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Writing for the Revolution

The Story of Lu Xun (1881-1936)

Revolutionary Worker #970, August 23, 1998

Today a new generation of revolutionary youth and artists are discovering and studying Mao Tsetung's 1942 "Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art." Throughout this talk Mao refers to the famous Chinese writer and poet, Lu Xun, who lived from 1881 to 1936 and was a great figure in China's first modern cultural revolution.

Lu Xun dedicated his life to serving the people. He was a poet, a writer of stories, a woodcut artist, and a revolutionary leader in the arts. Living through more than half a century of struggle between revolution and counter-revolution, he said, "Writers in the present resistance are fighting for the present and the future; for if we lose the present, we shall have no future."


Lu Xun was born into a family of officials and intellectuals in 1881, in Shaoxing, just south of Shanghai, on China's eastern coast. Under the corrupt rule of the Ching dynasty, China had become a semi-colonial country--subjected to unequal treaties and oppressive domination by imperialist powers. The feudal ruling class of China constantly gave in to the demands of foreign aggressors while suppressing the Chinese people. And this aroused mass indignation and rebellion.

Growing up in these times, even as a young boy, Lu Xun began to identify with the poor. He often went with his mother for long visits to the countryside where he came in contact with peasant children and saw a life different from his own. He grew to detest his own class and sympathized with the peasants who suffered such a hard life.

As a teenager, Lu Xun went to the Naval Academy and the College of Railway and Mining. And like other progressive Chinese students of the day, he went to study medicine in Japan. He dreamed of returning to China to cure patients who had been wrongly treated. He thought if war broke out, he would serve as an army doctor, "at the same time strengthening my countrymen's faith in reformation." Then, while he was studying in Japan, he saw something that would change his life. In the preface to his first collection of short stories, Call to Arms, Lu Xun recalled:

"This was during the Russo-Japanese War so there were many war films, and I had to join the clapping and cheering in the lecture hall along with the other students. It was a long time since I had seen any compatriots, but one day I saw a film showing some Chinese, one of whom was bound, while many others stood around him. They were all strong fellows but appeared completely apathetic. According to the commentary, the one with his hands bound was a spy working for the Russians, who was to have his head cut off by the Japanese military as a warning to others, while the Chinese beside him had come to enjoy the spectacle.

"Before the term was over I had left for Tokyo, because after this film I felt that medical science was not so important after all. The people of a weak and backward country, however strong and healthy they may be, can only serve to be made examples of, or to witness such futile spectacles; and it doesn't really matter how many of them die of illness. The most important thing, therefore, was to change their spirit, and since at that time I felt that literature was the best means to this end, I determined to promote a literary movement."

In 1911 a bourgeois democratic revolution succeeded in overthrowing the feudal monarchy in China. But as Mao pointed out, the national bourgeoisie "lacks the courage to oppose imperialism and feudalism thoroughly because it is economically and politically flabby and still has economic ties with imperialism and feudalism." Many people had put a lot of hope in the 1911 Revolution. But after seeing how the national bourgeoisie behaved in power, young radicals like Lu Xun gained a deeper understanding of the fact that it would take a much more earth-shaking revolution to liberate China from feudalism and imperialism.

May 4th Youth

"The salvos of the October Revolution brought us Marxism-Leninism."

Mao Tsetung

In 1917 the Russian Revolution shocked the international capitalists and inspired oppressed people around the world. Although Lu Xun was not a Marxist at the time, he drew great inspiration from this victory by the proletariat. Speaking about the revolutionaries in Russia he said, "For their cherished ideals they sacrifice all... splintering the enemy's weapons with their bones and extinguishing flames with their blood. When the gleam of the sword and the glow of the fire die away, they see the first glimmer of dawn, the dawn of a new era."

In the years before the Russian Revolution, Marxism had begun to capture the imagination of a small but growing group of intellectuals and students in China. One of the first proponents of communism in China, Li Da-zhao began writing essays on Marxism in 1912, and his translations of Lenin and Marx set a trend of radical thought. Student societies (among them the New People's Study Society founded by Mao Tsetung) organized centers to produce and get out Marxist literature.

