What Lu Xun can teach us about modern-day China

25 September 2011 was the 130th birth anniversary of Lu Xun (1881 – 1936), considered to be one of the founders of modern Chinese literature. Known for his plain criticisms of hypocrisy, dogmatism and irony appearing in China’s political life at his time, most famously coining the political lexicon Ah-Q-ism (meaning self-deception) from his novel The Real Story of Ah-Q, his status has been compared with that of England’s George Orwell. Han Han’s immensely popular blog posts, which are characterised by satire and a dark sense of humor about contemporary China, are sometimes compared with Lu Xun’s essays.

While contemporary Han Han pokes fun at the absurdity and falsehood of the Chinese system, which pleases many young readers, a lot of observations made by Lu Xun many decades ago are equally applicable to modern-day China. Pan Caifu, an editor, has recently conducted an “interview” with Lu Xun, published in Shanghai’s Dongfang Daily,  to mark his 130th birth anniversary and to highlight to readers what we can learn from Lu Xun’s works about today’s China. Many things have changed from Lu Xun’s China, but some have not, which makes Lu Xun’s works even more profound.

Google Doodle (China) on Lu Xun's 130th Birthday

Is China any better than it was 100 years ago? From Pan Caifu’s imaginary interview with Lu Xun, a few sections of which are translated below, with some references added to recent news, you may think that the answer is no.

The world is not getting any better

Pan Caifu: Today is your 130th birthday. After having been away for so long, what’s your feeling?
Lu Xun: I have never had such a long journey. I do not feel excited. But seeing that the market is as peaceful as it was, and China is still the China as before, the one I’ve lived in, I feel relived.

Pan Caifu: In some universities, statues of Confucius are erected. On both sides of the Strait, ceremonies in honor of Confucius are being played out. The revival of Confucius seems hopeful ((Daniel A. Bell, The Confucian Party, The New York Times, 11 May 2009)).
Lu Xun: I also hear that a guy called Jiang Qing self-proclaims himself to be the master of the Confucius religion. Confucius is being held up by power interests in China. He is the sage for the powerful; there is nothing to do with ordinary people. But the powerful would only be enthusiastic for a short while. Yuan Shikai, Sun Chaunfan and Zhang Zongchang have all treated Confucius as the building blocks in their nation-building schemes, only to end in failure. It is true that Confucius had raised useful proposals on national governance, but they are all directed towards controlling the citizens in the interests of the ruling class. He has no proposals solely for the benefits of the common people. — Confucius in Contemporary China, 1935

Pan Caifu: Korean traditional medicine is now universally recognized as a world cultural heritage ((Mirror of Eastern Medicine Becomes UNESCO Heritage, The Korea Times, 31 July 2009)). China also wants its traditional medicine to receive the same recognition. You have a comment which hurts Chinese traditional medical practitioners…
Lu Xun: I once said, “Chinese medicine is no more than a fraud, intentional or unintentional.” If this comment affects their bid, I apologize. If Chinese medicine makes it, then Qigong, the “Golden Bell” martial technique and acupuncture can all become world cultural heritage. — Preface to Call to Arms, 1923

Pan Caifu: When you were alive, there were already talks that you should receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many years have passed. Why are still local Chinese writers unable to get the prize?
Lu Xun: This is because we don’t know how to speak. What politicians dislike most is people opposing to their opinions, or people opening their month to fight for things. Look at the monkeys in the zoo. They have their own leader; they absolutely follow the leader’s lead. Every tribe has a chief; people in the tribe follow the chief’s orders. If the chief wants you to die, you have to die. There is no literature we can talk about. Even if there is, it is only about praising the God. You cannot expect to win the Nobel Prize by singing hymns. — Divergence between Arts and Politics, 1928

Pan Caifu: Hunan Satellite TV’s Super Girls and Happy Girlstalent shows are very popular. But there are orders that these shows be discontinued next year ((Lights out for TY program Super Girls, China Daily, 19 September 2011)).
Lu Xun: I have said it early on. Only a real voice can capture the hearts of people in China and around the world. Only with a real voice can we live with people from other parts of the planet. — Three Leisures: Collection of Essays, 1932

