The True Story of Ah Q

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The True Story of Ah Q
One of the reprints after 1923 with the author and English title on the cover
Author Lu Xun
Original title 阿Q正傳
Country China
Language Vernacular Chinese
Publication date
Lu Xun
Traditional Chinese 阿Q正傳
Simplified Chinese 阿Q正传

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 story 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 to fully utilize Vernacular Chinese after the 1919 May 4th Movement in China.[1]

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 the novella.[2] 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.[3]


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.

Novella form[edit]

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 章回體形式, which can consist of hundreds of chapters). This is the only novella published by Lu Xun.


Lu Xun believed that the purpose of literature was to transform the minds of and enlighten fellow Chinese. He followed the concept of "wén yǐ zài dào" (文以载道, "literature as a vehicle for moral message").[4]

In Chapter One, the author ironically claims that he could not recall nor verify Ah Q's correct name, thus giving 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 Chinese 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.[citation needed]

Mao Dun believed that Ah Q represented a "crystallization of Chinese qualities" and that it was not necessarily a satirical work.[5] Zhou Zuoren, the author's brother, in the article "[On] The True Story of Ah Q" (阿Q正传; "Ā Q Zhèngzhuàn") 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, "unequivocally satirical" and argued against Mao Dun's point of view.[5]


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 Zhao and the Qian families, 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)[edit]

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."[2]

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."[6] Mao Dun saw Ah Q as a representative of China like Oblomov, the main character of Oblomov, represents Russia.[5]


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.[2] In the 1920s the most common critical sentiment argued that "Ah Q" was a masterpiece.[7]

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.[8] 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."[8]

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."[8] 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"."[9] 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.[10]

A leftist critic, Qian Xingcun , wrote an essay "The Dead Era Of Ah Q" (死去了的阿Q时代, "Sǐqùle de Ā Q Shídài"), published in the March 1, 1928 issue of "Sun Monthly"[10] (太阳月刊, Tàiyáng Yuèkān), No. 3. It as reprinted in "Gémìng Wénxué Lùnzhēng Zīliào Xuǎnbiān" (革命文学论争资料选编).[11] 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.[7] Davies argued that Qian knew he was unable to challenge Lu Xun on literary merits.[11] 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."[11]

References in modern culture[edit]

In modern Chinese language, the term the "Ah Q mentality" (阿Q精神, "Ā Q jīngshén") 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").

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Luo, Jing. [2004] (2004). "Over a Cup of Tea: An Introduction to Chinese Life and Culture". University Press of America. ISBN 0-7618-2937-7
  2. ^ a b c 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:"
  3. ^ Tambling, p. 57.
  4. ^ Huang, p. 431.
  5. ^ a b c Foster, p. 179.
  6. ^ Huters, p. 132.
  7. ^ a b Foster, p. 199.
  8. ^ a b c Davies, p. 59.
  9. ^ Davies, p. 59-60.
  10. ^ a b Davies, p. 60.
  11. ^ a b c Davies, p. 61.


  • 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.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]