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    Capturing Chinese — chinese history

    Learn Chinese Through Chinese Stories - An Introduction to Lu Xun The Father of Modern Chinese Literature

    As part of our Learn Chinese Through Chinese Stories campaign, we would like to introduce one of the most pivotal writers in modern Chinese history.  His name is Lu Xun and his stories have been included in four of our Capturing Chinese series books.  We begin by introducing Lu Xun and next week we will move into some of his short stories. Introduction to Lǔ Xùn Lǔ Xùn (鲁迅) was born in Shàoxīng (绍兴城) in 1881. Shàoxīng is a part of Jiāngsū (江苏省) province and has been home to many of China's literary giants throughout history.  During Lǔ Xùn's time it was also a hotbed for anti-Qing revolutionaries who frequently appear in his stories.  Lǔ Xùn was born with the name Zhōu Zhāngshòu (周樟寿).  He later changed his name to Zhōu Yùshān (周豫山) and took the courtesy name of Zhōu Shùrén (周树人).  Men primarily used a courtesy name after reaching 20 years of age as a symbol of adulthood and respect.  He chose the pen name Lǔ Xùn when writing his first short story, A Madman's Diary, in May of 1918.  He chose Lǔ (鲁) in commemoration of his mother, whose maiden surname was also Lǔ (鲁). Chinese Literature, read Chinese, Lu Xun, learn chinese, chinese fiction, write chinese Lǔ Xùn had two younger brothers: Zhōu Zuòrén (周做人) who was four years younger and Zhōu Jiànrén (周建人) who was five years younger.  While Lǔ Xùn did have a third younger brother, this brother died very young. The Zhou family was well-educated and Lǔ Xùn's paternal grandfather, Zhōu Fúqīng (周福清), had held a post at the prestigious Hanlin Academy (翰林院 Hànlín Yuàn).  However, after his grandfather tried to procure an official post for Lǔ Xùn's father, the family's fortunes began to decline.  His grandfather was arrested for bribery and almost beheaded.  Such crimes in ancient China threatened all the family members since the authorities would commonly punish the whole family for one member's transgressions.  Lǔ Xùn's father had his xiucai (秀才) degree stripped and was banned from taking further exams. Lǔ Xùn was brought up by a servant called Ā Cháng (阿长) whom Lǔ Xùn called Cháng Mā (长妈). Ā Cháng was a very superstitious woman and shared many stories with Lǔ Xùn including those about the Long Hairs (长毛 Cháng Máo).  The Long Hairs were also known as the Taipings and were the rebels of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).  She also gave him a copy of the Classics of Mountains and Seas (山海经 Shān Hǎi Jīng), which included many mythical tales about the world and became his favorite book during childhood. After Zhōu Fúqīng's imprisonment, Lǔ Xùn's father began drinking and became addicted to opium.  He contracted a chronic illness and had traditional Chinese doctors care for him for the last four years of his life.  One of these doctors was called Dr. He Jianchen whose surname appears in two short stories from Nahan (呐喊): The Madman's Diary (狂人日记) and Tomorrow (明天).  From this experience, Lǔ Xùn learned to distrust and even despise traditional Chinese medicine and other superstitions.  In the preface to Nàhǎn he recalls having to pawn the family's valuables in order to buy esoteric medicine prescribed by his father's doctors.  His father eventually died from tuberculosis during Lǔ Xùn's adolescence.  The poor standard of care for his father's chronic illness inspired Lǔ Xùn to study western medicine and eventually led him to Sendai in Japan. Before heading to Japan, Lǔ Xùn studied at Jiangnan Naval Academy (江南水师学堂 Jiāngnán Shuǐshī Xuétáng).  He left after his first year and continued his studies at Jiangnan Army Academy's School of Mining and Railroads (江南陆师学堂附设的矿务铁路学堂 Jiāngnán Lùshī Xuétáng Fùshè de Kuàng Wù Tiělù Xuétáng) for the next three.  He graduated in 1902. 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.  Not only were the Western powers infringing on Chinese sovereignty, but their neighbor, Japan, also came to exploit China.  As a response, China sent large numbers of students abroad to learn the West's "secrets."  Due to their similar language structure, Japan was an easier place than either America or Europe to study.  In 1902, having successfully obtained a government scholarship, Lǔ Xùn went to Japan to study medicine as a part of a government effort to modernize China.  Lǔ Xùn saw modern medicine as an essential key to modernization. In order to get away from his fellow Chinese students, Lǔ Xùn went to Sendai in the northern part of the main island of Japan where he was the first and only Chinese student.  He enrolled at the Sendai Specialized School of Medical Studies (仙台的医学专门学校 Xiāntái de Yīxué Zhuānmén Xuéxiào).  He stayed there and struggled with his studies for one and a half years before suddenly and angrily walking out of the lecture room, quitting his studies in medicine, and devoting himself to literature instead.  After seeing a public execution of a Chinese spy, he realized from the looks of the surrounding spectators that the Chinese soul needed more healing than their physical body.  He wrote literature to heal the spirit of the Chinese people.  (See 呐喊-自序 for the complete story on why he quit his medical studies.) Lǔ Xùn stayed in Tokyo for three more years while pursuing his interests in literature. In 1909 he returned home to Shàoxīng and found a job teaching.  He stayed in southern China doing various jobs until 1912 when he moved to Běijīng, having found a job with the newly formed government in the Ministry of Education.  The Republic of China had just replaced the Qing Dynasty late in the prior year.  From 1912-1917, Lǔ Xùn found himself quite disillusioned with the Revolution.  While Sun Yat-sen (孙中山 Sūn Zhōngshān) had founded the Republic of China, the military man Yuán Shìkǎi (袁世凯) 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. Slightly before and then after the death of Yuán Shìkǎi, political activities and movements began to flourish.  These movements are commonly known as The New Culture Movement or The May Fourth Movement.  In August 1917, Qián Xuántóng (钱玄同), a close friend of Lǔ Xùn, urged Lǔ Xùn to write and contribute to their newly formed magazine, The New Youth (新青年 Xīn Qīngnián).  For this magazine Lǔ Xùn wrote some of his most famous short stories such as A Madman's Diary (狂人日记), Kong Yiji (孔已己) , and Medicine ().  In 1922 he collected his short stories into a collection called Nàhǎn (呐喊), known in English by various names.  A Call to Arms, Cheering From the Sidelines, Outcry are a few examples. In 1925, he published his second collection of short stories called Pánghuáng (彷徨), known in English as Wondering or Wondering Where to Turn.  Between 1924 and 1926, Lǔ Xùn published a series of prose poems that were later collected into Wild GrassWild Grass was published in 1927. During the writing of Wondering and Wild Grass, Lǔ Xùn was especially troubled by the current political situation in China.  In addition, he was finding himself increasingly estranged from his younger brother Zhou Zuoren.  While Lǔ Xùn was already married, he had only married out of traditional obligation.  However, during this time he found love in his student, Xu Guangping.  Xu Guangping and Lǔ Xùn met for the first time in 1925 and started living together in 1927. Lǔ Xùn spent most of the rest of his life in the liberal city of Shanghai.  During this time he wrote essays and his famous A Concise History of Chinese Fiction (中國小說史略). Lǔ Xùn died on October 18th, 1936 due to tuberculosis. His remains are interred in Lǔ Xùn Park (鲁迅公园) in Shanghai. Lǔ Xùn and Xu Guangping had one son. Lǔ Xùn gives a great introduction to his stories in his own words in his preface to Nahan, which we provide and introduce below:




