Updated: Jan 15
Born in the province of Zhejiang (浙江) in 1881, Zhou Shuren (周树人), better known under the pen name of Lu Xun (鲁迅), has been the most influential modern Chinese writer associated with the May Fourth Movement in 1919, and the League of Left-Wing Writers in 1930. As Chen Pingyuan (陈平原) (2011) notes, Lu Xun’s short stories are considered among the best literary accomplishments of New Youth (Xinqingnian 新青年), the journal founded by Chen Duxiu (陈独秀) in 1915. With the slogan of “Literary Revolution”, the New Youth group aimed to distance itself from Chinese traditional literature, seen as aristocratic and obsequious, too distant from the people. Before becoming a writer, Lu Xun studied medicine in Japan, where he lived from 1902 to 1909. However, he later decided to switch to literature, in order to cure minds instead of bodies. What made up his mind was the vision of a cruel scene of a Chinese man being beheaded by a Japanese soldier under the accusation of being a Russian spy, surrounded by a crowd of apathetic Chinese spectators. The crowd described by Lu Xun did not show any mercy towards their fellow countryman. Thus, Lu Xun concluded that, as McDougall and Louie (1997, p. 93) put it, “what China needed was a transformation of its national spirit, not simply a cure for physical ailments”.
Thanks to his satirical works, Lu Xun has frequently been referred to as one of the leading critics of the national essence who triggered the flow of constructive critiques of Chinese national character (for another interesting reading on this topic, see Bo Yang’s The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture). This study will look at some of Lu Xun’s works which best disclose the author’s constructive critique of the modern Chinese national character, namely “The True Story of Ah Q” (Ah Q zheng zhuan 阿Q正传) (1923), “New Year’s Sacrifice” (Zhufu 祝福) (1924), “A Public Example” (Shizhong 示众) (1925), and “Forging the Swords” (Zhu Jian 铸剑) (1926). Three main themes are identified in this study as the central components of Lu Xun’s critique of modern Chinese society: “Ah Q-ism” as the representation of national character; the onlooker mentality of crowds; and social injustice revealed by the political system of warlordism.
1. What is Ah Q-ism?
When talking about Ah Q-ism, we refer to the character Ah Q, the protagonist of Lu Xun’s novella “The True Story of Ah Q”. The story was published as a serial between December 1921 and February 1922 in the journal Morning News Supplement (Chenbao Fukan 晨报副刊), and later published in his first short story collection Outcry in 1923. Interestingly, the narrator’s uncertainty about Ah Q’s family name, together with the lack of description of Ah Q’s appearance would seem to suggest that he could be anyone, “the Chinese Everyman”, as noted by McDougall and Louie (1997).
Set in the village of Weizhuang (未庄), around the 1911 Revolution, the story tells the tale of Ah Q 阿Q, a jobless, uneducated peasant who is repeatedly oppressed by the society he lives in. Despite Ah Q’s very low social status, Lu Xun presents him as a master of self-delusion who comforts himself and justifies his superiority over others whenever facing defeat and humiliation. Moreover, Ah Q’s conceit leads him to adopt a scornful behaviour towards those who are at the bottom of social hierarchy like him – he fights with a lad, molests a young nun, and eventually decides to join the revolution purely in pursuit of personal profits. However, he is eventually imprisoned and sentenced to death.
Ah Q presents some characteristics which the author considers to be common flaws among Chinese people in late dynastic China, such as self-deception (or “spiritual victory”, as defined by Lu Xun himself) and hypocrisy. Throughout a constant mechanism of self-deception, Ah Q comforts himself on his superiority whenever facing defeat or humiliation. For example, when Ah Q succumbs to the tyranny of his oppressors, he persuades himself that he is morally superior to them:
In this way, Ah Q’s tormentors learnt of his habit of declaring moral victory over the ashes of defeat, and added their own revisions while yanking on his queue. ‘Think of it this way, Ah Q. We’re not sons beating our father – we’re men beating an animal. Repeat after us: men beating an animal!’ ‘Or how about,’ Ah Q would twist his head back round, trying to protect the base of his queue, ‘a slug? I’m a slug! A slug! Now will you let me go?’ They would not, and went on to give his head the time-honoured bashing against the nearest hard surface, before swinging off, their hearts again singing in the joy of victory, thinking this time their point had been well and truly made. And yet within ten seconds, Ah Q had set jubilantly off his own way. He was now the top self-abaser in China, and once you’d discarded the inconvenient ‘self-abaser’, you were left with ‘top’ - ‘top’ as in ‘top in the civil service examinations’. (Lu Xun, 1923, p. 86)
Furthermore, Ah Q’s hypocrisy is shown by his attitude towards the revolution. At first, he considers revolution as heretical, but once he learns that it could be profitable for him, he suddenly changes his mind and wants to become a revolutionary himself.
