Madness and Modernity5 min read

Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman’, 100 Years On – Emily Baum


Editor’s note: We’re delighted to run this essay not only on the 137th birthday of Lu Xun, but on the one year anniversary of the China Channel. Thanks to all our readers, and if you enjoy our fare, please do tell a friend to follow us, or give to our translation drive to bring Chinese voices to the fore. – Alec Ash


A hundred years ago, Lu Xun published a short story that would forever leave its mark on both Chinese fiction and Chinese history. ‘Diary of a Madman’ (Kuangren Riji), Lu Xun’s first vernacular short story to appear in print, was published in the May 1918 issue of New Youth (Xin Qingnian), a radical journal edited by some of China’s foremost progressive thinkers. Modeled on Nikolai Gogol’s work of the same name, the story follows an unnamed protagonist’s descent into lunacy as he convinces himself that the people around him are harboring a secret desire to “eat men” – that is, that they are complicit in a feudal cannibalistic tradition.

In both form and content, ‘Diary of a Madman’ called attention to the conflict between tradition and modernity in an era of rapid cultural and political change. Confined to his room, treated by an old-style physician who feels his pulse (but prescribes no cure), and gawked at by neighbors and passers-by alike, Lu Xun’s madman demonstrates the “backwardness” of medical treatment for the insane in early twentieth-century China – a pressing concern for Lu Xun himself, who ardently condemned traditional Chinese medicine and briefly trained to become a Western-style physician before setting his sights on the curative powers of literature instead.

Yet the central concern in ‘Diary of a Madman’ has less to do with the nature of the madman’s treatment than with the forces that caused him to go mad in the first place. Convinced that his parents are engaging in cannibalism – and are grooming him to be cannibalized in the near future – the madman progressively loses his grip on reality. Or so we are told. Indeed, the brilliance of the story is that the protagonist, though ostensibly insane, is actually the only character to see the inhumanity of his “man-eat-man” society with an unimpeded view.

Cannibalism does, in fact, appear with disturbing frequency in the literature of Chinese antiquity: aside from the expected cases of survival cannibalism during times of famine, filial children were praised for cutting off pieces of their flesh to nourish their ailing parents, while cases of revenge cannibalism (often perpetrated by rebels against state magistrates) occurred during periods of instability. More pressing for Lu Xun, however, was a metaphorical type of cannibalism, one meant to indicate the repressive feudal order of his time. For Lu Xun, Chinese society as a whole was cannibalistic, oppressing and devouring those who were least able to fend for themselves.

It was also not by chance that Lu Xun chose to offer such a scathing critique through the character of the madman. Similar to the allegorical uses of madness in Western literature, the insane in modern Chinese fiction – by dint of their marginality – laid bare the social order even as they renounced it. In Lu Xun’s writing, the madman is the only character to offer a sober analysis of his family’s deep moral failings – and the only character, moreover, to extend a prescription for redemption. By acting as a foil to the benighted masses, madmen in the literary imagination have often been used to expose the rotten marrow of their political and cultural institutions, particularly in the Republican period (1911-1949) in which Lu Xun was writing. As intellectuals wrestled with the need to be both Chinese and modern, the madman’s expository role as “monster yet mirror” – to borrow a phrase from the late historian Roy Porter – became a crucial articulation of what it meant to be Chinese in an era of tumultuous change.

Following Lu Xun’s lead, other authors of the time similarly deployed madness to critique the Chinese delusion of national and moral superiority. In Lao She’s short story “Sacrifice” (Xisheng), published in 1935, a haughty Chinese intellectual, holding utter disdain for those around him, is eventually fired from his work and divorced by his wife. Unwilling to face the source of his personal and professional misfortunes, the protagonist ultimately goes mad and is institutionalized. In Xu Zhuodai’s 1923 satirical short story ‘The Vain Lunatic’ (Xurong fengzi), meanwhile, an arrogant, spoiled schoolgirl is unwilling to confront her unfounded feelings of superiority, and subsequently descends into madness. In all three cases, madness appears less as pathology than as a metaphorical signifier of a stultifying and supercilious tradition.

But it was Lu Xun’s madman, more than any other, who ultimately became the emblem of the modern era. While the protagonists in Lao She’s and Xu Zhuodai’s stories offer no hope for future redemption, Lu Xun’s madman at least extends its possibility. “Perhaps there are still children who have not yet eaten men?” the story concludes. “Save the children…”

Criticizing the barbarism of his fellow countrymen, the madman simultaneously evokes hope for a more humane future: one in which the lucidity of his “madness” is exposed for the sanity that it truly is. It is an injunction that, one hundred years on, continues to feel strangely prescient. When real and fake, right and wrong have appeared to become hopelessly enmeshed, it can be difficult to remember where the line between madness and sanity lies. Lu Xun reminds us to not give up the fight. ∎


Written on the centenary of the publication of Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman,’ this post builds on the author’s forthcoming monograph The Invention of Madness: State, Society, And The Insane In Modern China (University of Chicago Press, 2018).
Featured image from “Pyramide de crânes” (1901) by Paul Cézanne.