Ask well-educated Chinese to name their country’s greatest 20th-century author and they usually answer Lu Xun. Yet Lu, born in 1881, has been misunderstood in China since 1940, when Mao praised him as his ‘moral guide’ and ‘the chief commander of China’s cultural revolution’. That was a lie, but because the Great Teacher himself had praised Lu, much of that false view has stuck. If Lu hadn’t died in 1936, once Mao came to supreme power, he would have been executed or, like Hu Feng, one of his closest colleagues (who is barely mentioned by Gloria Davies and misidentified as a Party member), imprisoned for decades.
Mao’s lie relied on Lu’s essays being distorted by the Party to give the impression that he had put literature at the service of revolutionary warfare. Davies shows the opposite: ‘What set Lu Xun apart from the revolutionary faithful was his flat refusal to elevate political belief over personal ethics.’