A Madman's Diary

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Lu Xun's "A Madman's Diary," published in New Youth magazine in 1918, is a political allegory critiquing traditional Chinese feudalism. It became the cornerstone of the New Culture Movement, which sought to modernize China by adopting Western modes of thought.
Illustration of "A Madman's Diary"


Contents

Synopsis

“A Madman’s Diary” begins with an introduction from the narrator: he says he had heard a childhood friend was sick and went to visit him, but upon arriving found his friend was better and had taken up a government post in another town. The narrator says his friend’s brother gave him his friend’s journal that details his friend’s thoughts during his illness (which was most likely a case of schizophrenia). He makes a point of mentioning that the title "A Madman’s Diary” was the diarist’s idea after his madness had ceased.

From this point on, the story is written as the diary of the madman. It contains his random thoughts and fears, his obsessions and paranoia. He begins to see the words “Eat people!” between the lines of his history books. He reveals that he feels that the villagers, his doctor, and even his own brother are conspiring to eat him. He comes to the conclusion that his older brother ate his younger sister when she was a child, that perhaps he himself unknowingly consumed her as well, and that his mother either did not know or would not speak of the cannibalism because it was inappropriate to speak of such things. He wonders whether or not anyone, save perhaps children, have not eaten men, and his last plea is that someone can “Save the children…”

Analysis

Narrator’s Introduction

The story begins with an introduction from someone other than the madman – someone the reader assumes is sane, lending authenticity to the diary's contents. The introduction is written in classical Chinese, while the diary entries are written in vernacular Chinese, which makes the diary seem more realistic. The narrator's explicit statement that the excerpt contains the friend’s exact text, similarly makes the diarist's insanity more believable.

Cannibalism As A Metaphor For Feudalism

Cannibalism is a metaphor for the oppressive feudalistic society of China at the time. Those at the top of the feudalistic society fed off of the work of the individuals below them, chipping away at the souls of those at the bottom of the society. By using cannibalism, Lu Xun illuminates the problems of the society without an outright expository assault on the concept of feudalism or its practice in China. He illustrates the nature of feudalism in terms that the masses could understand.

Interpretations of Insanity

There are several possible interpretations of insanity, which include:

  • The breakdown of the spirit in a feudalistic system. The madman’s insanity may be a result of the lack of individuality and the frustration resulting from living in a backward society.
  • Insanity as a way to reality. The fact that the madman is only able to recognize the truth of the feudalistic society (that the core of feudalism is some men consuming the work and individuality of other men) through his insanity makes the critique even harsher. The sane people are unable to see the truth, even though they are convinced that they are the ones in touch with reality. It is only an insane man who is able to realize the degenerative nature of the feudal system.
  • Forgiving the wise fool. Following the Shakespearean tradition of the “wise fool,” Lu Xun criticizes the feudalistic system from the perspective of an insane person because it gives him license to speak his mind with fewer consequences. It also lowers the reader’s guard in some ways – the ranting of a lunatic can be ignored or written off. If the reader approaches the story thinking that the writer is insane, he is more likely to read the story with an attitude toward forgiving the madman for his insane thoughts, while the message of the story slips into the reader’s consciousness while their guard is down.

A Return to Sanity (Or Insanity?)

The narrator emphasizes at the beginning of the story that the diarist is eventually cured and takes up a government post in another region. So, despite the truth that the narrator found through his descent into madness, he ultimately turns his back on that truth and takes a position at the top level of the feudalist system, which he discovered during his madness to be akin to cannibalism. This could perhaps be considered a return to sanity in that his schizophrenia was cured, or it may be that Lu Xun has reversed sanity on us – when the diarist is cured of his schizophrenic insanity, he is actually returning to insanity in the feudal system. Thus, the entries within the diary represent the only period of sanity in the diarist’s life: before and after his schizophrenic episode, the diarist is a madman, but he is sane during his schizophrenic episode.

A Call To Arms

Initially published in New Youth, the magazine of the New Culture Movement, "A Madman’s Diary" was ultimately included in Lu Xun’s short story collection A Call To Arms, which spurred on the movement away from backward Confucian thought and toward a new social order. The story is intended to stir people to action, and it may be that the ending of A Madman’s Diary (when the madman assumes a role at the top of the feudalist society even though it is a type of cannibalism) is supposed to incite anger in the readers and encourage them to push for change.

