Studying the Father of Modern Chinese Literature – Lu Xun’s Nahan


To examine foreign literature in the authentic language is the top purpose for a lot of foreign language pupils. Demanding awareness of a handful of 1000’s of characters for looking at Chinese literature, the obstacle is specifically immense for learners of Chinese. Lu Xun is China’s most well known writer and is routinely referred to as the “father” of modern Chinese literature. To go through Lu Xun is to knowledge dwelling in China for the duration of the drop of the Qing dynasty and the rise of the Republic of China. His people are poignant, his style is sarcastic, and his stories are unforgettable. While his stories are laced with challenging Chinese phrases, allusions to Chinese Classics, and historic references, his tales are much too significant not to read. With a minimal aid and a historic introduction, learners of Chinese can take pleasure in his tales and have the gratification of looking at one particular of the world’s finest authors in the primary language. In this post, I will be exploring my working experience with looking through Lu Xun in the first Chinese and ideally will inspire you to do the similar.

Examining the Father of Modern day Chinese Literature – Lu Xun’s Nahan

Mastering a foreign language is like mastering a different society. When you start to discover a foreign language, you open up you up to a further way of existence and a different way of contemplating. When you have certainly mastered a overseas language you have also mastered the historical past and society of that language. How quite a few folks can say they are fluent in English without the need of acquiring read some of the best English authors like Shakespeare or Mark Twain? Much too numerous idioms and cultural references arrive from literature. Without having owning cultural frames of reference when you are learning an additional language, you will come across by yourself lost on sure matters.

1 of the maximum targets when mastering another language is to be ready to browse literature. I find literature so intriguing simply because it provides insight into the community point of view. Literature in the primary language provides a raw path to comprehending the record, culture, and philosophies of a different culture.

In this short article, I will be talking about my expertise with reading through Lu Xun’s Nahan in which I acquired a extensive sum about Chinese heritage and society by the “father” of modern Chinese literature. As Julia Lovell, a translator of Lu Xun’s get the job done, claims: “to examine Lu Xun is to capture a snapshot of late imperial and early Republican China.” (Liu 2009)

Whilst Lu Xun is the pioneer who started off producing educational essays and short tales in the vernacular Chinese, his Chinese is nonetheless a little bit distinct than what you come across in novels now. And, remember that Lu Xun’s operates are really hard even for native speakers. His limited tales are connected with the historical past and politics of his time and with no an comprehension of that background Lu Xun’s wit and sarcasm are difficult to fully grasp.

In order to get over these problems let’s take a seem at a short record of written Chinese and then a glance into Chinese heritage for the duration of Lu Xun’s time.

Penned Chinese – A Short History

In Lu Xun’s essay Silent Night, he writes “there are only two paths open to us. One is to cling to our classical language and die the other is to forged that language aside and are living.” When Lu Xun says “our classical language” he is referring to literary Chinese identified in Chinese as Wenyanwen. This creating fashion had its roots in classical Chinese (guwen) that was employed in the Zhou dynasty (1045 BCE to 256 BCE) up to the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). The grammar, vocabulary and model of literary Chinese are derived from these early roots. Just after the Han dynasty, spoken Chinese ongoing to evolve especially with a escalating amount of dialects, but literary Chinese remained generally the same. The discrepancies concerning the two can be compared to that of German and Latin. Though German has Latin roots, Germans certainly simply cannot have an understanding of Latin let by itself create in Latin with no a extended education and learning in the language. Literary Chinese was fundamentally a various language with its possess vocabulary and grammar.

For an instance of literary Chinese, let us see an excerpt from the introduction to Lu Xun’s A Madman’s Diary revealed under.

“Two brothers, whose names I have to have not point out here, were being both equally very good good friends of mine in significant university but soon after a separation of several yrs we gradually lost contact. Some time ago I took place to listen to that a person of them was very seriously sick, and because I was likely back again to my aged home I broke my journey to get in touch with on them, I saw only a person, nonetheless, who instructed me that the invalid was his more youthful brother. “(Hsien-yi and Yang 1960)

Learners of Chinese will most likely locate the first Chinese incredibly tricky. Literary Chinese employs succinct phrases that would typically be 2 times as very long in spoken Chinese. The vocabulary is extra obscure and lots of Chinese have issues being familiar with it. Through my research of A Madman’s Diary, I consulted many indigenous speakers and English translations of this paragraph. A lot of occasions the meanings did not match up and often conflicted with every single other. Lu Xun observed literary Chinese these kinds of as this as a significant obstacle to universal literacy throughout China and saw its reform as a cornerstone to modernization.

His initial shorter story under the pen name Lu Xun, was A Madman’s Diary and is celebrated as the initially shorter tale to be created in vernacular Chinese. When you go through this story, apart from for the 1st two paragraphs, you come across the style to be related to that of spoken Chinese. For the most aspect the textual content is easy to comprehend and can be go through aloud.

