China’s First Modern: Lu Xun was his country’s foremost revolutionary in literature, if not always in politics

May 24, 2013, 12:54 p.m. ET

China’s First Modern

Lu Xun was his country’s foremost revolutionary in literature, if not always in politics.


It’s hard to find a precise Western analogue for Lu Xun (1881-1936). He is China’s Dickens, for his mercilessly sharp portrayals of the era he lived through; he is Joyce, a re-maker of language and form. He has a good deal of Orwell, too, for his political commentary and the plain vernacular style that he championed. And, as a writer who in his final years became a figurehead of the literary left and was sanctified by his the Chinese communist leadership after his death, he has a touch of Gorky.

Lu Xun owes his immense literary reputation in mainland China primarily to his satirical fiction but also to the prose poems and polemical essays that he wrote in the last two decades of his life. In 1918, his surreal first short story in vernacular Chinese, “Diary of a Madman,” portrayed Chinese culture as cannibalistically eating its young. Its iconoclastic premise propelled him to the center of the New Culture Movement of the late 1910s. The two volumes of short fiction he produced between 1918 and 1925, “Outcry” and “Hesitation,” were admired for their portrayals of a China in a state of spiritual emergency: backward, impoverished and complacent.Lu Xun’s Revolution

By Gloria Davies 
Harvard, 408 pages, $35

In the story “Kong Yiji,” a crowd of thuggish revelers delight in humiliating the village failure, roaring with laughter at the discovery that his legs have been broken by the local magistrate. In “Tomorrow” and “Medicine,” children die of superstition: A 3-year-old with typhoid is diagnosed by a respected doctor of Chinese medicine as having a “blocked stomach”; a tubercular boy is fed a supposedly miracle cure—a bread roll dipped in the blood of an executed revolutionary. “The Real Story of Ah-Q”—Lu Xun’s best-known fictional re-creation of the doltish Chinese everyman—sardonically follows the stupidities of its subject, a man too idiotic even to realize that he is going to his own execution. Within years of his invention, Ah-Q had entered the Chinese language as shorthand for the national character in all its less appealing aspects: its obsession with face, its superiority complex, its servility before authority and cruelty toward the weak.

In the People’s Republic of China today, “Luxunology” keeps an army of researchers and publishers busy. Lu Xun remains a touchstone against which other authors are judged, however inappropriately. After the young celebrity novelist-racing driver Han Han launched his hugely popular satirical blog in 2006, pundits labeled him “the new Lu Xun.”

No Anglophone trade publisher has yet commissioned the comprehensive biography that Lu Xun deserves. Gloria Davies’s dense and careful study, “Lu Xun’s Revolution,” passes quickly over the short fiction that first made him famous and concentrates on Lu Xun’s response to China’s revolutionary turmoil of the late 1920s and 1930s. Ms. Davies does not, therefore, offer a full overview of the writer’s dramatic life, but she does illuminate his inner conflicts during his last, most contentious decade—particularly his hesitation between the aristocratic literary tradition with which he had grown up and the radical modern egalitarianism to which he aspired.

The grandson of a high-ranking member of the Beijing civil service, Lu Xun was born into the fraying, fin de siècle world of late imperial China. As a boy, he was educated in the cultural archaisms of the Chinese classics. During his teens, however, Lu Xun’s family sank from gentility into poverty and disgrace. His grandfather was imprisoned for trying to bribe a civil-service examiner, while his father destroyed his health (and the family finances) with a liquor and opium habit.

In 1899, Lu Xun became one of many young, ambitious Chinese men who turned their backs on traditions that seemed to have led China into political disaster. He won a scholarship to study medicine in Japan—a country that Chinese radicals reluctantly admired for transforming itself into a modern, imperialist power. “A glorious future unfurled in my mind,” he remembered, “in which I would return to my homeland after graduation and set about medicating its suffering sick . . . all the while converting my fellow countrymen to the religion of political reform.” Then, in 1906, at the end of a lecture, one of his Japanese teachers showed the class a slide depicting a scene from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, partly fought on Chinese territory. It revealed a mob of Chinese watching dully, while one of their compatriots was beheaded by the Japanese as a Russian spy. Lu Xun later wrote:

Though they were all of them perfectly sturdy physical specimens, every face was utterly, stupidly blank. . . . 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. . . . The first task was to change their spirit; and I decided that literature and the arts were the best means to this end.

