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Lu Xun's "Diary of a Madman"

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.

Artist Ding Cong's illustration of "Diary of a Madman"

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).

A propaganda poster urging people to "Study Lu Xun's Revolutionary Spirit"

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