Shanghai's Lu Xun Park: Seeking the soul of a nation

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: October 15th, 2010 | Updated: August 1st, 2014 | Comments
Lu Xun Park, Shanghai

A line of spent cigarette butts droop ash onto the ground outside the mausoleum of Lu Xun Park's namesake. Four older men are sitting under the two massive magnolia trees that frame the mausoleum's facade, listening to a short wave radio and chatting. One of them stands up, pulls out five Shuang Xi cigarettes and passes them out, one each for his friends, one for himself and one for the venerable Lu Xun. Lu Xun's smoke burns brightly next to an offering of tea and a bouquet of flowers. The man returns to his seat and they continue with their discussion on the mistakes Chiang Kei Shek made prior to Liberation in 1949 and the inadequacy of China's modern education system.

The mausoleum is one of the quietest corners of Lu Xun Park. The rest of the 40 acre green space in the middle of the city is buzzing with pockets of focused activity. The chess and cards community have a few corners staked out and every few minutes a cluster erupts, like a chain of tiny volcanoes. Musicians gather in small groups or stroll back and forth through the trees, solitary and withdrawn. Horns, harmonicas, erhu, voices; nowhere in the park can you escape the music.

In the corner by the north gate, shirtless old men with rippling muscles display their gymnastic skills for a crowd of appreciative ladies and impressed young men. A crowd has gathered today in front of the plum garden (yet another Korean tour group marches through the park, passed the men and into the garden) and loudly discuss contemporary music, the economy, raising birds and the Expo in thick, thick Shanghaihua.


Lu Xun's ghost is smoking again, under a tree down one of the small paths. He looks up from a book he is reading, studies his beloved people and then bends down again and scribbles furiously in the margins. The nearby Lu Xun Museum is one of the best museums I have ever visited in China. The works and pictures on display carry the narrative of his life and struggles all the way to the end, in 1936. There are rare copies of New Youth and Call to Arms open to famous essays; letters he wrote to friends, colleagues and his wife Xu Guangping reveal his continuous battles with himself and his chaotic environment. In a film clip of his eulogy in Shanghai, attended by Sun Yat Sen's widow Song Qing Ling and many other luminaries of pre-war China, Lu Xun is celebrated as China's greatest modern writer and the soul of the nation. On the wall is an inscription, written by an admirer:

新人造就着,培养青年 "Creator of the New Man, Educator of the Youth"

Lu Xun: "Educator of the Youth" no more?


In recent months, a controversy surrounding Lu Xun's role in educating the new youth captured the headlines of several prominent newspapers and the hearts of many of his admirers. One of China's major textbook publishers released a list of essays to be included in upcoming editions—for middle and high school students—and a list of essays to be removed. Among the many to be removed were three of Lu Xun's works: The True Story of Ah Q, Medicine and Miss Liu He Zhen.

In a piece I wrote for, The Murky Evolution of the Chinese Education System, I examine some of the issues surrounding the move to strike Lu Xun's essays from future textbooks, including the problem of multiple publishers with varying views on what should go into their textbooks.

Around Lu Xun Park

If you're interested modern Chinese history and culture, a visit to Shanghai's Lu Xun Museum is a must. Situated in Shanghai's northeastern Hongkou District near several other historical points of interest—including the Duolon Lu Culture Street and Duolon Museum of Contemporary Art, both of which pay homage to the neighborhood's history as the heart of Shanghai's literary and arts scene in the 1920s and '30s—the museum is just one part of a day-trip's worth of attractions in a corner of Shanghai that far too many tourists miss.

Nearby Shanyang Lu, featuring fine examples European-style Concession-era architecture, is a bustling street filled with small vendors selling noodles, barbecue and honey. To the east of the park, a neighborhood of classic shikumen "stone gate" lane houses provides a glimpse into the Shanghai of Lu Xun's era. Also, from now until the end of the month there is a food market in Lu Xun Park selling yak meat, Sichuan spices and tofu, all sorts of seafood, mountain mushrooms and farm-raised chicken!

The old men chatting by the mausoleum get indignant at the mention of Lu Xun's expulsion from school. Lao Sung waves a finger and shakes his head. "Nonsense! Last week the papers said they would not remove any of his essays. The reaction was too much for them." Another of the men, Lao Zhou, stands up and raises a finger to emphasize his point, "They don't dare. He is the soul of the nation! Sure, most common people don't read his essays, but everyone knows that he is pure Chinese. He had a head of stone, Lu Xun. Didn't bow down to anyone." Lao Sung interjects loudly. "That's right! None of this beating around the bush with Lu Xun. He stuck it right in your face; told you exactly what was wrong with you. Back then Chiang Kai Shek wanted to silence him, but it wouldn't work. Lu Xun was too powerful. He had good relations with Song Qingling—nobody dared touch him."

"Besides," adds Lao Zhou. "The only ones who fear criticism are those with something to hide. If you are weak, you fear criticism; if you are strong, you welcome it." Lao Sung was referring to this article, published in the Shanghai-based Xin Min Wan Bao, that soothes the masses in Shanghai by declaring that no changes will be made to Lu Xun's essays in any future textbooks. The problem is, as I discuss in my piece, that there are different editions of the textbook available and it is still unclear what changes are made to which edition, if any. Soul of the Nation


Human beings should not have walls between them, but should care for each other. The best way to achieve this, is by using art to communicate with one another

—Lu Xun, Call to Arms)

The recent announcement that Lu Xun's essays would be removed from future textbooks sparked a debate within the intellectual and blog communities. Many initial reactions were angry and lashed out at what they perceived to be an attempt by the publishers to limit schoolchildren's exposure to Lu Xun's political and social commentary, which they felt was still relevant (if not more relevant than ever) today.



Over time however, the discussion moved toward methods of study and learning and the overall health of the Chinese education system. A recent New York Times story highlighted the results of an education system that uses one or two critical tests to determine whether or not a student can move on to the next level. Such a system encourages fraud and cheating and the NYT article argues that such a system could hamper China's development. This Southern Daily article, for example, encourages students and teachers to critically examine Lu Xun's writings and his life and put them into the context of the times. According to the teacher interviewed in the story, only after thoroughly analyzing Lu Xun the person and Lu Xun the works was he able to come to a critical understanding of the issues he wrote about. The professor recommended not only keeping Lu Xun's essays in all textbooks, but revamping the way literature (and all other subject for that matter) are taught. Another essay, written for a popular blog, begins with the idea that "how one studies is more important than what one studies," adding to a growing consensus among bloggers and some professors that China's education system could use some retooling.


Lao Sung is still shaking his finger in the air and his words come out quickly and passionately. "Of course our education system needs retooling! Nothing sinks into the heads of these kids anymore. They study and study for some test and as soon as it is over they forget everything. What can you possibly learn using such a method?" The rest of the men nod in agreement and when Lao Sung finishes with his speech a silence falls over the maoseleum. Music and the hum of voices drifts in over the high hedges and the men pull out smokes. Lu Xun gets his and there is a feeling of pride that filters through and touches all of the men. The education system might never change and four old men smoking by a grave surely won't change things. Yet Lu Xun would be proud of the fact that somebody said something. And I am sure he appreciates the smokes, too.

See more in our Lu Xun Park guide or discover more about the Lu Xun Museum.

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