Lu Xun, An Outsider's Chats about Written Language

Lu Xun1 (1881–1936) is generally regarded as the greatest Chinese writer of the twentieth century.

He never produced a novel, but he wrote numerous memorable short stories and countless essays and letters that had an enormous impact on modern China. Among his most celebrated works are "The True Story of Ah-Q" (A-Q zhengzhuan), "Diary of a Madman" (Kuangren riji), and "My Old Hometown" (Guxiang). Lu Xun was also a deeply learned chronicler and critic of Chinese literature; his Brief History of Chinese Fiction (Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilüe) remains authoritative to this day.

But Lu Xun was much more than an outstanding littérateur. He was also a trenchant social commentator whose impassioned pleas for reform were instrumental in guiding China's path toward progress — even for many decades after his death. He made bitterly honest comments on virtually all aspects of Chinese institutions, culture, and customs. Among the subjects that attracted Lu Xun's attention was the Chinese script. So deep were his feelings about the Chinese writing system that he was reported to have proclaimed shortly before his death, "Hanzi bu mie, Zhongguo bi wang" (If Chinese characters do not fade away, China will perish!). While this is admittedly a radical formulation of the problem posed by China's archaic script in the context of efforts to modernize the nation, Lu Xun was by no means the first Chinese scholar to blame the writing system for his nation's backwardness. Indeed, Lu Xun had been preceded by dozens of individuals from the late-Qing period onward who had devised simple and more efficient writing systems, including alphabets, for the various Chinese languages. And, as early as the Song dynasty, the renowned and erudite polymath Zheng Qiao (1104–1162) had noted some of the deficiencies of the Chinese script.

Lu Xun returned to the subject of the Chinese writing system on numerous occasions throughout his career, but his most sustained and probing examination of the characters is to be found in the remarkable text translated here. Because An Outsider's Chats about Written Language (Menwai wentan) is both enormously informative and richly entertaining, we have chosen to present the text in its entirety. It should be noted that the first word of the title, Menwai, is multivalent. Among its applicable meanings here are "outdoors" and — with han (man, fellow) understood at the end — "novice, layman, greenhorn." Since Lu Xun was deeply familiar with the script, its nature, and history, he was obviously being polite in styling himself a menwai(han).

Menwai wentan first appeared in the pages of the "Free Discussions" (Ziyou tan) supplement of the influential Shanghai newspaper Shen bao, from August 24 through September, 1934 under the pseudonym Hua Yu. This name may literally be rendered as "China's Prison," but it is also a perfect homophone for "China's Language," a pun that was almost surely in the back of Lu Xun's mind when he chose it for this particular work. — VHM

1. Introduction

I'm told that the heat in Shanghai this year hasn't been equaled in the past sixty years. During the day, we'd go out to grub for a living, and, in the evening, we'd return with our heads hanging. In our rooms it would still be hot, and, on top of that, there were mosquitoes. At such times, paradise could only be found outdoors (menwai). Probably because [Shanghai is] next to the sea, there's always a breeze so you don't need to fan yourself. The neighbors who lived in the flats and garrets in the vicinity would also sit outside. Although we knew each other somewhat, we didn't often have a chance to meet. Some of them were shop clerks, others were proofreaders in publishing houses, and still others were accomplished draftsmen. Everybody would be totally exhausted and sighing over how hard life was. But at least this was a time when we were free, and so we would talk freely.

The limits of our conversations were actually quite broad. We talked about the drought, praying for rain,2 picking up girls,3 a three-inch shrunken mummy,4 foreign rice,5 naked gams,6 and we also talked about classical writing, vernacular language, and colloquial speech.7 Because I'd written several pieces in the vernacular language, when it came to such subjects as classical writing, they were particularly interested in hearing what I had to say, and, to oblige them, I did speak a great deal. In this way, we passed two or three nights before we were diverted by other topics and, at any rate, had exhausted the subject. Little did I expect that, a few days later, several of my neighbors would ask me to write out what I had said.

Among them, there were those who believed me because I had read some old books, others who believed me because I had read a few foreign books, and still others who believed me because I had read both old books and foreign books. But several of them, on the contrary, for these very reasons did not believe me and said that I was a "bat."8 When I touched upon classical writing, they would say with a smile, "You're not one of the eight great prose stylists9 of the Tang and Song periods. Can we believe you?" When I talked about colloquial speech, they again said with a smile, "You're not one of the toiling masses. What sort of big talk are you feeding us?"

Yet there is some truth to this. When we were discussing the drought, mention was made of an official who went to the countryside to inspect the drought conditions. He claimed that there were some places that really wouldn't have had to experience the drought but were now experiencing it because the peasants were lazy and had not manned the irrigation pails. But one newspaper carried a report about a sixty-year-old man who, because his son had died of exhaustion while manning the irrigation pails and, seeing that the drought continued as before, committed suicide since he had no other way out. The views of the official and the country-folk are so far apart as this! Such being the case, I'm afraid that ultimately my evening chats are no more than the idle words of an outsider in his leisure.

After the tropical storm passed, the weather became a bit cooler; but (sic) I finally fulfilled the wishes of those who had hoped that I would write out my opinions. What I have written is much simpler than the words I had spoken, but the overall import differs little and may be considered a copy for my peers to read. At the time, I simply relied on my memory to cite old books here and there. The spoken word, like the wind, rushes past the ear, and so it is not important if you make some mistakes. Committing it to paper made me hesitate, and, furthermore, I was stymied by not having the original texts to check. All I can do is ask my reader to correct my errors as he encounters them.

Written and inscribed on the night of August 16, 1934

2. Who Invented the Written Word?

Who invented the written word?

We are accustomed to hearing stories about how a certain thing was always invented by a sage of ancient times. Naturally, we would ask the same question about the written word. At once, there is an answer from some forgotten source: writing was invented by Cang Jie.10 This is what is advocated by most scholars, and naturally they have their sources for it. I have even seen a portrait of this Cang Jie. He was a monkish11 old man with four eyes. It would seem that, if one is going to create writing, he'd first off better have an unusual visage. Those of us who have just two eyes are not only insufficiently talented; even our features are unsuited for the task.

However, the author of the Book of Changes ([original note:] I don't know who he was) was rather more intelligent. He said, "In high antiquity, government was carried out with knotted cords12 [to make records]. The sages of subsequent ages substituted [written] documents and contracts for these." He does not mention Cang Jie but only says "the sages of subsequent ages."

And he does not mention "invented" but only speaks of an exchange. He was really being very cautious. Perhaps, without thinking about it, he did not believe that in antiquity there could have been a person who created a large number of graphs all by himself so he just gives us this one vague sentence.

But what sort of figure was responsible for replacing knotted cords with documents and contracts? Was he a writer? That's not a bad answer, judged from the current reality of the so-called "writers" who are most fond of flaunting their writing skills but utterly inept when their pens are snatched away from them. Indeed, one must first think of them, and, indeed, they ought to expend a bit of effort on behalf of their own bread-winning tool. Yet this is not true. Although people in prehistoric times sang songs when they worked and sang songs when they were wooing, by no means did they make drafts of their songs or keep manuscripts of them. This is because, even in their dreams, they wouldn't have been able to conceive of selling manuscripts of their poems or of compiling their collected works. Furthermore, in the society of that time, there were no newspaper publishers and bookstores, so writing was of no utility whatsoever. According to what some scholars tell us, it would appear that those who devoted their labors to script must have been the historians.

In primitive society, at first there were probably only mages13 [who were in charge of spiritual and ritual matters]. It was not until after a period of gradual evolution when things became complicated that there was a need to record such matters as sacrifice, hunting, war, and so forth. The mages were then forced to think of a way to make records in addition to carrying out their basic duty of "inviting the spirits to descend."14 This is the beginning of "the [professional] historian."15 Moreover, as we can tell from the phrase "[cause the exploits of the feudal lords to] rise up to Heaven,"16 another of their basic duties was to burn the booklets in which they had recorded the major events concerning their tribal chieftain and his administration so that god above could read them. Consequently, they likewise had to write compositions, although this was probably something that occurred subsequently. Still later, duties were divided up even more clearly, whereupon there came into being the historian, who specialized in keeping records of things. Script is an indispensable instrument for the historian. Some ancient has said, "Cang Jie was the Yellow Emperor's historian."17 We cannot trust the first part of the sentence, but the fact that it does point out the relationship between history and script is very interesting. As for the later "men of letters" who used script to write such fine lines as "Oh, my love! Ah, I am dying!" they were merely enjoying the fruits of others' labors and "do not merit consideration here."

3. How Did the Characters Come into Existence?

According to the Book of Changes, before there were documents and contracts, there clearly were knotted cords. Whenever the country-folk where I'm from have something important they want to do the next day and are afraid of forgetting it, they often say, "Tie a knot in your belt!" Then did our ancient sages also use a long cord in which they tied a knot for everything? I'm afraid this wouldn't work. If there were only a few knots you could still remember [what they signified], but once there were many it would be hopeless. Or perhaps that was precisely something like the eight trigrams18 of Emperor Fuxi,19 with three cords in each unit. If all were unknotted that would be qian (male, Heaven), but if all three had a knot in the center that would be kun (female, Earth). I'm afraid this isn't right either. If there were only eight units, you still might be able [to get by], but if there were sixty-four units, it would be difficult to remember [what they all stood for], much less if there were 512 units!20 There still survives in Peru the quipu.21 It uses a horizontal cord and a number of vertical strings hanging from it which, pulled back and forth, are knotted [and unknotted]. Although it looks like a net without really being one, it seems as though it could actually be used to represent a relatively large amount of ideas. I suspect that the knotted cords of our prehistoric ancestors were like this. However, since they were replaced by documents and contracts and were not the direct ancestors of the latter, there's no harm setting them aside for the moment.

The "Goulan Stele Inscription"22 of Emperor Yu23 of the Xia dynasty was forged by Taoists.

The oldest characters that we can see on genuine artifacts are the oracle-bone inscriptions and bronze inscriptions of the Shang dynasty.24 But these are already quite advanced, so it is virtually impossible to find a single primitive form. Occasionally, however, one can glimpse a small amount of realistic pictography, for example a deer or an elephant. From these pictographic shapes, one can discover clues related to script: the Chinese script is founded on pictography.

