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Modern Chinese Literature


Manik Bhattacharyya


When Lu Xun (1881-1936) died the entire nation was engulfed in grief and he was honoured by the people as “the soul of the nation”, Mao while commemorating Lu Xun’s first death anniversary called him the sage of modern China. Lu Xun’s works have been considered as an encyclopedia of Chinese society and his essays as a whole have been compared with the popular romance A Dream of Red Mansions, (HongloU meng) which is worth reading a hundred times.[1]

Why Lu Xun and his works have become a widely accepted topic of research is not only because of his remarkable contribution in the field of literature but also his views which provide authentic clues to facilitate our accessibility into the complex social reality of the time. The literary images in his writings were not merely faithful reflections of the real life characters but were moulded and created by him with certain specific messages. Lu Xun’s contribution in the field of language and literature is enormous, thus, most of the commentators have viewed the greatness of Lu Xun primarily from the angle of literature. However, the point that he played an important role in the overall historical development of Chinese society, which was highlighted by Mao, has not been examined in depth.

I have the honour of knowing Mr. Wang Shijing, the biographer of Lu Xun, and accompanying him in Delhi and Agra when he came to participate in the special seminar commemorating Lu Xun’s birth centenary organized by Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1981. This acquaintance has converted me into a fan of Lu Xun, so to speak. In the last seventeen years I have been obsessed with the reading of Lu Xun, who was also the topic of my doctoral research. I was overjoyed when Prof. Tan Chung asked me to do this article. However, the limited space he allotted to me inhibits me from pouring out all my admirations and assessments on this great writer of our century. Suffice it here to highlight a few aspects.



To begin with, let us see how mythology and scientific spirit have interwoven into a curious mix in Lu Xun. In the pre-scientific era, the longer the history of a civilization the greater wealth is its mythology. China belonged to this accumulative process. The massive absorption of Indian culture through the vehicle of Buddhism had doubly increased the treasury of legends and mythology before the birth of Lu Xun. When he grew old enough to appreciate cultural phenomenon, Lu Xun was marvelled by the mythological world that had surrounded him. To the older generations, the mythology in the cultural soft of China was not just a natural growth, but was deliberately planted by the guardians of morality to lead people to shun immorality and evil designs, and to be god-fearing. Lu Xun’s generation was much less god-fearing than their seniors as they grew up in the fresh air of scientific spirit. Thus, to Lu Xun, spirits were not to be feared, but deserved appreciation about their creation, their attraction, and their value as cultural ingredients.

A Brief History Of Chinese fiction (Zhongguo Xiaoshuo Loeshi) is a pioneering work in which Lu Xun traced the origin and evolution of Chinese fiction. His observations based on meticulous examination of the history of fiction writing are refreshing, showing an authentic understanding of the literary genre so far neglected by Chinese scholars. He considers mythology as the source of fiction. His comments on scarce and scattered mythological sources in China are insightful. He discovers the historically evolved characteristic features of Chinese fictions and observes that the same has never been recognized as superior literary work by most of the major schools of thought. The prose writing of historical and philosophical nature contained references to the life and activities of mythological and legendary figures and great poets were inspired by myths and legends and made considerable use of mythology. Apart from being a part of historically recognized literary genres, mythology had no independent place. Fictions or stories therefore had no official recognition too. Ironically, the supernatural and outlandish themes and characters of gods, demons and spirits remained the subject matter of Chinese fictions throughout and enjoyed immense popularity among the people. Lu Xun believes that the motive of creating fantasies and extraordinary scenarios in far remote times was nothing but a positive and natural reflection of literary activities. He finds the relationship between mythology and embryonic religious thought somewhat natural and logical though both had originated from the primitive need of maintaining psychological balance of mind while living in a chaotic and hard life. Shan Hai Jing (the Book of Hills and Seas) is the oldest book of geography which contains quite a few legends. Huainanzi is another book enshrined with myths. Zhuanzi a book written by the famous thinker of its namesake and his disciples in the Warring Slates (475-221 B.C.) period that contains a number of legends though it is essentially a work of philosophy. Cho Ci (the Songs of Chu) is a collection of poems compiled by Liu Xiang during Western Han

Dynasty (206 B.C.24 A.D.). It has poems written by Qu Yuan and Song Yu of Warring States period and Xiao Shan and Dong Fangsu of Han Dynasty. The book is rich in extensive mythological references. The tradition of mythology and fairy tales continued through ages by direct or indirect references in poems and even in philosophical and historical works. This shows that there was no dearth of imagination and fantasy in the social reality of China. The tradition established by poets like Qu Yuan continued by poets such as Ruan Ji, Tao Yuanming. Li Bai, Li He, Su Shi and essayist Zhuang Zhou (i.e. Zhuangzi).  Xi; You Ji (A Pilgrimage to the West) and Liaozhai Zhiyi (Extraordinary Events from The Leisure Study) are works about strange and fanciful happenings. The spirit of mythology and fictitious episodes was experimented by Lu Xun by giving a modern version of it in his Gushi Xinbian (Old Tales Retold).

Lu Xun considers the reason of indifference towards myths as the absence of a strict division between gods and ghosts in the written traditions of China. There are quite a number of ghosts who could become deities and worshipped by the people. Since there was absence of proper demarcation between men and ghosts in ancient China, religion could not be fully institutionalized. Myths and legends lost their due place in the history of literature. However, religious elements whether as metaphysical or mystical questions or as ritualistic cults were all along at work in the evolution of Chinese culture. The age of mythology and the realm of gods and spirits have remained lively in the minds of people through popular stories. “Wushi” or the position of priesthood was an important official status and “Wujiao” or Shamanism was a kind of primitive religion which was replaced gradually by “Shiguan” or official historian and by the system of recording history.[2] The indigenous religious system of Han people had four basic activities: ancestor worship, worship of heaven, divination and sacrifice. The inscriptions on oracle bones of Shang Dynasty (1523-I 027 B.C.) were the earliest records of divination on important matters such as harvest, war, peace, natural calamities etc. Confucianism, the chief school of thought, which gradually developed into secularized ethical and political ruling ideology could not but reflect on such religious or spiritual matters.

