The True Story of Ah Q
One of the reprints after 1923 with the author and English title on the cover
The True Story of Ah Q is an episodic novella written by Lu Xun, first published as a serial between December 4, 1921 and February 12, 1922. It was later placed in his first short story collection Call to Arms (吶喊, Nàhǎn) in 1923 and is the longest of the stories in the collection. The piece is generally held to be a masterpiece of modern Chinese literature, since it is considered the first piece of work fully to use Vernacular Chinese after the 1919 May 4th Movement in China.
It was first published in the Beijing Morning News supplement as a serial. Originally Lu Xun wrote the story under the name "Ba Ren" ("crude fellow"), and so originally few people knew who wrote Ah Q. The first installment was published on December 4, 1921, and additional installments appeared weekly and/or fortnightly. The final installment was published on February 12, 1922. The story had nine chapters.
The story traces the "adventures" of Ah Q, a man from the rural peasant class with little education and no definite occupation. Ah Q is famous for "spiritual victories", Lu Xun's euphemism for self-talk and self-deception even when faced with extreme defeat or humiliation. Ah Q is a bully to the less fortunate but fearful of those who are above him in rank, strength, or power. He persuades himself mentally that he is spiritually "superior" to his oppressors even as he succumbs to their tyranny and suppression. Lu Xun exposes Ah Q's extreme faults as symptomatic of the Chinese national character of his time. The ending of the piece – when Ah Q is carted off to execution for a minor crime – is equally poignant and satirical.
Both the novella form and the low social station of the protagonist were new in the ancient Chinese literature. But the story consisted of nine serial episodic chapters (an old Chinese method for long folklore 章回体形式, which can consist of hundreds of chapters). This is the only novella published by Lu Xun.
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In Chapter One, the author claims ironically that he could not recall nor verify Ah Q's correct name, a claim that gives the character symbolic anonymity. "Ah" (阿) in Chinese is a diminutive prefix for names. "Q" is short for "Quei", which would today be romanized in Hanyu Pinyin as "Guì." However, as there are many characters that are pronounced "quei," the narrator claims he does not know which character he should use, and therefore shortens it to "Q." The deliberate use of a Western letter instead of a Chinese character is a reference to the concepts of the May Fourth movement, which advocated adoption of Western ideas. Another like theory regarding the use of the letter Q, is its aural and visual similarity to 'queue', the Manchu hairstyle which all men in Qing Dynasty China were forced to wear, and which most cut off after the republic was established as a symbol of protest.
Mao Dun believed that Ah Q represented a "crystallization of Chinese qualities" and that it was not necessarily a satirical work. Zhou Zuoren, the author's brother, in the article "A Q zhengzhuan" (T: 阿Q正傳; S: 阿Q正传; P: Ā Q Zhèngzhuàn, W: A Q Cheng-chuan, "[On] The true story of Ah Q") said that the work was, as paraphrased by Paul B. Foster, author of Ah Q Archaeology: Lu Xun, Ah Q, Ah Q Progeny, And the National Character Discourse in Twentieth Century China, as "unequivocally satirical" and argued against Mao Dun's point of view.
Lu Xun believed that the purpose of literature was to transform the minds of and enlighten fellow Chinese. He followed the concept of wen yi zaidao (T: 文以載道, S: 文以载道, P: Wényì Zàidào, W: Wen-i Tsai-tao, "literature as a vehicle for moral message").
Ah Q is known for deluding himself into believing he is the victor every time he loses a fight. In one scene in Chapter 2, Ah Q is beaten and had his silver stolen while he was gambling beside the theater. He slaps himself on the face, and because he is the person doing the slapping, he sees himself as the victor.
When Mr. Zhao, an honored landlord of the village, beats Ah Q in a fight, Ah Q considers himself important for having even a tiny association with such a person. Though some villagers suspect Ah Q may have no true association with Mr. Zhao, they do not question the matter closely, and instead give Ah Q more respect for a time.
Ah Q is often close-minded about petty things. When he ventures into a new town and sees that a "long bench" is called a "straight bench," he believes their way to be instantly inferior and totally wrong.
There is a scene in which Ah Q harasses a nun to make himself feel better. He pinches her and blames his problems on her. Instead of crying out at the injustice of Ah Q's bullying, the crowd nearby laughs.
One day, news of the Xinhai Revolution comes into town. Both landlord families, the Zhaos and the Chiens, become revolutionaries to keep their power. Other people, calling themselves a "revolutionary army", rob the houses of the landlords and rich men. Ah Q also wants to join them and also call himself a revolutionary. But when the time comes, he misses the opportunity to act, because he slept in one morning and no one woke him up. Finally, Ah Q is arrested as a scapegoat for the looting and sentenced to death by the new governor.