The buffalo painted in the Altamira Caves25 of Spain are famous remains of primitive man, and many art historians say that this is truly "art for art's sake," that primitive man painted them for amusement. But this explanation cannot escape from being overly "modern,"26 because primitive man did not have as much leisure as nineteenth-century 27 artists. He had a reason for painting each buffalo, something that had to do with buffalo, whether it was hunting the buffalo or casting a spell on them. Even now people gawk at the advertisements for cigarettes and movies [posted] on walls in Shanghai. One can imagine what a commotion such an extraordinary sight must have caused in unsophisticated, primitive society! As they looked at [the paintings], they would come to know that this thing [called] a buffalo could, after all, be drawn on a flat surface with lines. At the same time, it seems as though they came to recognize [the drawing as a graph representing the word] "buffalo." While admiring the artists' ability, nobody invited them to earn some money by writing their autobiography, so their names have passed into obscurity. However, there was more than one Cang Jie in [ancient] society. Some of them carved designs on sword hilts; others drew pictures on doors. [Such pictographic representations] made an impression and were passed on from mind to mind, from mouth to mouth. [In this fashion,] the number of characters increased [to the point that], once the scribes collected them, they could make do to record events. I suspect that the origins of Chinese writing are to be found within this sort of process.

Naturally, later on there must have been a continual increase in the number of characters, but this is something that the scribes could have managed by themselves. By inserting the new characters — which, moreover, were pictographic — among the familiar characters, others would have easily guessed what they signified.28 Even up to the present time, China is still producing new characters. However, if anyone is intent on being a new Cang Jie, they will surely fail. Zhu Yu29 of [the southern kingdom of] Wu and Wu Zetian30 of the Tang [dynasty] both created bizarre characters, but all their efforts were wasted.

Nowadays, it is Chinese chemists who are the best at creating characters. [The characters they come up with for] the names of many elements and compounds are very hard to recognize, and it is even difficult to read out their sounds. To tell the truth, whenever I see [such characters] I get a headache. I feel that it would be far better and more straightforward to use the Latin names current in all other nations. If you are incapable of recognizing the twenty-some letters [of the Roman alphabet] — please pardon me for speaking bluntly — then you probably won't be able to learn chemistry very well either.

4. Writing Characters Is Like Drawing Pictures

In both the Rites of Zhou (Zhouli)31 and the Explanation of Simple and Compound Graphs (Shuo wen jie zi),32 it is said that there are six different methods for forming characters.33 Here I won't discuss [all six], but will only say a few things related to the pictographs.

Pictographs may be "based upon the body which is close at hand or on objects that are far away."34 That is, by drawing an eye you have mu 目 (eye) and by drawing a circle and adding a few rays you get ri 日 (sun). Of course, that is very clear and convenient. But sometimes you hit a brick wall. For example, if you want to draw the edge of a knife blade, how do you go about it? If you don't draw the back of the knife blade, you can't depict the edge of the blade. At this stage, you have to come up with a novel idea, [such as] adding a short line along the blade edge to indicate "here; this place," thus creating the graph ren 刃 (knife edge). This is already getting to seem a bit troublesome to handle, and it is all the more so when you have something that has no form to represent.

In such cases, all you can do is come up with an "ideational" graph, which may also be called a "conjunct" graph. A hand placed on a tree is cai 采 (pluck), and a heart placed between a roof and a bowl yields ning 寍 (peaceful, serene, tranquil) because one is at peace when one has food and shelter. However, if you want to write the ning of ningke 寧可 (would rather), then you've got to add a line beneath the bowl to show that this is [a different character, which] merely borrows the sound of ning [meaning "peaceful, serene, tranquil"].

Conjunct graphs are more troublesome than pictographs, since you have to draw at least two components. [For a more complicated conjunct] character like bao 寶 (treasure), you have to draw a roof (top), a string of jade (middle left), a jar (middle right), and a cowry shell (bottom) for a total of four components. It looks to me as though the character for "jar" is actually a combination of the two forms for mortar and pestle, so all together there are five components.35 Just for this one character bao you have expended a lot of effort.

But [even this method] won't [always] work, because there are some things that cannot be depicted and other things that one does not know how to depict. For example, the leaves of the pine and the cypress are of different types, and it is possible to distinguish them. But writing, after all, is writing; it cannot be as refined as painting. When you come right down to it, you just have to stick it out. To get us out of this sticky situation, along comes [the principle of character formation called] xiesheng (symphonetic)36 in which meaning and shape part company.37 [With xiesheng characters,] this is already [to adopt the principle of ] recording the sounds [of words for things instead of trying to draw their shapes]. Therefore, some people say that this was [further] progress for Chinese writing. They're right. We may indeed call this progress, yet the foundation is still that of drawing pictures. For example, cai 菜 (vegetable) is classified under the cao (grass) radical and has the sound of cai38 (pluck). [To write this character, you must] draw a clump of grass [at the top], a claw [in the middle], and a tree [at the bottom]: three components. [Another example,] hai 海 (sea) is classified under the shui (water) radical and has the sound mei39 ("each, every").

[To write this character, you must] draw a river [on the left side] and a lady40 wearing a cap (?)41 [on the right side]: also three components. To sum up, if you want to write [Chinese] characters, you are forever compelled to draw pictures.

But the ancients were by no means stupid. They had long since simplified the pictographs so that they became distanced from realistic representations. Seal42 characters with their curved lines still bear the traces of picture-drawing. But with the development of the clerical script43 up to the standard script44 of today, [the characters have grown] poles apart from [the archaic] pictographs.

However, the foundation has by no means changed. Even after [the characters had grown] poles apart [from their archaic ancestral forms], they became pictographs that no longer bore a resemblance to the objects they represented. Although [the characters were now] simpler to write, they were exceedingly difficult to recognize. [You simply] had to memorize them arbitrarily one by one.

Furthermore, there are still some characters that even today are by no means simple. For example, if you ask a child to write luan 鸞 (a mythical bird like the phoenix) or zao 鑿 (chisel), it's very hard to fit inside a half-inch square unless he practices for five or six months.

Another complication is that, due to sound changes that have occurred between antiquity and the present, there are many symphonetic (xiesheng) graphs whose phonophores have gotten quite out of tune. Nowadays, who still pronounces hua 滑 (slippery) as gu 骨 (bone)45 or hai (sea) as mei (each, every)?46

The ancients handed down writing to us. Admittedly, this is a tremendous heritage for which we should be thankful. However, at the present time, when pictographs no longer resemble the objects they are supposed to represent, and when symphonetic graphs have gotten out of tune, our thanks cannot but be a bit hesitant.

5. Did Language and Script Coincide in Ancient Times?

Having reached this point, I would like to speculate a bit on the question of whether or not language and script coincided in ancient times.

With regard to this question, although modern scholars have by no means come to a clear conclusion, it seems from listening to their manner of speaking that they probably consider them to have coincided, and the further back we go the more closely they coincided. Nonetheless, I'm rather doubtful of that, because the easier a script is to write, the easier it is to make what one writes coincide with speech. But the Chinese pictographs are so hard to draw that I suspect that our forefathers all along stripped away unimportant words.

The Book of Documents (Shujing )47 is so hard to read that it would seem it might well serve as evidence that it was based on spoken language. But research has not yet precisely revealed the spoken language of the Shang and Zhou people [whom it purports to be about]. Perhaps it was more prolix [than the terse written language of the Book of Documents]. As for the ancient books of the Zhou and Qin, although their authors used a small amount of their local topolects, the writing was roughly the same [regardless of what part of China and which speech community they hailed from]. And, even if it was fairly close to the spoken language, what they were using was a standardized Zhou-Qin vernacular, not at all a Zhou-Qin colloquial. All the more it goes without saying for the Han dynasty that, although Sima Qian48 (d. ca. 86 b.c.e.) was willing to render [a few of ] the hard-to-understand expressions of the Book of Documents into contemporary terminology.

Yet it was only in special instances that he adopted a bit of popular phraseology, such as when Chen Shĕ's49 old friend sees that he has become king, he exclaims with surprise, "Wow! Shĕ, you're a splendacious guy as de facto king!"50 I suspect that the four words "as de facto king" in this sentence have undergone refinement by His Lordship the Grand Scribe.

Well, then, shouldn't the children's rhymes, the proverbs, and the folk songs quoted in ancient books be authentic popular language of the time? In my estimation that's hard to say too. Chinese men of letters, by temperament, were quite fond of rewriting the compositions of others. The most obvious example of this is that "The Song of the Prince of Huainan,"51 though it was the same Han-period folk song from the same place, is recorded in two different versions in the History of the Han (Hanshu) and in the Annals of the Former Han (Qian Han ji).52

One goes:

A foot of cloth can yet be sewn,
A peck of grain can yet be husked,
But these two brothers cannot countenance each other.

The other goes:

A foot of cloth will make you snuggly warm,
A peck of rice will stuff your tummy,
But these two brothers do not countenance each other.

If we compare [these two versions], it seems as though the latter is [closer to] the original, yet it's possible that even [in this version] some things have been omitted and that it is merely a summary.

Later, the recorded sayings53 and the storyteller's scripts54 of the Song period, [as well as] the spoken portions of Yuan drama55 and southern plays,56 are also summaries. It's just that the language they used was relatively common and that the words they omitted were relatively few, so that people felt they were "clear as speech."

My surmise is that Chinese language and script all along have not at all coincided. The main reason for this is that the characters are difficult to write, so that the only recourse is to abbreviate somewhat. The writing of the ancients was [thus] a digest of the spoken language of the time.

Therefore, when we write Classical Chinese,57 we are using pictographs that no longer bear a resemblance to the objects they are supposed to represent and symphonetic graphs that are not necessarily in tune to limn on paper a digest of the spoken language of the ancients that no modern person would say and that few can understand. Just think! Wouldn't it be difficult?

6. Consequently Literature Became a Rare Commodity

Writing had its inception among the people, but later it became the exclusive possession of the privileged. According to the surmise of the author of the Book of Changes, "In high antiquity, government was carried out with knotted cords [to make records]." Thus, even knotted cords already belonged to the rulers. By the time [writing] fell into the hands of the mages and scribes, it was even more so, inasmuch as they served under the chieftains and over the populace. As society evolved, the scope of those individuals who learned to write expanded, but [writing] was largely still restricted to the privileged. As for the common people, they were illiterate not because they lacked the tuition fees, but simply because they were considered unfit since [writing] was restricted only to those who qualified. Furthermore, they were not even permitted to look at books. Before woodblock printing developed in China, a good book would invariably be hidden away in the imperial libraries and depositories, so that not even scholars knew its contents.

