Lu Xun


Lu Xun (1881–1936), original name Zhou Shuren, is known as the most influential man of letters in modern China. He was born during the years when the Chinese had suffered countless humiliations and insults from foreign powers. Right before the 1911 Revolution, he became the standard-bearer of the new culture forces. He made contributions in many new fields, including fiction, zawen (a type of topical writing that is often satirical and combative), and prose writings. His writings are deep in thought and provided inexhaustible resources for modern Chinese culture.


Lu Xun was born into a feudal bureaucrat family from Shaoxing, Zhejiang. His grandfather served as an official in the imperial capital (modern Beijing). However, the family fortunes had already declined during his father’s generation, and thus the young Lu Xun gained an increased awareness of the hypocrisy and callousness of the upper class. In 1898, Lu Xun, then eighteen years old, passed an examination that gained him admission to the School of Mines and Railways. Four years later, he graduated with excellent grades and was sent to Japan for study. The young Lu Xun believed that medicine could save the Chinese nation; he thus changed his field of study to medicine. However, what he had observed while studying in Japan made him change his mind. He believed that saving the nation’s soul was even more urgent. He discontinued his study of medicine and started to write. Lu Xun returned to China from Japan in the summer of 1909. While teaching in many schools, he began to distinguish himself in the literary world. After the 1911 Revolution, he was recruited to serve as a staff member in the Ministry of Education. Later the Ministry was moved to Beijing, and he also moved to Beijing. At that time, the feudal war lords were ruthlessly attacking the revolutionary forces. Li Xun felt extremely tormented and disappointed. In 1918, he published his short story “Kuangren riji” (A madman’s diary) in Xin qingnian (New Youth), which was the very first colloquial story in modern Chinese literary history. Later he published a collection of short stories Nahan (Outcry) and a collection of his writings Refeng (Hot wind), which laid the cornerstone of new literature in China. From 1926 to 1927, Lu Xun taught at Xiamen (Amoy) University and Sun Yat-sen (Zhongshan) University. During this time, he compiled and published numerous collections of his writings, including a collection of short stories Panghuang (Wandering), two collections of zawen, Huagai ji xubian (Sequel to Unlucky Star) and Fen (Graves), and a collection of prose poems Yecao ji (Wild grass). It was at that time he established connections with the Chinese Communist Party, Guangdong district. After the Shanghai massacre took place on April 12 1927, indignant and infuriated, he resigned from his teaching position at the university. He moved to Shanghai and focused on creative writing. He also became a loyal friend of the Chinese Communist Party. During this period of time, he published eight works, including a collection of essays about his youth Zhao hua xi shi (Dawn flowers plucked at dusk), two collections of satiric essays Eryi ji (Nothing more), and San xian ji (Triple leisure), a collection of historical stories Gushi xinbian (Old tales retold), and a collection of his correspondence Liangdi shu (Letters of two places). He died in Shanghai in 1936.


Lu Xun wrote approximately a total of six million characters, including fiction, prose, zawen, poems, books on special topics, as well as translations. His accomplishments in literature and translation are outstanding. The depth of the ideas expressed in his novels surpassed that of previous writers, and by showing close attention to the creation of personal traits, he was able to portray a group of characters such as peasants, women, and intellectuals which have a rich sense of the times. His writings have won praise from all over the world. The structure of his prose writings is tight and meticulous; the various personas portrayed in his writings are focused on their state of mind. When he portrays a character, his language is terse but right to the point. When he writes about historical events, the turbulent background of the times is always closely tied to the event. Trivial matters seem no longer trivial. He established a new milestone for the modern Chinese prose poem, leading it on the path toward maturity. He also created a new combative literary style—the zawen. He enjoyed using satirical techniques such as exaggeration, irony, and banter. He also was fond of combining humor and criticism to express himself. His language is sharp and incisive, and his writings are full of fervent sentiments, rich ideas, and deep social significance. His writings have become glorious chapters in Chinese intellectual history. He is a severe critic of traditional Chinese culture, but also was an outstanding inheritor of traditional Chinese culture. He compiled and collated fifty ancient manuscripts. He also collected a large number of stone rubbings of the Han and Tang periods. Both works have important scholarly value. He completed two scholarly monographs Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilüe (A brief history of Chinese fiction) and Han wenxueshi gangyao (Essentials of the history of Han dynasty literature), which put an end to the myth that Chinese fiction had no history, and broke free from the conventional concept that all Chinese literary history was centered on Ruism. He translated more than 200 works into Chinese from nearly 100 writers of fourteen countries, and published thirty-three monographs. Through his translations he built a bridge that facilitated communication between human souls. He is a great man of letters and a great thinker. His most influential ideas are: saving our children, the concept of face, plagiarism, beating a drowning dog, the third type of era, the intermediate, the most important thing is conducting oneself, nobody is perfect, etc. These themes cover a wide variety of subjects: social thought, literary theory, philosophical ideas, educational thought, ethical concepts, and ideas about science—almost every aspect of life in modern times.


Lu Xun’s works and ideas have had a profound influence in the world. They have been published in more than fifty languages in more than thirty countries. In order to promote his literary achievements, the China Writers Association established an important literary prize in his name. Lu Xun memorial institutes have also been established in Beijing, Shanghai, Shaoxing, and Guangzhou, where he once had lived.

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