gnawing at

Lu Xun

[loo shoon]

Lu Xun or Lu Hsün (Wade-Giles), was the pen name of Zhou Shuren (September 25, 1881October 19, 1936) is one of the major Chinese writers of the 20th century. Considered by many to be the founder of modern Chinese literature, he wrote in baihua (白話) the vernacular as well as classical Chinese. Lu Xun was a short story writer, editor, translator, critic, essayist and poet. In the 1930s he became the titular head of the Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers in Shanghai.

Lu Xun's works exerted a very substantial influence after the May Fourth Movement to such a point that he was lionized by the Communist regime after 1949. Mao Zedong himself claimed to be a lifelong admirer of Lu Xun's works. Though sympathetic to the ideals of the Left, Lu Xun never actually joined the Chinese Communist Party.


Early life

Born in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, Lu Xun was first named Zhou Zhangshou, then Zhou Yucai, and finally himself took the name of Shùrén (Ch.樹人), literally, "to nurture a person". He was the eldest of five brothers, three of whom reached maturity. His younger brother Zhou Zuoren, four years his junior, would become a notable writer in his own right.

The Shaoxing Zhou family was very well-educated, and his paternal grandfather Zhou Fuqing 周福清 held posts in the Hanlin Academy; Zhou's mother, née Lu, taught herself to read. However, after a case of bribery was exposed - in which Zhou Fuqing tried to procure an office for his son, Lu Xun's father, Zhou Boyi - the family fortunes declined. Zhou Fuqing was arrested and almost beheaded. Meanwhile, a young Zhou Shuren was brought up by an elderly servant Ah Chang, whom he called Chang Ma; one of Lu Xun's favorite childhood books was the Classic of mountains and seas.

His father's chronic illness and eventual death during Lu Xun's adolescence, apparently from tuberculosis, persuaded Zhou to study medicine. Distrusting traditional Chinese medicine (which in his time was often practised by charlatans, and which failed to cure his father), he went abroad to pursue a Western medical degree at Sendai Medical Academy (now medical school of Tohoku University) in Sendai, Japan, in 1904.


Lu Xun was educated at Jiangnan Naval Academy 江南水師學堂 (1898-99), and later transferred to the School of Mines and Railways 礦路學堂 at Jiangnan Military Academy 江南陸師學堂. It was there Lu Xun had his first contacts with Western learning, especially the sciences; he studied some German and English, reading, amongst some translated books, Huxley's Evolution and Ethics, J. S. Mill's On Liberty, as well as novels like Ivanhoe and Uncle Tom's Cabin.

On a Qing government scholarship, Lu Xun left for Japan in 1902. He first attended the Kobun Gakuin (Kobun Institute) (Hongwen xueyuan, 弘文學院), a preparatory language school for Chinese students attending Japanese universities. His earliest essays, written in Classical Chinese, date from here. Lu also practised some jujutsu.

Lu Xun returned home briefly in 1903. Aged 22, he complied to an arranged marriage with a local gentry girl, Zhu An 朱安. Zhu, illiterate and with bound feet, was handpicked by his mother. Lu Xun possibly never consummated this marriage, although he took care of her material needs all his life.


Lu Xun left for Sendai Medical Academy in 1904 and gained a minor reputation there as the first foreign student of the college. At the school he struck up a close teacher-mentor relationship with lecturer Fujino 藤野嚴九郎; Lu Xun would recall his mentor respectfully and affectionately in an essay "Mr Fujino" in the memoirs in Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk.(Incidentally Fujino would repay the respect with an obituary essay on his death, in 1937.) However, in March 1906, Lu Xun abruptly terminated his pursuit of the degree and left the college.

Lu Xun, in his well-known Preface to Nahan (Call to Arms), the first collection of his short stories, tells the story of why he gave up completing his medical education at Sendai. One day after class, one of his Japanese instructors screened a lantern slide documenting the imminent execution of an alleged Chinese spy during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Lu Xun was shocked by the complete apathy of the Chinese onlookers; he decided it was more important to cure his compatriots' spiritual ills rather than their physical diseases.