Since writing belonged to the privileged, it was something dignified and mysterious. Still today, Chinese characters are very dignified. We often see hanging on the wall baskets with the maxim "Cherish paper that has characters on it." When it comes to written charms that can dispel evil and cure sickness, that is due to their mysteriousness. Since writing possesses dignity, then whoever knows how to write will be dignified by his association with it. If new dignitaries keep appearing day after day, this would not be beneficial to the old dignitaries. What is more, once those who can write become numerous, the mysteriousness of writing would diminish. The power of Taoist talismans, which seem to be made up of characters, is due to the fact that, aside from Taoist priests, nobody can read them. Therefore, those who can write are certain to keep a tight grip on [this skill].

In Europe, during the Middle Ages, all literature and learning were in the monasteries. Literacy in Croatia was restricted to monks until the nineteenth century. The spoken language of the people had deteriorated to the point that it was barely adequate for the old way of living. When they wanted to carry out reform, all they could do was import a lot of new words from abroad.

In addition to the limitations of social status and economic means, our Chinese characters present another high threshold to the masses: their difficulty. If you don't spend ten or so years on them, it's not easy to cross this threshold alone. Those who cross over it are the scholar-officials, and these same scholar-officials do their utmost to make writing as difficult as possible because it makes them especially dignified, surpassing all other ordinary scholar-officials. Yang Xiong58 of the Han dynasty, who had a fondness for strange characters, had this failing. When Liu Xin59 wished to borrow the manuscript of his Regional Speech (Fang yan),60 Yang threatened to commit suicide.61 In the Tang dynasty, Fan Zongshi's62 essays were written in such a fashion that others could not punctuate them, and Li He63 wrote poems that were incomprehensible. They all did this for the same reason. Another method is to write characters that no one else knows. A crude way of doing that us to look up a few old characters from the Kangxi Dictionary64 and insert them in your writing. Another, more sophisticated, way is — like Qian Dian65 — to write out the whole of Liu Xi's Explanation of Terms (Shiming)66 in small-seal script.67 Recently, Mr. Qian Xuantong68 copied out Taiyan's69 "Catechism of Minor Learning" (Xiaoxue wenda)70 in the [smallseal ] graphs of [Xu Shen's] Shuo wen.

Chinese characters and the Chinese literary language are already difficult enough by their own nature. On top of that, the scholar-officials have purposely devised all of these additional difficulties that get added on. Such being the case, how could anyone hope that the masses would have any affinity for the Chinese writing system? But the scholar-officials precisely want it to be this way. If the characters were easy to recognize and everybody could master them, then they would not be dignified, and the scholar-officials would lose their dignity along with them. Those who say that the written vernacular is not as good as Classical Chinese take this as their starting point. Nowadays, when those who talk about "the language of the masses" (dazhong yu) say that it is only necessary to teach the masses a "thousand-character curriculum,"71 the roots of such thinking also lie in this.

7. Illiterate Authors

Our predecessors called the digest of ancient spoken language written out in such a difficult script wen,72 while those today who are slightly more progressive call it wenxue.73 But this word wenxue was not adopted from [the pronouncement of Confucius in the Analects ]:74 "In wen xue, there are Zi You and Zi Lu." Rather, it was imported from Japan, where it was their translation of the English word "literature."75 People who can compose this kind of wen (refined writing) — and nowadays it is permissible to write in the vernacular — are called "men of letters" or they are called "authors."

The primary requirement for the existence of literature is the ability to write. Therefore, of course, there cannot be any "men of letters" among the illiterate multitudes. But there are authors among them. Don't laugh until you hear the rest of what I have to say. I believe that, before humankind had writing, there were already creative works. Unfortunately, there was no one to record them, nor was there any way to record them. Our earliest ancestors originally couldn't even speak. In order to work cooperatively, they had to express their ideas; thus they gradually learned to produce complex sounds. Suppose they were carrying wood and found it very difficult but didn't know how to express this. If one among them called out, "Heave-ho! Heave-ho!" this is [a kind of ] creation, and if everybody else — out of admiration — adopted this expression, then that was tantamount to publication. And if it were preserved in some form of notation, that would be literature. Whoever did so would be an author, a man of letters, and he would belong to the "Heave-ho School."76 We need not laugh, for although such a work may indeed be quite childish, there are many respects in which the ancients were not up to moderns, this being one of them. Take, for example, these Zhou-dynasty lines:

Guan! guan! cry the ospreys
On an island in the river;
Graceful is the fair maiden,
A fit mate for the gentleman.

Since this is the first stanza [of the first poem] in the Poetry Classic (Shijing),77 we are so overawed by it that all we can do is kowtow submissively. However, if such a poem had not been written in the past and a modern poet were to write a vernacular poem utilizing these ideas, I suspect that — no matter which newspaper supplement he submitted it to — chances are nine out of ten that it would be stuffed into the waste basket.

Ah, a pretty girl!
She's a good match for the young lord.

What kind of talk is this?

Even among the pieces in the "Airs of the States" (Guofeng),78 there are quite a few that were the creations of anonymous illiterates. Because they were relatively outstanding, these were handed down by word of mouth. The officials [who were sent out to the various states] selected and recorded these poems as reference materials for the government.79 No one knows how many other poems must have disappeared. The two great epics of the Greek poet Homer80 — let us assume for the moment that there actually was such a person — may also be considered as originally being oral recitations, while the extant texts were recorded by others. Poems such as the "Midnight Songs"81 and the "Songs without Accompaniment"82 of the Eastern Jin through the Qi and Chen dynasties,83 and the "Bamboo Branch Lyrics" and the "Willow Branch Lyrics"84 of the Tang dynasty were all originally anonymous creations. They were transmitted by literary men who selected and polished them. While these polished verses have admittedly been preserved, it's a pity that they surely must have lost a great deal of their original character. Still today, there are ballads, rustic songs, fishermen's songs, and so forth everywhere, and these are all the works of illiterate poets. There are children's tales and folk narratives which are the works of illiterate creators of fiction. These are all illiterate authors.

However, because [we are dealing with] works that have not been recorded and that, moreover, are easily lost, the extent of their circulation can not be very wide, and the number of people who know about them will also be small. Occasionally, when men of letters encounter a bit [of this sort of oral literature], they are invariably surprised, and absorb it into their own works as new nourishment. When an old literature deteriorates, a new transformation may be initiated by the adoption of folk literature or foreign literature. Such examples are frequently to be seen in the history of literature. Although illiterate authors may not be as refined as men of letters, they are solid and refreshing.

If we want their works to be enjoyed by everyone, we must enable such authors to write, and, at the same time, we must enable readers to be literate and even to be able to write themselves.

In a word, we must make writing accessible to everyone.

8. How to Make Writing Accessible to the Masses

There were already [attempts] to make writing accessible to the masses at the end of the Qing dynasty.

Don't beat a drum, don't strike a gong!

Listen to me sing a Grand Peace Song. . . .

This was an imperially issued ditty85 for instructing the masses. Aside from this, the scholar-officials also published some vernacular newspapers, but their intention was only that the people should be able to understand them when they were read aloud, not that they should be able to write things out themselves.86 The Thousand Character Textbook for Commoners presumes the possibility of [teaching people] to be able to write out a few things, but it's only enough for writing accounts and letters. If one wishes to write out whatever thoughts are in one's mind, its limited number of characters is insufficient. [Such curricula] are like a prison in which the prisoners are given a plot of land which, however, is restricted, so that all they can do is walk, stand, sit, and lie down in their closed quarters, but can definitely not run outside of the iron bars that have been erected.

Lao Naixuan87 and Wang Zhao88 both devised simplified characters which were quite progressive and whereby one could write words according to their sounds. In the early years of the Republic, when the Ministry of Education wanted to devise an alphabet, these two men were members of the committee [charged with that task].89 Mr. Lao sent a representative, but Mr. Wang attended personally. They had a great fight with Mr. Wu Zhihui90 over whether or not to keep the entering tones.91 The fight was so frantic that Mr. Wu's padded trousers fell down when he sucked in his belly. Nonetheless, after repeated deliberations they did come up with something that they called Letters for Annotating Sounds (zhuyin zimu). At the time, there were quite a few people who thought that zhuyin zimu could replace the characters. In fact, however, this didn't work out because zhuyin zimu, after all, are nothing more than simplified tetragraphs,92 just like Japanese kana.93 It's all right if a few [of these symbols] are sandwiched [between the characters] or if they are [attached as phonetic] annotations to the sides of the characters, but if you want them to stand alone, they're not up to it. It's easy to get them mixed up when writing, and they are readily confused in reading. When the committee members called them Letters for Annotating Sounds, they were well aware of their limited capabilities. If we look at [the situation in] Japan, there are those who advocate reducing [the number of ] characters, there are those who advocate Romanization, but nobody advocates using only kana.

Somewhat better is to use [National ] Romanization ([Guoyu] Luomazi).94 I suppose that the person who did the most advanced research on this subject was Mr. Zhao Yuanren,95 but I'm not very clear about it. [National Romanization] uses the internationally current roman letters for spelling — now even Turkey96 has adopted them — a string of letters [are joined to form] a word; it's exceptionally clear and good. But, for an outsider like me, it seems as though that method of spelling is still too complicated. Of course, if one wants to be precise, then one must be fastidious, but when something is excessively complicated, then it becomes difficult and constitutes an obstacle to popularization. It would be better to have something else that is simple yet not crude.

Now let us examine the New Latinization for a moment. The Daily International Digest97 has published a pamphlet titled "Latinization of Written Chinese," and a supplement to the combined issues for June and July, 1934 of La Mondo (The World)98 [entitled ] "Lingva Scienco" [Language Science] also introduced this [system of spelling]. These publications are so cheap that anyone interested may buy a copy to read. The New Latinization uses only twenty-eight letters, and the spelling is easy to learn. "Man" is rhen, "home" is fangz. "I eat fruit" is Wo ch goz. "He is a worker" is Ta sh gungrhen. It is now being tried out among overseas Chinese and it has seen some success, but so far it's only for the northern topolects.99 But I suppose, after all, that most people in China speak one of the northern topolects — not Pekingese — so that if, in the future, there really is a kind of popular written language that can be used everywhere, it will likely be based mainly on the northern topolects. For present purposes, so long as minor modifications are made after due consideration, enabling it to be compatible with various particular, local pronunciations, this spelling system can be used even in remote parts of the country.

