It is fair to claim that the first half of the twentieth century was the most turbulent in modern Chinese history. The revolutionary fervor, mixed with the wave of Western cultural influences, created a national identity crisis in these decades. The two characters in question transcend their fiction and represent the society at large during this period. They stand for two contrasted Chinese identities that speak of the good and evil in the Chinese character. This essay will elaborate on how Ah Q and Hsiang Tzu symbolically represent a nation, culture and society that was in transition.
Ah Q is a powerful yet critical portrayal of young Chinese men at the turn of the twentieth century. As the novelist Lu Xun introduces him, he is full of folly and vainglory. He is also shown to possess the vice of sloth and lack meaningful goals in life. Lu Xun’s main concern with the novella is not the moral dimension but the social and political ones. In this view, Ah Q is the product of an uprooted socio-political milieu rather than vice versa. He is a squatter who finds refuge in an empty temple even as he manages to get into trouble frequently. One of the literary devices through which Lu Xun depicts the foolish behavior of Ah Q is euphemism. Ah Q tries to look at every defeat and humiliation suffered by him as a ‘spiritual victory’, meaning though he is defeated at hand he has somehow gained a moral superiority to that of his victor. But the significance of this characterization lies in how the author is hinting at a broader Chinese trait through the acts of the story’s protagonist. In the story, we notice this pyrrhic spiritual victory in different facets of social life. Garbed in satire, they are all based on
“the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, and its accompanying self-positioning or jockeying for power. Whether it is Ah Q fighting with the also-powerless Xiao D, in his encounters with the better educated and wealthier village leaders, with the police, judiciary, and military, with religious institutions, or in his imagined role as a revolutionary, spiritual victory indicates a deception of the self in the power struggles that make up social relations.” (Larson, 2009, p. 77)
Hsiang Tzu makes a sharp contrast to the character of Ah Q and yet he too is an authentic face of late-modern China. While Ah Q was marked by his vanity in the face of abject disgrace, the former is valorous and heroic. Hsiang Tzu’s heroism is one found on his dignity and ambition. He may lead to hand-to-mouth daily existence but he would not relinquish his independence. He would rather prefer to die due to the arduousness of rickshaw pulling work rather than work under a master’s command. Hsiang Tzu’s independence is marked by its individualism. He does not attempt to distinguish his personal identity from that of the Chinese masses through idiosyncrasies or through exclusion. Rather, his brand of individualism is one founded on one man’s relation to the other. He refuses to accept any interpersonal relationship that is not based on equality and dignity. Such a world view is also symbolic of the brewing socio-political changes witnessed in early twentieth century China.
There are strong political overtones to both the stories. Author Lao She portrays Hsiang Tzu to be a victim of the old feudalistic order. The dire economic condition in which Tzu perpetually lives is an indictment of the anachronistic political system. Despite being very industrious, Tzu finds it tough to make ends meet. For all his efforts he cannot even claim ownership to his rickshaw – which was leased out to him till he is able to purchase it. Lao She’s message is that the Chinese people deserved a better standard of life than this. At the time of publication of the novel, Communist ideologies were being propagated subversively through literature. Rickshaw Boy is a classic example of such propaganda. The book and its hero represent the disillusionment with the old political order and the beagle call for revolution. (Hessney, 1985) The relevance of the novel is testified by the huge popular appeal of Hsiang Tzu among the Chinese. Equally important is the elevation of Lao She to the board of All China Federation of Literature and Art by the newly formed Communist government.
The indictment of the then prevailing political system is expressed through futility of effort. Its hero Hsiang Tzu is shown to be a back breaking worker. He is moreover a honest country boy who has reasonable dreams and goals. For example, he believes that buying the new rickshaw will secure him financially and boost his standing among fellow peasant class workers from Peking. Although he initially tastes some success, his dreams begin to evade just as his self-confidence does. Social ills of various kinds sap away his physical and moral strength. (Hegel, 1985, p. 349) Ah Q and Hsiang Tzu thus stand for two instances of underprivileged men forced to adapt to rapid urbanization. While Ah Q is decidedly feckless, Hsiang Tzu is sensible and politically conscious. Ah Q, for all the misery he brings upon himself is never short of opportunity for work. Hence it is easy to see Ah Q and Hsiang Tzu as two facets of emergent China. What the two characters in question essentially symbolize is the internal contradictions and dichotomies within the fledgling spirit of Chinese nationalism. These divisions were even found among the intelligentsia, who by 1925, blamed foreign imperialism
“for rural economic decline, and the image of the peasants began to improve as nationalistic Chinese came to see in the rural masses a powerful force for resisting imperialism and saving China. On the whole, it was thought that peasants needed to be mobilized by intellectuals; however, in making contact with peasants, intellectuals had difficulty overcoming the huge cultural gap created by their modern urban education, even though most were themselves originally of rural origin.” (Arkush, 2007)
In conclusion, Ah Q and Hsiang Tzu make very interesting juxtapositions in terms of their attitudes, traits and world views. Yet their backgrounds could not have been more similar. It is this similarity that lends significance to this comparative analysis. Two people who could have been brethren and whose roots are firmly sprung from Chinese soil turn out to be very different personalities.
Arkush, R. David. “Chinese Discourses on the Peasant, 1900-1949.” The China Journal58 (2007): 260+.
Hessney, Richard C. Expressions of Self in Chinese Literature. Ed. Robert E. Hegel. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.
Larson, Wendy. From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009.
Lu Xun, The True Story of Ah Q, First Published in China in 1921.
Lao She, Rickshaw Boy, First Published in China in 1937.