All this had a profound effect on the youth of China. The May 4th Movement began on May 4, 1919--when students demonstrated in Beijing against the Versailles Treaty* and demanded national independence, democracy, language reform, the teaching of science, and a break with Confucian philosophy and superstition. Mao would later write that the May 4th Movement marked the dividing line between "old democracy" and "new democracy" in China. Before this movement, he said, the political guiding force of the Chinese bourgeois-democratic revolution of the `old type' was the intelligentsia of the Chinese petty-bourgeois and bourgeois classes. After May 4th, he said, political leadership of the "new-democratic" revolution was in the hands of the proletariat. Lu Xun became a major figure in this movement.

Mao also talked about Lu Xun's role in developing a new revolutionary culture as part of the May 4th Movement: "Since the May 4th Movement things have been different. A brand new cultural force came into being in China, that is, the communist culture and ideology guided by the Chinese Communists, or the communist world outlook and theory of social revolution.... For the last 20 years, wherever this new cultural force has directed its attack, a great revolution has taken place both in ideological content and in form (for example, in the written language.) Its influence has been so great and its impact so powerful that it is invincible wherever it goes. The numbers it has rallied behind it have no parallel in Chinese history. Lu Xun was the greatest and the most courageous standard-bearer of this new cultural force."

In 1918 students organized a magazine called New Tide which was governed by three criteria: a critical spirit, scientific thinking, and language reforms. Several other magazines, including New Youth, which Lu Xun became a major contributor to, were also started as part of this new literary movement. These magazines launched an all-out attack on the bastions of traditionalism--old literature, old ethics, old human relations, and the oppressive, feudal philosophy of Confucianism. Through these magazines the youth ridiculed old patterns of thought, old customs, personal loyalty to officials, patriarchy, superstition, the double standard of chastity for men and women, the feudal family system, and above all, monarchism and warlordism. They demanded a critical reappraisal of all the classics and ancient works. And they proposed the creation of a new literary culture.

A Japanese utopian social movement called "atarashiki mura" (new village) developed by Mushakoji Saneatsu attracted some Chinese professors and students. The theory and organization underlying the "new village" were set forth in 1919 in both New Youth and New Tide magazines by a number of writers, including Lu Xun. The movement was based on the philosophy of mutual assistance and humanitarianism practiced by utopian socialists of the time. Members of the village gave up all their private property. They aimed to carry out the ideal "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

A major goal of the May 4th Movement was the emancipation of women. In Chinese feudal society women were not regarded as independent citizens. Daughters could not inherit property. Within the family, women occupied an inferior, passive and obedient position. The drowning of baby girls was common--since daughters were considered a burden. The law permitted men to keep concubines ("secondary" wives) in their homes and in many ways, this practice was considered "proper" to the intellectual way of life. While there were some women poets and painters in Chinese history, the traditional view was that "lack of learning is a credit to a woman's virtue."

The May 4th Movement spoke out against this brutal oppression of women and promoted new ideals of family life and women's social position. The youth fought for women to be emancipated from the heavy burdens of housekeeping and childcare by cooperative arrangements and public nurseries. And the movement provided support and shelter for women who were struggling for an education or to be free of family oppression and forced marriages.

During this time, freedom of the press was restricted by severe laws and regulations. The government might declare a state of emergency, and people could quickly lose freedom of speech, assembly, communication, and movement. The police had the power to control all political and social associations and their publications. Women were forbidden to join political groups or attend any meeting involving political discussion. Incitement of workers to sever a contract, to strike, to demand an increase of wages, or to "harm good customs" was forbidden. Undefined actions such as "corrupting social morality" and "harming local welfare" were branded as crimes. All publications had to be registered and approved by the police before they could be circulated. This was the setting in which New Youth began publication and radical writers like Lu Xun had to bravely go up against, as well as get around, the censors.

Writer for the Revolution

Of course, a man who writes stories cannot help having his own views. For instance, as to why I wrote, I still felt as I had a dozen years earlier, that I should write in the hope of enlightening my people, for humanity, and of the need to better it. I detested the old habit of describing fiction as `entertainment,' and regarded `art for art's sake' as simply another name for passing the time. So my themes were usually the unfortunates in this abnormal society. My aim was to expose the disease and draw attention to it so that it might be cured.

