge headache amount of work to find and gather and reconstitute everything. Even just restoring normal dead posts is very time consuming. I will definitely never ask you about Israel and Palestine, that’s for sure, ha ha. I love Ivor Cutler. I’ll go find ‘I’m Happy’. Thanks. ** _Black_Acrylic, I’m pretty sure you are exactly on the money there. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Yes, one wonders. I’ve seen even more outrageous things posted on Facebook that don’t get removed and far, far less outrageous things that get their uploaders ‘jailed’ for a week. As I’m sure you have too. I vaguely remember the existence of the Lake Goose Music Festival back then. Didn’t know there was a doc. I’ll probably watch that. I like that new Shirley Collins. It’s pretty. Yes, I’m following the scariness in Poland. Being in the EU with them, the goings-on there are big, regular news in the French media. It’s truly awful. I hope that uprising helps. Hard to hope though from what I understand. ** Bill, Ha, yes. As I told Chris up above, finding that Young Boys Dancing Group thing basically caused me to make the post so I would have an excuse to include it. Our miserable heatwave is scheduled to continue its attempted murder of us Parisians through Wednesday. Damn, I always miss that Bandcamp day. Fuck. The name John Frame rings a bell. I’m not sure if I know this stuff. I’ll go watch that vid in about 1 minute and a half from now. Happy Monday. ** Okay. Today I restore this very old, formerly dead, and pretty great post made by a long MIA blog d.l. and excellent fella/artist named Oliver. Enjoy. See you tomorrow.

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  1. Lu Xun sounds really cool! I find it so interesting that he was only interested in foreign literature. I love his final testament, especially number 6 & 7.

    Oh, it was such a pleasure and honour to have you on my show that I wish you could be my guest for every episode! I’ve been listening to your reading a lot and each time I find it more mesmerizing than pretty much anything else I’ve ever listened to; I wish I had attended your readings before this whole situation.

    I’m glad you still managed to get some writing done despite this torturous heat.

  2. Lu Xun is fascinating.

    Ben Affleck is utterly uninteresting. Matt Damon, by contrast is very nteresting

  3. ‘During the months where Google had killed my blog and I was fighting to get it back, I made a pretty wide plea asking if anyone had archived the blog, and no one had. So I think the bulk of it that I haven’t yet restored exists only in a jumble on my hard drive’.

    Maybe it’s for the best. Memory is more Romantic than Fact. And maybe more ‘Real’.

    ‘I will definitely never ask you about Israel and Palestine, that’s for sure, ha ha’.

    Thank all the Gods in all the Galaxies.

    “I love Ivor Cutler. I’ll go find ‘I’m Happy’ “.

    Everybody should! It’s 26 seconds long. His meaty stuff is “Life in a Scottish Living Room Chapter…”

    I love that he hated when his sister chomped down an orange like an apple in minutes or less. While he carefully peeled, separated the segments and savoured every one bit by bit. That sort of thing.

  4. Dennis, Good Lord, whatever happened to Oliver? That’s a name I’ve not seen around here in an age.

    Yes, I really did. Saw “Asses,” realized it was a galerie, and my first thought was, “Hmm, wonder if Vonnegut’s famous starfish will be in there…”

    It’s noon here, so nothing yet on the birthday front except well wishes. And thank you for yours, sir. It’s much appreciated. Let’s see what revolution 49 will be like, you know?

    I did pick up my cake…and they totally fucked it up color-wise. Asked for a white cake with blued trim and buttercream flowers. Instead got an all-white cake with those hard sugar flowers plopped on. I told the lady about it and she showed me the order form where she’d written everything. Frankly, it wasn’t very clear. Anyway, emailed the place last night. Argh.

    So I was planning on just a small family thing like we normally do…me, David, Kayla, my mom. Dinner somewhere. Then Kayla’s mom and her bf show up from MS on Friday. And then bring over their friend Denise yesterday. They’ve all invited themselves. What the fuck?

    I feel like a 1-year-old whose parents have invited the whole block over for a keg party for his birthday.

    Otherwise, things are fine. David interviewed for a job at a hotel this morning, and they want him back tomorrow morning for an “audition.” We’ll see how that goes.

    Sorry about your bbq weekend. I think I told you that my A/C on my car is shot (taking it up Friday to get it worked on; car is only 2 fucking years old), so that was no fun this weekend. Otherwise, I stayed out of the heat. I imagine you can’t that much where you live. Try to stay cool, and worse comes to worse, you can be like, “Remember that hot-ass Corona summer 20 years ago in 2020?”

  5. Lu Xun will be added to my list. I was on a short story spree at the start of lockdown, and this form of literature would seem to agree with my temperament these days.

    Another day largely spent hiding from the oppressive heat. I spent this one upstairs in the attic sat beneath a fan, reading Nina Power – Platforms that I devoured in a single sitting. It’s a kind of psychedelic confessional that is hugely affecting.

  6. Ah, Lu Xun. He was required reading when I was in high school. Probably time to do a revisit.

    Sorry to hear about the broil, eeeek. Perhaps the Catacombs stay cool?

    Found this interesting SF-area band last weekend; reminds me a bit of The God in Hackney, another off-kilter rock band I really like, from one of your tips:

    John Frame makes really beautiful puppets. His films remind me of early Brothers Quay. And he wrote the music! An impressive fellow.


  7. New York’s going through a heatwave too, although not as bad as yours, and I feel bored and exhausted. And Trump might win the election because he’s destroying the post office, of all horrible things.

    I hope to talk to my friend in Poland this week. Things do seem pretty grim, especially since Duda won on a platform of statements like “gayness is an ideology, not about people.” But at least there is finally some form of mass resistance there.

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