Revolutionaries were old news to Ah Q: why, earlier that year, he had watched them being executed. Back then, he had had an intuition – why, he couldn’t say – that these revolutionaries were rebelling against the established order of things, and that rebellion would make his life difficult; and so he had conceived a violent hatred for them. But here they were, putting the wind up even Mr Provincial Examination – a man famous for a whole thirty miles around and about. This – taken in combination with the state of dread into which the villagers, now twittering like frightened birds, had been thrown – struck Ah Q as all rather delicious. (Lu Xun, 1923, pp. 108-109)
In addition, as Ah Q realises that even the powerful Mr. Zhao, one of his main oppressors, is scared by the revolutionaries, Ah Q’s desire to join the revolution increases, as if he wishes to become an oppressor himself: “Hurrah!’ He yelled again, his spirits soaring higher. ‘I take what I want, I spare who I like” (Lu Xun, 1923, p. 109). Consequently, Ah Q’s hypocritical nature might be read as Lu Xun’s direct critique of Chinese society at that time. As McDougall and Louie (1997) point out, the story is set around 1911 to express resentment towards the failure of the Xinhai Revolution. In portraying Ah Q as an example of the modern Chinese soul, Lu Xun not only holds the rich accountable for the failure of the revolution, but also the poor, whom he considers “responsible to a large extent for their own unhappiness and the backward situation in China”.
2. The “Onlooker-Mentality”
The study of Xu Yan (许燕) (2014) provides an insightful analysis of the psychological traits of the onlookers exposed by Lu Xun. One characteristic identified by Xu Yan is the “morbid pleasure” (xie’e kuaigan 邪恶快感), a feeling of happiness that comes from witnessing other people’s adversities. This phenomenon is particularly evident in Lu Xun’s story “New Year’s Sacrifice”(1924). The protagonist of the story set during the Chinese New Year is Aunt Xianglin (Xianglin sao 祥林嫂), a miserable, twice-widowed woman with low social status who works as a housemaid for a family in Luzhen (鲁镇). Because widows are considered a lower class in traditional Chinese society, both her employers and the villagers disrespect her and show no sympathy towards her misfortunes. A good example thereof is when Ah-mao (阿毛), Aunt Xianglin’s son, was devoured by a wolf. After having learnt about the grieving event, the old women in the village especially look for Aunt Xianglin to listen to the story, not to comfort her, but because they are driven by a “morbid pleasure”:
Some old women – those who hadn’t heard her recitation about town – would seek her out specially to hear her tragic story. When she broke into sobs, their own tears, ready at the corners of their eyes, would also gush out; then, with a sigh, they would leave, perfectly satisfied and still discussing it animatedly among themselves. (Lu Xun, 1924, pp. 173-174)
Another characteristic of onlookers’ mindset is the “fear of society” (shehui kongju 社会恐惧). According to Xu Yan, this essentially describes the attitude of people to conform themselves to the dominant ideology, in order to protect themselves. Lu Xun’s story “A Public Example” (1925) is conceivably the best example of this phenomenon. Set in the Realm of Supreme Virtue (a sarcastic name for Beijing), “A Public Example” describes the scene of a policeman and a prisoner wearing a white waistcoat surrounded by a crowd of spectators. When a man in the throng of people surrounding the prisoner steps forward to ask what the prisoner is guilty of, no one answers him. Instead, everyone’s attention moves from the prisoner the man, scrutinising him adversely:
'What’s he done?’ Everyone looked round in astonishment to discover a rough-looking fellow – some kind of worker, probably – quietly asking the bald old man for enlightenment. The old man merely stared at him. The questioner broke eye contact, unnerved by his scrutiny; but when he looked back up, he found he was still being stared at – and by several others in the group as well. Beginning to feel like a criminal himself, he backed self-consciously out of the crowd and slipped away. (Lu Xun, 1925, p. 218)
Presumably, what Lu Xun intends to show by this is the blind conformity of traditional Chinese people, who indifferently accept what they see without questioning whether is right or wrong, unconsciously supporting the status quo.
