Without significant changes, any community will gradually fall into stagnation. While most European countries developed synchronously, traditional China staggered significantly by the beginning of the 20th century. This was especially clearly seen in Chinese literature that emerged in its present form only by the middle of the last century (Gu 76). Lu Xun made a massive contribution to its development, reflecting the problems of traditional China and forming calls for renewal. This essay aims to analyze the themes of traditionalism and the call for change in Lu Xun’s two works: “A Madman’s Diary” and “Preface to Call to Arms”.
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It is necessary to study the historical context first to understand these topics. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China was a weak country in crisis (Yang 190). At the very first contact with the Western world, more developed from an economic perspective, it became apparent that the Asian country was losing to it. However, this situation has become a reason for increased patriotic sentiment among young people (Yang 190). This is emphasized not only by modern researchers but also by the author himself, telling that in childhood, he had many bright dreams and hopes (Xun, “Preface to Call to Arms.”). Thus, the grounds for reflecting these themes by the author were laid in the society itself.
The traditionalism of the culture and the vivid need for change are reflected in the preface to Lu Xun’s published collection of works. The title of this collection, “Call to Arms”, given by the author, reflects the inevitable need to fight for the future. In this short text, Lu Xun gives the reader a glimpse into his past. After moving to Tokyo, he met many of his fellow countrymen who studied the various sciences, but almost none were involved in cultural development. At the same time, according to the author, it is precisely the changes in culture, not the material situation, that were necessary for a renewal of the country. Despite the complexity of this process, Lu Xun tried not to give up hope. He portrays society as an iron house, which does not receive air, in which people sleep and are about to die of suffocation (Xun, “Preface to Call to Arms.”). However, according to his hopes, their awakening, although combined with suffering from the awareness of impending doom, is necessary since it gives hope for change.
The Chinese people’s traditions put such pressure on society, like the walls of an iron house, making everyone who tries to abandon them look like madmen. This idea is central to the first story in the collection, “A Madman’s Diary.” The main character recognizes all the people around as cannibals, but he cannot escape from them. The tradition of cannibalism exists; everyone knows about it, although it leads to the self-destruction of the whole community. The main character himself talks about this, referring to his brother and noting that he, a cannibal, can also become a victim of cannibalism (Xun, “A Madman’s Diary.”). Using this metaphor, the author shows the need for changes, without which society can destroy itself. In part, the protagonist’s path coincides with the path of Lu Xun himself, who moved away from the study of medicine for the sake of literature research. They both see reality much clearer than the people around them but can do practically nothing about it, being in unfavorable conditions.
Thus, the themes of overwhelming traditionalism and the need for change are reflected in both works in criticism and analysis of society. The metaphorical walls of the iron house, cutting off oxygen to those inside, figure in “A Madman’s Diary” as heavy ceiling beams surrounding the protagonist. Both in the preface to the collection and its first work, the author strongly emphasizes the ossification of society and the doom of the old culture. These accents are a symbolic call to arms to a new generation, who may not yet be poisoned by outdated traditions. The author does not give up hope for change, which helped, in the end, to develop these ideas for many other writers.
Gu, Ming Dong. “Lu Xun and Modern Chinese Literature in the Context of World Literature.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 44, no. 2, 2021, pp. 76-92.
Xun, Lu. “A Madman’s Diary.” Selected Stories of Lu Hsun, edited by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. Foreign Languages Press. 1960.
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— “Preface to Call to Arms.” Selected Stories of Lu Hsun, edited by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. Foreign Languages Press. 1960.
Yang, Wanjun. “Comparison Between Rural Works of Shen Congwen and Lu Xun.” Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, vol. 497, 2020, pp. 189-192.