The demarcation line between celestial and worldly characters remained confused and the attraction of such other-worldly strange stories were well relished by the common people while not entertained by the historians. This romantic source of the mythology nevertheless inspired creative minds through ages. Lu Xun’s interest in the origin and evolution of civilization of humankind in general led him to examine other traditions. He was aware of the rich and profound source of Indian mythology. His knowledge of deities and demons of Indian tradition was acquired from Buddhist literature. The Buddhist tradition remained a popular yet separate tradition in China. Deities and demons of Buddhist texts were an integral part of the popular cultural tradition. It has been mentioned that Lu Xun acquired a religious name after he was dedicated to a monastery. His grandmother and his maid-servant used to narrate stories of nature, animals, fairies and popular myths. The deities and supernatural characters in folk operas were intensely watched by child Lu Xun. The hanging woman, different images of Wuchang, Mulian’s rescue of his mother, the colourful description of Yama, the king of death etc. were Lu Xun’s favourites.[3]

Lu Xun was brought up in a traditional atmosphere and gradually became aware of the splendid cultural heritage and ancient history. He studied Confucian classics and the time-honoured historical and philosophical texts. China’s tradition of preserving a recorded history of the past and strict restriction on reading fictions made him more and more averse to classics. He became curious to know more about the mythological past and the origin of Chinese civilization beyond the limited references of myths and legends in historical texts. Fantasies and stories with supernatural characters always fascinated child Lu Xun. Later when he grew up he studied various aspects of human life and activities in the primitive and pre-historic stage of human civilization particularly that of China.[4] The rich and glorious past that he inherited through well-preserved historical evidences not only made him inquisitive about the origin of Chinese civilization but also made him feel proud about his own cultural heritage. His inquiries into the mythological life of China enabled him to make certain valuable observations on early religion, psychology and culture. With such insights acquired from his study of the past he could reflect on the contemporary life and society. The profound understanding of and a deep emotional attachment he had with various mythological images can be seen as an intrinsic element of his work. Mythology contains the life and achievements of human experience reflected in such characters who had uncommon and supernatural capabilities and who were able to understand the mystery of the nature through their long and arduous encounters with various phenomena. They have been eulogized or worshipped through ages as heroes, gods or as semi-gods. Among various mythological characters who are known popularly in China are Pangu and Nuwa and their stories concerning the origin of the earth, Kuafu and Houyi, the two heroes with indomitable determination: (Kuafu who tried to reach the sun and died, Houyi shot down nine suns and left only one for the earth), Lady Chang E and her consumption of the elixir in the absence of her husband and as a result her lonely flight to the moon, in addition to stories of semi-legendary kings such as Yao, Shun and Yu and other mythological characters such as Fuxishi. Shennongshi, Youchaoshi, Zhuanxu, Huangdi’s (the Yellow Emperor) protracted war with Chiyou (the tribal chief of Jiu Liu race), and the eventual victory of Huangdi supposed to be the patriarch of the Chinese race.

Lu Xun’s profound interest in mythology and his priding himself on belonging to a great civilization enriched by legends made him write his essay ‘The Power of the Mara Poetry”. He traced back the literary creation in great civilizations of the world. He compared different civilizations such as Indian, Judaic, Persian, Arabic, Russian, and reflected on comtemporary China. While he admired outstanding literary works like the “Four Veda”, Ramayana, Mahabharata and the plays of Kalidasa of Indian civilization, he did not hesitate to criticize such mentality of boasting one’s past glory. He was puzzled that while creative minds could attain such perfection in their literary and artistic endeavour this could not deliver the people from their miserable conditions.

It is significant that Lu Xun used the Sanskrit word “Mara” (in Chinese “moluo”) in the caption of the essay, and made it clear about his longing for the Mara power. We know that the Indian mythology eulogises the power of Mara (demon) while on the other hand, Indian orthodox tradition advocates Dharma vanquishing Mara which is perpetuated in the annual celebration

of the Festival of Rama’s Victory over Ravana. Both the strains of Indian civilization have been internalized by the Chinese culture which is reflected in the alternate Chinese sayings of “Dao gao yichi mo gao yizhang” (when Dharm/truth rises for a foot Mara/ Evil rises for ten feet” and “Mo gao yichi dao gao yizhang” (When Mara/Evil rises for one feet” Dharma/Truth rises for ten feet). In this seesaw battle between Dao (truth) and Mo (the abbreviation of Moluo) in Chinese culture, Lu Xun obviously stood on the side of Mo/mara and was determined to stand Chinese tradition on its head. Lu Xun liked his essay about the power of Mara poems and often congratulated himself for having written it when he was very young. In the postscript of the Fen (Grave) series (1926), he expressed his dislike for most of his essays except the reference to the life and works of the Mara poets. China’s defeat at the hands of the Western powers and even Japan (a small country in China’s eastern neighbourhood) administered an exogenous shock on the Chinese civilizational pride and complacency. Like the Indian response to the Western challenge, the Chinese intellectual elite of whom Lu Xun was a part evinced a keen interest in learning from the Western civilization while, at the same time, began a serious introspection of their own traditional values.  Lu Xun was at the forefront of a section of Chinese intellectuals who launched a frontal attack on Chinese culture. This created a complex image of Lu Xun who was both a patriot and a motherland-baiter, having loyally to both native and foreign cultural assets. Perhaps, the geo-social environment of his birth place, Shaoxing, was a contributory factor. Shaoxing had been known as “the home of retribution and erasure of shame”.[5] People of Shaoxing put up heroic wars of resistance at the end of Song Dynasty (960-1279) against Jin (Nurchen) conquerors, and at the end of Ming Dynasty (1338-1644) against the Qing (Manchu) conquerors. Shaoxing has been the native place of revolutionaries, most notably Qiu Jin (18791907) who were in the front rank in taking up arms against the Qing rule in the early twentieth century. Little wonder why Lu Xun was so bold in absorbing ideas from new revolutionary sources. He remained sincere in that process of absorption throughout. The crisis in the post-opium War China created a situation that was marked by degeneration, helplessness and a complexity of being proud of the past glory and sensitive to the national defeat at the hands of foreign intruders (including the Manchu). Lu Xun was born in such a critical time. It was not so difficult for him to consciously extricate himself from that pervasive sense of helplessness, but it was a formidable task to do so in his sub-conscious mind. The emotional attachment with the cultural ethos which had nurtured him and the fear of the disintegration or even the extinction of the nation disturbed the equilibrium of his mind. He was in the gradual process of being disillusioned with the tradition and his confused mind being refreshed by new ideas and scientific achievements emanating from the West. Dunng his four-year stay in Naming the most significant inspiration he drew was from the Darwin’s theory of evolution through the book Evolution and Ethics in which Yan Fu’s ideas were also revealed. Lu Xun was deeply influenced by Yan’s advocacy of evolution and natural selection.

