A Madman's Proposal
|"If you don't change, you may all be eaten by each other." In
his piece entitled "A Madman's Diary," Lu Xun courageously relates
the practice of Confucian values to violent cannibalism. Told from the perspective
of a Chinese man deemed insane by those around him, at its heart "A
Madman's Diary" deeply criticizes the inescapable "iron house"
that is traditional China. This iconoclastic literary work by Lu Xun, a
notorious satirist, urges its Chinese readers to change their ways and work
towards the progression of their country if they want to survive in the
modern world. Lu Xun warns his readers against their own historical traditions
and values: "Does force of habit blind a man to what's wrong?"
The madman in Lu Xun's narrative is transfixed in his certainty that everybody he sees, meets, and knows is planning on eating him. His paranoia overwhelms him, and his every thought and action is overruled by this terrible feeling of being hunted, even by children. He tries to trace the history of cannibalism, but all he finds in his research are the redundant words, "Confucian Virtue and Morality." As he continues to read, however, the pages fill up with the words, "Eat people." The juxtaposition of "morality and virtue" with demands of cannibalism is Lu Xun's way of showing what lies behind the respect and practice of Confucian traditions: something that is consequently harmful to Chinese society and in need of reforming or even destroying. It is suggested in this passage that people told to abide by unprogressive Confucian ideals are being told that by doing so, society will be obliterated.
The madness of Lu Xun's main character is questioned by the reader; he is seen as mentally ill by those who know him, but really he is seeing and confronting the truth from which they are all hiding. In this sense, the individual who sees what is wrong about his society and is telling them "Change!" is ignored, scoffed at, and seen as threatening. Lu Xun understands the role of the outstanding, individual voice within a culture that has resisted adoption of Western values, including individualism, for centuries. The "madman," as the reader knows from the beginning, conforms back to society by becoming sane and again blind to the social cannibalism around him. The system overtakes the single protestor.
Lu Xun wrote "A Madman's Diary" in 1918, at a time of great national unrest and nearing the height of China's May Fourth movement. As Kirk A. Denton wrote, May Fourth intellectuals (such as Lu Xun) helped drive China to a break with tradition that "is perhaps unparalleled in world intellectual history in its radicalness.""A Madman's Diary" is indeed radical, as it promoted China's education and progress similar to the style of Western civilizations through first-person fiction that is disturbingly satirical. Its gruesome subject matter is reminiscent of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" that suggested the Irish should barter and eat poor children to relieve the country's economic distress and overpopulation (1729). Both Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and Lu Xun's "A Madman's Diary" are forms of literature that encourage reform, revolution, or renaissance of suffering nations through what can be seen as attack and blame.
At the end of the piece, the madman says, "Perhaps there are still children who haven't eaten men? Save the children?." Lu Xun expresses a bit of hope here, saying that children and future generations who have not yet fully adopted Confucian values are the likely candidates for social change. They have not yet read the history books pounding in the ideas of age-old morality and piety and social cannibalism. Their parents have not yet corrupted their belief system. Save the children, and save China.
The Virtue of Insanity
| Lu Xun, an intellectual radical, began his literary career with the short
story A Madman's Diary. This scathing critique of Chinese values, traditions,
and customs, cemented his role in the May Fourth Movement as not only a
legendary critic of non-expressive Chinese literature, but also, the equally
inept, Chinese culture. In this work he employs several literary devices
such as irony and symbolism in his attempt to elevate China from its antiquated
state into an age of modernity in which Democracy and Science are able to
flourish. A Madman's Diary is Lu Xun's attempt at a "spiritual awakening"
of his people through the use of acerbic social commentary against the societal
norms of placing society above the individual and tradition above reproach.
This story is far more than a tale about a quasi-schizophrenic man suffering from delusions of persecution and believing that his friends, neighbors, and family members want not only his death, but to eat his body. It is a story about alienation and the struggle that ensues in a culture in which individualism and freethinking are not tolerated and expressively forbidden. This sentiment can be seen in the third journal entry in which the madman is reading "Confucian Virtue and Morality" and all he sees on the pages are the words "Eat People." Here, Lu Xun is describing what he sees to be the cannibalistic nature of Chinese culture. The madman is the individual, the people that want to eat him represent society, and the act of eating people captures society's tendency to destroy individuals that it deems harmful to the status quo and those unwilling to lead lives of unquestioning complacence.
"Virtue" in the Confucian-Chinese context means trampling people that promote "instability" by going against society. This is done in the name of the betterment of society as a whole. To Lu Xun, however, this is the antithesis of virtue. He believes in Social Darwinism and the notion that society is constantly changing and evolving. Intrinsic in these principles, he believes that there is not only evolution going on, but that evolution will lead to a greater good and that provides him with optimism and hope that a better future for his people will come.
