Chou Shu-jen 周樹人 Alt. Lu Hsün 魯迅
Chou Shu-jen (1881-19 October 1936), known as Lu Hsün, a writer and social critic of such prominence that he became an almost legendary figure.
Shaohsing, Chekiang, was the native place of Lu Hsün. He was born into a family of commercial and minor official background. Like his two younger brothers, Chou Tso-jen (q.v.) and Chou Chien-jen, he received an early classical education in a school maintained by the Chou clan. Browsing in the family library first attracted him to the subjects which became his central interests in adult life: popular literature, folklore, natural science, and art, particularly wood-block illustrations. The family financial situation declined sharply after 1893, when Lu Hsün's grandfather, Chou Fu-ch'ing, a chin-shih and the first scholar of consequence in the family for centuries, was arrested for the attempted bribery of a provincial examination official. That scandal, combined with the prolonged illness of his father, Chou Feng-i, seriously impaired the family's finances and resulted in Lu Hsün's having to leave the clan school. After the death of his father in 1897, he was sent to the country to live temporarily with his eldest maternal uncle. His mother, a capable country woman who had taught herself to read, did much to hold the family together during that difficult period, and her indomitable character influenced Lu Hsün throughout his life. Her maiden name had been Lu, and it was from his mother's name that Lu Hsün derived his pen name.
Aside from short stays in the countryside, Lu Hsün spent his formative years until the age of 17 in Shaohsing, where he also acquired a solid grounding in traditional Chinese history and literature and studied the history of his native district and its illustrious roster of scholars. Shortly before the reform movement of 1898, Lu Hsün left Shaohsing for Nanking to take the entrance examinations for the government supported Kiangnan Naval Academy. He passed the examinations and enrolled at Kiangnan, but was dissatisfied with the institution. In the following year, he transferred to the School of Railways and Mines, which was run in connection with the Kiangnan Army Academy at Nanking. He read translations of foreign books and in so doing he discovered the new world of Western science, literature, philosophy, and history. From the works of Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley he learned about the doctrine of evolution, which became an important theme in his later political and social thought. Such works encouraged him to believe that man, through rational action, could improve himself and his environment and that the Chinese, therefore, could build a strong China free of foreign encroachment. In 1901, after four years at Nanking, Lu Hsün was graduated from the School of Railways and Mines.
Because he believed that he could do most for China as a physician, Lu Hsün sought access to a modern medical school. He obtained a government scholarship to study medicine in Japan, and in February 1902 he sailed for Tokyo. During two years of language study in Tokyo, Lu Hsün avoided political-activities and devoted himself to continued study of Western learning. At the same time he attempted, through articles on popular scientific subjects published in Chinese student magazines in Tokyo, to expand the horizons of his countrymen, whom he called upon to emulate the self-disciplined "spirit of Sparta."
In the autumn of 1904, Lu Hsün entered the Sendai Provincial Medical School in Japan. However, he left the school after less than two years. Early in 1906 he witnessed a news slide of the Russo-Japanese war which showed a Chinese, bound and awaiting execution by the Japanese as a Russian spy, surrounded by other able-bodied but apathetic Chinese. Seeing the slide helped to convince him that a fundamental change in the spirit of the Chinese people was necessary to avoid such "futile spectacles" and that literature, which reaches the masses, and not medicine, which treats only individuals, was the best means to effect this change. Thus he left Sendai and, after a brief trip to China to submit to an arranged marriage, returned to Tokyo in June 1906, accompanied by his brother Chou Tso-jen, to devote himself to literature.
