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HST271

Show and Tell Module 3: Delving into Diary of a Madman

When I realized that the time for our module 3 show and tell project was upon us, I immediately knew what topic I wanted to explore more deeply. Ever since I first read Lu Xun’s famous short story, “Diary of a Madman”, I was intrigued by the deeper meaning of the piece. What broader point was Xun trying to make, if any? Was it a commentary on Chinese society? An examination of the human condition? Or simply the horrifying tale of a man sinking deeper and deeper into delusion. With these questions in mind, I began my research to find out the truth.

Before I dive into my findings, however, I will first go into some context about the piece. The author, Lu Xun, was born in the year 1881 in the city of Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province [1]. He almost became a doctor, but instead took up the profession of healing the souls of the populace after seeing a slideshow depicting people idly watching as a person was executed in front of them [2]. Xun believed that his writing could achieve his goal and began to author stories that strove to “dissect the malaise of Chinese humanity in symbolic form and…resurrect the Chinese body from the curse of living death”[3]. From this wish came “Diary of a Madman”. When this story first came out in 1918, it was written in Baihua (or Colloquial Chinese) [4]. This decision to use Baihua was a massive departure from the norm and caused quite a stir, since most Chinese literature was written in Wenyan (or Classical Chinese), which most of the Chinese population was unable to understand [5]. Even before they even picked up his work, Lu Xun wanted the Chinese people to know that his goal with “Diary of a Madman” was to create enormous cultural change. However, the content of his story was even more shocking than his choice of language. “Diary of a Madman” tells the tale of a presumed madman who believes that his entire village is made of cannibals who are planning on eating him.

The first meaning that has been drawn from this odd story comes from James Reeve Pusey’s book Lu Xun and Evolution. In this, he states that “Diary of a Madman” is an examination of human nature and that Xun is pointing out how evil humanity truly is [6]. However, Pusey does not believe that “Diary of a Madman” is painting an irredeemable picture of humanity. He points to a line in the story where the main character states that the reason that the children of the village also eat people is because “their fathers and mothers have taught them to be like that” [7]. Therefore, Pusey proposes that Xun is using “Diary of a Madman” to point out the evil in human nature; however, that that evil is a learned one, not one that a person is born with [8]. Thus, Xun’s emphasis on the innocence of young people provides an avenue for the restoration of humanity: through the children, who are too young to be tainted by humanity’s villainy. This idea is solidified through the last line of the story, which is a simple command to “Save the children”[9].

A different interpretation of Diary of a Madman comes from Lu Xun’s revolution: writing in a time of violence, whose author, Gloria Davis, views Xun’s inclusion of cannibalism in his story as a means to critique the social structure of China [10]. This concept appears in the story when the protagonist comes to the realization that “…I’m someone with four thousand years’ experience of cannibalism behind me”, revealing Xun’s disdainful view of an ancient Chinese society whose structure had oppressed so many [11].  As Davis puts it, “…it [Diary of a Madman] produces a visceral indictment of “the old society’s” anthropophagic appetite, the depth of which is progressively revealed to the protagonist” [12]. Thus, the normalized cannibalism taking place within the protagonist’s village functions as a metaphor for harmful practices normalized through tradition in Chinese society.

Although there were many more theories and interpretations of Lu Xun’s story to explore, these two were the ones that made the most sense to me, especially when combined. At the time when Lu Xun was writing this story, China was in a time of great turmoil. Political unrest within the country was causing rumbling of rebellion and long-held Chinese customs and traditions were being reexamined by the newly emerging, youth-powered Communists [13]. The two theories I have outlined here present a cohesive view of Diary of a Madman as a story that exists as a perfect representation of both this evolution of culture and desire for youth-driven change. Not only had Lu Xun written a masterful, horrifying short story that captured the attention of readers worldwide, he was also able to capture the discontent and disillusionment of an entire generation.


Footnotes

[1] David Wang, “Chinese literature from 1841 to 1937”, in The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, Chang, Kang-i Sun & Owen, Stephen (arg.), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2:413–564, 474, 2010, doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521855594.008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gloria Davis, Lu Xun’s Revolution : Writing in a Time of Violence, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 231, https://doi.org/10.4159/harvard.9780674073944.

[5] Ibid.

[6] James Reeve Pusey, Lu Xun and Evolution, (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1998), retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.muhlenberg.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=5462&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

[7] Lu Xun, and William A. Lyell, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990), 41,  https://search-ebscohost-com.muhlenberg.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=39159&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

[8] James Reeve Pusey, Lu Xun and Evolution, (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1998), retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.muhlenberg.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=5462&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

[9] Lu Xun, and William A. Lyell, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990), 41,  https://search-ebscohost-com.muhlenberg.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=39159&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

[10] Gloria Davis, Lu Xun’s Revolution : Writing in a Time of Violence, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 231, https://doi.org/10.4159/harvard.9780674073944.

[11] Lu Xun, and William A. Lyell, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990), 41,  https://search-ebscohost-com.muhlenberg.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=39159&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

[12] Gloria Davis, Lu Xun’s Revolution : Writing in a Time of Violence, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 231, https://doi.org/10.4159/harvard.9780674073944.

[13] Chapter 13 Summary.

Bibliography

Chapter 13 summary

Davis, Gloria. Lu Xun’s Revolution : Writing in a Time of Violence. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 2013. https://doi.org/10.4159/harvard.9780674073944.

Lu Xun, and Lyell, William A.. Diary of a Madman and Other Stories Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 1990. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.muhlenberg.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=39159&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Pusey, James Reeve. Lu Xun and Evolution. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press. 1998. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.muhlenberg.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=5462&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Wang, David. “Chinese literature from 1841 to 1937”. In The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, Chang, Kang-i Sun & Owen, Stephen (arg.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2:413–564. 2010. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521855594.008.