Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Story of Ah Q in Sibu

The True Story of Ah Q

I lived in a large (by the standard of that time) eight bed room house in Sibu when my father was alive. There were many things I can remember about those days.

And in my postings I would share with you these memories of my father who was educated in China and a true stoical Chinese intellectual. He was a man who was not after monetary gains and as much as he could at that time, he practised filial piety, Confucian beliefs and at the same time he pursued intellectual advancement through reading of many magazines from Hong Kong and the United States.

I remember our life then in Sibu as quite thoroughly academic and slow paced at home.

Home education with him was stories he would related at dinner time, when no one spoke except him. And he would always tell a story or relate an incident to bring a point poignantly home to all those who had ears to hear.

I remember one evening he told us about Lu Xun and his novel, "Ah Q Zhen Chuan" or the True Story of ah Q. I was not typically impressed by a silly man who had a silly pigtail. The political moral of the story was completely missed by my young mind at that time. But what my father did was to bury a very strong political sensitivity in the depths of my mind. Later that would slowly surface in my life when hardship and hard times fell on me.

Later I was to become a movie buff and when the Hong Kong made film of the story came out in 1958 (Kwan San's version)I waited for it to arrive in Sibu. I was hardly ten years old.

Actually,my father had very wisely told me that it would take me many years to really understand the story. But it was good enough for me just the watch the movie. I must have seen the movie at least five times at one dollar and ten cents a ticket. That was a good seat, under a swirling fan at the side. There was no air conditioning during those days. My maternal grandmother was the chief sponsor of all my forays into the movie world. Sibu had four cinemas at that time: Rex, Lido, Cathay and Palace. My grandmother and I and my younger siblings were frequent movie goers.

In 阿Q正傳; ( pinyin: Ā Q Zhèngzhuàn),is a short episodic novella written by Lu Xun, first published between December 1921 and February 1922. It is considered the first piece of work to fully utilize Vernacular Chinese after the May 4th Movement in China

The story traces the "adventures" of Ah Q, a man from the peasant class with little education and no definite work. 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 of 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 power. 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 lowly crime - is equally poignant and satirical.

In Chapter One, the author claims 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 an affectionate prefix for names. "Q" is short for "Quei," Lu Xun's romanization of what would today be romanized as "Gui." However, as there are many characters that are pronounced "quei," the narrator 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 similarity to 'queue', the Manchu hairstyle which all men in Qing Dynasty China was forced to wear, and which most cut off as a symbol of protest.

Ah Q has no status in the village of Weichang, except for what little he may temporarily gain by lying, stealing, or somehow linking himself with an important person. He wanders all day on the streets and makes a living by stealing and begging, and sometimes by doing low-paid temporary jobs. Ah Q has an "abundant" spiritual life made up of watching others doing things that he considers "foolish" or "rude." Ah Q always feels superior over most people despite the fact that he was the one being looked down upon. Many people actually "enjoy" watching the absurdity and failure of Ah Q. There are also some people that Ah Q truly respects or fears, such as the landlords and rich citizens.

Ah Q is known for deluding himself into believing he is the victor every time he loses a fight. In one scene, Ah Q is beaten and his silver is stolen. He slaps himself on the face, and because he is the person doing the slapping, he sees himself as the victor. This deep-rooted need to maintain a victorious status even when actually defeated shows the Chinese obsession with maintaining a good appearance to all outsiders to be ridiculous at times.

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. This interaction symbolizes China's tradition of group rewards and punishments--guilt or honor by association.

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. Traditional China had long held to the belief that those outside of China were barbarians, and were close-minded about accepting the accomplishments of other countries.

There is a scene in which Ah Q harasses a small 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. This symbolizes the "mob mentality" that Lu Xun so detested in the Chinese people which led to their extreme apathy in the face of injustice.

One day the news of Xinhai Revolution comes into town. Both landlord families, the Zhaos and the Chiens, become revolutionaries to keep their power. Some people, under the name of "revolutionary army," rob the houses of the landlords and rich folks. Ah Q also wants to join them and also claim himself a revolutionary, but is too afraid to act when the time comes. Finally, Ah Q is arrested as a scapegoat for the robbery 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.

Observations of China
China at the turn of the 20th century, the environment in which the story is set, was facing a significant clash between traditional culture and modern capitalist-industrial ideologies defined by Western nations. However, the downfall of Qing Dynasty and the growth of Western capitalism, as is shown in the novel, had barely any influence on average Chinese people according to the novel. The story bears the thought of the author that the ignorance of the masses in China, which was the root of its backward status, could not be saved by a simple change of government. Lu Xun commented that what China really needed was what he called "medicine of the spirit", which might mean modernized education and the resulting changes of social habits. In the novel, such idea is well expressed in an inverted fashion. By presenting the poor living status of masses in China on both material and mental level, the author tried to make people (especially the urban intelligentsias) aware of the gruesome reality facing average Chinese people, instead of focusing solely on some academic topics that are hardly related to social issues in China.

The novel also strongly criticised the alleged historic-cultural burden of China, which was formed by the long history of absolute authority of the feudalist order. The feudalist social structure, order and culture are solidified through its two thousand year dominance. As a result of this, enormous social pressure brought on by group punishment and the rigidly-interpreted Civil Service Test both encouraged conformist ways and social hegemony in the Chinese culture. According to Lu Xun, people molded by such cultural environment were obsessed with saving face, proud of its past without any new accomplishments, and accepting without questioning the injustices imposed by authority. But as in most of Lu Xun's works, the criticism offers no clear solution to the problems. However, the mentality favouring science and democracy, which were the main ideals of the Chinese social revolution against feudalist order, was exceptionally strong.

References to modern culture
In modern Chinese language, the "spirit of Ah Q" (阿Q精神) is now commonly used as a term of mockery to describe anybody who chooses not to face up to reality and deceives himself into believing he is successful.

Adapted from Wikipedia.

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