Lu Hsün was one of a small number of Chinese in Tokyo concerned with the rigorous study of literature. During this period he read and was most influenced by Nietzsche, Darwin, Gogol, and Chekhov. With his brother, Lu Hsün started a short-lived periodical, New Life, devoted to expounding Western ideas in classical Chinese. Essays published in 1907-8 summarize his observations on the development of Western civilization and the relevance of Western ideas to China. Having abandoned the opinions of his pre-Sendai days, he concluded that science should not be emphasized at the expense of moral, aesthetic, and spiritual values; that industrialization, materialism, and democracy — which he termed "the tyranny of a million unreliable rascals"—should not be blindly adopted by China; and that, in the realm of literature, engage writers like Byron were needed to lead China out of desolation and into beauty and strength. These essays reveal obvious conflicts in the thinking of the young Lu Hsün. He was attracted both to the material promise of science and to the essential vitality of spiritual values; he pitied the plight of the masses but was impatient with their submissiveness ; he wanted a modernized China yet desired to retain the "established blood vessels" of her traditional culture. During the years from 1906 to 1909 in Tokyo, Lu Hsün read many Japanese translations of the works of the "oppressed peoples" of Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. With his brother Chou Tso-jen, he published two volumes of European and Russian short stories. Their objective was to portray to the Chinese the spirit of resistance to autocracy shown by peoples in other unfortunate lands. The translations were written in an archaic classical Chinese. At that time Lu Hsün was most strongly influenced by the Russian authors Gogol and Andreyev and by the Polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz.
For nine years after his return to China from Japan in 1909, Lu Hsün virtually abandoned his crusade to rescue China from her moral and physical ills. He taught science for a year at Hangchow and then served as school principal in Shaohsing in 1910-11. He found that the masses were still indifferent to social change, and he was also depressed by the lack of interest in his short story translations. A feeling of futility began to overtake him, and it was deepened by the results of the 1911 revolution. After the establishment of the republican government at Nanking in January 1912, Ts'ai Yuan-p'ai (q.v.), also a native of Shaohsing, invited him to Nanking to serve in the ministry of education, which Ts'ai headed. After the resignation of Sun Yat-sen in favor of Yuan Shih-k'ai, Ts'ai Yuan-p'ei went to Peking, where he held the post of minister of education in the first cabinet formed there. Lu Hsün also moved to Peking, where he served, with brief interruptions, in the ministry of education until the summer of 1926.
The politics at Peking soon made Lu Hsün suspicious of all reform efforts, and he retreated from public life to concentrate on the study of ancient Chinese texts and inscriptions, in which, as he wrote, "there were no political problems." The resulting sinological studies, done in the best tradition of Ch'ing dynasty philology, included compilations of biographical, anecdotal, and historical material relative to Shaohsing, as well as studies on natural history. More significantly, his studies embodied extensive research on the history of Chinese literature, especially the traditional tales, which he had loved from childhood. He published a volume of ancient stories of the pre-Chin period, Hsiao-shuo pei-chiao [ancient tales collected] ; a volume of tales from the Han, Wei, Chin, and Six Dynasties period, Ku hsiao-shuo ko-ch'en [ancient tales reclaimed] ; and a volume of T'ang and Sung short stories, the T'ang Sung ch 'uan-ch 'i-chi [short stories from T'ang and Sung]. Lu Hsün also produced an annotated edition of the works of the third-century poet Hsi K'ang (223-262), whose terse style strongly influenced him. He later systematized his treatment of Chinese literary history from its beginnings to the end of the Han dynasty in his Han wen-hsueh shih-kang [outline history of Chinese literature] and through the Ch'ing period in his Chung-kuo hsiao-shuo shih-lueh [brief history of Chinese fiction]. From miscellaneous anecdotes about, and notes on, old fiction and writers gathered in preparing these works, Lu Hsün compiled the Hsiao-shuo chiu-wen ch'ao [notes on old tales]. He also amassed an outstanding collection of rubbings of early inscriptions and carvings and worked on an as yet unpublished listing of Han stone portraits and Buddhist carvings and tomb inscriptions of the Six Dynasties (420-589) period.
Lu Hsün was roused from his creative apathy only by the Literary Revolution of 1919. His friend of Japan days Ch'ien Hsuan-t'ung (q.v.) prevailed upon him to contribute some poems and a story to the May 1918 issue of New Youth. The story, "A Madman's Diary," reminiscent of Gogol's tale of the same title, was a potent indictment of the traditional Chinese family system, which was revealed through the fantasies of a madman as a self-serving cloak for "cannibalism." "A Madman's Diary" was a tour de force which attracted immediate recognition. In a sense, it set the theme with which Lu Hsün was inextricably identified during the last portion of his life : abhorrence of the "putrid morals and death-stiff language" of the old China. It was the first story written in Chinese which was wholly Western in conception and execution. In subsequent issues he contributed short essays on the current Chinese scene, tsa kan [random thoughts], which laid the foundation for his later fame as an essayist.