"At the time, I hadn't seen any of my fellow Chinese in a long time, but one day some of them showed up in a slide. One, with his hands tied behind him, was in the middle of the picture; the others were gathered around him. Physically, they were as strong and healthy as anyone could ask, but their expressions revealed all too clearly that spiritually they were calloused and numb. According to the caption, the Chinese whose hands were bound had been spying on the Japanese military for the Russians. He was about to be decapitated as a 'public example.' The other Chinese gathered around him had come to enjoy the spectacle." (Lyell , pp 23).

Moving to Tokyo in spring 1906, he came under the influence of scholar and philologist Zhang Taiyan and with his brother Zuoren, also on scholarship, published a translation of some East European and Russian Slavic short stories. He spent the next three years in Tokyo writing a series of essays in wenyan (classical Chinese) on the history of science, Chinese and comparative literature, European literature and intellectual history, Chinese society, reform and religion, as well as translating the literature of various countries into Chinese.


Returning to China, Lu Xun began teaching in the middle school of his hometown and with the establishment of the republic, briefly held a post in the Ministry of Education at Beijing. Encouraged by some fellow associates, he took up teaching positions at the Peking University and Peking Women's Teachers College and began to write.

In May 1918, Lu Xun used this pen name for the first time and published the first major baihua short story, Kuangren Riji (狂人日記, "A Madman's Diary"). He chose the surname Lu as it was his mother's maiden family name. Partly inspired by the Gogol short story, it was a scathing criticism of outdated Chinese traditions and feudalism which was metaphorically 'gnawing' at the Chinese like cannibalism. It immediately established him as one of the most influential writers of his day.

Another of his well-known longer stories, The True Story of Ah Q (A Q Zhengzhuan, 阿Q正傳), was published in installments from 1921 to 1922. The latter would become his most famous work. Both works were included in his first short story collection Na Han (吶喊) or Call to Arms, published in 1923.

Between 1924 to 1926, Lu wrote his essays of ironic reminiscences in Zhaohua Xishi (朝花夕拾, Dawn Dew-light Collected at Dusk), published 1928, as well as the prose poem collection Ye Cao (野草, Wild Grass, published 1927). Lu Xun also wrote many of the stories to be published in his second short story collection Pang Huang (彷徨, Wandering) in 1926. Becoming increasingly estranged with his brother Zuoren, the stories are typically more melancholic than in his earlier collection. From 1926, after the March 18 Massacre, for supporting the students' protests which led to the incident, he went on an imposed exile to Xiamen, Amoy University, then to Zhongshan University at Guangzhou with his wife Xu Guangping.

From 1927 to his death, Lu Xun shifted to the more liberal city of Shanghai, where he co-founded the Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers. Most of his essays date from this last period. Xu Guangping gave birth to a son, Haiyang, on September 27th, 1929. She was in labor with the baby for 27 hours. The child's name meant simply "Shanghai infant". His parents chose the name thinking that he could change it himself later, but he never did so. In 1930 Lu Xun's Zhongguo Xiaoshuo Lueshi (中國小說略史, A Concise History of Chinese Fiction) was published. It is a comprehensive overview of history of Chinese fiction up till that time, drawn from Lu Xun's own lectures delivered at Peking University and would become one of the landmark books of Chinese literary criticism in the twentieth-century.

His other important works include volumes of translations — notably from Russian (he particularly admired Nikolai Gogol and made a translation of Dead Souls, and his own first story's title is inspired by a work of Gogol) — discursive writings like Re Feng (熱風, Hot Wind), and many other works such as prose essays, which number around 20 volumes or more. As a left-wing writer, Lu played an important role in the history of Chinese literature. His books were and remain highly influential and popular even today. Lu Xun's works also appear in high school textbooks in Japan. He is known to Japanese by the name Rojin (ロジン in Katakana or 魯迅 in Kanji).

Lu Xun was the editor of several left-wing magazines such as New Youth (新青年, Xin Qingnian) and Sprouts (萌芽, Meng Ya). Because of his leanings, and of the role his works played in the subsequent history of the People's Republic of China, Lu Xun's works were banned in Taiwan until late 1980s. He was among the early supporters of the Esperanto movement in China.

