"You can change! In your hearts!" wrote Lu Xun (Lǔ Xùn, 鲁迅) in the short story "Diary of a Madman." "Soon there will be no place for cannibals in the world of ours. And if you don't change, you will all be eaten." "Diary of a Madman", published in 1918, was the first major story ever to be published in the vernacular, or báihuà (白話), as opposed to classical Chinese which only the well educated could read. The account of a man lashing out at the cannibalistic ways of his country served as an allegory for the out-dated feudal system of the Qing Dynasty, and instantly launched Lu Xun into intellectual stardom. So influential did Lu Xun become, that 76 years after his death in 1936, there is now a museum in Shanghai dedicated solely to him, surrounded by the enormous Lu Xun Park.
Lu Xun was a chronic smoker. It is the cherry-on-top of every one of his depictions—the cigarette that dangles brilliantly from his fingertips, its implied orange end emanating the eternal light bulb in his mind. He's like an Asian John Steinbeck, with way better style. In one portrait of Lu Xun during his early career, he sports a magnificent purple sweater. The sweater was deemed so incredibly awesome that it sits folded in a glass case in the museum for all to see. Smoking is also what killed Lu Xun, as he eventually garnered tuberculosis and bronchitic asthma.
Walking through the Lu Xun Museum (Lǔ Xùn Jìniànguǎn, 鲁迅纪念馆) feels like taking a trip through the legendary man's life....
It showcases Lu Xun's family, with drawings and photographs of his grandfather, father and wife, and presents the story of his humble beginnings in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province into a family of declining wealth. Screening rooms play videos, some of film adaptations of his stories, others of historical and political contexts during Lu Xun's time. One room features a deep-voiced man reading some of Lu Xun's poetry aloud, while images of peach blossoms and waterfalls and stars dance across the screen. In the background, a song from the Gladiator soundtrack—"Progeny," to be exact—played in a loop. I wonder if composers Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard are receiving any royalties.
There is also a life-size wax display reenacting a photograph of Lu Xun and his students. Lu Xun sits—cigarette in hand, of course—with four younger men who gaze at him intensely, probably listening to a priceless lecture. In the previous exhibits, guards puffed angrily and shook their head each time I brought out my camera. Here, there was a guard standing right next to the wax models, but he looked gleeful, and more relaxed than the previous guards. I showed him my camera and asked if I could photograph the wax figures. The man nodded viciously, and smiled, as if to say, "Of course you can take a picture! I'd be delighted. In fact, it would be disrespectful if you chose not to photograph this amazing man and his pupils."
Continuing on, hundreds of manuscripts of Lu Xun's short stories lie within glass cases. Historical copies of his books are shown as well, many from the Cultural Revolution, during which Lu Xun was glorified by Mao Zedong. Personal letters are showcased as well. Some were written during the May Fourth Movement (1915-1921) in which the Qing Dynasty was overthrown. One is a letter from his wife Zhu An (朱安), the last letter he ever received. It urged him to take his illness seriously and seek medical attention. The beautiful letter carries the emotional weight of a despairing wife and transcends any calligraphy I have ever seen before by sheer purpose. Lu Xun did not choose his wife, however. Zhu An was selected by Lu Xun's mother, and Lu Xun conceded. Historians debate whether or not Lu Xun even consummated his love with her, but if the beauty of Zhu An's last letter has any implication, I'd say they loved each other unconditionally.
The Lu Xun Museum is rather small (though gigantic in the sense that it encapsulates the life of just one man), but the park that surrounds it, also named after the prolific writer, is huge. The 16 hectare (40 acre) space is filled with the same sights as any other park in Shanghai. Middle-aged couples playing badminton. Groups of women dancing and performing Tai Chi. Old men stringing away on erhu. I was walking through the park when suddenly a man rushed past me, a child in his arms. Only feet from me he stopped and pulled down the pants of his child, who proceeded to pee voluminously. It reminded me of the narrator's plea at the end of "Diary of a Madman": "I now realize that I have unknowingly spent my life in a country that has been eating human flesh for four thousand years. Are there children who have not yet eaten human flesh? Save the children."
Lu Xun Museum (Lǔ Xùn Jìniànguǎn, 鲁迅纪念馆) (86 21) 6540 2288 9am-4pm daily, free admission 2288 Sichuan Bei Lu (Sìchuān Běi Lù, 四川北路2288号)