"The Story of Ah Q," published in 1921, brought Lu Hsün national prominence and became the best known modern Chinese story abroad. It also gave to the modern Chinese language the term "Ah Q-ism" as a satiric term for the Chinese national penchant for selfdeceiving rationalization of defeat and frustration into "spiritual victory." Ah Q, an illiterate, poverty-stricken village outcast living in the period of the 1911 revolution, is constantly humiliated. He comforts himself with the idea that, in defeat, he is the most humble of men and argues that excessive humility is in effect a virtue, for "is not a superlative, the first or most of anything, a distinction to be achieved and envied." AhQ,convinces himself that he is better than those about him, that the sons he does not have would have been greater scholars than the village literati. By the same token, China, prostrate before Western military and technological superiority, argued that her "national essence" was superior to "barbarian culture."
In the years between 1918 and 1926 Lu Hsün wrote some two dozen short stories, which were published in two collections, Na-han [call to arms], which appeared in 1923, and P'ang-huang [hesitation], which appeared in 1926. These tales, according to Lu Hsün, were based "almost entirely on the lives of unfortunate people living in a sick society" and were intended to stimulate social reform. His style was terse, tight, and realistic; his influence on young Chinese students and writers was enormous. Interestingly, liberal scholars like Hu Shih and Ch'en Yuan were among the first to recognize his talents. Communists and other left-wing elements, however, were uniformly hostile until 1929, when Lu Hsün became openly sympathetic to their cause.
Lu Hsün's stories of rural life sharply portray the tragedies of life in the Chinese countryside; for the most part, they are based on his childhood experiences in Shaohsing and on a journey he made there in the winter of 1919-20. In "Benediction," the widow's small son is eaten by a wolf as surely as she herself is devoured by the inhumanities of Chinese superstition and by China's outmoded code of social ethics. The boatman in "Storm in a Teacup" and the discarded wife of "The Divorce" symbolize the helplessness of the peasantry before the unchecked power of vicious landlords. The protagonist of "My Old Home" is simply crushed by "too many sons, famine, oppressive taxes, soldiers, bandits, officials, and gentry" until life is drained from him, and he is scarcely more than a "wooden image." Lu Hsün sympathized with figures like the hero of "K'ung I-chi," a broken victim of the useless examination system; with the young rebels in "Regret for the Past," whose lives are crushed by economic pressure; and with the hero of "In the Wine Shop," who lets his ideals wither rather than confront the reality of unfulfilled dreams. At the same time Lu Hsün condemned the selfish, old-style gentry and hypocritical pseudo-modernists like the protagonist of "Professor Kao," who, beneath a veneer of new knowledge and feigned concern for the salvation of China, opposed women's education on the grounds that it subverted public morals. These stories comprise a condemnation of traditional China in the guise of Shaohsing and its denizens. After 1926, the year Hesitation appeared, Lu Hsün wrote only brief satirical tales that were gathered together as Ku-shih hsin-pien [old legends retold] in 1935. The stories in hesitation are Lu Hsün's finest creation and rank as the most profound writing done in the early period of the Literary Revolution. Why Lu Hsün then abandoned the writing ofstories is difficult to explain. Certainly his departure from north China in 1926 for an unhappy interlude in Amoy and Canton played a part, along with the grueling controversies he had with the Communists until late in 1929. After that date and his espousal of a kind of Communism, Lu Hsün may have settled, as C. T. Hsia put it, for emotional sterility in the interests of ideological consistency.
In essays written during the years following the May Fourth Movement of 1919, Lu Hsün called on China to shake off her lethargy, to discard the submissiveness which had enslaved the Chinese people throughout their history, to borrow courageously from abroad, and to create a rational society. He argued for the emancipation of women and children and against the traditional family system with its constricting conventions governing chastity and remarriage. He sternly criticized the Chinese concept of "national essence," with its veneration of past over present, of artificial classicism over the living language, of native medicine over modern science, and of traditional constraints on individual rights. Let those who want the past "go back," he held; "the earth today should be inhabited by men with a firm hold on the present." At the same time he brought to perfection his most characteristic prose style, terse and impassioned, witty and well larded with the vocabulary of ridicule and abuse.