Thus, provided that one recognizes twenty-eight letters and learns a few rules for spelling and writing, then anyone but a lazybones or an imbecile can read and write. Moreover, Latinization has another advantage: one can write fast. The Americans say, "Time is money." But I think that time is life. To squander other people's time for no reason is, in fact, no different than robbing and murdering them. However, those like us who sit idly chatting in the cool [evening] breeze are exceptions!

9. Specialization or Popularization?

Having come thus far, we run into a big problem: spoken Chinese languages are quite different in various parts of the country. If we merely divide them up roughly, there are the five groups of the northern topolects, Jiangsu and Zhejiang topolects, the topolects of Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, and Guizhou, the topolects of Fujian, and Cantonese. Furthermore, there are also minor differences within these five groups. Now, if we use Latinization to write, should we write in Standard Mandarin, or should we write in colloquial? If we write in Standard Mandarin, many people do not know it. If we write colloquial, people from other places won't be able to read it, and this will cut them further off from each other, which would not be as good as the characters that circulate throughout the country. This is a great defect.

In my opinion, let each locality write its own colloquial during the initial stage. At the beginning, it is not necessary to be concerned whether people in other places understand the meaning.

Before the introduction of Latinization, our illiterates never used characters to exchange information anyway; hence there are no new disadvantages. On the contrary, there is at least the new advantage that people in the same district will be able to exchange ideas and absorb knowledge.

Of course, by the same token, we also need people to write some beneficial books. Yet the question remains whether the language of the masses in various places should, after all, in the future turn toward the direction of specialization or popularization.

In the topolects and in colloquial speech, there are quite a few profound expressions. Where I'm from we call them "pithy expressions."100 They are very interesting to use, much like allusions in Classical Chinese, and there is a distinct pleasure in hearing them. Specialization would entail allowing the topolects from various places to develop more fully by refining their grammar and vocabulary. This would be beneficial to literature, for it would be far more interesting than just using vague generalities in one's writing. But specialization has its own dangers. I don't know linguistics, but when we observe animals, we note that they are bound to perish whenever they become [overly] specialized. Already before there were human beings, there were many animals and plants that died out because they became too specialized. Thus, they lost their ability to evolve and were unable to adapt to changes in the environment.

Fortunately, we human beings cannot yet be said to be overly specialized animals, so please don't worry. The masses have [their] literature, but they should not sacrifice themselves for it. Otherwise, that would be as ridiculous as the living sages who want to make martyrs of eighty percent of the Chinese people by keeping them illiterate in order to preserve the characters. Therefore, I think that, during the initial period, we should use the topolects. However, at the same time, common grammar and vocabulary should be brought in. First use that which is innate; this is [the means to] popularize writing in a given locality. [After that,] add that which is new; this is [the means to] popularize writing throughout the entire country.

Of course, a system devised by a few scholars in their study usually won't work, but just letting things take their own course is not a good approach either. Today on the wharves, in public offices, and in universities there is already something like common speech (putonghua). When people speak, it is neither the National Language (Guoyu),101 nor is it the language of the capital (Pekingese), with each person having their own local accent and intonation. Yet neither is it a topolect, and even if they pronounce it with difficulty and must make an effort when listening, still — when all is said and done — they can speak and understand it. If we regularize [this language of the wharves, offices, and universities] and help it to develop, it can become a part of the language of the masses,102 or perhaps even the main force. When I said that we should "add that which is new" to the topolects, the source of "the new" lies in this. Once this language which stems from nature but has that which is man-made added to it becomes widespread, our common spoken and written language will have been largely unified.

After this, naturally there will still be more to do. After many months and years, when the spoken and written language becomes even more unified, something that is as good as pithy [local] expressions and more lively than classical allusions will gradually take shape, making literature all the more brilliant. This is not something that will happen immediately. Just think of the characters which advocates of the "National Essence"103 hold to be so precious. Didn't it take three to four thousand years to end up with such a pile of bizarre achievements?

As for who should take the initiative in this, that goes without saying: enlightened scholars.

Some may say, "The work of the masses must be done by the masses themselves."104 Of course, that does make sense, but we must look at the role of the speaker. If the speaker is one of the masses, then it is partially right, the right part being that [the masses] should take care of their own affairs, but the wrong part is refusing the help of others. If, however, the speaker is a scholar, then it is completely different: he is using pretty phrases to monopolize writing and to protect his own dignity and honor.

10. There's No Need to Panic

However, without necessarily even taking any real action, the mere mention of this is enough to cause some people to panic.

First they say that those who advocate language and writing for the masses (dazhong yuwen) are "political propagandists in the literary realm like Song Yang,"105 meaning that they are rebels.

Putting a red106 cap on them is the easiest way to oppose them. Yet, at the same time, this means that, for their own peace of mind, they would rather that eighty percent of Chinese remain illiterate.

And, as for verbal propaganda, there ought to be eighty percent who are deaf and dumb.

But this is outside the framework of "chatting about written language," so here I needn't say too much about it.

Of those who are particularly concerned about literature, I now see that there are two types.

One type is afraid that if the masses can all read and write, then everybody will become men of letters. This is like the good man [in the fable] who was afraid that the sky would fall down. I mentioned earlier that, among the illiterate masses, there have all along been authors. I haven't been to the countryside for a long time, but in the past if the peasants had a bit of leisure — for example, if they were relaxing in a cool place — then somebody would tell stories. But the storyteller was usually a special person who was relatively more experienced and a clever talker who could keep people listening, was easy to understand, and moreover was interesting. This was an author and, if you copied down what he said, it would be literature. If there were someone whose language was insipid, yet was excessively loquacious, nobody would want to listen to him and would even unleash many sarcastic remarks in his direction — satire. We've already been playing around with Classical Chinese for several thousand years and with written vernacular for ten-odd years; but are all who can write men of letters? Even if we all become men of letters, this is not like being warlords or bandits since it would not be harmful to the people. All we'd do is read each other's works.

Another type is afraid that [the quality of ] literature would be lowered. The masses are not cultivated in the old literature. Compared to the refined literature of the literati, perhaps they may appear to be "low," but they have not been tainted by the chronic maladies of the old literature.

Therefore, what they compose is vigorous and fresh. I've already mentioned how anonymous literature such as the "Midnight Songs" (Ziye ge) can give new strength to the old literature. Now there are also many folk songs and [folk] stories that have been introduced. In addition, there are popular dramas, such as the autobiographical [speech] by the Ghost of Impermanence107 in "Mulian108 Rescues His Mother," which I quoted in Dawn Flowers Plucked at Dusk (Zhao hua xi shi).109 He says that, because he sympathized with another ghost and let him temporarily go back to earth for half a day, he was unexpectedly punished by Yama.110 From then on, [ he decided] never to be lenient again,

Even if you are [protected by] a wall of bronze or iron!
Even if you are a relative of the emperor!

How human, how conscience-stricken, how law-abiding, and how resolute! Is this something that our men of letters could produce?

This is the authentic work of peasants and craftsmen who perform such plays in their free time, borrowing the theme of Mulian's travels to string together many tales. Except for "The Young Nun Goes down the Mountain,"111 they are completely different from the woodblock printed text of the "Record of Mulian Rescuing His Mother."112 Among the scenes there is one called "Wu Song Kills the Tiger"113 in which two men — one strong and one weak — do the acting.

First the strong man takes the part of Wu Song and the weak man the part of the tiger. The weak man complains when he is beaten roundly by the strong man who says, "You're a tiger. If I don't beat you, won't you bite me to death?" All that the weak man can do is ask to exchange [roles], but when he is bitten mercilessly by the strong man and grumbles, the strong man says, "You're Wu Song. If I don't bite you, won't I be beaten to death by you?" I think that, compared to the fables of the Greek, Aesop,114 or of the Russian, Sologub,115 this is in no way inferior.

If we were to go out into every part of the country to collect them, I suspect that there would be many more works of this sort. However, they naturally have their defects. They have all along been cut off from modern thought by the shackles of our difficult script and difficult literary style. Therefore, if we want Chinese culture to advance as one, we must promote the language of the masses and the literature of the masses. All the more, our writing must be Latinized.

11. The Masses Are by No Means as Stupid as the Scholars Imagine

But this time, no sooner were the language and writing of the masses mentioned than various valiant generals have taken advantage of the opportunity to join the fray. Their backgrounds are not all of a kind, but they all attack the vernacular, translations, Europeanized grammar, and new terms. They all fly the flag of the masses, saying that none of these things is understood by the masses, so they are unacceptable. Among them are some who were originally classicists. They avail themselves of this to assail the vernacular and translations that are right before them. This is the old tactic of "making alliances with those who are distant while attacking those who are near."116 Others among them are slothful persons who have never studied hard. Before the language of the masses succeeds, they want the vernacular to fail, so that they will be left with an empty arena where they can boast wildly. As a matter of fact, they are good friends of Classical Chinese, so I don't want to say anything more about them. What I want to talk about now are those well-intentioned but mistaken individuals who, either because they belittle the masses or because they belittle themselves, are prey to the same failing as the scholars of old.117

Scholars often belittle others, thinking that sentences which are relatively new or relatively difficult must be thoroughly swept away for the sake of the masses, even though they themselves can understand such sentences, since the masses cannot understand them. In speaking and writing, the more ordinary the better. If these views develop further, they will imperceptibly become a new school of the national essence.118 Sometimes, wanting the language and writing of the masses to spread quickly, they propose that everything should suit the taste of the masses, and they even go so far as to say that an effort should be made to "cater to the masses." They intentionally use a lot of swear words to ingratiate themselves with the masses. Naturally, this shows that they are making extraordinary efforts, but if they keep on this way, they will end up becoming new buffoons for the masses.

Speaking of the term "masses," it has a broad range of meaning, including various sorts and types of people. But even if it's an illiterate who can't recognize the simplest character, to my mind they really aren't so stupid as the scholars think. They want knowledge, new knowledge.

