May 20, 2024


Entertain Reaching Stars

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

11 min read


To read foreign literature in the original language is the ultimate goal for many foreign language students. Requiring knowledge of a few thousands of characters for reading Chinese literature, the challenge is particularly immense for students of Chinese. Lu Xun is China’s most famous author and is frequently referred to as the “father” of modern Chinese literature. To read Lu Xun is to experience living in China during the decline of the Qing dynasty and the rise of the Republic of China. His characters are poignant, his style is sarcastic, and his stories are unforgettable. While his stories are laced with difficult Chinese phrases, allusions to Chinese Classics, and historical references, his stories are too important not to read. With a little help and a historical introduction, students of Chinese can enjoy his stories and have the satisfaction of reading one of the world’s greatest authors in the original language. In this article, I will be exploring my experience with reading Lu Xun in the original Chinese and hopefully will inspire you to do the same.

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

Mastering a foreign language is like mastering another culture. When you begin to learn a foreign language, you open yourself up to another way of life and another way of thinking. When you have truly mastered a foreign language you have also mastered the history and culture of that language. How many people can say they are fluent in English without having read some of the best English authors like Shakespeare or Mark Twain? Too many idioms and cultural references come from literature. Without having cultural frames of reference when you are learning another language, you will find yourself lost on certain topics.

One of the highest goals when learning another language is to be able to read literature. I find literature so fascinating because it gives insight into the local perspective. Literature in the original language gives a raw path to understanding the history, culture, and philosophies of another culture.

In this article, I will be discussing my experience with reading Lu Xun’s Nahan in which I learned a vast amount about Chinese history and culture through the “father” of modern Chinese literature. As Julia Lovell, a translator of Lu Xun’s work, says: “to read Lu Xun is to capture a snapshot of late imperial and early Republican China.” (Liu 2009)

While Lu Xun is the pioneer who started writing academic essays and short stories in the vernacular Chinese, his Chinese is still a bit different than what you find in novels today. And, remember that Lu Xun’s works are hard even for native speakers. His short stories are linked with the history and politics of his time and without an understanding of that history Lu Xun’s wit and sarcasm are hard to understand.

In order to overcome these issues let’s take a look at a short history of written Chinese and then a look into Chinese history during Lu Xun’s time.

Written 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 cast that language aside and live.” When Lu Xun says “our classical language” he is referring to literary Chinese known in Chinese as Wenyanwen. This writing style had its roots in classical Chinese (guwen) that was used in the Zhou dynasty (1045 BCE to 256 BCE) up to the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). The grammar, vocabulary and style of literary Chinese are derived from these early roots. After the Han dynasty, spoken Chinese continued to evolve especially with a growing number of dialects, but literary Chinese remained mostly the same. The differences between the two can be compared to that of German and Latin. While German has Latin roots, Germans certainly cannot understand Latin let alone write in Latin without a long education in the language. Literary Chinese was basically a different language with its own vocabulary and grammar.

For an example of literary Chinese, let’s see an excerpt from the introduction to Lu Xun’s A Madman’s Diary shown below.

“Two brothers, whose names I need not mention here, were both good friends of mine in high school; but after a separation of many years we gradually lost touch. Some time ago I happened to hear that one of them was seriously ill, and since I was going back to my old home I broke my journey to call on them, I saw only one, however, who told me that the invalid was his younger brother. “(Hsien-yi and Yang 1960)

Students of Chinese will probably find the original Chinese extremely difficult. Literary Chinese uses succinct phrases that would typically be twice as long in spoken Chinese. The vocabulary is more obscure and many Chinese have difficulty understanding it. During my studies of A Madman’s Diary, I consulted numerous native speakers and English translations of this paragraph. Many times the meanings did not match up and sometimes conflicted with each other. Lu Xun saw literary Chinese such as this as a major obstacle to universal literacy throughout China and saw its reform as a cornerstone to modernization.

