Tag Archives: Lu Xun

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

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?

Wang Hui and Plagiarism in Chinese Academia

The Case of Wang Hui and Wang Binbin

Readers of the excellent Granite Studio will already know about the high-profile plagiarism case that has been receiving a lot of attention in Chinese academic circles. The basics of the case are fairly simple (from Granite Studio):

“Nanjing University literature professor Wang Binbin charges that Wang Hui’s dissertation on Lu Xun, 《反抗绝望》(fankang juewang), published in 1985 when he was a doctoral student at Nanjing University and later the basis of a book published in the early 1990s, contains several passages lifted from other works and used without citation.”

The reason this is significant is that Wang Hui is a noted public intellectual leader in the “New Left” movement, which Granite Studio also has a great post about. His work on Lu Xun is widely regarded, and he has held a number of prominent positions (he currently holds a professorship at Tsinghua and is a former editor of the well-respected journal Dushu). Some have alleged that this attack on Wang Hui is thus an attack on the “New Left” and an attempt to discredit a man who has repeatedly criticized the Party. In an interview with the Nandu Daily, Wang Hui’s accuser Wang Binbin defended himself:

Nandu Daily Reporter: On the internet, some have been suspicious of your motives […] If we ask you to concede a bit, aren’t there potential conflicts between you and Wang Hui in terms of schools [of thought] and interest>
Wang Binbin: What “schools”? What “interests”? This is purely people wanting to stir the water. I have no direct or indirect conflicts of personal interest with Wang Hui.

Wang Hui
Academics have leapt to Wang’s defense. First was Prof. Qian Liqun of Peking University, reportedly a close friend of Wang’s, but according to this article in the Nandu Daily academics from all corners are coming to Wang’s defense, and condemning his accuser Wang Binbin. Zhao Jinghua, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that “80% of Wang Binbin’s examples were quotations with nonstandard citations, but that is a problem of technique, not a moral question of plagiarism.” The director of the Lu Xun museum, Sun Yu, agrees, as does another CASS professor, Zhang Mengyang, who noted that Mao Zedong’s unattributed use of lines written by Li He in his poetry was praised for giving the lines new meaning, and no one ever accused Mao of being a plagiarist. One professor — one of Wang Hui’s original thesis readers — even noted that very similar accusations of plagiarism and improper attribution could be laid against Wang Binbin’s article itself!

Wang Binbin has also responded to some of these criticisms:

Nandu Daily Reporter: Wang Hui responded [to your criticism], saying it would need to be decided in academic circles, and now many academics have come out in support of him. Do you feel there is a problem with the attitudes of Qian Liqun, Zhao Jinghua, and Sun Yu? Did you see […] the Beijing Youth article “Wang Binbin-style agitation and its threat to Chinese academia”, and how do you respond to it?
Wang Binbin: There have not been many scholars speaking for Wang Hui. The attitude of Qian Liqun and others is extremely irresponsible. According to them, the word “plagiarism” should be deleted from the dictionary, and the action of plagiarism will be legitimized or semi-legitimized. As for [the aforementioned article] I maintain my right to sue [the author] and Beijing Youth.

But it’s hard not to question Wang Binbin’s motivations. After all, the thesis in question is already several decades old, and while it was the basis of a book Wang published in the early 1990’s, as far as I can tell, Wang Binbin has not alleged that there are any instances of plagiarism in that book. Jeremiah of Granite Studio expressed doubts in his piece that Wang Binbin’s motivations were pure, and Joel Martinsen of Danwei called Wang Binbin’s article “pretty much a hatchet-job” and notes that Binbin spends as much time criticizing Wang Hui’s writing style as he does raising questions of plagiarism.

Yet some people are taking it seriously. There are even fears among other Lu Xun scholars that the scandal is so big that it could influence perceptions and understanding of the man himself. “This is a betrayal of Lu Xun,” they said.

Reporters discovered that posts about the scandal were being censored on some internet discussion forums. Posts were deleted and replaced with a message that read, “Academic circles have already clarified this issue; it is no longer a worthy discussion topic”.

Wang Binbin
But, of course, the case has led to widespread discussion on the internet anyway, and this discussion has blossomed into ruminations into the nature of plagiarism and personal relationships in Chinese academia. “When asked about the current academic climate, everyone acts as though it has gotten worse, but actual instances of criticizing someone by name are rarely seen,” wrote the Nandu Daily. “But this kind of battle was a common sight in Lu Xun’s time.”

Some see the fight itself as an indication that some Chinese intellectuals are taking plagiarism more seriously. The mere fact that people are arguing over a case from twenty years ago could be good, even necessary, for Chinese academia. Many of the academics defending Wang Hui have shied away from denying that he made mistakes, merely arguing that his mistakes were a reflection of a lack of technical prowess rather than moral shortcomings.

The Problem of Plagiarism

Plagiarism is far from uncommon in Chinese academia. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the Nandu Daily that they “often encounter cases of plagiarism”, and in fact had just recently resolved a rather brilliant case where the plagiarist had taken his material from a foreign language source and translated it without attribution.

According to the Nandu Daily reporter, one problem is that there is no real consensus on “academic standards” or exactly what amounts to plagiarism. Some have argued adopting rigid Western standards inhibits freedom, but the CASS apparently supports adhering to the Western golden rule for academic work:

If you’re using someone else’s words or opinions, but haven’t cited the source, you are a plagiarist whether it’s intentional or not. If you’ve noted the source but have taken someone’s words directly without using quotation marks or a block quotation, that is also plagiarism. If what you’ve written is very close to the original work, and in comparing your words with that of the original author you discover yours would make no sense if the original author’s words were removed, that is also plagiarism.

