Lu Xun, a Lofty and Unyielding Soul
Lu Xun had a big influence after the May Fourth Movement in 1919. One of his former residences, in inner Fuchengmen, Beijing, still maintains its furnishings for visitors to admire.
An ordinary and small courtyard remains in 21 Santiao Ally in inner Fuchengmen, in West Beijing, with two lush white cloves, grey brick walls and red window lattices. Lu Xun (also known as Zhou Shuren, 1881– 1936, a leading figure of modern Chinese literature) once lived in this courtyard between 1924 and 1926, and rebuilt it. What distinguishes the courtyard from others is the small room of only eight square metres attached to the three north rooms. One small room looks like a tail, and is called tiger tail. Lu Xun called it his grey shed, which served as Lu's study and bedroom, with a kerosene lamp on an old three- drawer desk.
The soft light from the northern window is suitable for reading and writing, through which the backyard can be seen. A wooden penholder, an alarm clock and ashtray are on the desk; a cane chair is in front of the desk; and a portrait of Fujino Genkuro (1874–1945, a Japanese doctor and medical teacher of Lu Xun) is hung on the wall. The furnishings remain in their original state, illustrating Lu's living space.
On the right corner of the desk is an inkstone engraved with its production date—the 11th year of the Datong reign (AD 545). Lu, fond of metal and stone, once made rubbings from inscriptions on inkstone, and had the rubbings printed in his book Sitang zhuanwen zaji (“collection of essays written in the Sitang Study”). The number of ancient metal and stone rubbings collected by Lu is slightly fewer than that of his books.
The small courtyard is now an important section of the Lu Xun Museum, the first biographical museum since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
Lu Xun was born and raised in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province—a typical waterside city with black-awning boats on the river.
Lu was born into a prestigious family in September 1881. His original name was Zhou Zhushou, and was later renamed Zhou Shuren. His grandfather Zhou Fuqing served as an official in Beijing, who stressed education. He even had his grandchildren learn poetry—from a primary to advanced level. What started as a family tradition had a profound effect on Lu Xun.
When Lu was 13, his grandfather was thrown into prison because of his involvement in fraudulent imperial examination cases. His father Zhou Boyi stayed idly at home due to lung disease. His family fortunes declined and life became increasingly hard since then. As the eldest son of the family, Lu had to bear the burden of supporting the whole family.
But hardships didn't prevent Lu's love of learning. When Lu was young, he attained the nickname “Huyang weiba (literally sheep tail),” meaning clever and lively in the Shaoxing dialect. Lu performed well when studying in the Sanwei (or Three-flavour) Study, and his teacher Shou Jingwu thought highly of him, saying Lu was smart and noble. Lu, who had a strong interest in reading in childhood, read books, including literature, unofficial histories, painting manuals, and even books on tea and horticulture. After planting flowers and trees by himself, Lu pointed out that the planting methods mentioned in Huajing (“flower mirror,” a masterpiece of horticulture by Chen Mingzi) were incorrect.
Hearing that Lu was getting along well in his studies, his uncle invited a scholar in the village to test Lu. At meal time, his uncle said, “Let's play a matching game to have some fun. Okay, I'll begin with ‘stewed pork'.” Lu immediately replied, “Sliced chicken.” The scholar said, “Mandarin ducks play under the lotus leaf.” Lu answered, “Spring swallows sing on the weeping willow.” Lu's quick replies helped him win unanimous praise of the guests.
Later, Lu studied at the Jiangnan School of Mines and Railways in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, and maintained a good academic performance. His classmates thought
that only Lu was qualified to win the medal issued by the school, as he had an extraordinary memory.
Although the domestic misfortune made Lu experience the hardships of life when he was young, his life in rural areas also provided an opportunity for him to understand the lives of farmers. The days he spent with his friends there offered experience for him to create “My Old Home” and “From Hundred-plant Garden to Three-flavour Study,” documenting his interpersonal relationships.
Change of Pursuit
In 1898, Lu left for Nanjing to study at the Jiangnan Seaman School with 18 silver dollars his mother gave him, and he then studied at the Jiangnan School of Mines and Railways. Both of the schools were set up by the Westernisation Group of the Qing government to achieve national rejuvenation, with courses in mathematics, physics and chemistry. During that period, Lu read foreign books on literature and social science, including a Chinese version of Evolution and Ethnics translated by Yan Fu (1854– 1921). The education he received and books he read made him realise that independence, autonomy and selfreliance are at the core for developing both person and country. No one is supposed to accept fate and be bullied by others.
In 1902, Lu studied in Japan, financed by the state, by virtue of his excellent academic performance in the Jiangnan School of Mines and Railways. Lu's father, open-minded and patriotic, once said he wanted his son to study medicine in Japan to find solutions to heal wounds of the Chinese. Considering his father's suffering and the ailments of Chinese people at that time, Lu decided to study at Sendai Medical College.
However, his dream was soon shattered. Lu was often discriminated against by the Japanese. Although he got 95 marks in an anatomy course, some of his classmates suspected that it was because the teacher revealed exam questions to Lu in advance.
The teacher once showed slides in class, which showed many healthy but numb Chinese people watching the beheading of their compatriots. The slides were a heavy blow for Lu. The indifference of his compatriots made Lu realise that apathy was just as terrible as physical weakness.
Lu decided to drop his major in medicine and began to write essays as a way to awaken the Chinese people. He came to Tokyo and began to translate foreign literature, print magazines, and publish articles. At that time, Lu often talked with his friends about what the ideal state of human nature was, what the Chinese national character lacked and what caused these circumstances. By combining his personal life with the fate of the entire Chinese nation, this laid a foundation for his future identity as a thinker and writer.
