The True Story of Lu Xun

By David E. Pollard

Reviewed by Nick Kaldis
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2004)

The Chinese University Press, 2002. ISBN: 962-996-060-5 (paperback), 962-996-061-3              (hardcover).

David E. Pollard. The True Story of Lu Xun. Hong Kong: The
Chinese University Press, 2002. ISBN: 962-996-060-5 (paperback), 962-996-061-3

… No study of Lu Xun can be complete or definitive because his complexities are such that they may elude, rather than illuminate, understanding.

—Leo Ou-fan Lee—

It is by now a cliché that there are as many Lu Xuns as there are readers of Lu Xun’s work. But until the publication of David Pollard’s The True Story of Lu Xun, there has not been an English-language biography of Lu Xun.[1] Pollard’s biography fills a glaring gap in the English language scholarship on modern China and modern Chinese literature. And a fine biography it is. Pollard is a meticulous and confident scholar, at home with his subject and unerring in his instincts in this his first biography. Both lay readers and scholars will find Pollard’s treatment informative and eminently readable. Mindful of both audiences, Pollard declares from the outset that documenting in detail all the known minutiae of Lu Xun’s life is not his guiding principle. Instead, his effort will be to strike a balance between providing “sufficient” versus “too much detail” (xiv).

Fidelity to this sense of balance is consistently maintained throughout the book, by homing in on events of lasting importance for Lu Xun the writer, cultural figure, and polemicist. Lu Xun’s childhood and youth are, accordingly, dealt with in considerable brevity, preference being given to those experiences linking past and present, child and adult, via “threads of the spirit” so to speak. For instance, near the beginning of his discussion of Lu Xun’s early education, Pollard is quick to link the young boy’s fascination with illustrated works to the adult Lu Xun’s association with the woodcut movement and his “lifelong interest in graphic art” (12). Confining the biographer’s focus to such events allows Pollard to selectively cover Lu Xun’s first thirty-seven years—up to the 1918 publication of “Diary of a Madman”—in approximately the first fifty pages of the book. The remainder of the book is devoted to Lu Xun’s life as a well-known intellectual and writer. [2]

Since most readers of The True Story of Lu Xun will likely already be familiar with some of Lu Xun’s fiction, poetry, and essays, and be interested primarily in his literary career, this narrowing of biographical scope is welcome. Considering that Lu Xun’s collected writings number some sixteen volumes, Pollard’s book weighs in at a reasonable 223 pages of biographical material, preceded by a five-page “Outline Chronology” and seven pages of photographs. A short preface succinctly contextualizes the “broad [historical] context for the life and after-life” of Lu Xun, distances the current biography from previous more hagiographic ones, and—tongue slightly in cheek—apologizes in advance for “occasional lapses from the austere language of scholarship into the common speech of normal human beings” (xv).

As noted above, Pollard’s guiding principle throughout is to stick to a chronology of key events while indicating connections between Lu Xun’s earlier life experiences and later interests, events, and personality traits. However, when a specific circumstance demands a break from rigid sequential narrative, Pollard sometimes allocates a separate discussion or chapter for this purpose. Consequently, the details of Lu Xun’s marriage to Zhu An are not treated in the discussion of the Japan years, but postponed until a later, separate chapter (5). In another case, Pollard takes some of Lu Xun’s remarks at his 1930 birthday party as a pretext for a short digression into the then-ongoing debates concerning “proletarian literature and/or revolutionary literature,” then segues back into the year-by-year narrative (149). Here and throughout, variations or departures from a strict chronology dovetail smoothly with the surrounding text.

Chapter 3, “Japan,” marks an evident increase in the foregrounding of Pollard’s authorial voice, as he begins to proffer his own scholarly conclusions. In summarizing the oft-analyzed 1906 Sendai slide show incident, for example, he asserts: “The incident of the slides and the conclusion that Lu Xun drew are much quoted as marking a crucial turning point in his life—like St Paul’s revelation on the road to Damascus. Indeed it was a turning point, but the rationalization for his decision is inadequate” (30). Pollard then goes on to weigh the potential importance of various factors in Lu Xun’s subsequent withdrawal from medical studies, adding some new considerations to the list. In his assessment, the slide show incident alone did not mark a major watershed in Lu Xun’s awareness of Chinese “backwardness,” nor was it momentous enough to single-handedly dissuade him from pursuing a medical career.

