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Literary Pediatrics: Lu Xun and the Chinese “National Character”
By Sung Min Kim

Lu Xun (1881-1936) was an eminent Chinese author, thinker, and essayist who in the early years of his education trained in Western medicine.  However, his interest in medicine was halted by his experiences in Japan.  There, he saw the strength and national pride of the Japanese, and he compared it to China, where he was disturbed by the prevalence of foreign imperialism and the deficiencies of the Chinese mindset. Instead of medicine, he was fascinated by three questions influenced by his experience: What is the best ideal for human nature? What is most lacking within the Chinese national character? What are the roots of this sickness? (L.H. Liu 61). These ruminations did in a way lead him to become a doctor. But instead of treating physical illnesses, he dedicated himself as a “literary doctor”, someone who uses literature to cure and awaken the minds of fellow Chinese and to transform the Chinese society (文以载道). For this purpose, Lu started publishing numerous short stories and other fictional works to awaken Chinese nationalism and rouse like-minded Chinese to fight against the foreign and domestic perils China faced in the early 20th century.

As his stories tried to inspire revolutionary action through political means, one can glean Lu Xun’s beliefs about Chinese society and thinking. These beliefs are in their sum a strong disenchantment with the mindset of “Old China”. He embraced—and came to exemplify—the May Fourth Cultural Movement, a movement which aimed to promote the modernization of China by setting aside traditional Chinese culture. Adopting these views, Lu advocated for modern, “progressive” thought as the ideal way to revive China and combat Western and Japanese imperialism. For Lu Xun, the “disease” which prevents China from modernizing was the traditional mindset which entrapped the national character. The only way to treat the disease was through modern education. Only when the disease is cured by a revolutionary education of the youth did he believe it was possible to erect a “New China”. This paper will examine specifically how Lu Xun conceptualized this “disease” of the national character by examining three stories that exemplify his thoughts about the Chinese national character: “Diary of a Madman”, “Kong Yiji”, and “The True Story of Ah Q”.

“Diary of a Madman” is an epitome of a Lu Xun text, pointing out and lambasting the flaws behind the Chinese national character. Here, Lu Xun delivers his message by employing terror as a plot device. The reader is shocked to discover they are implicated in the violence of representation by playing the role of a witness to the same spectacle of horror enacted over and over again. (L.H Liu 64) In this short story, as is common in Lu Xun stories, the protagonist is a placeholder for the author to express his horror and impress upon the reader the “truth” of old thinking. In “Diary of a Madman”, Lu Xun uses the allegory of cannibalism to demonstrate his belief that one of the central problems of the Chinese national character is a stubborn, collectivist attachment to harmful traditions. The protagonist is a madman who discovers that he is the only sane person living within a community of cannibals. The cannibals prey upon those they suspect are not cannibals, placing the madman in a precarious position. On one occurrence, the madman records “the villagers had all ganged up on a ‘bad’ man and beaten him to death. Even gouged out his heart and liver. Fried them and ate them to bolster their own courage! When I horn in on the conversation, Elder Brother and the tenant farmer both gave me sinister looks” (Lu 31). For Lu Xun this violent custom is not passed on by blood; the younger members of the cannibal community are innocent to the way of thinking. The madman therefore finds it all the more egregious when the adult cannibals start to influence the children into giving him the same hungry and suspicious looks.  He despairingly notes, “But the children? Back then they hadn’t come into the world yet. Why should they have given me those funny looks today? … That really frightens me. Bewilders me. Hurts me. I have it! Their father and mothers have taught them to be like that!” (Lu 30).

To Lu Xun, the reason behind this violent defense of the practice of cannibalism is the education in Confucian traditions and norms. When reading the texts, he begins to identify his view on the “true” essence of Confucianism. He writes, “I began to read that history very carefully for most of the night, and finally I began to make out what was written between the lines; the whole volume was filled with a single phrase: EAT PEOPLE!” (Lu 32). Cannibalism consequently becomes much more than a defective local tradition. Such backward superstition is not only not criticized by Confucianism, but it is in fact placed by the author at the very heart of the creed. By these means, Lu Xun implicates Confucian thinking as the culprit behind the national character of “eating of human flesh”, indulging in deleterious traditions. With Confucianism, Lu Xun sees the Chinese national character as infused with a diseased essence of backwardness perpetuated by its horrific, stubborn carriers.

