What Do Chinese People Today Think of Lu Xun?

In a convenient follow-up to our much ignored translation and analysis of Lu Xun’s changing place in education, we ran across this post on Anti-CNN.

It’s a poll that asks “What kind of person was Lu Xun?” So far, 382 people have voted. People were allowed to select up to seven of the choices. Here are the results so far:

The results so far
The results so far

For more up-to-the-minute results you can check their site, but you’ll have to vote to see the graph and there won’t be any English text. We’ll leave the analysis to you on this one. Some of the comments of voters:

So someone in the forum is trying to destroy Lu Xun again eh? Ha ha, ridiculous.

…He was someone who had left China and studied abroad, so his perspective was larger than those domestic ground beetles, probably because of this there is [stronger] thought in his essays…I don’t dare compliment his private life, keeping a mistress, playing with female students…however thinking about how at that time [China] had just separated from its feudal societal state, men with many wives and concubines were still very common, so I won’t criticize too much.

Using the language of today: colluding with Japanese anti-China forces, publishing illegal magazines, inciting the ignorant masses, making chaos in society, influencing the harmony of society, the web manager should check his IP and he should be pursued across all borders.

Lu Xun is everyone’s Lu Xun. No matter how different the two sides are that are arguing, both can say “If Lu Xun were alive…”

This has given me a headache, who was Lu Xun really?

An old fenqing [angry youth], an old study-abroad student

I don’t know what kind of person Lu Xun was, the Lu Xun that I “know” all comes from things other people have said.

If you speak Chinese and are interested, check out the original post as there are tons of comments (over 24 pages).

Notice anything interesting here? What do you think of Lu Xun?

One (Bad) Approach to China: Unbearable Arrogance

Fair warning: if you dislike or cannot understand sarcasm, you will want to ignore portions of this post.

I recently read, with some displeasure, this translation by Alice Poon in the Asia Sentinel. It’s worth reading all of if you’re the sort of person who likes making yourself angry, but in case you aren’t, it’s an essay written by a Japanese teacher visiting China, lecturing Chinese students about manners and morality, and talking about how the Chinese education system is flawed because it doesn’t contain a moral component. Where did he get the idea Chinese students had no manners?

One evening after school, I was walking and chatting with another young Chinese teacher in the senior high section. Students were leaving the school premises – they were wearing school uniforms and back-packs; some were chatting loudly, some were eating snacks, while others were flirting with each other. I felt very lonely – not one student paid any attention to us.

Dear God, how could they? Those heartless Chinese bastards. Everyone knows when you’re a student, and you see a teacher walking and conversing with his colleague, you should interrupt them to say goodbye! He continues:

If I behaved like this in Japan, the first time I would be warned; after a couple of times, I would be considered having bad conduct, which would adversely affect my school report. If no improvement was made after several times, my parents would be summoned to the school to attend a ‘three-way’ meeting with the teacher and student. If there was still no change, the student would be expelled. In Japan, students are required to say goodbye to their teachers, basically accompanied by a bending of the body, preferably at 45 degrees.

Ah, yes! Because as we all know, the degree at which one bends one’s body is a direct reflection of one’s level of respect everywhere, not just in Japan! And if the body isn’t bent properly, it stands to reason the student should be expelled. After all, school is about bowing and saying goodbye to teachers, right?

As if being subjected to the barbarism of the Chinese in school wasn’t enough, the poor fellow got on a subway, and what did he see but — horror of horrors — “a child eating a hamburger and speaking loudly and dancing on the seats.”

Ah, yes! Children eating and playing in public — how dare they! What morally bereft parents would allow their child to run around a subway eating and making noise! Surely, in Japan, no such thing would ever happen:

In Japan, parents would probably use the occasion to teach the child a lesson and let him know what is proper and what is not. In my family, my parents would spank my butt, let me reflect on my bad behavior by making me stand outside the house for the whole night, and make me go hungry for a day.

Ah, yes! Exposing your child to the elements overnight, and then starving them for a day! Truly this is the technique of the educated, morally upright parent! What China needs is more child abuse!