Lu Xin, "How I Came to Write Stories"


Lu Xun became a fierce critic of the foreign domination of China and those Chinese who collaborated with imperialism. There were many foreign authorities and businessmen in China who insisted on unequal treaty privileges on the grounds that traditional Chinese laws and customs were archaic. But at the same time, these imperialists supported backward Chinese conservatives who advocated the preservation of the traditional laws, institutions, customs, and ethics. These foreign interests opposed the progressive movements because they wanted to protect their own privileges in China.

In Lu Xun's opinion, what these people wanted was to subdue China with an invisible knife. Imperialist powers had carved up the country and set up concessions--areas in the cities where foreign powers had special economic and political rights. Lu Xun said, "Almost all of those who praise the old Chinese culture are the rich who are residing in the concessions or other safe places. They praise it because they have money and do not suffer from the civil wars."

Speaking about the old reactionary feudal traditions and culture, Lu Xun said, "Chinese culture is a culture of serving one's masters who are triumphant at the cost of the misery of the multitude. Those who praise Chinese culture, whether they be Chinese or foreigners, conceive of themselves as belonging to the ruling class... There is a favorite technique of those who know the old literature. When a new idea is introduced, they call it `heresy' and bend all their efforts to destroy it. If that new idea, by its struggle against their efforts, wins a place for itself, they then discover that `it's the same thing as was taught by Confucius.' They object to all imported things, saying that these are `to convert Chinese into barbarians.' But when the barbarians become rulers of China, they discover these `barbarians' are also descendants of the Yellow Emperor."

Lu Xun was a master of satire, pungent irony, and humor to expose the old society--and the way the masses themselves reinforced and submitted to oppressive traditions. He proudly declared that his works were "written to order"--"But the orders I carried out were those issued by the revolutionary vanguard of that time, which I was glad to obey, not orders sent down by an emperor, or dictated by gold dollars or at the point of the sword."

In 1926 the brutal slaughter of students by a vicious northern warlord government stirred Lu Xun to say, "Those who drag on an ignoble existence will catch a vague glimpse of hope amid pale bloodstains, while true fighters advance with greater resolution." And when a storm of revolution broke in the south of China, Lu Xun saw hope and went to Guangzhou (formerly Canton), then the center of revolutionary forces.

For several years, the Chinese Communist Party had worked together with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Guomindang Government. But on April 12, 1927, General Chiang Kai-shek betrayed the revolution with a coup d'etat, slaughtering communists and the revolutionary masses on a huge scale. In Guangdong province, Lu Xun saw "young people divided into two great camps" and "often those who slaughtered the young people were young people too, and they showed no regard for the life and youth of others which once destroyed could not revive again." He wrote, "I believed in evolution, was sure that the future would be better than the past and the young better than the old." But civil war exploded his "old way of thinking." At the same time, the fearless sacrifice of the communists made Lu Xun see hope for the nation and the revolution.

In 1927 Lu Xun went to Shanghai, and in the first few years he was there, he read all the books he could find on Marxism. He said, "I was reading practically all the time." He also did many translations. Arming himself with Marxism, he analyzed his own thinking thoroughly. He compared the myth of Prometheus stealing fire for humanity with his translations of Marxist theoretical works. "I am stealing fire from another country in order to cook my own flesh. If this makes it taste better, those eating it will benefit, and my body will not have been wasted."

During this period, Lu Xun was attacked by all sorts of writers and the struggle was sharp and complex--yet he never retreated from his revolutionary writing and activism. In fact, this pressure made him advance even more boldly. He said, "A revolutionary is not afraid of criticizing himself. Since he knows himself very well, he dares to speak out openly."

In the "Preface to Two Hearts" he made a sincere analysis of himself and openly declared that he was for the liberation of the proletariat: "My incessant harping on myself, of the way I keep `knocking my head against a wall' and of my snail-like conduct, as if all the miseries of the world were embodied in me, a scapegoat for mankind, is a bad failing of middle-class intellectuals. It is true, though, that while I started by simply hating my own class which I knew so well, and felt no regret over its destruction, later on the facts taught me that the future belongs solely to the rising proletariat."

In On New Democracy Mao Tsetung evaluated the last years of Lu Xun's life when he was a Marxist: "The most amazing thing of all was that the Guomindang's cultural `encirclement and suppression' campaign failed completely in the Guomindang areas as well, although the Communist Party was in an utterly defenseless position in all the cultural and educational institutions there. Why did this happen? Does it not give food for prolonged and deep thought? It was in the very midst of such campaigns of `encirclement and suppression' that Lu Xun, who believed in communism, became the giant of China's cultural revolution."

