Challenges of the Chinese traditions analysis

True Story of Ah Q” and “Diary of a Madman”

“Diary of a Madman”

Lu Xun is said to have borrowed the title of his short story “Diary of a Madman” from a Russian novelist named Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852); Gogol’s story deals with an office worker who actually believes that he has become the king of Spain. Xun may have borrowed the title but his work is wholly unique, brilliantly conceived, and is considered the first modern short story in Chinese literary history.

In this story Xun certainly challenges Chinese traditions and he uses the theme of cannibalism as a metaphor and as an image to perhaps remind readers that during the famines of the early 1900s cannibalism was indeed practiced — out of desperation of course. But as a metaphor the government in China was cannibalizing citizens through its arrogance and cruelty.

There is no doubt that Xun was using his skillful literary craft to challenge and even attack traditions, political behaviors and crudely applied social values in China at the time he was alive (1881-1936). In Chapters 2 and 3 there is no moonlight and people are acting very strange, setting the stage for something untoward. The glares the narrator is given are intimidating — but he is not totally shocked because “their fathers and mothers have taught them to be like that!” (Xun, p. 30).

Meantime the narrator is letting the reader in on how citizens are treated by the bureaucrats and authorities who are in charge in China, and it is not a pretty picture. Some of the citizens wore a cangue — a punishment / humiliation board with a hole in the middle for the head; those who were on the wrong side of the law had to wear a cangue usually chained to a stake in public — “on the district magistrate’s order” (Xun, p. 31). Others that the narrator could see included some whose faces were slapped “by the gentry”; some who had their wives “ravished” (raped? molested?) by “yamen” clerks (public officials); some had “their dads and moms dunned to death by creditors” (Xun, p. 31).

All those evil, green faces — were they contemplating eating the narrator? “The more courage I had that made them want to eat me so they could get a little of it for free,” an old man said, and was seconded by the narrator’s own brother — an example of how deep the sickness and corruption had gone. In fact on page 35 “Elder Brother didn’t seem to see anything out of the way…” of eating a man’s heart and liver. He just nodded his head. Back in the day the narrator thought that all the talk of eating people was just an “explanation of the classics” but at this moment on page 35 he sees “the grease of human flesh smeared all over his lips…”

If a person’s own brother has a hunger for flesh, things are obviously out of control in the society. On page 37, Xun uses the cannibalism theme to point out how paranoid and evil the society has become. “They want to eat others and at the same time they’re afraid that other people are going to eat them,” the narrator explains. That explains why they are always watching each other with “such suspicious looks in their eyes” (p. 37).

The narrator tops that scene off with an image that is quite sickening, and is no doubt Xun’s way of pointing to how evil the society has become: a criminal was executed and “someone with T.B. who dunked a steamed bread roll in his blood” and licked the blood off the roll (p. 38). The story takes a turn when the narrator (p. 39) realizes that the society will be able to justify eating him if they can label him a madman. “It’s the same old thing,” he writes, and he is onto their “tricks” (he doesn’t say it but the “trick” is divide and conquer. Convince people in society that someone is unworthy, weird, or a criminal, and point the finger of blame, and they will follow like sheep.

“Even within their own group, they think nothing of devouring each other,” the narrator writes on page 39. “Cannibals are capable of anything!” And by that the author means people, society, the people next door and those downtown in shops — all of them are capable of cruelty especially if the government moves them in that direction.

The animal images in Xun’s story play an important symbolic role. It would seem that Xun is equating the people (many with apparent cannibalistic intentions) with animals; animals eat flesh and are symbolically on a lower scale than humans — or are humans just as uncivilized as animals? The village where there was a famine (in section 3) and the villagers had ganged up on a “bad” man and had “beaten him to death” was called Wolf Cub Village (p. 31). In section one, while the narrator is getting dirty looks from people, he also gets a dirty look from the Zhao family’s dog.

Section 6 is very short, but Xun manages to get four animals in there — the dog that originally looked at the narrator with hungry eyes — including a “savage” lion, a “crafty” fox and a rabbit that is timid (p. 35).

In section 7 the dynamics of a society gone crazy is well outlined, but they would never be nuts enough to blatantly just kill and eat the narrator; no, but they will “set traps all over the place so that I’ll do myself in.” This is what fascist governments do — they divide the loyalists from the independent thinkers, rebels or revisionists, and exact laws that are designed to catch offenders of the faith off guard. The narrator said if they get their way, with their hideous eyes and their threatening looks, they will simply drive him to hang himself. Then it won’t be murder, but rather it will be his own fault. “You can change!” The narrator shouts. Well after four thousand years of eating one another, how could he expect society to change? He ends the story with a hope for the future that maybe “some children” are around “who still haven’t eaten human flesh.” “Save the children…” he concludes.

What this seems to be at the end is a hope that a new generation of Chinese people will be sickened by the corruption and the lack of human values, and start a social revolution to launch a new morality in China.

“The True Story of Ah Q”

Ah Q. is a man from the peasant class and he is a bully to others who are below him in socioeconomic terms and yet he is fearful of those who outrank him. To bolster his own ego he sees those above him, his oppressors, as inferior. This story may be a metaphor for how Xun viewed the Chinese national mentality (or character) at that time. In other words, China liked to bully smaller nations but for those countries that were stronger than China — including Japan at that time — the collective mentality was persuaded that China was spiritually and morally superior to those more powerful nations.

