Margaret Zeegers 2

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-22 16:00-18:00 Room I

Speaker:Margaret Zeegers/Zhang Xiaohong(Australia/China)

Paper for CBBY in Beijing, China, 2006

Title: Children as the Future of China: Lu Xun’s contribution to the development of modern Chinese children’s and young adult literature

Authors: Dr Margaret Zeegers and Ms Zhang Xiaohong

School of Education

University of Ballarat

University Drive, Mt Helen


Australia, 3353

Contact Person:

Dr Margaret Zeegers



This paper focuses on the unique contribution by Lu Xun in the development of Chinese Children’s Literature in the 20th Century, particularly as to ways in which Lu Xun’s ideas influenced the children of that period and its effects on the development of modern Chinese children’s literature. It examines a number of Lu Xun’s representative writings—about children, his essays, his novels, his poems, his scribbles—as not only his criticising the evils of constructs of childhood as feudalistic and inhumane, but also as his revealing the essence of such constructs as fostering children as obedient slaves in their adult years. This paper thus explores Lu Xun’s view of children developing as complete persons based on the twin aspects of spiritual and physical existence, which implies not only gaining freedom but also changing the social world so that this could happen.

Author Details

Dr Margaret Zeegers, currently a lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Ballarat, is an experienced English teacher and academic. She has taught English and Language Arts in universities and schools in a number of countries, and her research focus is the pedagogies associated with the teaching and learning of English language and English literature, particularly children’s and young adult literature.

Ms Zhang Xiaohong is an experienced English language teacher, currently undertaking her PhD with Dr Margaret Zeegers in the School of Education at the University of Ballarat. Her research focus is Chinese children’s literature, in particularly the role played by Lu Xun in pre- and post revolutionary children’s literature.



Children as the Future of China: Lu Xun’s contribution to the development of modern Chinese children’s and young adult literature

Margaret Zeegers, Zhang Xiaohong

Didacticism and Reconstructionism

It is not at all unusual to find that adults have a didactic approach to the generation of what it is that children may read (Avery, 1995; Clarke, 1997; Saxby, 1994, 1997). Indeed, the Puritans took it all as part of children learning how to die (Hunt, 1995). Didacticism may have received a bad press in reviews of children’s and young adult literature, but it has a place nonetheless within an educational tradition of Reconstructionism (see for example Zeegers, 2000). In Reconstructionism it is possible to identify a demonstration of didacticism as a positive force that educators may use to organize themselves and their work. In such a context, the bad press that didacticism has had may be, as Weltman (2002) suggests, be ‘duly pessimistic and may operate as self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophecies’, in spite of its influence well into the twenty-first century (p. 61).

Bad press didacticism, especially when it is divorced from Reconstructionism may portray ‘only the surface and misses the underlying dynamics of social and educational reform, focusing only on the forest while missing the historical trees and underbrush (Weltman, 2002) (p. 61). Again, as Weltman (2002) suggests, it is possible to see Reconstructionism as ‘an exemplary reform movement’ (p. 62), and in this paper, we take up this idea, applying it to the work of Lu Xun in the field of children’s and young adult literature as an example of what positive things may be achieved with children’s and young adult literature from this sort of perspective.



This is no easy term to define, as so much of the literature tends to delineate characteristics of Reconstructionism in its attempts to get to a workable definition. If we take (Udvari-Solner & Thousand, 1996) view, ‘Reconstructionism promotes the belief that by transforming curriculum and instructional approaches, schools can affect a more democratic, just, and compassionate world…’ (p. 1). In essence Reconstructionism looks to education systems (and therefore essentially the education of young people) as a tool to be used in the building of a new social order, in particular one that is perceived to be better than existing or older social orders. Such a new social order would be one that is based on social concerns and having the economic structures necessary to maintain democratic systems, rather than elitist and systematic enfeeblement of non-elites. But schools are not the only social tools available to teach young people. There is a whole world outside of the classroom that may be harnessed in the building of a more just society, and in the great revolution that produced the People’s Republic of China, one such tool was children’s and young adult literature, harnessed and driven by Lu Xun, and unabashedly based on didacticism.