Lu Xun clarifies other defective characteristics of the national character in his short story, “Kong Yiji” where a tavern patron recounts his encounters with a man named Kong Yiji. It is apparent to the narrator that Kong (who shares his surname as Confucius’s real name Kong Qiu) is a learned beggar, well-educated in Confucianism but unable to adjust to the real world due to his personality quirks. The tavern patron discusses  the oddity of this mixture of poverty and elite scholarship, observing, “Kong Yiji as the only customer in a long gown who drank his wine standing up… Kong wore a long gown like the gentry, but it was so raggedy and dirty you’d swear it hadn’t been patched or washed in at least ten years” (Lu 43). Poverty is a symptom of Kong Yiji’s education, evidence of his inability to translate lofty theories into the real world.

Within “Kong Yiji”, Lu Xun’s approach to garnering the reader’s support for his beliefs differs from that of “Diary of a Madman”. Unlike “Diary of a Madman”, the problems of the protagonist in this story are not an external agent directly perpetuated by society but the product of traditional thought’s influence on the inner mind. Instead of horror as a literary device, Lu Xun uses sympathy as a means of attracting support from the reader. In contrast to the previous story, Kong’s supposed defective traits and misled intentions do not cloud the fact of his sincere benevolence. Educated in the classics, Kong echoes the belief in conducting goodness and benevolence praised by Confucianism. Even as a beggar, he always manages to pay his debts to the tavern for buying drinks. He is eager to educate others on his knowledge; for example, he tries to lead others by example. In his poor, unimpressive appearance, and over the laughter of the tavern patrons, he lectures them in archaic language on Confucian morality.

Even for normally criminal behavior like theft, Kong is placed in a rather sympathetic light. Characteristically, he responds to inquiries about his inclination for theft by giving a moral, though eccentric justification: “‘The purloining of volumes is, after all, something that falls well within the purview of scholarly life? How can it be considered mere theft?’… ‘The gentleman doth stand firm in his poverty’” (Lu 44). Lu Xun therefore shifts the blame of criminality from Kong as an individual to Kong’s education. From such innocently maladaptive behavior, Kong Yiji’s tragic case is a criticism of how traditional China fails to adequately adjust even the educated and morally good into anything meaningful within the real world. Confucianism fails to achieve its purpose to reform the gentleman into a virtuous leader who can lead others. Instead, Confucianism is portrayed within “Kong Yiji” as a factory of useless knowledge which mesmerizes adherents with idealistic dogma. The result is tragic: he, the supposed paragon of virtue, has to stoop to theft in order to scrap together a miserable existence. Kong lives in a limbo, failing to be a respected scholar or fit in with the commoners. Tellingly, he fails to gain the narrator’s or anyone else’s interest in his knowledge. When the narrator struggles over a Chinese word character, Kong tries to apply his knowledge “preparing to write all four different ways”  however, when he sees that the narrator “wasn’t the least bit interested, he let out another sigh and began to look depressed again” (Lu 46).

“The True Stories of Ah Q” presents additional insights into Lu Xun’s idea of the Chinese national character. In nine episodes, the novella recounts the exploits of an overly confident peasant by the name of Ah Q around the time of the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty by the Xinhai Revolution. In a 1934 letter, Lu Xun revealed the intent behind the story. He writes, “My method is to make the reader unable to tell who this character can be apart from himself, so that he cannot back away to become a bystander but rather suspects that this a portrait of himself as well as everyone [in China]” (Huters 132). In a show of pessimism and Lu Xun’s bleak outlook of Chinese society, Ah Q is a walking satire of what the author reviles. Within these episodes, there is a large amount of information about Lu Xun’s satirical prognosis of the national character.

