Diary of a Madman review

Book review of Diary of a Madman, and other stories by Lu Xun.

At what point do you stop respecting a communist?  Some people set an upper age limit, say, twenty.  Others go by an educative event such as the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.  And some let it pass all the way up to 1991, arguing that it seemed like a good idea at the time and who knew how badly it would all go.

I’ve decided I’ll forgive Lu Xun his communism because he was a Chinese man who died in 1936.  He probably knew little or nothing about Leninist terror and inefficiency, the Holodomor, the Stalinist purges or the other horrors of early Soviet communism, and died too soon to count just how many millions Mao would murder, humiliate or starve.  Had he lived longer he would himself have doubtless been defenestrated during the Cultural Revolution for being an intellectual.

One must consider the context of his world: the last Emperor had been overthrown, Chiang Kai-shek had taken over from Sun Yat-sen and it appeared that nothing would change, the Qing Emperor simply being replaced with a dictator and all the unfair, unjust practices remained as before.  In this world where the rich and powerful could easily cheat and steal from the poor, there was little hope for development.  The endless poverty and misery of China’s masses appeared set to continue for another 3,000 years.

At this time communism was still largely untried, and news coming out of the USSR was little more than rumour.  Could it be implemented to finally free the Chinese people from capricious, backward Oriental rule?  Lu Xun thought it could.  We know he was wrong, of course, but he didn’t know that.

In addition, the communists at the time appeared to be the good guys who were bringing the fight to the Japanese occupation forces while the nationalists seemed a little too eager to retreat and negotiate.  Most of this was Red propaganda, of course, but not all of it.

I’m glad I started reading Lu Xun before I knew his politics, otherwise I never would have bothered.  His early works, as for any writer, are somewhat weak, but the persevering reader is soon rewarded with fascinating snippets of ordinary Chinese life in the late to post-Qing era.

This is the second major work that had contradicted my prejudice that the Chinese lack self-reflection.  As in Wolf Totem, Lu Xun is fiercely critical of his countrymen, and his complaints against them are about the same: the Chinese are cowardly, sheep-like, always wanting to go with the flow rather than change the flow itself, always trying to simply survive the next piece of history that comes down upon their heads.  Jiang Rong puts it down to too many years of passive civilization, while Lu Xun doesn’t suggest a cause.  He prefers to rail against it, perhaps hoping to change his readers’ minds.

A good example is Storm in a Teacup (1920), in which a man returns to his village from the town with his queue cut off by rebels.  This was the hairstyle mandated by the ruling Manchurians after taking control in 1644 and establishing the Qing Dynasty.  ‘No queue, no head’.

The man, whose name is Sevenpounder (long story), hears that a new emperor has ascended the throne and that this may mean an end to the amnesty and a renewal of the death penalty for any man caught without a queue.  Of course, he will not be able to grow one in time so the future looks grim.  His mother uses it as another excuse to engage in her favourite hobby, complaining, while his wife seems to delight in nagging and whining and blaming him for this catastrophe.  His village enemy celebrates the fact that the State will soon dispose of his old foe, kind of like how that suck-up kid in school loves it when the bad boys get into trouble.  All his neighbours avoid him.  In short, everyone in the village is painted to be very much a contemptible piece of selfish, cowardly shit.

Then it turns out that the rumour was mistaken.  His wife loves him again, his enemy stops celebrating, and the neigbhours return to being their normal, friendly selves.  We see here the maddeningly passive attitude to state power.  The Chinese, being civilized for so long, have perhaps become too accustomed to it and no longer remember the barbarous joy of individualism and free thought.

I also enjoyed The True Story of Ah-Q (1921).  Through the tale of the village ne’er-do-well, we see how the revolution changes very little; aside from the unrest nothing is very much better or worse than it was before.  Also, we see that the individuals caught up in the events of history simply try to survive and prosper, looking for their own advantage and hoping to back the winning side.  As for who is actually right or wrong – the Qing or the Nationalists – no one seems to care.  The high-handed local officials before the revolution are the same high-handed officials after it.  The criminal underclass remains unchanged.  The farmers and shopkeepers remain just as poor and ignorant as ever.  If the revolution had a motto, it might have been, ‘What revolution?’

This probably explains modern Chinese attitudes to the Chinese Communist Party.  If one day there is unrest, each man will seek his own advantage, just as all his ancestors did.  If the CCP looks set to topple, lower-level apparatchiks will abandon ship and sign on with the new mob.  If the situation looks shaky, they will try to take a bet each way.  As for what political system might actually be in China’s long-term interests, who cares?  Not the passive Chinese.  They just want to live another day, and hope that their generation is not one of those that exists during ‘interesting times’.

At the end of this compilation there are some of Lu’s political and literary writings.  These contain various and extraordinary snapshots of China at the turn of the last century.  For example:

. . . I went to N- [in Japan] and entered the K- school; and it was there that I heard for the first time the names of such subjects as natural science, arithmetic, geography, history, drawing and physical training.

So much for the studious Chinese.  Those old, Imperial civil service exams only covered dull, stylized essays on dogmatic versions of Chinese history and that sort of thing.  It was perhaps a sort of proxy IQ test, but did not require public administrators to know or be able to do anything in particular.  No wonder China fell so far behind the West.  And at least in Europe a single country might break the mold and try something new – in China the Emperor ruled the whole lot, so a stupidity somewhere was a stupidity everywhere.

I am fascinated that Lu Xun spent time while depressed about the state of China copying out classics by hand.  This has always struck me as the dumbest, most inefficient way to learn anything, not that that was his intention.  But now I’m not so sure.  Just like how an amateur artist trains by first copying the masters, perhaps some of a writer’s brilliance might rub off on one through managed imitation.

Lu Xun has sensible things to say about ‘revolutionary literature’, which might equally apply to any sort of writing that attempts to motivate people one way or another:

. . . my experience in Peking in recent years has gradually undermined my faith in the old literary theories on which I was brought up.  That was the time when students were shot and there was a strict censorship, when to my mind only the weakest, most useless people talked about literature.  Those who are strong do not talk, they kill.  The oppressed have only to say or write a few words to be killed; or, if lucky enough to escape, all they can do is shout, complain or protest, while those who are strong go on oppressing, ill-treating and killing them, and they are powerless to resist.  What use is literature to people then?

But I’m not sure that this is entirely true.  There are many writers who have influenced societies, often societies so distant they had never heard of them.  But it takes time – often more than one lifetime, sometimes many generations.  There are echoes of Confucius, for example, in the Constitution of the United States.  If in doubt about whether writers can ever make a difference, consider the continuing influence of the notorious ones: Marx, Rousseau, Boas and that mob.

The trouble is, as Aaron Clarey has pointed out, the most influential writers are ones who tell people what they want to hear, not the ones who tell the truth.  This is why Freud is more widely read than H.L. Menken, and why Eat Pray Love sells better than The Bell Curve.

So writers are sometimes whiners, and sometimes movers and shakers, and sometimes both.  But where they attempt to lead us, we must first warily look.  Lu Xun was a serious and intelligent man and an excellent writer, but when his lot finally got into power they promptly marched China off a cliff.

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