Story time, children, courtesy of Lu Xun. Ever feel like people are out to get you, that the dictum “eat or be eaten” is taken far too seriously? Well, Lu Xun did. The short story “Madman’s Diary” reveals a China feasting on human flesh, symbolically and literally. Confucian values ate the Chinese from the inside, while catastrophes such as the Taiping Rebellion resulted in actual cannibalism, out of starvation but at times for revenge.
So if the diary seems only the paranoia of a madman, it is that eerily accurate paranoia of a Gogol or an Osbourne. Published in 1918, “Madman’s Diary” made enough social impact to establish Lu Xun as an intellectual leader in the New Culture Movement. It was the first novel published in baihua, vernacular Mandarin, and gave Chinese revolutionaries an image for their anti-traditional ethos. But for all its historical weight, the story remains accessible and relevant. It’s a breeze to read, like a Vonnegut story, yet Lu Xun fans still argue over the meaning of the last line.
Two brothers, whose names I need not mention here, were both good friends of mine in high school; but after a separation of many years we gradually lost touch. Some time ago I happened to hear that one of them was seriously ill, and since I was going back to my old home I broke my journey to call on them, I saw only one, however, who told me that the invalid was his younger brother.
“I appreciate your coming such a long way to see us,” he said, “but my brother recovered some time ago and has gone elsewhere to take up an official post.” Then, laughing, he produced two volumes of his brother’s diary, saying that from these the nature of his past illness could be seen, and that there was no harm in showing them to an old friend. I took the diary away, read it through, and found that he had suffered from a form of persecution complex. The writing was most confused and incoherent, and he had made many wild statements; moreover he had omitted to give any dates, so that only by the colour of the ink and the differences in the writing could one tell that it was not written at one time. Certain sections, however, were not altogether disconnected, and I have copied out a part to serve as a subject for medical research. I have not altered a single illogicality in the diary and have changed only the names, even though the people referred to are all country folk, unknown to the world and of no consequence. As for the title, it was chosen by the diarist himself after his recovery, and I did not change it.
Tonight the moon is very bright.
I have not seen it for over thirty years, so today when I saw it I felt in unusually high spirits. I begin to realize that during the past thirty-odd years I have been in the dark; but now I must be extremely careful. Otherwise why should that dog at the Chao house have looked at me twice?
I have reason for my fear.
Tonight there is no moon at all, I know that this bodes ill. This morning when I went out cautiously, Mr. Chao had a strange look in his eyes, as if he were afraid of me, as if he wanted to murder me. There were seven or eight others, who discussed me in a whisper. And they were afraid of my seeing them. All the people I passed were like that. The fiercest among them grinned at me; whereupon I shivered from head to foot, knowing that their preparations were complete.
I was not afraid, however, but continued on my way. A group of children in front were also discussing me, and the look in their eyes was just like that in Mr. Chao’s while their faces too were ghastly pale. I wondered what grudge these children could have against me to make them behave like this. I could not help calling out: “Tell me!” But then they ran away.
I wonder what grudge Mr. Chao can have against me, what grudge the people on the road can have against me. I can think of nothing except that twenty years ago I trod on Mr. Ku Chiu’s1 account sheets for many years past, and Mr. Ku was very displeased. Although Mr. Chao does not know him, he must have heard talk of this and decided to avenge him, so he is conspiring against me with the people on the road, But then what of the children? At that time they were not yet born, so why should they eye me so strangely today, as if they were afraid of me, as if they wanted to murder me? This really frightens me, it is so bewildering and upsetting.
I know. They must have learned this from their parents!
I can’t sleep at night. Everything requires careful consideration if one is to understand it.
Those people, some of whom have been pilloried by the magistrate, slapped in the face by the local gentry, had their wives taken away by bailiffs, or their parents driven to suicide by creditors, never looked as frightened and as fierce then as they did yesterday.
The most extraordinary thing was that woman on the street yesterday who spanked her son and said, “Little devil! I’d like to bite several mouthfuls out of you to work off my feelings!” Yet all the time she looked at me. I gave a start, unable to control myself; then all those green-faced, long-toothed people began to laugh derisively. Old Chen hurried forward and dragged me home.
He dragged me home. The folk at home all pretended not to know me; they had the same look in their eyes as all the others. When I went into the study, they locked the door outside as if cooping up a chicken or a duck. This incident left me even more bewildered.
