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.  However, despite its predominance, Lu Xun’s fiction only occupies a small part of his output.