As part of our Learn Chinese Through Chinese Stories campaign, we would like to introduce one of the most pivotal writers in modern Chinese history. His name is Lu Xun and his stories have been included in four of our Capturing Chinese series books. We begin by introducing Lu Xun and next week we will move into some of his short stories.
Introduction to Lǔ Xùn
Lǔ Xùn (鲁迅) was born in Shàoxīng (绍兴城) in 1881. Shàoxīng is a part of Jiāngsū (江苏省) province and has been home to many of China’s literary giants throughout history. During Lǔ Xùn’s time it was also a hotbed for anti-Qing revolutionaries who frequently appear in his stories. Lǔ Xùn was born with the name Zhōu Zhāngshòu (周樟寿). He later changed his name to Zhōu Yùshān (周豫山) and took the courtesy name of Zhōu Shùrén (周树人). Men primarily used a courtesy name after reaching 20 years of age as a symbol of adulthood and respect. He chose the pen name Lǔ Xùn when writing his first short story, A Madman’s Diary, in May of 1918. He chose Lǔ (鲁) in commemoration of his mother, whose maiden surname was also Lǔ (鲁).
Lǔ Xùn had two younger brothers: Zhōu Zuòrén (周做人) who was four years younger and Zhōu Jiànrén (周建人) who was five years younger. While Lǔ Xùn did have a third younger brother, this brother died very young.
The Zhou family was well-educated and Lǔ Xùn’s paternal grandfather, Zhōu Fúqīng (周福清), had held a post at the prestigious Hanlin Academy (翰林院 Hànlín Yuàn). However, after his grandfather tried to procure an official post for Lǔ Xùn’s father, the family’s fortunes began to decline. His grandfather was arrested for bribery and almost beheaded. Such crimes in ancient China threatened all the family members since the authorities would commonly punish the whole family for one member’s transgressions. Lǔ Xùn’s father had his xiucai (秀才) degree stripped and was banned from taking further exams.
Lǔ Xùn was brought up by a servant called Ā Cháng (阿长) whom Lǔ Xùn called Cháng Mā (长妈). Ā Cháng was a very superstitious woman and shared many stories with Lǔ Xùn including those about the Long Hairs (长毛 Cháng Máo). The Long Hairs were also known as the Taipings and were the rebels of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). She also gave him a copy of the Classics of Mountains and Seas (山海经 Shān Hǎi Jīng), which included many mythical tales about the world and became his favorite book during childhood.
After Zhōu Fúqīng’s imprisonment, Lǔ Xùn’s father began drinking and became addicted to opium. He contracted a chronic illness and had traditional Chinese doctors care for him for the last four years of his life. One of these doctors was called Dr. He Jianchen whose surname appears in two short stories from Nahan (呐喊): The Madman’s Diary (狂人日记) and Tomorrow (明天). From this experience, Lǔ Xùn learned to distrust and even despise traditional Chinese medicine and other superstitions. In the preface to Nàhǎn he recalls having to pawn the family’s valuables in order to buy esoteric medicine prescribed by his father’s doctors. His father eventually died from tuberculosis during Lǔ Xùn’s adolescence. The poor standard of care for his father’s chronic illness inspired Lǔ Xùn to study western medicine and eventually led him to Sendai in Japan.
Before heading to Japan, Lǔ Xùn studied at Jiangnan Naval Academy (江南水师学堂 Jiāngnán Shuǐshī Xuétáng). He left after his first year and continued his studies at Jiangnan Army Academy’s School of Mining and Railroads (江南陆师学堂附设的矿务铁路学堂 Jiāngnán Lùshī Xuétáng Fùshè de Kuàng Wù Tiělù Xuétáng) for the next three. He graduated in 1902.
After the first opium wars in 1839, China was forcefully opened up to the outside world and the Chinese began to grasp their dire need to modernize. Not only were the Western powers infringing on Chinese sovereignty, but their neighbor, Japan, also came to exploit China. As a response, China sent large numbers of students abroad to learn the West’s “secrets.” Due to their similar language structure, Japan was an easier place than either America or Europe to study. In 1902, having successfully obtained a government scholarship, Lǔ Xùn went to Japan to study medicine as a part of a government effort to modernize China. Lǔ Xùn saw modern medicine as an essential key to modernization.
