Lu Xun: Fierce Critic of the System

Revolutionary Worker #970, August 23, 1998

In Shaoxing Hostel there were three rooms where it was said a woman had lived who hanged herself on the locust tree in the courtyard.... For some years I stayed here, copying ancient inscriptions....the only visitor to come for an occasional talk was my old friend Chin Hsin-yi. He would put his big portfolio down on the broken table, take off his long gown, and sit facing me, looking as if his heart was still beating fast after braving the dogs....

"I think you might write something...."

I understood. They were editing the magazine New Youth, but hitherto there seemed to have been no reaction, favourable or otherwise, and I guessed they must be feeling lonely. However I said:

"Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?"

"But if a few awake, you can't say there is no hope of destroying the iron house."

Lu Xun, Preface to the Call to Arms,
his first collection of short stories

When Lu Xun became a writer, China was an "iron house" and the great majority of people were suffocating and poor. Between 1918 and 1925, Lu Xun wrote 26 short stories and many short commentaries. Many of the characters in these writings were painted with sharp humor and satire--illustrating how people from different classes, including the oppressed, adopted slavish ways and thinking under feudalism and imperialism.

"The True Story of Ah Q," a brilliant satire which was published in 1921, was typical. It was a powerful criticism of the 1911 Revolution for its lack of thoroughness. In this story, we see how the local magistrate retained his former post, the successful provincial candidate became the assistant civil administrator, the head of the military was still the same old captain, and even the "Imitation Foreign Devil" joined in "to work for reforms." Not only would these characters not allow Ah Q to join the revolution, they even had him executed. After the revolution, the Chinese peasantry was still being hoodwinked and oppressed.

Ah Q, a crude country lad, lived at the end of the Ching dynasty and symbolized the failure of the 1911 bourgeois democratic revolution. Constantly bullied by his fellow villagers and unable to fight them, Ah Q developed a dream world for himself. Whenever he was humiliated, he would put on an air of superiority and pretend to have won a "spiritual victory." In an attempt to boost his prestige, he went to town to steal--boasting to the villagers upon his return of his new association with the revolution. When the bourgeois revolutionaries came to the village, they collaborated with the gentry and put Ah Q on trial for robbery. The moral of the story was that Ah Q epitomized the betrayal of the peasantry and that the bourgeois revolution had compromised with the old feudal elements at the expense of its professed goals of social improvement.

A major theme in Lu Xun's work was the oppression of women and how the traditional social relations enslaved the women and children of China. In the New Year's Sacrifice, Lu Xun tells the story of Hsiang Lin's Wife who is murdered by the normal workings of the feudal family system. Forced to marry a boy ten years younger than herself, her marriage is a wretched farce. When her boy husband dies, she runs away to work as a servant in the family of a Confucian scholar, who despises her because she is widow. The only time she smiles is when she is working. Because women were considered property of the husband's family, her dead husband's family drags her back and sells her to a man living in the mountains. When her second husband dies, she returns to the scholar's house--to be even more mistreated because the death of her second husband was considered evidence of her "bad character." Finally, driven from the house, she dies a beggar, amid the festive sound of firecrackers welcoming the New Year.

In Regret for the Past, Tzu-chun is a modern woman--an educated girl whose lover Chuan-sheng is an intellectual. The two have broken with the feudal traditions and believe in equality. But the economic system and the domination of feudal values in society undermine their love. And their philosophy does not help them find a way out.

Chuan-sheng is very fond of Tzu-chun, and she is in love with him--but with a more thoroughgoing and genuine love. The disapproving looks directed at them in the street make Chuan-sheng uncomfortable, but Tzu-chun holds her head up. Deep in love, Tzu-chun is eager to contribute her share to the relationship, but although she has skills and education, she cannot find a job. She becomes a housewife, devoting her energy to cooking and household chores, but Chuan-sheng becomes bored and annoyed by her domestic life. Then Chuan-sheng is fired from his job--because he defies convention to live with the woman he loves. And their life becomes increasingly difficult. Love fades. They need to make a fresh start, but cannot find the right path. And Chuan-sheng blames Tzu-chun: "The world is like a boat sinking out at sea; the main thing is to save oneself.... If I could only take wing and fly away, I still had plenty of ways to make a living. The wretchedness of my present life was largely due to her." For Tzu-chun -- forced to return to her father's household, where she is cruelly scorned--their breakup means death. Only a real proletarian revolution can liberate women like Tzu-chun.

Another famous short story by Lu Xun, "The Diary of a Madman," was written in April 1918 and published in New Youth. It was a horror story--a furious attack on the old society and tradition. And through this story, Lu Xun conveyed his belief that the Chinese people could become free only by the most radical and fundamental measures--every vestige of the old culture and tradition had to be pulled up from its roots and destroyed, and the thinking of the people had to be completely changed.

"Lu Xun's "madman" is a paranoid obsessed by the fear that he is the intended victim of a cannibalistic conspiracy. He is the product of an insane society, but through his very madness he is able to diagnose the fundamental disease of the society: "In ancient times, as I recollect, people often ate human beings, but I am rather hazy about it. I tried to look this up but my history book has no chronology, and scrawled all over each page are the words 'virtue' and 'morality.' Since I could not sleep anyway, I read hard half the night, until I began to see words between the lines, the whole book being filled with the two words--'Eat People.'"

To his horror the "madman" soon discovers that cannibalism is not only a matter of ancient history: "The eater of human flesh is my elder brother! I am the younger brother of an eater of human flesh! I myself will be eaten by others...I have only just realized that I have been living all these years in a place where for four-thousand years they have been eating human flesh." The disease seems almost incurable since it is passed down from father to son: "He must have been taught by his parents. And I am afraid he has already taught his son: that is why even the children look at me so fiercely." The affliction is so widespread that no one seems able to escape its corrupting influence: "How can a man like myself, after four thousand years of man-eating history--even though I knew nothing about it at first--ever hope to face real men?" Lu Xun's madman then offers one glimmer of hope: "Perhaps there are still children who have not eaten men? Save the children."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)