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An Exemplar Of What Some Museums Can Be – With Just A Little Effort

 

I’ve talked before about how Beijing is stuffed full of museums – over 150 by my reckoning. And though I am trying slowly to work my way around them all, somehow I have never got that excited about visiting some of the museums devoted to China’s many revolutionary martyrs, communist thinkers and other local worthies.

But all that may be about to change, following my visit this last weekend to a museum dedicated to the writer Lu Xun; for not only is it well laid out, stuffed full of interesting photographs and artefacts, but it also has fulsome descriptions and narratives in English about the life of this leading figure of modern Chinese literature. {Mind you, having said that, every one of my Chinese friends to whom I have mentioned this say that they find his writing somewhat heavy going to plough through. But hey, let’s not worry about that right now eh?} In short, it’s a model for what many of Beijing’s other museums should be striving for.

Lu Xun was the pen name of Zhou Shuren – a novelist, editor, translator, literary critic, essayist, and poet. He chose his pseudonym when his fiction was first published in 1918. His works exerted a substantial influence and he was highly acclaimed by the Communist regime after 1949, with Mao Zedong himself being said to be a lifelong admirer.

Though sympathetic to communist ideas, Lu Xun never actually joined the Chinese Communist Party – until after his death, that is! He was primarily a leftist whose work promoted radical change through criticism of antiquated cultural values and repressive social customs.

I set off for Fuchengmen station on Line 2 and find the north east exit. Making an immediate left turn (instead of walking down to the main road) brings you almost to the entrance of the museum (北京鲁迅博物馆). The buildings, in which the museum is situated, were Lu Xun's former Beijing residence and the museum itself was established in 1956.

I smile at the lady in the ticket office. She smiles back. I ask how much to get in (a number of web sites say it is 10 kuai, but I have learned never to trust what these web sites tell you). An even bigger smile. It’s free! Welcome. Come in! Come in! I do as I am bid.

Inside is a massive courtyard that looks well cared for. And clean! And ahead of me is the main residence.

At first glance it looks like I have come on a wild goose chase. Nothing to see apart from a picture stuck half heartedly onto the wall in the entrance hall. But an arrow points the way downstairs, and suddenly one finds oneself in an Aladdin’s Cave of Lu Xun memorabilia.

Lu Xun was born in Shaoxing, Zhejiang in September 1881. His family had been prosperous for centuries, but by the time he was born, his family's prosperity was already in decline. His father, Zhou Boyi, had been successful at passing the lowest, county-level imperial examinations (the route to wealth and social success in imperial China), but in 1893 he was discovered attempting to bribe an examination official to get through the next round. Lu Xun's grandfather was arrested and sentenced to beheading for his son's crime. Hmmm. Strange kind of justice they administered in those days!

Every year the family had to send money to the Ministry of Punishment to ensure that the grandfather’s sentence would be commuted for another 12 months; and it is said that this overt corruption influenced Lu Xun's contempt for the traditional system of government. Although grandpa was released eight years later, daddy Zhou engaged in heavy drinking and opium use and finally died of an asthma attack in 1896.

This pic shows Lu’s grandfather, grandmother and step-grandmother in ‘happier times’.

As a result, the young Lu’s family was living in straightened circumstances; but the previous year, aged 12 years, Lu Xun had begun his study of the Confucian classics at a private school house known as the Three Flavours Studio – which they just happen to have a photograph of!

In 1892, Lu Xun left Shaoxing for Nanjing to begin a study of modern engineering and science; and after a short spell at the Jiangnan Naval Academy, he finally entered the School of Mines and Railroads where he got free tuition, thanks to a scholarship (as opposed to the official museum version which tells us that he entered the School of Mines and Railroads ‘free of tuition’ – which rather begs the question of why he would bother going there in the first place, I think!)

This all happened in the wake of China's defeat by Japan in 1894-5 and the suppression by the conservative Empress Dowager of the Hundred Day's Reform backed by the young Guanxu Emperor. This further heightened Lu's concern for China's fate in a world of competing imperial powers.

The school was Lu's first exposure to Western literature, philosophy, history, and science, and he studied English and German. He did pretty well at the school and after graduating he planned to become a Western doctor.

The picture below shows the Nanjing section of his life as depicted by the museum. As you can see there is no shortage of material here.

In 1902 he travelled to Japan on a Qing government scholarship to study Japanese and medical science for seven years. He first had to attend the Kobun Institute, a preparatory language school for Chinese students attending Japanese universities. Below is a diploma issued by Kobun.

While there he became a supporter of the Chinese revolutionaries who also gathered in Japan. In 1903 he began to write articles for radical magazines edited by Chinese students in Japan.

After encouragement from a classmate, he even cut off his queue (which all Han Chinese were legally forced to wear in China) but it is said he had an ambiguous attitude towards Chinese revolutionary politics during this period.

In 1904 Lu began studying at the Sendai Medical Academy (now the medical school of Tohoku University), in northern Honshu, but remained there for less than two years. He generally found his studies at the school tedious and difficult, partially due to his imperfect Japanese.

While Lu Xun was attending medical school, the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) broke out. It became common for lecturers to show slides of pictures from the war to their students after their classes had ended. After one of his biology classes, Lu was shown a scene in which a Japanese soldier was about to behead a Chinese man who had allegedly spied for the Russians, surrounded by Chinese who looked somewhat apathetic. In his preface to his first collection of short stories, Lu explained how viewing this scene influenced him to quit studying Western medicine, and instead to become a ‘literary physician’ to what he perceived to be China's spiritual problems.