Similarly, Pollard proposes a number of other qualifications to previously lionized events in Lu Xun’s life. One notable instance is his treatment of Qian Xuantong’s famous visit to the Shaoxing Hostel:

“Lu Xun gives the impression that Qian, then a professor at Peking University, came exclusively to talk to him. But not so. Zhou Zuoren’s diary entry for the same day makes it clear that Qian intended to call on both of them…. It has to be borne in mind when dealing with Lu Xun’s recollections that he was a writer, and the first call on a writer is not accuracy but effectiveness. To bring Zhou Zuoren into his story would not have enhanced its effectiveness” (50).

In one instance, Pollard corrects Mao Zedong’s well-known interpretation of two lines from Lu Xun’s 1932 classical-style poem “In Mockery of Myself” (Zi chao).[3]

Pollard’s historical revisions at times give way to surmising, as in Chapter 7, “The Break with Zhou Zuoren,” where he ponders the exact nature of Lu Xun’s offense as well as suggesting Zhou’s longing for a reason to “free himself from Lu Xun’s domination and tutelage” (82). This incident being the greatest—and potentially most salacious—mystery in Lu Xun’s life, perhaps each biographer is entitled to weigh in on the issue, as a reward for having again pored over the extant evidence.

Occasionally, Pollard clearly advances beyond scholarly conclusions and historical revision, offering instead personal assessments or moral pronouncements. Readers may welcome judgments such as “the charge of mental cruelty” leveled at Lu Xun for his treatment of Zhu An (66), or Pollard’s opinions concerning “the battle of the two slogans,” between Lu Xun and Zhou Yang [et al.]. In a few cases, regardless of the facts, some may wish that Pollard had phrased things a bit differently, as with: “It seems that he [Lu Xun] subscribed to the habit common among his countrymen of living on borrowed money” (86). These moments are few and largely innocuous, when taken in the context of Pollard’s obvious admiration for and emulation of his subject, and his admission to writing while under “the influence of Lu Xun” (xv).

The only error that I noticed in the text was a missing letter “r” on page 206: the sentence should read: “The example of Zarathustra sustained Lu Xun th[r]ough his ‘sloughs of despond’….” There is little else to find fault with in this skillfully executed biography. An index would have been quite useful, since many readers and scholars may wish to find mention of specific names, themes, works, and events in Lu Xun’s life; indexes, however, are not de rigueur for biographies. For this reader, Lu Xun’s portrait on the margin of every single page is a dubious aesthetic contribution to the otherwise fine layout of the book; it is distracting at times and seems an unnecessary waste of ink.

By way of a conclusion, I would mention the audiences most likely to benefit from The True Story of Lu Xun. Scholars of Lu Xun, especially those teaching Lu Xun’s work and modern Chinese literature in translation, will find this an indispensable course text and reference, while students and general readers will welcome such a polished, engaging, and informative biography.


[1] Midway through a short final chapter entitled “Sources,” Pollard names a handful of works in English where one can find biographical information on Lu Xun, but does not cite Lu Xun: A Biography, Zhang Peiji’s 1984 English translation of Wang Shiqing’s Lu Xun zhuan, for which Bonnie McDougall and Tang Bowen served as English text editors.

[2] Lu Xun’s affairs, even in his own lifetime, could not be neatly separated into such discreet realms as the “public” and the “private”; Pollard covers major events from both spheres, while avoiding the distinction.

[3] Translated by Jon Eugene von Kowallis as “Laughing at My Own Predicament,” in The Lyrical Lu Xun: A Study of His Classical-Style Verse. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996: 202–208. In his notes on the poem, Kowallis likewise reminds readers to take Mao’s narrow interpretation of the poem with a grain of salt.

Nick Kaldis
Binghamton University