Book Review: "The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China:" The Complete Fiction of Lu XunsteemCreated with Sketch.

in #review3 years ago (edited)


I would not normally write two reviews back-to-back, but all of the research articles I'm working on (a two part series on the pros-and-cons that would ensue if the Philippines sought US Statehood, an article discussing China's DF-41 missile and why I'm not worried about it, an article describing what would happen if North Korea collapsed, and an article outlining four very easy strategies the US could use to crush China completely {and why it's actually NOT a good idea to do so}) are taking longer than expected. Ergo, I've got two books left that I need to review. One is Xi Jinping's The Governance of China: Vol. II, and the other is this: an anthology of short stories written by a late 19th/early 20th century Chinese author named Lu Xun (the "u" in "Xun" is supposed to be rendered with two dots over it in Pinyin but I don't have such a character on my keyboard).

Like the work I reviewed in my previous article, Three Kingdoms, this is a work of Chinese literature, written in China, about China, in Chinese, by a Chinese author for a Chinese audience, so there's no possibility of someone claiming "this book was a biased view written by those phantomic 'hostile Western anti-China forces' the Chinese love to scream about whenever anything casts them in a bad light." Also like Three Kingdoms, the book casts the people and culture of China in a very negative light, though unlike Three Kingdoms, Lu's work does this deliberately. It seems that one of Lu's contemporaries, the reformer Liang QiChao (who also kept company with Sun Zhongshan) had it right when he asked Lu "why... [are] the Chinese at present superstitious, avaricious, obsequious, heartless and crafty? 'All because of our fiction' (p. xxvii)." However, rather than simply feeding this trend, Lu Xun was on a mission to force China to look at itself through the same eyes as the rest of the world, and as such, he does not glamorize China but rather puts its darker traits on display in terms its own population can understand.

In many ways, this is a photonegative of Three Kingdoms. That was an epic (4 volumes), written in the Ming Dynasty, meant to glorify ancient China. This volume is a collection of short stories divided into three collections (entitled "Outcry," "hesitation" and "Old Stories Retold," around 400 pages total), written in the latter-day Qing and early Republic Era as the author's attempt to shame his countrymen into shedding some of their more embarrassing traits. "I suddenly found myself staring at a great mass of my fellow Chinese," the author writes of his countrymen in the Preface, "...Though they were all of them perfectly sturdy physical specimens, every face was utterly, stupidly blank (p. 17)."
Similar barbs fill the preface, such as the author's assertion that "it gradually dawned on me that practicioners of Chinese medicine are -intentionally or otherwise- conmen (p. 16)," and the infamous "iron house" analogy, where he even entertains the idea that maybe it would be better to let his country "suffocate" in ignorance, rather than awaken them just in time to helplessly realize their civilization is about to die (p. 17). Like Three Kingdoms, I wish I had read this book before coming to China, because when Lu Xun set out to paint his countrymen in all their scheming, heartless, lowlife glory (he himself describes Chinese traditional society as 'hypocritical, conservative, passive, constrained, classicist, imitative, ugly, evil, belligerent, disorderly, lazy (p. xix)'), he succeeded in grand style.
A Steemit article does not have room for me to review every short story here, but the ones from the "Outcry" collection, Lu's early work, seem to be the most glaring "look in the mirror and quit embarrassing yourselves" call to the Zhonghua Minzu, so I'll focus mainly on these.