Europe during the post-Industrial Revolution period experienced a series of remarkable achievements in different branches of science. The vigorous movement in favour of scientific method and empirical investigations gave rise to a host of new philosophies and theoretical formulations. The old concepts about the origin of the universe, nature, man, religion became ridiculous and new concepts and values replaced them in a very short span of history. The triumph of science became unchallenged. Even the religion became the subject-matter of scientific study. Philosophical questions about the reality, nature, man, god, mind, matter and ideas dealt with by earlier philosophers became the target of attack from the thinkers of positivism, denying the intelligibility, logics, rationality beyond materialism.

Lu Xun was carried away by such amazing human achievements and wrote few essays in response to such developments in early twentieth century. He expressed his keen interest in science and his concern for the progress of humankind in general. In “Shuo ri” (On Radium) he welcomed the discovery of radium by Madame Curie. He observed that the discovery of radium, a substance which emits light, was a great scientific discovery which demystified the beliefs of the past and also dealt heavy blow to the existing theories particularly the Newtonian theories of physics. He thought the discovery would provide revolutionary inputs in human thought. “Ren zhi lishi” (History of Man) introduced the biological theories to the Chinese. He explained the theoretical formulation of Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1935.1919) the German biologist and a follower of Darwinism. Lu Xun systematically explained the different stages of the theory of evolution from the early Greek thought to the interpretation by Thomas Henry Huxley. He mentioned Pangu’s legend of opening the heaven and separating the earth from it and Nuwa’s legendary creation of humans on earth (with mud and hay). He compared the Chinese mythological scene with the western notion of creation by Noah and Moses. All this, according to him, was obstacle to the scientific understanding of the universe. He mentioned a number of scientists and thinkers who contributed to the demystification of human creation. He mentioned their works and was confident of the rapid and lasting impact of the theory of evolution on humankind and its contribution to removing the misconceptions about the origin of man.

Paradoxically, while he was denouncing the myths of his own country, he was fascinated by those of another continent, Lu Xun’s enthusiasm in portraying the Themopylae episode in “Sibada zhi hun” (the Soul of Sparta) was indicative of the deep influence of the spirit of valour and patriotism of Spartan warriors. He wanted to invoke such a spirit of sacrifice from ancient

Greek in the minds of the Chinese youth. The idea of inspiring the youth with an indomitable spirit of courage and ambition can be seen in Lu Xun’s frequent references to Greek mythological images in many of his writings. The story of Prometheus, the prototype of Greek mythology, who stole fire for men from heaven and was punished with eternal torment, was a source of inspiration to Lu Xun. His own intense desire to bring such a revolutionary spirit from alien sources in an apparently lifeless and stagnating environment of China was reflected in many places.

There is no denying of Lu Xun’s tilting to the exotic cultural phenomenon. He tried his utmost to infect his compatriots with this preference. But, he did it on purpose. Curiosity to the exotic eventually leading to xenophile was but human nature. But, he wanted to lead the Chinese xenophile towards a positive direction - to inhale inspiration from foreign cultures to cure the Chinese inertia and stagnancy. In fact, this tactics of Lu Xun was immensely successful, The Chinese youths liked to read Lu Xun because there were always sparks in his stories, his expressions, his literary persuasion. If one read Lu Xun one would not lie relaxed for long. In his works of ad, you would see Lu Xun suddenly jumped up, and threw a stone into the still pond of your mind. Many young students, particularly those who had battened on the toil and moil of the poor, were initially keeping a respectable distance from Lu Xun’s writings - picking up lighter and easily digestive stuff instead, However, they ultimately could not resist the assault of Lu Xun on their conscience and consciousness, They began to see the mockery of reality that when there was not even a single desk in China which did not tremble in the national crisis, still writers were churning out romanticism of the “Mandarin-Duck and Butterfly School” which was a constant target of Lu Xun’s critique. Thus, Lu Xun played a role of constantly awakening the sleepy souls, curing their mental morbidness. While Lu Xun might be a xenophile he made his readers grow as patriots.



The incident of watching a newsreel in Japan which changed his mind is well known. The slide showed a crowd of strong and healthy Chinese enjoying the execution by the Japanese authority of a Chinese spy who was working for the Russians. The utter apathetic attitude of his compatriots to a victimized fellow-countryman worked as a stimulus in his mind. After the incident he dropped his original idea of becoming a physician, he writes: “… this slide convinced me that medical science was not so important after all. The people of a weak and backward country, however strong and healthy they might be, could only serve to be made examples of or as witnesses of such futile spectacles: and it was not necessarily deplorable if many of them died of illness, The most important thing, therefore, was to change their spirit; and from that time on I felt that literature was the best means to this end, I decided to promote a literary movement.[6]

When Lu Xun was in Japan he often used to discuss with his friend Xu Shoushang three interrelated questions: how to have a human being with an ideal character? What was most wanting in China’s national character? And what was the root cause of it?[7] On another occasion when Xu Shoushang asked him to be the first teacher of his son Lu Xun taught the child two Chinese characters “tian” (heaven) and “ren” (human).[8] The image of an ideal man and the problem of China’s national identity was the key theme of Lu Xun’s works. While he was influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution, western humanism and individualism, he never forgot his close acquaintance with the rural life and the peasants he had lived and played with during his childhood.

