Ah Q: the Tragedy of China
Natasha Kate Moyes
|"The True Story of Ah Q" is the story of an ignorant and close-minded
liar, cheat, and sexist of a man. Lu Xun wrote this story in 1921, the year
in which the Chinese Communist Party was founded, ten years after the 1911
Revolution changed China from a dynasty to a republic. Although this revolution
was a milestone in Chinese history, it did not seem to accomplish some important
things, leaving 80% of the population in China in 1921 still illiterate.
"The True Story of Ah Q" begins like most Chinese literature.
The author does not really know how to begin to tell his tale or know some
of the specific details about his character, but completely knows his character's
history. Therefore, he encounters many problems while composing his story.
The main character of "The True Story of Ah Q," Ah Q, is not a respectable man in the slightest. The people of Weichuang, which means "Not Yet Village" when translated into English, only made use of Ah Q for his services or treated him as a complete laughing stock. In addition to the aforementioned negative qualities, Ah Q is a thief, drunkard, and public nuisance. He is not a character that the reader is able to easily connect with or feel much, if any, sympathy for. He lies about his last name and his involvement after leaving Weichuang. He steals things when he goes to town and claims them as his own. He fantasizes about revolution and sees it as a time when the powerless will become powerful, especially over women. He has a very negative view of women and little respect for them in general, claiming, "All nuns must carry on in secret with monks. If a woman walks alone on the street, she must want to seduce bad men. When a man and a woman talk together, it must be to arrange to meet." Ah Q also goes on to state that women are "a menace to mankind" and that "the majority of Chinese men could become saints and sages, were it not for the unfortunate fact that they are ruined by women." This statement directly reflects Chinese thought and its attitudes towards women. Ah Q frequently becomes intoxicated and gets involved in fights, causing multiple public disturbances. His mindset is incredibly parochial and he is unwilling to even consider new or unfamiliar ideas or opinions, as shown in the situation dealing with the long bench vs. the straight bench.
It's important to list these things which Lu Xun viewed, as you suggest, as China's "national characteristics." It's also important to identify what the author is implying and insinuating by way of Ah Q: for example, the male chauvinism and sexism came directly from the Confucian tradition emphasizing female subordination to men. His largely dismissive attitude, the so-called "moral victory," parodies both Confucian superior gentleman and the Taoist hermit sage.
Lu Xun meant for "The True Story of Ah Q" to be read allegorically. Ah Q is a symbol of China's tragic defeat during the Opium Wars, an allegory of China in Third World text. Just like China always has to hold onto something and have some sort of moral superiority over other world powers, Ah Q always has to be the best at something. He refers to himself as the "foremost self-belittler," content with the fact that if one subtracts the word "self-belittler" from this title, what remains is the word "foremost." Even if he is beaten brutally and loses a fight, he claims a "psychological victory" over his opponent, shouting outrageous things such as, "We used to be much better of than you! Who do you think you are anyway?"
However, at the end of the story, Ah Q is made a scapegoat victim to re-establish some sort of social order within the city, just as Chinese society makes people scapegoat sacrifices. He does not die a well-regarded or well-liked man; no one even talks about his execution after it is over. Ah Q is simply referred to as a "bad man" and a "ridiculous culprit" that the people of Weichuang briefly followed for nothing.
Old China: A Cannibal
|My initial reaction to "The True Story of Ah Q," was that it
was a miserable portrayal of a human being and that there must be something
I was missing that would explain why Lu Xun would ever choose to depict
such a man. Upon finding out that Ah Q represented every bad character flaw
Lu Xun felt most Chinese people possessed, immediately my annoyance at the
story turned to intrigue at this new illumination.
Ah Q was selfish, close-minded, arrogant and deceptive to himself. Every incident in the story was meant to bring out each of these traits until one could no longer have patience or sympathy for such a man. Lu Xun tried, through his intermediary Ah Q, to implant that certain disgust for his character's personality so that China might step back and realize that they too had many of these traits and should work on reforming themselves.
Ah Q was depicted as a bully, picking on anyone he could get at to build himself up through their defeat. The nun is a perfect example of this. Having suffered by the hand of Whisker's Wang whom he'd initially deemed less worthy than himself, Ah Q's pride was hurt to the point that he chose to insult the meek and defenseless nun so as to build himself back up through the encouraging laughter of the bar folk.
This is only one way he "saves face," a tactic which allows him to think he's still such a good man and can be arrogant for good reason. Another way in which he hides his flaws is by not mentioning them, or telling himself over and over that he was not defeated until he himself thinks it so. He comes away from countless fights scrambling in his mind what happened, to the point that he has convinced himself that he had in fact attained victory. Lu Xun gives another example; Ah Q forbids anyone to say words that sound like "ringworm" or even any word that sounds like "shiny" or "bright" so as to hide the blemishes on his head as if never there, a clear representation of China's tendency to avoid and brush aside the unpleasant.
Ah Q is immensely selfish as well. Not once in the entire story does he do anything to help anyone else unless it is of some profit to himself. Nor does he ever think he's hurt anyone and should apologize, like in the case of Amah Wu. This is a clear display of arrogance that Lu Xun hoped to rid from Chinese society.
When rebellion is caught wind of, Ah Q immediately plans on joining, with no thoughts of the real reason of revolution, only that he will gain more power and take everyone's stuff. Lu Xun mocks Chinese rebellion with this, demonstrating how easily China jumps at revolution like the copycat Ah Q. For what happens to Ah Q because of the rebellion? He is killed without having gained anything for himself or his country.
