Lu Xun’s Great Withdrawal

There has been renewed interest in Lu Xun’s work, and the work of some other literary giants, in the wake of the announcement last week that some classic pieces were being removed from the curriculum taught in Chinese schools to make way for “new blood”. Lu Xun was not the only author hit but he certainly fared the worst in what some are calling “the great withdrawal of Lu Xun’s works.” Over twenty pieces he wrote are being cut, including “The True Story of Ah Q”, “Medicine”, and a large number of his more famous essays.

Needless to say, this has been a controversial decision. In the days following it, opinions have sprung up on both sides. Many are defending the value of Lu Xun, like this piece by Lin Mei:

“There’s no doubt that reading Lu Xun’s works can help middle school students by strengthening their own independent personalities, fostering their creative spirit, and raising their literary and artistic abilities. Even if they don’t comprehend everything right away, they can think back on their basic understanding later [to understand the works more fully]. Understanding classic works always requires a process. For middle school students to read Lu Xun, you don’t just need a carefully selected table of contents, you also need a teacher who can effectively lead the students into Lu Xun’s literary world.


Lu Xun can be considered a great traditional representative of Chinese culture, just like Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Qu Yuan, Sima Qian, Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Dongpo, Lu You, Zhu Xi, Li Zhi, Huang Zongxi, Cao Xueqin, Wu Jingzi, Liang Qichao, etc.; his works are a classic representation of 20th century Chinese culture.”

That argument is also adopted by some of the supporters of the “new blood” plan, who say that Lu Xun’s works are so mired in the twentieth century as to be entirely outdated. Diversification, they argue, is healthy:

Cultural diversification in textbooks isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having students introduced to more authors is a win-win, authors can get back into the classroom and have more people familiar with their works, students get more diverse reading and a more complete picture of the world.”

Others have pointed out that the “deleted works list” is somewhat misleading, given that different places have different course requirements. In the report just linked, for example, the reporter found that in Jiangsu, several of the so-called “deleted works” will remain part of the mandatory curriculum, others have just been moved to different levels, and some are no longer mandatory but may be assigned at the discretion of teachers and schools.

Of course, when it comes to Lu Xun, there’s no escaping politics. A commenter on this article, for example, wrote:

“Lu Xun and things like him are just tools the Party uses to beautify the ugly violence of government authority. From the fact that these brainwashed people are taking [Lu Xun’s work] as a treasure and praising it, we can see that the end of our slave society isn’t coming anytime soon.”

It’s an interesting discussion, because so much of literary interpretation is dependent on the context — political, ideological, cultural — that it’s being practiced in. The idea that Lu Xun’s work could be a “tool” for the Communist Party has always seemed ridiculous to me, a Westerner who was introduced to Lu Xun in a context where critical thinking and individual interpretation of literature was highly valued. For me, it’s difficult to read Lu Xun’s critiques of China as he saw it in the 20s and 30s and not see parallels with China today.

Officially, Lu Xun became a literary hero because he was one of the few critics of China’s “old society” who didn’t live long enough to become disillusioned with New China and the Communists (he died in 1936). His work is held up as an example of how terrible things were before the Party — and indeed, things were not by any stretch of the imagination good back then — but the deep cynicism that runs through Lu Xun’s work ought to make it a hard sell as propaganda. Moreover, he has very few nice things to say about the whitewashing of “official” history during Imperial rule. From my perspective, anyway, it’s very difficult to imagine that Lu Xun would be a big proponent of the current government or the context it has created for his work, were he alive today.

Of course, there are entire generations that grew up and venerated (or despised) him explicitly because of his connection to the Party, and studied his work in a context that was, for the most part, carefully arranged to reinforce the Party narrative. He is, to millions of Chinese, a symbol of the Party’s early days.

In any event, changing out Lu Xun for some new blood might not be such a bad thing, but any efforts at “diversity” will be undermined by the fact that anything selected still must fit within the Party narrative, historically and politically. Perhaps some of Lu Xun’s work is being removed precisely because it’s a bit more political than the government thinks middle school curricula ought to be. Or perhaps it’s an honest attempt at diversification. There is — as always — no real way to know for sure.

What do you think about pulling Lu Xun out of the curriculum?

0 thoughts on “Lu Xun’s Great Withdrawal”

  1. Of course, as J. Wasserstrom points out in his latest book on China, a knowledge of Lu Xun is essential in understanding the language of Chinese politics. If i remember correctly, he uses the case of ‘Ah Qism’ as a prime example…


  2. @ R Remington Tramel: I too prefer “Medicine” to “Ah Q”, but I do think the latter is worth studying. As Sino-Gist mentioned above, terms like “the Ah Q spirit” and “Ah Qism” are still bandied about from time to time. So I think it’s valuable to read for that reason alone.

    But I suppose if I was writing the curriculum and had to pick two Lu Xun short stories only, Ah Q wouldn’t be one of them.

    That’s sort of an interesting question, actually. Say you were designing the curriculum, and could include only two short stories and two essays…which would you pick?

    My gut reaction: “Madman’s Diary” (just too important to ignore, plus it gives the kids a little practice with 文言文) and “Old Home (故乡)” (Just a personal favorite, and also relevant today in terms of the gap between rich and poor, urban/rural, etc.) for short stories. For essays, I am less sure. The preface of “A Call to Arms” (呐喊) is absolutely one of them, but what’s the other…I must admit it’s been a while since I read much of anything by Lu Xun, essay or otherwise. This post is inspiring me to go out and buy some books to muddle through, though.