When Lu Xun was in Japan, the Dean of the Kobun College asked Chinese students to go to the Confucian Temple at Ochanomizu to pay respects to Confucius thinking that the Chinese students were all disciples of Confucius, Lu Xun was amused, “Do I still have to worship him here?”[9] He knew many had similar reaction to this. He recalled his days in Japan and hi- disappointment with Confucian social doctrine. He expressed his views on the classics and Confucius specially on the follower of Confucianism and their attempt to revive the teaching of classics and worshipping of Confucius. Yuan Shikai and other warlords after 1911 revolution were keen in such a revival of the ways of the sages in the twentieth century. But the people in general already began to believe that the traditional wisdom and the spiritual strength accumulated through the thirteen classics and worship of Confucius could in no way prevent China’s humiliating defeat at the hands of foreigners. The Cling (Manchu) government spent enormous amount of money and energy to get foreign books translated while the whole education system of learning classics. Writing stereo-typed eight-legged essays etc. was abolished in early twentieth century. In his essay “Confucius in Modern China” he not only attacked those adherents of Confucius and their ulterior motives behind their cult of Confucius, but also exposed these selfish and conservative forces by using the expression “brick to knock at the doors to fulfil their political ambitions”. He made a distinction between the power-crazy politicians and the common people of China. The ordinary Chinese were never interested in the sage. Only those in authority admired and worshipped Confucius. Lu Xun writes: “We may say that the sages’ luck took a turn for the better after his death. Because he could no longer pontificate, various authorities started whitewashing him in various ways till he was raised to awe-inspiring heights. And yet, compared with the later imported Sakyamuni Buddha, he cut rather a sorry figure. True, every county had a Confucian temple, but this was always a lonely, neglected place where the common folks never worshipped. If they wanted to worship they looked for a Buddhist temple or a shrine to some deity. If you ask ordinary people who Confucius was, of course they will answer ‘A sage’, but this is simply echoing the authorities.”[10]

We have already observed that Lu Xun in his postscript for the Grave expressed that though he was brought up in classical education and learnt Confucian classics he never felt that these classics had something to do with him, His criticism of the tradition was a political task. He considered the burden of tradition in China a challenge awesome and formidable, so he prepared himself for a long and strenuous ideological confrontation with the traditionalists. His target was the Confucian ideology of his time, which evolved from the history and was the core of the old order. Therefore, his critique of Confucianism was penetrating, thorough and tenacious. The question of having any meeting point with the followers of Confucianism therefore did not occur, nor occupy any place in Lu Xun’s literary communication, While talking about Confucius’ neutrality on the existence of supernatural beings he writes: “Confucius was truly great, for though he lived at a time when witchcraft was rampant, he refused to follow the fashion and speak of ghosts and spirits. The pity is he was a little too clever, ‘Sacrifice to your ancestors as if they were present’ he said, ‘Sacrifice to the gods as if the gods were present’. He simply used the device he had employed in editing the Spring and Autumn Anna/s, adding the words ‘as if’ in a slightly caustic way.”[11] In fact Confucius refrained from discussion of supernatural beings, and he expressed his inability to understand fully the human affairs and life and thus took a rational stand of not being able to understand or even contemplate on death and supernatural extstence.[12] Lu Xun comments, “Now Confucius was an extremely shrewd old gentleman. Apart from this question of having his’ portrait printed, it seems he possessed considerable subtlely and knew it did not pay to wreck things openly. Thus he simply refrained from discussion, and would on no account attack anything. And so, quite rightly, he became the sage of China, for his way is great and all embracing. But for this there might be some one else - not named Confucius - worshipped in the temples today.”[13] Lu Xun’s views on the ruling Confucian thought were construed with an intense desire to change the cultural behaviour of China. Confucian thought was a formidable and stumbling block on the way of doing that. He never failed to distinguish the difference between the socio-cultural behaviour of the common folk and the cultural elite. “Junzi” (the gentleman) was Lu Xun’s stigma to ridicule the hypocrites, i.e. the so-called followers of Confucian ideas. He criticized the cruelty, hypocrisy, anti-people elitist attitude of such type of people. It is true that he was indignant towards ignorance, superstitions and utter indifferent attitude of the toiling masses but gradually he was able to discover the virtue of simplicity and innocence of China’s common people. This made him mercilessly criticize the upper-class gentlemen and the so-called literate section. He felt the growing urge to grasp such subtleties in the behaviour of the people. He gradually realized the way in which people had been decieved by the age-old tricks of the ruling ideology.

Lu Xun’s disagreement with the values of the feudal culture inflicted a sense of insecurity and loneliness upon his mind for some years, “…. this sense of loneliness grew from day to day, entwining itself about my soul like some huge poisonous snake.“[14] It was only after the outbreak of the October Revolution which regenerated in him the second phase of his literary career.

The May 4th movement made a deep impact on his mind and he regained his lost hope. The anti-feudal and anti-imperialist political spirit and the voice against the Confucian orthodoxy provided a concrete ideological guidance to his literary practice. His target of criticism was the dominant culture which was based on the Confucian-Mencian morality and ethical values. Reformers like Kang Youwei (1958-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929) were not in favour of any fundamental change and were eager to impose the so-called cultural heritage as China’s national identity on the majority of the people without considering the ongoing changes in the social, political and economic life of China. The champions of the national essence faced the crisis created by the infiltration of ideas from modem industrialized societies.[15] They realized that the native culture without royalty and the Confucian orthodoxy was inadequate to meet the challenge of the time. Their sense of insecurity and fear of losing identity forced them to uphold an extremely rigid and conservative line.

Lu Xun attacked the entire edifice of Confucian social doctrine. “Wo zhi jie lie guan” (My Views on Chastity), Women xianzai zenyang zuo fuqin” (What is Required of us as Fathers Today), “Nuola zouhou zenyang” (What Happens After Nora Leaves Home) were some of his major essays in which he criticized the views of Confucian scholars on women, children and political system. He argues that the orthodox ideas such as chastity of women, filial piety of the children, autocracy, patriarchal authority, and treating children, young and women in a discriminatory way denying them any rights or freedom etc. are against the laws of nature. He writes: We have no means of ascertaining what happened in China in remote antiquity; but by the end of the Zhou Dynasty the retainers buried with their masters included men as well as women, and widows were free to marry again. It appears then that this custom died out very early. From the Han to the Tang Dynasty no one advocated chastity. It was only in the Song Dynasty that professional Confucians started saying: ‘Starving to death is a small matter, but losing one’s chastity is a great calamity.’[16] “New Year Sacrifice” narrates the plight of a widow. The theme of the story is based on the fate of a widow who remarries and meets a situation of either being captured by her former husbands’ ghost and carded oft to hell or condemned by the whole world, Eventually she becomes a beggar who is turned away by everyone and dies a total wreck. Lu Xun comments: “Only a society where each cares solely for himself and women must remain chaste while men are polygamous could create such a perverted morality, which becomes more exacting and cruel with each passing day.”[17]

