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.”
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.