Lu Xun

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Urbanatomy has been running a series called “Why I Write” for the past several months, and we’ve noticed that when asked for their favorite Chinese author, many interviewees name Lu Xun (though Ian Johnson is a vocal dissenter). It’s likely that Lu Xun’s work will be known to even more non-Chinese speakers in the future, since Julia Lovell’s new translation of his complete fiction has hit bookshelves — read an excerpt from her introduction here, and see Jeff Wasserstrom’s review of the book here. So many decades after his death, why does Lu Xun remain one of China’s best-known authors, both at home and abroad? The answer, suggests Sean Macdonald, lies not only in Lu Xun’s talents as a writer, but also in the construction of “Lu Xun” as a cultural and political figure during the Mao era.

By Sean Macdonald

Pronouncements about influential figures in history always seem to have an air of exaggeration, but I think it would be safe to say that the modern writer Lu Xun (鲁迅) (1881-1936) is one of the most important twentieth century cultural figures from China. And Lu Xun is important for another reason. Although things have changed a lot in the last thirty years, the relationship between cultural production (in print and electronic media) and government intervention remains a concern in studies of the culture of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The writer Lu Xun is a cultural figure constructed somewhere in the intersection between state intervention and modern literary and cultural criticism.

Lu Xun is perhaps better known in English for his fiction, usually short but tremendously dense pieces that have been made into operas, plays and films. Character like Ah Q (阿Q) and Sister Xianglin (祥林嫂), read as social types of turn-of-the-nineteenth and early twentieth century China, would later become archetypes for revolutionary figures in the PRC. [1] However, despite its predominance, Lu Xun’s fiction only occupies a small part of his output.

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Earlier this week, The China Beat featured an excerpt from the introduction of Julia Lovell’s forthcoming translation, The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun. Urbanatomy has also recently run a piece on Lu Xun and his legacy in Chinese literature, and a story at China Daily discusses Lu Xun’s writings and Lovell’s translation.

I was especially interested, however, in this essay at Urbanatomy by Anna Greenspan (who has also written for The China Beat), as she provides a tour guide to Lu Xun-related sites in Shanghai. While I haven’t visited any of the locations Greenspan flags, several years ago I did spend several days in Lu Xun’s hometown of Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, where I found a small Lu Xun industry going strong. The city is peppered with statues of the writer and his characters, and 80 RMB bought me a ticket to the “Lu Xun Native Place,” which is a collection of five sites related to his family and childhood. Admission to a large new museum is also included in that entrance fee — though I’m ashamed to admit that a glance at my journal from that trip indicates I quickly got tired of the museum’s crowds and Chinese-only placards, and left before seeing all the exhibits.

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We’re pleased to present here an excerpt from the introduction of Julia Lovell’s forthcoming translation of Lu Xun’s fiction. Lovell examines the uses (and abuses) of Lu Xun’s writings by Mao Zedong in the decades after the author’s death, pointing out the ways in which the CCP smoothed over rough edges and ignored inconvenient truths as it disseminated Lu Xun’s work for the Chinese public to study. Since the reforms of the late 1970s, Lu Xun has been transformed yet again, and now occupies a status equivalent to that of Charles Dickens in Britain: while his work might be respected, it strikes some students as out-of-date. Yet, as Lovell notes, Lu Xun is a ripe target for commercialization — a topic that China Beat will explore later this week.

Lovell Lu Xun coverOn 19 October 1936, Lu Xun died of tuberculosis in Shanghai, still mired in quarrels with the leadership of the League of Left-wing Writers, and especially with Zhou Yang, the literary politico who would become Mao’s cultural tsar after 1949. “Hold the funeral quickly,” he set out in a mock testament written a month before his death. “Do not stage any memorial services. Forget about me, and care about your own life – you’re a fool if you don’t.” And finally, a message for his son: “On no account let him become a good-for-nothing writer or artist.”[1]

In perfect disregard of Lu Xun’s instructions, the writer was swiftly adopted by Mao Zedong – who would within twenty years crush into socialist realism the sardonic irreverence that defined Lu Xun’s legacy to Chinese literature – as “the saint of modern China”. “He knew how to fight back against a rotten society and the evil imperialist forces,” Mao lectured school children in 1937. . . .

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