On how to emancipate children he observes: “The emancipation of children is something so natural that it should need no discussion, but the elder generation in China has been too poisoned by the old customs and ideas ever to come to its senses. For instance, if a crow caws in the morning, young people think nothing of it, but the superstitious old folk will be in a flutter for hours, It is most pathetic, but they are fast curing. Thus the only way is for those who have seen the light to start by emancipating their own children. Burdened as a man may be with the weight of tradition, he can yet prop open the gate of darkness with his shoulder to let the children through to the bright, wide-open spaces, to lead happy lives hence forward as rational human beings.”[18]

In “Dengxia manbi” (Some Notions jotted down by Lamplight) Lu Xun summed up the history of China by saying that there were two types of periods the Chinese experienced: the periods when the Chinese longed in vain to be slaves and the periods when they succeeded in becoming slaves for a time.[19] So the spirit of the Chinese people has been to survive in a relationship not between two equal men but between a master and a slave. In the same essay he mentioned the ten grades in human relationship. The lowest were slaves who had no subjects below them. Lu Xun comments that even the slaves should not feel bad for they have wives and children who rank even lower. And there was hope for the children too for they would have wives and children below them to boss over. So this was the domain of slaves without a voice in protest. Lu Xun made a sarcastic reference to the romantic eyes with which foreigners looked at China. Bertrand Russell smiled when some Chinese sedan chair bearers smiled at him at the West Lake. Lu Xun comments: “.... if chair bearers could stop smiling on their faces, China would long since have stopped being the China she is. The hierarchy handed down since ancient times has estranged men from each other, they cannot feel each other’s pain; and because he can hope Jo enslave and eat other men, he forgets that he may be enslaved and himself be eaten... to say nothing of the women and the children whose cries are drowned in the senseless clamour of the murderers.“[20] He calls upon the youth: “Feasts on human flesh are still being spread even now, and many people want them to continue. To sweep away these man-eaters, overturn the tables of these feasts and destroy this kitchen is the task of the young people today.”[21]

In the preface to the Russian translation of “The True Story of Ah Q” Lu Xun expresses his doubt about his ability in creating a national soul of modern China.[22] He realizes the existence of a high wall separating two individuals from knowing each other. The so-called sages of China were really clever as they divided men into ten categories in a strict hierarchy of human relationships. Even the human body was classified into different categories making one’s feet inferior to hands. Lu Xun comments that the defect in the creation of living is the human’s inability to feel pain of others.

Lu Xun’s condemnation of the Confucian tradition reached a new high in his Kuangren Riji (A Madman’s Diary) in which he observes:

“In ancient times, as I recollect, people often ate human beings, but I am rather hazy about it. I tried to look this up, but my history had no chronology and scrawled all mer each page are the words: ‘Confucian Virtue and Morality’, since I could not sleep anyway, I read intently half the night until I began to see words between the lines. The whole book was filled with the two words - ‘Eat people’ ”.[23]

The abnormal society was a consistent concern in this satirical fiction of Lu Xun. “Medicine” (yao) is another story based on a similar theme but articulated in a more mature way. The plot is based on a common social background in which the man-eating-man mentality could grow. The execution of the revolutionaries at the end of the Qing Dynasty was very common and a fun-seeking crowd always gathered to enjoy such killing in public. More to it is the story’s severe criticism of the Chinese superstition believing that eating fresh human blood could cure TB (which was a deadly disease in China in the ten days). Though Lu Xun did not say in so many words in this story, he surely was leading his readers to draw the horrifying conclusion of a China permeated with a man-eat-man culture. In New Year Sacrifice (zhufu) Xiang Lin’s wife, a diligent, honest and kind-hearted woman becomes the victim of the society. Her death symbolizes a social reality in which she is slowly devoured both physically and spiritually. Once again, the central theme of a cannibal society looms large behind the plot. On the one hand, you have people believing in benediction, but, on the other, such social paraphernalia introduces apartheid before god (forbidding a widow to touch the worshipping vessels thus driving her out of the domain of spiritual society), and such a cruelty is practised by “kind” people - certainly not wicked at heart - so that the readers can see the evil hand of the socio-cultural system which was the real villian in the destruction of human lives and souls.

I have highlighted these famous short stories of Lu Xun not just to repeat the now much hackneyed viewpoint eulogizing Lu Xun as a great revolutionary writer which he certainly was. What I wish to propound is the perspectives that can facilitate a deeper understanding of this unique modem writer who, like an Indian saint, won’t pass this world very frequently. The first perspective with which we should look at these outstanding short stories of Lu Xun is the unique “character-engineering” of Lu Xun’s fictions. They are all simple stories without much of a plot, without those twists and turns that characterize English fictions and those of other languages. The attraction of his stories lies in the characterization of the heroes and heroines of his stories. If these heroes and heroines were not there, there would be nothing left in the stories, not even worthwhile philosophizing on life and other matters (with the lone exception of the “Mad Man’s Diary”). In other words, characterization is the soul, in the golden treasury of Lu Xun’s stories. This has, I think, set a trend for modem Chinese fiction, particularly the “revolutionary” category of Chinese fiction - making character-engineering the main pillar of fiction creation. Secondly, following what I have just said, Lu Xun’s characterization is uniquely Lu Xunian and hard to emulate. His characters are very ordinary-too ordinary to be chosen as great fiction material. Yet, they make such a great impact on the readers that ordinary characters don’t. In other words Lu Xun has made the ordinary people extraordinary by an artistic process - like moulding mud into an idol. This artistic process, strangely, is prosecuted with very little effort - few words, almost no adjectives. For example, his “Zhufu” shuns elaborate building up, with no detailed descriptions of the looks of Xianglin’s wife, of the master and mistress who employed her. Lu Xun just strings up a few sequential happenings and earns enormous sympathy for Xianglin’s wife - the unfortunate maid servant. The master and mistress are apparently faceless characters in the story. But, Lu Xun has, in effect, pronounced an unwritten verdict on them, making the readers feel that they are objectively instrumental to driving an innocent and kind hearted maid mad and finally destroying her physically. I should add my last perspective to say how wonderful is a writer like Lu Xun who has had medical training. For, he is an artist made of pathological mastery. Lu Xun’s unique success in the genre of fiction by contributing only a dozen short and very short and even very pedestrian stories lies in his pathological power to diagnose social illness. In this respect, one feels that Lu Xun should have devoted more time and greater energy in the creation of this new genre which I term as “pathological fiction”. If he had gone on creating such characters like “Kong Yiji”, “Ah Q” and “Zianglin Sao” he would have contributed,much more not only to Chinese literature, but to China’s modernization process. China had too many socio- cultural diseases and too few writers like Lu Xun to treat them with the literary medicine, while Lu Xun, the one talented pathological expert in literature, did not concentrate on such a highly valuable service to his country (and to the human kind as a whole). Here, I may sound a little uncharitable, but it only reflects my profound admiration for Lu Xun’s genius, particularly his unparalleled pathological-literary genius, and my strong wish that other such writers emerge in large numbers to make human society healthier.