3. Social injustice in the traditional Chinese political system of warlordism
In line with the May Fourth scholars’ criticism of China’s backwardness, Lu Xun’s story “Forging the Swords” (1926) is a perfect example of the author’s denunciation of traditional Chinese society and politics. The story was written in late 1926, in the aftermath of the March 18 Massacre in 1926, and published in 1927 in the magazine Mangyuan (莽原). “Forging the Swords” is a revenge tale where Mei Jianchi (眉间尺), a fifteen-year-old boy, carries on the task his mother gave him of avenging his father’s death. Mei Jianchi is presented as a weak and indecisive boy, who cannot even decide between killing or saving a rat. His father, a sword forger, had been selected by the king to forge a sword from a transparent piece of iron that one of the king’s concubines gave birth to. After forging two swords, knowing the king would kill him to prevent him from forging swords for others, the man brings one sword to the king and leaves the other to his wife, telling her to give it to their son when he is grown so that he can avenge him. In fact, on Mei Jianchi’s fifteenth birthday, his mother gives him the sword and orders him to kill the king. The boy, apparently resolute to accomplish the task, starts his journey to the king’s realm. On his way, he meets a stranger, a dark man who persuades him to sever his head and leave the avenge task to himself. After Mei Jianchi cuts his head off, the dark man goes to the court and performs a magic trick in front of the king, with a cauldron and the boy’s head. The dark man eventually persuades the king to bend his head towards the cauldron to see better and cuts his head off. A battle between Mei Jianchi’s head and the king’s head starts in the cauldron until the dark man severs his head as well and joins the struggle, helping Mei Jianchi’s head to defeat the king’s head. Eventually, all the three heads boil in the cauldron until only the skulls are left. Unsure about which is the king’s skull, the people in the court decide to bury all three heads together.
According to the political interpretation provided by Soh (2012, p. 117), it is possible to identify three allegorical figures within the text: the Chinese people (Mei Jianchi), Lu Xun (the dark man), and the warlords (the king). This interpretation is presumably linked to the March 18 Massacre, in which Lu Xun helped the Chinese students in their struggle against the abusive power of warlords. In this regard, an implicit critique of the warlords’ abuse of power might be identified in the king’s tyrannical temperament: “‘I am so bored!’ he roared, yawning. […] His frequent rages usually climaxed in him reaching for his blue sword and dispatching a few unfortunates for the most minor transgressions” (Lu Xun, 1926, p. 363). Alongside the political interpretation of the story, it is also possible to give a philosophical explanation. Accordingly, as Rahav (2015, p. 462) points out, “Forging the Swords” would represent Lu Xun’s conception of revenge, and the vivid violence that characterises the story might be an allegory of Lu Xun’s personal sentiments towards the March 18 Massacre. In fact, the anti-warlord manifestations that caused the students’ deaths were encouraged by Lu Xun, just like Mei Jianchi was encouraged by the dark man to sacrifice himself in order to kill the king. Therefore, the political and spiritual interpretations are interwoven. Finally, the unhappy ending of the story where all three heads eventually die might imply that Lu Xun does not outdistance himself from his critical representation of Chinese society.
This study has examined how “The True Story of Ah Q”, “A Public Example”, “New Year’s Sacrifice”, and “Forging the Swords” comprise some of the best examples of Lu Xun’s critique of traditional Chinese society. The national character is presented within Lu Xun’s works through satire. Firstly, “The True Story of Ah Q” contains a discernible critique of one particular aspect of the national character, defined as “Ah Qism”, which consists of two main elements: a psychological mechanism of self-deception that the author calls “spiritual victory”, and hypocrisy. Secondly, “A Public Example” and “New Year’s Sacrifice” showcase Lu Xun’s vivid criticism of onlookers’ mentality, characterised by the “morbid pleasure” (the pleasure that comes from witnessing other people’s adversities), and the “fear of society” (ideological conformism generated by fear). Finally, although the obscure story “Forging the Swords” deserves further investigation, it could be interpreted as a satirical denunciation of the Chinese political system. By the time the text was written, the warlords were still perpetuating a system based on injustice and the abuse of power. The connection to the March 18 Incident, which touched Lu Xun personally, explains the interweaving of both political and spiritual components. Overall, Lu Xun’s allegorical depiction of national flaws presented within the stories analysed in this study can help us understand modern and, to a certain extent, contemporary Chinese society.
Ambra Minoli was born in Vimercate (Italy) on January 19, 1994. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures from the University of Bergamo in 2017, and her master’s degree in MSc Chinese Studies from the University of Edinburgh. Passionate about world literature, her research is centred on comparative literatures on Republican Shanghai, particularly Chinese, Japanese and French literature. She is open to freelance collaboration in writing and producing online content for editorial agencies, e-journals, and organisations focused on China. Find her on Instagram as @ambraminoli, and on LinkedIn.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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