In June 1906 Lu's mother feigned illness as a pretext to ask Lu to return home, where she then forced him to take part in an arranged marriage she had agreed to several years before. Puh! Mothers! Who needs them?

Lu Xun married the girl, Zhu An, but never had a romantic relationship with her. Well can you blame him? I mean, look at her! Fancy waking up to see that face on the pillow beside you every morning! Scary! Although he took care of her material needs for the rest of his life, four days after the ceremony Lu sailed back to Japan with his younger brother, Zuoren, and left her behind.

Lu Xun returned to Tokyo in 1906, and decided to devote himself to education and literature rather than medicine. But in 1909 he had to return to China because of financial problems in his home. (What’s the betting his wife was getting her own back on him for deserting her!). At first he taught in Zhejiang Normal School in Hangzhou and then served as headmaster of another school in Shaoxing.

In February 1912, shortly after the Xinhai Revolution that ended the Qing dynasty and nominally founded the Republic of China, Lu gained a position at the national Ministry of Education. He was hired in Nanjing, but then moved with the ministry to Beijing, where he lived from 1912-1926.

Two of his major accomplishments in office were the renovation and expansion of the Beijing Library, the establishment of the Natural History Museum, and the establishment of the Library of Popular Literature.

In 1917 an old friend of Lu's, Qian Xuantong, invited him to write for a radical populist literary magazine that had recently been founded, called New Youth. At first Lu was sceptical, but in 1918 he wrote his first short story, Diary of a Madman, for the magazine, and the story was praised for its anti-traditionalism, its synthesis of Chinese and foreign conventions and ideas, and its skilful narration. As a result, Lu himself was recognized as one of the leading writers of the New Culture Movement. Lu continued writing for the magazine, and produced his most famous stories for New Youth between 1917-1921. These stories were collected and re-published in Nahan (‘Outcry’) in 1923.

In 1919 Lu moved his family to a large compound in Beijing, where he lived with his mother (oh, so he’s still talking to her?), his two brothers, and their Japanese wives (no mention of his own wife here though). This living arrangement lasted until 1923, when Lu had a falling out with his brother, Zuoren, after Zuoren's wife accused Lu of making sexual advances towards her.

In 1923 he lost his front teeth in a rickshaw accident (yeah, yeah… that’s the official story, but who knows if Zuoren had something to do with it? LOL! ). In 1924 he developed the first symptoms of tuberculosis. And the next year, Lu began an affair with one of his students at the Beijing Women's College, a girl called Xu Guanping.

In March 1926 there was a mass student protest against the warlord Feng Yuxiang's collaboration with the Japanese. The protests degenerated into a massacre, in which two of Lu's students were killed. His public support for the protesters forced him to flee from the local authorities and he went to Xiamen, where he started teaching at Xiamen University, though he did at least have the good grace to send Xu Guanping this postcard of the university.

In January 1927 he and Xu moved to Guangzhou, where he was hired as the head of the Zhongshan University Chinese literature department. His first act in his position was to hire her as his 'personal assistant', and to hire one of his old classmates from Japan, Xu Shoushang, as a lecturer. So I guess he was obviously well into nepotism.

While in Guangzhou, he edited numerous poems and books and made contacts within the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party through his students. Later that year he left for Shanghai, widely regarded as one of the most famous intellectuals in China.

For the first time was able to make a living solely as a professional writer, with a monthly income of roughly 500 yuan. He was also appointed as a "specially appointed writer" by the national Ministry of Higher Education, which brought him an additional 300 yuan a month. He began to live with Xu Guangping, and she got pregnant. They had a son in 1929 whom they called Haiying.

Lu Xun stopped writing fiction and devoted himself to writing satiric critical essays, which he used as a form of political protest. In 1930 he became the nominal leader of the League of Left-Wing Writers. Although he himself refused to join the Chinese Communist Party, he recruited many writers and countrymen to the communist cause through his Chinese translations of Marxist literary theories, as well as through his own political writing.

He sent a telegram congratulating the CCP on their completion of the Long March in February 1936. But his health continued to deteriorate throughout that year, due to his chronic tuberculosis. He died on October 19, aged 56, and his remains were interred in a mausoleum within what is now Lu Xun Park in Shanghai. Mao Zedong made the calligraphic inscription above his tomb; and he was posthumously made a member of the Communist Party for his contributions to the May Fourth Movement.

This is his death mask that was made by a Japanese dentist, though the museum is pretty unforthcoming with any more details…

During the last years of Lu Xun’s life, the government had prohibited the publication of most of his work, so he was forced to publish the majority of his new articles under various pseudonyms. He criticized the Shanghai communist literary circles for their embrace of propaganda, and he was politically attacked by many of their members.

But in true hypocritical fashion, the Chinese communist movement adopted Lu Xun posthumously as an exemplar of Socialist Realism, with much of his work incorporated into school textbooks. It was probably because he died relatively early in the Communist movement that he was not criticized for making the kinds of political ‘errors’ for which his colleagues suffered.

According to Wikipedia, shortly after Lu Xun's death, Mao Zedong called him ‘the saint of modern China’, but used his legacy selectively to promote his own political goals. After the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, Communist Party literary theorists portrayed his work as orthodox examples of communist literature, yet every one of Lu's close disciples from the 1930s was purged. Apparently Mao admitted that, had Lu survived until the 1950s, he would ‘either have gone silent or gone to prison’.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party both hailed Lu Xun as one of the fathers of communism in China, yet ironically suppressed the very intellectual culture and style of writing that he represented. Some of his essays and writings, however, are now part of the primary school and middle school compulsory curriculum in China.

In 1956, Premier Chou EnLai attended the memorial conference of the 20th anniversary of his death.