I should now take up Lu Xun’s masterpiece, “True Story of Ah Q” which is a subject that deserves endless appreciation, critique, and extended reference onto other disciplines. Like the appearance of the writer, Lu Xun, the appearance of ‘True Story of Ah Q” is a rare historical phenomenon. The True Story” and Lu Xun become symbiotic. Without the ‘True Story” Lu Xun’s stature would have been reduced. Again, the Ah Q story, like its author, is never free from controversy. The critic Qian Xingcun considered Ah Q’s image successful only in pointing out certain weaknesses of the Chinese people thus it was only a portrayal of morbid national character. He questioned the philosophical perspective with which Lu Xun wanted to depict Ah Q as a universal image of the Chinese reality. Qian observed that both Ah Q and his ideas were limited to the period of 1911 revolution, which did not exist any more. He concluded that Ah Q’s image has already become extinct. There was no longer any need for being infatuated with the human skeleton. Ah Q’s ideas along with his body should be buried.[24] However, another will-known critic He Qifang defended Lu Xun’s artistic creation of an image like Ah Q. According to him literary characters too are being set in some social context. Lu Xun intended to expose the weaknesses of the Chinese nation but he could not find a single abstract representative which would embody common national vices. Therefore he could not restrict himself to writing only about Ah Q’s ringworm scars, his tactics of winning psychological victory but had to depict the class relationship in rural China, characters other than Ah Q, how he was exploited, how he changed his attitude towards revolution etc. Moreover he wrote about the unsuccessful revolution by clearly pointing out to the fact that Ah (1 was not only barred from participation in the revolution but also faced a tragic end at the hand of authorities created by the revolution.[25] The success of the story thus lies not only in that he created a character like Ah Q but primarily in the fact he so faithfully captured the contradictions in the society of rural China. It was a process in which Lu Xun gradually understood the complexity of the social reality and the difficulty in expressing critical views on the existing social and political institutions. He realized the futility of having any notion of changing the system by using current literary forms. Any expression which did not conform to the prevailing linguistic behaviour was simply unacceptable and denounced at the popular level. Such was the nature of the forces of conservatism in the literary field. A new word may attract immediate and vehement protest from the public. The vocabulary of that linguistic behaviour was ritually learned and inherited by the scholars. If anyone dared to break such “taboos”, he/she would invariably become a social dissent. But Lu Xun presents that complexity in a different way:

“Ah Q who ‘used to be much better off’, man of the world and a ‘worker’, would have been almost the perfect man had it not been for a few unfortunate physical blemishes. The most annoying were some patches on his scalp where at some uncertain date shiny ringworm scars had appeared. Although these were on his own head, apparently Ah Q did not consider them as altogether honourable, for he refrained from using the word ‘ringworm’ or any words that sounded anything like it. Later he improved on this, making ‘bright’ and ‘light’ forbidden words, while later still even ‘lamp’ and ‘candle’ were taboo. Whenever this taboo was disregarded, whether intentionally or not, Ah Q would fly into a rage, his ringworm scars turning scarlet. He would look over the offender, and it were someone weak in repartee he would curse him, while if it were a poor fighter he would hit him. Yet, curiously enough, it was usually Ah Q who was worsted in these encounters, until finally he adopted new tactics, contenting himself in general with a furious glare.”[26]

It is generally felt that the more you read this Ah Q story the greater becomes your empathy and sympathy, your intense feelings about culture, about society, about civilization etc. If you are well acquainted with the Chinese sock culture, and if you have been nurtured by this culture such identities would magnify manyfolds. From the above quotation, one almost sees the contours of the Chinese culture which underwent a process from first discovering its weakness to feeling ashamed, and then frightened by it, and to ultimately making an effort to hide it, not just from other’s views, but from its own consciousness so that it can pride itself on being great, on being capable of turning adversity into triumph. “you are Ah Q!” or “Don’t be Ah Q!” has acquired the significance in China of a “national warning”. The True Story of Ah Q, thus, is a very effective medicine that has cured modern China from complacency and conservatism, that has fulfilled Lu Xun’s personal ambition of using literature to cure China’s civilizational malaise. Of course, it is a bitter pill for the Chinese civilization to swallow. But, after swallowing it, China has become pro-active in shedding its civilizational obesity, although many Chinese intellectuals would not grant this credit to the Ah Q story or to its author. Both Lu Xun and his masterpiece -the Ah Q story -are a great instrument of polarization, dividing their commentators into opposite camps, begetting whole-hearted admirers as well as severe critics. But, I feel this great masterpiece of modern Chinese literature - the Ah (1 story - deserving greater attention and more in depth study than so far has been done.

