Letter: Famous 20th Century author Lu Xun writes to his friend in 1926

Lu Xun (鲁迅) lǔ xùn was one of China’s great 20th century writers and thinkers who felt that the heart and soul of the Chinese people had been sickened by the depravity and corruption that ran rampant after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912.

Lu Xun (鲁迅) lǔ xùn was one of China’s great 20th century writers and thinkers who felt that the heart and soul of the Chinese people had been sickened by the depravity and corruption that ran rampant after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. He felt that China had lost its way, and his most famous work 《阿Q正传》The Real Story of Ah Q was an unforgiving portrait of what he saw as China’s social debasement. But he was also a true patriot who wanted to see China restored to the dignity he saw as its birthright.

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.

The language

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.


尊敬的藤野先生: 您好!

非常抱歉在离开仙台之后一直没给您写信了,但是我一直深深地挂念着您。 我还清清楚楚的记得,清清楚楚的看见一位衣着朴素的黑手的先生、八字须、戴着一副大大的眼镜正在津津有味地讲着医学课。


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。




Buy on Amazon:

Lu Xun’s Chinese essays and The Real Story of Ah Q in English.

Show English translation »
Respected Mr. Yoshino, Hello!

I’m very sorry I haven’t written you a letter since I left Sendai, but I’ve always remembered you with deep fondness. I still clearly remember, when I clearly saw an unassuming man with dark hands, an arrow-shaped beard, wearing a large pair of glasses and teaching a medical class with great enthusiasm.

I also remember that year, I went to Sendai looking for a way to save China, and when I arrived in Sendai my most basic purpose was to study medicine to heal the lives of the Chinese people. But when I saw a [certain] movie I finally knew: what [most] needed healing was the Chinese people’s spirit, and from this their lives could be healed. So I didn’t study biology, but gave up medicine for literature. China was a weak country then, but we are diligently making progress in igniting the people’s spirit,I believe that Mr. Yoshino can certainly understand my patriotic heart!

I still must thank Mr. Yoshino for showing me every possible care and consideration during those days in Sendai. You were not biased towards [my] nationality, bestowed [your knowledge in] the medical arts upon me without regret, as well as meticulously corrected my lecture materials, attentively and seriously redressed [me during] my anatomy internship, realistically understood Chinese foot-binding practices… all this I will remember my whole life, and benefit from my whole life. I don’t know if Mr. Yoshino still remembers those very thick lecture materials of mine that you corrected, pity that when I was moving house they were burned up and destroyed, all that’s left is your picture. Whenever it’s late and I’m weary, and I’m just beginning to think of loafing off, hidden in the lamplight I glimpse your thin, dark face [looking] as if you’re about to speak in that rising and falling cadence of yours, and it makes me suddenly discover my conscience once again, and raises my courage. And so I light a cigarette, and keep writing those words which are so abhorrent to “proper gentlemen” types.

I’m determined to struggle and shout with my compatriots, a pen as a gun, as a dagger, like the resistance forces attacking bravely. More that that, I hope you will support my approach.

How is everything with you now? In short I’ll wrap up my many words in one sentence: A little smile is all it takes to make you ten years younger.

Wishing you: Health and smooth dealings in all matters.

2 replies on “Letter: Famous 20th Century author Lu Xun writes to his friend in 1926”

Looks like a typo in the 3rd paragraph.
I think 象形 should be 相信

By the way, I love the new look of the website!

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