Pan Caifu: You are very critical of the feudal ethical codes, especially the concept of filial piety. But you are a filial son yourself. Today, are you still critical of these ethical codes?
Lu Xun: In reality, the old Chinese ideals of harmonious family and father-son relationships have already collapsed. It is not correct to say that the problem is “especially serious today”, but has “already been so in the past”. Historically, China has promoted “five generations under one roof”, and this just shows the difficulties of cohabitation. The lack of filial piety is shown by the desperate promotion of it. The crux of the problem is that we promote hypocritical moral codes instead of real human emotions. — What is Required of a Father Today, 1919

Pan Caifu: You used to frequently eat out at a restaurant. At the time, although food was not abundant, they were at least not harmful. Today, we have tainted milk powder ((Tainted-Baby-Milk Scandal in China, TIME Magazine, 16 September 2008)), poison pork ((China: Pigs Fed Illegal Additive, The New York Times, 18 March 2011)), rice ((Heavy metals tainting China’s rice bowls, Caixin Online, 14 February 2011)) and vegetables ((Toxic vegetables uncovered in south China, China Daily, 31 March 2010)). Can you tolerate that?
Lu Xun: People at the bottom also hurt each other. They can be sheeps or beasts. When they meet a beast more fierce than themselves, they will become sheeps. When they meet a sheep weaker than themselves, they will become beasts. — Bad Fortune: Collection of Essays, Sudden Thoughts – 7, 1926, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 3, p.46

Pan Caifu: This makes me think of some people who complain about social injustice, but point their knives to school kids ((China seaches for answers after school attacks, BBC, 30 April 2010)).
Lu Xun: When angry, the brave points the knife to the strong ones; the cowardly to the weak ones. Match a beast like a least, and a sheep like a sheep! Then, no matter what kind of devils, they can only go back to their hells. — Bad Fortune: Collection of Essays, Sudden Thoughts – 7, 1926, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 3, p.47

Pan Caifu: Some local governments have established private channels of clean food and vegetable supplies for officials ((In China, what you eat tells who you are, Los Angeles Times, 16 September 2011)).
Lu Xun: Luxury and extravagance are the phenomenon of social collapse and corruption. They are never the reasons. — Accents from South and NorthAbout Women, 1934, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 4, p.396

Pan Caifu: A while ago, a bullet train accident happened in China ((China: Dozens die as bullet trains collide in Zhejiang, BBC, 24 July 2011)). I’m sure you’ve heard of it. How do you see it?
Lu Xun: Chinese people are reluctant to face problems squarely. With evasion and fraud, they create a wonderful path of escape, thinking that it is the correct path to take. This path is evidence that the Chinese people are cowardly, lazy and tricky. Day by day, they are contented; day by day, they decay. But they think that they are becoming more and more glorious. — The TombOn Seeing it with Open Eyes, 1929, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 1, p.328

Pan Caifu: But at the beginning China announced that its rail technology is world-leading and patented. It even offered to assist other countries in developing their rail systems ((China Offers High-Speed Rail to California, The New York Times, 7 April 2010)).
Lu Xun: China is developing its “self-deception power”. Self-deception is not a new thing, but it is becoming more conspicuous, eclipsing other things. — The ConcessionHas China Lost its Confidence?, 1934, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 6, p.91

Pan Caifu: Some people even think that they are blessed.
Lu Xun: What’s most painful in life is that you wake up to find yourself in a blind alley. People who dream are happy; if there is no way out, the most important thing is not to wake them up. — The TombWhat Happens after Nora Leaves Home, 1929, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 1, p.270

Pan Caifu: You’ve been very nice towards young people, but you’ve also been trapped by them. Han Han, Guo Meimei ((Guo Meimei Red Cross Controversy Pissing Off Chinese Netizens, chinaSMACK, 29 June 2011)), Li Tianyi ((Son’s Scandal Engulfs Chinese General, China Real Time Report, The Wall Street Journal, 13 September 2011)) and Lu Meimei ((“Lu Meimei” and China-Africa Project Hope Controversy, chinaSMACK, 22 August 2011)) are all young people of today’s China. How do you think about them?
Lu Xun: Today’s youth, it seems, are smarter than before, and they also see material interests as more important. For some small gains, they can make false charges and bite you back. This is beyond my expectation…… — LettersTo Cao Juren, 1934, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 7, p.141

Pan Caifu: At last, what else do you want to say?
Lu Xun: There is too much pain in life, especially in China. — Bad Fortune: Collection of Essays, Teacher, 1926, in Lun Xun Collected Works, Vol. 3, p.44

0 thoughts on “What Lu Xun can teach us about modern-day China”

  1. My favourite Chinese-language author – which I guess is rather a banal choice, and is anyway chiefly a product of my only having read a few books all the way through. His short-story “Tomorrow” was my favourite.


