On this date in 1911, the fictional title character of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q was shot in “Weichuang village,” China.
A modern masterpiece that remains standard reading in China, The True Story of Ah Q was also one of the first literary pieces in the vernacular. Published in 1921 and set in the events of the Xinhai Revolution ten years prior, the novella/short story acidly satirizes China through the biography of the absurdly hapless Ah Q.
Lu Xun (or Lu Hsun) presents the reader a peasant whose real name is literally unknown — an everyman, and no man at all — and proceeds to characterize this discomfiting allegory: a weakling, a bully, a chauvinist, a fool, whose pluck is all folly born of a bottomless capacity for convincing himself that each new failure and humiliation of his abject life is a victory. (In 1933, the American journalist Edgar Snow asked Lu Xun if there were still manh Ah Qs in China. “It’s worse now,” Lu Xun replied. “Now it’s Ah Qs who are running the country.”)
The second and third chapters detail many such “victories.” Through them, the Chinese tongue gained the phrase “the spirit of Ah Q” to indicate determined self-deception.
Though specific calendar dates are scarcely at all alluded to in the narrative itself, the timing of the “climactic” execution — it is an empty death tragic only in its dearth of tragedy, for a revolution that from the author’s standpoint of hindsight was still struggling with the country’s colonial legacy of weakness and backwardness — can be deduced from the text.
Its action takes place in the confused days immediately following the town’s going over to the revolution, which swept through the Chinese provinces in late October and early November of 1911.*
The robbery that precipitates Ah Q’s execution takes place on a night with “no moon”; according to the year’s lunar chart, there was a new moon on the night of Nov. 20. (The December new moon is much too late to make sense.) In the story, it is “four days later” that Ah Q is arrested at night, then drug out for interrogation the next morning (the 25th); returned to his cell and recalled the morning after (the 26th) to sign a confession;** and after one more night in custody,&dagger hauled to an execution he does not even realize is taking place until the last moment.
Suddenly it occurred to him — “Can I be going to have my head cut off?” Panic seized him and everything turned dark before his eyes, while there was a humming in his ears as if he had fainted. But he did not really faint. Although he felt frightened some of the time, the rest of the time he was quite calm. It seemed to him that in this world probably it was the fate of everybody at some time to have his head cut off.
He still recognized the road and felt rather surprised: why were they not going to the execution ground? He did not know that he was being paraded round the streets as a public example. But if he had known, it would have been the same; he would only have thought that in this world probably it was the fate of everybody at some time to be made a public example of.
Ah Q suddenly became ashamed of his lack of spirit, because he had not sung any lines from an opera. His thoughts revolved like a whirlwind: The Young Widow at Her Husband’s Grave was not heroic enough. The words of “I regret to have killed” in The Battle of Dragon and Tiger were too poor. I’ll thrash you with a steel mace was still the best. But when he wanted to raise his hands, he remembered that they were bound together; so he did not sing I’ll thrash you either.
“In twenty years I shall be another …”‡ In his agitation Ah Q uttered half a saying which he had picked up himself but never used before. The crowd’s roar “Good!!!” sounded like the growl of a wolf.
At that instant his thoughts revolved again like a whirlwind. Four years before, at the foot of the mountain, he had met a hungry wolf which had followed him at a set distance, wanting to eat him. He had nearly died of fright, but luckily he happened to have an axe in his hand, which gave him the courage to get back to Weichuang. He had never forgotten that wolf’s eyes, fierce yet cowardly, gleaming like two will-o’-the-wisps, as if boring into him from a distance. Now he saw eyes more terrible even than the wolf’s: dull yet penetrating eyes that, having devoured his words, still seemed eager to devour something beyond his flesh and blood. And these eyes kept following him at a set distance.
These eyes seemed to have merged into one, biting into his soul.
But Ah Q never uttered these words. All had turned black before his eyes, there was a buzzing in his ears, and he felt as if his whole body were being scattered like so much light dust.
As for any discussion of the event, no question was raised in Weichuang. Naturally all agreed that Ah Q had been a bad man, the proof being that he had been shot; for if he had not been bad, how could he have been shot? But the consensus of opinion in town was unfavourable. Most people were dissatisfied, because a shooting was not such a fine spectacle as a decapitation; and what a ridiculous culprit he had been too, to pass through so many streets without singing a single line from an opera. They had followed him for nothing.
** Ah Q has no idea he is signing a confession; an illiterate, he makes his mark with a circle — fixated only on making it a perfect circle, at which endeavor he naturally fails “victoriously.”
† During Ah Q’s last night on earth, the scene cuts to two local officials arguing about the prisoner’s fate, where the man’s life is forfeit in some other mean contest of the municipal pecking order — “Punish one to awe one hundred! See now, I have been a member of the revolutionary party for less than twenty days, but there have been a dozen cases of robbery, none of them solved yet; and think how badly that reflects on me. Now this one has been solved, you come and argue like a pedant. It won’t do!”
‡ According to this footnote, “‘In twenty years I shall be another stout young fellow’ was a phrase often used by criminals before execution, to show their scorn of death.”