A few days ago a tenant of ours from Wolf Cub Village came to report the failure of the crops, and told my elder brother that a notorious character in their village had been beaten to death; then some people had taken out his heart and liver, fried them in oil and eaten them, as a means of increasing their courage. When I interrupted, the tenant and my brother both stared at me. Only today have I realized that they had exactly the same look in their eyes as those people outside.
Just to think of it sets me shivering from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet.
They eat human beings, so they may eat me.
I see that woman’s “bite several mouthfuls out of you,” the laughter of those green-faced, long-toothed people and the tenant’s story the other day are obviously secret signs. I realize all the poison in their speech, all the daggers in their laughter. Their teeth are white and glistening: they are all man-eaters.
It seems to me, although I am not a bad man, ever since I trod on Mr. Ku’s accounts it has been touch-and-go. They seem to have secrets which I cannot guess, and once they are angry they will call anyone a bad character. I remember when my elder brother taught me to write compositions, no matter how good a man was, if I produced arguments to the contrary he would mark that passage to show his approval; while if I excused evil-doers, he would say: “Good for you, that shows originality.” How can I possibly guess their secret thoughts—especially when they are ready to eat people?
Everything requires careful consideration if one is to understand it. In ancient times, as I recollect, people often ate human beings, but I am rather hazy about it. I tried to look this up, but my history has no chronology, and scrawled all over each page are the words: “Virtue and Morality.” Since I could not sleep anyway, I read intently half the night, until I began to see words between the lines, the whole book being filled with the two words—”Eat people.”
All these words written in the book, all the words spoken by our tenant, gaze at me strangely with an enigmatic smile.
I too am a man, and they want to eat me!
In the morning I sat quietly for some time. Old Chen brought lunch in: one bowl of vegetables, one bowl of steamed fish. The eyes of the fish were white and hard, and its mouth was open just like those people who want to eat human beings. After a few mouthfuls I could not tell whether the slippery morsels were fish or human flesh, so I brought it all up.
I said, “Old Chen, tell my brother that I feel quite suffocated, and want to have a stroll in the garden.” Old Chen said nothing but went out, and presently he came back and opened the gate.
I did not move, but watched to see how they would treat me, feeling certain that they would not let me go. Sure enough! My elder brother came slowly out, leading an old man. There was a murderous gleam in his eyes, and fearing that I would see it he lowered his head, stealing glances at me from the side of his spectacles.
“You seem to be very well today,” said my brother.
“Yes,” said I.
“I have invited Mr. Ho here today,” said my brother, “to examine you.”
“All right,” said I. Actually I knew quite well that this old man was the executioner in disguise! He simply used the pretext of feeling my pulse to see how fat I was; for by so doing he would receive a share of my flesh. Still I was not afraid. Although I do not eat men, my courage is greater than theirs. I held out my two fists, to see what he would do. The old man sat down, closed his eyes, fumbled for some time and remained still for some time; then he opened his shifty eyes and said, “Don’t let your imagination run away with you. Rest quietly for a few days, and you will be all right.”
Don’t let your imagination run away with you! Rest quietly for a few days! When I have grown fat, naturally they will have more to eat; but what good will it do me, or how can it be “all right”? All these people wanting to eat human flesh and at the same time stealthily trying to keep up appearances, not daring to act promptly, really made me nearly die of laughter. I could not help roaring with laughter, I was so amused. I knew that in this laughter were courage and integrity. Both the old man and my brother turned pale, awed by my courage and integrity.
But just because I am brave they are the more eager to eat me, in order to acquire some of my courage. The old man went out of the gate, but before he had gone far he said to my brother in a low voice, “To be eaten at once!” And my brother nodded. So you are in it too! This stupendous discovery, although it came as a shock, is yet no more than I had expected: the accomplice in eating me is my elder brother!
The eater of human flesh is my elder brother!
I am the younger brother of an eater of human flesh!
I myself will be eaten by others, but none the less I am the younger brother of an eater of human flesh!
These few days I have been thinking again: suppose that old man were not an executioner in disguise, but a real doctor; he would be none the less an eater of human flesh. In that book on herbs, written by his predecessor Li Shih-chen,2 it is clearly stated that men’s flesh can he boiled and eaten; so can he still say that he does not eat men?
