Review of The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun
By KENDRICK KUO
Outside of world literature connoisseurs and scholars, Lu Xun (1881-1936) is not well known to the West. Writing in the early twentieth century, Lu Xun is considered one of the founders of modern Chinese literature. The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun is a Penguin-published compilation of his short stories and one of his plays. Lu Xun never wrote a large novel, but stuck to painting vignettes of the life of common Chinese folk—usually peasants—and the struggles they underwent to survive.
Being a strong influence in the May Fourth movement, which spawned a mix of liberal and leftist ideologues, Lu Xun is a complicated historical figure. Mao Zedong enshrined him as a staunch supporter of the masses and therefore a spokesman for the Communist cause. Lu Xun’s care to write about the sufferings of the underclass at the hands of landlords, warlords, and other abusers of authority naturally lent itself to the Communist agenda. At the same time, however, Lu Xun imported Western “imperialist” literature into China, promoted reading of the Western canon, and lived in relative luxury compared to his fictional subjects. He never lived for any significant amount of time in the countryside, where he might have learned firsthand the peasants’ toil.
Lu Xun’s most famous novella is The Real Story of Ah-Q, which recounts the quixotic story of a rural peasant (Ah-Q) who is a bully toward those he considers his inferiors and finds ways to deceive himself in order to deny humiliation when treated poorly by his superiors. He consistently finds ways to convince himself that he’s better than the wealthy villagers and prestigious families. Lu Xun characterized Ah-Q as a pointed jab at China’s national attitude of self-deception and pride in spite of reality.
The other short stories range from a brief two-page narrative to a longer fifteen-page tale. Almost all of them take place in rural settings with lower-class protagonists. The realism of the narratives often leads to sad and unfortunate endings. Many conflicts are left unresolved, hunger and loneliness are commonplace, and conceited noblemen live in luxury above the troubles of those below. While high politics undergoes its predictably tumultuous course, commoners feel the results of shifting fortunes.
In The Story of Hair, Lu Xun explores the significance of the Manchu queue—the long braided ponytail. After the Qing Dynasty collapsed, keeping the queue was considered the sign of a Qing loyalist. Peasants were forced to decide whether they should shave off their queues or not, as a question of survival. They didn’t have high-flown ideals of political philosophy to defend; they merely wanted to be able to buy food. The machinations in Beijing had real, negative implications for those who could care less about power struggles.
The state of hopelessness and futility are of biblical proportions. In a materialistic understanding of reality, the pain and injustice suffered by Lu Xun’s protagonists are void of meaning. The suffering points to the goal: all there is to desire is a full belly and a happy family. It rings of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but the pinnacle of self-actualization is never in view. It’s fascinating that in the midst of all these social ills, a spiritual dimension or solution is never explored in Lu Xun’s fictional universe of misery.
Lu Xun was a doctor that diagnosed, but prescribed no medication, perhaps because there is no elixir to cure all social ills. The Bible’s diagnosis is that earthly suffering is not the main problem, but merely reflects a greater disharmony in the cosmos than class struggle. And the medication is just as profound: we require a deliverer who will not necessarily free us from bondage our social and economic class (as the prosperity gospel would have us believe), but will free us from the class of the condemned. This provides true hope in the midst of a hopeless world.