Lu Xun’s “Way”

Lu Xun (the pen name of Zhou Shuren, 1881 – 1936) is considered by many to be the father of modern Chinese literature, and one of the most important Asian writers of the 20th century. Very versatile, he wrote in Classical (Literary) and Vernacular Chinese, mixing Western and Chinese literary traditions.

His first published story, A Madman’s Diary (1918), is thought to be the first modern Chinese short story. It was inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story Diary of a Madman, where the titular character sees the reality around him more clearly than the other “sane” people. Lu Xun’s story, like Gogol’s, is a critique of his contemporary society, but at the same time, it is also a satire of Han Yu’s Study of the Way, and of his Confucian thought.

Lu Xun’s A Madman’s Diary and Han Yu’s Study of the Way are comparable in the sense that both talk about problems of their current society that can be solved in a specific way. Han Yu believed that the people of his time suffer from hunger and chaos because they no longer follow the Confucian “Way,” which, in his view, is the only right way to lead your life and to rule. However, many young Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century, like Lu Xun, believed that his attempt to create a “Confucian orthodoxy” in a way legitimized a certain inflexibility and stagnation of the traditional Chinese society. At the time when Lu Xun was writing, China still had an oppressive feudalistic system, and it had suffered defeat from European and Japanese forces (in the Opium Wars and the First Sino-Japanese War, respectively). The newly emerging intelligentsia blamed the current backwards state of the country on the outdated Confucian thinking.

The society in Lu Xun’s story is composed of cannibals, representing metaphorically the majority of people who keep clinging to obsolete, harmful ideas. The main character (the “madman”) offers a solution: “… if you will just change your ways immediately, then everyone will have peace. Although this has been going on since time immemorial, today we could make a special effort to be good, and say this is not to be done! … If you don’t change, you may all be eaten by each other. Although so many are born, they will be wiped out by the real men, just like wolves killed by hunters. Just like reptiles!” However, by the end, he ends up being a cannibal, just like everyone else, despite his initial idealism.

Lu Xun had an ambivalent view of the masses. On one hand, he appreciated the inherent good nature of the simple people, but on the other, he despised in them what he perceived to be an indifference and resistance to change and reform, believing they are responsible for the state they’re in by submitting to an oppressive rule.

Unlike Han Yu’s essay, Lu Xun’s story seems to have a more pessimistic view of the world and of the human nature. Lu Xun does see the problems and he does offer the solution, just like Han Yu, but he does not believe that people are able to change their ways and truly evolve.

Works cited:

Lu Xun – A Madman’s Diary (translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang). Source: Marxists Internet Archive (2005). Retrieved June 4, 2018.

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