Much of Lu Hsun’s stories are recollections of his past struggles. He admits this in the preface of his collection of works entitled, Call to Arms. But as this collection was viewed by Lu Hsun himself as a way to encourage young dreamers to pursue their aspirations and spare themselves of the agony of his youth, much of it becomes a mirror as well of the Chinese culture and history. Hence, Lu Hsun is not only a chief commander of China’s modern Cultural Revolution; he is also the founder of modern Chinese literature.
This paper aims to make a modest critical analysis of Lu Hsun’s work using his first three short stories namely; A Madman’s Diary, The True Story of Ah Q and The New Years Sacrifice. These are chosen to identify patterns of themes, subjects and beliefs that are embodied in his writings. Also, we hope to be able to understand Chinese traditions and heritage using the same short stories.
In the end we may find literature as a strong method of making a noble contribution to the world with its inherent power to opine, philosophize and influence.
Let us begin with a brief telling of the stories’ plots and details. After which we enumerate the significance of each and lastly to provide a general assessment of the story’s lessons and socio-cultural and political implications. This last part of the analysis is relevant as we have had hints already of the intentions of the author to provide an empowerment to the readers for the attainment of certain goals. The paper will end in such a way that Lu Hsun is commended for his creativity in the craft to have shown consistency of his agenda as manifested in his literary machinery – ergo, becomes successful and compatible endeavors of revolutionary and literary toils.
II. A Madman’s Diary
The first story is a narration of Lu Hsun’s reading of a diary of his old friend. The latter referred to as the madman, through his personal accounts have expressed the nature of his illness. He sees his own brother, relatives, neighbors and doctor as man-eaters. The content of the diary may seem weird and dreadful yet the author of the diary charged of insanity has managed to think and speak of historical accounts to prove his case. For instance, he called a previous enemy, Ku Chiu which in translation means “Ancient Times”; his doctor, Li Shih-chen who in history was a famous pharmacologist and authored the Materia Medica.
Both usage have latent meanings and will be explained later. The madman also has knowledge of several traditional myths like his mention of Yi Ya, who according to ancient records cooked his son as present to Duke Huan who was ruler since 685 to 643 B.C. of Chi; he mentioned also Chieh and Chou who were known tyrants in history; Hsu His Lin who during the end of Ching dynasty was a revolutionary executed in 1907 whose heart and liver were believed to have been eaten because of his assassination of a Ching official. Again, these historical descriptions have significance in the goal of the author of Madman’s Diary.
The context of the story may seem to its audience a basic case of mental illness but this is true unless proper decoding is employed. The story suggests that there is a past experience which the madman has underwent which we could think of as the cause of his psychosis. According to the author, the madman has suffered from persecution. The sentiment of the main character at the time he was sick already against other people characterizes the same feelings he felt against them before this condition.
Man-eating in the story symbolizes the feudal system in China. The oppression that the tenants suffer from their land lords has caused the madman to perhaps hate the former. The man-eaters in the story as observed by the madman consist of his neighbors, brother, doctor, etc.; basically all those who are of the land-owning class. The conspirators making themselves man-eaters as well include his own mother- this is due to the latter’s inability to reprimand his brother. To the madman’s mind, those who support and those who are silenced by the oppression are alike. This is why he refers to them as man-eaters as well – they all look at him in the same way like fierce animals ready to eat him and his flesh. Everyday, the madman has to deal with the same looks and reactions.
He thought he was doing a good job of having been able to decipher their true intentions of killing and eating him. In the end however it pained him to have known that his sister could have died in the same experience of being eaten by other people. It pained him that his own family has not done anything while his mother’s weeping did not change the fact of her daughter’s tragic death.
The seemingly unjust treatment of the community against a madman like him is translated into the majority’s incapacity and lack of buoyancy to uphold a revolution such as that which would overhaul feudalism and promote equality. Yet, the madman has seen that Mr Chao for instance did not look solely at him with anger but with fear as well. One is afraid to change the status quo where he/she is already benefiting. Just like Mr Ku Chiu who was displeased with his intervention on his account sheets twenty years ago. Ku Chiu meaning Ancient Times symbolizes the long history of feudal oppression in China.
The madman might have made wild statements in his diary but to a madman this signifies discontent, confusion, mixed emotions of fear and pain, none of which is equivalent to happiness and peace. He said he has not seen the moon for over thirty years. He must have been imprisoned or isolated that long from the community, the people barely recognize him just like the dog which looked at him twice. In the new day or perhaps new circumstance he is into, he only remembers the feelings of annoyance against them. Yet he witnessed the children, lively as they may appear but the madman, reluctant about their purity thought they also had eyes that misinterpret him. When he said their parents could have told them about his story, he was referring to the possible transfer of the tradition of tyranny to the new generation and the hindrance to their quest for truth, justice and equality.
The madman abhors the fact that the own victims of this cruelty have not done anything to antagonize but why do they look at him like that? This is expressed in the part below:
“…Those people, some of whom have been pilloried by the magistrate, slapped in the face by the local gentry, had their wives taken away by bailiffs, or their parents driven to suicide by creditors, never looked as frightened and as fierce then as they did yesterday…” (Lu Hsun, A Madman’s Diary, April, 1918)
He sees their laughers, discussions of him, teeth and speech as comprising their secret signs. There are statements in the story which the author has provided for us to understand further the nature of the norm in their history. Like when the madman remembers the time when he would be commended by his brother for his indifference vis a vis wrong doings:
“…I remember when my elder brother taught me to write compositions, no matter how good a man was, if I produced arguments to the contrary he would mark that passage to show his approval; while if I excused evil-doers, he would say: “Good for you, that shows originality…”
At that time , it would have been better if you are blind and deaf and perhaps insane to resist the subjugation. This is also presented in the part where Mr. Ho, the doctor tells the madman: “Don’t let your imagination run away with you! Rest quietly for a few days and you will be alright…” The madman sees this statement as a warning for his deed of courage and integrity. – to be brave and righteous yield death of a man.
