Eyeing on Contemporary China through Lu Xun’s Writings

Priyanka Keshry, Research Scholar, Jawaharlala Nehru University

Image: Lu Xun (1881-1936) Source: chinadaily.com

Lu Xun (1881–1936), one of China’s most influential twentieth-century writers, has long been a source of contention. Despite the fact that Lu Xun died over 90 years ago, there is still a dispute concerning the significance of his works in modern China. Some believe Lu Xun remains important today, while others believe he is too political to talk now. One of the key reasons for examining his work now is because he stated his opinions on nearly every facet of Chinese culture, and he differed on a range of cultural, social, and political topics that appear to be more significant than ever. As a consequence of multiple interpretations of his works and political use of them, his works and character have been twisted and transformed several times. Currently, each Chinese individual has their own vision of Lu Xun, which differs from one another. Here, I’ll try to expand on some of the “dissenting voices” in his writings, relate them to current China, and, to some extent, try to figure out what he would say if he were still living today.


Lun Xun (1881-1936) was the nom de plume of one of the most celebrated modern Chinese author, poet, essayist and critic – 周树人 Zhōushùrén or Zhou Shuren. His use of the modern colloquial language for writing serious literature has often led many scholars to regard him as the father of modern Chinese literature. He was born in the year 1881, in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, which was a hotbed of anti-Qing resistance.

 Lu Xun was beginning his writing career at a very historic time in the history of the region. It was the time of the May 4th Movement. The youth and the intellectuals in the society led a socio-political movement aimed to modernise China through adapting to ideas, literature, theoretical frameworks, medicine and other such practises imported from the West.

Some Chinese intellectuals believed that traditional culture and values of China had made China stagnant and weak. Thereby, Lu Xun started writing in colloquial language to reach out to maximum people for advocating modernization and criticising Chinese tradition. The issues, menaces, inadequacies and cruelty of the Chinese society of his times were openly exposed through the narratives of his fictional works. 

 “Diary of a Madman” (1918), Lu Xun’s earliest and most successful short fiction, became a watershed of the modern Chinese literature and affected modern Chinese culture. Lu Xun’s works are still extensively read, debated, and praised both at home and abroad. He is more than a writer; he is an institution (M. Sean, 2010). Lu Xun was more than a single author; he was a tide, a direction, and a movement in his time. Lu Xun did not merely write about   China during his time; he also presented a clearer image of China’s national identity in the future. His writings are recognized as “timeless” literary works, meaning that they have remained relevant since their publication and will continue to do so in the future. During his lifetime, he influenced practically every Chinese writer, generating numerous conflicts, interests, and opinions.

Lu Xun was worried not just about the fate of the Chinese people, but also about the future of universal social values for humanity. Lu Xun’s critical position on government and society compels us to go deeper into his works and consider them in light of current events. Lu Xun acknowledged the political and cultural importance of literature and used his writings to try to awaken the Chinese people.

Numerous analyses of Lu Xu’s literature have been conducted both in China and overseas. The majority of the research concentrated on his works on socio-political topics, with little attention paid to Lu Xun’s dissenting voice.  Yan Jiayan, (2011) in his A Pioneer in Raising Issues against the Mainstream—Lu Xun’s: Difference between Literature and Politics pointed out that he had written the harshest criticism in the whole of Chinese literary and political history and remained extremely critical of the government of the day and of his literary opponents.

Lu Xun attempted to remind lawmakers of their responsibilities to monitor in order to support China’s continued development and progress. “Politicians despise everyone who disagrees with their viewpoints, anyone who tries to think or speak out,” he stated. However, the writer’s language is also the language of society. He’s just sensitive, quick to feel and communicate his feelings (too quickly, at times, so even society opposes and excludes him).  Politicians believe the writer is a source of societal unrest and want to assassinate him so that society may return to normalcy. They have no idea that even if the writer is assassinated, society would still undergo upheaval. The number of Russian authors slaughtered or banished is not insignificant, but haven’t the flames of revolution erupted everywhere? (From 1927’s The Divergence of Art and Politics)

More than half of China was already part of the Guomindang Party’s realm when Lu Xun made these statements. Wouldn’t Lu Xun have been in opposition to a different administration, like the Communist Party? Even though the CPC professed to be socialist and to work equally for people from all walks of life, he would have contradicted them. The essence of his above-mentioned views on the gap between literature and politics would have been perverted by the current authoritarian government.  Politicians still have low regard for people who disagree with them, for anyone who dares to think or speak out. The notion of Lu Xun that “the language of the writer is the language of society” would only have been taken seriously if the writer’s language was in line with the party, not with society. The party believes the writer is a catalyst for societal unrest. 