They want to learn, and they can pick things up. Of course, if [they're confronted with] a mouthful of new grammar and new vocabulary, they won't understand anything. But if one picks out what is essential and gradually infuses them with it, they will be able to accept it. Their ability to absorb [new things] may well exceed that of scholars with more preconceived ideas. Newborn babies are all illiterate, but by the time they are two years old they understand many words and can say many words. To them, these are all completely new terms and new grammar. They don't have to look them up in Mr. Ma's Grammar (Ma shi wentong )119 or Fountain of Words (Ciyuan),120 nor do they need a teacher to explain them. After listening to them a few times, they understand the meaning through comparison. This is also the way that the masses can pick up new vocabulary and new grammar; this is how they make progress. Therefore, although the proposals of the new national essence school seem as though they were put forward for the masses, in actuality they have served to hold them back. Nonetheless, we cannot adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward the masses either, since their understanding of things in some respects, after all, is still beneath that of those enlightened scholars [who have their interests at heart]. If discrimination is not regularly exercised for them, they may mistakenly choose what is useless, or even what is harmful. Therefore, the new buffoonery of "catering to the masses" is unacceptable.

[Judging] from the instruction of history, in the beginning all reforms are the duty of the enlightened intellectuals. These intellectuals, however, must study, think hard, be decisive, and have perseverance. They may also employ various expedients, yet without deceiving others. They use inducements, but by no means do they cater [to others]. They do not belittle themselves by acting as clowns for everybody, nor do they belittle others by treating them as their own underlings.

They are simply individuals among the masses. I think that only in this way can the cause of the masses be carried out.

12. Coda

I've already said quite a lot. In short, words alone will not suffice; what's important is action. We need lots of people to act: the masses and the vanguard. All sorts of people are needed to act: educators, men of letters, linguists. . . . This is an urgent necessity right now, even if it is like sailing against the current, when all you can do is tow the boat from the bank. To be sure, sailing with the current is pleasant, but even then it is necessary to have a steersman.

Although we can discuss the best methods for towing and steering, in general the greatest benefit derives from practice. No matter how we look at the wind or the water, our goal is always the same: Forward!

Everyone probably has his own opinion, so now let me hear what brilliant ideas each of you [has to offer on this subject].

