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Lu Xun and the Allegorical Representation of Modern Chinese Society

Updated: Jan 15, 2021

Lu Xun, 22 March 1928 © Unknown Author / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Born in the province of Zhejiang (浙江) in 1881, Zhou Shuren (周树人), better known under the pen name of Lu Xun (鲁迅), has been the most influential modern Chinese writer associated with the May Fourth Movement in 1919, and the League of Left-Wing Writers in 1930. As Chen Pingyuan (陈平原) (2011) notes, Lu Xun’s short stories are considered among the best literary accomplishments of New Youth (Xinqingnian 新青年), the journal founded by Chen Duxiu (陈独秀) in 1915. With the slogan of “Literary Revolution”, the New Youth group aimed to distance itself from Chinese traditional literature, seen as aristocratic and obsequious, too distant from the people. Before becoming a writer, Lu Xun studied medicine in Japan, where he lived from 1902 to 1909. However, he later decided to switch to literature, in order to cure minds instead of bodies. What made up his mind was the vision of a cruel scene of a Chinese man being beheaded by a Japanese soldier under the accusation of being a Russian spy, surrounded by a crowd of apathetic Chinese spectators. The crowd described by Lu Xun did not show any mercy towards their fellow countryman. Thus, Lu Xun concluded that, as McDougall and Louie (1997, p. 93) put it, “what China needed was a transformation of its national spirit, not simply a cure for physical ailments”.

Thanks to his satirical works, Lu Xun has frequently been referred to as one of the leading critics of the national essence who triggered the flow of constructive critiques of Chinese national character (for another interesting reading on this topic, see Bo Yang’s The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture). This study will look at some of Lu Xun’s works which best disclose the author’s constructive critique of the modern Chinese national character, namely “The True Story of Ah Q” (Ah Q zheng zhuan 阿Q正传) (1923), “New Year’s Sacrifice” (Zhufu 祝福) (1924), “A Public Example” (Shizhong 示众) (1925), and “Forging the Swords” (Zhu Jian 铸剑) (1926). Three main themes are identified in this study as the central components of Lu Xun’s critique of modern Chinese society: “Ah Q-ism” as the representation of national character; the onlooker mentality of crowds; and social injustice revealed by the political system of warlordism.

1. What is Ah Q-ism?

When talking about Ah Q-ism, we refer to the character Ah Q, the protagonist of Lu Xun’s novella “The True Story of Ah Q”. The story was published as a serial between December 1921 and February 1922 in the journal Morning News Supplement (Chenbao Fukan 晨报副刊), and later published in his first short story collection Outcry in 1923. Interestingly, the narrator’s uncertainty about Ah Q’s family name, together with the lack of description of Ah Q’s appearance would seem to suggest that he could be anyone, “the Chinese Everyman”, as noted by McDougall and Louie (1997).

Set in the village of Weizhuang (未庄), around the 1911 Revolution, the story tells the tale of Ah Q 阿Q, a jobless, uneducated peasant who is repeatedly oppressed by the society he lives in. Despite Ah Q’s very low social status, Lu Xun presents him as a master of self-delusion who comforts himself and justifies his superiority over others whenever facing defeat and humiliation. Moreover, Ah Q’s conceit leads him to adopt a scornful behaviour towards those who are at the bottom of social hierarchy like him – he fights with a lad, molests a young nun, and eventually decides to join the revolution purely in pursuit of personal profits. However, he is eventually imprisoned and sentenced to death.