First, Ah Q serves to characterize Chinese people as boastful and obsessed with face. In the record of “victories” Ah Q “achieves” in his adventures, he always manages to self-justify a victory even when defeated . Despite the truth, he believes that he is superior to everything and boasts about his “spiritual” victories over his adversaries (Lu 122). Take for example how he views the results of picking fights with others. Despite being an overconfident brute, Ah Q is beaten up by a gang of Wei Village idlers. However, he receives a revelation:

From a purely formal point of view, Ah Q would be defeated… Then the idlers would walk away, fully satisfied and fully victorious, Ah Q would stand there for a bit and then think to himself. ‘It’s though I’d been beaten up by my own sons! What’s the world coming to, anyway, when sons…’ At the point Ah Q too would walk away, fully satisfied and fully victorious. (Lu 109)

Regardless of the outcome of the battle, he creates in his mind a delusional world with crooked guidelines in order to cover up the unpleasant notion that he is not as superior as he thinks. Such denials come to a climax when Ah Q loses his silver coin during a gambling fight: “For the first time in Ah Q’s life, he tasted something like the real bitterness of defeat. But, in the twinkling of an eye, he transformed that defeat into victory! He raised his right hand and, one after the other, gave himself two sharp slaps across the mouth” (Lu 114). By defeating himself, he slyly innovates a way to boast out of losing face. He now can claim to be victorious by having defeated at least something.

Through Ah Q’s actions, it is clear that he is also characterized as a judgmental hypocrite. He is a man that allows his body to act differently from the high-minded principles coming out of his mouth. He fancies himself as an upright man, stalwart against inappropriate temptations. This “hero” adopts a strict interpretation of Confucianism, criticizing Buddhism as heterodox and firmly believing in the observation of ideal Confucian gender relations. In one case it is written, “Ah Q’s philosophy ran like this: Any nun is bound to be secretly shacked up with a monk. If a woman is out walking on the street, she’s certainly trying to seduce a man or two” (Lu 125). He uses these views as excuses to conjure all sorts of groundless suspicions about the women he passes by. But despite believing women should mind propriety when around each other so as not to tempt men into lust with their bewitchments, he hypocritically fails to maintain for himself the observance of such propriety. In his mind, such standards do not extend to him. He feels free to fantasize about carnal pleasure and chases after a woman to get a touch of female skin without restraint or consent. He recounts his failure, due to trouser cloth, some years ago to find stimulation when he tried to pinch a girl’s thigh in an opera. Moreover, Ah Q, before immediately being beaten for impudence, has no problem casually trying to solicit sexual favors from a maid. Again illustrating his incapacity to escape his bottomless delusion, he does not find anything wrong with his actions. In lieu of learning from the beating, he once again finds a new “victory”: an end to the beating.

In addition to delusional and hypocritical thinking, this “hero” is Lu Xun’s illustration of the Chinese as a weak, servile people. Ah Q thinks he, as Chinese, belongs to a spiritual civilization superior to foreign countries. But yet again his actions belie his words. Though he wants to join a revolution, he is clueless about the process. To help, he approaches a foreign-looking man named Mr. Foreigner to join an assumed revolutionary organization. When the stranger chases him off, Ah Q is demoralized because, “If Mr. Foreigner wouldn’t give him permission to revolt, he was done for. Never again would he look forward to having men in white helmets and white armor come by and ask him to join up” (Lu 160). Throughout the text, Ah Q is mocked as an example of a double-thinking groveler. Lu Xun uses this literary figure to represent Chinese who would profess China as a superior country and endorse a revolutionary program of sovereign independence while at the same time unable to live without feeding off the hands of foreign banks and prostrating before Westerners.