  2. I currently live in Lu Xun’s birth town. Shaoxing. I’ve been here for a good stint and have lived other places as well with China. I wish that he could come back and see his birth place and how much it has changed. I wonder what he would say.

    I kid you not, Shaoxing is unlike any other place that I have personally lived in the People’s Republic of China. This comment was echoed by a fellow foreigner who has actually lived in China 4 times longer than I and lived and far more places.

    In my entire life, have never seen so many Audi, Ferrari, Porsche, Bentley, BMW, Mercs, and every other luxury car you can think of. And I have lived in some of the richest places in the United States as well. It’s unbelievable. Fu er dai, here are, well, it boggles the mind. There is also an unbelievable amount of construction currently going on here as well. Since the time I arrived to this date, the city has changed dramatically. Skyscrapers and all.

    A local high school has actually partnered up with one of the most expensive high schools in the United States for an exchange program. It’s an Ivy League seed school. I know of parents here sending their kids to the States for high school to the tune of 50,000USD a year or more.

    As for Shaoxing people, they are the most closed people I have ever met. In fact the only Chinese people that have ever went out of their way to talk to me, acknowledge me, and or want to carry on a conversation has always been people from different parts of China. Again, I am not making this stuff up. If say I go to a mall and have someone wave or want to ask something about America, it turns out that all without fail they are from a different city. Local college kids don’t even say hello to me or give me the usual “hello” while walking by. This is echoed in the way that the local do business and treat other Chinese people. The city is one big Ivy League and seems not to care about any one else.

    I wonder what Lu Xun would have so say about these things. How materialism, capitalism, wealth, have out paced social evolution. Where you can park your Ferrari in front of Starbucks blocking the street and see a kid in the middle of the sidewalk using it as a toilet, watched over by his mother and father who sees nothing wrong with it. Being passed by a slew of people. Or perhaps a northern Chinese mother in labor at a local Shaoxing hospital where everyone speaks the local language and treats her like an outsider. Where the anesthesiologist leaves at 5pm and is no where to be found. Her husband has to make a phone call to a local someone with guanxi who gets the doctor to come back and perform an epidural. They are treated better than locals from that point out.

    Most of these things, if not all can be found in any part of China I suppose. It’s quite sad really. However I have never seen it to a degree such as this before. Shaoxing is really unlike any other place in China. With Lu Xun statues at every corner and propaganda everywhere you would think they might live a little more by his principles and or practices. But it seems that instead of reading Lu Xun’s writings they are reading a small red bill with a portrait of Mao on the front of it.


  3. @ Pudding,

    That’s fascinating, I’ve never been to Shaoxing. But I’m not surprised about the Lu Xun propaganda. The poor guy has been totally co-opted and sanitized for schools, and by the time kids are done with their textbooks, they’re so tired of hearing about Lu Xun that most aren’t going to bother to dig into his other work (it doesn’t help that his collected works is like 40 volumes long).

    @ FOARP: Lu Xun is my favorite as well; I wrote a very long undergrad thesis that centered around his work. Great writer, and his life was almost as interesting as his stories. My favorite fiction piece of his has always been 《故乡》. In particular, this is one of my favorite passages, in any language:


    Interestingly, I’ve found Chinese people almost never know the actual names of Lu Xun stories. When I tell most people I like 《故乡》 I get a bunch of blank stares, but if I say 闰土 then everybody knows what I’m talking about. If I mention 《祝福》people are confused, but if I say 祥林嫂 everybody immediately knows the story I mean.

    I guess it’s a testament to the power of his characters that even after so many years people remember and relate to his characters so easily. Perhaps it’s also a testament to how little things have really changed. (Or how, somehow, everything has changed and yet nothing has changed).