Interestingly, the novella was written shortly after the “May Fourth Movement” in China, and Xun may well have used some of the political and social dynamics from that movement — and the subsequent rise in nationalism — as the foundation for his theme. A quick look at the reasons for the May Fourth Movement — as it dovetails with the book’s theme — is worthwhile. At the end of World War I the Treaty of Versailles basically divided up the spoils after this bloody war. The treaty came down hard on Germany (which Hitler would later use as a trump card in getting Germans to back him), and the treaty also left China angry. The treaty awarded the Shandong Province to Japan, even after the Chinese (allies with the “Triple Entente” — Britain, France and Russia) had sent 140,000 Chinese laborers to help the British Army defeat Germany with the expressed purpose of getting Shandong Province in return for the support.

With that as background, and with the very real possibility that Ah Q. is a metaphor for the Chinese anger at having been bullied by the United States at the Treaty of Versailles. In fact it is possible that Xun uses a “Q” (a western letter, not a Chinese letter) as a reference to the protests during the May Fourth Movement. Xun’s narrator is not sure which Chinese character he should use in giving the protagonist a name, so he settles on a Q. When Mr. Zhao defeats Ah Q. In a fight, Ah Q. nevertheless feels important just for having been involved with Zhao (perhaps this is intended to be symbolic of the fact that many Chinese felt proud to be helping the allies beat Germany in WWI).

Meantime, on page 107 (Chapter 2) a good character description of Ah Q. is provided by the narrator: “There was only a single instance when anyone had ever praised him,” and that happened to be when Ah Q. was actually the butt of a joke. Ah Q. was looking “scrawny and worn out” so when the old many said “That Ah Q’s some worker!” It could only be interpreted as folly, irony, and even though Ah Q. was “pleased as punch” he had been set up to be the fool. Was China, in Xun’s estimation, also the fool, the butt of international jokes? It seems likely in a literary way.

While his adversaries taunted him, and he kept losing his fights, he turned to giving dirty looks. And when dirty looks didn’t do it for him, he tried “snappy comebacks” and that didn’t work either as the villagers continued to beat him up. But even after having his head pounded against a wall, Ah Q. felt victorious — his way of conjuring up a “psychological victory,” something that the Chinese had done during the time Xun was coming of age.

How low can a character go in a novella? Xun’s Ah Q. certainly has become a leader in lowness. On page 117 Ah Q. has perched himself next to the lowly Bearded Wang, who was picking lice out of his clothing — “one after the other and sometimes even two or three at a time.” Not only was Bearded Wang finding more lice than Ah Q, the sound that Bearded Wang made when he crushed louse between his teeth (“pow pow”) was far better than the sound Ah Q. made when he crushed a louse. This was “nothing short of a social disgrace!” The narrator asserted (p. 117). The humiliation of not matching the size of the lice that Bearded Wang found, and then not match the sound — this was too much so Ah Q. stood up and begged for a fight. Bearded Wang gave him one, and beat his head against the wall. Previously Ah Q. had taunted Bearded Wang. Now the tables were turned and Ah Q. was defeated and depressed.

It should be mentioned that at the turn of the 20th Century China was in the midst of a cultural conflict between the old school Chinese culture and the more modern Western style industrial style of government. In the traditional culture that the dynasties had ruled over for centuries — until the Qing Dynasty fell — people were willing to accept subservience. That subservience looked like ignorance to Xun, and so it is likely that Ah Q. is symbolic of that ignorance.

There can be little doubt that Xun used Ah Q. As a microcosm of China’s problems — and made Ah Q. look ridiculous because that was Xun’s way of criticizing not just the government but the society during that period in history. In the book Lu Xun and his Legacy Lin Yu-Sheng writes that “Ah Q. lacks an interior self and a feeling for life” and his “callousness evinces even an enjoyment of the destruction of lives” (Yu-Sheng, 1985, p. 111). Moreover, Ah Q. lives “by natural instinct” and has “conditioned reflexes but lacks self-awareness and the ability to change” (p. 111). This certainly sounds like China has been described leading up to and through the May Fourth Movement. Ah Q. is “immune to inspiration from external stimuli,” Yu-Sheng explains. And “without self-awareness” Ah Q. is not capable of “self-cultivation and of intellectual or moral improvement”; only death itself “brings him to a flicker of self-awareness,” Yu-Sheng concludes (p. 112).


Both of these stories are full of images and symbols and metaphors that relate back to the situation in China at the time Xun wrote these short stories. After all, alert, brilliant authors nearly always have larger issues in mind when they create characters and place them in scenes that have conflict and cultural relevance. One wonders if a writer as bright as Xun will come along and shake up the current Chinese Communist government. In fact, maybe there already is a writer that bright and talented. His name? Liu Xiaobao, and he just won the Nobel Peace Prize but unfortunately was not able to be there in person to accept it: he is imprisoned by the Chinese government for his outspoken writing and teaching about repression and a country that refuses to change. Sound familiar?

Works Cited

Xun, Lu. “Ah Q — the Real Story.” Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Ed. William a.

Lyell. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. 101-172.

Xun, Lu. “Diary of a Madman.” Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Ed. William a. Lyell.

Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. 29-41.

Yu-Sheng, Lin. “The Morality of Mind and Immorality of Politics: Reflections on Lu Xun, the Intellectual.” Lu Xun and His Legacy. Ed. Leo Ou-fan Lee. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985: 107-128.

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