Lu Xun’s Afterlives

The following essay is an edited excerpt from Gloria Davies’ book Lu Xun’s Revolution, published by Harvard University Press in March 2013. It is a study of the writing of a man who is regarded as the colossus of twentieth-century Chinese letters. Mao Zedong called him ‘the sage of modern China’, although much of what Lu Xun wrote challenged orthodoxies, be they the orthodoxies of China’s past, its present, or even of its future. Lu Xun’s work continues to engage, baffle, enthral and enliven participants in as well as observers of Chinese culture and politics. While the ‘Lu Xun spirit’ has slough off its Mao-era associations, the ‘Lu Xun style’ of eviscerating, and coruscating, prose is widely emulated: by free thinkers and Party hacks, Internet rapscallions and doughy neo-Marxist sophists, as well as by purveyors of commercialised nationalist dudgeon of the kind whose vitriolic efforts frequently appear in the pages of such media outlets as Global Times.

Portrait of Lu Xun, September 1930

Lu Xun, September 1930.

The year 2013 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s concerted attempt from October 1983 to ‘clean out spiritual pollution‘ 清除精神污染. The 1983 attempted purge of spiritual pollution (a nebulous expression which covered everything from corroding humanistic values and concepts of ‘abstract human worth’ to arrant music, literature and art) was the first ideological campaign launched by the Party following the formal abandonment of Cultural Revolution policies in December 1978. It was part of an effort to re-ignite the Party’s long-term struggle against humanistic or universal values that dated from the 1920s (and with its roots in Soviet Marxist-Leninist ideology). The struggle was reaffirmed by Deng Xiaoping in 1986 and again in 1989. Attempts to deny the validity of universal values in China today continue but now in the guise of the officially promoted ‘system of core socialist values‘ 社会主义核心价值体系, dating from 2006. It is worth recalling, therefore, how the iconic Lu Xun, an irascible writer who in death was press-ganged into the service of the Communist Party and its mutable policies, came to join once more the ranks of those who doubt, question and confront the powers-that-be.—The Editor


Lu Xun (鲁迅, Zhou Shuren 周树人, 1881-1936) is an acknowledged master of modern Chinese prose, a writer who draws on classic idiom, dynastic usage and the vernacular to create a writing that fully belongs to the long history of literary creativity yet breaks with so many of its norms and protocols of expression as to appear as if he were standing outside the language and passing judgment on it. To read the work Lu Xun produced in his later years is to encounter this master of language frequently defending the modern Chinese vernacular as the property of the masses and accusing his elite peers of bearing false witness in the process. To write about Lu Xun is also to confront the enormous disservice done to his work since his death in 1936.

Chinese readers have remained fascinated by Lu Xun and his language and style have been imitated and appropriated by numerous writers, even in the Internet era. His spirit and style is continually summoned up through quotation; Lu Xun not only enjoys a transcendent authority, he also supports a prodigious industry of ‘Lu Xun Studies’ 鲁迅学 developed around the analysis, adaptation, interpretation and re-publication of his works. Articles and books about Lu Xun, not to mention conferences, exhibitions, films and other cultural events and products bearing his name, are so numerous as to defy a complete listing. Recent international conferences devoted to Lu Xun include: ‘China’s ongoing quest for cultural modernity into the 21st century: Legacy of Lu Xun’, 15-17 November 2012 at the India International Centre, New Delhi; and, the ‘Lu Xun and East Asia International Conference‘, 5-7 April 2013 at Harvard University.—Gloria Davies

(ii) Pallbearers at Lu Xun's funeral, October 1936, Shanghai. Hu Feng is on the left, wearing a white flower in his lapel. Source: Kirk Denton, "Lu Xun's Biography,"

Pallbearers at Lu Xun’s funeral, October 1936, Shanghai. Hu Feng is on the left, wearing a white flower in his lapel. Source: Kirk Denton, ‘Lu Xun’s Biography’


In 2009 an anonymous online commentator reminisced about first hearing ‘In Praise of Night’ on Keeping You Company Till Dawn, Shanghai East Radio’s late-night talk-back show. This popular (and still running) show had apparently used the following lines as its opening theme in 1997: ‘Night is a heavenly garment, dark and sublime, woven by providence to envelop the whole of humanity in such warmth and serenity as to cause people unconsciously to shed their artificial masks and clothing; bit by bit, until totally naked, they wrap themselves inside this limitless fabric that resembles dark cotton.’ The commentator recalled: ‘Back then, there was no Baidu or Google, so I copied the words down one by one as I listened to the broadcast night after night. For the first time I felt that Lu Xun was not merely abusive; that he had also produced exquisite prose even though all that I knew then were just those few lines.'[1]

