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The True Story of Ah Q (Ah Q Zhengzhuan) by Lu Xun, 1923

THE TRUE STORY OF AH Q (Ah Q zhengzhuan)
by Lu Xun, 1923

By far the most famous, if not the greatest, of modern Chinese stories is Lu Xun's "The True Story of Ah Q" ("Ah Q zhengzhuan"). It was published in 1921 and collected in 1923 in Call to Arms (Na Han). Ah Q, the name of the protagonist, has become a household word. With Ah Q, Lu Xun added a vivid and striking type to the rich gallery of characters in world literature, for he represents typical traits not only of the Chinese but also of people everywhere. As one critic has put it, Ah Q is "an international everyman."

On occasion, however, the extraordinary exaggerations of Ah Q's clownish propensities—his disappointment in not finding enough lice in his jacket, for example—lend an unrealistic and inhuman quality to the story. This makes questionable the view that the story is Lu Xun's most successful work. Even the author himself admitted that some descriptions might sound "too exaggerated," but he defended them on the ground that life in China had become so shocking and abnormal that a realistic presentation would seem "grotesque" to foreigners or future generations. His explanation does not eliminate the impression that he was treating a character and a setting not entirely familiar to him, although his taut sentences and limpid delineations help bring into focus the lifestyle of an epoch now only dimly perceived. Many contemporary readers, for example, would not understand the protagonist's name or why the author chose the letter Q instead of a Chinese ideograph if Zhou Zuoren, the author's younger brother and a well-known essayist, had not revealed that Lu Xun was fascinated by the resemblance between the letter and a head with a pigtail hanging down.

The most significant part of the story is its introduction in chapter 1. The style of the opening section is not that of a storyteller but of a writer of a zawen, or miscellaneous essay: sarcastic, contentious, sophisticated, and tinged with wit and humor. The targets of ridicule happen to be researchers ("disciples of Dr. Hu Shi") and biographers, two of the many categories of Chinese characters normally satirized by the author. This is vintage Lu Xun, who was essentially a modern prose satirist rather than a narrator of fictional tales. The best portions of the story are the two accounts of Ah Q's "victories" in chapters 2 and 3 that reveal most tellingly the two sides of the protagonist: Ah Q the victim, and Ah Q the clown.

Critics have dwelt extensively and repeatedly on Ah Q the victim, and very little can be added to their observations. As they point out, Ah Q's victories are actually his defeats, and his forgetfulness is a kind of self-deception. Both are necessary to alleviate the pain and misery in his life. The author suggests that in traditional society people like Ah Q are always losers, for at the critical moment progressive elements, represented by the Qian family, and conservative elements, represented by the Zhao family, always join forces to protect their own interests and to suppress and exploit the weak and the poor. This is seen in the incident of the successful county candidate and the Bogus Foreign Devil who go together to the convent to carry out their "revolutionary" activities. It is not surprising that Ah Q is manipulated into becoming a scapegoat. On the other hand, when he is armed with real or imaginary power, his slave mentality also makes Ah Q a victimizer who enslaves and persecutes his own kind. This is seen, for example, in his mistreatment of the little nun and of Young D. As an avenger he proves just as tyrannical as, if not more cruel than, his persecutors.

Lu Xun's outlook on life is often too austere and too cynical to permit a comic vision. But the story was originally published in a column titled "Cheerful Chat" of the Morning Post, and, as the author explained, in order to be "cheerful" he had to add "unnecessary humor" that "did not suit" the story as a whole. This explanation accounts for the use of burlesque, which is so obvious in the portrait of Ah Q the clown as "always exultant," a proof of "the moral supremacy of China over the rest of the world!" Such barbed witticism in a humorous context indicates that, after all, Lu Xun was a satirist rather than a humorist. To quote his own words, "I do not like 'humor' and believe that the only gentlemen who can enjoy it are those who like to sit around and shoot the breeze. In China it is even difficult to find a translation for this word."

Chinese readers more easily comprehend the significance of "The True Story of Ah Q" than do foreigners, for it bitterly reminds them of the most unforgettable part of modern Chinese history, the frustrations and humiliations inflicted upon China by Japan and Western countries. Weichuang, the setting of "The True Story of Ah Q," has been regarded as a symbol of "microcosmic China," the unnamed town as a "foreign power," and Ah Q as "the incarnation of the Chinese masses." He is, therefore, not an individual in contemporary society but rather a composite character and "a summation of all the roles a man may play in Chinese society." It is with this exact image in mind that in chapters 4-6 Lu Xun dramatizes in significant human terms Ah Q's problems of how to obtain a wife and how to make a living. The sting of his satire is aimed not so much at the protagonist as at the world.

Chapters 7 and 8 deal with the 1911 revolution and contain details that make the word "revolution" sound like a joke, but the author is serious here. These two chapters can lend themselves to a variety of interpretations, most of which focus on the meaning of revolution, including what it does to the masses. Lu Xun seems to imply that the 1911 revolution, which made China a republic, effected only a change of names and not a fundamental change of heart. The new regime was as corrupt as the old. The point becomes even more obvious in the last chapter when Ah Q is executed for a crime he did not commit. The title alone, "The Grand Happy Ending," is ironic enough to deal a fatal blow to the claim that the revolution was a success. In fact, the revolution resulted in hopes betrayed and ideals caricatured. Ah Q's unuttered cry for help in the finale is also a remarkable piece of irony, bringing home the chilling fact that his life ends at the exact moment when he begins to understand himself and his world.

—Sherwin S. S. Fu

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