A major weak point of didacticism, however, is that it doesn’t of and by itself grapple with the idea that if one wants to change people’s ways in which people view themselves and their world, it is first necessary to change the social system that generates the spirit that underpins social interaction. If on wishes to change the social system, one must change people’s social and economic status. Lu Xun’s work may be seen in the light of Reconstructionism and the revolution itself, as he deals with issues of national character and national culture mentality. In Lu Xun’s view (Xun, 2006a), ‘disordered ancestors have disordered offspring; it is a law of inheritance’ (p. 289), adding that the disorders that he considered such a problem in the new social order could be swept away in spite of strong traditional Chinese influences. He considered, though, that the medicine that could be dispensed to heal the generational disorder that he perceived in Chinese society had been invented ‘and it is the one named science’ (Xun, 2006a, p. 290).

Further, in his A madman’s diary (Xun, 2004b), he went into some detail to explore the historical roots of what he considered to be the Chinese national morbidity and how it came to being. A madman’s diary appeared in company with the Russian October Revolution success and it is a profound work, worthy of a place in the literary canon. It is perhaps worthwhile to note his deliberate allusion to Gogol’s (1972) Dairy of a madman here, making specific links to other countries and their institutionalized disorders as well. Lu Xun’s work represents the feudal system that he himself had grown up with as a sort of cyclical formation in which ‘man-eaters had been eaten’ (Xun, 2004b, p. 42). He responds to the situation as he perceives it with his own solution: ‘The most important thing… was to change their spirit; and since at that time I felt that literature was the best means to this end, I decided to promote a literary movement’ Xun, 2004a, p. 8).

In similar vein, he wrote The true story of Ah Q (Xun, 2001a) as an example of what he saw as the Chinese national disorder. Ah Q is an important character as a milestone in the history of Chinese thought, as well as being also an important source of reflection for the Chinese themselves. Pitiful, oppressed, and subject to thralls, Ah Q was a character who could not command respect from people around him: nobody regarded him as a human being and he finally gave up his life in despair. Though he suffered considerably himself, he also liked to ride roughshod over other, weaker people: a sheep in front of a wolf and a wolf in front of sheep. Ah Q was in effect a mirror in which Chinese children could see what their elders already were, and what they themselves might become if things did not change. With such an image before them, they could come to realize that their liberation had been, and would continue to be, in vain—that if this national personality and spiritual state couldn’t be changed, there really was no point to the revolution at all.

Lu Xun’s concept of the development of a complete person, and not a serf or a slave, or any Chinese version of either of these, was given voice early in 1907. His goal was the liberation of all men and women, but with this was to come the development of what he saw as a healthy personality. In his opinion, what was represented as human nature in the literature of the time was really a cultural product, not a product of nature, and as a cultural product it could be reconstructed and updated (Xinyu, 2003). He called on the Chinese themselves to ‘Save the children’ in his A madman’s diary (Xun, 2006b) because he believed ‘the future belong[ed] to the children’ (p. 328) after May Fourth, 1919. The first step of changing a national character, as far as he was concerned, was to redeem what he saw as the spirit of the people.

In the light of this concern for spiritual well being, he took up the notion of children’s literature as an important spiritual food for those children. Lu Xun instructed the writers of children’s literature not to write their works for children in too abstruse or too scholastic a manner as this would keep the intended readers from understanding and appreciating just what was meant for them through their accessing these works . This was a matter of no small importance for him (Xun, 2003):

Ever since the so-called ‘literary revolution’, though children’s books in China are still most pathetic compared with those in Europe, American and Japan, at least there have been illustrations to go with the text, and as long as children can read they can understand them. However, some people with ulterior motives are doing their utmost to ban these books, in an attempt to make the world of children devoid of every vestige of enjoyment (p. 56).

He also took the widely known representative works of Confucian children’s literature to expose their falseness, cruelty and absurdity, such as in his own response to the Confucian text, Twenty-four acts of filial piety (Xun, 2003). Here we see scathing attacks on those twenty four acts as representations of cruelty and damage to children in the name of purportedly Confucian ideals taken to absurdly extreme lengths: adults adopting demeaning infantile behaviour to indulge their parents’ needs for their children to stay as babies rather than grow up; a child buried so that a father’s mother can ensure that she gets the food that the child would otherwise have been fed, and so on. He described such stories as bogus and insulting to children, violating their natural sensibilities of children, based on both hypocrisy and lies.