Toward the end of the story, the madman asked a twenty year old lad if it was right to eat human beings and if such was an accepted act simply because it has always been like that. The author here is arriving at an assumption that a tradition of cruelty could have been regarded by most of them as justifiable by its permanence and embedded nature. But a challenge has been set forth in the end; that is to become a real man. For the madman, real men don’t eat human beings. Although as claimed, primitive people have done so, he advised his brother that to remain like them is the same as reptiles and animals who eat flesh and must be ashamed of themselves.
This is a way for the author to propose that to desist tradition (the four thousand years of eating flesh) is to put a halt to oppression – this is the act of a real man. He calls on a change of spirit and ideas so he tells them in the story; “You should change at once, change from the bottom of your hearts! You must know that in future there will be no place for man-eaters in the world . . . .” His final words are equally challenging and meaningful. It was a call for change especially for the youth – “Perhaps there are still children who have not eaten men? Save the children. . .”
III. The True Story of Ah Q
The second story is written in December, 1921. Ah Q is a worker in the Weichuang village who has become a laughing stock and destination of insult from amongst his fellow villagers. His death was a tragic one considering that while his origin has not been known to the author or to the village people in the story, the cause of his execution is also neither defined by him nor his fellowmen. It is in this cycle confusions and uncertainties that the story becomes a revelation of the situation of China during the early nineteenth century.
Lu Hsun has used characters in the story with meaningful roles in China’s history. Mr. Chao and Mr. Chien are both influential and wealthy people in the village whose sons have given them pride by passing the examination and having been posted to high positions in the society; Whiskers Wang and Young D who are servants like Ah Q had different perspectives and never united; The Imitation Foreign Devil who studied in Japan and has returned to the village without any meaningful contribution; the nun whom Ah Q have maltreated for his perceived false modesty of her; the townspeople; the military captain; the successful provincial candidate; the old man with a clean shaven head – they all did not spare Ah Q a little.
It appeared that Ah Q was fond of drinking wine, sleeping after a day’s job at the Tutelary God’s Temple and imagining his own definition of victories. For Ah Q being beaten by a son is a victory; and every time he is teased by the village folks for his scar that looked like ringworm on his head and crushed to the wall for his eccentricities, he considers them losers – for they are his sons. This weird claim of Ah Q has made the people a lot more irritated of him.
To him his only two defeats were namely; his defeat by Whiskers Wang who he regard as his equal; and by the Imitation Foreign Devil. He found dignity in humiliating a small nun. When he lost his job due to an incident with a maidservant at the Chao family house, he headed to the other town where a stroke of luck provided him with goods enough to be sold and become a source of his new profit. Yet along with his return to the village and his renewed sense of respect for himself when the people started to talk about him and his fortune, a revolution occurred. Without much clarity, he was caught as suspect to a robbery by the revolutionaries at the Chao family.
He told the captors that he might have approved of the revolution but he was not allowed to join because the Imitation Foreign Devil prohibited him. Uneducated, Ah Q was made to draw a circle as signature in a paper whose content was unknown to him and later that day, he was set as an example to the people and all other revolutionaries for death execution.
One must have knowledge of China’s history to be able to appreciate further Ah Q’s story. The Qing dynasty with its long-lived rule and enormous failures has caused a deterioration of performance along traditional lines. The arrival of foreigners who were driven by the industrial revolution of the West had caused much indignation and loss of resources for the prideful denizens of China. With their superior weaponry and cultural superiority might have brought China’s independence they have nonetheless encountered opposition.
This foreign presence has resulted to changed political demands among the revolutionaries. The Taiping Uprising for instance considered as the longest peasant rebellion denounced Confucianism and found new aspirations in Christianity. The dynasty resorted to the Chinese provincial armies to suppress the Taipings.
A lot has changed since the abolition of the civil service examination in China based on the Confucian classics. There has been a program of sending students to Japan for modern studies that brought radical ideas convinced of overthrowing the dynasty and revolutionizing China. This success of reformation however by Sun Yat Sen has not abandoned feudalism, and has worsened due to China’s dependency in the new market economy and international trade, the condition of the peasants who were displaced and deprived. Warlordism and the lack of nationalism have deepened the problem of China until the success of the CCP in the 1940s.
These events took place prior and perhaps during the writing of Lu Hsun’s Ah Q. Clearly, Ah Q represents the peasant revolution which has been isolated from the intellectuals’ endeavor. When Ah Q was denied participation by the Imitation Foreign Devil, the author has implied here that those who have attained education in Japan in the nineteenth century have not fulfilled the true essence of a revolution. They failed to establish unity among its people as superiority among the land owning class prevails. Thus, Ah Q might have wanted to revolt for as he claimed in the story, “revolution is good”, but it was late for him to prove his strength and capacity. He was executed in a crime he has not committed. His lack of knowledge failed him to understand the situation – this is more painful for him.