Diary of a Madman

The first short story of the collection, Diary of a Madman, is a fictional diary by a character who has become convinced that everyone around him is a cannibal, and that he is next on their menu. This is characterized early on as a "persecution complex (p. 21)." which I find to be a perfect analogy for a nation that remains convinced that the entire world is engaged in some shadowy, jealousy-driven conspiracy against them, no matter how many times the nations they accuse of this have actually saved them from catastrophe. I also could not help but chuckle (albeit ruefully, given how believable the line is) when the madman confronts a neighbor about his belief, and the neighbor casually replies "no one's eating anyone; it's not a famine year (p. 27)." No shock, no revulsion at the notion of cannibalism, no denial that they ever would engage in something so vile, just a simple "nah, we're not hungry enough yet."
On page 29, the madman declares that his neighbors' assertions that he is insane are a "tactic" to "discredit him," eerily foreshadowing the Chinese media's present attitude that any coverage of China other than dripping praise must be biased and riven by some agenda, probably by the 'Hostile Western Anti-China forces' mentioned above.
All-in-all, the "madman (who is actually the only sane one in the story) is a perfect manifestation of the Chinese State, while the people around him portray my experience with the rank and file of Chinese citizenry, both then and now, with chilling accuracy.


This was perhaps the most heart-wrenching story in the collection. The main character is a widow whose young son has taken ill, and the woman's all-too-trusting nature as she seeks help for her son (only to be let down, and then fleeced after he dies) shows all-too-clearly what a tragedy it is to be too innocent guileless in China.
The first shot the story fires is against one of the author's favorite targets: practicioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM in modern vernacular). Early on in the story, the widow takes her son to a doctor for what is plainly a respiratory condition. After telling the doctor her son can't breathe, the doctor makes a show of checking the boy's pulse (because that's where respiratory problems are found, right?) and diagnoses him with a blocked stomach (p. 47). When the widow questions this diagnosis, the doctor explains that the boy's condition is "because his fire is vanquishing his metal (p. 47)" and writes a nonsensical prescription which he insists can only be found at one local vendor (p. 48). If this wasn't enough to make it obvious that the doctor had ulterior financial motives for this prescription, the laughable name of the "magic ingredient," the "Baby Life-Saver Wonder Pill," should drive the point home.
Unsurprisingly, the boy dies, and it is here where the author makes his most vivid portrayal of the vulture-like nature of Chinese peasants. Everyone in the village offers "condolences," but makes a point of milking the grieving mother for every dime that they think their condolences were worth. First is the crafty Mrs. Wang, who "helpfully" reminds the widow that she must burn some paper money for her son to have in the afterlife, and then "generously" offers the money, after helping herself to some of the widow's furniture and clothing in exchange (p. 49). The coffin-maker too, conveniently does not have a child-sized coffin on hand (odd, given China's child mortality rate in 1920, when this story was written and takes place), and has to custom make one, for which he charges a hefty fee, of course (p. 50). Mrs. Wang then, having not been content to simply rob the grieving widow herself, returns to use some of the widow's groceries to "prepare food for anyone who had moved a muscle or said a word in contribution (p. 51)," then demands a fee for this service as well. The manager of the local inn hires two coffin-bearers for an exorbitant amount (on the widow's behalf of course), and the reader is left with the distinct impression that the manager kept a part of this fee for himself (p. 50).
Contrasting with the petty, thieving villagers is the maternal devotion of the widow who meticulously cares for every detail of her son's funeral, oblivious to the fact that she is being squeezed dry by her unscrupulous neighbors (p. 49), and a flashback to the way her now-departed son would always insist that when he was big enough he would take up his father's old line of work and work day and night to earn money for his overworked mother (p. 51), a promise he, thanks to his villainous countrymen, never lives to fulfill.
At the end of the story, less than 24 hours after the boy is laid in the grave his village-mates charged his mother to put him in, the villagers have gone back to their drunken revelry, having already spent the money they squeezed from the mourning mother on wine and song (women were a bit more expensive), while the widow sits and tries to find some sense of purpose in a life where her heir, the one thing Chinese society considers the most important thing to produce in life, has now passed on, and she has no husband to have another child with. It must be emphasized again that in a Confucian society, nothing is more important than bringing the next generation into the world and seeing them outlive you.