When Ah Q is asked to sign a confession, he worries that he cannot write his name. The officers tell him to sign a circle instead. Ah Q is so worried about drawing a perfect circle to save face that he is unaware he would be executed until it is too late. Before his death he tries to entertain the crowds watching his execution, but cannot decide on suitable lines from any Chinese opera. So he decides to sing on his own, but he sang for only one line.
- Ah Q (阿Q)
- Gloria Davies, the author of an entry in Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews, Volumes 13–15, said "[t]he protagonist Ah Q became a symbol of all that was backward, despicable and tragic in Chinese society and often served Chinese intellectuals of the 1920s as a kind of negative criterion against which they could measure China's and their own advance into modernity." In 1934 Lu Xun wrote to a periodical stating that, in regards to Ah Q, "My method is to make the reader unable to tell who this character can be apart from himself, so that he cannot back away to become a bystander but rather suspects that this is a portrait of himself as well as everyone [in China]. A road to self-examination may therefore be opened to him." Mao Dun saw Ah Q as a representative of China like Oblomov, the main character of Oblomov, represents Russia.
When Ah Q was first published, the story became very popular. Many Chinese people wondered if Ah Q was based on a real person, partly because at the time few people knew the true identity of the book's author. Gao Yihan said that some individuals believed that Ah Q was based on their own lives. In the 1920s the most common critical sentiment argued that Ah Q was a masterpiece.
In 1926 Zheng Zhenduo stated his belief that Lu Xun had finished the story too quickly. In literary terms questioned why Ah Q would die in such a casual manner after the story had already determined that being a revolutionary was already not satisfactory. In response to Zheng, Lu Xun said "So week after week passed, and inevitably the problem arose whether Ah Q would become a revolutionary or not. To my mind, as long as there was no revolution in China, Ah Q would not turn revolutionary; but once there was one, he would. This was the only fate possible for my Ah Q, and I would not say that he has a dual personality. The first year of the Republic has gone, never to return; but the next time there are reforms, I believe there will be revolutionaries like Ah Q. I only wish that, as people say, I had written about a period in the past, but I fear what I saw was not the past but the future — even as much as from twenty to thirty years from now."
Gloria Davies, the author of "The Problematic Modernity of Ah Q," said that many Marxist critics criticized Ah Q because the betrayal of the Communists after the 1927 Northern Expedition "bore a dangerous resemblance to Ah Q's fate in front of the firing-squad." Davies further explained that "[i]t is perhaps also not too far-fetched to suggest that the Marxist dogmatists perceived in The True Story of Ah Q a realism with sufficient power to undermine even their own adamant and much-vaunted belief in the imminent arrival of a Communist utopia; for not even the most foolhardy dogmatist could ignore the countless acts of political violence and betrayal taking place around him, borne variously of the ruthlessness, ambition, cynicism, fear and ignorance, in all, the darker side of the human condition that Lu Xun had portrayed so vividly in The True Story of Ah Q." Lu Xun's last response regarding Ah Q itself was his reply to Zheng. During the debates on revolutionary literature in 1928 and 1929, Lu Xun decided not to comment on the criticisms of the story.
A leftist critic, Qian Xingcun (T: 錢杏邨, S: 钱杏邨, P: Qián Xìngcūn, W: Ch'ien Hsing-ts'un), wrote an essay "Siqule de A Q shidai" (T: 死去了的阿Q時代, S: 死去了的阿Q时代, P: Sǐqùle de Ā Q Shídài, W: Ssu-ch'ü-le te A Q Shih-tai, "the bygone/dead age of Ah Q" or "The Dead Era of Ah Q"), published in the March 1, 1928 issue of Sun Monthly (T: 太陽月刊, S: 太阳月刊, P: Tàiyáng Yuèkān, W: T'ai-yang Yüeh-k'an), No. 3. It as reprinted in Geming Wenxue Lunzheng Ziliao Xuanbian (T: 革命文學論爭資料選編, S: 革命文学论争资料选编, P: Gémìng Wénxué Lùnzhēng Zīliào Xuǎnbiān, W: Ke-ming Wen-hsüeh Lun-cheng Tzu-liao Hsüan-pien). In it he argued that Lu Xun had belonged to a preceding historical era, the story was not a masterpiece and did not represent the current era. Davies argued that Qian knew he was unable to challenge Lu Xun on literary merits. Furthermore, Davies argues that "it was all the more important to recognize Lu Xun's works as bearing no relevance to the contemporary situation because they were capable of influencing the reader into misrecognizing social reality."