According to Lu Xun, Chinese are also apathetic to evil as long as they can get away with it or if it is socially appropriate. Seeing no one around him, he takes the opportunity to steal turnips from a monastery. When a nun catches him, Ah Q pathetically tries to cover up his tracks despite being caught red-handed, replying, “When did I ever climb into your garden to steal turnips?” (Lu 138). Ultimately, when Ah Q is sentenced to a public execution, the townspeople are not horrified or shocked but in fact enthusiastic. They express excitement of watching his public execution after his string of “victories” leads him to be a convenient scapegoat for a theft. Despite his death approaching for such a minor crime, Ah Q himself does not say much to the court. He does not seem to dwell much on his coming death at all. In fact, when on his way to the execution grounds, Ah Q looks to grab the public’s attention one last time by trying to sing an opera. When his death comes, “Most townsfolk were disappointed- a shooting had not proved nearly so much fun as a good old-fashioned beheading. Worse yet, in his role as condemned criminal Ah Q had given a miserable performance” (Lu 172). The spectators were mostly looking for fun, morally unburdened because of the “clear proof” of him as a criminal. Without much consideration, they assume he was a criminal simply because he was sentenced by the court to be executed.

With these criticisms of the national character presented in three stories, Lu Xun thoroughly lambastes what he sees as the general mindset of the Chinese people. Even from this small selection of Lu Xun’s works, he presents a wide variety of poisonous characteristics believed to be embedded into the national character. To him Confucian traditional thinking breeds backwardness, violence, servility, hypocrisy, and cowardice and uses social coercion to crystalize these flaws into the Chinese mind. Even for the educated literati who try to sincerely overcome their moral flaws by perfecting themselves as models for virtue, Confucian tradition misdirects them. Lu Xun, through fictional allegory, writes how classical Confucian education feeds them dogma to please the intellect instead of ways to put proper leadership into action. Confucian education is shown as the creation of well-meaning but maladjusted beings like Kong Yiji. It creates aspiring “leaders” unable to communicate outside of archaic knowledge, inspires mockery from the very people they are supposed to direct.

From the demises of the characters in each story, Lu Xun sets the future course for China if it is unable to reform its national character. The so-called “madman” in “Diary of a Madman” succumbs and becomes like the rest of the villagers. Kong Yiji’s debts catch up to him and he dies of destitution. Ah Q is executed in front of a public who thinks of his death as a form of entertainment. What do all these endings mean? As representatives of the various defects of the Chinese character, these stories and their igneous endings is Lu Xun pessimistic speculation about China’s future if his dream of revolutionary social change is not achieved. By his way of thinking, without the rectification of the national character by educating the youth, his people will fail to modernize and continue to perpetuate the barbarity of ancient customs. If China is unable to modernize, he believes outsiders will make the Chinese change regardless of if they like it or not. Lu Xun presents a warning if the Chinese are unable to save the children. As the madman exhorts in his final pages, “If you don’t change, you’re going to devour each other anyway…Change from the bottom of your hearts! You ought to know that in the future they’re not going to allow cannibals in the world anymore” (Lu 40).

In the end of the “Diary of a Madman”, Lu Xun presents his solution to wiping away the flaws in the Chinese national character. To him the solution does not rest in the elderly, who have been too deeply ingrained into the traditional mindset. In the story, whenever someone tries to act differently from the cannibals, the cannibals do not listen to him and simply treat him as prey, a means of continuing their vile ways. If we take the madman in the story as the author, it appears from his demise that Lu Xun thought of himself as an older man, as a “cannibal” hopelessly entrenched in “Old China”. But in the darkness, a glimmer of hope shines. Even as the madman starts to succumb to the acceptance of “cannibalistic” tendencies, he discovers the solution to ending this horrific practice is to focus on rescuing the future generations from “cannibalism”. He pleads to the reader, “Maybe there are some children around who still haven’t eaten human flesh. Save the children” (Lu 41) Lu Xun’s protagonist serves as a martyr sacrificed to deliver the news of a healing tonic of revolution to the children of “New China”.

Works Cited

Huters, Theodore E. “Hu Feng and the Critical Legacy of Lu Xun.” Lu Xun & His Legacy, edited by Leo Ou-Fan Lee, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 129–152.

Liu, Lydia He. Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity—China, 1900-1937. Stanford UP, 1999.

Liu, Xiaoming. “Lu Xun.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 8 August 2016.

Lu, Xun, and William A. Lyell. Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

During his undergraduate years Sung Min Kim attended UIUC (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) as a double major in History and East Asian Languages and Cultures. Although his primary field of study is the history of early China, he is also interested in further understanding the various ideological, philosophical, and social currents of modern China.

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