These remarks illustrate the persistent image of Lu Xun as an aggressive polemicist even during the late 1990s, when ‘the Lu Xun spirit’ 鲁迅精神 of the Maoist years had long been displaced by diverse interpretations of his oeuvre. To some extent, the image of Lu Xun as a polemicist was one that he had actively encouraged. All the same, he would have been dismayed to learn that in death, his polemical writings (which he regarded as evidence of his revolutionary purpose) were first turned into an instrument of political violence and subsequently, in much of post-Maoist scholarship, reduced to an example of mere intellectual factionalism. Indeed, the epithet ‘the abusive Lu Xun’ 骂人的鲁迅, first used by his critics in the 1930s, remains widely used to this day.

A 1974 portrait of Lu Xun by Li Yitai titled ‘Marxism is the most lucid and lively philosophy: a portrait of Lu Xun’. Source: Spencer Museum of Art
Contrary to the Mao-era convention of lauding Lu Xun as a Marxist, the writer has said in November 1933: ‘What do I know of these things called economics or propaganda literature? I’ve never even touched a copy of Capital, let alone read it.’

In Deng Xiaoping’s New Era, reclamations of Lu Xun’s humanism occurred in the context of the ‘Movement to Liberate Thinking’. This officially sponsored campaign, initiated in the late 1970s, sought to rally support among China’s intellectual elite for the ambitious economic reforms then newly under way. But it proved so successful in ‘liberating thinking’ that in 1983 the government made haste to rein in the increasingly passionate calls for humanism and individual rights by launching an ‘Anti–Spiritual Pollution Movement’.[2] One concrete outcome of the ‘Movement to Liberate Thinking’ was the revitalization of mainland publishing, which throughout the 1980s saw the release of many new anthologies and compendia of key articles and debates in modern Chinese thought and literature. In the Maoist era such reference materials were rare, and their circulation was highly restricted. Accordingly, their post-Maoist proliferation was enthusiastically greeted in intellectual circles as the return of reason 理性, with the implication of intellectual independence.[3]

Among these types of publications, the 1981 two-volume Selected Historical Materials on the Debate over ‘Revolutionary Literature’ became something of a pioneer in the effort to rebuild Lu Xun’s critical legacy.[4] In the preface to this anthology, the unnamed editors stated that ‘the debate over proletarian revolutionary literature in 1928 has special importance in the history of modern Chinese literature’, explaining that this was because it had been ‘subjected to vicious attacks and slander from the reactionary camp in recent times.’ Echoing the then nascent official posture of accusing Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, her closest supporters, and the disgraced and dead Lin Biao (1907-1971, who had once been Mao’s chosen successor) of perpetrating organized terror while avoiding blaming the Chairman himself, they wrote:

For the last decade or so, Lin Biao and the ‘Gang of Four’, motivated by their counterrevolutionary politics of attempting to usurp Party power, have totally distorted the historical facts of the debate over ‘revolutionary literature’. With their talent for obscuring differences between the two kinds of contradictions, they created a serious state of confusion. This posed a grave threat to historical research into modern Chinese literature and educational work. To fully eliminate the poisonous influence of Lin Biao and the ‘Gang of Four’, we have compiled these materials to sum up the lessons of history, to reinstate the historical facts, and to meet the needs of research and teaching. Practice is the sole criterion of truth, and facts will lead to the inevitable destruction of slander and falsehood. We believe that the historical materials contained in this work will restore the truth to studies of modern literature. As long as we proceed from practice, we will be able to evaluate the debate over revolutionary literature from a scientific perspective, based in seeking truth from facts.[5]

Though couched in typically wooden officialese, these editorial remarks marked a clear departure from previous representations of the debate over revolutionary literature. The anthology was clearly designed to reflect the diversity of leftist views during the late 1920s and to locate Lu Xun’s polemical writings within the commercial currents of Shanghai publishing. In this process, the editors refrained from delivering a verdict on the debate, merely stating that they had selected 150 of the more notable contributions (mostly published in 1928 and focused on Lu Xun) out of a total of some 300 relevant articles (published between 1926 and 1930). In emulation of Li Helin’s 1929 anthology,[6] they singled out the writings of the Crescent Moon Society and the Contemporary Culture anarchists as illustrative of ‘the reactionary camp’, placing these separately in an appendix. Notwithstanding this lingering tendency to discern ‘revolutionary’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’ elements in intellectual discourse, the editorial preface’s declared ‘scientific perspective, based in seeking truth from facts’, was a decisive negation of the Maoist thesis of class antagonisms.