From 1920 to 1926, Lu Hsün, in addition to his work in the ministry of education, taught Chinese literature at National Peking University and at other institutions in the capital. In 1925 he sided with the students of the Peking Women's Higher Normal School in a dispute with the government which had begun because of the appointment of a conservative woman as the new principal. That action led to his temporary dismissal from the ministry. The Women's Normal School affair also led to a spirited exchange of views between Lu Hsün, writing in the weekly Yü-ssu [thread of talk], of which he had been an original sponsor in November 1924, and Ch'en Yuan and others, writing in Hsien-tai p'ing-lun [contemporary critic] to support Chang Shih-chao (q.v.), the minister of education. During 1925 Lu Hsün also was active in assisting young writers and in forming the Wei-ming Society to publish reliable translations, chiefly, though not exclusively, of recent Russian works.
After the massacre of demonstrating students by the Tuan Ch'i-jui government on 18 March 1926, an incident which Lu Hsün called the "blackest day in Chinese history," he was forced into hiding for two months and soon was listed as a dangerous radical. In August 1926 he left Peking for Amoy University, where he taught unhappily under Lin Yü-t'ang (q.v.), the dean, for a few months before proceeding to Sun Yatsen University in Canton in January 1927. Now nationally acclaimed both as creative writer and as fearless social critic, Lu Hsün was followed to Canton by many students from Amoy and elsewhere and was given an enthusiastic welcome at the university. He taught Chinese literature and served as academic dean for three months. He resigned in April 1927 because he was disgusted by the purges that followed the break between the right-wing Kuomintang forces and the Communists.
Until that time, faith in evolutionary progress toward a better China had sustained Lu Hsün through all discouragement, but the bloody violence of the 1927 massacres, during which some of his students were killed or arrested, and the spectacle of Chinese youth split against itself severely troubled him. He remained in Canton for a few months before leaving with Hsu Kuang-p'ing (q.v.), a former student who had become his common-law wife, for Shanghai. He remained in Shanghai, except for two brief trips to Peiping in 1929 and 1932, from October 1927 until his death from tuberculosis on 19 October 1936.
Lu Hsün's first two years in Shanghai were of ..crucial significance in his relations with the political left. Despite an early interest in Russia dating from his years in Japan, Lu Hsün had paid little attention to the Russian Revolution; despite his contacts with Ch'en Tu-hsiu (q.v.) and Li Ta-chao (q.v.) through Hsin ch'ing-nien, he had not participated in Communist political activities in China before 1927. Apparently, it was in Canton that he came into indirect contact with the Chinese Communist party and concluded that it was the driving force in the Chinese revolution. Greatly disappointed by the events of 1927, he sought new insights and, immediately after arrival in Shanghai, began to read translations from works on modern Russian literature, Marxism, and Russia. He never pretended to systematic study, never read Das Kapital, and his scant works of this period show little reflection of his reading. He was close to Jou Shih (Chao P'ing-fu), Feng Hsueh-feng, and a few other young Communist writers, but he seemingly had no connections with the underground organizational apparatus of the Communist party. At the same time, the Communist party itself was by no means completely committed to Lu Hsün. Official Communist party organs intermittently characterized him as an outsider to the proletariat and criticized his political and intellectual attitudes. In 1928 the Creation Society and the Sun Society, both Communist groups, began a concerted attack on him in rebuttal to his caustic observations on revolutionary literature. A polemic ensued which ended only with his capitulation to his Communist critics.
During 1928-29 while publicly replying to his Marxist critics, Lu Hsün privately reappraised his past individualistic stand. He read Japanese translations of Marx and literature of Soviet Russia. Lu's grasp of dialectic always remained shaky, but by the end of 1929 Lu Hsün and the Chinese Communist party were ready for closer cooperation. In February 1930 he joined the Freedom League, a group organized to protest increasing restrictions on freedom of speech, news, assembly, and publication. In March 1930 he participated wholeheartedly in preparations for the establishment of the League of Left-Wing Writers. He became affiliated with the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, which had its headquarters at Moscow. In early 1933 he served on the executive committee of the China League for Civil Rights, a group which was anti-Kuomintang, but primarily non- Communist; and in the autumn of that year, he was named to the presidium of the Communist-front Far Eastern Conference of the Congress against Imperialist War, convened secretly in Shanghai, but found it too dangerous to attend. He was close to Ch'ü Ch'iu-pai (q.v.), former general secretary of the Chinese Communist party, who was then in Shanghai, and on three occasions he provided Ch'ü with refuge from arrest. Lu Hsün also had contact with Li Li-san and Ch'en Yi (qq.v.). In 1935 he was the channel through which the final letter of Fang Chih-min (q.v.) from his Nanchang prison was forwarded to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist party. Similarly, in early 1 936 he was the individual through whom a secret Communist report on work in north China, brought by messenger from Peiping, was forwarded to the central authorities of the Chinese Communist party.