OK, I’m all sarcasmed-out. In all seriousness, I could break the logic here down and rip it to shreds but it’s not even worth it. Obviously this guy is, at best, seriously self-absorbed and, at worst, in need of psychiatric help. But it’s worth noting because (1) it’s kind of funny to read things written by morons and (2) expecting China to conform to your own cultural norms is a pitfall that’s very easy to fall into (although few ever fall as deep as this man).

For a much better assessment and discussion of the education system in China, check out this much longer translation and commentary we wrote earlier today. I fear it will get ignored because this one has more swear words.

“Don’t Blame Lu Xun, Blame the Textbooks”

The following is a translation and commentary on this piece, posted a little while ago on Tianya. The Chinese term ”教材“ has been translated intermittently as ”teaching materials” or “texts” depending on context.


In the new edition of the People’s Education Press’s middle school language text, the number of things by Lu Xun has clearly been reduced; all that’s left is “Grabbism” [an essay], “New Year’s Sacrifice” [a short story], and “Remembering Liuhe Zhenjun” [another essay]. This isn’t a new topic, but since there was recently a symposium and it’s become a focus of the media, it’s easy to see why [this topic] is sensitive. There are two keywords here: “teaching material” and “Lu Xun”.

Many people only talk about Lu Xun and don’t talk about teaching material; actually, that’s misunderstanding the essence of the debate. In modern education, most classes have teaching material, and this material is considered the definite and authoritative source of knowledge. But with China in its current state, teaching materials have become totally standardized, they’re basically the only reading matter that youth will encounter in school, and the People’s Eduction Press is seen as the most standard and the best of the best. This is a bit of an enigma.

I once saw foreign children squatting in front of a famous painting in a museum, having class. The teacher pointed to the motley colors, encouraging them to imagine and reflect. I sighed, envious that I never had such [learning] conditions when I was young. Thinking more about it, I smiled bitterly: even if those conditions existed [in China], there would be no need to go waste time, just memorizing all the standard answers in the text would suffice. I originally thought that on the journey to knowledge, textbooks were just guidebooks meant to lead us to the beautiful scenery. But because of the Gaokao, we are not allowed to go look at the scenery, just immersing ourselves in the guidebook will suffice. The real scenery, i.e. original works, are called “extracurricular reading”, to be read sparingly and only during free time.

In any educational activity, the [pieces that are] compiled in texts are extremely important, but supposing they were only as important as a guidebook, then there would be little difference between selecting five of Lu Xun’s works or selecting three of them, so there would be no need for people to argue about it. On a normal journey, the tour guide (i.e. teacher) is given free reign in their oral explanations, and the tourists (i.e. students) can follow these explanations or their own interests, deciding which scenic spots they’d like to linger longer at and which they’d prefer to pass by. For example, regardless of how many Lu Xun pieces are in the texts, if a student is interested they can seek out more books to read or even research.

However, in our educational system, teachers and students have no freedom whatsoever to choose; even seeing those scenic spots that are in the guidebooks is just done through either skimming or rote memorization, it’s already been decided. Therefore, the implications of every [educational] activity are greatly amplified. So if the new edition from People’s Education Press takes out some Lu Xun and adds in some Liang Shiqiu, it’s seen as “restraining this” and “elevating that”. When these two men were alive, even in those dark times one might find them in the same city, nowadays are they really that irreconcilable?

Those who approve of reducing Lu Xun cite the words of a netizen:

In middle school, I hated Lu Xun’s essays the most. Half in literary Chinese and half in modern language, awkward sounding, and often we even had to memorize the locations of all the punctuation marks, it was too much suffering.

What was his suffering really? Rather than saying Lu Xun’s essays are awkward-sounding, it would be better to say [the reason for his suffering was] “we even had to memorize the locations of all the punctuation marks”. This shows precisely the influence of the Gaokao’s changing demands on teaching materials.

At the same time, because the textbooks provide prescribed responses for Lu Xun’s essays, students feel Lu Xun is dull, dry, and even begin to oppose him. Because these standardized responses have been politicized for some time now, [students] see Lu Xun as a spokesperson for [CCP] ideology and negate the time in which he lived. One professor said:

Some students drift away from Lu Xun, mostly because they come from different times and lack common ground. Lu Xun lived during a dark time politically, he needed to use the same strength of darkness to struggle against it. Today’s society is a bit more free and comfortable. Because of this, students may not have any way of understanding the value of Lu Xun’s work.