His first short story under the pen name Lu Xun, was A Madman’s Diary and is celebrated as the first short story to be written in vernacular Chinese. When you read this story, except for the first two paragraphs, you find the style to be similar to that of spoken Chinese. For the most part the text is easy to understand and can be read aloud.

This form of writing is called baihuawen. The change from literary Chinese to baihuawen can be viewed as the Catholic Church using the vernacular language instead of Latin. Traditionalists were infuriated, but now more people could read. With the growing popularity of the vernacular writings, the Chinese also began using Western punctuation and Arabic numerals. Traditional Chinese literature was almost completely devoid of punctuation.

So while Lu Xun’s stories might still be hard for students and even for native Chinese to read, his works are much more accessible then works pre-Lu Xun.

A Short History of Lu Xun’s China

Before reading Lu Xun we have to understand the context of the world he lived in. After the first opium wars in 1839, China was forcefully opened up to the outside world and the Chinese began to grasp their dire need to modernize. Western powers were infringing Chinese sovereignty and even their neighbor, Japan, came to exploit China. China was divided into many different areas of influence. The Germans were in Shandong, the Japanese were in Manchuria, and the British were in Hong Kong. Major port cities such as Shanghai and Tianjin had many foreign concessions.

The Qing dynasty was overthrown in February of 1912 and was followed by the Republic of China. While Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan) had founded the Republic of China, the military man, Yuan Shikai, shortly thereafter usurped power and continued the corrupt ways of the Qing Dynasty before him. He even declared himself emperor of a new dynasty in 1916 before dying later that same year.

On the other side of the world, Europe was engaged in World War I from 1914 to 1919. The Chinese supplied 140,000 troops to the Allied powers on the condition that Shandong which was then in German control, be returned to China. After the war, Shandong did not return to China but was instead ceded to Japan as stated in The Treaty of Versailles. China refused to sign the treaty and mass demonstrations erupted in Beijing on May 4th, 1919 to protest the government’s inability to secure China’s interests during the peace negotiations.

The period shortly before the death of Yuan Shikai to 1921 is generally referred to as the May Fourth Movement in commemoration of this protest or is also known as the New Cultural Movement. During this time in China, Lu Xun began to write his short stories in the hope to inject the Chinese people with a new spirit. Lu Xun writes in the preface to Nahan: “the most important thing, therefore, was to change their [the Chinese] spirit, and since at that time I felt that literature was the best means to this end, I determined to promote a literary movement.” (Hsien-yi and Yang 1960) During the New Cultural Movement, Lu Xun’s writing began to influence Chinese thought. His friends were editing a magazine called The New Youth and asked Lu Xun to write for them. His first story, A Madman’s Diary, was published in The New Youth in 1918 and ever since Lu Xun became a major voice in this movement that was looking to define China’s future.

History Behind His Stories

The audience of Lu Xun’s stories was the population of China during these tumultuous times in Chinese history. Many of his stories refer to “backward traditions” or to current events of the time. Without an understanding of some of these historical references, much of Lu Xun’s humor can be lost and the stories lose much of their meaning. However, with a historical introduction, his stories became fascinating and lend insight into Chinese thought during those times.

Let’s explore two of Lu Xun’s more famous short stories, Medicine and Kong Yiji.


Medicine starts off dark and mysterious with the father heading out in the early morning with a big chunk of silver in his pocket. The father returns home with a red mantou wrapped in paper from his lantern. He spent his family savings on this mantou which they heat up to give to their sick son. Their son is coughing madly and they are hoping to give him this mantou to cure his tuberculosis. The secret ingredient of this expensive object is the blood that it is stuffed with. The blood is from a young revolutionary who was just executed that morning. The revolutionary was exposed by his own family member who pocketed a nice reward. As we know, human blood will not cure tuberculosis, but according to some Chinese myths, human blood was the for sure cure. As this family was desperate to save their only son, they took the risk and tried to save their son.

Their son dies, the young revolutionary has been killed, and the family’s savings are in the hands of some shady people. Lu Xun’s stories become especially poignant because of their relation to current events in China.