As for my elder brother, I have also good reason to suspect him. When he was teaching me, he said with his own lips, “People exchange their sons to eat.” And once in discussing a bad man, he said that not only did he deserve to be killed, he should “have his flesh eaten and his hide slept on. . . .”3 I was still young then, and my heart beat faster for some time, he was not at all surprised by the story that our tenant from Wolf Cub Village told us the other day about eating a man’s heart and liver, but kept nodding his head. He is evidently just as cruel as before. Since it is possible to “exchange sons to eat,” then anything can be exchanged, anyone can be eaten. In the past I simply listened to his explanations, and let it go at that; now I know that when he explained it to me, not only was there human fat at the corner of his lips, but his whole heart was set on eating men.
Pitch dark. I don’t know whether it is day or night. The Chao family dog has started barking again.
The fierceness of a lion, the timidity of a rabbit, the craftiness of a fox. . . .
I know their way; they are not willing to kill anyone outright, nor do they dare, for fear of the consequences. Instead they have banded together and set traps everywhere, to force me to kill myself. The behaviour of the men and women in the street a few days ago, and my elder brother’s attitude these last few days, make it quite obvious. What they like best is for a man to take off his belt, and hang himself from a beam; for then they can enjoy their heart’s desire without being blamed for murder. Naturally that sets them roaring with delighted laughter. On the other hand, if a man is frightened or worried to death, although that makes him rather thin, they still nod in approval.
They only eat dead flesh! I remember reading somewhere of a hideous beast, with an ugly look in its eye, called “hyena” which often eats dead flesh. Even the largest bones it grinds into fragments and swallows: the mere thought of this is enough to terrify one. Hyenas are related to wolves, and wolves belong to the canine species. The other day the dog in the Chao house looked at me several times; obviously it is in the plot too and has become their accomplice. The old man’s eyes were cast down, but that did not deceive me!
The most deplorable is my elder brother. He is also a man, so why is he not afraid, why is he plotting with others to eat me? Is it that when one is used to it he no longer thinks it a crime? Or is it that he has hardened his heart to do something he knows is wrong?
In cursing man-eaters, I shall start with my brother, and in dissuading man-eaters, I shall start with him too.
Actually, such arguments should have convinced them long ago. . . .
Suddenly someone came in. He was only about twenty years old and I did not see his features very clearly. His face was wreathed in smiles, but when he nodded to me his smile did not seem genuine. I asked him “Is it right to eat human beings?”
Still smiling, he replied, “When there is no famine how can one eat human beings?”
I realized at once, he was one of them; but still I summoned up courage to repeat my question:
“Is it right?”
“What makes you ask such a thing? You really are . . fond of a joke. . . . It is very fine today.”
“It is fine, and the moon is very bright. But I want to ask you: Is it right?”
He looked disconcerted, and muttered: “No….”
“No? Then why do they still do it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“What am I talking about? They are eating men now in Wolf Cub Village, and you can see it written all over the books, in fresh red ink.”
His expression changed, and he grew ghastly pale. “It may be so,” he said, staring at me. “It has always been like that. . . .”
“Is it right because it has always been like that?”
“I refuse to discuss these things with you. Anyway, you shouldn’t talk about it. Whoever talks about it is in the wrong!”
I leaped up and opened my eyes wide, but the man had vanished. I was soaked with perspiration. He was much younger than my elder brother, but even so he was in it. He must have been taught by his parents. And I am afraid he has already taught his son: that is why even the children look at me so fiercely.
Wanting to eat men, at the same time afraid of being eaten themselves, they all look at each other with the deepest suspicion. . . .
How comfortable life would be for them if they could rid themselves of such obsessions and go to work, walk, eat and sleep at ease. They have only this one step to take. Yet fathers and sons, husbands and wives, brothers, friends, teachers and students, sworn enemies and even strangers, have all joined in this conspiracy, discouraging and preventing each other from taking this step.
Early this morning I went to look for my elder brother. He was standing outside the hall door looking at the sky, when I walked up behind him, stood between him and the door, and with exceptional poise and politeness said to him:
“Brother, I have something to say to you.”
“Well, what is it?” he asked, quickly turning towards me and nodding.
“It is very little, but I find it difficult to say. Brother, probably all primitive people ate a little human flesh to begin with. Later, because their outlook changed, some of them stopped, and because they tried to be good they changed into men, changed into real men. But some are still eating—just like reptiles. Some have changed into fish, birds, monkeys and finally men; but some do not try to be good and remain reptiles still. When those who eat men compare themselves with those who do not, how ashamed they must be. Probably much more ashamed than the reptiles are before monkeys.