The Real Story of Ah-Q

And here it is, Lu Xun's signature tale, and the quintessential caricature of the entire Zhonghua Minzu. Ah-Q is very much a Chinese 'Everyman.' Even his name is symbolic. The story's narrator explains that Ah-Q's true name was not known to anyone (p. 81), so the name 'Ah-Q' is substituted. 'Ah' comes from "an all-purpose Chinese prefix (indicating either affection or contempt)" which roughly means "little." 'Q' is selected, according to commentary elsewhere by the author, because its appearance is the closest approximation to a blank face with a shaved head and Manchu Queue (page xxii), an appearance shared by all Chinese makes in the Qing Dynasty.
In essence, Lu Xun gave the character a name that is a code for "nameless, faceless little Chinaman."
Ah-Q's utterly pathetic character, which is perfectly (and hilariously) backlighted by the mockingly heroic style in which the narrator tells his tale, is the perfect symbol of China on the world stage; then, now, and in all ages before according to my research. The second chapter of the short (the preface is the 1st) is entitled "A Brief History of Ah-Q's Moral Victories." These 'victories' include being the butt of the jokes of everyone in the village and impotently responding 'my ancestors were much richer than yours! Scum! (p. 83)" which basically sets the tone for the entire short.
The man's story is characterized by abject failure in everything, made more pitiable by his absence of any redeeming virtues other than willingness to work. Yet with each failure and each defeat, he grows more convinced of his own superiority over anyone around him. It is hard to look at this blend of shameful frailty and a long history of defeat with the everpresent delusion of superiority and not see an unbroken line from Ah-Q to modern China. I'll take a few excerpts from the text and link them to articles I've written about the country Ah-Q's descendants (if he had managed to find a wife) would live in today.

Ah-Q had a robust sense of his own self-worth, placing the rest of Weizhuang far beneath him in the social scale. (page 84)

Ah-Q would then size up his adversary: the dull-witted he would subject to a tongue-lashing; the weak he would punch in the nose. The curious thing, though, was how often - in fact, almost always - Ah-Q came off the worse. In time, then, he pared his strategy down to an Angry Glare. (page 85).

'Beaten again by that scum,' Ah-Q would stand there, thinking to himself. 'It's like a father getting thrashed by his sons. What's the world coming to...' (page 86)

Fortunately, once the rather discordant crack of the stick on his head had ceased, the whole matter seemed closed and his spirits began to lift. He slowly walked off, setting his great talent for forgetting - the jewel in the crown of his cultural heritage - to work for him again. (page 91)

This was not a weakness to which our Ah-Q, in his inexhaustible delight with himself, was susceptible - living proof, perhaps, of the global superiority of Chinese civilization. (p. 93)

It goes on like this until Ah-Q's inglorious public execution (which, ironically, is for one of the few crimes in the entire story that he did not commit), which is attended by throngs of jeering onlookers. Throughout the tale, every mishap and failure, from his humiliating rejection when he throws himself at a maid (p. 95) to being kicked out of a revolutionary movement he joined mostly out of desperation in the first place (p. 118) to the way he crumbles at the bare realization that he is, for the first time in his life, speaking to someone with authority (p. 119), is - in classic Chinese fashion - always someone else's fault, and this case-study in underachievement dies still convinced, as the entire self-proclaimed "Central Nation" is - of his own superiority.

So Is It Worth Reading

Absolutely. Even for a casual reader who does not study Sinology, these short stories are one of China's rare meaningful contributions to world literature, and while the themes and archetypes chosen were hand-picked to represent a who's who of Chinese commoners, they can be found (albeit not in nearly such pervasively prolific frequency) all over the world. Even if nothing else, they are entertaining (or heartbreaking, as in the case of Tomorrow and Soap). But, like most other books I review, if one is embarking on a life journey that will bring them into contact with the Chinese, it is a must-read. Even if the reader reads nothing else, Real Story should rank right alongside Paul Midler's What's wrong With China on the China expat's pre-flight reading list.

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*All page numbers are from the Penguin Books edition cited in the cover illustration above, ISBN 978-0-1404-5548-9


I'm not good at English, so I understand your writing a little, but it's a great critique.
In essence, Lu Xun gave the character a name that is a code for "nameless, faceless little Chinaman." <<< you are corret!!

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