Close-mindedness is also an (a) characteristic at which Lu Xun is able to jeer at the Chinese through Ah Q. He reiterates how China always sticks to their traditions without thought to improvement and shuts everyone out to do so. Ah Q certainly never becomes close to anyone, and is especially spiteful of the "imitation foreign devil." Lu Xun further mocks Chinese tradition and stubbornness by insulting Confucius himself. Ah Q tells some of his bullies that "a gentleman uses words not hands."
This fictive translation of Chinese characteristics is a perfect example of Lu Xun's effort to call to notice things that the Chinese should change in their lives without saying them directly. Like Lu Xun's Ah Q, China easily convinces itself that it is fine and in the right no matter what defeat they experience or flaws they are told they possess. The end of the story reminds me much of several of Lu Xun��s tales. He speaks of China as a cannibal, eating all of the unwanted both through culture, tradition or, in the case of Ah Q, death for the truly unwanted.
|In his short story The True Story of Ah Q, Lu Xun overtly criticizes the
traditional Chinese culture and the current state of China through his despicable
At first the glance the story seems to just be a recollection of the escapades of a local embarrassment. Ah Q often gets drunk, gets into fights, has a terrible attitude towards women, steals, views himself as superior to nearly everyone, and eventually tries to join a revolutionary group just to get rid of the people in town he doesn't like and steal from the richest ones. However, within every one of these actions Lu Xun brings about a problem with the classical Chinese culture that needs to be modernized.
For instance, Lu Xun spends about two chapters documenting Ah Q's so called victories. In fact, these victories are only psychological ones because every single one of his victories involves Ah Q getting beaten senselessly by someone from the bar. The only way he views himself as coming out victorious is by viewing the person beating as being his son which somewhat inexplicably makes him feel like he has won. Even when the men begin to make him say that he is a beast before they stop he views himself as the victor because he is the foremost self-belittler and once you take away self-belittler he is foremost. These incidents could easily be seen as a satire of Confucian ideals such as a gentleman is one whom uses his intellect and not his fists, especially considering that Ah Q starts these battles with his fists and then uses his "intellect" to come out victorious. Another example of Lu Xun's criticism of classical views is Ah Q��s extremely sexist views. After making fun of a nun whom curses him to remain childless, Ah Q begins to think that he should take a wife and start a family. However, as he begins to think about Ah Q begins to rant about in his mind that women have been the downfall of countless ancient emperors and that they are naturally liars and whorish. Despite these considerations, Ah Q proceeds to make improper advances to the Chao family's maid proclaiming loudly "Sleep with me!" Once again Lu Xun is criticizing Confucian views and their practice in Chinese society as being degrading to women and hypocritical.
Even in his attempts to join the revolution, Ah Q has selfish motives and no real belief in the ideals. As he thinks about joining the revolution Ah Q thinks about the people he could rob and the people he could make suffer such as a beggar that he dislikes. The elite of the town who are in the revolution seem to notice this and when he interrupts a secret meeting the revolution members refuse to let him in. Here Lu Xun seems to reveal skepticism with those who want to join the revolution and the revolution in general and seems to emphasize it must be an intellectual one.
Finally, Lu Xun provides hope for the future and possibly redemption for Ah Q at the very end of the story. In the beginning of the chapter Ah Q is arrested by government officials for stealing from the Chao with the revolutionaries when as the reader knows he was not allowed to join them. As he is being taken to be executed publicly, Ah Q looks to the crowd gathering and sees them as wolves looking upon until the "merge into one, biting into his soul," meaning that Ah Q has seen the way that the Chinese classical system can eat away a human being's life.
Ah Q through Early 20th Century China
| Frederic Jameson wrote in his piece Third-World Literature in the Era
of Multinational Capitalism: "All third-world texts are to be read
as national allegories." So in reading The True Story of Ah Q one must
look at it analytically and understand the point the author, Lu Xun, is
making about China as a whole.
Firstly one must understand that The True Story of Ah Q is not, in fact, a true story but rather a fictional narrative written by Lu Xun to register the ignorant nature of traditional Chinese population. Lu Xun uses Ah Q, the main character, to demonstrate traditional Chinese pride and ignorant bliss. Ah Q displays the precious "ability to forget handed down by his ancestors" that allowed him to be beaten and still feel superior to those who beat him. As the story was written in 1921 this attitude is most likely a satire of Chinese continuing to feel superior nationally to the Japanese that had humiliated the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese war in the late 19th century.
Also at whims of satire in The True Story of Ah Q is Chinese xenophobia and distrust of things westernization. With the May fourth movement, a push for westernization happened in 1919 and must have been very fresh on the mind of Lu Xun while writing this story. A facet of Ah Q's character represents the ideas that the members of the May Fourth Movement were set against. One of these aspects was the fear of change; Ah Q is described as knowing that "revolutions would make things hard for him" and therefore he "always detested and kept away from them."
Ah Q also shows Lu Xun's discontent with revolutionaries being shallow and ineffective. In 1911 there was the revolution that ended the dynastic rule of China and established Sun Yat Sen as head of state. For many, including the members of the May Fourth Movement as well as the communists the reforms introduced by the new government were not enough. Ah Q represents the lax feeling of revolution that Lu Xun must have denoted to the 1911 revolutionaries, Ah Q only wishes to join the revolution to get back at a select few he felt had wrong him, and because he was rather drunk.
Ah Q can be seen as Lu Xun's personification of everything he felt was bad in Chinese culture. The True Story of Ah Q was most likely an attempt to challenge traditional Chinese culture and call for reform. Even with the death of Ah Q at the end of the story, Lu Xun does not say that Chinese are some how cured of their problems. The death of Ah Q reveals to Ah Q the ferocity of the Chinese people and their own flaws. Perhaps Ah Q's revelation is analogous to Lu Xun's realization of what he viewed as the true nature of Chinese culture that drove him to write the story.