Examining pre-revolutionary literature offered to children, he found nothing but books which made children feel separated from real life, unlike foreign books that (although he did make an exception in this in relation to Indian books). He determined that there was a pressing need to call for Chinese children’s literature that should portray active, dynamic characters involved in real life experience of real children, and be easily understood within the scope of those children’s experience. Thus the twin purposes of Reconstructionism and literacy were to be achieved using children’s literature as a tool.

His view was that children can neither be separated from the society in which they live, nor can they be separated from the historical processes of their lives as social beings. This, he said, was because children are very much a part of these things; they are ‘special persons’ who are not beyond it (Tumezei, 1988, p. 78). This is perhaps a given in 21st Century worlds, but in pre-revolutionary China, children were not regarded as complete persons. They were considered appendages of adults, every bit as much educated by and tied to feudalism as their elders were. As far as Lu Xun was concerned, however: ‘For the New Children, new works must be given to them’ (Tianyu, 1976, p.195). Lu Xun was impressed Shaojun’s (Shengtao, 2006) Scarecrow for example, as, ‘It opened up a way of its own for the writing of the Chinese Fairy Tale’ (p.196) Meanwhile, there were also such works as Ni Huanzhi (Shengtoa, 1982), Shi’s (2004) February and a good deal of other such works appearing at that time. They all described heroes who wanted to fight against the dark influences of Confucian-based feudalism but who lacked the courage or ability to do so. Such feelings of helplessness were explored in some depth in these novels, written in tones of outrage and associated incitement to change the evils of feudal family systems and values. All such works emerging in China devoted a great deal of their attention to the Chinese New Democracy (Zhansheng, 1989, p.188). It was the new literary movement that Lu Xun had decided upon, in fact. It was a movement devoted to explorations of what it meant to be a human being, awakening new concepts of what that meant for people as both the fundamental beginning and final goal of the concepts underpinning the enormous changes of May Fourth.

What we have then, in the work of Lu Xun, is an example of the sorts of literacy campaigns that have contributed to successful political revolution. Pre revolutionary children’s and young adult literature had done its work in maintaining its order of an empowered elite and an enfeebled peasantry. The new literature was to enfeeble elites and empower the peasantry. It was to effect a Reconstructionist change born out of Lu Xun bold criticism of Confucianism, an official idea that had ruled China for thousands of years, as a harmful and dangerous influence that had controlled China’s spirit . New heroes for children to identify with had a modern consciousness, progressive ideas and demands for reform that sat outside of Confucianism, acting on their own ideals to engage in a superb social struggle. Their examples and deeds of resistance, however, nearly all failed, for the struggle was not to be an easy one, after all.

As well, Lu Xun created stories of ways in which women and girls suffered from oppression and insult in the old China. These scenes can be found in most of Lu Xun’s works. In The true story of Ah Q (Xun, 2001a) Ah Q makes his sexual demands of Amah Wu, the only maidservant in Zhao household, making her tremble and sob in her vulnerability (p. 56). Models of feudal Chinese womanhood within a patriarchal clan system are explored as being oppressed, deeply and seriously damaged in spirit, and usually eventually killed or suiciding. Women were servants and martyrs to the causes of their menfolk. With the new children’s literature, though, they become part of those to whom Lu Xun’s first shout applies: ‘to save the child’ is ‘to save the society, to save China, to save the future’.

Lu Xun (Xun, 2001b) exhorts the formal and informal teachers of the children of the revolution:

Look at the children at the age of less than ten years old; you can forecast the situation in China twenty years later and look at the youth at the age of twenty year olds—on having children…you can presume his son and his grandson, and know the situation in China fifty years or seventy years later (p. 371) .

With this sort of commitment by a leader like Lu Xun to the future of China, those charged with the raising and educating of children have the tools they may use to help children to relate their reading and the sorts of goals this promoted to larger Chinese national and local purposes, and to help to generate their own solutions to these larger problems than their own lives encompassed. The literature that Lu Xun and his writers generate emphasises group learning experiences and cooperation with the community and its resources and presents projects that are based on interdependence and social consensus. These are projects of the sort identified by Reed and Davis (1999) in their discussion on Reconstructionism, projects those which fulfil three criteria—they must be real, they must require action, and they must teach values (p. 292).

