Authors: Lu Xun

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Chinese author of short stories and nonfiction.

September 25, 1881

Shaoxing, China

October 19, 1936

Shanghai, China


Lu Xun (lew shewn), also known as Lu Hsün, is commonly regarded as the most influential literary figure in the history of modern Chinese literature. He was the first son of an educated country gentleman, Chou Po-yi, and Lu Jui, his wife. Frustrated in his career, his father appears to have been a somewhat temperamental man, whose behavior often kept his children at a distance. Lu’s mother did not receive any formal education; however, she taught herself how to read. Characteristic of his time, Lu started his education at home with the reading of Confucian classics. Because of his family’s literary collection, he also had the opportunity to read some famous classical Chinese novels, an interest that paved the way for a literary career later in his life. When Lu was twelve, his grandfather, the head of his family clan, was apprehended and soon sentenced to death for attempting to bribe an official. According to the preface to Call to Arms, this incident eventually led to the downfall of Lu’s affluent family, bringing him humiliation and hardship early in his life.

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Shortly after his grandfather’s apprehension, his father fell ill and was bedridden for more than three years. The responsibility of the family thus lay heavily on Lu. As a result of his contact with Chinese doctors and the eventual death of his father, he became disillusioned with traditional Chinese medicine. Eventually, Lu decided to study Western medicine so that he could save the lives of those patients like his father and expose the inadequacy of Chinese medicine. Because of poverty, he attended the tuition-free Kiangnan Naval Academy and Kiangnan Military Academy in Nanking. While in school, he continued reading classical Chinese literature and began translating Western literature as well as composing novels and verses in classical Chinese style. In 1902 the Manchu government sent Lu, along with hundreds of other students, to Japan to study. While there, he first attended Kobun Institute and then Sendai Medical School. His determination to study Western medicine was diverted in 1906, when he saw a documentary. The film contained a scene concerning the Japanese execution of a Chinese spy working for the Russian government during the Russo-Japanese War. A large crowd of Chinese spectators appeared on the scene, watching indifferently the execution of their fellow countryman. Lu was so repulsed by this indifferent attitude of the crowd that he decided to discontinue his study of medicine and engage in a literary career—a decision based on his belief that he would serve his country better by enlightening the minds of his countrymen through literature rather than curing their bodily illnesses through medicine.

Lu Xun



(Library of Congress)

Lu’s creative career began after his return to China with the composition of a classical story, “Remembrances of the Past,” in 1911. He did not gain wide recognition as a short-fiction writer until 1918, when “A Madman’s Diary” was published. Inspired by the nineteenth century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, “A Madman’s Diary” caused a sensation when it first appeared. The author’s relentless attack on the fossilized Chinese cultural tradition together with the vernacular language of the work shocked many of his contemporaries, who were reared in the old tradition and were accustomed to the classical language as the medium of formal writing. Lu’s literary fame was firmly established in 1921 with the appearance of his serial work, The True Story of Ah Q. The protagonist of the story, Ah Q, was created to symbolize the depraved nature of the Chinese people, who, in Lu’s view, lived in a world of illusion characterized by absurd self-glorification. In addition to “A Madman’s Diary” and The True Story of Ah Q, “Kong Yiji” is another work from this stage of his career that commands critics’ attention. Rather than explicitly criticizing the Chinese tradition and people, Lu subtly portrays the sad life of a conventional, self-deceiving scholar, Kong Yiji, thereby implying the deficiency of a moribund tradition, which informed Kong’s life.

From 1924 to 1925, the most productive period in Lu’s literary career, he finished eleven stories, which constitute his second collection, Wandering. Free from foreign influence, these works generally exhibit a more mature style than the previous ones. Although less didactic and more detached from the object of his artistic study, Lu continued criticizing the Chinese cultural tradition. While engaged in creative writing, Lu also worked full-time in China’s Department of Education from 1912 to 1925 and taught part-time at several universities from 1920 until 1927. Because of political turmoil, he became more and more involved with sociopolitical movements in his later life. Except for the rewriting of some historical legends, his literary creativity ceased after 1925. Lu spent the last ten years before his death mainly writing miscellaneous essays on various subjects as well as translating foreign literature. When he died of tuberculosis in Shanghai in 1936, he was already widely known not only as a literary figure but also as a political hero in China.

Throughout his career, Lu consistently attacked the old Chinese tradition, which is essentially based on Confucianism. Influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, he believed that China would have to renounce this outdated tradition, which is described as “cannibalistic” in “A Madman’s Diary,” in order to survive in the modern world. However, like the wandering narrator of “In the Tavern,” Lu did not offer any solutions to the problems of contemporary Chinese society.

Since the establishment of the Communist regime in China in 1948, Lu has been officially designated as that country’s greatest writer. Numerous articles and books have been written about him. Despite the political glorification of his name, Lu’s real importance in modern Chinese literature lies in his use of vernacular language in fiction to explore the sensibility or insensibility of modern Chinese people. The elegance of his style, his sophisticated use of irony and symbols, and his penetrating study of the modern psyche are essentially the qualities that make Lu Xun a writer of enduring appeal.