After beginning his revolutionary literary career with short stories, Lu Xun took up the short essay form as his main weapon. The suppression of progressive and revolutionary culture waged by the Guomindang and the intense struggle within the cultural field itself led Lu Xun to write hundreds of essays, creating a body of work which provided rich sustenance for the new fighters on the cultural front.

In these essays, Lu Xun used humor and burning satire--bringing to life characters who typified those who bowed and scraped before imperialism and feudalism. Like a skilled portrait painter, Lu Xun illustrated a whole rogues' gallery--reactionary warlords; Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang reactionaries who bloodily suppressed the Chinese people; stooges of the foreign imperialists; and those who posed as Marxists but were in fact counter-revolutionaries.

These essays not only voiced deep hatred and anger against the enemy, they also expressed fervent hopes, encouragement of the people, and joys at the victory of the revolution. Some of his short literary works express his feelings, others contain theoretical arguments; some are written in the form of a diary, others as correspondence with friends, as sketches or even as fables. Lu Xun did not restrict himself to existing literary genres but chose different forms to express his art and message.

Lu Xun remarked to young writers, "If there is no change and we ourselves swim with the tide, it means making no contribution and giving no help to the age...We may be unable to express the most far-reaching changes, but this need not discourage us. Even if we cannot show the whole of these changes, we can at least show one aspect. The most monumental buildings are constructed of planks of wood and bricks. Why should we not be a plank of wood or a brick?"

Defender of Mao's Line

By the 1930s, China's new literary movement was hot and controversial. In March of 1930, Lu Xun and 50 other writers founded the League of Chinese Left-wing Writers--a united front organization. Members of the League attacked the Guomindang government, scorned the defenders of traditional art and literature, criticized the school of writers who worshipped western bourgeois culture, and promoted revolutionary Soviet literature and leftist programs.

Lu Xun, who had become a communist in the early 1930s, after establishing himself as a leader in the literary revolution, became one of the League's most famous spokespeople. And the League soon came under heavy persecution.

To expose the murder of revolutionary writers by the Guomindang, Lu Xun wrote The Present Conditions of Art in Darkest China and sent the article abroad for publication. From August to October 1930, Shanghai newspapers reported that more than 100,000 communists and progressives were killed. Fearing that Lu Xun would also be killed, friends questioned whether Lu Xun should sign his article, but Lu Xun told them, "These words must be said. Just take it and have it published."

Watched by the police, Lu Xun led a semi-clandestine life. He frequently went into hiding and wrote his essays under more than 130 pen names. He fought to establish ties between literature and the revolution and proudly declared his sympathy and unity with Mao's revolution. He said, "The fact is that in order to portray the revolution, one must be a revolutionary... How many times have I heard the word `revolution'! In Jiangsu, in Zhejiang, they talk about revolution. People who hear the word are frightened. People who say it are in great danger. However, the revolution is not such a strange thing. It is through revolution that society corrects itself, that mankind progresses, evolving from the worms that men once were into human beings, moving from barbarism to culture, so that there is no moment in time that does not belong to revolution."

Lu Xun argued that old forms of art, if used selectively in the service of the revolution and combined with new content, were capable of giving rise to new and distinctive forms of art. His discussion of this point in a 1934 essay was later adopted by the Chinese Communist Party as the official party viewpoint: "To work on behalf of the masses and strive to make things easy for them to understand--precisely this is the correct area of effort for the progressive artist. If we select from old forms, there will necessarily be parts we have to delete. And because of these deletions, there will necessarily be parts we have to add. This will result in the emergence of new forms, and will itself be a transformation."

Mao would later write in 1956, art "is the manifestation of people's lives, thought, and emotions, and it bears a very close relationship to a nation's customs and language.... It is no good cutting ourselves off from history and abandoning our heritage. The common people would not approve."

While rejecting the old, feudalistic and archaic traditional writing, Lu Xun, and other revolutionary writers in China during this time, looked for positive elements in China's literary heritage. They discovered protest poetry, popularly written fiction, drama, and many folk ballads and narrative traditions. Many stories of fictional and dramatic narratives had circulated for centuries in the people's oral tradition as well. The new generation of revolutionary writers saw these literary works created by the common people as potential models for new works of revolutionary art.