In order to get away from his fellow Chinese students, Lǔ Xùn went to Sendai in the northern part of the main island of Japan where he was the first and only Chinese student. He enrolled at the Sendai Specialized School of Medical Studies (仙台的医学专门学校 Xiāntái de Yīxué Zhuānmén Xuéxiào). He stayed there and struggled with his studies for one and a half years before suddenly and angrily walking out of the lecture room, quitting his studies in medicine, and devoting himself to literature instead. After seeing a public execution of a Chinese spy, he realized from the looks of the surrounding spectators that the Chinese soul needed more healing than their physical body. He wrote literature to heal the spirit of the Chinese people. (See 呐喊－自序 for the complete story on why he quit his medical studies.)
Lǔ Xùn stayed in Tokyo for three more years while pursuing his interests in literature. In 1909 he returned home to Shàoxīng and found a job teaching. He stayed in southern China doing various jobs until 1912 when he moved to Běijīng, having found a job with the newly formed government in the Ministry of Education. The Republic of China had just replaced the Qing Dynasty late in the prior year. From 1912-1917, Lǔ Xùn found himself quite disillusioned with the Revolution. While Sun Yat-sen (孙中山 Sūn Zhōngshān) had founded the Republic of China, the military man Yuán Shìkǎi (袁世凯) shortly thereafter usurped power and continued the corrupt ways of the Qing Dynasty before him. He even declared himself emperor of a new dynasty in 1916 before dying later that same year.
Slightly before and then after the death of Yuán Shìkǎi, political activities and movements began to flourish. These movements are commonly known as The New Culture Movement or The May Fourth Movement. In August 1917, Qián Xuántóng (钱玄同), a close friend of Lǔ Xùn, urged Lǔ Xùn to write and contribute to their newly formed magazine, The New Youth (新青年 Xīn Qīngnián). For this magazine Lǔ Xùn wrote some of his most famous short stories such as A Madman’s Diary (狂人日记), Kong Yiji (孔已己) , and Medicine (药). In 1922 he collected his short stories into a collection called Nàhǎn (呐喊), known in English by various names. A Call to Arms, Cheering From the Sidelines, Outcry are a few examples.
In 1925, he published his second collection of short stories called Pánghuáng (彷徨), known in English as Wondering or Wondering Where to Turn. Between 1924 and 1926, Lǔ Xùn published a series of prose poems that were later collected into Wild Grass. Wild Grass was published in 1927.
During the writing of Wondering and Wild Grass, Lǔ Xùn was especially troubled by the current political situation in China. In addition, he was finding himself increasingly estranged from his younger brother Zhou Zuoren. While Lǔ Xùn was already married, he had only married out of traditional obligation. However, during this time he found love in his student, Xu Guangping. Xu Guangping and Lǔ Xùn met for the first time in 1925 and started living together in 1927.
Lǔ Xùn spent most of the rest of his life in the liberal city of Shanghai. During this time he wrote essays and his famous A Concise History of Chinese Fiction (中國小說史略).
Lǔ Xùn died on October 18th, 1936 due to tuberculosis. His remains are interred in Lǔ Xùn Park (鲁迅公园) in Shanghai. Lǔ Xùn and Xu Guangping had one son.
Lǔ Xùn gives a great introduction to his stories in his own words in his preface to Nahan, which we provide and introduce below:
自序 means a preface to one’s book. Here Lǔ Xùn gives us a look into his past and how events in his life have influenced these short stories.
For instance, he mentions having to pawn the family’s goods in order to buy esoteric prescriptions for his sick father. Watching his father’s illness progressively get worse until his death, led Lǔ Xùn to question Chinese folk medicine throughout his life. He went to Japan to study Western medicine in order to help change China’s reliance on superstition for medicinal cures before ultimately turning to literature instead. His feelings towards Chinese medicine find their way into two of his stories, Medicine (药) and Tomorrow (明天).
He also discusses his inspiration for giving up medicine for literature. Watching a slide show of a captured Chinese man about to be executed for spying incensed him. It wasn’t that Japanese troops were about to execute one of his countrymen, but rather the Chinese surrounding the spy all had blank, wooden looks on their faces. He felt the dire need to reinvigorate the Chinese population. Lǔ Xùn saw writing as the best means for helping to change the thinking of the Chinese people. Given China’s literary past in which Confucian scholars influenced Chinese thinking immensely, one can understand his motivation for becoming an author.
He also discusses why he decided to help China through a new cultural movement. He asks himself, if a bunch of people were locked in a sealed metal room, in which people were sleeping, had no means of escape, and were doomed to suffocate, would it make any sense to try to wake them. He could arouse the light sleepers and tell them of their impending doom hoping that they might find a way to save themselves, but this would only cause them to consciously meet their death. Lǔ Xùn says it is hope, the possibility that someone might find a way out of the sealed room, that has led him to write these short stories. While he might think doom is inevitable, he can’t say others shouldn’t have hope.
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