“In ancient times Yi Ya boiled his son for Chieh and Chou to eat; that is the old story.4 But actually since the creation of heaven and earth by Pan Ku men have been eating each other, from the time of Yi Ya’s son to the time of Hsu Hsi-lin,5 and from the time of Hsu Hsi-lin down to the man caught in Wolf Cub Village. Last year they executed a criminal in the city, and a consumptive soaked a piece of bread in his blood and sucked it.
“They want to eat me, and of course you can do nothing about it single-handed; but why should you join them? As man-eaters they are capable of anything. If they eat me, they can eat you as well; members of the same group can still eat each other. But if you will just change your ways immediately, then everyone will have peace. Although this has been going on since time immemorial, today we could make a special effort to be good, and say this is not to be done! I’m sure you can say so, brother. The other day when the tenant wanted the rent reduced, you said it couldn’t be done.”
At first he only smiled cynically, then a murderous gleam came into his eyes, and when I spoke of their secret his face turned pale. Outside the gate stood a group of people, including Mr. Chao and his dog, all craning their necks to peer in. I could not see all their faces, for they seemed to be masked in cloths; some of them looked pale and ghastly still, concealing their laughter. I knew they were one band, all eaters of human flesh. But I also knew that they did not all think alike by any means. Some of them thought that since it had always been so, men should be eaten. Some of them knew that they should not eat men, but still wanted to; and they were afraid people might discover their secret; thus when they heard me they became angry, but they still smiled their. cynical, tight-lipped smile.
Suddenly my brother looked furious, and shouted in a loud voice:
“Get out of here, all of you! What is the point of looking at a madman?”
Then I realized part of their cunning. They would never be willing to change their stand, and their plans were all laid; they had stigmatized me as a madman. In future when I was eaten, not only would there be no trouble, but people would probably be grateful to them. When our tenant spoke of the villagers eating a bad character, it was exactly the same device. This is their old trick.
Old Chen came in too, in a great temper, but they could not stop my mouth, I had to speak to those people:
“You should change, change from the bottom of your hearts!” I said. “You most know that in future there will be no place for man-eaters in the world.
“If you don’t change, you may all be eaten by each other. Although so many are born, they will be wiped out by the real men, just like wolves killed by hunters. Just like reptiles!”
Old Chen drove everybody away. My brother had disappeared. Old Chen advised me to go back to my room. The room was pitch dark. The beams and rafters shook above my head. After shaking for some time they grew larger. They piled on top of me.
The weight was so great, I could not move. They meant that I should die. I knew that the weight was false, so I struggled out, covered in perspiration. But I had to say:
“You should change at once, change from the bottom of your hearts! You must know that in future there will be no place for man-eaters in the world . . . .”
The sun does not shine, the door is not opened, every day two meals.
I took up my chopsticks, then thought of my elder brother; I know now how my little sister died: it was all through him. My sister was only five at the time. I can still remember how lovable and pathetic she looked. Mother cried and cried, but he begged her not to cry, probably because he had eaten her himself, and so her crying made him feel ashamed. If he had any sense of shame. . . .
My sister was eaten by my brother, but I don’t know whether mother realized it or not.
I think mother must have known, but when she cried she did not say so outright, probably because she thought it proper too. I remember when I was four or five years old, sitting in the cool of the hall, my brother told me that if a man’s parents were ill, he should cut off a piece of his flesh and boil it for them if he wanted to be considered a good son; and mother did not contradict him. If one piece could be eaten, obviously so could the whole. And yet just to think of the mourning then still makes my heart bleed; that is the extraordinary thing about it!
I can’t bear to think of it.
I have only just realized 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.
It is possible that I ate several pieces of my sister’s flesh unwittingly, and now it is my turn, . . .
How can a man like myself, after four thousand years of man-caring history—even though I knew nothing about it at first—ever hope to face real men?
Perhaps there are still children who have not eaten men? Save the children. . . .
1. Ku Chiu means “Ancient Times.” Lu Hsun had in mind the long history of feudal oppression in China.
2. A famous pharmacologist (1518-1593), author of Ben-cao-gang-mu, the Materia Medica.
3. These are quotations from the old classic Zuo Zhuan.
4. According to ancient records, Yi Ya cooked his son and presented him to Duke Huan of Chi who reigned from 685 to 643 B.C. Chieh and Chou were tyrants of an earlier age. The madman has made a mistake here.