He's chief editor of the largest English Chinese Dictionary (ECD), arguably the most renowned professor of English in China and an expert on Shakespearean studies at the country's leading university of Fudan, but Lu Gusun has never identified with the so-called "elite" and calls himself "grassroots".
He made "Grassroots Lu" a Web ID on the ECD BBS on the publisher's website www.yiwen.com.cn
and discussed English usage and the dictionary with netizens.
Actually, the BBS was founded upon his request, aimed at receiving complaints about the ECD's second edition, which was published in this April. "We'll be punchbags when the dictionary comes out," Lu used to tell the editors.
Now, Lu uses his real name on the web, and invites all to find mistakes and printing errors, and gladly accepts feedback.
"Don't be annoyed by criticism," he told Zhang Ying, an editor with the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, which published the dictionary. "Like little grass, we grow inch by inch, learning about our mistakes and correcting them."
His grand vision is to make ECD an interactive online dictionary where all users can contribute their findings.
The 67-year-old professor lives alone in a ground-floor apartment near Fudan University. Ever since he graduated from Fudan in 1965, he never left. Now, he still gives four classes every week, instructing freshmen classes as well as post-graduate students, and also supervises two doctorial students on lexicography.
"I have enjoyed teaching and have been popular with students, probably because I am quite open to criticism," Lu says. "If someone points out my mistake, I'd correct it in the next class."
This approach has won him a large group of fans, online and offline. "Netizens made a rule that, after 10 pm, no matter what Professor Lu says on the Web, they will not post any replies, so that he can have enough sleep," Zhang, the editor, says.
An editor of the Oxford Dictionary of English used to say that Lu was "the only dictionary maker made by a revolution".
In 1970, the "cultural revolutionaries" decided he was not qualified to teach students recruited among farmers, workers and soldiers, so they sent him to make an English-Chinese dictionary.
The authorities of the time wanted a "revolutionary" dictionary, rejecting such sentences as "We need a Lincoln". Lu and his colleagues were assigned 20 pages each, finding such "improper" usages and changing them into acceptable phrases of about the same length, such as "we need a Lei Feng".
But Lu managed to "smuggle" words into the dictionary, such as some "four-letter words", Yiddish expressions and up-to-date words about the Watergate scandal. "We saved the book in a devious way so that it sold 10 million copies, and was viable for many years," he says.
Nowadays, when writing the ECD's definitions for historical figures and places, Lu insists on not passing judgment. "Just say who did what, otherwise, it won't sell in two years' time," he says.
Lu is also working on a Chinese-English dictionary.
Lu was born in Shanghai in 1940. His father Lu Dacheng worked in a foreign trade company alongside Tung Chao-Yung, later known as a shipping magnate and father of the former Hong Kong SAR chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.
When Japanese invaders bombed Shanghai between 1942 and 1943, Lu's father decided to move his family to his hometown in Yuyao, Zhejiang Province, where Lu spent most of his childhood, until moving back to Shanghai in 1950.
He enjoyed the serene country life, watching leaves floating on the river and used to imagine he was D'Artagnan, Aramis and Porthos from Three Musketeers, which his father read him.
Lu's mother died when he was only 8. His father has remained his most important role model. "He was never much attached to material things, never liked the luxurious life or the colonial culture of Hong Kong," Lu recalls.
When Tung invited him to move to Hong Kong and take care of his business there, Lu Dacheng declined.
In 1981, when Lu Gusun made his first visit to the United States, he gave a lecture in Georgetown University in Washington, and Tung came to meet the old friend's son.
It was a time when Chinese lived on little, and Tung asked what he could get for him. Lu asked for nothing but an old essay his father wrote about the history of China's shipping industry.
"Tung said that 'Dacheng's family tradition has remained the same'. This made me quite proud," Lu recalls.
Although Lu doesn't criticize the material pursuits of the younger generations of scholars, he never agrees with them. "Why would I want a larger apartment? I have an apartment to live in, and that's good enough."
Actually, in the early 1980s, he did most of the editing work for ECD on the dining table of a 38-square-meter apartment.
"I made a promise to my father that when I finished my graduate studies I would start learning French from him," Lu says. Unfortunately, his father died in the year of his graduation.
Many who taught at Fudan University in the 1950s also had an important influence on Lu - not only academically, but also morally. Lu recalls how his favorite professor Lin Tongji stayed in China after 1949, when most of his family migrated to the United States.
In 1986, when Lin was about to go abroad for an international conference, the national leader Hu Yaobang met with him and asked him whether he would come back to China. Lin replied that, of course he would come back, because China was still poor, and the people needed to be enlightened.
"I was greatly moved by Chinese contemporary writer Yang Jiang's words that 'we are the unyielding Chinese'," Lu says. "Such simple complex for the motherland. They hate to speak about patriotism, but we are the unyielding Chinese. We can't leave the Chinese culture behind."
Lu's wife and daughter have moved to the United States and become citizens, but Lu doesn't want to have a green card. He'd rather wait in line at the American consulate to get his visa when he visits his family.
(China Daily September 6, 2007)