A Rewriting of Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”

Nikolai Gogol
Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary” was inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman.” Both are written in the form of a diary, and both depict the diarist’s descent into madness as a result of the oppressive systems in which they live. However, in Gogol’s story, as the diarist descends into madness, the diarist moves further away from truth and reality. In Lu Xun’s story, the diarist’s descent into madness brings him closer to truth and reality – the reality that the chaotic backwardness of Chinese society is chipping away the spirit of the Chinese people. Additionally, at the end of Gogol’s story, the diarist remains insane, while the diarist in Lu Xun’s story is no longer insane, and takes a new position in the feudalistic system which he deplores. This may represent a difference in the author’s purposes for writing the stories: Gogol may have been making a commentary on the ineffectiveness of the Russian bureaucracy, which did not necessitate a call to arms, whereas Lu Xun wanted to excite the reader to action.


Biography

Born September 25, 1881, in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, province of China, Lu Xun was the pen name of Zhou Shuren, considered one of the most influential Chinese writers of the twentieth century. Lu Xun wrote short stories, essays, and poems in classical and vernacular Chinese. As a liberal, his works influenced the New Culture Movement (and by extension, the May Fourth Movement), as well as members of the Communist Party. His works reached a broad audience: Lu Xun’s writing inspired even Mao Zedong. Upon his death on October 19, 1936, he was posthumously made a member of the Communist Party. [1]
Lu Xun in his home.

Early Life

Born to a privileged scholar-official family in decline, Lu Xun was both educated in the traditional classics as well as aware of the lives of the common people. [2] An autodidact, he was not enthusiastic about ‘orthodox’ learning, but searched out, read, and even copied unofficial history and prose writings. In his childhood, he also visited his grandmother’s village home, where he developed friendships with peasant children. [3] His experiences with peasants contributed to his conflicting feelings toward the masses. As Kang writes, “On the one hand he loved the goodness and simplicity which were innate in them…on the other hand, he hated their callous indifference towards reform and change and their submissiveness to feudal rule and oppression.” [4] The death of Lu Xun’s father of tuberculosis inspired Lu Xun to pursue a career in medicine. [5]

Education

In 1904, Lu Xun went abroad to earn a degree in Western medicine at the Sendai Medical Academy in Sendai, Japan. Lu Xun abruptly quit medical school in 1906 after he had an epiphany when looking at a picture in one of his professor’s slideshows. [6]

Lu Xun recalls the incident in the preface of his collection of short stories, A Call To Arms. When Lu Xun’s medical professors had extra time at the end of lectures, they would often show slideshows disseminating information about the news of the day, especially about the Russo-Japanese War. One day, it was a picture of a Chinese man accused of spying for the Russians against the Japanese. The man was surrounded by fellow Chinese, observing apathetically as a Japanese executioner prepared to cut off his head. Lu Xun said the following in regards to the picture:
The picture that convinced Lu Xun to pursue literature instead of medicine.


“…the slide convinced me that medical science was not so important after all. The people of a weak and backward country, however strong and healthy they might be, could only serve to be made examples of or as witness to such futile spectacles; it was not necessarily deplorable if many of them died of illness. The most important thing, therefore, was to change their spirit; and since at this time I felt that literature was the best means to this end, I decided to promote a literary movement.” [7]

Career and Publications

From then on, Lu Xun was a writer. He taught and wrote in favor of liberalism, in favor of moving away from a feudalistic Confucian society toward a new culture informed by Western philosophy and science. [8]

He supported many protests and student movements, edited political magazines and newspapers, and co-founded the Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers. Among his other important works were his translations, especially of Nikolai Gogol, whose work “Diary of a Madman” inspired Lu Xun’s rewriting, “A Madman’s Diary.” [9]

Personal Life and Death

Lu Xun entered into an arranged marriage at the age of twenty-two with an illiterate young woman chosen by Lu Xun’s mother named Zhu An. He never consummated the marriage, though he provided for Zhu An’s financial needs. [10]

He had a son, Haiying, by his student lover Xu Guangping in 1929 who followed him after he moved from Guangzhou to Shanghai. [11]

In 1936, Lu Xun, greatly weakened from bouts of tuberculosis, began having trouble breathing as fluid filled his lungs. For weeks he clung to life, having had 300 grams of fluid drained from his lungs at one point. On October 19, 1936, he passed away in the early hours of the morning under his doctor’s care. [12]

Historical Context

The New Republic and the New Culture Movement: The World of the "Madman"

The New Culture Movement that Lu Xun encourages in “Madman” was an extension of pre-Republic reform efforts. Late nineteeth-century scholars decided that outdated Confucian thinking was the cause of humiliating defeats by Japanese and European powers. While leading political reformers encouraged Western learning through establishing schools and study abroad, the movement’s goals eventually shifted. It focused less on intellectual paradigm shifts and more on concrete changes, culminating in the revolution of 1911—the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of a weak Republican government modeled after Western ones. [13] With power falling into the hands of the corrupt Jiang Jieshi, (“Generalissimo Jiang”), who accepted aid from foreign powers at the expense of Chinese independence, the country found itself in the same chaotic state as before. As Kang explains, “her home-made oppressive semi-feudal rule of warlordism was now allied with foreign aggression which threatened the country with the growing danger of total enslavement.” [14]