This is obviously a kind of misreading and misteaching. If we say that the essence of the Lu Xun spirit is skepticism, seeing things clearly, being critical, and taking a stand [against bad things], then [Lu Xun] is needed and relevant during any time period.

The problem is, it seems as though teachers today don’t plan to present things that way, they mostly want to explore Lu Xun’s temperament in life. A few of Lu Xun’s prose essays, such as “From the herb garden to the studio”, “Village theater”, “Old Home”, “Kite”, etc., are undoubtedly classics, but if one says that the meaning of Lu Xun lies in his temperament during his life, then students will still really [feel] it’s better to go read Lin Yutang or Liang Shiqiu.


The author of this piece — sadly uncredited in the repost on Tianya we found — has hit the nail right on the head. Standardization in any form sanitizes education, making it easier to disperse equally en masse, but also less compelling. Great teachers use their passions to engage their students and their discipline, but they can only be great when the education system they work within allows them to do this by giving them the freedom to frame and approach their curriculum any way they choose. Allowing for this kind of variety also better serves students, whose learning styles can vary greatly. Standardized tests, especially be-all-end-all tests like the Gaokao turn schools into places where test-takers, rather than learners, are produced.

Paradoxically, tests and grades have almost nothing to do with learning. Recent studies have shown that people tend to learn better when there aren’t tangible assessments. Rewards for good work and punishment for bad work are also detrimental to true learning (helpful though they may be in elevating a GPA). Unsurprisingly, whether or not a student is interested in a topic has the greatest implications on whether or not they will learn it in any real sense, and this kind of interest is most easily fostered by connecting the topic to students’ lives. [For more information on these studies, or just for a wonderful book about education, check out What the Best College Teachers Do. Especially recommended for teachers at any level.]

As the author of the essay points out, Lu Xun is relevant to the lives of students in China today. In fact, his critical spirit and endless pursuit of something better are something China could desperately use, even if it doesn’t need his pessimism or argumentative nature. But because of China’s political climate and because of the format of the Gaokao, Lu Xun’s works are not being presented to students in a way that leads them to feel any kind of connection.

If we presume that the goal of education is learning and acquiring critical thinking skills, Chinese education needs reform desperately. The great obstacle at hand is college admissions policy, which hinges almost entirely on the standardized Gaokao test results, forcing teachers and students into a narrow curricular path that leaves no room for improvisation or passion. Alternative systems haven’t materialized; many other countries use similarly troubled systems, and the US’s relatively free college admission system would be difficult to implement in a country with 1.6 billion people — can you imagine how many personal essays the Qinghua and Beida admissions officers would have to read?

It would be a shame for this generation to miss out on the brilliance of Lu Xun, but the greater shame here is that they often miss out on the joy of education entirely. Learning about things you’re interested in, as the author points out, is to be done outside class, during one’s free time. But with all their extracurriculars and outside-school classes, one wonders if many Chinese kids even have time to sleep and eat, let alone read Lu Xun for pleasure without guidance from a teacher.

So student interests fall by the wayside, and true learning is replaced by rote memorization. As long as these kids get into college and get decent jobs, does it really matter? Does the education system really need reform, and if so, how? We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Guest Post: On the Development of Chinese Government

The following is a guest post.

Some Thoughts on the Development of Chinese Government

By Colin Glassey – August 21, 2009

One element of Chinese government which has been poorly presented in English is the way the Chinese system of Imperial government can be viewed as a system that evolved – slowly and fitfully – over 2,000 years. Far from being a monolithic or unchanging system there was change in the Imperial system from beginning to end. The change was driven not only by external forces but was also caused by the Emperors and their powerful advisors with the aid of the official historians who periodically wrote "report cards" about the strengths and failings of the previous dynasty in the form of official histories.

It is fair to say that most of the changes in the Imperial system of China were largely human directed changes based on a careful analysis of lessons from the past. This "evolution based on the examples of history" is nearly unique in governments (until the American revolutionaries consciously created their new government in the late 1780s). By sharp contrast, the European "method" (if one can call it such) for improving governments was "survival of the fittest". In other words, in Europe, states with good governments "ate" states with less effective systems and so, over time, good governments survived, and bad ones disappeared. (And yes, this is a gross generalization which slights people like Caesar Augustus, Peter the Great, Louis XIV, etc.).

