The Literature of History: The Importance of Historical Contextualization of Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary” by Sheena Verallo

Modern Chinese literature, particularly prose, did not develop the same way Western literature did, and this is seen in Lu Xun’s short story, “A Madman’s Diary”. Published in 1918, Lu Xun’s work is often recognised as the very first Chinese short story. However, much more than being the first of its kind, “A Madman’s Diary” is the culmination of traditional Chinese literature and the transition into a new modern period of Chinese literature. While Lu Xun published it mainly with the intention of criticising the dominating politico-economic system of feudalism rampant throughout China at that time, the piece itself functions as a manifestation of the importance of historically contextualising Chinese literature.

It has long been said that one cannot apply Western literary theories to Asian literature, and this is true to a certain extent. In the case of Chinese literature, methods such as formalism can still be used to understand some works, but the depth of understanding is limited.


Chinese literature is always tied in and better understood within the context of Chinese society, whether it be historical, religious, political, or economic, and this is the case for Lu Xun’s short story, “A Madman’s Diary”. The story begins from the point of view the narrator, who talks about two brothers he had been friends with in high school, one of which had fallen ill. The narrator explains that, on his way home, he decides to visit them. However, he finds out that the younger brother (who had fallen ill) had already recovered and left to take up an official post. The older brother then lets the narrator read two volumes of the diary the younger brother had kept while he was ill. While reading, the narrator discovers that he had been sick with a kind of persecution complex. The story then cuts to certain passages from the diary that the narrator has decided to use for medical research. There are thirteen entries, all of which are relatively short. As the entries progress, the fear and paranoia of the madman increases over the suspicion that the people surrounding him want to eat him, particularly his brother and his neighbors. Towards the end of the entries, the madman comes to the conclusion that he himself had probably unknowingly succumbed to cannibalism and hopes that there are children who have not been tricked into such things.

It is possible for one to see the significance of this work in Chinese literature using formal elements. For example, using the first person point-of-view is something relatively new in Chinese literature:

“I can’t bear to think of it.

I have only just realising that I have been living all these years in a place where for four thousand years they have been eating human flesh. My brother had just taken over the charge of the house when our sister died, and he may well have used her flesh in our rice and dishes, making us eat it unwittingly.”

As seen in the excerpt, this style allowed for a better understanding of the mental state and inner feelings of the madman. In the original Chinese version, Lu Xun also utilised the vernacular at that time in China, bai hua, making his short story the first work to ever be written and published in the vernacular. Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary” is a turning point in style and technique of modern Chinese literature.

However, Lu Xun’s short story goes beyond style and technique. Its reason for being a turning point in Chinese literature is not merely because of its innovative style and technique, but also because of the limitations it broke through. Literature in China has always been tied in with the political mood of the country. It was through an introduction of Western literary styles and techniques that provided new methods for Chinese writers to speak of the socio-political happenings. Lu Xun masterfully uses the metaphor of cannibalism in his short story to speak out against and criticise the feudalistic society in China.

The work itself speaks of the development of Chinese literature. Because of its new style and techniques, it is very much a significant cornerstone upon which modern Chinese literature evolves from. The use of prose in Chinese literature is rare and the manner and intention with which Lu Xun writes his short story is also another thing about the work to see as significant. The publication of the work is also important in understanding the novel. Due to its publication during a tumultuous time in Chinese history, the novel reveals the kind of thinking most people like Lu Xun (the intellectuals) held at this time. With numerous political upheavals occurring in China during the early 1900s, Lu Xun’s work becomes important in understanding how people understood the situation in China. His work is an innovative turn in Chinese literature from the traditional to the modern; it is a criticism of the political situation of China during its publication; and, its content (when understood with its historical context) provide an important window into both Chinese literature and history.

Works Cited:

Xun, Lu. “A Madman’s Diary.” 377-386. Print.


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