This form of producing is termed baihuawen. The transform from literary Chinese to baihuawen can be viewed as the Catholic Church making use of the vernacular language alternatively of Latin. Traditionalists were infuriated, but now extra people could go through. With the increasing reputation of the vernacular writings, the Chinese also began using Western punctuation and Arabic numerals. Conventional Chinese literature was nearly absolutely devoid of punctuation.

So although Lu Xun’s stories may well still be tough for college students and even for native Chinese to read through, his is effective are a great deal extra available then performs pre-Lu Xun.

A Limited Heritage of Lu Xun’s China

In advance of studying Lu Xun we have to fully grasp the context of the globe he lived in. Immediately after the initially opium wars in 1839, China was forcefully opened up to the outdoors entire world and the Chinese started to grasp their dire require to modernize. Western powers ended up infringing Chinese sovereignty and even their neighbor, Japan, came to exploit China. China was divided into lots of diverse spots of influence. The Germans were being in Shandong, the Japanese ended up in Manchuria, and the British had been in Hong Kong. Big port towns this kind of as Shanghai and Tianjin experienced lots of foreign concessions.

The Qing dynasty was overthrown in February of 1912 and was followed by the Republic of China. Though Sunlight Yat-sen (Solar Zhongshan) experienced launched the Republic of China, the military services man, Yuan Shikai, shortly thereafter usurped ability and ongoing the corrupt means of the Qing Dynasty before him. He even declared himself emperor of a new dynasty in 1916 before dying afterwards that same calendar year.

On the other side of the planet, Europe was engaged in Earth War I from 1914 to 1919. The Chinese equipped 140,000 troops to the Allied powers on the affliction that Shandong which was then in German management, be returned to China. Immediately after the war, Shandong did not return to China but was alternatively ceded to Japan as mentioned in The Treaty of Versailles. China refused to indicator the treaty and mass demonstrations erupted in Beijing on May 4th, 1919 to protest the government’s inability to protected China’s passions during the peace negotiations.

The interval soon right before the dying of Yuan Shikai to 1921 is typically referred to as the May possibly Fourth Motion in commemoration of this protest or is also known as the New Cultural Motion. In the course of this time in China, Lu Xun started to create his small tales in the hope to inject the Chinese folks with a new spirit. Lu Xun writes in the preface to Nahan: “the most important factor, as a result, was to improve their [the Chinese] spirit, and because at that time I felt that literature was the very best usually means to this conclude, I established to endorse a literary movement.” (Hsien-yi and Yang 1960) Through the New Cultural Motion, Lu Xun’s producing commenced to influence Chinese thought. His mates had been editing a magazine known as The New Youth and requested Lu Xun to produce for them. His first tale, A Madman’s Diary, was posted in The New Youth in 1918 and at any time considering that Lu Xun grew to become a important voice in this motion that was looking to outline China’s upcoming.

History Driving His Stories

The viewers of Lu Xun’s tales was the population of China through these tumultuous times in Chinese background. Quite a few of his tales refer to “backward traditions” or to recent situations of the time. With out an knowledge of some of these historic references, a lot of Lu Xun’s humor can be shed and the stories shed significantly of their indicating. Nevertheless, with a historical introduction, his stories became fascinating and lend insight into Chinese thought in the course of these periods.

Let’s investigate two of Lu Xun’s much more well known brief tales, Medication and Kong Yiji.


Drugs begins off darkish and mysterious with the father heading out in the early morning with a significant chunk of silver in his pocket. The father returns dwelling with a pink mantou wrapped in paper from his lantern. He put in his household personal savings on this mantou which they heat up to give to their unwell son. Their son is coughing madly and they are hoping to give him this mantou to overcome his tuberculosis. The top secret component of this expensive item is the blood that it is stuffed with. The blood is from a younger innovative who was just executed that early morning. The revolutionary was uncovered by his have family member who pocketed a nice reward. As we know, human blood will not get rid of tuberculosis, but in accordance to some Chinese myths, human blood was the for certain heal. As this household was determined to save their only son, they took the danger and tried using to conserve their son.

Their son dies, the youthful revolutionary has been killed, and the family’s price savings are in the fingers of some shady folks. Lu Xun’s tales turn into particularly poignant since of their relation to latest gatherings in China.

The groundbreaking in the tale refers to the real anti-Qing groundbreaking, Qiu Jin (1879?-1907). Her more mature cousin, Xu Xilin, led a failed uprising from the Qing empire in July 1907 by assassinating the provincial governor of Anhui Province hoping to induce a wider insurrection. Right after Xu Xilin’s seize and execution, Qiu Jin, who was setting up a coordinated attack in Zhejiang Province, was arrested at her college, tortured, and then decapitated in her hometown, Shaoxing, a couple of days later. The father in the tale buys a mantou filled with the blood of Qiu Jin.

