Lu Xun’s Buddhological Library

Lei Ying, Graduate Student Associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and Ph.D. Candidate in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, examines the influence of Buddhist texts on Chinese canonical writer Lu Xun.

Lu Xun, Image: SCMP

Between 1912 and 1917, when he led a solitary life in the Shaoxing guild hall in Peking, one of Lu Xun’s (1881–1936) major endeavors was collecting and reading Buddhist texts. In his own words, this was in the spirit of “returning to ancient times.”

To be exact, Lu Xun had yet to become “Lu Xun,” the nom de plume awaiting its debut in 1918 upon the publication of his short story, A Madman’s Diary, the first masterpiece of modern Chinese literature written in the vernacular. Lu Xun, then a section chief at the Ministry of Education during the day, turned into a voracious reader of Buddhist texts at night, often under a pagoda tree, allegedly one from which a woman had hanged herself.

In 1914 notably, as his diary shows, Lu Xun purchased more than ninety Buddhist works totaling around two hundred and fifty volumes. It was an eclectic collection, encompassing foundational works such as the Āgama-sūtras (Scriptures taught by Śākyamuni), the Avataṃsaka-sūtra (Flower Adornment Sūtra), the Madhyamaka-śāstra (Treatise on the Middle Way), and the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra (Discourse on the Stages of Concentration Practice); historical works such as biographies of eminent monks and virtuous women; and popular works such as Longshu jingtu wen (Pure Land Texts, Compiled by a Native of Longshu) and Fojiao chuxue keben (Textbook of Buddhism for Beginners).

Dasheng qixin lun 大乘起信論 (Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna), 6th-century edition, published in 1898 by the Jinling Scriptural Press. In July 1914, Lu Xun purchased different editions of this text and sent some of them to his brother, Zhou Zuoren.

It was during this time that Lu Xun came to discover the philosophical profundity of Buddhism for himself, having admired the tradition since his student days in Japan. As he told his close friend Xu Shoushang (1883–1948) in the mid-1910s:

Śākyamuni was a great philosopher indeed. I usually have numerous unresolvable questions about life. It turns out that he has clearly instructed on most of them a long time ago. A great philosopher indeed!

Lu Xun echoes his mentor, Zhang Taiyan (1869–1936), an erudite philologist and anti-Manchu radical who pored over the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra, a seminal Yogācāra text, during his three-year imprisonment for sedition. Immediately upon his release and exile to Japan in 1906, Zhang extolled the efficacy of the teachings of the Yogācāra and Huayan schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism for fueling a sacrificial passion for China’s revolution.

Zhang Taiyan, philologist and mentor to Lu Xun. Image: Ohio State University

Zhang Taiyan was not alone in deriving inspirations from Buddhist metaphysics in forging a new reformist/revolutionary ideology for a disintegrating China at the turn of the twentieth century. Many progressive intellectuals in the late Qing, such as Kang Youwei (1858–1927), Tan Sitong (1865–1898), and Liang Qichao (1873–1929), took an ardent interest in Buddhism. In Liang’s observation,

“There was an undercurrent in late Qing thought: Buddhism. … Among the so-called followers of the New Learning in the late Qing, there was none who was not acquainted with Buddhism, whereas those who had true faith mostly took refuge in Wenhui.”

Yang Wenhui (1837–1911), an influential lay Buddhist and founder of the Jinling Scriptural Press, is now celebrated as the father of modern Chinese Buddhism.

Photograph of Yang Wenhui

If one wonders how it turned out that a faith tradition predicated on the tenets of impermanence, emptiness, and detachment could have become a fountainhead of revolutionary zeal, here is a quick answer. In the Mahāyāna soteriological vision, only one who attains the ultimate realization of emptiness and hence transcends the duality of life and death, self and other, is capable of generating an indefatigable compassion and courage to save the world. Such a being is called a “bodhisattva.” As Sun Baoxuan (1874–1924), a cultured man and Liang Qichao’s friend, eloquently argued,

“If one is truly able to study Buddhism, … one will shoulder generously all matters that benefit the community. Moreover, one is able to overcome the hurdle of life and death, as exemplified by Tan [Sitong of] Liuyang. Who can say that Buddhism is all emptiness?”

Tan, a disciple of Yang Wenhui, refused to flee the capital and embraced his martyrdom with aplomb when the short-lived “Hundred Days’ Reform” ended in bloodshed in autumn 1898.

Lu Xun, a relative latecomer to the scene of late Qing Buddhist revival, approached the Buddhist tradition from a rather different perspective. Sources show that he kept abreast with some latest debates among professional Buddhologists; yet his interest was scarcely in Buddhist scholasticism. It was the phantasmagoric world of Chinese folk religion, where one’s karma brings one face to face with deceased kin and netherworld bureaucracy, that has caught Lu Xun’s abiding fancy. The “ancient times” Lu Xun sought to return to appears a spectral past emanating an irresistible, carnivaleque “power of darkness,” in T. A. Hsia’s terms.

A contemporary statue of Lu Xun in Shanghai International University

For a paradigmatic example, in his 1924 short story, New Year Sacrifice, Xianglin’s Wife, a deprived woman from the lowest social stratum who is about to die, shocks and unsettles the narrator, an intellectual from the city, by asking the following three questions:

“Is there really a soul after one dies?”
“Is there hell as well?”
“Will all members of a family meet after death?”

These questions strike a blind spot in the massive political and sociocultural changes that were sweeping over China during Lu Xun’s time. Besides wealth and power, what should a modernizing China look for in terms of a metaphysical and ethical foundation? After all, one can’t wish certain questions of human existence away simply by dubbing them “superstition.”

When the mainland scholar Wang Hui visited Harvard this spring, we met and discussed, among other things, Lu Xun. “Xianglin’s Wife’s questions are exactly the questions set for the modern Chinese revolution,” Wang remarked.

These questions posed by Xianglin’s wife remain with us today.


Lei Ying is a Ph.D. Candidate in Harvard’s Department of East Asia Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, and a Graduate Student Associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.