The revolutionary in the story refers to the real anti-Qing revolutionary, Qiu Jin (1879?-1907). Her older cousin, Xu Xilin, led a failed uprising against the Qing empire in July 1907 by assassinating the provincial governor of Anhui Province hoping to trigger a wider rebellion. After Xu Xilin’s capture and execution, Qiu Jin, who was planning a coordinated attack in Zhejiang Province, was arrested at her school, tortured, and then decapitated in her hometown, Shaoxing, a few days later. The father in the story 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 were able spend a small fortune treating his illness. Lu Xun’s father went to a famous traditional Chinese doctor in search of his cure. As Lu Xun describes in the preface to Nahan about his youth:

“For more than four years I used to go, almost daily, to a pawnbroker’s and to a medicine shop… to hand clothes and trinkets up to the counter twice my height, take the money proffered with contempt, then go to the counter the same height as I to buy medicine for my father who had long been ill.” (Hsien-yi and Yang 1960)

Lu Xun actually studied modern medicine in Japan before turning to literature. He saw traditional Chinese medicine as a scam and used by swindlers to extract money from grieving family members. With today’s emphasis on traditional Chinese medicine in the West, I find it ironic how anti-traditional Chinese medicine Lu Xun is.

Kong Yiji

Another personal favorite of Lu Xun’s stories is Kong Yiji. The main character of the story is called Kong Yiji and hence the title. He’s a scholar who never passes the imperial examination. Passing the imperial examination in China was the criterion for becoming a government official in imperial China. Young boys of well off families would spend years learning the Chinese classics in preparation for the exam. Since learning the classics is of little practical value, they would hope to pass and become a government official. If they never passed, they were doomed to be quite useless or having to learn a new set of skills from scratch.

Kong Yiji is an example of a recurrent failure of the exam. He’s lazy and likes to drink so doesn’t do much to make a living. He occasionally copies classics for extra money, but finds it easier to steal instead. One of Lu Xun’s classic lines is “taking a book can’t be considered stealing… it’s taking a book!” (Lyell 1990) This line is difficult to translate because Kong Yiji is playing with two different characters that essentially mean “to steal”. The first character (qie) is used frequently in literature and given Kong Yiji’s scholarly background this is the word he prefers. The second character (tou) is commonly used in spoken Chinese.

An article on entitled Kong Yiji and the Question of Computer Piracy compared today’s computer users in China who use pirated software to Kong Yiji from Lu Xun’s story. In an attempt to stem software piracy, Microsoft included some code that would black out the screen of users with pirated software. Just as Kong Yiji insisted he was not stealing, many people in China fought back and “stood up to self-righteously defend their own actions, though they were surely wrong.” (Martinsen 2008)

Kong Yiji eventually gets a life debilitating beating for stealing by having both of his legs broken. He is reduced to dragging himself by his two hands and his livelihood of stealing is taken away. He eventually dies.

Looking back into Lu Xun’s childhood we again find parallels between his story and his past. The character of Kong Yiji is based on one of Lu Xun’s uncles, Zhou Ziqing, who lived in the family compound in Shaoxing and taught Lu Xun the classics. Zhou Ziqing spent years studying for the civil service exam, yet repeatedly failed. He was something of a nuisance in the family compound and did not contribute much except to teach children the classics.

Lu Xun’s uncle and Kong Yiji highlight one of the flaws in the civil service exam in feudal China. While the system prepared people very well in the classics, it also produced many people who never passed the exams, but yet had spent years in preparation. After their failure, they lacked any other skills to support themselves and their families. Lu Xun’s uncle eventually committed suicide by lighting himself on fire and jumping off a bridge into the water below. He died a few days later.

Coincidentally, America and Europe were first introduced to the civil service examination in the mid 1700s by China. The civil service exams, such as the Foreign Service Exam, have their roots based on this Chinese system. Luckily for today’s candidates however, these present exams 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 during a critical time in Chinese history. For students of Chinese, I suggest taking the challenge to read his works. The hard work you put in will be paid for in an appreciation of one of the world’s greatest authors.


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

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

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

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