Meantime, on page 107 (Chapter 2) a good character description of Ah Q. is provided by the narrator: "There was only a single instance when anyone had ever praised him," and that happened to be when Ah Q. was actually the butt of a joke. Ah Q. was looking "scrawny and worn out" so when the old many said "That Ah Q's some worker!" It could only be interpreted as folly, irony, and even though Ah Q. was "pleased as punch" he had been set up to be the fool. Was China, in Xun's estimation, also the fool, the butt of international jokes? It seems likely in a literary way.
While his adversaries taunted him, and he kept losing his fights, he turned to giving dirty looks. And when dirty looks didn't do it for him, he tried "snappy comebacks" and that didn't work either as the villagers continued to beat him up. But even after having his head pounded against a wall, Ah Q. felt victorious -- his way of conjuring up a "psychological victory," something that the Chinese had done during the time Xun was coming of age.
How low can a character go in a novella? Xun's Ah Q. certainly has become a leader in lowness. On page 117 Ah Q. has perched himself next to the lowly Bearded Wang, who was picking lice out of his clothing -- "one after the other and sometimes even two or three at a time." Not only was Bearded Wang finding more lice than Ah Q, the sound that Bearded Wang made when he crushed louse between his teeth ("pow pow") was far better than the sound Ah Q. made when he crushed a louse. This was "nothing short of a social disgrace!" The narrator asserted (p. 117). The humiliation of not matching the size of the lice that Bearded Wang found, and then not match the sound -- this was too much so Ah Q. stood up and begged for a fight. Bearded Wang gave him one, and beat his head against the wall. Previously Ah Q. had taunted Bearded Wang. Now the tables were turned and Ah Q. was defeated and depressed.
It should be mentioned that at the turn of the 20th Century China was in the midst of a cultural conflict between the old school Chinese culture and the more modern Western style industrial style of government. In the traditional culture that the dynasties had ruled over for centuries -- until the Qing Dynasty fell -- people were willing to accept subservience. That subservience looked like ignorance to Xun, and so it is likely that Ah Q. is symbolic of that ignorance.
There can be little doubt that Xun used Ah Q. As a microcosm of China's problems -- and made Ah Q. look ridiculous because that was Xun's way of criticizing not just the government but the society during that period in history. In the book Lu Xun and his Legacy Lin Yu-Sheng writes that "Ah Q. lacks an interior self and a feeling for life" and his "callousness evinces even an enjoyment of the destruction of lives" (Yu-Sheng, 1985, p. 111). Moreover, Ah Q. lives "by natural instinct" and has "conditioned reflexes but lacks self-awareness and the ability to change" (p. 111). This certainly sounds like China has been described leading up to and through the May Fourth Movement. Ah Q. is "immune to inspiration from external stimuli," Yu-Sheng explains. And "without self-awareness" Ah Q. is not capable of "self-cultivation and of intellectual or moral improvement"; only death itself "brings him to a flicker of self-awareness," Yu-Sheng concludes (p. 112).
Both of these stories are full of images and symbols and metaphors that relate back to the situation in China at the time Xun wrote these short stories. After all, alert, brilliant authors nearly always have larger issues in mind when they create characters and place them in scenes that have conflict and cultural relevance. One wonders if a writer as bright as Xun will come along and shake up the current Chinese Communist government. In fact, maybe there already is a writer that bright and talented. His name? Liu Xiaobao, and he just won the Nobel Peace Prize but unfortunately was not able to be there in person to accept it: he is imprisoned by the Chinese government for his outspoken writing and teaching about repression and a country that refuses to change. Sound familiar?
Xun, Lu. "Ah Q -- the Real Story." Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Ed. William a.
Lyell. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. 101-172.
Xun, Lu. "Diary of a Madman." Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Ed. William a. Lyell.
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. 29-41.