Translator's Notes

  1. This is but one of the more than a hundred pen names and pseudonyms employed by Zhou Shuren. Lu Xun was born into a prominent gentry family of Shaoxing, Zhejiang, which had been a center of learning for centuries.
  2. The year 1934 was one of serious drought in the south and terrible floods in the north. The Guomindang/Kuomintang (KMT; Nationalist) government invited the Ninth Panchen Lama and the Living Buddha of Anqin to perform public prayers for rain.
  3. A reference to the semiscandalous news at the beginning of August, 1934 concerning a Secretary of State named Chu Minyi, who was photographed in slightly compromising situations with a young beauty.
  4. Probably as a diversion from the unbearable heat, the newspapers reported the finding of the desiccated corpse of the Drought God named Hanba. The tiny mummy, which apparently had but one eye in the top of its head, was actually exhibited in the house of wonders called "The World" (Shijie).
  5. Due to the crop failure resulting from the prolonged drought, China had to spend a tremendous amount of silver to purchase American rice during this period.
  6. During the New Life campaign of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Soong Mei-ling, regulations governing the dress of women were promulgated on June 7, 1934. Among these were very preciserules concerning how many inches of skin below the knee could be exposed and a prohibition against exposure of female toes and elbows. Offenders were subject to arrest.
  7. Whether to write in the dead, classical language or in a style more nearly approximating the spoken language had been a topic of much debate already from before the time of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Lu Xun is credited with writing the first modern vernacular (baihua) short story, "The Diary of a Madman" (1918). Even though the Republican authorities had replaced Classical Chinese as the medium of government and education, there was a constant struggle to keep from backsliding into the old habit of teaching elementary students Classical Chinese and requiring middle-school students to master the Four Books (Analects, Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean; see selections 7, 9, 10, 64). As a matter of fact, intense discussions on the appropriateness of such a policy had erupted in May, 1934, when an archconservative scholar named Wang Maozu launched an attack against restricting the medium of instruction to written vernacular materials. In the following months, well over a hundred articles on the subject appeared in Shanghai newspapers and journals alone. Lu Xun himself participated in these debates, publishing several essays of his own in which he argued against the reintroduction of Classical Chinese. His completion of Menwai wentan at the end of the summer of 1934 was undoubtedly stimulated by this vigorous pedagogical confrontation. It is not surprising that, still at the beginning of the twenty-first century, conservative activists in mainland China (with support from abroad) are pushing for the partial restitution of Classical Chinese and the gradual deemphasis of reading and writing vernacular.
  8. An allusion to Aesop's fable on "The Bat and the Weasels," in which a bat successively escapes being eaten by two weasels by telling the one that it is a mouse and the other that it is a bird. Since Lu Xun was competent in both classical and vernacular writing styles, a few of his interlocutors must have been skeptical that he was a master of either.
  9. Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan of the Tang dynasty; Ouyang Xiu, Su Xun, Su Shi (Dongpo), Su Zhe,Wang Anshi, and Zeng Gong of the Song dynasty were considered by later critics to be the best prose writers of their day.
  10. The supposed mythical inventor of the Chinese script.
  11. Lu Xun uses the Sanskrit word dhūta.
  12. This immediately calls to mind the quipu of early Incan civilization. Lu Xun discusses the quipu in more detail in the next section.
  13. The word Lu Xun uses here, (archaic pronunciation *myyag), is almost invariably translated as "shaman." However, judging from their duties described in the oracle-shell and bone inscriptions, they were not at all like typical Tungusic shamans. Rather, they clearly resembled ancient Iranian mages. Indeed, there is persuasive archaeological, paleographic, and linguistic evidence that the wu were actually magi (<Greek māgos < Old Persian maguš; cf. Avestan moɣu). Later, however, roughly from the Warring States period on, loses its original Iranian signification and comes to be applied to individuals who were engaged in essentially shamanistic practices. See the following note.
  14. By late Warring States times, the wu did evolve into religious practitioners much more akin to Tungusic shamans, of which communication with the gods and spirit travel were characteristic activities.
  15. The word used here is shi (archaic pronunciation *sry əˀ [indefinite final consonant or consonant cluster]), more accurately rendered as "scribe" in the earliest stages of the Chinese script. The sinograph used to write this word depicts a hand holding a drill for making marks in hard surfaces such as bone. It is more than a mere curiosity to note that the Indo-European etymological root of the English words "scribe" and "script" is *skrībh, which means "cut /scratch /mark [a surface]."
  16. From the Book of Rites (Liji), chapter "Ritual Implements" (Li qi).
  17. From the History of the Han (Hanshu), "Table of Past and Contemporary Persons" (Gu jin ren biao).
  18. Eight symbols which are each composed of various combinations of three solid lines or lines that are broken in the middle (☰, ☷, ☳, ☶, ☲, ☵, ☱, ☴) and represent the basic elements of natural philosophy. Two trigrams joined together make up a hexagram. There are sixty-four hexagrams, and their manipulation constitutes the fundamental system of divination in the Book of Changes.
  19. By one common account, Fuxi was the mythical founder of Chinese civilization, having taught the Chinese people how to make nets, hunt and fish, and raise animals. He supposedly also established the institutions of marriage and created the eight trigrams.
  20. The number 512 is eight times 64, so Lu Xun appears to be hypothesizing an even more complicated system of enneagrams (nine-line symbols).
  21. Spelled "Quippus" by Lu Xun, this word is derived from Quechua khipu, which designates a device consisting of a cord with knotted strings of various colors attached to it that is used for recording events, keeping accounts, and so forth.
  22. Located on Goulou Peak of Hengshan (one of the five sacred mountains of China) in Hunan Province, it was allegedly carved by Yu in commemoration of his controlling the flood. The inscription is composed of seventy-seven strange characters that are hard to decipher. The Tang poet Han Yu (768–824), in a poem entitled "Mt. Goulou," has the line "On the top of Mt. Goulou is [reported to be] the stele of divine Yu." Yet, in the same poem, the following line also occurs: "[Even though you] search in a thousand and ten thousand places, it's nowhere to be found." From this it is evident that the legend of the Goulou stele had already been concocted over a millennium before the time of Lu Xun. By the early part of the sixteenth century, scholars of rather dubious reputation had begun to write treatises "explaining" the inscription. Since there had been no previous mention of the existence of an inscription on Mt. Goulou consisting of seventy-seven characters, critical modern scholarship regards it as a notorious Ming forgery by Taoists.
  23. The legendary first emperor of the semihistorical Xia dynasty, he was said to have quelled the flood that covered China.
  24. In other words, around 1200 b.c.e.
  25. Discovered in 1879, these caves hold some of the finest paleolithic art in the world.
  26. Lu Xun uses the Chinese transcription (modeng ) of the English word.
  27. The call for "art for art's sake" began with the French author Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) and was taken up by other late-nineteenth-century European writers and critics.
  28. Lu Xun is simplifying matters in many respects. First of all, pure pictography was already insufficient for expressing the limited range of topics covered in the oracle-bone and bronze inscriptions. Even in these earliest known stages of Chinese writing, scribes had to use ideographic, phonophoric, and other principles to be able to express themselves. Furthermore, beyond a very limited number of fairly obvious pictographs, it is difficult for those who are untutored in a given script to figure out the precise meanings of symbols that were originally designed as pictographs. For example, oracle-bone characters like those for "turtle" and "horse," which are among the most highly pictographic characters, are almost never correctly identified when shown to individuals who have not already studied the script intensively.
  29. A scholar-official who was active around 253–258, he was said to have made up more than a thousand strange characters.
  30. The only woman in Chinese history who set herself up as emperor and established her own dynasty, the Zhou, Wu Zetian (623/625–705) promulgated twelve (some accounts say nineteen) new characters (including one for her personal name [Zhao], one for the name of her dynasty [Zhou], and one for Heaven [Tian] in the year 690, when she assumed the throne. Her brief empire collapsed with her death in 705 and reverted to the Tang.
  31. This work purports to be a detailed description of the administrative structure and governmental organization of the Zhou dynasty. It is traditionally dated to the Warring States period (475–221 b.c.e.), but it is not even mentioned by title before the year 90 b.c.e. and does not surface as a text until the Han interregnum of Wang Mang (45 b.c.e.–23 c.e.; r. 9–23 c.e.), who relied on it heavily in a vain attempt to shore up the dubious legitimacy of his Xin (New) dynasty.
  32. Completed by Xu Shen (ca. 55–ca. 149 c.e.) in the year 100, this is the first systematic and comprehensive dictionary of Chinese characters. Although it was hugely influential from the time it was presented to the emperor in the year 121 c.e. until the twentieth century, modern scholarship has increasingly called into question its lexicographical principles and findings, which are based on late and severely limited data.
  33. These are the so-called liu shu (six writings): zhishi (indicative [ideographs]), xiangxing (representational [pictographs]), xingsheng (semanto-syllabic [pictophonetic graphs]), huiyi (conjunct [etymonic graphs]), zhuanzhu (transferred [graphic-etymonic pairs]), and jiajie (borrowed [phonetic loans]).
  34. This sentence is quoted from the Book of Changes, "Great Treatise" (Xi ci [da zhuan]), part II, section 2, where it occurs in a passage describing how Baoxi (i.e., Fuxi; see n. 19 above) devised the trigrams after contemplating the natural phenomena of Heaven and Earth.
  35. Lu Xun is correct in stating that fou was originally composed of two components, but they were not a mortar and a pestle. Instead, the earliest forms of the graph show an earthen jar with the upper part as its lid and the lower part as its body. Characters with fou as their radical usually have something to do with earthenware. The character for bao potentially could be looked up by any of its four main components, which are all radicals, but is conventionally classified under the "roof " radical at the top.