In A Madman's Diary, Lu Xun does what very few authors before him had the courage, ability, or insight to do. He questions thousands of years of tradition and exposes it for what it is?stifling its people. He goes so far as to call it an "iron house." He claims that the Chinese people are being suffocated while asleep and that it is better to awake them and have them struggle even if they don't succeed. He believes that by writing stories like A Madman's Diary he is doing just that, awaking people from their complacent states. According to Lu Xun, as long as these people accept his claims, even if they perish, there is hope. This can be seen in the madman's last journal entry and the last line of the story in which he writes, "Perhaps there are still children who haven't eaten men? Save the children. . . " His hope rests in the future generations and their ability to see beyond the societal constraints imposed by Chinese tradition.
This is when Lu Xun's use of irony, however, comes into play. At the end of the story he seems to be saying that there is hope and that he believes in time that Chinese society will evolve. In the beginning of the story, however, it says that the madman "recovered" from his illness and now works for the government. This seems to suggest that society won the battle. The madman, the individual that fought to change society, was defeated and reinserted into the fabric of traditional Chinese society. Perhaps Lu Xun wrote this story with an open ending that could be interpreted two different ways because he did not know what the outcome of the war over tradition, culture, and custom would be or even if there would be a resolution. The answer lies in the hearts, minds, and actions of the future Chinese generations.
Insanity within the Iron House
|"Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible,
with many people fast asleep inside," Lu Xun describes to his friend
Jin Xinyi, "But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will
not feel the pain of death." Lu Xun continues to elaborate by stating
that there is no use in waking up the light sleepers for there is no way
to get out. This indestructible house is Lu Xun's China; a nation strong
enough to be able to quell any rebellion and keep the rest silent. In response
to the suppressive nature of China and its traditions, Lu Xun wrote several
short stories that emphasized the flaws and corruptive nature of China.
"A Madman's diary" was Lu Xun's attempt to awaken the people of
China and show them what China had become.
The main character is described to be a madman that had gone insane because of his illness. Lu Xun also makes it known that the character had been "cured" of his illness and that he had returned to an official post. The main character had an obsession about being eaten by his village after having heard about other villages that ate people. His paranoia went as far as to suspecting the dog having a part in this mass conspiracy against him. Hidden within the Confucian discourse on morality and virtue is the meaning that the madman sees: "eat people." Lu Xun tells his readers that, even though the Chinese way of life seems to emphasize morality and virtue, the true motives that the Chinese government has behind them are almost cannibalistic in the sense that they hurt the common citizen for the government's personal gain. The fact that the main character believes that everyone is part of the conspiracy is not as crazy as one would think. The fact that a person is ignorant of what is going on makes him or her part of the conspiracy. The ultimate irony is that the main character eventually is gone and is claimed to be cured. In a way, he was eaten by his society because he becomes part of the system against which Lu Xun is fighting.
The moral of the story is a sad one. Lu Xun is telling his readers that no matter how hard one tries to try to stop people from practicing in a tradition that hurts its people, in the end there is no choice but to become part of society again. Lu Xun shows the struggle to show people how wrong their ways are by trying to reason with them. The ultimate obstacle is trying not to sound crazy when talking about how wrong a long practiced religion is. Lu Xun does a good job in portraying the main character as crazy and, in turn, makes more of a point because in the beginning, the reader believes that the character shouldn't be trusted. But upon further inspection, the reader realizes that the madman might not be as mad as everyone else has thought. The last line of the book "Save the children" appears to have no place and appears to also be a random thought, but if we interpret the story the way Lu Xun intended, one can infer that when he says save the children, he means almost that. Save the children from the tyranny that is the Chinese government. Save the children from the Iron House that is Chinese tradition. With this story and more to come from Lu Xun, the people's minds can open up and begin to think against the powerful river of traditional thinking. Maybe then, there would be enough people to wake up within the iron house to save everyone else.
China Trapped in Its Old Ways
|This story revolves around a young man who is strangely convinced that
his whole town is filled with cannibals that want to eat him. He even thinks
that his own family wishes to eat him and are plotting against him. He writes
out of a diary that is discovered by the narrator, a friend of the madman
and his brother. The narrator introduces the diary by giving some background
information on the origin and ownership of the diary. The narrator states
that the madman was suffering from persecution complex, or paranoia and
he also specified that the once mad man has moved on in life and has taken
up an official post somewhere while living a normal healthy life.
The narrator's introduction to the diary can give the reader many view points on the whole story itself. The fact that Lu Xun made narrator give away the future or fate of the mad man can be discontenting to the reader. Knowing the fate of the madman takes away the reader's sense of satisfaction at the end of the novel. Since we already know that the madman isn't mad anymore, his story is in a way less interesting. All of the madness that he expresses is remedied by the fact that he is already cured. On the other hand, in classical Chinese literature, the introduction of a story and its background is very common and expected. The reader may be interested in the cause and effect of the madness, seeing the difference between madness and sanity. If Lu Xun were to put the narrator's introduction at the end of the story, it would change the whole mood of the novel. Putting the narration at the end would give the reader a sense of satisfaction, an ending note, or a closing statement. Putting the narrator's statement in the beginning gives the reader a sense of incompleteness or a feeling of uneasiness and that was what Lu Xun was going for.