There are many tales of Lu Xun's heroism in the last years of his life. To defend the people's rights and rescue imprisoned revolutionaries, Lu Xun and others organized the China League for Civil Rights in January 1933. As an executive member of the leading committee of the League he helped many revolutionaries in Chiang Kai-shek's prisons. When a Guomindang special agent assassinated one of the leading members of the League, many people advised Lu Xun--who was also on the agent's hit list-- to stay out of danger. But Lu Xun attended his comrade's funeral and defiantly wrote in A Lament for Yang Chuan:

Who'd have thought in tears like southern rain
I'd have to weep for another fine son of the people!

After Japan invaded northern China in 1931, Mao put out a call for a United Front to fight Japanese aggression. Lu Xun was one of the first to respond--writing and praising Mao's initiative. Lu Xun was a great admirer and follower of Mao. When he heard the news that the the Red Army had completed the Long March and had successfully reached northern Shenxi in 1935, Lu Xun sent a secret message to the Chinese Communist Party and Mao, which said, "On you is placed the hope of China and mankind."

With the Japanese occupation of China, a sharp struggle broke out in the Chinese Communist Party. Wang Ming, a leader in the Party, promoted a right-wing "opportunist line" of capitulation to the reactionary Chiang Kai-shek/Guomindang government. He put forward the slogan of a "government of national defense" and this slogan was taken up by Zhou Yang, the secretary general of the League of Chinese Left-wing Writers. In this way, the ideological struggle going on in the Party was reflected in "two lines" in art and literature. Writers who followed Zhou Yang echoed Wang Ming's theme, spreading the slogan "A literature of national defense." In opposition to this, Lu Xun denounced Zhou Yang as one of the "bureaucrats and officials of literature" and launched the slogan, "A literature for the revolutionary masses in resistance to Japan."

In the last year of his life, with his health deteriorating, Lu Xun took great pleasure talking to young revolutionaries about the Long March, the correctness of Mao's united front policy, and the news of every victory of the Red Army in northern Shenxi. Unable to join the Red Army, Lu Xun would say, "To fight in the ranks, armed with a pen that at least is within my power."

Later, in his 1942 "Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art" Mao would quote Lu Xun saying, "A common aim is the prerequisite for a united front.... The fact that our front is not united shows that we have not been able to unify our aims, and that some people are working only for small groups or indeed only for themselves. If we aim at serving the masses of workers and peasants, our front will of course be united."

As his health continued to deteriorate, friends encouraged Lu Xun to go abroad. But he would not leave China. "Instead of living a few years more by not working, I prefer to live a few years less but work more now," he told his comrades. Suffering from tuberculosis, Lu Xun died in 1936.

Lu Xun did not live to see the victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949. But the new literature movement he was a part of had a profound effect on Chinese culture. Archaic literary language and old stereotyped literature declined rapidly. People started using a more popular, common language in writing and teaching, making it easier for more people to gain knowledge and education. Poetry, essays, short stories, novels, and drama all took new directions. Literary criticism and literary theory also made great advances. In this way, literature was brought closer to the realities of life and society and was more accessible to the basic people. And Lu Xun left a legacy of theory and practice for revolutionary artists everywhere.


In 1942, Mao ended his "Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art" by saying:

"This couplet from a poem by Lu Xun should be our motto:

Fierce-browed, I coolly defy a thousand pointing fingers,
Head-bowed, like a willing ox I serve the children.

"The thousand pointing fingers," Mao wrote, "are our enemies, and we will never yield to them, no matter how ferocious. The `children' here symbolize the proletariat and the masses. All Communists, all revolutionaries, all revolutionary literary and art workers should learn from the example of Lu Xun and be `oxen' for the proletariat and the masses, bending their backs to the task until their dying day. Intellectuals who want to integrate themselves with the masses, who want to serve the masses, must go through a process in which they and the masses come to know each other well. This process may, and certainly will, involve much pain and friction, but if you have the determination, you will be able to fulfill these requirements."

* The Versailles Treaty of 1919 gave the German concession (an area with special economic and political rights for foreign powers) to Japan.

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