His characters, like the skulking 阿Q, were often contemptible, cowardly, and mean, and he played up these characteristics as a kind of intentional reverse psychology. He wanted his readers to be so disgusted that they would reject these base behaviors.
The Real Story of Ah Q is an insanely hard read in Chinese, full of Qing Dynasty slang and confusing conversations so if after reading this letter you’d like to read more of Lu Xun’s work, you can pick up a collection of his shorter essays in Chinese, or read The Real Story of Ah Q in English.
Lu Xun’s original life plan was to study medicine to “heal the bodies of the Chinese people”, and he went to Japan to do just that, but as he briefly mentions in this letter, he happened to see a terrible film of Japanese soldiers decapitating some Chinese prisoners, while other Chinese citizens stood around and watched. Horrified, he would later say that this was when he decided that it was the Chinese spirit that most needed healing, and he set out to do this through his words. And to some extent, he succeeded: Lu Xun passed away in 1936, a much-celebrated national hero.
This is a letter that Lu Xun wrote in 1926 to his Japanese friend Mr. Yoshino (藤野先生). It touches on many of the points I mentioned here.
Fair warning: the first few paragraphs are fairly smooth reading, but at paragraph four it suddenly becomes quite advanced. Hope you’re up for a challenge, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t hang and have to check the translation. I hope the success of reading the first bit will give you the energy to tackle that last one, but I won’t lie: it’s a bit of a beast. A few notes to help you get through the letter:
Lu Xun addresses the person he’s writing to both using “you” (您) and the recipient’s name, Mr. Yoshino (藤野先生). Can get a little confusing, because it’s all the same person.
八字须 bā zì xū – This is an interesting linguistic trick where the character 八 is being used to describe the shape of someone’s beard / mustache (须). It’s basically like saying “A-frame house” – the shape of the letter is being used to describe the shape of the house. We see this same linguistic trick used in the word 十字路口， which means “intersection”. Intersections, if you think about them, are shaped like the character 十. So, 八字须 means “a beard or mustache shaped like the character 八”, which I guess would be pointy under the nose and going down sharply on both sides.
从文 cóng wén – The confusing bit here is the use of the word 从. We know that 从 means “from”. But in this case, they’re using another definition, meaning “to do, undertake, or practice (as in ‘to practice law’)”. So 从文 means to “do literature” or “practice a literary trade”.
I don’t even know where to start helping with paragraph four – there’s a lot going on there. Ask in the comments if you have specific questions.
在仙台的日子里我还要多谢藤野先生对我无微不至的关心和照顾。您没有民族偏见，无悔地授给我医术，并且精心改正我的讲义，细心严格的纠正我的解剖实习，求实地了解中国女人裹脚…… 都使我终生难忘、终生受益。 不知藤野先生还是否记得您给我改的那些厚厚的讲义，可惜在我迁居的时候恰好被烧毁了，只留下了你的相片。每当夜间疲倦，正想偷懒时，掩面在灯光中瞥见您那黑瘦的面孔似乎正要说出抑扬顿挫的话语来，便使我忽又良心发现，而且增加勇气。于是点上一支香烟，再继续写那些为“正人君子”之流所深恶痛疾的文字。