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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

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The True Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun is a scathing satire of early twentieth-century China. If Darkness at Noon and Don Quixote had a baby, this might be it. If you don't know what that means, you should read all three books, and you should check out the excellent study guide for Lu Xun's story on this website.

The China of the Warlord period was a chaotic, wild-west place. The overthrow of the last emperor created opportunities for the private armies of former military commanders allied with wealthy capitalists to compete to capture the former Chinese state. Anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist groups tried to use the conflicts between the warlords to get political power for themselves, to create a socialist state.

Into this whirlwind comes Ah Q, who could only be called a village idiot, a pastiche of unflattering class stereotypes written to convey a message of futility. The question is, futile for what or to whom? Is the bumbling protagonist an avatar of the peasantry in its struggle to be rid of the yoke of post-imperial oppression? Or does he represent China itself, caught between the depredations of Japan, the US and the UK on the one hand and of International Socialism on the other? We're never told, and the truth might be "both." That the story doesn't end happily is probably the harshest comment of all.

Then there's Ah Q himself. Whoever, whatever he stands for, Lu Xun doesn't want us to have a high opinion of him. Ah Q is almost solipsistic, and this enables the twin pathologies common to stupid bullies: unthinking cruelty to people with less power than he, and craven, servile cultivation of people with more power. He's China's Everyman, but the portrait of Ah Q is less a national symbol than an indictment. It's hard to see how the author of it could be less optimistic about China's future.

Or is he? It's easy to forget this is a satire, a deliberate exaggeration for the purpose of sending a message. Lu Xun became an icon of China's Communist cultural watchdogs, and Ah Q is his hallmark. His character's struggles, his pathetic, obsessive insistence on trying again and again to win tiny improvements in his station, are a backhanded reminder of the peasantry's strength: it's stubborn-ness and sheer survivability. Ah Q's execution is a metaphor not for the death of the peasantry, but for the collapse of the post-imperial capitalist order. Twenty-five years ahead of his time, Lu Xun was right.


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