Lu Hsün

Lu Hsün (1881-1936) was the pen name of Chou Shu-jen, a Chinese author and social critic. Best known for his pioneering short stories in the modern style and his prolific output as a polemic and personal essayist, he was a prominent man of letters and cultural leader.

Modern Chinese literature began with the literary revolution of 1917, initiated by Hu Shih and his friends. It aimed to replace the classical styles of poetry and prose with the vernacular form of writing (paihua). The new literature became a reality with the so-called May Fourth movement of 1919, when students held nationwide demonstrations against their government's feeble stand at the Paris Peace Conference in response to their newly awakened national consciousness. Lu Hsün achieved instant fame for his articulation of this new consciousness in a disciplined vernacular prose which has remained unmatched for its verve and trenchancy. He was also noted for his scholarship, especially in the field of Chinese fiction, for his voluminous translations of European and Japanese works, and for his occasional poetry in the classical style.

Lu Hsün was born in Shaohing, Chekiang Province, the eldest son of an impoverished family which had nevertheless retained the tradition of learning. Like so many youths of the declining Ch'ing dynasty, he took to practical studies to strengthen his nation despite his earlier training in, and personal liking for, literature. In 1902 he sailed for Japan on a government scholarship after spending some 5 years in Nanking as a student in the Kiangnan Naval Academy and the School of Railways and Mines.

In 1904, having completed 2 years of language study in Tokyo, Lu Hsün entered the Sendai Provincial Medical School, believing that medicine would enable his countrymen to strengthen themselves. Early in 1906, however, he came to the conclusion that their spiritual health was more vital than their physical health and that only with his pen could he combat their apathy and backwardness. All along, of course, he had been reading Western literature through Japanese and German translations: Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and such Russian writers as Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, and Leonid Andreyev would remain influential throughout his writing career.


Early Literary Ventures

After an abortive attempt to launch a magazine, Lu Hsün wrote a series of didactic essays in the classical style subsequently collected in the volume called Fen (Tomb). Chou Tso-jen, his younger brother also studying in Japan on a government scholarship, was then his literary collaborator; they translated two volumes of European short stories, mainly by Russian authors.

Lu returned to China in 1909 and taught science in middle schools. In 1912, following the establishment of the republic, he accepted a post in the ministry of education and moved to Peking, where he engaged in antiquarian research in a state of apparent discouragement. But his literary ambition revived with the Literary Revolution. In May 1918 his story K'uang-jen jih-chi ("A Madman's Diary") appeared in the leading intellectual journal of the time, Hsin Ch'ing-nien (The New Youth). It was a sensation not only because it was the first Chinese story in the Western manner but because it indicated the Chinese tradition as one of inhumane cannibalism, despite its supposed respect for the Confucian virtues.

The brilliance of this story was sustained by many of Lu Hsün's stories written during the period 1919-1926, collected in two volumes entitled Na-han (A Call to Arms) and P'ang-huang (Hesitation). This period also marked the flowering of the author's genius in other forms: a book of somber prose poetry called Yeh-ts'ao (Wild Grass); a volume of childhood reminiscences, Chao-hua hsi-shih (Morning Flowers Picked in Evening); and several essay collections containing his random thoughts on all aspects of the Chinese psyche and the Chinese scene.


Short Stories

Though Lu Hsün was claimed by the Communists as their hero, the stories in his first two collections are remarkably free of the cant of revolutionary optimism in their cautious affirmation of a kind of hope rooted in a profound despair over China's inability to change toward a better future. Most of these stories are about Shaohing and its rural environs, about the people Lu Hsün remembered from his childhood and his subsequent visits there. The most personal among the best stories is Kuhsiang ("My Old Home"), which records the author's awareness of the pointed contrast between the robust peasant companion of his childhood and what he subsequently becomes—a careworn family man given to superstition.

A more tragic story, Chu-fu ("The New Year's Sacrifice"), traces the fate of a peasant woman in a feudalistic setting which denies her even the illusion of happiness in an after world. Ah Q cheng-chuan ("The True Story of Ah Q"), the longest and most celebrated of the author's stories, presents in its hero a ubiquitous national type who lives in a slaphappy world of self-deception by pretending to have achieved "spiritual victory" when under manifest defeat. Its tragic and satiric thesis notwithstanding, the story is told with a great deal of humor. The most urbanely satiric of Lu Hsün's stories is Fei-tsao ("Soap"), which makes fun of the pretended righteousness of a Confucian gentleman.


Career after 1926

Along with many other intellectuals, Lu Hsün left Peking (and his professorship at National Peking University) when the city became a stronghold of reaction under warlord rule. He served briefly in universities in Amoy and Canton and eventually settled in Shanghai, where he stayed until he died of tuberculosis and various other illnesses in October 1936, at the age of 55. A staunch individualist, he had come under attack from the Communist writers soon after his escape from Peking. After a series of spirited debates with them, Lu Hsün finally joined the Communist cause and became the nominal leader of the League of Left-wing Writers when it was formed in 1930. An idol of the youth, he was now mainly a miscellaneous essayist, dissipating his creative energy in an endless series of polemics. He also translated a great deal and refrained from writing fiction except for a volume of satiric fables, Ku-shih hsinpien (Old Legends Retold), which sadly marked the decline of his talent.

Judging from his letters, Lu Hsün was definitely unhappy during the middle 1930s despite the constant care provided by his second wife, Hsü Kuang-p'ing: his health had deteriorated, and he was finally facing an enemy, the Communist cultural leadership in Shanghai, that he could not openly attack without betraying his basic pessimism and his superficial allegiance to the Communist cause. He was irked by that leadership, which had formulated policies without consulting him, and he also found these new policies incomprehensible. But he could no longer contain his anger following the dissolution of the League of Left-wing Writers, and shortly before his death he published an open letter exposing the duplicity of that leadership.

In his later life Lu Hsün wore a traditional Chinese gown, cropped hair, and a thick mustache. With all his irritability and irascibility, he was nevertheless extremely kind to young writers. Many of his disciples and protégés have written lovingly of his kindness and personal integrity.


Further Reading on Lu Hsün

An official translation sponsored by the Foreign Languages Press of Peking is Selected Works of Lu Hsün, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (4 vols., 1956-1960). Published by the same press is Selected Stories of Lu Hsün, by the same translators (1960; 2d ed. 1963). See also Ah Q and Others: Selected Stories of Lusin, translated by Chi-chen Wang (1941). Huang Sungk'ang, Lu Hsün and the New Culture Movement of Modern China (1957), though undistinguished, remains the only monographic study of Lu Hsün in English. The best discussions of him are in C.T. Hsia, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, 1917-1957 (1961), and Tsi-an Hsia, The Gate of Darkness: Studies on the Leftist Literary Movement in China (1968).


Additional Biography Sources

Lyell, William A., Lu Hsün's vision of reality, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Wang, Shih-ching, Lu Hsün, a biography, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press: Distributed by China International Book Trading Corp., 1984.