When Chinese leaders discussed in 1949 whether the famous song “The Marching Song of the Volunteers” (Yiyorrgjun jinxing qu) should be adopted as the National Anthem of the new, found People’s Republic of China (PRC), whether it was proper to retain such a line that ‘The Chinese nation has arrived at the most dangerous times”, Premier Zhou Enlai said that there was no harm that such a warning remained to remind the citizens of the new Republic so that they would never become complacent in the future years. I think it is this criterion which should help us judge whether the “True Story of Ah Q” remains great for all times to come. To begin with, I would go to the extent of diluting what I have observed just now about the Ah Q stories having cured the Chinese malaise. Yes, this can be established to ascertain what Lu Xun has achieved. But, such an assertion should not blind us from the reality that the socio-cultural malaise which China has accumulated in the course of many millennia could not have been cured by one short novel. Even if we think there was a temporary cure there is no guarantee that the disease would not recur. The “Ah Q Spirit” and the “Spiritual Victory” have not been wished away. We see leaders of China, who had been inspired by Lu Xun, by the Ah Q Story to throw their lot with the revolutionary course, betraying their innate Ah Q Spirit off and on long after the establishment of the People’s regime. They used to paint a rosy picture of sorts when internal and external situations were very critical. Even today, one cannot be sure that the ghost of “Spiritual Victory” is not haunting the psyche of Chinese policy-makers and others, otherwise the Chinese official media would not have been so repetitive in issuing the warning “buke diaoyi qingxin” (cannot be complacent).

Another lasting relevance of the Ah Q Story is the existence of “Jiayangguizi” (the Pseudo-Foreign Devil). During the centuries of Western domination, “Foreign Devils” was a spectre that China had been troubled, frightened, and obsessed with. Such an overall international-internal situation gave rise to a new sub-strata which was culturally a cross-breed between the “Videshi” (foreign element) and “Swadeshi” (national element). This was actually an important sub-strata to help China to absorb Western cultural influence conducive to her modernization. However, they also intentionally or involuntarily played the role of “Ruling Periphery” that helped the western colonial powers to “rule the periphery by periphery”. Lu Xun’s “Pseudo-Foreign Devil” in the Ah Q Story puts him in the negative role - suppression of the revolutionary zeal of the masses, The Ah Q Story aided by the role of the Pseudo-Foreign Devil also viewed Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 Revolution in a dubious fight. What may be pointed out is that the description of this Pseudo-Foreign Devil was quite reminiscent to Lu Xun himself with two autobiographical references: his hair without the pigtail, and his walking stick nicknamed the “Civilized Stick” (Wenminggun). Chairman Mao said in a number of occasions the need to help the down-trodden (like Ah Q) to rebel against the Pseudo-Foreign Devils who did not allow the masses to join the revolution. We can even suspect Mao’s being obsessed with such a scenario that he showed undue hostility in his political guidance over the governance of the PRC culminating in the persecution of many a foreign returned “Super Intellectuals” (da zhishi fenzi). Today, the social trend in China is again overturned with insinuations that the Pseudo-foreign Devils are back, and the Ah Qs have returned to the position of square one. All this only reflects the lasting relevance of Lu Xun.

The indomitable spirit of changing oneself and his environment was Lu Xun’s quality. The change is not a natural phenomenon in human society, one had to make conscious effort in making changes. This ideal of social change with human perspective and dynamism had to be cherished and continuously strived for. It should be realized in dogged manner, continuously and in an imperceptible way, specially in countries like China where a huge population with a strong ideological hang over from the ancient times is awaiting to be awakened in a long period of time. Lu Xun gives the concrete method by quoting Han Feizi’s art of horse-racing. One should not be ashamed even if one comes in last, “not to try” comments Lu Xun would be disastrous, “.... those runners who fall behind yet still press on to their goal, together with those spectators who do not laugh at them, will some day be the backbone of China.”

There has been an attempt, though veiled, undertaken by Lu Xun in his writings in general, and more visibly in the Ah Q story to conceptualize an image representing the ideal reflection of Chinese culture from a single individual. His search for the reflection of positive and dynamic qualities of Chinese culture in every Chinese was simply a matter of academic obstinacy. The sincerity he had and the perfection he gradually achieved in his communication was a rare example. His critique of tradition which developed through an all-embracing and assiduous study had outlived his time in providing us with a certain framework for human communication.

Lu Xun’s writings were not the product of leisurely mind. His hatred for the art for arts sake was expressed by him on many occasions. His firm conviction of using literature to transform the national spirit never wavered. His spirit of engaging himself in understanding the essence of Chinese civilization and the contemporary mood of the people was so sincere and unique which remained unparallel in the history of modern China. He clearly dissociated himself from the advocates of classical language although he himself was trained almost thoroughly in the traditional education. He criticized vehemently the Confucian views and distanced himself from them. His voice against the so-called moribund national characteristics was unequivocal. He laid bare the selfish intentions of the so-called reformers and pseudo-progressive people. He overstepped almost all traditional rules and norms and advised publicly the young Chinese to read less or not to read Chinese books at all. He welcomed foreign ideas and theories and was enthusiastic in absorbing anything new. His fearless attitude to face all odds and criticisms while putting forward his views squarely was exemplary. As if the entire edifice of the so-called tradition began to crumble by an unforeseen cyclonic storm, Lu Xun remained steadfast, determined and sober-minded while returning the weapons thrown at him by his critics for years. He remained relentless in facing all sorts of abuse, slanders, innuendoes and allegations. Passionate patrioism firm conviction in truth, and earnest desire to see a fundamental change in China were three basic aspects of Lu Xun’s intellectual search. Concepts such as “man”, “freedom” and “national identity” kept him engaged in a life-long inquiry into various types of texts. He hardly spared any opportunity of making himself exposed to new ideas and gradually realized that the passion for the country and the people was not enough to understanding the complex and intricate reasons working behind the changing reality. Affinity with mythological and romantic literary tradition of China was evident yet his spirit of grasping the hidden laws of the nature and the reality was profound. He questioned the validity of the divine source imperial political power and therefore disapproved any experiment with the constitutional monarchy. He clearly expressed his support to the political leadership of Sun Yat-sen and the ideology of revolutionary democrats and highly evaluated Sun Yat-sen’s role in the democratic process of China. He always cherished the genuine revolutionary spirit of great personalities of his time and respectfully acknowledged the contribution of revolutionary pioneers such as Zhang Taiyan, Sun Yat-sen and Li Dazhao. The struggle with his own self as well as with the existing intellectual and cultural perceptions continued for a long time and remained in ideological realm. On the other hand, Lu Xun remained the target of virulent attack by the established men of letters and the conservative political forces when he was alive. The price was too heavy for an individual to pay as it were. Even the so-called progressive and revolutionary writers of the time grossly misunderstood his views. The fame became an unbearable burden and made his nights sleepless. The struggle in real life of withstanding baseless allegations, abuses, and unhealthy and biased literary criticisms made his ideological stand clearer and firmer in a long course of fighting tenacity, tolerance and strong conviction.