Chang Yansheng, a member of the Sturm and Drang Society, argued in his 1928 article "Yueguole A Q de shidai yihou" (T: 越過了阿Q的時代以後, S: 越过了阿Q的时代以后, P: Yuèguòle Ā Q de Shídài Yǐhòu, W: Yüeh-kuo-le A Q te Shih-tai I-hou, "After transcending the age of Ah Q") that while the age of Ah Q was no longer present, the era afterwards was also a bad era, and that it would be preferable to, instead of going into the "gramophone era," to remain in the Ah Q era for a period. He argued that the "Ah Q sect" (阿Q派 P: Ā Q Pài, W: A Q P'ai) "represents the naive spirit of the eighteenth century enlightenment period" while the "gramophone sect," or Qian Xingcun's Marxist group, "represents only the primitive spirit of the dark ages in the eleventh or twelfth century." In the 1932 article "Qian Xingcun lilun zhi qingsuan yu minzu wenxue lilun zhi piping" (T: 錢杏邨理論之清算與民族文學理論之批評, S: 钱杏邨理论之清算与民族文学理论之批评, P: Qián Xìngcūn lǐlùn zhī qīngsuàn yú mínzú wénxué lǐlùn zhī pīpíng, W: Ch'ien Hsing-ts'un li-lun chih ch'ing-suan yü min-tsu wen-hsüeh li-lun chih p'i-p'ing, "Qian Xingcun's theoretical settling of accounts and the criticism of the theory of national literature"), Hu Qiuyuan (胡秋原, P: Hú Qiūyuán, W: Hu Ch'iu-yüan) argued that Qian's criticism was not really Marxist. Hu said it was unfair because of a faulty historical analysis, and he argued that Qian was trying to force everyone to share the same opinion that Qian himself had.
References in modern culture
In modern Chinese language, the term the "spirit of Ah Q" or "Ah Q mentality" (阿Q精神, P: Ā Q jīngshén, W: A Q Ching-shen) is used commonly as a term of mockery to describe someone who chooses not to face up to reality and deceives himself into believing he is successful, or has unjustified beliefs of superiority over others. It describes a narcissistic individual who rationalizes every single actual failure he faces as a psychological triumph ("spiritual victory").
- Luo, Jing.  (2004). Over a Cup of Tea: An Introduction to Chinese Life and Culture. University Press of America. ISBN 0-7618-2937-7
- Davies, p. 58. "When Lu Xun's prose fiction, The True Story of Ah Q was first published as a serial in the Beijing Morning News supplement in 1921, it was a tremendous success and readers throughout China were intrigued by the question of whether the portrayal of Ah Q was based on a real person. The disturbing realism of Lu Xun's story, according to Gao Yihan, led many people to suspect that the incidents related in the tale referred to them:"
- Tambling, p. 57.
- Foster, p. 179.
- Huang, p. 431.
- The gamble here is known as Yā Pái Bǎo(玩押牌).  
- Huters, p. 132.
- Foster, p. 199.
- Davies, p. 59.
- Davies, p. 59-60.
- Davies, p. 60.
- Davies, p. 61.
- Foster, p. 201.
- Foster, p. 206
- Foster, p. 207
- Davies, Gloria. "The Problematic Modernity of Ah Q." In: Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR). Volume 13, December 1991. p. 57–76. ISSN 0161-9705. Also available at Jstor. Also published in: Chinese Literature, Essays, Articles, Reviews, Volumes 13–15. Coda Press, 1991. p. 57–76.
- Foster, Paul B. Ah Q Archaeology: Lu Xun, Ah Q, Ah Q Progeny, And the National Character Discourse in Twentieth Century China. Lexington Books, 2006. ISBN 073911168X, 9780739111680.
- Huang, Martin Weizhong. "The Inescapable Predicament: The Narrator and His Discourse in "The True Story of Ah Q"." Modern China, 1990. Volume 16, Issue 4. p. 430-449. Available at Jstor.
- Huters, Theodore E. "Hu Feng and the Critical Legacy of Lu Xun." (Chapter 6). In: Lee, Leo Ou-Fan (editor and author of introduction). Lu Xun & His Legacy. University of California Press, 1985. p. 129–152. ISBN 0520051580, 9780520051584.
- Tambling, Jeremy. Madmen and Other Survivors: Reading Lu Xun's Fiction. Hong Kong University Press, August 30, 2007. ISBN 9622098258, 9789622098251.
- The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun, trans. Julia Lovell, London: Penguin, 2009.
- Chinese Literature, Foreign Languages Press, 1981.
- Larson, Wendy. From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China. Stanford University Press, 2009. ISBN 0804769826, 9780804769822.
|Chinese Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- The True Story of Ah Q (English)
- 阿Q正传 / The True Story of Ah Q (simplified characters)
- The Historical Background of The True Story of Ah Q: Lu Xun and Japan
- Selected Stories, Lu Hsun (1918–1926) at www.coldbacon.com
- Capturing Chinese The Real Story of Ah Q Edited by Kevin Nadolny (Capturing Chinese Publications, 2010) – includes short summaries to Lu Xun's stories, the Chinese text in simplified characters, pinyin, and definitions for difficult vocabulary.
- Qian, Xingcun. "Siqule de A Q shidai" (simplified Chinese)