Never a serious student of dialectical materialism, and too skeptical to embrace Marxist- Leninist dogma, Lu Hsün never became a member of the Communist party. His sympathy with the Chinese Communists derived primarily from his longstanding hatred of the injustices inherent in the traditional Chinese social system, his spirited nationalism and hatred of foreign privilege in China, and his emotional revulsion to the brutality, persecution, and censorship perpetrated by the Kuomintang authorities associated with Chiang Kai-shek. He was an independent, undisciplined, and non-doctrinaire supporter of the Chinese Communist party as the only effective opposition to the Kuomintang and, under the circumstances then existing in China, as the sole agent for national regeneration. His non-doctrinaire position, which in many ways resembled that of his friends Soong Ch'ingling (q.v.) and Mao Tun (Shen Yen-ping, q.v.), conflicted with the rigid dictates of Chou Yang (q.v.), the young secretary general of the League of Left-Wing Writers with whom he came into conflict in the Battle of Slogans of 1936.
From the Chinese Communist standpoint, the major focus of Lu Hsün's social criticism was unorthodox, since, in the last analysis, it placed the blame for China's humiliations on China herself rather than on her "imperialist foes." By the time Lu Hsün reached Shanghai, his creative years as an author were over. Since he believed, however, that the basic obligation of literature was to criticize society and thereby to improve it, he then devoted himself to comments on the contemporary social, political, and literary scene. Using the pen which, he said, "gold cannot buy," he produced essay after essay in which he attacked the increasingly oppressive censorship of the Kuomintang, its indiscriminate campaign of terror against Communists and other critics, and its policy of nonresistance to Japanese aggression. He accused the National Government of betraying China's national interest and of exploiting the Chinese people. China, he declared, was a desperate spectacle of misery and sham ; her people were dumb and unquestioning slaves resigned to fate. "We in China . . . [live like] fish in a muddy stream, incoherent and confused," he wrote, "neither living nor dead." Nor did Lu Hsün soften his indictment with consoling references to positive virtues. To him the Chinese, in addition to being Ah Q, rationalizers of their own superiority, were deceitful, cruel, hypocritical, and opportunistic, concerned more with face and form than with substance. "Things in China are often considered completed when the sign board is hung up .... China is really too lacking in earnestness." With respect to the future, Lu Hsün was a realist, not a pessimist. With China a "black vat of human flesh" corrupting everything it touched, the road to national rebirth would be long and tortuous. Yet Lu Hsün was confident: "to say that there is no place for us on the twentieth century stage is nonsense."
Lu Hsün's hostility to the Kuomintang made him a marked man. Particularly after 1930, he lived constantly with the possibility of arrest; his greatest protection was his enormous personal prestige. Only reliable and trusted friends knew the location of his house in Shanghai; others he saw outside, often at the bookshop of a Japanese friend, Uchiyama Kanzo. After May 1933 he could no longer publish articles under the name Lu Hsün, and his style perforce became more elliptical. Collections of his articles were banned; but they were published in 1934-35 through extra-legal channels and were circulated clandestinely.
Although Lu Hsün produced no original creative work in Shanghai, he continued to be regarded as China's leading literary figure. In 1928 he founded an important monthly, Pen-liu [the torrent]. Later that year, with some young friends, he launched the Chao-hua Society. After 1930 he was connected with but did not lead, as was claimed in left-wing circles, the League of Left-Wing Writers. In 1934 he was one of the founders of I-wen [translation magazine].