  36. The term xiesheng literally means "harmonious sound(s)," hence the English coinage "symphophonetic." Functionally, however, it is identical to the term already mentioned in note 33 for the most common means of character formation, namely xingsheng (pictophonetic). Whether called xiesheng or xingsheng, such graphs amount to approximately 85 percent of the total. This type of graph consists of a radical (the "picto-" part) which gives a hint at the meaning ("tree," "grass," "metal," "water," "hill," etc.) and a phonophore (the sound-bearing element) which provides an indication of the sound.
  37. By this, Lu Xun means that xiesheng /xingsheng graphs do not attempt to portray the likeness of the thing specified. Rather, they convey an idea of the sound of the word indicated by the graph, together with a general suggestion of its meaning.
  38. Except that cài meaning "vegetable" is pronounced in the fourth tone, with a following pitch, while cǎi meaning "pluck" is pronounced in the third tone, with a low, dipping pitch. The phonophoric portion of a graph may be even less precise than that in cài (vegetable). For example, depending upon the characters in which it occurs, the phonophore jian phonophore with multiple pronunciations may be variously read as jiǎn, jiàn, qiān, qiǎn, qiàn, xián, xiǎn, lián, liǎn, liàn, zhuàn, zuàn, qiè, etc. This is obviously not a precisely rigorous system of phonetic notation.
  39. This is another excellent example of how the phonophoric portion of pictophonetic characters often gives grossly inadequate information about how they should be pronounced. Depending upon the character in which it occurs, the phonophore mei phonophore may be variously read as méi, mèi, huǐ, huì, hǎi, mǐn, yù, fán, etc. It should be pointed out that the last two items cited ( yù and fán) may incorporate the mei phonophore for purely visual purposes and thus not be phonologically related to it. Furthermore, while the plethora of Mandarin pronunciations for characters having the mei and jian (see n. 38) phonophores is bewildering, there are historical reasons for the production of such disparate sounds. Two thousand years ago, all of the graphs existing at that time that incorporated the mei or jian phonophores would surely have sounded much more like each other than they do today. Unfortunately, a satisfactory reconstruction of the sounds of early Sinitic has still not been achieved, although scholars have been working assiduously for the last century to determine the sounds of the characters in ancient times.
  40. Lu Xun is referring to the bottom right element of the graph, mu 母, which means "mother" when it stands alone. The earliest pictographic forms of the character depicted a woman kneeling down with her breasts exposed (the two dots of the modern graph are the vestigial nipples), the symbol of a mother who nurses her children. By extension, mu also indicates the older female generation or simply female.
  41. The question mark is Lu Xun's. The earliest forms of the graph for mei (each, every) actually depict a kneeling woman with an elaborate ornament stuck in her hair.
  42. Large- and small-seal characters (dazhuan, xiaozhuan) were the next main stages in the development of the Chinese script after oracle-bone and bronze inscriptional forms. They were current in the Spring and Autumn (770–476 b.c.e.) and Warring States (475–221 b.c.e.) periods respectively.
  43. This stage in the development of the Chinese script, called lishu (also referred to as "official script" in English), took place roughly during the Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.–220 c.e.).
  44. The last main stage in the development of the Chinese script, called kaishu (also referred to in English as "regular script" or "model script"), became popular from the latter part of the Han dynasty.
  45. It is interesting to observe that, moving roughly from north to south China, the graph for hua (slippery) has the following pronunciations (the small circles indicate tones; the romanization here is that of the International Phonetic Alphabet [ IPA], with k being pronounced as we normally pronounce "g" and the question mark without a dot signifying a glottal stop): . . . . . . .. From this data, it is evident that many of the southern topolects (which are more conservative than northern topolects) not only still pronounce hua (slippery) with an initial "g" sound, but that some of them still retain the final consonant that the etymological root for this word must originally have possessed.
  46. The relationship between hai and mei is discussed in note 39 above.
  47. The Shujing is a disparate collection of texts concerning the Shang and Zhou dynasties whose dates of composition vary widely, with the bulk probably coming from the late Warring States and Han periods.
  48. Author of the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji; see selections 28 and 29).
  49. Also called Chen Sheng (d. 209 b.c.e.), Chen Shĕ was the leader of a peasant rebellion toward the end of the Qin dynasty.
  50. In this sentence, the words for "Wow" and "splendacious" are highly colloquial terms that probably reflect the local language of the rebels. Only in extremely rare instances have such unpolished expressions survived the redactional processes of Chinese historiography and literature. Indeed, as Lu Xun points out, the rest of the sentence is in standard Literary Sinitic or Classical Chinese, revealing that the historian could not resist improving the language of his original sources after all.
  51. The prince, Liu Zhang, was the younger brother of Emperor Wen (r. 180–157 b.c.e.). Accusing the prince of insurrection, the emperor banished him to the far southwest (Sichuan). The prince died of starvation en route to his place of banishment, causing the people to commemorate him with this song.
  52. The Hanshu, by Ban Gu of the Eastern Han dynasty, is the official Chinese history of the Former or Western Han dynasty. It was begun by Ban Gu's father, Ban Biao, and finished up by his sister Ban Zhao and the scholar Ma Xu. The Qian Hanji was compiled by Xun Yue (148–209), also of the Eastern Han. The second version of the poem, however, does not actually occur in Xun Yue's work, but rather in the "Exegesis of the ¡¥Great Exploits' of Huainan" (Huainan "Honglie" jiexu) by Gao You, yet another Eastern Han scholar. Perhaps because he was working from memory, Lu Xun makes a few other minor errors in quoting the two versions. As quoted in scroll 44 of the History of the Han, the first version lacks the word neng (can) in the last line. As quoted in scroll 118 of the Records of the Grand Historian, however, it appears exactly as quoted by Lu Xun. As recorded by Gao You, the first line of the second version originally had zeng (pongee [rough silk from wild silkworms]) instead of bu (cloth) and haotongtong (really nice) instead of nuantongtong (snuggly warm). And in the third line of this version, the word neng (can) occurs, just as in the third line of the poem in the Records of the Grand Historian.
  53. The term used here, yulu, refers especially to the records of the words and deeds of Chan (Zen) masters. After the genre was well established by the Buddhists, it was taken up by certain Neo-Confucian scholars. The spoken portions of yulu can be highly vernacular. However, since they seem to reflect a koine, we cannot be sure that any of the yulu are accurate transcriptions of the topolectal speech patterns of individuals who, after all, hailed from various parts of China.
  54. Lu Xun uses the word huaben (literally, "tale-root"), which is one of the most misunderstood terms in the study of Chinese literature. Although it is usually loosely interpreted as signifying "prompt-books" of the Song and Yuan periods, recent research has shown that the vast majority of huaben are literary creations of the Ming and Qing periods. While they are manifestly vernacular in nature, still less so than yulu do huaben faithfully preserve the spoken language of the Song and Yuan periods.
  55. Translated literally as "miscellaneous drama," zaju constitutes the first formal theatrical tradition of China and was the most glorious and rich literary manifestation of the Yuan period (1279–1308).
  56. The term chuanqi (literally, "transmission of the strange") normally signifies either Tang-period classical fiction or southern-style drama of the Ming and Qing periods. Since neither of these terms is appropriate in this case, Lu Xun must have been thinking of nanxi (southern plays), which do have their roots in the late-Song and Yuan periods and are considered to be the direct forerunners of Ming chuanqi.
  57. Lu Xun writes guwen (old writing). This may also be referred to as Literary Sinitic.
  58. Yang Xiong (53 b.c.e.–18 c.e.) was one of China's greatest early rhapsodists. However, in his moralistic old age, he rejected his entire output in the fu (rhyme-prose, rhapsody) — an important early literary genre — as being frivolous and trivial.
  59. The son of the famous scholar, writer, and bibliophile of the Western Han Liu Xiang (79–8 b.c.e.), Liu Xin (ca. 50 b.c.e.–23 c.e.) was himself a distinguished scholar, statesman, astrologist, and bibliographer.
  60. The complete title of the work is Youxuanshi zhe juedai yu shi bie guo fang yan (Obsolete Words Collected by Light Chariot Envoys with Glosses on the Regional Speech from Individual States [David Knechtges]; or Local Words of Different "Countries," Explained by the Language of Bygone Generations [as Collected] by the Imperial Messenger[s] [Who Traveled] in the Light Cart [Paul L-M. Serruys]). Scholars have been debating the authorship of this book for centuries, with some saying that it is impossible for Yang Xiong to have written it and others saying that it was definitely compiled by him. Regardless of who the author was (most modern scholars believe that it actually was Yang Xiong's work), Fang yan is the first extant work dealing with the local languages of the Chinese empire, although there is good evidence that investigations of regional speech and writing habits were carried out before the Han dynasty in Zhou and Qin times. Indeed, the first words in the complete title of the book attributed to Yang Xiong refer to an old Zhou-dynasty office, the Royal Commissioner (Youxianshi), whose chief was periodically sent out from the capital to gather information about regional dialects and languages, local folk songs, and other aspects of culture in which the government was interested. It should also be noted that the term fangyan, as a bisyllabic word, has long (for at least a century) been misleadingly translated as "dialect." Since many Sinitic (i.e., "Chinese") fangyan are mutually unintelligible, linguistically it would be more precise to refer to them as separate languages. Some fangyan, however, are mutually intelligible variants of the same language. Therefore, to avoid confusion, scholars have recently begun to use the word "topolect" as a more neutral and accurate rendering of fangyan, which, in the most literal sense, means "speech [pattern characteristic of a] place." This is identical with the meaning of "topolect." The irony of all this is that the modern bisyllabic Mandarin term fangyan was probably created as an inaccurate calque for the English word "dialect." There is no indication that Chinese referred to local speech patterns as fangyan before the modern period. ( Judging from the title and contents of Fang yan, which deals strictly with individual words [actually characters], this was certainly not what Yang Xiong meant by the collocation of fang and yan, although whoever calqued fangyan from "dialect" was obviously inspired by the title of the Han-period book.) Instead, if premodern Chinese referred to local speech patterns at all, it was as xiang tan (village chatting [the tan being the same graph as in the title of Lu Xun's work translated here]), with no idea whatsoever of their being related or linguistically classifiable in a hierarchical or cladistic scheme.

