The Legacy and Works of Lu Xun

The Father of Modern Chinese Literature

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A photo of Lu Xun in 1930. Public domain

Lu Xun (鲁迅) was the pen name of Zhou Shuren (周树人), one of China’s most famous fiction authors, poets, and essayists. He is considered by many to be the father of modern Chinese literature because he was the first serious author to write using modern colloquial language.

Lu Xun died on October 19, 1936, but his works have remained prominent over the years in Chinese culture.

National and International Influence

Widely recognized as one of China’s best and most influential authors, Lu Xun remains strikingly relevant to modern China.

His socially-critical work is still widely read and discussed in China and references to his stories, characters, and essays abound in everyday speech as well as academia.

Many Chinese people can quote from several of his stories verbatim, as they are still taught as part of China’s national curriculum. His work also continues to influence modern Chinese authors and writers around the world. Nobel-prize-winning author Kenzaburō Ōe reportedly called him "the greatest writer Asia produced in the twentieth century."

Impact on the Communist Party

Lu Xun’s work has been embraced and to a certain extent co-opted by China’s Communist Party. Mao Zedong held him in very high esteem, although Mao also worked hard to prevent people from taking Lu Xun’s sharp-tongued critical approach when it came to writing about the Party.

Lu Xun himself died well before the communist revolution and it’s difficult to say what he would have thought of it.

Early Life

Born on September 25, 1881, in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, Lu Xun was born into a wealthy and well-educated family. However, his grandfather was caught and nearly executed for bribery when Lu Xun was still a child, which sent his family tumbling down the social ladder. This fall from grace and the way once-friendly neighbors treated his family after they had lost their status had a profound effect on the young Lu Xun.

When traditional Chinese remedies failed to save his father's life from an illness, most likely tuberculosis, Lu Xun vowed to study Western medicine and become a doctor. His studies took him to Japan, where one day after class he saw a slide of a Chinese prisoner being executed by Japanese soldiers while other Chinese people were gathered around happily taking in the spectacle.

Appalled at his countrymen’s apparent callousness, Lu Xun abandoned his study of medicine and vowed to take up writing with the idea that was no point in curing diseases in Chinese people’s bodies if there was a more fundamental problem in their minds that needed curing.

Socio-Political Beliefs

The beginning of Lu Xun’s writing career coincided with the beginning of the May 4th Movement—a social and political movement of mostly young intellectuals who were determined to modernize China by importing and adapting Western ideas, literary theories, and medical practices. Through his writing, which was extremely critical of Chinese tradition and strongly advocated modernization, Lu Xun became one of the leaders of this movement.

Noted Works

His first short story, “A Madman’s Diary”, made a huge splash in China’s literary world when it was published in 1918 for its clever use of colloquial language juxtaposed with the stilted, hard-to-read classical language that “serious” authors were meant to write in at the time.

The story also turned heads for its extremely critical take on China's dependence on tradition, which Lu Xun uses metaphors to compare to cannibalism.

A short, satirical novella called “The True Story of Ah-Q” was published a few years later. In this work, Lu Xun condemns the Chinese psyche through the titular character Ah-Q, a bumbling peasant who constantly considers himself superior to others even as he is relentlessly humiliated and ultimately executed by them. This characterization was on-the-nose enough that the phrase “the Ah-Q spirit” remains widely-used even today, nearly 100 years after the story was first published.

Although his early short fiction is among his most memorable work, Lu Xun was a prolific writer and he produced a wide variety of pieces including a large number of translations of Western works, many significant critical essays, and even a number of poems.

Though he only lived to be 55, his complete collected works fill 20 volumes and weigh over 60 pounds.

Selected Translated Works

The two works mentioned above, “A Madman’s Diary” (狂人日记) and “The True Story of Ah-Q” (阿Q正传) are available to read as translated works. 

Other translated works include “The New Year’s Sacrifice”, a powerful short story about women’s rights and, more broadly, the dangers of complacency. Also available is “My Old Home”, a more reflective tale about memory and the ways in which we relate to the past.

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Custer, Charles. "The Legacy and Works of Lu Xun." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/lu-xun-modern-chinese-literature-688105. Custer, Charles. (2017, July 31). The Legacy and Works of Lu Xun. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lu-xun-modern-chinese-literature-688105 Custer, Charles. "The Legacy and Works of Lu Xun." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lu-xun-modern-chinese-literature-688105 (accessed December 18, 2017).