    自序 means a preface to one's book.  Here Lǔ Xùn gives us a look into his past and how events in his life have influenced these short stories. For instance, he mentions having to pawn the family's goods in order to buy esoteric prescriptions for his sick father.  Watching his father's illness progressively get worse until his death, led Lǔ Xùn to question Chinese folk medicine throughout his life.  He went to Japan to study Western medicine in order to help change China's reliance on superstition for medicinal cures before ultimately turning to literature instead.  His feelings towards Chinese medicine find their way into two of his stories, Medicine (药) and Tomorrow (明天). He also discusses his inspiration for giving up medicine for literature. Watching a slide show of a captured Chinese man about to be executed for spying incensed him.  It wasn't that Japanese troops were about to execute one of his countrymen, but rather the Chinese surrounding the spy all had blank, wooden looks on their faces.  He felt the dire need to reinvigorate the Chinese population. Lǔ Xùn saw writing as the best means for helping to change the thinking of the Chinese people.  Given China's literary past in which Confucian scholars influenced Chinese thinking immensely, one can understand his motivation for becoming an author. He also discusses why he decided to help China through a new cultural movement.  He asks himself, if a bunch of people were locked in a sealed metal room, in which people were sleeping, had no means of escape, and were doomed to suffocate, would it make any sense to try to wake them.  He could arouse the light sleepers and tell them of their impending doom hoping that they might find a way to save themselves, but this would only cause them to consciously meet their death.  Lǔ Xùn says it is hope, the possibility that someone might find a way out of the sealed room,  that has led him to write these short stories.  While he might think doom is inevitable, he can't say others shouldn't have hope. Nahan - Zixu - Preface 呐 喊-自序
    Would you like to read this Chinese short story with pinyin, footnotes with definitions, historical summaries, and cultural references, as well as Chinese audio files of two native speakers, one male and one female,  reading the story? Get your copy of Capturing Chinese today!   Visit the Capturing Chinese Catalog

