Diary of a Madman by Lu Xun

Evianne Darcy

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Artwork by Kelechi Hafstad: Kelechi Anna Photography

The timeless, multilayered Diary of a Madman by Lu Xun tells the story of a now-recovered “invalid” (Lu 21), who had previously fallen ill to a “persecution complex” (21), through which he became convinced that everyone around him was a cannibal, be it his brother, neighbour, or the children of the village in which he resides. In his delusional frenzy, the “invalid” believes he is serving time for trampling on “Records of the Past” (22), and that the local village children are being taught to “Eat people!” (24) He even suspects that the words of an antiquated book and the neighbour’s dog – descended from wolves – are conspiring to eat him too. Eventually, instead of being eaten, our madman cowers under the “weight of four thousand years of cannibalism bearing down upon” (31) him.

In an ending which parallels Macbeth, Lu Xun’s madman surrenders to the all-consuming cannibalistic heritage of bygone feudalism, which usurps his village. He realises that he has gone so far into his mania – spurred by his vandalism of documents pertaining to his country’s history – that returning would be pointless. Despite his fleeting uprising, which was dismissed as insanity, he will never be truly human. As a child, he ate his little sister: the reader discovers that the madman himself is a cannibal.

Despite intending to salvage his already-cannibalistic brother and the village’s children, the madman was intellectually sieged from the get-go. It was during his altruistic soliloquy at the climax of the story, gripping the reader as they prepare for his downfall, that the story ceased to be fiction for me. When I read the story for my modern world literatures module and the denouement of the madman’s resignation was nigh, I registered that I, too, had “unknowingly spent my life in a country that has been eating human flesh for four thousand years” (31).

As the madman grappled with cannibalism, I started to grapple with China’s influence in my home country: Hong Kong. I had spent the past decade oblivious to how China’s looming palm over us had been extending, stretching its fingers wide, over every island barricading my country. These islands, once a bulwark, have now been superseded by cross-country trains and bridges, forcing Hong Kong open like a stale clam.

This sinister pattern continued until 2014, when the Umbrella Movement awakened in the city. Peaceful protestors against the growing stronghold of the Chinese government over local elections were assaulted by the police and sprayed with tear gas. In the following weeks, city centres were blockaded, streets were drowned in yellow banners and saturated with citizens of all ages, especially teenagers, protesting against China’s political infiltration of Hong Kong.

As someone who witnessed this revolution in person, rather than through photos on Western news outlets, I saw the start of the movement as reminiscent of the beginnings of the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1976. This massacre aptly encompasses the end of the Umbrella Movement too: today, it is not only forgotten, especially beyond Hong Kong, but also failed to bring about any political change.  

It is the applicability of “Diary of a Madman” to the Umbrella Movement, and many other revolutions that despite their best efforts have failed, that renders Lu Xun’s short story worthy of study. Stretching beyond the realm of literature, the story aptly encapsulates mental degradation in the form of schizophrenia and psychosis, and the high mortality rate of political revolt in the face of party discord. The enduring, perennial relevance of the story, in light of its setting in feudal China, is what qualifies it as a work that should be examined in the discipline of history, in addition to that of psychology and politics.

The fable’s immortality was alerted to me when I began to feel the madman’s paranoia while reading. It lured out suppressed memories of my classmates forcing me to declare my support for the Umbrella Movement by wearing a yellow ribbon. Although you would not be outwardly spurned for refusing, much like Lu Xun’s madman you would feel as if those who were wearing the ribbons were watching you or wishing you harm.

My fear led to an epiphany that the movement was not the right way to declare Hong Kong asunder from China. A few years later, it was revealed that attempting to inspire change within the government’s administration made no difference. Those who did, such as the Youngspiration duo in 2016 – young localists, who denounced the People’s Republic and declared that “Hong Kong is not China” while taking their oath at the Legislative Council – were mocked, then swiftly removed by the government. Will there ever be a way to end China’s influence on us?

Yet the militancy and extremism of Hong Kong’s young adults should not discount China’s insidious pervasion of the country. While Hong Kong will have to return to China in 29 years, this inevitability is not without resistance. We would not like to return to our mother’s arms, return to the internet censorship I so casually experience every time I visit Shenzhen with my family, return to the anxiety I feel as I write this now, that I will face repercussions if I ever step foot in China again.

There is a rumour, very much alive, that if you speak out against the Chinese government now, they’ll find a way to incapacitate your voice, be it through staging a months-long disappearance (actress Fan Bingbing), banning you from visiting the country at all (exiled author Ma Jian), or locking you up for good (head of Interpol Meng Hongwei). To become complicit in China’s regime is to become a cannibal, and to rebel is to be deemed a madman, which is the choice I have made through my diaspora, between a lesser of two evils.

Even if “I have spent the past thirty years or more in a state of dream” (22), if there exists a slither of a chance to “Save the children…” (31), I will seize it before China’s cannibalism of Hong Kong’s freedom and ideology engulfs us all.

Works cited:

Lu, Xun. The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun. Translated by Julia Lovell, Penguin Books, 2009.

About the author:

Evianne Darcy is a second year English Literature and Creative Writing student at the University of Warwick. She is from Hong Kong. Evianne is interested in journalism, and has written multiple political commentaries and personal essays with regards to current affairs and world issues. She also writes poetry and short fiction.

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