Finding “Small Health” in Lu Xun’s Translation Practices

Shijung Kim examines the intersection of medicine, fiction and translation in the work of renowned Chinese author and translator, Lu Xun.

When it comes to the topic of medical humanities and translation, especially with respect to the East Asian region, it is difficult to bypass the figure of Lu Xun (1881-1936), penname of Zhou Shuren, who is commonly regarded as the founding father of modern Chinese literature. To begin with, he spent his early twenties training to become a doctor at Sendai University in Japan and later famously characterized his novelistic endeavors as a spiritual alternative to empirical medicine in the preface to Outcry (1923). Furthermore, Lu Xun was also a prolific translator and relay-translator — that is, someone who translates a text based on a preexistent version in a language other than that of the original — of works from various countries, ranging from Japan to France, Germany and Russia, including Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842).  

Although a great amount of attention has already been devoted to the medical and translational aspects of Lu Xun’s life and oeuvre from the perspectives of evolutionary science, Buddhism, marginalized voices and so forth (Liu 2009; Rojas 2019), the question of how the two sides interrelate remains relatively unaddressed. In the essay “How I Came to Write Fiction” (1933), which was composed as a sequel of sorts to the preface to Outry, Lu Xun once again resorts to a medical metaphor to describe his novelistic endeavors. For him, the effects of fiction are comparable to those of medicine, insofar as its diegetic content can represent and thereby bring awareness to the physical or psychological sufferings of a population and incite readers to try to alleviate them. Given that, in the same essay, Lu Xun (1933) considers his fiction writing to be a continuation of his translation activities, it is possible to ask if the thought of medicine would also cross his mind vis-à-vis translation.

It does not seem that Lu Xun, himself, made any explicit statements on the matter. However, a perusal of Xiaolu Ma’s recently published article “Minor Literature as a Vital Component of World Literature: Lu Xun’s translation of Bulgarian Literature via German Sources” (2023) leads to some plausible conjectures. In the piece, Ma (2023) argues that Lu Xun’s translation practices fulfill the ideals of the Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of minor literature, which can be defined as realizing “the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation” (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 18). For Ma (2023), they do so, firstly, because Lu Xun’s penchant for works from geopolitically weak nations favors the promotion of collective anti-imperialist stances and, secondly, because his usage of the literalist technique of “hard translation” (yingyi 硬譯), especially from the late 1920s onward, has a foreignizing effect on the Chinese language. Lu Xun’s minoritizing translation practices, Ma (2023, 52) concludes, prepare “the revolutionary conditions in which Chinese literature might be rejuvenated and transformed from within, both in terms of content and style.”

Several years after his collaboration with Félix Guattari on minor literature, Deleuze adds a medical dimension to the concept in Essays Critical and Clinical (1993). In the first chapter of the book, Deleuze differentiates between what he dubs the “big health” (grande santé) and the “small health” (petite santé), with the former denoting health in the conventional and quantitative sense — think normal body temperature or an X-ray free of any abnormalities — and the latter designating a more imperceptible kind of qualitative and transformative life force. As examples of small health, Deleuze (1997, 4-5) lists none other than the attributes of minor literature: “a minor people, eternally minor, taken up in a becoming-revolutionary,” “a becoming-other of language, a minorization of this major language.” His reasoning seems to be that inasmuch as the prospect of eliminating oppression and the destabilizing of linguistic clichés can make the present reality more livable and less stifling, the uprising of a subaltern people and the foreignization of a language are health-giving, albeit in a way that is difficult to quantify.

Hence, at least from the Deleuzian perspective, Lu Xun’s translation practices, in their minoritizing qualities, can indeed be likened to medicine. Of course, as Ma (2023) also points out, the historical and intertextual contexts within which Lu Xun and Deleuze wrote were far from similar. In elaborating the concept of small health, Deleuze (1997) drew notably from Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics ([1677] 1992) and Henri Michaux’s postface to “Mes Propriétés” (“My Properties”) in La Nuit remue (Darkness Moves [1935] 1998). However, as Haiyan Xie (2020) has recently shown, Lu Xun’s reflections on translation should be understood as stemming from and succeeding the discourses of “Chinese learning as the principles and Western learning as the application” (zhongti xiyong 中體西用) and of the New Culture Movement. Be that as it may, Deleuze and Lu Xun’s shared borrowings from the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche in their conceptions of small health and national rejuvenation, respectively, suggest that there are solid grounds for incorporating the former into the apprehension of the latter’s life and oeuvre.

About the author

Shijung Kim is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University and the Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3). Her dissertation project, “Becoming-China: A Sinography of Twentieth-Century French Letters,” focuses on moments of significant change in meanings of Chineseness in the sphere mostly of French literature during the eponymous period. Her book chapter, “(Geo)politics of Aesthetics: Transculturation of Lu Xun in Korea,” will appear in the forthcoming collective volume Lu Xun and World Literature, Hong Kong University Press.


Deleuze, Gilles. 1997. Essays Critical and Clinical. Translated by Daniel Smith and Michael Greco. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1986. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Liu, Lydia. 2009. “Life as Form: How Biomimesis Encountered Buddhism in Lu Xun.” The Journal of Asian Studies 68 (1): 21–54.

Ma, Xiaolu. 2023. “Minor Literature as a Vital Component of World Literature: Lu Xun’s Translation of Bulgarian Literature via German Sources.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 35 (1): 28–57.

Michaux, Henri. 1998. Œuvres Complètes. Edited by Raymond Bellour. 3 vols. Bibliothèque de La Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard.

Rojas, Carlos. 2019. “Translation as Method.” Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature 16 (2): 221–235.

Spinoza, Baruch. 1992. Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and Selected Letters. Edited by Seymour Feldman. Translated by Samuel Shirley. 2nd ed. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett.

Xie, Haiyan. 2020. “‘Grabbism’ and Untranslability: Reinterpreting Lu Xun’s Position as a Translator.” Comparative Literature Studies 57 (1): 126–147.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.