Another problem may be that Chinese academia lacks the formal and rigorous peer review process in place in most Western institutions. According to the Nandu Daily article, “Theft of written work, the inability of one set of academic standards to achieve popular approval, and the difficulty of producing original achievements in academia are all related to the lack of a proper system of academic review.”

If you ask us, the problem probably starts before college, as cheating and plagiarism are rampant in high school and middle school. This kind of cheating doesn’t have a large impact on the system because college admissions are decided based on standardized test grades rather than a student’s high school academic record, but it does ingrain the idea that what’s important is having the right answer at the end of the day, not being original or obtaining that answer in the right way.

The case against Wang Hui seems pretty thin — to put it mildly — but it has prompted a discussion of academic standards in China, and perhaps a big, ugly scandal like this is exactly what Chinese academia needs to finally set for itself a universally-agreed-upon standard for plagiarism (and probably, some universal consequences for plagiarism on academic work, too).

Anyway, what do you think? Is plagiarism a serious problem in China or is this whole thing being blown out of proportion?

Ai Weiwei, Lu Xun, and the Hope of Hopelessness

This China Digital Times post has been sitting open in my browser for several days now. If you’re stuck behind the GFW, it’s a question and answer Chinese artist and social commentator Ai Weiwei did with a private Chinese BBS forum, full of social questions and snappy answers. It’s worth a read, but one question and answer jumped out in particular:

jencoxu: Do you still have any hope for China? Do you think the next round of reforms will be top down or bottom up?

Ai Weiwei: I never had any hope for China. I am only resisting the hopelessness China is imposing on me.

“I never had any hope for China.” In the same interview, he also said “I think we have a 100% bastard government.” Strong words, to be sure, and words that remind me of another Chinese firebrand that seemingly had nothing but negative things to say about China and Chinese culture: Lu Xun.

Lu Xun, China’s most famous modern writer, remains widely studied in China despite the fact that he died over a half-century ago. In large part because he was already dead when the Communist Party took control of China (he was a CCP supporter, ideologically), he has been held up and idealized as an artist with the courage to criticize the state of things in China. Still, reading his fiction gives the impression that he was about as “hopeless” as Ai Weiwei. In fact, he famously refused initial encouragement from a friend to become a writer by comparing criticizing Chinese society with waking up prisoners in an iron house before they were about to suffocate (our translation):

[I said,] “Suppose there is an iron house, without a single window and extremely difficult to destroy. Inside there are some people sleeping soundly, who will all soon suffocate, but entering death from such a sound sleep they will not feel they have died tragically. Now, yelling, you startle a few people out of sleep; you’re just forcing these unfortunate few to face their miserable deaths without hope of escape, and yet you believe this isn’t doing them a disservice?

Yet, Lu Xun did begin writing fiction, albeit fiction with a deeply cynical streak and a thick vein of hopelessness running through it. His earliest work, “Diary of a Madman”, compared Chinese culture to cannibalism, and one of his most famous stories, “The True Story of Ah Q”, concerns a ‘typically Chinese’ protagonist self-centered and stupid enough that he ends up waiting placidly for his own execution on wrongful charges. Lu Xun may have used the F word less than Ai Weiwei, but his early work wasn’t any less harsh or critical.

Ai Weiwei, too, has expressed hopelessness through his works. Certainly, his photographs of himself flipping the bird towards Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen or his more recent short film F*ck You Mother, Motherland don’t seem to hold out much hope for the possibility that things are going to change.

Yet both men, I believe, do have hope for China. When Lu Xun compared China to an iron house that was suffocating the Chinese people quitely, his friend appealed to him, and he was forced to admit that while he still felt hopeless, hope couldn’t be completely discounted. The full story, from Lu Xun’s preface to A Call to Arms (our translation):

[My friend Qian came to me and said:] “I think you could write some articles…”

I understood his meaning. They had just started [the magazine] New Youth [新青年 Xinqingnian], but at that time there was no one endorsing or even opposing it; I thought perhaps they felt lonely, but said, “Suppose there is an iron house, without a single window and extremely difficult to destroy. Inside there are some people sleeping soundly, who will all soon suffocate, but entering death from such a sound sleep they will not feel they have died tragically. Now, yelling, you startle a few people out of sleep; you’re just forcing these unfortunate few to face their miserable deaths without hope of escape, and yet you believe this isn’t doing them a disservice?”

“On the contrary, since a few of them are awake, you cannot say there is no hope of breaking and escaping the iron house.”

Although I remained firmly convinced [that the people in the iron house would simply suffocate], hope cannot be completely written off, because hope lies in the future.

Later, in “Old Home” (a short story known to many Chinese people as Runtu because of the name of one of its main characters), he famously wrote (translation by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi):

Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist . It is just like roads across the earth. Actually, the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass the same way, a road is made.

In essence, I understand his meaning to be that one must soldier on even in the absence of any real hope, as hope arises naturally as others begin to take up the same cause. Others will likely disagree, but I see this as fundamentally similar to what Ai Weiwei often says, and what he seems to be doing with some of his art. His hopelessness isn’t really hopelessness, and what is often misread as contempt for the government and disdain for those who disagree with him isn’t really just Ai being “an asshole” (in the words of one of our frequent commenters). He’s trying to change things, and on occasion, he seems to be drawing some ideas from the harsh social criticisms made by Lu Xun a century ago.

Ai Weiwei is not Lu Xun, and there are many differences between the two men and their approaches to both art and social activism. Still, it’s fascinating to see that Lu Xun’s hopeful hopelessness is still alive and kicking in China nearly a century after he penned “Diary of a Madman” for New Youth.

“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.