The failures of the revolution led intellectuals to study Western philosophy and science with increased urgency. Changing the political system was not enough: China needed a new culture in order to defend herself against Western and Japanese aggression. To discuss these ideas, advocates of Western liberalism—including Lu Xun—established New Youth in 1915, the primary vehicle of the New Culture Movement. [15] The magazine published critiques of Confucianism as well as translations of European thinkers such as Haeckel, Tolstoy, Adam Smith, Nietzche, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin, and Rousseau. [16] At the same time, it advocated a literary revolution, rejecting “decorative,” “flattering,” “stale,” “over-flowery,” “unintelligible,” and “obscurantist” classical literary style to create “a plain, simple and expressive literature of the people.” [17]

Lu Xun's Intellectual Influences

While at Nanking Railways and Mines Academy, he read Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics, which introduced him to Darwinian materialism. [18] He also read the newspapers published by the Reformist School and translations of Western novels and philosophical and political works. [19] He came to admire Nietzche’s Ubermensch and Byron, the ideal of the striving genius in the former and the spirit of rebellion in the latter. [20]

Lu Xun particularly favored Russian writers: Andreev, Lermontov, Chekhov, and above all, Gogol. However, he was also influenced by Chinese works, such as the classic-realistic novel Unrecorded Stories of the Scholars. [21] While he urged young people to “read as few Chinese books as possible, or even not at all, but instead read more foreign books,” he wrote research essays in classical Chinese and compiled anthologies of traditional Chinese fiction. [22] In fact, upon return from Japan in 1909, he immersed himself in research of the Classics for a full six years, and would continue to work on such side projects until his death. [23] [24]

Once he went to Japan in 1902, he became involved in the Chinese revolution and continued to read Western literature. [25] Scholars that influenced Lu Xun included Darwin, Haeckel, and Goethe. [26] He thought often about three questions that would later inform all of his writing:

  • What is the ideal human nature?
  • What is most lacking in the Chinese national character?
  • What is the cause of such a disease?

He sought to address this “disease” through literature—it would enlighten and embolden them.

Lu Xun's Influence on the May Fourth Movement

Illustration of the May Fourth Movement
The May Fourth Movement was a reaction to the government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles, which gave Germany’s concessions of the Shandong peninsula to Japan rather than returning it to China. Influenced by the literature of the New Youth, it started with a mass student demonstration in Tiananmen Square on May 4th,1919—a year after the publication of “Madman”—and strikes of workers and merchants and a nation-wide boycott of Japanese goods. The New Culture Movement subsumed the May Fourth Movement, making reform a concern not just of elite intellectuals, but of the newly nationalistic populace. [27]


Videos

Part 1 of a 2008 French adaptation of "A Madman's Diary" in Beijing.

References

  1. Tambling, Jeremy. Madmen and Other Survivors: Reading Lu Xun's Fiction. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007. Print. 14.
  2. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 26.
  3. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 27.
  4. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 38.
  5. Tambling, Jeremy. Madmen and Other Survivors: Reading Lu Xun's Fiction. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007. Print. 14.
  6. Tambling, Jeremy. Madmen and Other Survivors: Reading Lu Xun's Fiction. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007. Print. 14.
  7. Tambling, Jeremy. Madmen and Other Survivors: Reading Lu Xun's Fiction. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007. Print. 14-15.
  8. Tambling, Jeremy. Madmen and Other Survivors: Reading Lu Xun's Fiction. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007. Print. 14.
  9. Tambling, Jeremy. Madmen and Other Survivors: Reading Lu Xun's Fiction. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007. Print. 21.
  10. Tambling, Jeremy. Madmen and Other Survivors: Reading Lu Xun's Fiction. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007. Print. 17.
  11. Tambling, Jeremy. Madmen and Other Survivors: Reading Lu Xun's Fiction. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007. Print. 21.
  12. Tambling, Jeremy. Madmen and Other Survivors: Reading Lu Xun's Fiction. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007. Print. 23.
  13. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 6.
  14. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 7.
  15. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 8.
  16. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 11.
  17. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 13.
  18. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 30.
  19. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 31.
  20. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 38.
  21. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 53.
  22. Lee, Leo Ou-fan. Lu Xun and His Legacy. Berkeley: University of California, 1985. Print. 91.
  23. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 40.
  24. Lee, Leo Ou-fan. Lu Xun and His Legacy. Berkeley: University of California, 1985. Print. 91.
  25. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 30.
  26. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 52.
  27. Huang, Songkang. Lu Hsun and the New Culture Movement of Modern China. Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957. Print. 19.
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