Author Works Short Fiction: Ah Q zheng-zhuan, 1921 (serial), 1923 (in Nahan; The True Story of Ah Q, 1926) Nahan, 1923 (Call to Arms, 1981) Panghuang, 1926 (Wandering, 1981) Zhu fu, 1933 (Benediction, 1947; The New Year's Sacrifice, 1956) Gushi xinbian, 1935 (Old Tales Retold, 1961) Ah Q and Others: Selected Stories of Lusin, 1941 Selected Stories of Lu Hsün, 1960, 1963 The Complete Stories of Lu Xun, 1981 Poetry: Yecao, 1927 (Wild Grass, 1974) Lu Xun shi ge / Poems of Lu Hsun, 1979 Nonfiction: Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilue, 1923–1930 (A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, 1959) Refeng, 1925 Huagai ji, 1926 Fen, 1927 Huagai ji xubian, 1927 Eryi ji, 1928 Zhaohua xishi, 1928 (Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk, 1976) Sanxian ji, 1932 Erxin ji, 1932 Wei ziyou shu, 1933 Chuang zuo de jing yan, 1933 (Xian dai zuo jia chuang zuo lun, 1935) Jiwai ji, 1934 Nan qiang beidiao ji, 1934 Zhun fengyue tan, 1934 Huabian wenxue, 1936 Qiejieting zawen, 1937 Qiejieting zawen er ji, 1937 Qiejieting zawen mobian, 1937 Lu Xun riji, 1951 Letters between Two: Correspondence between Lu Xun and Xu Guangping, 2000 (Bonnie S. McDougall, translator) Jottings under Lamplight, 2017 (Eileen J. Cheng and Kirk A. Denton, editors) Translations: Yuwai xiaoshuo ji, 1909 (with Zhou Zuoren of works by Anton Chekhov, Leonid Andreyev, Vsevolod Mikhaylovich Garshin, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Guy de Maupassant, OscarWilde, and Edgar Allan Poe) Xiandai Riben xiaoshuo ji, 1934 (of Mushakoji Saneatsu’s, Kunikida Doppo’s, Mori bgai’s, and Natsume Sfseki’s short stories) Edited Text: Muke jicheng, 1934 (2 volumes) Miscellaneous: Selected Works of Lu Hsün, 1946-1960 (4 volumes) Silent China: Selected Writings of Lu Xun, 1973 Bibliography Chang, Lung-hsi. “Revolutionary as Christ: The Unrecognized Savior in Lu Xun’s Works.” Christianity and Literature 45 (Autumn, 1995): 81-93. Discusses Lu Xun’s fascination with the Christ figure, particularly as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Argues that by rereading his works and carefully considering the neglected aspects of those works, such as his use of the Christ figure, we may begin to really understand Lu Xun and his significance for modern China. Chen, Pearl Hsia. The Social Thought of Lu Hsün, 1881–1936. New York: Vantage Press, 1976. Chronicles the development of Lu Xun’s thought against his cultural background, including his encounter with Western ideas, his belief in women’s rights, his involvement with liberal socialism, and his reevaluation of traditional Chinese culture. The preface, by Franklin S. C. Chen, is an essay on traditional China’s economic structure as it related to social thought. Hanan, Patrick. “The Techniques of Lu Hsün’s Fiction.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 34 (1974) 53-96. Using a broad definition of “technique,” Hanan discusses possible influences of writers such as Nikolai Gogol, Vsevolod Mikhaylovich Garshin, and Leonid Andreyev, as well as Lu Xun’s use of symbols and different types of irony. Kowallis, Jon Eugene. The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-Style Verse. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996. Examines the verse but offers insight into Lu Xun’s style. Lee, Lee Ou-fan, ed. Lu Xun and His Legacy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. This collection of essays by various scholars discusses Lu Xun’s perception of traditional and modern literature, his development of form, and his intellectual and political views. Lee, Lee Ou-fan. Voices from the Iron House. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. The stated purpose here is to “demythify” Lu Xun with the aim of evaluating his literary accomplishments on their own ground. Good discussions include biographical information but emphasize analysis. Lyell, William A., Jr. Lu Hsün’s Vision of Reality. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. The first third of this book provides a biography, and the remainder is devoted to good basic discussions of Lu Xun’s fiction. Pusey, James Reeve. Lu Xun and Evolution. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Explores the theme of evolution in the works. Seminov, V. I. Lu Hsün and His Predecessors. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1980. Describes Lu Xun’s role as innovator in Chinese fiction from a moderate Soviet perspective. Shiqing, Wang. Lu Xun: A Biography. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984. Traces Lu Xun’s life, particularly his political and intellectual development. Includes several photographs. Tang, Xiaobing. “Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ and a Chinese Modernism.” PMLA 107 (October, 1992): 1222-1234. A reading of Lu Xun’s short story as a modernist text, particularly in the modernist time-consciousness it introduces; argues the story can be read as a manifesto of the birth of modern subjectivity as well as the birth of modernist politics in twentieth century China. Discusses the nature of the madness of the madman, the story as a search for meaning, and the modernism of the story as one that displaces the myth of a homogeneous nature culture. Yn, Xiaoling. “The Paralyzed and the Dead: A Comparative Reading of ‘The Dead’ and ‘In a Tavern.’” Comparative Literature Studies 29 (1992): 276-295. Shows how both stories rely on opposing the themes of paralysis and death; claims that in both the theme of death undermines the theme of paralysis by making the protagonists ironic.

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