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Sunday in the Park with Lu Xun

One of Shanghai's public spaces honors the first literary voice of modern China

Kennedy By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive
Boating in Shanghai
Boating in Shanghai: A family pastime on the lake in Shanghai's Lu Xun Park  

SHANGHAI (CNN) -- Northern California is known for its redwoods. Northeastern U.S. cities are filled with dust-loving ginkos. The South has magnolias, and evidently Shanghai favors a maple-like tree known as the "wu tong."

The trees were thick with foliage and provided lots of shade as my taxi drove around the residential districts north of Suzhou Creek toward Lu Xun Park. The maple-like trees were everywhere. In some places they seemed to be part of the buildings. The trees held everything from clothes lines to advertising banners and lights.


A day in Lu Xun Park

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I arrived at Lu Xun Park, paid the token admission and found myself in a truly lovely public space. It not only houses the Lu Xun residence and Memorial Hall, but also a modern football stadium and tea garden.

After buying a chocolate soy milk drink from a vendor, I strolled around the tree-canopied lanes. Residents were enjoying a warm Sunday afternoon. It could have been almost any urban park in the world.

Families ran after their toddlers. Others negotiated rented boats in the lake. Couples cuddled on relatively secluded benches. Groups of older men played board games on tables supplied by the park.

Game players: Preparing for a new game of Weiqi (or Go) in Lu Xun Park  

There were, of course, uniquely Chinese touches. The game most of the men were playing was an ancient one called Weiqi, which the world knows as Go.

Playing my song?

On a rock near the tea house a man sat alone masterfully playing a pipa -- a stringed instrument that sounds in tone like a cross between a lute and a banjo. His delicate music soon began to vie with the sounds of a nearby chorus.

I walked over a small stream to an open area where several men in a group were singing from music books. The songs were mostly in a minor key, and to me did not sound at all Chinese.

Pipa player
Musical interlude: A pipa player entertains passersby  

When they finished one particularly mournful dirge, I asked them about their selections.

"It's the old songs," said one man with great enthusiasm, "Soviet songs!"

Another singer pointed to me. "You're Russian, right?"

I had to laugh. "Nyet, tovarishe," I said. No, comrade.

"Karasho!," he replied. Good!

"Spasiba. Thanks but no," I said, having used all my Russian. "I'm American."

"Oh, American." There was a pause.

"We know some American songs," said the enthusiastic one. "Do you know 'Mei Gwo Mei Li'?"

The old songs: A group of singers belts out old Soviet tunes  

It took me a moment to translate the song title in my head. "Sure, I know it," I said. And then I sang the first verse:

"Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain ..."

"Dwei! Right! We know that one as well!"

I thanked the singers for their time and then headed to Lu Xun Memorial Hall.

Literary voice of the revolution

A moment about Lu Xun (pronounced "Loo Shun"), the pen name of Chou Shujian. It is a sin that so few outside of China are familiar with his work. In his 45 years of life he became one of the true voices of modern China -- an eloquent, angry and despairing voice.

Born in 1881, during the final years of the Qing dynasty, Lu left China as a young man for provincial Japan to study medicine. While in Japan a chance viewing of a newsreel from the Russo-Japanese War apparently changed his life.

Statue of Lu Xun
Lu Xun (1881-1936): The pen name of Chou Shujian, Lu Xun would later become China's best-known modern author  

The movie showed a Chinese man in Japanese-occupied territory, his hands bound and standing before a crowd of his countrymen apathetic to his plight. The man was accused by the Japanese military of spying for the Russians and was about to be decapitated.

In the preface to his first collection of short stories, "A Call to Arms," Lu Xun recalled the effect the film had on him:

"Before the term was over I had left for Tokyo, because after this film I felt that medical science was not so important after all. The people of a weak and backward country, however strong and healthy they may be, can only serve to be made examples of, or to witness such futile spectacles; and it doesn't really matter how many of them die of illness. The most important thing, therefore, was to change their spirit, and since at that time I felt that literature was the best means to this end, I determined to promote a literary movement."

September 20, 1999

  • China's new spirituality
  • Returning to a Beijing transformed
  • September 21, 1999

  • A visit to the Ming Tombs
  • September 22, 1999

  • Tiananmen Square preps up for the big day
  • September 23, 1999

  • Is China's health care system heading for a crisis?
  • September 24, 1999

  • A virtual tour of China's Aviation Museum
  • A contemplation of the so-called Americanization of China
  • September 27, 1999

  • Surfing in Beijing
  • September 28, 1999

  • Railway journeys: On the Red-Eye to Shanghai
  • September 29, 1999

  • Sunday in the Park with Lu Xun
  • September 30, 1999

  • A visit to the Jade Buddha Temple
  • October 1, 1999

  • Watching China's celebrations...from the sidelines
  • October 4, 1999

  • Window-Shopping on Nanjing Donglu
  • October 5, 1999

  • Royal Real Estate
  • Lu Xun became the point man for the new Chinese literary movement. He wrote in a modern style and used his prose and short stories to blast traditional Confucian values. One of his most famous works is "The True Story of Ah Q," about a peasant who sees a string of defeats in his life, up to and including his own execution, as a kind of victory. The most moving of his stories, to me, is one simply called "Medicine" -- about a father who buys a piece of bread soaked in the blood of an executed man in a futile attempt to cure his son of tuberculosis. (Click here to read the story.)

    Lu Xun is not an easy read. I used to need a long walk after a session of his stories. But he should not be ignored. He certainly was not by the Chinese. He was lionized by young intellectuals and threatened by the Nationalist government.

    In 1926 Lu Xun was forced to flee to Shanghai, where he spent the last 10 years of his life living in the relative protection of the International Settlement.

    Although Lu Xun never became a Communist, he did sympathize with the party in his final years. In the Lu Xun Memorial Hall is a photograph of Mao Tse-tung writing in a cave in Yan'an in northwestern China where the Communists rested and regrouped after the Long March. On Mao's desk is a copy of "The Complete Works of Lu Xun."

    Inside Memorial Hall in Lu Xun Park

    The Memorial Hall itself is impressive. It features an airy entrance hall attached to a sunny and cloister-like atrium. There is also a very high-tech, audio-visual presentation of Lu Xun's life and works. I was startled when I turned a corner to come face-to-face with a life-like wax study of Lu Xun meeting with some of his young proteges. As you leave, a collection of the author's books -- translated into scores of languages -- lines a long corridor leading back to the main staircase.

    I have to think that Lu Xun would like the park named in his honor and to see so many Shanghai residents out enjoying themselves, seemingly optimistic about their futures. I wonder if somewhere in this crowd is the next Lu Xun, the voice for his or her generation, just now starting to think about China and its future.

    Bruce Kennedy was a Chinese history major at Bowdoin College in Maine. He worked for Visnews, the international television news agency, for five years before joining CNN in 1988. After a stint at CNN International, he began work at CNN Interactive. Kennedy has extensive experience in East Asian affairs, having studied and worked in the region.

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