According to human-rights activists and analysts, the Chinese Communist Party fears that dissidents in the country’s intelligentsia will not only act as a lightning rod for a variety of social concerns by challenging the legitimacy of the state’s institutions, but will also provide an organization for people to rally around.

Pankaj correctly describes the Lu Xun scholarship as a “Lu Xunian paradigm” of writing that continues to influence and inspire modern authors in China. He went on to remark that Lu Xun didn’t write only for the pleasure of writing; he wrote to dismantle the conventional edifice’s foundations. The current regime is afraid that Chinese writers will use the Lu Xunnian model or “Lu Xun’s spirit” to express their discontent with the current regime’s ills, such as the Communist Party’s atrocities against its own citizens, suppression of the voice, and strict censorship of news media, writers, and academics.

General Discussion

Lu Xun had no intention of becoming a writer at first; his dissatisfaction with conventional Chinese society pushed him to do so. In his early writings, we can discern the dissenting voice as well. Lu Xun’s essay “Refutation of Malevolent Voices” (Po e’sheng lun, 1908) was a prod to individuals unsatisfied with imperial culture to build something new. It was written in Tokyo in the traditional Chinese language and first published in December of 1908. He claims that the nation’s hope rests on the sincerity and devotion of its intellectuals, and he encourages them to express their sincere thoughts in order to break through the barriers of darkness and silence.

Iron House,’ as Lu Xun put it, was Chinese society at the time. When an old friend of Lu Xun, Qian Xuantong, requested him to write for New Youth in 1917, Lu Xun informed Qian: “Imagine an iron home with no windows or doors, complete indestructibility, and a room full of sound sleepers on the verge of dying from suffocation. Allow them to die peacefully in their sleep, and they will have no remorse. Is it acceptable to scream, rousing the light sleepers among them and inflicting inexplicable anguish on them before they die?” “The iron house may one day be demolished,” Qian responded.

Because Chinese citizens still can’t or have very limited access to knowledge about what’s going on in the world, and can’t speak their hearts out owing to rigorous censorship, it appears that China has once again become the “iron house,” a room “without windows or doors.” Surveillance and severe regulation of mass media, art, and literature are hallmarks of the modern iron house, from which no one can escape. The ‘iron house’ is waiting for someone to demolish it, and China is waiting for writers like Lu Xun to emerge from their contemporary slavery-induced stupor.

Lu Xun’s debut short story, “Diary of a Madman,” was published in 1918 and quickly became a hit. Lu Xun has expressed his wrath and challenged thousands of years of feudal patriarchal system and ethical instruction via the insane. As a result, the lunatic represents an already awakened intellectual with an entirely new perspective on society. Lu Xun had shown a blatant anti-feudal democracy, demonstrating the depth of its anti-feudalism.

According to Agnes Smedley’s memoirs (1934), she was worried about him (Lu Xun) after he sent the essay “The Present Situation of Art in Darkest China” to the international publication New Masses. When Smedley advised him to be more careful about his personal safety, but Lu Xun simply replied, “Don’t worry! Someone needs to speak up, someone has to tell it like it is!” His stance of “speaking up” and “telling it like it is” would have gotten him in difficulty, and his destiny would have been worse than Liu Xioabo, a contemporary Chinese literary critic, scholar, and human rights activist who advocated for democratic changes and the end of one-party rule in China.

The event of 1926, in which more than 40 individuals were shot dead by Beijing police, is one of the most important instances that illustrates Lu Xun’s rebellious voice. On March 18, 1926, a student was shot as she and her colleagues attempted to peacefully present a petition to the military government of Duan Qirui. “In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen,” penned by Lu Xun, is a short story about the death of a student shot as she and her colleagues attempted to peacefully present a petition to the military government of Duan Qirui. He was severely shocked by this act of state-sanctioned brutality, as well as the death of someone he knew. “In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen” is an emotive essay that isn’t overly controversial, as it should be. It was generally recognized, however, as his protest against government-directed brutality. He attacked the opponent while maintaining a conflicted attitude regarding his own acts and words.