The period of greatest change was usually at the start of a new dynasty as the new Emperor felt singularly unconstrained by the examples and precedent of the past. Based on my reading of Chinese history the following major periods of change are seen:

  1. The creation of the first system by the First Emperor (Shi Huang Di): circa 215 B.C.E. Powerful and effective in the short term but in many ways a failure and condemned by later historians and thinkers. Despite the failures, in broad outlines, the Imperial system of the first Emperor continued for hundreds of years into the Han.
  2. The Han of Emperor Wu Di: circa 90 B.C.E. This marks the point where Confucian ideology gained official (and permanent) approval as the ideology of Chinese government. The Legalist school of the First Emperor was officially "dead".
  3. The response to the Wang Mang usurpation: circa 30 C.E. Wang Mang, a top official took over and ruled for some 13 years. The new "Eastern" Han made a number of changes to prevent any future "Wang Mang" events from happening.
  4. The founding of the Sui Dynasty: circa 585 C.E. Following the collapse of the Han and hundreds of years of warfare between the successor states, the Sui created a new system of government that made significant modifications to the Han system.
  5. The response to the rebellion of An Lushan: circa 810. An Lushan's rebellion nearly destroyed the Tang and only gradually did the Imperial court figure out ways to reassert authority over the provinces. The reforms were not successful but they laid the groundwork for the Song.
  6. The Song founding: circa 965. The Song instituted major – and very long lasting – changes to the Imperial system based on the failure of the Tang government. In many ways the Song system was a remarkable achievement. All later imperial systems were based on the Song.
  7. The Ming founding: circa 1390. The Ming founder was one of the great political thinkers in history and while he kept a great deal of the Song system, he made many changes and then he tried to make them permanent by creating a book of "Ancestral Injunctions" – in some respects this was the first Constitution of China. Political change in the Ming after his death was glacial due to his efforts (for better and for worse).
  8. The Manchu (Qing) government of the Kangxi Emperor: circa 1680. This was the final form of the Imperial system, a hybrid of the Ming system with special Manchu elements grafted on. It corrected some of the obvious problems with the Ming system and it allowed China to expand territorially and economically to the greatest extent in its history.

These eight periods of government change are somewhat inaccurate. To talk about change at these points while ignoring the gradual changes that occurred at other times within the Song or Ming dynasties is – clearly – a generalization. Hopefully the benefits outweigh the costs.

Rating the degree and importance of the changes that occurred is also fraught with guesswork and error. However, in broad terms this is what happened:

  1. The First Emperor (Shi Huang Di) took the government of his home state of Chin (Qin) and imposed it on the other states that he conquered (Han, Zhao, Yan, Wei, and Chu). He set up the basic form of Imperial government. You can't get a bigger "change" than this.
  2. Emperor Wu Di formally accepted the principals of Confucianism in his management of the state. A small change, a mere matter of philosophy, and yet, profound in its implications.
  3. The usurpation of Wang Mang resulted in the rise to power of the direct Imperial family members at the top level of decision-making, especially the male relatives of the mother of the Emperor. Again, a fairly small change but the fall of the Han can be directly traced to this change.
  4. The Sui took their hybrid Chinese/Northern Horse Lord system and imposed it on the whole of China. For a time, women had real power and the Emperor was a military figure. This was a major change in Imperial government.
  5. The An Lushan rebellion forced the Imperial government into a wrenching and long lasting turn away from military power as the basis of the government and towards giving all real power to the educated elite. This was a small change to the system, and none of the Tang emperors were able to fully implement it.
  6. The Song completed the transition started by the Tang and implemented the world's first "modern" government: a bureaucracy based on merit. There is a great deal to admire about the Song system but their military ineffectiveness is a major weakness. This was a huge change to the Imperial system.
  7. The Ming tried to correct the problems of the Song – military leadership becoming a hereditary class, the Emperor by law forced to remain at the center of the government, etc. The problems with the Ming were subtle and took hundreds to years to manifest fully. The importance of the Ming changes grow upon careful reflection.
  8. The Manchu (Qing) in turn tried to correct the weaknesses of the Ming system with a new hereditary military class, the "Banner system", and an expansionist attitude towards their northern and western neighbors. Under the three great Manchu emperors China was the largest, richest, and most powerful state in the world. The changes here were actually quite small. In a real sense the Ming could have "become" the Manchu if they had wanted to.

