Lu Xun (鲁迅), one of the pioneers of "common speech" (白话) as an acceptable writing style and the author of the first major Chinese short story ('Western-style') written in 白话, is far and away the most famous modern Chinese author. Every Chinese student has been introduced to the man at least once (I'm up to thrice so far) and read at least one of his essays or short stories (I'm probably up to around ten, 3 or 4 of them in Chinese). [He's also the first link that comes up in the autocomplete listing when I start typing "en.wik..." in Firefox's address bar; I guess we're buds.] He wrote from 1910s into the 1930s, a time of massive change in China, and was both a pioneering writer and a leading thinker; he also made the first translations of some pretty important Western books. Mao Zedong（毛泽东) was a huge fan, and because of that Lu Xun was the only major author of his time to escape criticism during the Cultural Revolution. His works are included in every Chinese child's literature curriculum at some point or several during his or her education.
One interesting fact that I learned about Lu Xun in Introduction #2 (thanks again, HBA) is that he studied abroad in Japan with the original intent to study medicine. Then one day in class, or so the story goes, a professor put on a slide of the Japanese executing an accused Chinese spy (this was just after the Russo-Japanese War). Lu Xun was moved not by the man about to die, but rather by the impotence and even complicity of the surrounding group of Chinese onlookers, who were just standing about watching the show. It was that slide that made him decide that China's spiritual ills were more in need of curing than its physical ills, and as he felt that the best way for him to do that was to become a writer, he dropped out to do so.
Lu Xun certainly had plenty of influence on China, and I can't imagine anyone Chinese calling him unsuccessful. And yet, I think that the "spiritual illness" he saw in the slide still exists here; even after all of the ink he spilled throughout his career, that slide might as well be a photo taken yesterday.
Take the incident of the boy run over thrice by a car. The linked video is somewhat disturbing, but I'm with Lu Xun on this one: the most chilling part is not the death, but rather the people who clearly see what happened and then either stand about doing absolutely nothing or go about their daily lives. A few even seem to rush quickly by when they notice that something has happened, not wanting anything to interrupt their daily routine. Nobody takes out a cell phone, which many of them probably own.
More frightening, and clear, is the story of the June attack on an investigative science journalist in Beijing, about a mile south from where I live. In his interview with Evan Osnos (a New Yorker reporter of whom I've become a big fan in recent days), he described the attack in detail; there's a lot about metal pipes and how he got away, but these words stand out to me:
"When I was being attacked, there were many people watching, but the attackers didn’t have to care because, perhaps according to their experience, no one would stand up and help. No one would even dare to call the police. Based on all of this evidence, the two attackers were probably experienced professionals. Their intention was to kill me on the spot, or leave me bleed to death by preventing me from getting to the hospital."
In China, I tend not to be afraid of situations that might put me on edge in America, and lately I have been thinking that a major reason for that is probably this gut feeling that the Chinese, as a race, are astonishingly... meek. That's a questionably sweeping generalization, or it might even be criticized for not being general enough, but it's one to which I will hold for the time being.
Maybe I've become too tied up in China and the Chinese: after watching that video and reading that report, I felt ashamed, melancholy, and most of all furious. It all felt very personal. Then again, maybe that has nothing to do with China and is just my reaction as a human being.
And then, there is always the other side. The chauffeur who ran the boy over ran off to make the emergency call; the science investigator, standing in the middle of the street covered in blood, was taken to the hospital by a passing taxi driver. And there are even the everyday people become heroes - like the soldier who sacrificed his own life to save two others in the midst of an oil spill, or the bicycle-throwing man who stopped thieves from getting away with a stolen purse.
And yet I can't help but imagine the despair and utter sense of failure that Lu Xun would feel if, 100 years later, he jumped online to see what was being talked about in the Chinese blogosphere.