China - A Country of Cannibals? The Motif of Cannibalism in Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary”

Term Paper, 2015
10 Pages, Grade: 1.0


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Lu Xun’s story has already been interpreted many times and in different ways. However it is and remains a significant and complex literary piece that should be read and interpreted again and again. First of all because of its importance for the history of modern Chinese literature, generally being considered to be the first modern Chinese short-story (Hsia 33) and even more to mark the beginning of modern Chinese literature itself (Chou 1042). Despite this evident contribution to the genre of modern Chinese fiction, Lu Xun’s story can also be viewed as a “prototypical text of social protest and criticism in modern Chinese literature” (Tang 1).

In my essay I want to focus on the motif of cannibalism in “A Madman’s Diary” (Kuangren riji), which is the central image of this short-story. I will examine it in the socio-political context the story was written in and analyse possible readings. Furthermore since the meaning of the image of cannibalism in this text has been thoroughly discussed over the last century, I want to go on briefly exploring the choice of this motif itself. Why has Lu Xun chosen this very image of cannibalism and what could we learn from this about the author’s view of (traditional) Chinese society?

In this essay I will continuously use the pin-yin conversion system. The only exceptions when I will not be using this system are direct quotes using other conversion systems, more well-known spellings of proper names such as Peking or when quoting the names of authors who published their works using the Wade-Giles conversion system such as Hsia. A clarifying point in regards to my approach to citation: If I continuously refer to the same author(s) I will list them at the end of that paragraph, not after each sentence.

Establishing the context

Before taking a closer look at the short-story, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the author’s background and the text’s historical context. Lu Xun, who is generally considered to be the greatest and most important modern Chinese writer, also was “the earliest practitioner of Western-style fiction” (Hsia 28). More than almost any other Chinese writer of his time was he familiar with the contemporary developments in Europe which also greatly impacted his writing, as will be discussed later on. Born in 1881 by the name Zhou Zhangshou, as the eldest son of an impoverished family, he later on went to Japan on a government scholarship for his studies. He originally chose to study medicine, to later on be of service to his countrymen and further the modernization of China. But a symbolical incidence soon made him change his mind: He was shown slides taken during the Russo-Japanese war of a Chinese man’s execution in one of his classes and was appalled by the apathy and insensibility of the people watching. He then realised that transforming and “curing” the spirit of his people was more important than medical treatment. Lu Xun deliberately chose literature as instrument of transformation and while still in Japan wrote essays and translated Western literature, especially stories by Russian authors.

A few years after his return to China in 1909 he moved to Peking to accept a post in the Ministry of Education. At this point he felt hopeless and frustrated about the national failing of the 1911 revolution and his personal failing to transform people’s minds through literature. When his friend Qian Xuantong approached him in 1917, asking him to contribute to the recently founded magazine “New Youth” (Xin Qingnian), he was rather reluctant at first. In an often quoted conversation with his friend, he compared China to an “iron cell” from which there is no escape with the people inside asleep, awaiting death in oblivion. Qian however, using Lu Xun’s metaphor, convinced him that some of those trapped people might already be awake, making breaking down the cell – for example by using literature – possible. Although still mostly pessimistic in regards to Chinese society, Lu Xun also had hopes for his country and decided to contribute, among other texts, his first story “A Madman’s Diary” to the May 15, 1918, issue of “New Youth”. At that time “New Youth” was “the leading journal of Chinese intellectuals” (Hsia 3) as well as an important platform for exchanging views and ideas on many issues concerning the literary reform. Problems relating to the use and necessity of adopting bai hua, Chinese vernacular language, were also frequently discussed. His contribution almost immediately caused Lu Xun to be regarded “as a key member of the radical reformers gathered around New Youth” (Huters 252f) and his short-story “as one of the most important documents of the New Culture Movement” (Chinnery 309). According to Tang, his story provided the New Culture Movement of the May Fourth period (1917-1927), a major intellectual revolution, “not only with a concerted theme but also with a new image and language” (1222). (Chinnery 309-322; Hsia 28-54; Huters 252-278; Lin 104-151; Rojas 47-76; Semanov 40-41; Tang 1222-1234)

“A Madman’s Diary” and the image of cannibalism

After having established the context of the first publication of “A Madman’s Diary”, which evidently has essentially impacted Lu Xun’s story, I will now move on to analysing and interpreting its content. In the story’s framework plot a narrator retells his visit to an old friend living in his hometown whose younger brother had recently suffered from a “persecution complex” (Lu Xun 762). During this time the “madman” had kept a diary which the narrator copied out “to serve as a subject for medical research” (ibid). In the following short segments of the diary, a man describes his terror and shock as his entire village, including his family, seems to reveal their cannibalistic nature. To him it appears as if they conspire against him to drive him to killing himself in order to eat his flesh.

Before taking a closer look at the motif of cannibalism in the story, I want to situate the act of cannibalism in a wider context. As Goldblatt puts it: “(…) cannibalism has a long, complex, and well-documented history, occurring in virtually every society (…)” (477). Since it combines the crime of murder, the consumption of the mortal remains (and therefore violating funeral rites) and the complete abandonment of civilised behaviour, it could be considered as the “ultimate secular taboo” (ibid). Of course cannibalism has different reasons and is carried out in many different ways, but according to Chong, it can be divided into two main categories: survival cannibalism, i.e. eating human flesh to survive in times of famine or war, and learned cannibalism. Learned cannibalism is more complex and can have all sorts of reasons, for example hatred, jealousy or revenge as well as love or loyalty, which in Chinese society often meant sacrificing one’s own flesh out of filial piety. Eating human meat, especially children and women, for its delicate taste or for superstitious/medical reasons occurred in literature as well as in real life. Many examples of these scenarios can also be found in Chinese literature. In the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (Sanguo Yanyi) for example, a subordinate kills his wife and serves her meat out of loyalty to his superior Liu Bei, since he has no other meat to offer him. There are other cases of cannibalism to be found in this text as well as in the “Water Margin” (Shuihu Zhuan) – human meat as delicacy –, the “Journey to the West” (Xi You Ji) – human meat as life-prolonging cure – and many others. (Chong 43-144) In Lu Xun’s text we clearly deal with learned cannibalism, as becomes especially evident when the story’s “madman” asks: “When there is no famine how can one eat human beings?” (Lu Xun 769)


Excerpt out of 10 pages


China - A Country of Cannibals? The Motif of Cannibalism in Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary”
University of Heidelberg  (Institut für Sinologie)
PS Einführung in die Chinesische Literatur
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Lu Xun, Chinese Literature, Cannibalism, Madman's Diary
Quote paper
Dorina Marlen Heller (Author), 2015, China - A Country of Cannibals? The Motif of Cannibalism in Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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