Lu Hsün's real contribution to Chinese letters during this period was the final perfection of his tsa-wen, or essay, which was characterized by a laconic yet multileveled style. Lu Hsün's ability to camouflage his meaning in an unexpected phrase, a scintillating twist, a deft allusion as well as his economy and refinement of language, all reached their fullest development during the last decade of his life and were never equaled by his many imitators.
As a prolific translator and as a sponsor of organizations and periodicals devoted to translation, Lu Hsün sought to introduce fiction and literary theory which he considered useful to the development of China and of modern Chinese literature. Much of this work was retranslation from Japanese and German, the only foreign languages he knew. In the Peking period up to 1926, his translations of Russian and Japanese works reflected his preoccupation with questions of social morality and the social role of literature. His study of Marxist cultural theory in Shanghai between 1928 and 1930 led to translations from Lunacharsky and Plekhanov on theories of literature and art and of a brief but systematic Japanese work by Katakami Shin entitled, in translation, Some Questions of Proletarian Literature. To acquaint Chinese readers with recent developments in Russian literature, he translated basic documents of the 1924-25 Soviet controversy on literary policy as well as works to represent the Russian proletarian writers (Fadeyev's The Rout) and fellow travelers (Yakovlev's October). In the last two years of his life, he translated a selection of Chekhov's stories, some of Gorky's Russian Fables, and Gogol's Dead Souls. Lu Hsun also wrote poetry, both in the vernacular and in traditional style. His vernacular verse is weak, but his classical poems, in the words of one of his greatest critics, T. A. Hsia, "at least equal his best pai-hua prose in terseness, bitterness, sardonic humor, and the strange beauty of 'frozen flames' and the 'intricate red lines forming patterns like coral beneath the surface of bluish-white ice.' " Lu Hsün's poems were collected in Dead Fire.
Graphic art was a lifelong interest of Lu Hsün, who himself had minor talents as a draftsmandesigner. He was knowledgeable about traditional Chinese crafts and acquired an impressive collection of Han, Wei, Six Dynasty, and T'ang rubbings. As a result of his interest in Chinese woodblock printing, he became increasingly preoccupied with wood engraving as a contemporary medium used by Western artists. He recognized that woodblock printing was preferable to the imperfectly developed mechanical printing methods then available in China and that, as an economical method of mass communication, it could serve the cause of social education. In 1929 Lu Hsün published a volume of reproductions of wood engravings by British artists and a second collection containing French, American, Russian, and Japanese examples. By this time, several young Chinese artists had begun to practice Western-style wood engraving, and some of the earliest works in this genre were produced by the Muto-she [wood bell club] of Hangchow.
From the Hangchow group, disbanded in 1929, grew the 18 Club of Shanghai, which adopted the slogan, "out of the salons, into the streets." The club's aims reflected Lu Hsün's idea of a truly popular art, and he wrote a foreword to the catalogue of its first exhibition, which was held in the Chinese YMCA at Shanghai in the early summer of 1931. Lu Hsün then decided to encourage more artist-engravers. In August 1931 he organized a class in wood engraving under a Japanese teacher, with himself serving as interpreter. In 1932 the class developed into a new art club, and Lu Hsün patronized its first exhibition, also held in the Chinese YMCA at Shanghai. He also began to collect for safekeeping samples of the works of many of the younger Chinese artists, and in 1934 he published selected pieces in a volume entitled Mu-k'o chi-cheng [the woodcut record].
In addition to publishing the work of many contemporary Western artists for the instruction of young Chinese, Lu Hsün did much to help them know their own tradition. To that end, he published jointly with Cheng Chen-to (q.v.) two collections of traditional-style stationery bearing lightly inked woodblock engravings. These were the seventeenth century work by Wu Cheng-yen, Shih-chu-chai chien-p'u [letter papers of the bamboo studio], run from specially recut woodblocks, one volume of which appeared before Lu Hsün's death in 1936; and the Peip'ing chien-p'u [Peiping letter papers], arranged and edited from modern examples and printed in 1938 from the original blocks.
