The Diary of a Madman

by Lu Xun

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The story contains thirteen fragments from the diary of a man who has lived in confusion for thirty years and suddenly gains spiritual insight from the moon. This lunatic sensitivity leads him to paranoia. Barking dogs, people’s glances, children’s stares, a mother’s cursing words to her son, a brother’s caring, and a doctor’s treatment—all converge, in his mind, into a sinister scheme about eating him. On a sleepless night he reads through a Chinese history with “Virtue and Morality” written on each page but finds the words “eat people” between the lines. Then he discovers his brother’s accomplice in the plan for eating him and realizes that his mother is also collaborating. He even discovers his unwitting involvement in eating his sister’s flesh. The story ends with the madman’s desperate cry: “Save the children.” In addition to revealing the cannibalistic nature of four thousand years of Chinese history and its governing ideology and ethics, “The Diary of a Madman” exposes the ubiquity of such cannibalism and how everyone is an accomplice in the game of eating and being eaten.

Lu Xun uses realistic characterization to compose an intriguing story and symbolic realism to convey his moral concern. In a preface to the story that is fiction cloaked as nonfiction, the author states that he copied out a part of a patient’s diary for the purpose of medical research. Lu Xun’s previous study of medicine and his knowledge, in his own life, about a mad cousin undoubtedly helped him to portray convincingly a paranoid person’s symptoms. In turn, the camouflage of framing the story as a medical case history enables Lu Xun to be detached from the story, eliminating the burden of spelling out the point of the satire. The tongue-in-cheek preface is of vital importance to the story. First, it is written in classical Chinese, a foil to the vernacular style of the diary. Second, its explanation of the recovery of the madman and his acceptance of an official post gives the story a bitterly satiric irony. When the diary ends with the madman’s realization of his own part in the cannibalism and of the urgency of saving the children, one expects him to change the system by changing himself as the first step. Instead, he not only denies the truth but also abandons the “madman” who discovered the truth. Many critics believe that this denial reveals Lu Xun’s pessimism. On the other hand, the story’s implicit denunciation of the cannibal/madman/government official exemplifies Lu Xun’s hope in his readers’ abilities to see and to change. Once the truth is revealed, it can never be fully covered up again. “The Diary of a Madman” was an overnight sensation in China largely because of its revelation of cannibalism. The diarist’s surrender makes clear Lu Xun’s deliberate warning to the reader against any collaboration with authority after learning the truth.

“The Diary of a Madman” was Lu Xun’s first story. In the preface to the first collection in which it appeared (Na-han, 1923; A Call to Arms, 1941), Lu Xun compares China to an iron house with many people asleep inside. Although they will soon die of suffocation, if one cries out to wake a few up, one only makes them suffer more. Lu Xun nevertheless chooses to “call out, to encourage those fighters who are galloping on in loneliness, so that they do not lose heart.” To Lu Xun, writing was an act of defiance against fate.

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