The year 1981 also saw the publication of Studies of Lu Xun Outside China, 1960–1981, edited by Yue Daiyun, who headed the comparative literature program at Peking University. When recalling the anthology in 2000, Chen Pingyuan, literary historian and Yue’s colleague, wrote that it proved ‘such an eye-opener’ for mainland scholars that the essays of Sinologists like Patrick Hanan, Milena Dolezelova-Velingerova and Toramaru Ito featured in the anthology remained frequently cited two decades later.[7]

13 September 1933 family portrait (Lu Xun, Xu Guangping, Zhou Haiying), courtesy of the Lu Xun Memorial Hall, Shanghai. 

A family portrait, 13 September 1933 (Lu Xun, Xu Guangping, Zhou Haiying). Courtesy of the Lu Xun Memorial Hall, Shanghai

Meanwhile Zhou Yang, whom Lu Xun had thoroughly despised as an apparatchik and dogmatist in 1936, had evolved by the early 1980s into a leading champion of humanism, specifically of ‘Marxist humanism’.[8] From 1978 onward, Zhou was volubly critical of doctrinalism and, together with Wang Ruoshui, editor of People’s Daily, and other collaborators, attempted to reconstruct ‘a genuine ethics of humanism within the ideological confines of Marxism’.[9] In this process, when attacking the ‘Gang of Four’ in tacit negation of Mao Zedong Thought, Zhou praised Lu Xun as his inspiration and guide.

In a speech published in the People’s Daily on 27 February 1980, Zhou as China’s newly rehabilitated cultural tsar expressed regret for not having accorded Lu Xun proper respect in the 1930s. Resolving to apply himself even more industriously to studying Lu Xun’s writings, he enthused: ‘The cultural heritage that Lu Xun has bequeathed to us is the encyclopedia of our times. It reflects the vastness of his knowledge, intellect, and wisdom and provides us with a resource from which to draw without end. His singular and biting literary style remains an eternal model of emulation.’ To this speech Zhou gave the panegyric title: ‘We study Lu Xun because we want to forge ahead, following in his warrior path.'[10] It is worth recalling Zhou’s denunciation of Hu Feng to Lu Xun in 1936 if only to note that in September 1980 it was Zhou who visited Hu in hospital to personally confirm the news of Hu’s political rehabilitation. By then Hu was mentally deranged: he had endured twenty-five years of disgrace and incarceration under Mao.[11]

These nascent post-Maoist uncouplings of Lu Xun from the Maoist ‘Lu Xun spirit’ were often unintendedly ironic, since they remained heavily reliant on ‘New China Newspeak’ (Xinhua wenti 新华文体, a negatively-inflected term that became popular among critically-minded Chinese writers in the 1980s).[12] New China Newspeak (sometimes also referred to as ‘Maospeak’) was what the modern Chinese language, as the vernacular language or baihua 白话, became on the mainland, under Chinese Communist tutelage from the 1940s. As Geremie Barmé writes:

In its essence, New China Newspeak was and is used by the Party, its propaganda organs, the media and educators to shape (and circumscribe) the way people express themselves in the public (and eventually private) sphere, and to enable the party-state to inculcate its ideology by means of relentless verbal/written imposition and repetition.[13]

Throughout the post-Maoist 1980s, the sloganistic formulations of the Maoist era lingered on in the official discourse; its diction was also plainly evident in the declarations of student leaders at Tiananmen Square in the heady spring of 1989.

By the 1990s, however, frequent pillorying had greatly undermined the authority of this state-controlled language, and the parodic writings of the Beijing-based writer Wang Shuo proved particularly effective in this regard. As Barmé has observed, Wang’s novels were often nostalgic recollections of the ‘opportunities for sexual liberation, playing truant, and the joys of gang warfare’ that the Cultural Revolution years offered to him and his adolescent peers. New China Newspeak made a frequent appearance in Wang’s work as ‘a sincere and at the same time ironic revival of Mao’.[14] Hence, with ribald wit, Wang lent weight to the official postmortem verdict that the Cultural Revolution had been ‘ten years of chaos’, but in a rebellious streetwise manner that endeared him to the mainland reading public.

