It is a rite of passage for woodblock artists to design and cut a portrait print of Lu Xun. Many of the Modern Woodcut artists paid Lu Xun this honour in his lifetime.  Li Qun’s small 1936 portrait was in Lu Xun’s collection when he died (cat. no. 4).  From the time of his death until today, artists have invoked Lu Xun in portraiture to celebrate or criticise developments in China (cat. no.100).

Artists also illustrate Lu Xun’s stories, with a single image or in a series of up to sixty prints. Lu Xun was highly ciritcal of the narrow-minded sprit, inhumanity and political darkness of the later Imperial and early Republican China. A Madman’s Diary(Kuangren riji 狂人日記) was the first modern story published in the vernacular, rather than in classical Chinese (cat. nos.14-15). Lu’s best-known work is The True Story of Ah Q(Ah Q zheng zhuan阿Q正傳). Zhao Yannian’s sixty-print masterpiece portrays every foible and psychological nuance of the novella’s hapless anti-hero (cat. nos. 18,20).  

Xie Ziwen (1916-2011), Lu Xun and the New Chinese Woodblock Print, 1981, 58x60cm
Xie Ziwen (1916-2011), Lu Xun and the New Chinese Woodblock Print, 1981, 58x60cm

Xie Ziwen had a long career in printmaking, best known for his patriotic works in the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45). After the Revolution, he taught at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. This print commemorates the 50th anniversary of the six-day practical printmaking workshop Lu Xun sponsored, which is generally regarded as the birth of the Modern Woodcut Movement (top-left). It also illustrates his enthusiasm for China’s ancient arts and twentieth- century Expressionist prints.

Li Qun (1912-2012), Portrait of Lu Xun, 1936, 12.2x10cm
Li Qun (1912-2012), Portrait of Lu Xun, 1936, 12.2x10cm

Li Qun sent this portrait to Lu Xun, then finally met him just days before Lu died. On the upper right are two shelves of books. In the lower left, a hand grasps a nibbed pen, with a dog looking up at it. Li Qun was a founding member of the League of Left Wing Artists in 1933, and during the Second Sino-Japan War (War of Resistance) taught at the Lu Xun Academy of Art and Literature (LuYi) in Yan’an.

Zhang Huaijiang (1922-89), Illustrations to "Diary of a Madman" by Lu Xun (2 of 40), 1980, 20x17cm
Zhang Huaijiang (1922-89), Illustrations to "Diary of a Madman" by Lu Xun (2 of 40), 1980, 20x17cm

Diary of a Madman is often referred to as China’s first modern short story, written by Lu Xun in vernacular Chinese, rather than classical. Inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s (1809-52) story of the same name, it depicts a ‘madman’ who sees cannibalism everywhere. Zhang’s illustrations are as dark as the story’s rendering of China. Zhang began making revolutionary prints in the 1940s. He was condemned as a rightist in 1957 but was later rehabilitated and returned to an official position.

Zhao Yannian (1924-2014), Illustrations to "The True Story of Ah Q" by Lu Xun (2 of 60), 1978-80, 20
Zhao Yannian (1924-2014), Illustrations to "The True Story of Ah Q" by Lu Xun (2 of 60), 1978-80, 20

The True Story of Ah Q is Lu Xun’s best-known work. Written in the vernacular, it takes places during the Xinhai Revolution (1911), which ended the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The anti-hero, Ah Q, represented all that Lu Xun saw as backward, despicable and self-absorbed in traditional Chinese society. Using a foreign letter in Ah Q’s name may have referred to the May Fourth Movement, advocating western ideas, or may represent the (pigtail) required for all Chinese men under the Manchu rulers.

Gu Yuan (1919-96), Xiang Lin’s Wife, an Illustration to "New Year’s Sacrifice", 1956, 39x26 cm
Gu Yuan (1919-96), Xiang Lin’s Wife, an Illustration to "New Year’s Sacrifice", 1956, 39x26 cm

Many artists have portrayed the principal character of New Year’s Sacrifice, Lu Xun’s scathing indictment of female subordination in traditional Chinese society. She is not even referred to by name, only Xiang Lin’s wife. A young widow, she is kidnapped by her former in-laws and forced to re-marry for their financial benefit. Her husband and son by the second marriage both die, leaving her traumatized and unwelcome as an unlucky widow, and she herself dies on New Year’s Eve.

Yan Han (1916-2011), An Illustration to Lu Xun’s Short Story "Kong Yiji", 1973, 24x13.5cm
Yan Han (1916-2011), An Illustration to Lu Xun’s Short Story "Kong Yiji", 1973, 24x13.5cm

In China’s traditional education system, advancement depended on passing official exams. Kong Yiji is a failed scholar but refuses to do menial work and steals to avoid starvation. He drinks at a tavern in the fictional town of Luzhen, where Lu Xun’s set many stories. Kong Yiji is treated brutally by the other customers. The story expresses Lu Xun’s rejection of the imperial examinations, students’ time-wasting efforts to pass them, and people’s indifference to the sad plight of others.

Wu Duanduan (b. 1955), Illustrations to "Tea House" by Lao She, 1996, 16x22cm
Wu Duanduan (b. 1955), Illustrations to "Tea House" by Lao She, 1996, 16x22cm

Lao She’s (1899-1966) play is set against the backdrop of a teahouse in old Beijing. It takes place in three acts: 1898, a year of reform and subsequent crackdown; 20 years later in the warlord era of the early Republic; and 30 years after that, near the end of the Civil War. The many characters mirror social turmoil and people’s desperate struggle for survival. The play ends with the teahouse manager’s suicide. Lao She himself committed suicide in 1966.

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