When the PRC government sent in troops and opened fire on student protests again in 1989, Lu Xun’s “In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen” was resurrected. Even before the violence established the striking comparisons for everyone to see, students from Beijing Normal University, a successor to Liu Hezhen’s institution, felt a unique connection to the events of March 18, 1926. (Eva Shan Cho, 1999). Liu Hezhen has become a symbol of student patriotism. Since 1989, Chinese administrations have repeatedly failed to speak about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. If we read his words without considering the historical context, we could think he’s talking about contemporary Chinese society. One can only speculate on how Lu Xun might have reacted to the Tian’anmen Square event in 1926, given the 47 dead and 200 wounded.

In his essay titled How “The True Story of A Q” was Written, Lu Xun writes: “I only wish that as people say, I had written about a period in the past, but I fear what I saw was not the past but the future – even as much as  from twenty to thirty years from now.” (Ilgo, Tina. 2010). It is apparent that Lu Xun was interested in far deeper and far-reaching concerns about Chinese national character and human nature in general, rather than just depicting the contemporary situation in China.

Lu Xun described the Chinese society at the time as Wushengde Zhongguo, or “voiceless China,” and advised Chinese youth to first transform China into a China with a voice by speaking boldly, moving forward courageously, forgetting all considerations of personal advantage, pushing aside the ancients, and expressing their true feelings. He wanted to persuade Chinese citizens, particularly the youth, to speak up and convey their actual feelings about the faults of Chinese society, because youth and those who had studied overseas had distinct thoughts and perspectives on the society. He does not want the future generation to face the same destiny as China, which has been plagued by Confucianism’s problems. “We have men but no voices, and how lonely that is!” he says in the same piece. Are folks capable of remaining silent? No, not unless they’re dead, or, to put it another way, unless they’re dumb.” He considered himself as the “voice of China” and a “spiritual fighter.”  Perhaps after 70 years of liberty and living under the guise of a “people’s republic,” Lu Xun would have found China as quiet as it was before the revolution or even as silent as it was under the Qing dynasty. The Party is primarily concerned about Chinese citizens who have the “voice” and “spirit of Lu Xun.”

Lu Xun’s writings are being deleted from high school language and literature curriculum (Liz Carter, 2013). “Who is terrified of Lu Xun?” generated a controversy. People are talking more about Lu Xun as a result of recent modifications to China’s teaching curriculum. Certain people have expressed their displeasure, saying that “Lu Xun’s articles have been withdrawn again; this demonstrates that some people have begun to fear that ordinary people are waking up and becoming conscious.” “Some individuals are terrified of the light even before the sun has risen.”

Chinese authorities recently restricted a bot user’s (@luxunbot25) twitter account, which used to broadcast some of the most noteworthy passages from Lu Xun’s works. Authorities, on the other hand, believe the messages are politically sensitive. (2019, Echo Huang) After “reaching the wall” in 1925, the twitter account released Lu Xun’s essay, urging young people to learn and adapt to the new period. “There are barriers everywhere in China, but they are invisible, like ‘ghost walls,’ so you will run into them nearly at any time. The only one who can conquer the wall without experiencing agony is the winner,” he said. The user may wish to convey a message to society about present internet restrictions, which is reminiscent of Lu Xun’s “iron house.”


The Guomindang government in the past and the Communists today, have and will always see Lu Xun’s writings as potentially subversive. Reading his words gives us the impression that China has never altered. If we read him without considering the historical context, it is difficult to tell that his writings are over a century old. The authorities believe Lu Xun poses a threat to them, which is why they are attempting to devalue his legacy. Realizing the genuine significance and worth of Lu Xun’s works is more vital than ever. “One might love or despise Lu Xun, but one cannot ignore him,” as the saying goes. Even if he had lived in today’s China, when everything appears to be transformed and a “developed society,” he would have written about the evils of society and expressed his discontent in the same style as he was used to, according to my understanding of Lu Xun.