    The Fang yan attributed to Yang Xiong contains over eleven thousand local terms culled from the length and breadth of the Han empire. Although it is a valuable collection of basic data for historical linguists, the compilers were seriously hampered by the lack of a convenient and reliable method for making phonetic transcriptions.

  61. Yang Xiong attempted to commit suicide by leaping out of the upper story of a building when he was falsely implicated in a plot against the usurper, Wang Mang. This occurred in 10 c.e., three years after Yang Xiong is said to have finished his compilation of Fang yan (Liu Xin [see n. 59] actually did commit suicide for his anti–Wang Mang actions, which he felt compelled to engage in after the usurper had killed three of his sons.) Lu Xun uses the Shanghai expression "jump into the Whangpoo [River]" to indicate suicide. In a letter written in response to Liu Xin's request to see the manuscript of Fang yan, Yang Xiong replies that, for twenty-seven years, he had traveled widely with brush in hand taking notes on the local languages of the realm. Since, however, the manuscript was incomplete at the time Liu Xin requested it, Yang Xiong was not willing to let others see it. If someone forced him to turn it over, he would commit suicide instead. This, of course, seems like an extreme reaction to scholarly interest in one's work. However, aside from the fact that Yang Xiong was by nature high-strung, the reputation of Liu Xin and his father, Liu Xiang, who were notorious for "editing" the works of others and, in so doing, somehow making them their own, must have been a factor in Yang Xiong's response.
  62. Fan, who died around the year 821, wrote refractory prose that many readers could make no sense of at all.
  63. Li He (790–816) was a well-known Tang poet whose verse was so recherché and strange that it thoroughly bewildered even the most learned scholars.
  64. Named after the Manchu Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722) of the Qing dynasty who sponsored its compilation, this dictionary contains 47,315 characters. A goodly portion of these characters is so obscure that either the sound or the meaning (or both the sound and the meaning) is unknown. Still another large group of characters in this dictionary are odd, little-used variants of more common graphs. The Kangxi Dictionary was the standard unabridged reference for Chinese characters up to the early part of the twentieth century, when lexicons with even greater numbers of bizarre and outmoded sinographs were compiled. It was not long before the barrier of 50,000 characters was broken, then 80,000, and after that 100,000 different forms were dredged up. Now there are online computer dictionaries with 120,000 different Chinese characters. It is, of course, a monumental problem to order such a multiplicity of discrete items made up of from one to sixty-four brush strokes that are of eight basic types. Xu Shen's Shuo wen jie zi (see n. 32), which had 9,353 graphs, divided them up into 540 "radicals" (classifying components). The Kangxi Dictionary, with a vastly larger number of graphs, reduced that figure to 214 (already employed by a lexicographer named Mei Yingzuo in the late Ming). Until recently, serious Sinologists were obliged to memorize the 214 radicals of the Kangxi Dictionary. Now, however, a mind-numbing plethora of other numbers of radicals and completely different ordering methods has been devised. None of these has won acceptance as a widely recognized standard means for looking up the characters, leaving Chinese lexicography and information processing in a chaotic state.
  65. A philologist of the Qing period whose dates are 1744–1806.
  66. The Shiming adopted the novel approach of employing homophones or near-homophones to explain words. The compiler's paronomastic (punning) glosses are fanciful, at times bordering on the absurd, but his dictionary is nonetheless valuable to modern researchers for the phonological information it contains. Liu Xi's dates are unknown, but Shiming was completed around the year 200 c.e.
  67. By the time of Qian Dian, this obsolete form of the sinographs would have been readable only to a small handful of antiquarians, learned seal engravers, and specialists in the history of the Chinese script.
  68. Around the time of the May Fourth Movement, the tumultuous period of cultural renaissance that erupted in 1919, Qian Xuantong (1887–1939) was among the more progressive thinkers who advocated thorough reform of the Chinese script and languages. Later, however, like many erstwhile enthusiasts for modernization and change, he adopted a far more conservative stance. It is undoubtedly for this reason that Lu Xun mentions him in this sentence, which is fairly saturated with multiple layers of irony.
  69. Zhang Taiyan (1868–1936) was one of the most ardent intellectuals of the late-Qing period who were not only opposed to the ineffective Manchu government, but who rejected the entire Confucian ideology that served as the foundation of the imperial system. Like Qian Xuantong (see n. 68) and so many other youthful reformers, he became more backward-looking as he grew older.
  70. "Xiaoxue wenda" literally means "Questions and Answers on Minor Learning." "Minor Learning" here signifies traditional (pre-Buddhist, pre-Western) script and language studies, in contrast to daxue (major learning), i.e., moral inculcation. (In modern times, under Japanese influence, xiaoxue has come to mean "primary school" and daxue now means "university.") Zhang Taiyan's "A Catechism of Minor Learning" explains words on the basis of Shuo wen jie zi (see nn. 32 and 64), China's first dictionary. Qian Xuantong was so impressed by Zhang Taiyan's work that he copied it out in the ancient small-seal script in which Shuo wen jie zi had originally been written.
  71. This was also a hot topic right around the time Lu Xun wrote these chapters, with the major book publishers variously issuing A Thousand Character Textbook for Commoners, A Thousand Character Textbook for the Masses, A Thousand Character Textbook for Citizens, A Thousand Character Textbook for Young and Old, and so forth. Although a thousand characters cover approximately 90 percent of all occurrences in typical writing, this amount is grossly inadequate for full literacy. The result of reading at this level would be such that one would fail to recognize one out of every ten morphemes in a text, an unacceptably high degree of incomprehension. Lu Xun viewed Chinese educators who promoted such policies of instruction for the masses as elitist and condescending. In his opinion, they failed to confront fundamental flaws in the character writing system.
  72. The earliest form of the graph used to write this word depicted a man with a tatoo on his chest. The basic idea that it conveyed was that of "ornament, pattern." Gradually, the word evolved to mean "refined," "culture," and "writing," its primitive signification being preserved only in such old expressions as wen shen (tattoo the body). It is supremely ironic that the most rarefied manifestation of Chinese civilization has its origins in the cultural practices belonging to the "barbarian" nomads of the north and northwest.
  73. The Mandarin bisyllabic word wenxue means "literature," but the two graphs used to write this word signify "culture, refinement, writing, etc." and "learning." The enormous leap from wen plus xue to wenxue is explained in the following sentences and notes.
  74. See selection 7. In this particular passage of the Analects (11.3), Confucius is praising two of his favorite disciples. The two syllables wen and xue are not joined because they have not yet fused into a single word. The exact meaning of wen xue in this passage of the Analects is contested, with translations running from "culture" (surely an imprecise rendering) to "literary acquirements" (a mystifying formulation in its own right) to "familiarity with old documents" (probably fairly close to what Confucius actually meant). Regardless of the bewildering range of interpretations for wen xue in this Analects passage, all scholars agree that it does not mean "literature." In the centuries following Confucius, wen xue acquired the following different connotations: literati learning, scholarship, literary talent, formal documents, the name of a section in the eductional system, instructor, and clerk (the last two terms being official titles). As late as A New Account of Tales of the World (Shishuo xinyu) by Liu Yiqing (403–444), where wen xue is used as a chapter heading ("Letters and Scholarship"), the two morphemes had not fused into a single concept. Their fusion and adoption to convey the notion of "literature" was still far in the future.
  75. Wenxue, the characters for which are pronounced bungaku in Japanese, is one of many important new words that were coined in Japan to cope with Western ideas and things. Around the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, a flood of such loans and calques were borrowed into Chinese languages. Having himself been an overseas student in Japan, Lu Xun was well aware of China's indebtedness to Japan for such basic modern terms as those for "biology," "train," and "democracy." A special category of such borrowings were "round-trip words" that started out in China with one meaning, had a new meaning attached to them in Japan, and were then brought back to China with that new meaning displacing the earlier one. Wenxue was one of these words; others are those for "culture," "civilization," "grammar," "physics," "analysis," and "religion."
  76. This is a reference to the well-known author and humorist Lin Yutang (1895–1976), who in late April and early May of 1934 had written a series of articles criticizing the primitiveness of the "literature of the masses" (dazhong wenyi). He had specifically sneered at the shallowness of ancient work songs and chants such as "Heave-ho! Heave-ho!" In the following sentences, Lu Xun deliberately invokes what is perhaps the earliest icon of Chinese men of letters.
  77. One of the Confucian classics (see selection 6).
  78. One of the three main sections of the Book of Odes. The "Airs of the States" are generally considered to be based on folk songs that were collected in various regions of the Zhou empire. The other two main sections of the Book of Odes are the courtly "Elegantiae" (Ya) and the stately "Hymns" (Song [pronounced soong]).
  79. The theory being that this would enable the rulers to gauge the sentiments of the people through their verse.
  80. Homer (9th c. b.c.e.), author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, was an illiterate, blind bard.
  81. "Ziye" was the eponymous creator of this genre of poetry. Her name means something like "Girl of the Night." The poems she created, and those of later poets modeled after them, were full of suggestive double entendres.
  82. These songs were said to be spontaneous lamentations of the people for a dead prince. Like the "Midnight Songs," they were characteristic of the south.
  83. I.e., the Six Dynasties period (317–589).
  84. The "Zhuzhi ci" and the "Liuzhi ci" were mostly heptasyllabic poems by well-known Tang poets, such as Bo Juyi (772–846) and Liu Yuxi (772–842), who modeled their works on particular folk-song genres. These poems were used for both entertainment and education.
  85. Realizing that the traditional educational system was unsuited to the twentieth century, the Qing government in 1901 abolished the rigidly formulaic "eight-legged essay" of the civil service examination system, established schools, and promoted popular education. In 1906, the authorities went further and compiled stories and songs written in the vernacular for use in teaching. The lines quoted here are from one of these songs.
  86. Already in the early-Qing dynasty, with roots stretching back still further to the Yuan, there was an informal practice of writing out vernacular paraphrases of classical texts that could be read aloud to those who were illiterate in characters (see selection 67). Perhaps the best examples of this are the vernacular renderings of the "Sacred Edict" of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722) prepared by individual local magistrates to be read out to the citizens of their districts. The authorities were eager to communicate the wishes of the government to the people, but realized that Classical Chinese, even when read aloud, was completely unintelligible to them. Because these vernacular paraphrases were not considered proper literature, very few of them have survived. It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that the Qing government began a small-scale, programmatic effort to make vernacular materials available from a central source.
  87. An official, statesman, and educator of the late-Qing and early-Republican periods, Lao Naixuan (1843–1921) based his simplified writing system on that of Wang Zhao (see n. 88). Unlike Wang, however, who emphasized Mandarin and whose efforts were restricted to the north, Lao (who was from Zhejiang) believed that it would be most efficient if learners first became literate in their own topolects, so he added some symbols that were especially meant for sounds in southern languages.
  88. A late-Qing reformer from Hebei, Wang Zhao (1859–1933) had spent time in Japan and was inspired by the kana syllabaries to modify a small group of Chinese characters so that they could stand for initials (of which there were fifty) and finals (of which there were fifteen).
  89. This meeting was convened in February and went on for more than a month because of differences of opinion between northerners and southerners about which sounds needed to be represented by the alphabet they were supposed to design. Lu Xun was himself a member of the committee, so he would have been intimately familiar with its workings. Eventually, the committee did come up with thirty-nine Letters for Annotating Sounds (zhuyin zimu), which they used to specify the standard pronunciation of more than 6,500 characters. The "alphabet" (based on radically simplified characters) and the standard pronunciations were promulgated in 1918. Zhuyin zimu were renamed zhuyin fuhao (Symbols for Annotating Sounds) in 1930, because it was realized that they were not really letters of an alphabet, but were actually more like a syllabary that could also be used to indicate initials, medials, and finals. Zhuyin fuhao are now known informally as Bo po mo fo after the first four symbols of the set.
  90. The Chairman of the Committee to Unify Reading Pronunciations (Duyin tongyi hui) was Wu Zhihui (1866–1953); and the Vice-Chairman was Wang Zhao (see n. 88). Wu Zhihui was born in Jiangsu, spent significant amounts of time in Shanghai, and was a close associate of Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940), the great scholar and educator who hailed from Zhejiang. Thus Wu Zhihui was unmistakably southern in his orientation.
  91. The entering tones are final consonants (-p, -t, -k) that were present in Middle Sinitic. Although the entering tones have been lost in most modern northern Sinitic languages, they are still preserved in most Sinitic languages south of the Yangtze.
  92. See note 89. "Tetragaphs" is a translation of fangkuaizi, which literally means "square[-shaped] graphs," a designation that derives from the fact that all characters, no matter how many strokes they have, must fit into the same size square space. Another common term for the characters is hanzi, which may be literally rendered as "sinograph."
  93. The kana constitute a true syllabary that comes in three forms: angular katakana for onomatopoeia and transcription of foreign words, rounded hiragana for grammatical components and for spelling words, and furigana (both angular and rounded) when attached to Chinese characters to indicate their sounds.
  94. Following the rules of the system itself, this was called Gwoyeu Romatzyh, or GR for short. GR was adopted by the Nationalist government in 1928 as its second official system for indicating the sounds of characters. The most obvious distinguishing feature of GR is that, instead of using numbers or diacritical marks to indicate the four tones, it employs various combinations of letters.
  95. Known as Y. R. Chao in the West, Zhao (1892–1982) was the principal designer of this system. Although GR is considered by many linguists to be elegant and sophisticated, Lu Xun criticized it several times as being excessively complicated and difficult to learn.
  96. Kemal Ataturk, the great Turkish leader, promoted the switch from the Arabic script (poorly suited for Turkic languages) to the Roman alphabet. The new policy went into effect on January 1, 1929.
  97. The Meiri guoji wenxuan was a series inaugurated in Shanghai on August 1, 1933. The pamphlet in question was number 12 in the series. It appeared on August 12, 1933.
  98. This was a journal put out by advocates of Esperanto in Shanghai.
  99. This refers to the two hundred thousand Chinese workers living in the Soviet Union at the time Lu Xun was writing.
  100. Lu Xun uses the term lianhua (literally, "refined talk") from his own district of Shaoxing. This is a good example of the many topolecticisms that have enriched the national, standard language of Mandarin.
  101. At present, "Putonghua" refers to Standard Mandarin as spoken in mainland China, "Guoyu" to Standard Mandarin as spoken on Taiwan, and "Huayu" to Standard Mandarin as spoken in Hong Kong and Singapore. While there are slight differences of pronunciation, tone, and vocabulary among them, they are all basically the same language. (The differences in writing — simplified/reformed versus complicated/traditional characters — are much greater than are the differences in the standard language.) At the time Lu Xun was writing, putonghua simply meant "common speech" and had not yet become fixed as the official designation of the standard national language of the People's Republic of China (which didn't exist then). In Lu Xun's day, "Guoyu" was the official designation of the standard national language of the Republic of China. When Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party government were defeated by the Communists under Mao Zedong and went to Taiwan, they took the name "Guoyu," together with the Standard Mandarin language it signified, and imposed them on the Southern Min speakers and aborigines on the island whose languages were very different. During the 1950s through 1970s, the National Language Movement (Guoyu yundong) on Taiwan was strict, thorough, and successful, but with democratization under Chiang Chingkuo (Chiang Kai-shek's son and successor as President of the Republic of China on Taiwan), Taiwanese, Hakka, and the other non-Mandarin languages of Taiwan have increasingly been reasserting their place in government, business, literature, and education.
  102. The term used here is dazhongyu, which is often translated as "common language," a rendering that leaves it open to confusion with putonghua (see n. 101).
  103. The proponents of the quintessence of Chinese culture (guocui) were archconservative diehards opposed to reform and modernization.
  104. Such sentiments concerning the "language of the masses" (dazhongyu; see n. 102) were frequently uttered during the mid-1930s. For example, in the July 7, 1934, issue (no. 21) of Human Words (Ren yan) weekly, Zhang Kebiao wrote, "Literature in the language of the masses will only be true literature of the language of the masses when it is created by the masses themselves."
  105. Song Yang is a pseudonym of the Communist writer Qu Qiubai (1899–1935), who succeeded Chen Duxiu (1879–1946) as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. This sentence is quoted from an article by the anti-Communist, pro-Confucian Li Yansheng entitled "From Literature in the Language of the Masses to Literature in the National Language," which appeared in the August 1, 1934, issue of Shenbao. In this article, Li — who was an ardent supporter of the Chinese characters and Classical Chinese — alleged that the movement for literature written in the language of the masses was Communist inspired.
  106. I.e., Communist.
  107. Wuchang (Skt. Anitya).
  108. Sanskrit Maudgalya¡Âyana, the name of a most filial son who goes down to hell to rescue his mother, a theme about which there have been enormously popular stories and dramas from the Tang period to the present. Lu Xun wrote about Mulian dramas in a couple of his essays.
  109. A collection of Lu Xun's essays first published in 1928.
  110. King of Hell.
  111. To "go down the mountain" means to leave a monastery or cloisters and return to secular life. The episode about the young nun leaving behind her religious life was a favorite that was often performed separately.
  112. A Ming-period drama written by Zheng Zhizhen of Xin'an in Anhui Province, who explains that he drew on folk plays to compose it.
  113. This is a famous episode from the Ming novel Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan), in which the drunken hero beats a formidable tiger to death with his bare hands after smashing his club to smithereens on a rock. The fact that it is totally unrelated to the Mulian story did not deter the peasants who put on folk plays about the latter from inserting it into their performances.
  114. Although Aesop was said to have lived in the sixth century b.c.e., the celebrated collection of over three hundred fables that was edited by later persons and survives to this day contains many elements from Indian and Arabian sources.
  115. F. Sologub (1863–1927) was a poet and author of fiction who also wrote fables, ten of which Lu Xun translated and published.
  116. This is the advice given to a king in the "Biography of Fan Ju," Records of the Grand Historian, by Sima Qian (see n. 48 and selections 28 and 29), the strategy being to ally oneself with distant kingdoms but to attack one's neighbors. The analogy employed here is to praise the language of the masses, which was still far off, but to attack the written vernacular, which had already been current since the time of the May Fourth Movement (1919). This was the position of individuals such as Wang Maozu (see n. 7), who, in the mid-1930s, espoused Classical Chinese, while claiming that they were not opposed to the language of the masses.
  117. All of the views reflected in this and the following paragraph were expressed in articles and books published in Shanghai during the period from June through August of 1934.
  118. See note 103.
  119. Awkwardly based on Greek and Latin paradigms, this is the first grammar of Classical Chinese and the first systematic grammar of any Sinitic language written by a Chinese. (European scholars had been writing grammars of vernacular and classical Sintic languages for a couple of centuries by the time Mr. Ma's Grammar appeared in 1898.) Its author, Ma Jianzhong (1844–1900), was educated in Catholic schools in China and in Paris. He became a member of the diplomatic corps with particular expertise as a translator.
  120. A classically oriented dictionary of approximately seventy thousand entries compiled by the Commercial Press of Shanghai (who also published Mr. Ma's Grammar and many other important linguistic and literary works at the very end of the nineteenth century and during the first half of the twentieth century). First published in 1915, Ciyuan has since been reissued in numerous different editions.