In such ways does the lead given by Lu Xun enable pedagogues to deal with the tensions that emerge as the education of individual and the progress of the nation with national goals become indistinguishable from one another. The learning experiences derived from the children’s and young adult literature are based on social problems, with the learning embedded in concepts of community service in a time of great social and cultural change, thereby avoiding the twin dangers of reactionism and social instability, and resolving any potential tensions that may arise from these (see for example of the type identified by Breitborde and Swiniarski, 1999).

Reading his work, one sees that Lu Xun had a close affinity with the youth of China:. Facing contemporary Chinese social history and the reality of children’s and young adults’ lives, facing the hardship and frustration attendant upon the Chinese revolution, the writers’ taking on the role of the more knowing adults in the development of such mind-sets in the young is not be underestimated. If we look at Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal Development (ZPDs) we see that the role of more experienced, older persons within a society is crucial to a child’s development, and if the development occurs within the zones of proximal development, then how that gap is used is vital as far as children are concerned. It is a space best used to scaffold children’s attempts to learn. Adults who will work that gap with the young—reading to them, explaining points to them, answering their questions—enabling them to bridge the gaps that emerge as they continue to develop. The ZPDs provide adults with a mechanism of direct support for young people’s development—a role as a guiding rather than instructing adult to help all children to plan, to do, to reflect.


Lu Xun saw this sort of adult role as vital in eliminating that intergenerational virus of disorder. He saw the pressing need of preventing that virus from passing from the older, Confucian-based generation to the new order, and in that prevention enabling the next generation to create their own new lives. He saw only one way for this: and what we see resulting is part and parcel of judicious didacticism informed by Reconstructionism to have the young read more progressive and revolutionary literature in a socially productive environment. In his work, In memory of Liuhe Zhengjun (Xun, 2001c) he said, ‘the real fighters should dare to face the gloomy life and dare to face dripping wet blood’ (p. 434). In the speech he gave at Zhongshan University, Lu Xun (1927) also called upon youth to take the welfare and development of their own country on their own shoulders. Thus, he saw the young not in passive receipt of older adult learning, but in active engagement with their own learning.

Purpel (1989, cited in Breitborde & Swiniarski 1999, p. 127) points out, however:

We know that democratic communities do not simply happen and that their growth is certainly not inevitable. Democratic communities need constant nurturance and attention to remain dynamic and responsive. This means more than learning about; it also means learning to do; it involves not just an understanding of the structure and how it works but how it works in particular and concrete situations (p. 185).

Lu Xun’s own concern that the People’s Democratic Republic of China be just that, democratic and Chinese, meant that his work had to focus on just those features of what we may describe as a Reconstructionist approach to the teaching and learning of young people through the literature they were to engage.


Lu Xun’s work not only addresses the concerns of the common people, they connect with realities of their lives in their times. The characters that he creates have an overtly didactic purpose that serves as social praise or criticism as well a call to fight for freedom and happiness in their future lives. We can find his concern for children his writing, but what is perhaps more important is that his contributions are not only confined to the influence on the children and young adults of the revolutionary period. The influence extends to contemporary Chinese youth. A college student in Beijing University (Liqun, 1988) wrote in his paper: ‘We already regard Lu Xun as one of us and one indispensable to us. We continue to understand his bitterness as well as his delight with our spirits and hearts. He seems to understand us, because we indeed need to be understood’ (p. 83). The Chinese professor Xu Jie (1984) described Lu Xun’s works and ideas as being a cultural precious mountain (p. 183). Mao Zedong (1967), writing in his paper On New Democracy, said of him: ‘Lu Xun was the captain of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He was not only a great littérateur, he was also a great thinker and a great revolutionary’ (p. 658).

Lu Xun gave Chinese children inspiration. He gave their elders a tool to use in reconstructing a social order based on justice and peace. These are the tools of the didact, certainly, and they are also the tools of the Reconstructionist. They are more than this, however. They are spiritual foods for children’s literature. His influence still lingers.



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