  4. Lu Xun felt that the 1911 Xinhai Revolution had been a failure. In 1925 he opined, “I feel the so-called Republic of China has ceased to exist. I feel that, before the revolution, I was a slave, but shortly after the revolution, I have been cheated by slaves and have become their slave”. He even recommended that his readers take seriously the critique of Chinese culture in Chinese Characteristics by the missionary writer Arthur Henderson Smith. This disillusionment with politics led the author to come to the conclusion in 1927 that “revolutionary literature” alone could not bring about radical change.

    Rather, “revolutionary men” needed to lead a revolution using force.

    Also Lu Xun’s works were banned in Taiwan until 1980’s.


  5. Oh Pug, is there anything at all that you don’t suck at? The guy died 75 years ago…not 65. I’ve always found your mental capacity to be grade-school at best, but your arithmetic skills make me wonder if I’ve been giving you too much credit.

    Of course, the interview is imaginary. However, the journalist has taken pains to coordinate questions with “answers” gleaned from Lu Xun’s work, and in many places has provided direct references for actual quotes from his writings. It is actually rather clever…which is understandably not something you would appreciate.

    Times do change…but one could just as easily suggest that Lu Xun’s writings have a timeless quality to them, such that they might still have relevance in providing answers to questions 75 years after his death. For starters, you could easily serve as the modern day embodiment of Ah-Q.


  6. Putzster’s commentary continues to plumb new depths – this time attacking the idea of exploring what a prominent literary figure would have to say about modern-day affairs.


  7. I agree with you SKC, but its not that pugster is entirely without a point. I find this piece quite lazy, what would actually be of value is going from an analysis of Lu Xun’s political/philosophical position and then viewing contemporary events through that lens rather than copy and pasting short quotes that appear to respond to contemporary events. Without argument in relation to the original position this can only superficial at best, unjust at worst.


  8. @ brightgrey: For what it’s worth, I think this post was intended as a commentary on Chinese current affairs rather than a commentary on Lu Xun’s actual viewpoints or positions. The effect would be the same if you replaced Lu Xun with any other May 4th-era writer; it’s not so much about what the author is saying as the questions and the fact that it’s possible to find answers that read as relevant (the implication being that not much has changed, regardless of what, specifically, the answer says).

    Granted, Lu Xun is the easiest/best choice because he has a huge body of work for the “interviewer” to draw on and Chinese readers as a group are probably more familiar with him than any other single literary figure, unless you count Mao as a “literary figure”.


  9. @Custer

    In that case he shouldn’t have used Lu Xun as his ventriloquist’s doll in the first place and spoken via his own opinion – informed or supported by Lu Xun’s views or otherwise. At the moment the “interviewer” just looks like another writer appropriating someone elses stature as an intellectual figure. Whattever Pan Caifu’s intention, connective argument between original material and subject is needed, this is intellectual laziness regardless of what is trying to be done.


  10. @ Custer

    People read Lu Xun like they read the Bible, as in they read what they want to read.

    In that respect, the author is no different than the CCP, presenting what he wanted to read from Lu Xun by isolated quotes.

    The simple truth of Lu Xun is from Lu Xun himself, near the end of his life, reviewing his own views: He was disillusioned by the Politics of “Revolution” and criticism.

    So many see only his criticisms on paper that they forget his own conclusions in the end.


  11. Mao said that Lu Xun was “chief commander of China’s cultural revolution,” maybe a perfect society without any corruption. If he lived long enough to see what has the cultural revolution has done to China, I think his point of view would change.


  12. Let’s face it, this “interview” is merely an op-ed featuring Pan Caifu’s opinion. An op-ed that represents the author’s opinion is hardly ground-breaking. The only unique feature here is that the author’s opinion is couched in Lu Xun’s words. There should be no supposition that it represented the entirety of Lu Xun’s viewpoints back in 1936, much less his opinion today if he happened to be the Guinness Book record-holder for oldest person alive.

    Could someone selectively quote Lu Xun in an effort to support an opinion that is diametrically opposite to Pan Caifu’s? Perhaps. And they would be free to do so. Might even make for an interesting read. But trying to speculate on what Lu Xun might actually think if he was alive today is a rather pointless exercise.


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