  3. As far as short stories are concerned, I would choose “Madman’s Diary” (for the same reasons you mentioned) and “Medicine”, mainly because I feel it is still relevant today, no matter how you interpret it. I might have appreciated “Ah Q” more if I were introduced to in under different circumstances, maybe it is time I take a second look.

    I have read very few of Lu Xun’s essays, so it would be difficult for me to make any meaningful choice, but I will probably read some tonight, after work.

    Was there any word on who this “new blood” would include? I would be happy to see a few things from Wang Xiaobo slipped in.


  4. @ R Remington Tramel: If you haven’t read it, read the preface to 呐喊. I’m not sure it’s traditionally considered one of his essays, but it’s non-fiction, and has some classic stuff in there (it’s his telling of how he got into literature in the first place, so it includes his story about seeing the slides of Chinese watching Chinese spies executed while he was in Japan, his “Iron House” metaphor, etc.)


  5. He should be removed because he’s not much of a literary talent – more just a thinly veilded polemicist. Orwell (to whom Wasserstrom compares him) seems more firmly grounded in literature.

    As for his actual ideas – the impression I got was that he was regularly critical of the Chinese as a people, the poorest, most down trodden types, who he characterises as sort of uncivilised. Not much western literature is like this, and I even think Hanhan shares with Luxun this attitude at times.

    For all that, I haven’t read him in the original.


  6. @ Little Editor: I’m not sure I’d agree with you on either of those points. In terms of literary talent, even if you haven’t read him in Chinese, some of his early work was revolutionary in terms of techniques. For example, the combination of classical Chinese and colloquial Chinese and the unusual, fragmented narrative structure were both new to Chinese literature when he published “Madman’s Diary”. But I would suggest reading him in Chinese. He can, certainly, be a polemicist, but there’s more there than just that, especially in his short fiction.

    And, at the risk of sounding like an asshole, there’s a lot you miss reading him in translation. I read a few of his short stories in English, then read them again later in Chinese with the guidance of a Chinese lit professor, and was amazed at how much I had missed.

    He was certainly critical of the Chinese as a people — Ah Q is a testament to that — but I don’t think it was limited just to the poorest and the downtrodden. He was from a rich family that fell from grace, and the way higher-up people treated them on the way down left a deep impression on him; I’d say he was as contemptuous of them as anyone. And some of his most poignant stories are just as critical of intellectuals (like himself) as they are of backwards peasants (see, for example, New Year’s Sacrifice 《祝福》).


  7. Good riddance.

    What the students need is a curriculum that teaches virtues and love and instills the spirit of freedom and democratic values, not awkwardly worded essays after essays from a bitter, unforgiving, petty, vindicative polemicist that yell to them how they are an inferior race.


  8. @ keisaat: Yes, because (1) that’s a completely accurate portrayal of Lu Xun’s work you’ve made there and (2) I’m sure that his work will definitely be replaced with works that “instill the spirit of freedom and democratic values.”


  9. I, too, hope @keisaat is being sarcastic.

    @Little Editor, unlike @C. Custer, I am sure. I completely disagree with you, and for all the reasons @C. Custer states. I would add to that that Lu Xun was not only a polemicist. Many of his stories actually betray a warm, tender affection for China. 《社戏》, for example, which starts out critical of Chinese opera, but then flashes back to a childhood memory of taking a boat down the river to see an opera and how much he enjoyed the experience. 《一件小事》 is another, in which he relates an experience in Beijing when he was astonished to see his rickshaw puller help an old lady he’d knocked over to her feet and then took her to a nearby police station to sort out the situation. In this story, it is Lu Xun’s own reaction to the incident that feels the acidic sharp edge of Lu Xun’s pen.

    In any case, Lu Xun is far too important an early 20th century writer to drop from the curriculum.

    @C. Custer, you don’t sound anything like an arsehole. I’ve recently been re-reading Lu Xun in the original, and I agree wholeheartedly that a lot is lost in translation, and I’m just as surprised by how much more I’m picking by reading it in the original. I just wish I could enjoy the guidance of a Chinese lit. teacher myself, but unfortunately I don’t know any.

    As for what to include in the curriculum, Kong Yiji is my favourite Lu Xun story, but that’s not reason enough. Medicine is great for technique and the perils of superstition. Madman’s Diary sits well with that considering it’s reference to eating mantou dipped in the blood of an executed convict to cure TB, but perhaps the net needs to spread a little more widely. Perhaps the easiest way would be to make a selection of Lu Xun stories, poems and essays compulsory, but leave the choices of stories, poems and essays to the schools or individual teachers. But no matter how the decision is made, as I said before, he’s too important to drop from the curriculum.


  10. @ keisaat: No. Maybe that’s what you find but if that’s the case, like Chris said, you need to read more deeply. You’re clearly oversimplifying some of his work and just outright ignoring other parts of it.

    But, for the purposes of discussion, a question: if Lu Xun really “hated the Chinese race”, why bother writing at all, let alone so prolifically? Why try to change society? Things seemed headed right for destruction during almost the entire time he was writing; if he really hated Chinese people, why not just sit back and watch the flames?


  11. Yeah, I really can’t see the self-hatred there.

    What I like about Lu Xun, though, is ability to express real, raw anger. His words about the inappropriateness of “fair play” when crimes are being committed can still jolt.

    Regardless of what whether you agree with his politics, I think he’s a good model for intellectuals: thoughtful but with some steel and passion behind the thoughtfulness.


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