The fact that in previous decades Lu Xun’s words had been forcibly embedded into Maoist doctrine produced in the 1990s an insistent querying and in some quarters a rejection of his authority. As Maoist discourse became, pace Lu Xun, the carapace of what was once (terrifyingly) alive, a desacralization of Lu Xun also got underway. A widely noted moment in this process was the publication in October 1994 of ‘Impromptu Thoughts about the Humanistic Spirit’ by Wang Meng, writer and erstwhile minister of culture in the 1980s.[15] In the essay Wang, a staunch defender of Wang Shuo’s novels, berated critics who had accused Wang Shuo of producing ‘hooligan literature’ 痞子文学. Mocking their rhetoric, Wang Meng wrote that they lacked a ‘humanistic spirit’ and showed distinct signs of ‘doctrinalism’. He then asked sardonically:

Where would we be if all our writers were to be like Wang Shuo? Of course this would not do. Wang Shuo is just one writer and quite far removed at that from a model writer or some supreme exemplar. If we expect all writers to become role models, then that could only result in the elimination of most. By the same token, would everything be perfect if all our writers were to be like Lu Xun? Absolutely not. To have one Lu Xun on the literary scene is a grand thing indeed, but if we were to have fifty Lu Xuns? Heavens!

Wang then repeated his disdain for Wang Shuo’s critics, ending with the snipe: ‘What humanistic spirit could you possibly have if you lack even the slightest sense of humor?’[16]

Gloria Davies' book on the shelves of Harvard Book Store, 1 April 2013

Gloria Davies’ Lu Xun’s Revolution on the shelves of Harvard Book Store, 1 April 2013

Lu Xun’s Revolution
Table of Contents
Note on Translation
Guide and Chronology
Introduction: The Sage of Modern China
1. Eyes Wide Open
2. The Shanghai Haze
3. Guns and Words
4. Debating Lu Xun
5. Lu Xun’s Revolutionary Literature
6. Raising Revolutionary Specters



[1] ‘Lu Xun “Ye song” de xiezuo beijing‘ (Background notes on Lu Xun’s ‘In Praise of Night’), Baidu zhidao, 22 March 2009 (accessed on 2 January 2011).

[2] On the intellectual ramifications of this movement, see Jing Wang, High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, pp.9-36.

[3] The hopes invested in the publishing enterprises of the 1980s are amply detailed in Chen Fong-Ching and Jin Guantao, From Youthful Manuscripts to River Elegy: The Chinese Popular Cultural Movement and Political Transformation, 1979–1989, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1997.

[4] ‘Geming wenxue’ lunzheng ziliao xuanbian (Selected historical materials on the debate over ‘revolutionary literature’), two vols., Beijing: Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe, 1981.

[5] Ibid., 1:2.

[6] Li Helin, ed., Zhongguo wenyi lunzhan (A literary debate in China), Shanghai: Beixin Shudian, 1929.

[7] Chen Pingyuan, Xuezhede renjian qinghuai (The human concerns of scholars), Beijing: Sanlian Shudian, 2007, p.206.

[8] Zhou was chairman of the All-China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and deputy director of the Propaganda Department from 1978 to 1983.

[9] This is Jing Wang’s succinct description of their tortuous project. See High Culture Fever, p.11.

[10] On Zhou’s speech and its revision by Hu Qiaomu, the leading Party propagandist, see Xu Qingquan, ‘Xin faxiande Hu Qiaomu zhi Zhou Yang xinba’ (A newly discovered letter from Hu Qiaomu to Zhou Yang), first published in Guangming Ribao, 26 April 2004, at (accessed 20 November 2011).

[11] Kwok-sing Li, A Glossary of Political Terms of the People’s Republic of China, trans. Mary Lok, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1995, p.168.

[12] Geremie R. Barmé, ‘New China Newspeak China Heritage Quarterly, no.29 (2012) (accessed on 1 April 2012); revised for The China Story Lexicon.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Geremie R. Barmé, Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader, Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996, p.224.

[15] Wang Meng, ‘Renwen jingshen wenti ougan’ (Impromptu thoughts about the humanistic spirit), in Renwen jingshen xunsi lu (In search of the humanistic spirit), Wang Xiaoming, ed., Shanghai: Wenhui Chubanshe, 1996, pp.106-119. The phrase ‘the loss of the humanistic spirit’ (renwen jingshende shiluo) had enjoyed great currency in the elite intellectual circles of Shanghai and Beijing in the early to mid-1990s.

[16] Quoted in Xu Jilin and Luo Gang, Qimengde ziwo wajie (Enlightenment collapsing in on itself), Beijing: Gulin Chuban Jituan, 2007, pp.113-114.