Shortly after this Damascene conversion, Lu Xun abandoned his medical degree and began a career as China’s self-appointed literary and spiritual physician—although he did not find his voice and audience until he became one of the luminaries of the New Culture Movement more than a decade later.

At its first publication, Lu Xun’s fiction was rebellious in both language and message. Until the 1910s, aspiring literati typically devoted themselves to poetry, in an opaque classical Chinese steeped in allusions, while vernacular fiction was held in disdain. Lu Xun took a different view. To him, imperial China’s antiquarianism was a means of silencing the uneducated majority. Composed in a Westernized idiom, his short stories demonstrated that fiction could serve sophisticated, serious purposes.

Ms. Davies picks up Lu Xun’s story in detail in the second half of the 1920s, when the right-wing Nationalist Party began a purge against actual and suspected communists. Many of China’s radical intellectuals turned leftward in response, simplistically acclaiming literature to be “a tool of revolutionary violence.” Lu Xun was less certain. He scorned the egotism of born-again literary Marxists, whom he accused of posturing in revolutionary cafes: “In front of each is a cup of steaming hot proletarian coffee while in the remote distance there’s ‘the great unwashed—the peasants and workers.’ ” Yet Lu Xun was also tough on writers who protested that literature should be apolitical, denouncing them for espousing a vapid humanism.

Eventually, in 1930, Lu Xun sided with the communist cultural establishment by becoming titular head of the newly formed League of Left-wing Writers. But we can detect his doubts about a socialist aesthetic in his vituperative, elitist essays, which fueled sectarian feuds among leftist literati during the early 1930s. Shanghai’s revolutionary writers, he concluded, were “a thoroughly useless lot.” (He was even-handedly nasty about literati across the political spectrum: Those with right-wing connections were “pampered pugs”; feral leftists were “mangy dogs.”)

Through his last years, Lu Xun continued to shelter in Shanghai’s urbane, privileged foreign enclaves: enjoying family life, browsing favorite bookshops, hosting dinners, going to Tarzan movies. In 1927, he admitted that he would rather sit down with “a glass of reconstituted evaporated milk” than join a revolution. When Lu Xun died of tuberculosis in Shanghai in 1936, he was mired in quarrels with left-wing functionaries and especially with Zhou Yang, the literary politico who would become Mao’s cultural czar after 1949.

But as soon as Lu Xun was safely dead of tuberculosis, he was adopted by Mao Zedong as an exemplary Servant of the Proletariat. Lu Xun was a fine trophy: the lampooner-in-chief of early 20th-century China who failed to live long enough to say anything nasty about Mao’s brave new world. Because Mao claimed him for communism, a Lu Xun industry has developed on the mainland—museums, plaster busts, spinoff books, journals, television adaptations, even a musical—lionizing the writer as a great proletarian revolutionary. Ms. Davies does an admirable job of reclaiming the literary, psychological and political complexities that Mao did his best to erase. Far from just an angry polemicist, Ms. Davies’s Lu Xun is also an exceptional prose poet, “creating a turbulent aesthetics” out of vernacular Chinese.

In later decades, Mao quoted from Lu Xun’s vendettas to validate his own intellectual purges. It would be unfair to blame Lu Xun for the posthumous distortion of his words. Yet there is an uncomfortable link of some sort between the writer’s literary pugilism and Mao’s later justification of violence, a connection perhaps underplayed by Ms. Davies. But it is a testament to Lu Xun’s importance as a writer and thinker that there are multiple ways of reading his legacy to Chinese letters. In “Lu Xun’s Revolution,” Ms. Davies has created a fascinating account of the final years of the writer’s life and the beginning of his literary afterlife.

—Ms. Lovell is the author of “The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China” and the translator of the Penguin edition of “The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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