Xu Guangping was born in Panyu Country, in Guangdong Province in 1898 to a wealthy landlord family. Her father was a sympathetic man who supported her attending schools and her refusal to have her feet bound. Shortly after she was born, in a drunken stupor, he agreed to marry her to the son of a rather undesirable family. He regretted his promise, but would not renege. In 1917, when Xu was 19, her father died. When the betrothed's family raised the marriage issue, Xu violently opposed it. With the help of he older brother, she managed to get out of the arranged married. She studied primary school in Guangzhou, but in 1917, to escape the unwanted marriage, went to Tianjin to study at the Zhili No.1 Women's Normal School (later known as Tianjin Women's Normal). Xu was active at the school during the May Fourth movement and helped edit a journal called Xingshi zhoukan (Awakening the world weekly), which was affiliated with a patriotic women's group she had joined. She graduated in 1922.
That same year, Xu passed the entrance examine for Beijing Women's Normal College. Xu fell in love with a Beijing University student, Li Xiaohui, a fellow Cantonese. Li Xiaohui died of scarlet fever (Xu herself and also been very sick) in Feb. 1924. Distraught, she attempted suicide.
Lu Xun had started teaching at Beijing Women's Normal in October of 1923. Xu was a student in Lu's Chinese fiction class, where she would sit in the front row.
Beginnings of relationship
Xu was actively involved in the anti-Yang Yingyu protests. Her first letter to Lu Xun (3/11/1925) sought to enlist his support in their cause: "But as you look up and inhale the intoxicating smoke from your tobacco, can you spare a thought for those scrambling to find a way out of this nest of scorpions."
Lu responds (3/11/25) in a letter addressing her as Guangping Brother (Guangping xiong); his response is not the fiery call to arms she perhaps wanted: "Secondly, when it comes to waging war on society, I do not stand up to be counted myself, and this is why I do not exhort others to sacrifice themselves." Instead, he proposes a kind of trench warfare (like that of the European war): "In China, where ambush is frequent and heroes who stand up are apt to lose their lives, this kind of warfare is also essential. But I'm afraid that there will be times when close combat cannot be avoided and at such times there is no solution but to engage in hand-to-hand fighting."
The letters get increasingly frank and personal. On April 12, 1925, she pays her first visit to Lu Xun's home. In August, when the authorities expelled the students, Xu Guangping and Xu Xianshu (female student from Shaoxing, younger sister of the writer Xu Qinwen; she had been living with Lu Xun's family and may also have had an amorous interest in Lu) sought asylum in Lu's house. Xu often warns Lu not to drink too much and to take care of his health.
Between Dec. 1925 and Feb. 1926, Xu wrote and published 3 pieces that seem to reveal the extent of her affection for Lu Xun. One, "Fengzi is My Love", a prose poem that reads in part: "Even though Fengzi has his greatness, has his position, since he has stooped to clasp my humble self ardently by the hand, then what matter if I overreach myself! What matter if we are not equal! What matter if we are alike or not alike! What matter if it is legal or illegal! That is all irrelevant to us, neither here nor there. The main thing is, Fengzi my love . .. Ah Fengzi" (see Xu Guangping wenji [Nanjing: Jiangsu wenyi, 1998], vol. 1: 104-05).
After March 18th massacre, they decide to separate. Lu Xun went to Xiamen (to take up a full-time teaching post at Xiamen University) and she to Guangzhou (to teach at her girl's school). Because of conflicts with colleagues and the school administration, Lu Xun came to regret the decision to teach in Xiamen. He ends his stay there after only six months. In her reading of the letters exchanged between the two during this period, McDougall shows us a Lu Xun very hesitant about leaving Xiamen and committing himself to Guangping (see McDougall 2002: 45-54), quite contrary to the conventional image of Lu Xun resolutely embracing a new militant life. Lu Xun may still at this time been wary of exposing his "scandalous" relationship to public scrutiny, though by this time the rumour mill had long been churning out stories of their relationship.
The two live together for the first time, but with Xu Shoushang and, according to Pollard, in separate rooms. Xu becomes Lu Xun's personal assistant, transcribing writings, translating speeches into Cantonese, etc. In fall of 1927, following the Nationalist violent coup against the Communists, Lu Xun and Xu moved to the relative safety of Shanghai.
Now moved to Shanghai, they begin sharing a room on Oct. 8, 1927. In a letter (3/22/29) to Wei Suyuan, Lu Xun wrote the following of his relationship to Xu: "There was a lot of gossip in Peking and Shanghai about me taking Miss Xu to live with me in Amoy. That made me very angry, but I never dared [make advances] because I was aware of all kinds of faults that I feared would demean the other person. But when I did fall in love, did get up courage, then I didn't care about anything. Afterwards, I went to Guangzhou, and explained myself to Miss Xu, and invited her to live in the same house, but naturally there were other people there too. When I moved to Shanghai the year before last I urged her to come with me. She is now living in Shanghai, helping me to do work like editing. You see how it is: the people who were so busy spreading rumours are all in Shanghai now, but oddly enough they stay dumb." (Pollard 2002: 121-22; LXQJ: 11: 660).
They take a "honeymoon" to Hangzhou from July 12-17, 1928, invited there by Xu Qinwen. Lu Xun insisted that Xu share a room with them. Only when Xu got pregnant visibly in 1929 did they make their relationship known to his family. She gave birth to their only offspring, Haiying (literally "Shanghai infant"), on Sept. 27, 1929. With the birth of Haiying, Xu's role shifted to that of mother. Haiying, a sickly child, demanded much of her attention. He was both a burden and a joy to LX.
Xu abandoned any literary ambitions she might have had for herself (she had written essays in Beijing and some in Guangzhou) and became, essentially, LX's personal secretary. She was on the verge of launching her own magazine called 'Geming de funv' (Revolutionary women), but LX complained that this would mean he would have to "fend for himself". Their only diversion was films, including Charlie Chan and Laurel and Hardy. LX would lie down next to her and tell her what had happened that day, or teach her Japanese from a Marxist Reader.
They published Liangdi shu (Letters between two places) in 1933, an act that Zhou Zuoren called "irrational." The probably decided to do so as a way of publicly recognizing Xu's place in his life and affirming her true status as partner and soul mate. McDougall's study (2002) demonstrates how some of the emotional excesses were removed in the published version.
After Lu Xun's death in 1936, Xu focussed her energies primarily on the Lu Xun legacy. She did this out of a sincere respect and admiration for "the soul of China," but also out of financial necessity. Among other things, Xu was closely involved in the publication of the first Chinese edition of the complete works of LX (1938) and many other publishing ventures associated with Lu Xun and his writings. She used royalties from Lu Xun's writings to support herself and Haiying, as well as to help Zhou Zuoren support Lu Xun's mother and his "wife," Zhu An. In 1941, Xu was arrested by the Japanese, imprisoned for nearly two years, and tortured. After 1949, in addition to continuing to develop the legacy of Lu Xun, Xu was also invovled in the Chinese women's movement. She died of a heart attack in 1968.