The first decades of twentieth century China saw a great deal of social, political, and economic changes: in 1912, the Xinhai Revolution ended imperial dynastic rule in China by bringing about the fall of the last Qing emperor, which marked the beginning of a republican era. These upheavals also came with a revolution in literature, and no author or story is more synonymous with the rise of modern vernacular Chinese fiction than Lu Xun (1881-1936) and his short story Kuanren riji (狂人日记), or Diary of a Madman.
Written almost entirely in vernacular Chinese, Diary of a Madman, published in 1918 in the New Youth (Xin qingnian, 新情年) magazine, is consistently considered the start of China’s era of modern literature. Lu Xun’s short story also preceded the new literary trend of short fiction that mirrored the social protests and search for reform of the May Fourth Movement, which began in 1919.
Diary of a Madman opens with an introduction to the diary written in Classical Chinese, or wenyan (文言). The introduction explains how the narrator acquired the diary of an old classmate who had gone mad, recovered, and moved away; the madman's elder brother gives the diary to the narrator of the introduction. Though parts of the diary are illegible or nonsensical, the narrator states that they have compiled the parts that make relative sense. Then, in a conscious effort by Lu Xun to help revolutionize Chinese literature, the story continues with this compilation of the madman’s diary, written in vernacular, colloquial Chinese, or baihua (白话).
The diary slowly reveals the nature of the madman’s beliefs, which the Classical Chinese narrator refers to as symptoms of a persecution complex. The madman begins to believe that villagers around him, including even the neighbor’s dog and his own elder brother, are avid cannibals. When the madman’s brother calls a doctor to see him, the madman first concludes that the village plans to drive him to his death so they can eat his carcass free from the guilt of outright murder. He then slowly realizes that, however unconsciously, he himself has been party to the village’s cannibalism by eating at his elder brother’s table. The story ends with the madman’s hope that the children are still innocent and a desperate plea to "save the children"—an ending which has since become iconic in China (Lu, Yang & Yang, 1972).
Inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s work of the same name, Lu Xun’s Diary of a Madman is a classic of modern Chinese literature. Not only is it written in vernacular Chinese, but it also followed the late Qing and early Republican literature, which, in part influenced by the increase in translations of Western literature, had witnessed the beginning of a shift towards realism, the representation of individual perspectives in fiction, the belief that short stories were the optimum form of literature (Doleželová-Velingerová, 2010).
While there are many critical readings of Diary of a Madman, it is often read as an allegory for Lu Xun’s beliefs about Chinese culture and tradition. Like the May Fourth Movement, which was highly critical of Confucianism, Lu Xun also turned a sharply reflective eye on the traditions of the past. Through literature, he had hoped to inspire the birth of a new and modern intellectual Chinese spirit. In the preface to Nahan (呐喊), or Outcry, a collection of short stories including Diary of a Madman which was published in 1923, Lu Xun wrote that if “people were intellectually feeble, they would never become anything […]. The first task was to change their spirit; and literature and the arts, I decided at the time, were the best means to this end. And so I reinvented myself as a crusader for cultural reform” (Lu & Lovell, 2009:17).
Yet at the same time, as Lu Xun goes on to explain the preface, he lost his optimism for cultural reform when he was younger and went through intense periods of loneliness. A friend convinced him to begin writing short stories, but he still struggled with a pessimistic vision that editors obliged him remove, often resulting in optimistic revisions to his stories that he did not believe in (Lu & Lovell, 2009). Eventually, Lu Xun lost his faith in the ability of literature to create change and focused on social essays, literary criticism, and other types of writing. Though he is highly lauded by the Communist Party as the best Chinese writer of the twentieth century, Lu Xun remained ambivalent about politics (Williams, 2010; Hsia, 1968).
From the beginning, Lu Xun’s short stories have grappled with his loneliness and pessimism, his ardent desire to change China, and the fragility of his hope. In Diary of a Madman, the madman begins by observing the moon’s brightness, which has opposing connotations in Western and Chinese interpretation relating to lunacy and enlightenment, respectively (Yang, 1992). Throughout the story, the moon and light in general—or their lack—mirror both the madman’s desperation as he realizes just how many people intend to eat him and his despair when his attempts to persuade them to change fail.
The madman’s ravings—and through him, Lu Xun’s criticism of traditional Chinese society—are not subtle. At one point, the madman wonders if the villagers hate him for having once stepped on Mr. Gujiu’s historical records; gu jiu (古久, also romanized as ku chiu) translates to “ancient times” (Lu, Yang & Yang, 1972). While writers in traditional Chinese narratives have frequently used homophones to make puns with characters' names and hint at alternate meanings, Lu Xun is far more straightforward when introducing his character's lack of proper respect for the culturally revered past (Lu, Yang, & Yang, 1972). When the madman’s brother brings a doctor to examine him, the madman laughs in their faces and writes that they fear his courage and hope to consume and gain these qualities through eating his flesh.
Slowly, the madman’s reflections on his village’s cannibalistic nature reveals Lu Xun’s criticisms about Chinese society and Confucianism’s influence: it is a society that encourages people to “eat” each other, even when they themselves may be eaten. Like the madman’s brother and the doctor, this kind of society creates people who fear integrity and strength and seek to ostracize people with these qualities for being different. “Wanting to eat men, at the same time afraid of being eaten themselves, they all look at each other with the deepest suspicion,” Lu Xun’s madman writes (Lu, Yang, & Yang, 1972:Section IX). To Lu Xun, this constant mutual suspicion made Chinese society rigid and static (Chinnery, 1960). Worse yet, Lu Xun saw himself as similarly infected, just as the madman realizes that he has eaten human flesh at the end of the story.
Diary of a Madman concludes with the madman’s plea to “save the children,” as the madman believes they are the only ones who remain innocent (Lu, Yang, & Yang, 1972:Part XIII). Yet even here, Lu Xun’s ambivalence is still visible—despite the seemingly hopeful ending, earlier in the story the narrator admits he’s afraid the children have already been taught cannibalism, and concludes that this “is why even the children look at me so fiercely” (Lu, Yang, & Yang, 1972:Part VIII).
Lu Xun continued to write sharp criticisms of traditional Chinese society both in his other short stories and in nonfiction essays. However, Diary of a Madman, remains one of his greatest short stories for the literary movement it heralded and its pioneering use of vernacular Chinese. To this day, Diary of a Madman is one of the most important works of modern Chinese literature.
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