Lu Xun’s father also died of tuberculosis and as Lu Xun’s family was well off, they have been capable shell out a little fortune dealing with his illness. Lu Xun’s father went to a famous common Chinese health practitioner in look for of his remedy. As Lu Xun describes in the preface to Nahan about his youth:

“For additional than four decades I used to go, virtually day by day, to a pawnbroker’s and to a drugs shop… to hand apparel and trinkets up to the counter 2 times my height, get the income proffered with contempt, then go to the counter the identical height as I to get drugs for my father who had extended been unwell.” (Hsien-yi and Yang 1960)

Lu Xun in fact examined modern-day medication in Japan before turning to literature. He observed regular Chinese medication as a rip-off and employed by swindlers to extract funds from grieving family members associates. With modern emphasis on traditional Chinese medicine in the West, I obtain it ironic how anti-conventional Chinese medicine Lu Xun is.

Kong Yiji

One more personalized preferred of Lu Xun’s tales is Kong Yiji. The major character of the tale is called Kong Yiji and therefore the title. He is a scholar who never passes the imperial evaluation. Passing the imperial evaluation in China was the criterion for turning into a government formal in imperial China. Younger boys of properly off people would shell out decades understanding the Chinese classics in preparing for the exam. Given that learning the classics is of minimal sensible benefit, they would hope to go and develop into a governing administration formal. If they hardly ever handed, they have been doomed to be pretty useless or acquiring to discover a new established of techniques from scratch.

Kong Yiji is an example of a recurrent failure of the test. He is lazy and likes to drink so isn’t going to do a great deal to make a residing. He sometimes copies classics for more money, but finds it much easier to steal instead. 1 of Lu Xun’s classic strains is “using a e book are unable to be thought of stealing… it truly is taking a guide!” (Lyell 1990) This line is challenging to translate due to the fact Kong Yiji is participating in with two unique people that essentially signify “to steal”. The initial character (qie) is applied often in literature and presented Kong Yiji’s scholarly history this is the term he prefers. The 2nd character (tou) is normally applied in spoken Chinese.

An short article on entitled Kong Yiji and the Concern of Pc Piracy in contrast today’s laptop or computer customers in China who use pirated software to Kong Yiji from Lu Xun’s story. In an endeavor to stem computer software piracy, Microsoft bundled some code that would black out the display of customers with pirated software package. Just as Kong Yiji insisted he was not stealing, numerous people in China fought again and “stood up to self-righteously protect their personal actions, although they were being absolutely erroneous.” (Martinsen 2008)

Kong Yiji at some point gets a lifestyle debilitating beating for thieving by having each of his legs broken. He is lessened to dragging himself by his two palms and his livelihood of thieving is taken absent. He inevitably dies.

Searching back into Lu Xun’s childhood we again discover parallels involving his tale and his previous. The character of Kong Yiji is primarily based on a single of Lu Xun’s uncles, Zhou Ziqing, who lived in the loved ones compound in Shaoxing and taught Lu Xun the classics. Zhou Ziqing used yrs studying for the civil provider test, however continuously failed. He was anything of a nuisance in the household compound and did not add a great deal other than to instruct children the classics.

Lu Xun’s uncle and Kong Yiji spotlight one of the flaws in the civil service examination in feudal China. Though the system well prepared individuals pretty nicely in the classics, it also developed numerous individuals who under no circumstances passed the tests, but yet experienced expended decades in preparing. Immediately after their failure, they lacked any other expertise to help by themselves and their people. Lu Xun’s uncle at some point committed suicide by lighting himself on hearth and leaping off a bridge into the water underneath. He died a couple of days afterwards.

Coincidentally, The us and Europe ended up to start with introduced to the civil services assessment in the mid 1700s by China. The civil assistance exams, these kinds of as the International Service Test, have their roots dependent on this Chinese process. The good thing is for present day candidates having said that, these existing tests do not dwell on obscure passages of the Chinese classics.


Lu Xun has been branded as the Charles Dickens of China as he was pivotal in shaping Chinese thought throughout a essential time in Chinese history. For learners of Chinese, I propose getting the challenge to go through his works. The really hard do the job you set in will be paid for in an appreciation of one of the world’s best authors.


“Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun’s entire fiction: “His is an indignant, searing vision of China”” by Alice Xin Liu, November 11, 2009

“Picked Stories of Lu Hsun” By Lu Hsun, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, Foreign Languages Push, Peking, 1960, 1972.

“Diary of a Madman and Other Tales” by Lu Xun, translated by William A. Lyell, College of Hawaii Press, 1990