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

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 While his stories are laced with difficult Chinese phrases, allusions to Chinese Classics, and historical references, his stories are too important not to read.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, Qiu Qiu Online 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.


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