Last days and death

By 1936, Lu Xun's lungs had been greatly weakened by tuberculosis. In March of that year, he was stricken with bronchitic asthma and a fever. The treatment for this involved draining 300 grams of fluid in the lungs through puncture. From June to August, he was again sick, and his weight dropped to only 83 pounds. He recovered some, and wrote two essays in the fall reflecting on mortality. These included "Death", and "This Too Is Life". At 3:30 AM on the morning of October 18th, the author woke with great difficulty breathing. Dr. Sudo, his physician, was summoned, and Lu Xun took injections to relieve the pain. His wife was with him throughout that night, but Lu Xun was found without a pulse at 5:11 AM the next morning, October 19th. His remains were interred in a mausoleum within Lu Xun Park in Shanghai. He was survived by his son, Haiying.

Style and thought

Lu Xun was a very versatile writer. He wrote using both traditional Chinese conventions and 19th century European literary forms. His style has been described in equally broad terms, conveying both "sympathetic engagement" and "ironic detachment" at different moments. His essays are often very incisive in his societal commentary, and in his stories his mastery of the vernacular language and tone make some of his literary works (like A Q Zhengzhuan, 阿Q正傳, The True Story of Ah Q) very hard to convey through translation. In them, he frequently treads a fine line between criticizing the follies of his characters and sympathizing with their very follies.

Lu Xun is typically regarded as the most influential Chinese writer who was associated with the May Fourth Movement. He produced harsh criticism of social problems in China, particularly in his analysis of the "Chinese national character". He has often been considered to have had leftist leanings. Called by some a "champion of common humanity," he helped bring many fellow writers to support communist thought, though he never took the step of actually joining the Communist Party. It should be remarked, however, that throughout his work the individual is given more emphasis over collectivistic concerns.

Lu Xun felt that the 1911 Xinhai Revolution had been a failure. He described the operation of the Republican government as "monkey business", and in 1925 opined, "I feel the so-called Republic of China has ceased to exist. I feel that, before the revolution, I was a slave, but shortly after the revolution, I have been cheated by slaves and have become their slave". This disillusionment with politics led the author to come to the conclusion in 1927 that "revolutionary literature" alone could not bring about radical change. Rather, "revolutionary men" needed to lead a revolution using force.


Lu Xun's importance to modern Chinese literature lies in the fact that he contributed significantly to every modern literary genre except the novel during his lifetime. He wrote in a clear lucid style which was to influence many generations, in stories, prose poems and essays. Lu Xun's translations were important in a time when Western literature were seldom read, and his literary criticisms remain acute and persuasively argued.

The relationship between Lu Xun and the Communist Party of China after the author's death was a complex one. On one hand, Party leaders depicted him as "drawing the blueprint of the communist future". Mao Zedong deified him as the "chief commander of China's cultural revolution" At the same time, leaders downplayed the influence of the cosmopolitan May Fourth Movement on Lu Xun, in order to match Lu Xun with the Communist Party's support of folk literature and the common people. During the 1920s and 1930s, Lu Xun and his contemporaries often met informally for freewheeling intellectual discussions. As the Party sought more control over intellectual life in China, this type of intellectual independence was suppressed. Finally, Lu Xun's satirical and ironic writing style itself was discouraged. 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". Thus, the Communist Party both hailed Lu Xun as one of the fathers of Communism in China and suppressed the intellectual culture and style of writing that he represented.

The work of Lu Xun has also received attention outside of China. In 1986, Fredric Jameson, a prominent American Marxist, cited "A Madman's Diary" as the "supreme example" of the "national allegory" form that all Third World literature takes. Gloria Davies compares Lu Xun to Nietzsche, saying that both were "trapped in the construction of a modernity which is fundamentally problematic".






External links


  • Reference Archive: Lu Xun (Lu Hsun) at
  • Selected Stories, Lu Hsun (1918-1926) at
  • An Outsider's Chats about Written Language, a long essay by Lu Xun on the difficulties of Chinese characters
  • The Lyrical Lu Xun: a Study of his Classical-style Verse -- a book by Jon Eugene von Kowallis (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996) -- includes a complete introduction to Lu Xun's poetry in the classical style, with Chinese characters, literal and verse translations, and a biographical introduction which summarizes his life in relation to his poetry.

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