‘The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature,’ Edited by Yunte Huang

In 1906, while studying medicine in Japan, a young Chinese man called Zhou Shuren was shown a slide depicting a scene from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, which was partly fought on Chinese territory. It showed a crowd of Chinese watching while one of their compatriots was beheaded by the Japanese, accused of being a Russian spy. “They were all strong fellows but appeared completely apathetic,” Zhou recalled. “After this film I felt that medical science was not so important after all. The people of a weak and backward country, however strong and healthy they may be, can only serve to be made examples of, or to witness such futile spectacles. . . . The most important thing, therefore, was to change their spirit, and since at that time I felt that literature was the best means to this end, I determined to promote a literary movement.”

Soon after this Damascene moment — one of the most celebrated conversions in 20th-century Chinese culture — Zhou began his career as the self-appointed literary doctor of China’s spiritual ills. Across the next three decades, under the pen name Lu Xun, he became one of the founding figures of modern Chinese literature.

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