Lu's views on the world and life gradually took shape during his time spent in Japan. However, his advanced ideas weren't easily understood by most Chinese people at the time, even other Chinese students in Japan. Dozens of foreign novels translated by him were sold, yet his magazine failed to publish due to lack of funding. A difficult livelihood forced Lu to return to China in 1909. He then taught at the Zhejiang Two-level Normal School and the Middle School of Shaoxing Prefectural City. Though the Revolution of 1911 raised his spirits, the following restoration of the monarch and other historical scandals, China's backwardness, social chaos and national disaster lowered his enthusiasm.
An Insightful Writer
To change a nation's fate, the first thing to change is the mindset of its people. The New Culture Movement in 1919 brought a new force to China.
Working for the Ministry of Education, Lu moved to Beijing, and expressed his thoughts that had long been suppressed through literature.
“Lu Xun” became his pen name in May 1918, when he published the first vernacular Chinese novel “Diary of a Madman” in New Youth magazine. In the novel, Lu criticised the social state and system, laying a foundation for the New Literature Movement, and promoting modern Chinese literature. Lu led the New Culture Movement to fight against imperialism and feudalism.
Lu depicted the misery and mental condition of the working classes to expose bitterness and spread awareness. Characters of Lu's novels “Kong Yiji,” “The True Story of Ah Q” and “The New Year's Sacrifice,” who came from a working class background, suffered from insults, discrimination and indifference. Lu had mixed feelings for them— he mourned their misfortune while he was enraged at their cowardice. Diverse structures and styles, and plain but insightful descriptions all contributed to reflecting a vivid reality. Readers can gain insight into this society at that time through his work.
Zhaohua xishi ( Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk) and Yecao ( Wild Grass) are two essay collections by Lu. Fujino Genkuro, Fan Ainong and those who taught Lu shared in his pursuit as his work relaxed readers set in a dark social context. Lu said that his philosophy can be found in Wild Grass. His essays have expressed his philosophy, and brought artistic creativity to modern Chinese literature.
Lu once wrote, “Fierce-browed, I coolly defy censure of the enemy; head-bowed, like a willing ox I serve the people.” Lu spared no effort to fight against outdated thinking, feudal ethical codes and uncivilised national character. From 1924 to 1926, it was in this small Beijing courtyard that Lu wrote many literary works as a crusade against evil phenomena, pointing out issues and persuading people to correct them. He supported the advanced student movement for justice, joined the League of Left-wing Writers and the China League for Civil Rights, and wrote many inspiring articles, including “In Memory of the Forgotten.” Lu's style helped him establish his own unique position in modern Chinese literary circles and attain the reputation of a “Soul of the Chinese Nation.”
For Zhou Haiying (1929–2011), Lun Xun's son, his father kept writing, and often stayed up and woke up late. Zhou recalled that there was a small tea table beside his father's bed, and on the table was a cigarette holder, an ashtray and cigarettes. Waking up in the morning, Zhou Haiying would walk quietly into his father's bedroom. If his nanny caught him doing that, she would tell him to leave the room in case his father would wake up.
During his time spent in Shanghai, Lu often spent the whole afternoon receiving guests and having long conversations with them. If no guests visited him, Lu would read newspapers and books, or write essays while sitting in a cane chair. On that occasion, his family members and servants would walk and chat quietly, trying not to disturb him.
Lu didn't believe in so- called genius, and he attributed his success to his efforts. When the guests left late at night, Lu began to sit at his desk and write. Lu tended to pile books and mail on his desk, leaving only a small space for writing. When roosters crowed and the street bustled again in the morning, Lu still wrote. He didn't go to sleep until all his family members woke up. Lu believed that a comfortable life is not conducive to work, so he insisted on living a simple life.
An Upright Man
Brave, decisive, diligent and serious as Lu was, he didn't bother with trivial matters. Xiao Hong (1911–1942, a female Chinese writer) said that she once bought deep-fried twisted dough sticks on Ladu Road (Route Tenant de la Tour) in Shanghai. To her surprise, the paper used to wrap dough sticks and the manuscript of Dead Souls was translated by Lu. She later wrote to Lu to tell him about it. Lu, however, wasn't astonished. Proofs of his books were often used to clean the table. When having guests over to have a meal, Lu also scattered his proofs to guests, so that they could clean their hands with them after the meal.
Lu's typical winter costumes consisted of a dark blue cotton gown, a grey felt cap and black canvas shoes with rubber soles. He seldom wore gloves or a scarf, but held a black printed silk fabric cloth-wrapper under his arm to carry reply letters when leaving home. When he returned home after sending out the reply letters, the cloth-wrapper was used to hold new letters he received and the books he bought.
Lu was in poor health in his later years. His doctor told him to rest, but Lu kept working and thinking, as if he inherited many tasks. To name a few, as an advocate of the New Woodcut Print Movement, he began to print his favorite woodcut prints by Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945, a German artist), proofread Haishang shulin (a collection of essays translated by Qu Qiubai, 1899–1935), and translated Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852, a Russian dramatist).
Lu maintained his own charisma as a writer. For those who attacked him, he simply ignored them. In 1936, Lu passed away, leaving behind literary works of nearly three million characters and a spiritual wealth for later generations.
His former residence in Beijing has since become a place for people to commemorate him.
Inside Lu Xun’s room
The courtyard of Lu Xun’s former residence east of the West Second Ring Road