Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

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first published in 1918 in New Youth magazine, reprinted in the collection of short stories Call to Arms (1922)

Language & Form

short story, Modernist fiction, also associated with Socialist Realism; original in the modern Chinese vernacular (baihua); the bulk of the story is in the form of a diary; two first person narrators (one who reads the diary and the diarist himself). Recommended translation: William A. Lyell.


The story begins with the narrator's visit to a pair of brothers who were close friends of his during his school years. The older brother informs him that the younger one suffered from a mental illness but got better and took a job in another city. During the time of his illness the brother kept a diary that the narrator is allowed to read. This is the "madman's diary" and its text constitutes the bulk of the story. The diary tells of the protagonist's growing obsession with the cannibalism which he believes is routinely practiced by those around him. He is convinced that sooner or later he will be eaten. As his paranoia increases, and with it his sense that cannibalism is widespread and prevalent even within his family, he despairs of saving himself. The diary ends with a poignant plea to "save the children."

Main Issues

China's first major "modern" short story; it avoided traditional techniques such as omniscient narration and replaced it with the diarist's first person, subjective point of view, unprecedented in Chinese literature.

The subjectivity of Lu Xun's fiction is different from autobiographical confessionism. His "I-narration" proves an effective means of distancing himself and developing perspectives different from what his readers would associate with his public stance. It is ironic that he adopts the first-person narrator to avoid revealing himself -- this is accomplished in part by the use of two first person narrators (the diarist and the person who reads the diary).

Deliberately took the title of "Diary of a Madman" from Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) whose story deals with an office worker who comes to believe he is the king of Spain.

Lu Xun's anti-traditional discourse was strengthened by readings from other Western sources such as Leonid Andreyev's story, "The Red Laugh," Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Thomas H. Huxley's "Evolution and Ethics."

The story offers an ironic look at Chinese history, culture, and social life. Cannibalism is primarily a symbolic theme in the story but has some grounding in historical practices (the desperation of the Chinese people during the famines of the early 1900's is believed to have led to cases of actual cannibalism).

The story condemns the oppressive nature of Chinese Confucian culture as a "man-eating" society where the strong devour the weak. The madman's reading of ancient texts to discover evidence of cannibalism is a parody of traditional Confucian scholarship. In a sense, the madman is a rebel and social critic whose madness is a kind of sanity. The story reveals Lu Xun's interest in changing society -- in converting people from "cannibalism" to a higher level of humanity.

The madman's ideas represent in part the changes sought by the Revolution of 1911 -- a spirit of progress and reform at both the personal and social levels; the rejection of an oppressive traditionalism, ignorance, and conformity.

Lu Xun's story is often described as exposing the "cannibalistic feudal society" of pre-revolution China. The enigmatic ending, "Save the children!," may be in line with the youth ethos of the May Fourth thinkers; Lu Xun's stories are best understood in the context of the revolutionary changes taking place in China during the early 20th century.

Beyond its addressing of a specific historical situation, the story is marked by a deep sense of and feeling for the ironies, false appearances, and deceptions often involved in human social life.

Study Questions

How does the madman see other people? How does he describe them? Does he see something others can't? According to the madman, what lies behind the smiles and façades of courtesy and civilization?

What is the significance of the animal imagery in the story? What sorts of animals are alluded to? Where? Why? What animal is referred to in Section 1 of the story? In Section 3, what is the name of the village suffering from famine? What did the villagers there do? Is that somehow connected to the name of the village? Do you find animal references anywhere else in the story? Is there an increased use of animal imagery and references as the story progresses? In Section 6, an enigmatic series of phrases is suddenly inserted: "the fierceness of a lion, the timidity of a rabbit, the craftiness of a fox." What is intended by this? Does it sound like an epigram encapsulating the meaning of the whole story? What might Lu Xun be trying to express through these phrases?

Is the madman really insane? Is he perhaps saner than those around him? What is sanity? What is madness? Who decides?

Lu Xun was influenced by Darwin and Thomas H. Huxley's ideas on evolution. Are there references to such ideas in the story? Is that connected to the animal imagery? How does Lu Xun apply the notions of evolution to the understanding of the human condition? What changes does he believe human beings must undergo? Why?

What is the madman criticizing? Is this story about actual cannibalism? What does cannibalism stand for? What does it mean to "eat" another human being? Are there any instances of behavior in the story, other than actual cannibalism, which one might term as cannibalistic? Is the madman a cannibal too, perhaps without knowing it? Why does he vomit after eating a dish of fish? What do people do to each other that makes them into cannibals? Are we all cannibals in some respect?

How is this story connected to the historical situation of Lu Xun's time? What was going on in China during this time period? What sorts of social, economic, or political practices may be associated with cannibalism? In Lu Xun's eyes, how is traditional Chinese society cannibalistic? Is modern capitalism any better? What about the experience of Chinese and Russian communism? What sort of a society was Lu Xun striving to bring about? How is it possible to "save the children"?

The first entry in the diary reads, "Tonight the moon is very bright. … I begin to realize that during the past thirty-odd years I have been in the dark." What is the significance of the moon image? Does it occur elsewhere in the story? What does it suggest or stand for? What is the madman able to see under the moonlight? Does the moon have anything to do with his "madness"? What is hidden in the darkness? Why is daylight, when there is no moon, depressing to the madman?

Are there elements of or allusions to the supernatural in the story? How do the moon and the madman's perceptions of others as having "smiling green faces with protruding fangs" contribute to those effects? What is their meaning? How do they function in the story or contribute toward its purposes?

What does the madman learn by reading history books? What does he find there? How does he interpret the words "benevolence, righteousness, and morality"? What does he claim is hiding under those words? How do such references address the problems of Confucianism? Are there other situations in the story referring to Confucianism and its problems?

What does the madman think of the doctor who comes to examine him? Is it significant that he is a doctor? Can a doctor be a cannibal? How? Is it relevant that Lu Xun abandoned a career in medicine to become a writer?

In Section 9, what makes people reluctant to take "that one little step"? What is the symbolic meaning of that step? What does Lu Xun want for people to do? What prevents them from doing it? What does Elder Brother fail to do in Section 10 that upsets the madman? What is it that Elder Brother claims can't be done? How does that explain the meaning of cannibalism? What is the significance of the madman's question in Section 8, "Is this business of eating people right?"

What is the significance of the concern with the death of the madman's younger sister? Why is Elder Brother blamed for her death? Is she a symbol? What issues are addressed by it? What does it mean to suggest that she was eaten?

Is the last line, "Save the children …," an optimistic or pessimistic ending? Who will save them? From what? What does it mean to be saved from becoming a cannibal?

What is suggested when his brother says that the madman got better and went on to wait for an official appointment? Is the brother telling the truth? What may have happened to the madman? What is the difference between being eaten and getting cured of his madness? Is he "eaten" either way?


to come


Dr. Fajardo-Acosta gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Jung-Joon Ihm in the creation of this page


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