Lu Xun, in his habitual offensive mood, stood on the opposite side of the Chinese tradition of pitying “the dog that has fallen into water” (luoshui gou) leading to his advocacy of a ruthless culture of “beating the dog that has fallen into the water Ironically, he sometimes found himself at the receiving end of such a culture. He was blacklisted by the dominant publishing houses, and had to change pseudonym a hundred times to avoid detection and earn a pitiable existence of a guerrilla write.  This fact, perhaps explains for his high level of achievement and philosophical insights. The true understanding of culture through sue a long-drawn trivial communication took a concrete and distinct shape in his writings. His writings of this stage which contained mostly such trivial matters became significant and meaningful. He not only showed sober-mindedness, tolerance and above all healthy mental capacity but also exposed those so-called representatives or “gentlemen' of Chinese culture.

Lu Xun's legacy was thus formed through a process in which genuine, lively elements of Chinese culture of a particular time were discovered, classified, revived and re-established. The irrelevant, distorted and harmful elements as were propagate by such champions of the so-called national essence and those modernists under the influence of the West became too evident. The lack of seriousness, the utter failure of understanding of the true spirit of tradition and of the dynamics of culture apart from their hypocrisy, aristocratic pride and snobish attitude have been documented in Lu Xun's words. This was the significance of hi role in specific historical context. He made the great masses of the people of an ancient civilization aware of their times, helped them in a painstaking attempt to regain their self-confidence as a nation, and as a healthy, positive and constructive part of the global civilization without losing the distinctive native cultural identity. Lu Xun all along was engaged in conceiving of a comprehensive image of modern man and the problem of China's national characteristics. In such a philosophical attempt to grasp the deterministic laws of man's psychological and cultural behaviour Lu Xun eventually was able to construct a specific and commonly accepted features of national cultural behaviour and thus was successful in pointing out to the emerging universal pattern of human culture. He had a creative writer in the realm of literature but gradually broke his link with his own domain and laid the foundation of studies on culture with an inter-disciplinary approach. Particularly in his later stage of communication he became so much preoccupied with a routine interaction specially with his critics that a complex yet unique system of practical political though evolved. In this aspect Lu Xun transcended the social-cultural theme to a political task. This was a concrete and easily visible role of a trail-blazing revolutionary which Lu Xun played in the process of criticizing and rejecting the old culture and paving the way for the new culture. It was not merely a task of rejuvenating a dying culture but recreating out of a mammoth structure s precise and healthy value system suitable for the time.

[1] Li Xehou, Zhongguo jindai sixiangshi lun (A history of Modern Chinese Though ), people's publishing House, Beijing, 1979, p. 439.

[2] See Fan Wenlan, Zhongguo Tongshi (A General History of China), 5th ed. Peoples' publishing House, Beijing, 1978, Vol. II, pp. 310-13.

[3] Lu Xun's specific reference to Indian mythology can be seen in 'Moluo shili shuo' (The power of mara poetry), Lu xun Quanji (LXQJ). Vol. I and 'Po 'sheng lun' LXQJ, Vol. IV

[4] Lu Xun's views on the origin and evolution of language, literature and other aspects of Chinese civilization and his references to the mythological past can be scan in many of his writings mainly in 'A Brief History Of Chinese fiction', A Layman's Remarks on Writing', LXSW, Vd. IV, 'Two or Three Things Chinese', LYSW. Vol. IV.

[5] See Wang Shijing, Lu Xun Zhuan (Biography of Lu Xun), Beiling, 1978. p. 2.

[6] 'Preface to Call fi Arms', LXSW, Vol. I, p. 35.

[7] Xu Shoushang, Wangpu Lu Xun Yinxiangji (A collection of impressions of my Isle friend Lu Xun), p. 19.

[8] Ibid, p. 91.

[9] 'Confucius in Modern China', (Zai Xianzai Zhongguode Kmg Fuzi), LXSW, Vol. IV, p. 184.

[10] Ibid LXSW, Vol. IV, p. 185

[11] 'More Thoughts on the Collapse of Lei Feng Pagoda' (zai lum leingtade daodiao), LXSW. Vol. II, p. 115.

[12] Confucius himself strictly refrained from commenting on supernatural things. Some of his observations are often quoted to show his dislike for such matters like 'wei zhi sheng, yan zhi si' (one does not even understand this life, how can one think to understand the life after death?), 'wei neng shi ren, yan neng shi gui' (one is incapable of serving the interests of living beings how can one expect to serve the interests of dead spirits?) and 'zi bu yu guai li luan shen' (The Master never talked about strange and unknown things).

[13]  'More Thoughts on the Collapse of Lei Feng Pagoda', op. tit, pp. 115-16.

[14] 'Preface to Call To Arms', LYSW. Vol. I, p. 33.

[15] The champions of national essence or Heritagists considered cultural heritage of feudal China mainly Confucian and Mencian tradition as national essence of China. In order to maintain the feudal system they wanted to preserve national essence and vehemently opposed the New Culture Movement during the 1920s and 1930s. Such views were later expressed in Xueheng monthly published between 1922 and 1933.

[16] 'My Views on Chastity', LXSW, Vol. II, p. 19.

[17] Ibid, p. 21.

[18]  'What is Required of us as Fathers Today', LXSW: Vol. II, p. 57.

[19]  'Dengxia manbi'. LXQJ, Vol. II, p. 157.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] LXQJ, Vol. 7.

[23] 'A Madman's Diary (Kuangren riji,), LXSW, Vol. I, p. 42.

[24] See 'Moluoshili shuo', LXQJ. Vol. I, p. 60.

[25] Qian Xingcun. 'Siqulede Ah Q shidai' (The Ah Q is dead and gone), Wenxue Yundongshiliao, (Selections of historical data of Literary Movement). Shanghai, 1979, Vol. II, p. 57 

[26] He Qifang, 'Lun Ah Q' (On Ah a), Renmin Ribao (Peoples' Daily), 16th Oct. 1956. p. 7.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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