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Lu Xun: the Father of Modern Chinese Literature

by anonymous

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If Shaoxing (an optional destination for affordable China travel packages) can be described as a book floating on water, then the buildings along the "Lu Xun street" would undoubtedly be the quintessence of said tome. Without question, Lu Xun is significant as the father of modern Chinese literature. Firmly rooted in the place and era that he lived in, many of his short stories (and anthologies) such as "The Story of Ah Q", "A Shout", "Medicine" etc are down-to-earth, yet stirring and strongly satirical of the society and era which he lived in. These have become classics of modern Chinese literature, which bring new insights no matter how many times they are re-read. From my limited knowledge of literature, I suppose you could compare these to the works of James Joyce and Pai Hsien-Yung (Bai Xianyong), except that Lu Xun's works are far more incisive and keen.

Lu Xun is only one of his hundreds of pen names, his real name being Zhou Shuren. Both of his younger brothers (Zhou Zuoren and Zhou Jianren) were also quite renowned for their literary prowess, though by far not as distinguished as he was. His literary works were of a height far above his 1.6m physical stature. Lu Xun was praised by Mao Zedong as a litterateur, thinker and revolutionary of the classless masses of China.

Born in 1881, his life took a turn when he reached the age of 13. His grandfather, originally a government official, was thrown into jail. His father fell ill and died, after which the family's wealth and position waned. The young Lu Xun acutely felt the drastic change of society's attitude towards him and his family. This left a lasting impact upon his young soul and he felt saddened that the Chinese people of those times were seriously lacking in genuine sympathy and love; instead they were snobbish and harshly realistic.

The east end of the pedestrian street on which your pilgrimage to this mighty man starts, is landmarked by a long white wall with black outlines of the man himself (in his signature pose, puffing away on a cigarette), a street view of old Shaoxing, and English and Chinese characters saying "Lu Xun Native Place". Many sightseers and tour groups stop here for an obligatory photo -- it's close to impossible to get a full-view photo without anyone else in the photo, so don't bother waiting!

On this one street are a number of places that have been made famous by his works or him as a person, as well as a museum/memorial hall that showcases various facets of his life and literary development. Explore his family's ancestral residence, Sanwei Study (San1 Wei4 Shu1 Wu1, where Lu Xun studied as a child), Lu Xun's own residence and the "Garden of a Hundred Plants" (Bai3 Cao3 Yuan2). Apart from being associated with the great man himself, these residences are also a good way to see what living conditions and architecture were like during the turn of the century.

Let's start with the museum/memorial hall for popular China tours. The museum has 2 floors, and also some tasteful exhibits/landscaping outdoors. On the 1st floor, there're informative displays about the life and literary creations of Lu Xun, such as photos of his family, him with his schoolmates, a list of his pen names, original manuscripts etc. Be warned that there're no English captions here, so if you don't understand Chinese, you'll have to guess, or hope that you have a friend or travel companion who'll be happy to translate for you. The 2nd floor is a continuation of the same content of the 1st floor; at the end, there's a rather Phantom-of-the-Opera-like plaster-of-paris mask made of Lu Xun's face after his death. Extremely interesting to say the least, if not a little morbid. Also there're books on display showing the different languages that his works have been translated into. Amongst them were common languages such as English (duh!), Russian, German, French and Korean; to very unexpected languages such as Bangladeshi, Albanian, Uyghur, Kazakh, Vietnamese, and even Braille. I suppose it just goes to show how widely popular his works are around the world.

A little warning about the museum: I think there was airconditioning installed, but for some reason when I last visited in mid-March, it wasn't turned on! Perhaps the administration thought the weather was at a comfortable temperature so they wanted to save on the electricity bill. Unfortunately this meant that the interior of the museum was uncomfortably stuffy and perhaps a little warm for some of my friends. Hopefully they do turn on the airconditioning in summer and winter. In any case, I'd advise sightseers visiting this spot to dress in layers if possible.

The ancestral residence is IMHO perhaps the least interesting of the lot, in comparison. Rooms used for various purposes are well-signposted in both English and Chinese characters, so you can read for yourself. I found the kitchen area rather extensive. :P

Located opposite the museum/memorial hall, Sanwei Study is where the young Zhou Shuren studied. This was a well-known private school in the late Qing dynasty. "Sanwei" actually means "3 flavours"; it is said that reading scriptures was akin to eating rice, reading about history was like eating meat and fish, and reading about schools of thought was like the flavouring for the food. The schoolroom was originally teacher Shou Jingwu's own study. Famed as "the most upright, honourable and erudite man" in Shaoxing, his meticulous teachings and moral guidance left a lasting impression on the young Lu Xun.
What most people come to see is Lu Xun's table, whereupon he had inscribed (the young vandal, haha!) the Chinese character zao3 (early) as a constant reminder to himself that he must not be late for school -- an aftereffect of being lectured once by his teacher for being late. Elsewhere in the study's grounds are a stone and a dish of water. This was the poor student's method of practising calligraphy, instead of wasting paper and ink.

Moving on to Lu Xun's own residence, personally I found his bedroom to be of the most interest, perhaps I've seen too many of such residences in this area to be wowed by the usual Chinese furniture and architecture! Lu Xun lived here for about 1.5 years during 1910--1912 when he was teaching in Shaoxing. This was also where he wrote his 1st novel in classical Chinese, named "Reminiscence".

Bai3 Cao3 Yuan2 at the back of Lu Xun's house was only a vegetable patch full of wild grasses when he was a young boy. Nevertheless, this didn't prevent him and his young friends from finding their own happiness within. Further inside I found a traditional opera stage built over water (quite pretty), and some tacky wax statues depicting wedding and other traditional rituals.

At either end of the pedestrian street (and also elsewhere, goodness knows which one is the real one) are the Xianheng Restaurants after tired China tour in day time selling the snacks that're oft-mentioned in his works: for example aniseed-flavoured beans (hui2 xiang1 dou4) that were mentioned in the short story "Kong Yi Ji". The black statues of the slim, pig-tailed old man outside is the legendary Kong Yi Ji. In Lu Xun's time, Xianheng Restaurant was typical Shaoxing tavern. The name comes from The Book of Changes (Yi4 Jing1), with the word "xian2" meaning all and the word "heng1" meaning prosperous -- an auspicious name for such an establishment. In these restaurants as well as other small roadside stalls along the pedestrian street, you can taste these snacks, along with stinky tofu (a local specialty) and Shaoxing yellow wine. A word of warning though, the Shaoxing yellow wine sold here is cheap but not really tasty (it's more of an acquired taste, plus the stuff sold here won't really be of good quality) -- pay more and get a better experience elsewhere! If you really must, get a small portion and share between a few people. Same goes for those snacks which're more expensive here. Also, at some of the places we noticed flies everywhere, which wasn't hygienic.

Since my 1st visit a few years ago (can't remember the exact year, probably in 2004 or 2005) the admission fee gradually rose from about 60 RMB to 100 RMB. However admission is now free (since June 2008), so do go and pay tribute to this great author who wished to cure the then "Ill Man of the East" of its maladies, with his powerful words.

You will experience very different atmosphere by comparison with Silk Road tours.

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