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    Chinese Characters: A Brief History

    I'm working on a magazine article and here is a small excerpt of what I have so far.  If you have any comments please let me know using the comments at the bottom of the post.  Cheers. Chinese characters: a brief history Whatever your own personal reasons for learning the language, I suggest you make your ultimate goal to not just be able to speak the language but also to read and write.  Many classmates of mine have done their best to learn Chinese without having to memorize all those pesky Chinese characters.  They insisted that the characters were an ancient accident of history and unnecessary in learning to speak the language.  Many discussion forums online discuss the need for Chinese to adopt a phonetic language structure as the Koreans and Vietnamese have one.  If the Koreans and Vietnamese who used to use Chinese characters can change to a phonetic system, then surely why can’t the Chinese.  This discussion was widely debated in China after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty when illiteracy in China was holding back modernization.  During that time some scholars in China even insisted that China adopt the world language of Esperanto as a national second language to overcome the problem of dialects within China and to facilitate communication with the outside world. Esperanto was a proposal by L. L. Zamenhof in 1887.  Zamenhof was a Jewish doctor living in Poland under Russian occupation.  Russians, Jews, Germans and Poles all had different languages and Zamenhof saw this lack of ability to communicate as the main source of tension.  Esperanto was meant to solve these problems as being the world’s lengua franca.  Some scholars in China saw the simple and phonetic language structure as the solution to illiteracy and the problem of so many dialects in China.  The Esperanto movement made traction along the intellectuals in China, but ended in 1919 with the signing of the Versaille’s Treaty.  The Versaille’s Treaty was the peace treaty ending World War I.  The source of the China’s change of thought was the transfer of German concessions in Shandong to Japan instead of returning sovereignty to China.  China had even sent 140,000 Chinese to France[i] to help the Allied powers.  The Chinese viewed the signing of this treaty as a stab in the back by the Western powers resulting in the dropping of many Western idea including that of Esperanto. In one of Lu Xun’s short stories, A Comedy of Ducks (鸭的戏剧), he actually writes a story about a visitor from Russia who was a poet fluent in Esperanto.  While this short story was published in 1922, Esperanto had already effectively lost the language debate in China. However, Chinese did become much easier.  Pioneering author, Lu Xun (鲁迅), began to write Chinese novels and stories using vernacular Chinese so that everyone could understand.  This form of writing is called baihuawen (白话文) and contrasts sharply with classical Chinese.  The change from classical Chinese to baihuawen can be viewed as the Catholic Church moving from Latin to the vernacular language.  Traditionalist were infuriated, but now more people could read.  The elite were now not the only ones who could read.  With the growing popularity of the vernacular writings, the Chinese also began using Western punctuation.  Traditional Chinese literature was almost completely devoid of any punctuation. For an example of classical Chinese you can see a sample of it in the introduction of Lu Xun’s A Madman’s Diary (狂人日记).  During the writing of Capturing Chinese I consulted quite a few native Chinese speakers on the meaning of these two introductory paragraphs.  They all had their own opinion of what the meaning was and they often contradicted each other. For those complaining about learning Chinese, imagine having to learn un-punctuated, unsimplified, classical Chinese.  So for all students of Chinese wishing for China to abolish the writing system don’t hold your breath too long.  This pipe dream disappeared with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.  Also remember, Chinese has already been simplified in two ways.  Classical Chinese is no longer a necessity and traditional characters are no longer used so much in mainland China.  You might find the traditional characters at karaoke parlors since a lot of popular music comes from Taiwan and Hong Kong and of course you will still need to learn traditional characters if you plan to spend time in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But for those hoping for the language to get simpler, don’t plan on it.  If anything, Chinese will only get more complicated in the future. Pan Qinglin, a representative of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), submitted a proposal at this year’s CPPCC meeting suggesting that China revert back to traditional characters.  One of his arguments is that the move to simplified characters was hastily performed and resulted in many characters losing their meanings.  I agree.  For instance the simplified character for love is missing a critical element of love, the heart radical (心).  See 爱 versus 愛.  Many Taiwanese and Hong Kongers have been emphasizing this point for quite some time.  The second reason to contemplate a move back to traditional characters, is that the reason for simplifying in the first place is no longer valid.  With computer input, it doesn’t matter whether you write traditional or simplified.  Computers take the hard part out of writing the characters and therefore traditional characters could be used instead.  Whether China actually accepts this proposal is another story altogether, but for the time being I suggest you don’t put off learning the characters.

    [i] Luo, Jing. [2004] (2004). Over a Cup of Tea: An Introduction to Chinese Life and Culture. University Press of America. ISBN 0761829377