Beginning with respect for the technical accomplishments of European wood engravers, particularly the thriving British school, Lu Hsün later developed a deep admiration for the Russian engravers and for European socialist artists, notably Kathe Kollwitz in Germany. In 1931 he was greatly moved by the woodcut illustrations to the Russian novel Iron Current, which was published in the magazine Graphika. Their stark and powerful portrayal of industrial civilization gave Lu Hsün a new conception of the use of engraving in depicting contemporary realities. This portrayal, he argued, should be the aim of contemporary Chinese artists. His ambition was to encourage a new national art which, by retaining its Chinese spirit while drawing upon the superior technique of Western artists, could make a major appeal to the young people of China.
Lu Hsün's literary reputation rests on a relatively small body of published work: two volumes of short stories, some of his retold classical tales, and a small but highly regarded collection of prose poems collectively titled Yeh-ts'ao [wild grass]. His larger fame, however, stems from his role as a social critic, particularly during the last years of his life at Shanghai.
Lu Hsün's defiant indictment of the Chinese character and Chinese tradition had great impact on the young Chinese intellectuals of the 1920's and 1930's. They recognized the truth of Lu Hsün's words, they shared his passionate desire for a better China, and they honored his consistent and outspoken dedication to the basic libertarian goals of the May Fourth Movement. Their admiration was strengthened because Lu Hsün, in the face of official hostility after 1927, dared to remain uncompromising and because he articulated their protests against political terror, censorship, and Kuomintang temporizing in the face of Japanese aggression. Lu Hsün's political sympathies made him a national symbol of left-wing opposition to the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek's domination, but his underlying appeal was much broader. Essentially, Lu Hsün's concern was the development in China of a new spirit of self-respect and self-confidence to serve as the basis for genuine national regeneration. His essays, mostly too topical for later readers, became the province of the specialist in later years; but his name as a symbol of the quest for a mature, modernized China will long survive.
Despite his controversies with the Communists over literary matters, Lu Hsün was accorded major status as literary patriot by the Chinese Communists soon after his death. Writing in January 1940, Mao Tse-tung lauded Lu Hsün as the "giant of China's cultural revolution." In the cultural section of his influential essay On New Democracy, Mao Tse-tung created a near-legendary figure and depicted Lu Hsün as the most articulate and influential social critic to emerge from the May Fourth Movement of 1919: "and Lu Hsün was the greatest and most militant standard-bearer of this new cultural force. He was the supreme commander in China's cultural revolution; he was not only a great man of letters, but also a great thinker and a great revolutionary. Lu Hsün had the most unyielding backbone and was totally free from any trace of obsequiousness and sycophancy; such strength of character is the greatest treasure among the colonial and semi-colonial peoples."
Shortly after Lu Hsün's death in 1936, a special committee was organized at Shanghai to prepare a comprehensive edition of his writings. Its members included Cheng Chen-to, and Hu Yu-chih as well as his widow, Hsu Kuang-p'ing. The result of their labors was the collection entitled Lu Hsün hsien-sheng ch'uan-chi [complete works of Lu Hsün], published in 20 volumes at Shanghai in 1938, with an introduction by Ts'ai Yuan-p'ei. Since 1949 countless memoirs, biographies, studies, and tributes have been devoted to Lu Hsün. Two additional supplements to the Lu Hsün hsien-sheng ch'uan-chi were published, respectively, in 1946 and 1952, under the editorship of T'ang T'ao. The Lu Hsün shuchien [letters of Lu Hsün], edited by his widow, was published in two volumes (second edition, Peking, 1952). The Lu Hsün jih-chi [diaries of Lu Hsün] was published at Peking in 1959. The Foreign Languages Press at Peking published several volumes of Lu Hsün's works in English translation. In addition to The True Story of Ah Q, eighteen early stories were issued in 1954 as Selected Stories of Lu Hsün, and eight stories from his Old Tales Retold were issued in 1961. Peking's English-language edition of the Selected Works of Lu Hsün comprises four volumes. The first, including short stories, prose poems, and reminiscences, with a biographical and critical introduction by Feng Hsueh-feng, appeared in 1956. It was followed by three volumes of essays grouped chronologically : volume 2 (1957), covering the period 1918-1927; volume 3 (1959), the period 1928-1933; and volume 4 (1960), the final period from 1934 to 1936, with an appended chronology of Lu Hsün's life and writings. A translation of his Brief History of Chinese Fiction, containing reproductions ofancient woodcuts and some facsimiles of rare editions, was published at Peking in 1959.