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Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 25, September 10 - 16

 
My Son Lu Xun  
Hey Ayi,
Every year when the Nobel Prize committee convenes to choose the laureate for literature, the name of the early 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun comes up. As his work is inaccessible to us Chinese illiterates, please edify me on the significance of this famous scribe.

Sign me,
Q-ball

Dear Ah Q,
Many Chinese-even Chairman Mao in his more lucid moments-consider Lu Xun to be the greatest modern Chinese writer. The Party sanctified him as a revolutionary proletarian cultural worker, but his roots were not all that red: he was born in 1881 to a land-owning family. "I remember when I was very young, my family was not so poor, we had 200-300 hectares of land," Lu wrote of his landlord background.

Despite his feudalist origins, Lu Xun's writing was revolutionary in more than one sense of the word: Not only did he tirelessly satirize and criticize the inequalities and injustices of pre-Liberation China, but he was the first serious Chinese writer to use vernacular language for literary purposes. Until Lu Xun's caustic modern prose shocked the Chinese literary world into the 20th century, scholars and writers were expected to write in classical Chinese which is as easy for the average Chinese person to understand as ancient Greek is for the average laowai.

Lu Xun's real name was Zhou Shuren, but like many Chinese writers he is much better known by his adopted pen name. As a medical student in Japan from 1904 to 1912, he was among China's first generation of liuxuesheng-students who go abroad. But he abandoned his medical career, deciding that China needed "spiritual medicine" more than the physical variety.

He settled in Beijing where he began writing prolifically-stories, poetry, essays and literary criticism. Many of his most biting essays were published in small weekly cultural magazines, many of which he published and edited himself. He produced three volumes of short stories. Call to Arms (Na Han) is the most famous collection, containing a story called The True Story of Ah Q (Q ). Written in 1921 when the author was living in Beijing, The True Story of Ah Q recounts the tragically ironic life and death of Ah Q, a cowardly, greedy, selfish, envious, short-sighted country bumpkin in a small village. Ah Q is disgusting to look at; he has shiny ring-worm scars on his scalp that he is so embarrassed about that the words 'ringworm', 'shiny', 'bright' and by extension 'lamp' are all taboo for him. If someone says one of these words to Ah Q, he picks a fight, but only if the person looks weak. But even the weak-looking people usually get the better of Ah Q.

Ah Q is a loser in all aspects of his short brutal life, but when Chinese people talk about 'Ah Q spirit' (Ah Q Jingshen), they are usually referring to Ah Q's most infamous characteristic-failing completel while seeing the failure as success and even gloating about it.

In 1926, Lu Xun left Beijing for Shanghai, where he wrote poetry and satirical essays (zawen). Increasingly opposed to the Nationalist government, he helped found the League of Left Wing Writers in 1930, and supported the fledgling Communist Party.

He died of tuberculosis on October 19, 1936, leaving behind an oeuvre of work that provides an accurate picture of the inequities of pre-Liberation China, althugh you could replace that 'pre-' with a 'post' and be just as precise.

One of your Ayi's favorite Lu Xun quotes is about weekly newspapers. The great essayist wrote: "Today there are all kinds of weeklies. Although their distribution is not very wide, they are shining in the darkness like daggers, letting their comrades know who is attacking the old, strong castles." He was, of course, referring to left wing political magazines in 1930s Shanghai.

Lu Xun's Beijing residence is open to the public daily, 9 am-4:30 pm. Beijing Lu Xun Museum, 19 Gongmenkou Ertiao, Fuchengmenwai Dajie, Xicheng District.
 

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