One could argue that the changes in the Imperial system seem fairly small. The differences between the Egyptian Pharonic system, the Athenian Democracy, and the Roman Republic (to take three European governments) are probably greater than any of the differences in the Chinese Imperial system from beginning to end. So – from the perspective of people schooled in huge differences found in European systems of government over 4,000 years of history – the changes in the Chinese Imperial system could be thought of as of little consequence. I believe the changes are very interesting, because I see the modifications as conscious efforts to correct the mistakes of the past on the path toward making a more perfect government, much like we see modern governments trying to react "intelligently" to changes in the world around them. In this limited way, the Chinese governmental changes exhibit a modern mind-set.

I will go futher and argue that the Chinese Imperial government improved over the centuries. At the least, they fixed problems that led to serious breakdowns in earlier years. The Imperial system in its final form was far from a perfect government but it was a system I believe we in the present day can learn from.

No More Petitioning in Beijing

Recently we got an email requesting that we do a piece about this story. The whole story is worth a read, but the gist of it is thus:

Authorities in China are moving to snuff out petitioning, a centuries-old form of protest that brings thousands of aggrieved people to the capital each year seeking justice.

[…] the party’s Political and Legislative Affairs Committee posted a notice on its Web site Wednesday giving details: Petitioners should “not seek solutions by visiting Beijing”; instead, they should seek redress locally, and if the case is rejected then central authorities may initiate a review. But bringing cases directly to the capital, the notice implied, would be considered illegal.

“No illegal petitioning is allowed, whether the cases are reasonable or not,” the notice said, adding that people who represent or instigate others to appeal will get “criticism and education.”

It’s widely-accepted that the biggest complaint most mainland Chinese have with their government is corruption. Given that, it’s a potentially destabilizing force (just like any other gripe people have with the people that rule them) and something that the CCP shouldn’t take lightly. So we were a bit surprised by this news, especially as we’d recently observed signs that Beijing was becoming more, not less, receptive to these claims.

Of course, it’s not all bad news. The report also promised that appeals would be dealt with one way or the other within sixty days, which at least prevents petitioners from waiting on edge for years as their petitions float endlessly in limbo (as happens sometimes under the current system). And there’s always the context to be considered. It’s possible this cutback on petitioning is just a temporary measure:

The new rules come as authorities are seeking to keep a lid on protests ahead of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in October. One official from the legislative affairs committee said recently that an “improvement” of the petitioning situation was needed to ensure “a harmonious and stable social environment for the celebratory events of the 60th anniversary of new China.”

Whether it’s temporary or permanent, it’s bound to cause some friction. One petitioner quoted in the WSJ hit the nail on the head:

Yang Dan, a petitioner from Honggang village in Hubei province appealing the seizure of her house for a government project, said it is a good idea to solve the problem locally. “But the problem is that most local officials are corrupt,” Ms. Yang said. “Who will supervise the local officials?”

Who, indeed? Given the evident cruelty of some local officials, it seems clear that less oversight is a misguided way to solve the problem and thus, by extension, a misguided method of ensuring security.

But how much of a threat could this actually be to the CCP’s legitimacy? Not much, I don’t think. The number of people with serious grievances — serious enough that they’d even encounter these laws — is relatively small; this isn’t going to change anything for most Chinese people, which is probably why it doesn’t seem to be a huge story.

Putting on our rosiest glasses, there’s another possibility to consider: this system could actually be better. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but then again, how often do you hear about people traveling to Beijing and petitioning and actually getting what they wanted? This system eliminates the need for “black jails” and torture, because it allows corrupt local officials to get away with terminating a case themselves without having to worry about petitioners then running away to Beijing.

Of course, Beijing is still free to review whatever cases they want, and from the WSJ’s wording it sounds as though the reviews of terminated cases will be randomized so that corrupt local authorities’ only effective way of avoiding detection for sure would be to coerce petitioners to withdraw their cases before they are actually terminated. That, of course, could lead to kidnapping, torture, etc.; but then again, isn’t that what’s happening now?

So it’s possible this could improve things. Likely, though? We think not.