The main character, the madman, has a variety of disturbing behaviors and disorders. Everyday he would be on his guard and thinking that everyone was conspiring against him and wants to eat him. When his family would bring him meals, he would assume that they wanted to fatten him up just to cook and eat him. He even thought that the dogs wanted to eat him. He would act desperately and try to explain his sanity and the reasons why everyone should not eat him. He would look in the ancient works of Confucius continuously and read it for hours. At the end, he could only find the words "eat people" in each page. His madness worsened as the story continued and towards the end, he becomes completely desperate and hopeless. He's ending statement makes references to the future of the children. He pleads for the reader to save the children.
The madman in this story represents the sickness in china during the period of time in which Lu Xun wrote this book. Old China was called the Iron House. There was no escape from it. Traditions dominated the society and society must abide by them. The madman is trapped in his own mind and cannot escape the thought of being eaten. He tries his hardest to find a solution to his problem and fails every time. In correlation to Lu Xun's story, China itself was trapped in its old ways and traditions. It wanted desperately to escape and let in Western traditions and values. Just as the madman recovered, as we learned from the narrator in the beginning of the story, China was saved by the May Fourth movement. This movement called for the dismissal of old traditional ideas and brought forth newer and freer morals and ways of thinking.
A Review of Lu Xun's Selected Works
It is perhaps most appropriate to view Lu Xun as a critic who was aloof from both traditional China and the revolutions of his time that sought to overturn the old system; and who, as a consequence of his distance from the revolutionary movements, held significant sway to shape and correct them. Moreover, it is essential to note in Lu Xun the sympathy with which he treats many of his invented revolutionaries that he criticizes within his works. On one level, Lu Xun writes to express his frustration and doubt for the movements. Being a revolutionary himself, he shares a great deal of empathy with the problematic heroes he creates. Furthermore, it is impudent to conclude that Lu Xun had no shred of hope in the prospect of transforming those aspects of his society that he disliked, for why should he have written at all if he had already surrendered the battle? Certainly Lu Xun disapproved of most in what he saw as traditional Chinese values and customs. However, although it is the case that his works express the deep discontentment he felt for China¡¯s outdated system, his writings would have lost so much of their profound depth if the content of them had ended there. What made his writing so pertinent then and so unique today is the manner in which he condemns traditional morals while at the same time criticizes the revolutionaries and their movement, the one of which he was a huge part. Above all else, Lu Xun describes the frequent failure of two opposing views to negotiate with one another by detailing the flaws of particular rebellious individuals and the shortcomings of their efforts.
One might suspect the simplest way to solve any bout of disaffection for one’s society is to plainly remove oneself from it, literally or figuratively. However, Lu Xun expounds upon the futility of this as a relevant solution by explaining the tragic consequences that follow several of his characters when they venture to reject their culture and heritage. Lu Xun was Chinese first and foremost, and despite his passion for the Western world and what he considered its supreme ideals he could not easily abandon his country. No matter what he most desired or where he chose to place himself on the globe, his heritage would never desert him. To live by an alternative lifestyle in disregard for one’s social environment is the equivalent of endeavoring to practice one’s ideas in a vacuum.
Lu Xun¡¯s ¡°Madman¡± provides us with a window through which we can view the true state of China¡¯s soul. While all the characters of the story live underneath the long-held moral system, blind to its inner-workings, the madman serves a the moral conscience, labeling the evils of the society that surrounds him. The fact that he is depicted as insane is the author¡¯s way of demonstrating the obscurity to which one is subjected when one lives outside of customary norms or attempts to rebel against the conventional values. The madman tries to understand the reasons why his society holds such destructive beliefs, sometimes even alerting others of his discoveries. However, his estrangement from society completely isolates him in the story. He stands alone against an overwhelming force that seeks to silence his individual voice. The madman¡¯s suffering illustrates the anguish the revolutionary voice must endure. At the same time, the story is written as a means for Lu Xun to vent the frustration and discouragement he often encountered. The misery one must experience is immeasurable, and so often times the rebel, reaching a point of such despair, gives in. Obviously, the two opposing views shown in ¡®A Madman¡¯s Diary¡¯ do not ever come to terms with each other. Rather, the madman¡¯s individuality, constantly battered by an oppressive society, is swept into a homogenous sea of apathy, or cannibalized if you like. One set of values terminates the other and becomes the only one in existence, leaving room for no dissent. With ¡®A Madman¡¯s Diary¡¯ Lu Xun delivers a fairly heavy dose of pessimism, leaving one to question his hope. The fact that this was his first story written after a long period of despair serves to explain his negative outlook. However, though he is growing despondent it is not accurate to say he feels absolute desperation. He has a feeble hope, as is proved by his recollections in the ¡®Preface to Call to Arms.¡¯ He retains a sense of hope due to the ¡°lack of evidence able to refute¡± the possibility that those few individuals awake inside the ¡°iron house¡± might have the power to destroy it from the inside out (Preface 241).