Two stories, both involving diary entries and men descending into madness. Apart from that similarity, though, there’s really little in common between Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Mad Man and Lu Xun’s Kuang Ren Zhi Ji. The latter is literally translated as “diary of a mad man”, given that he was inspired by Gogol’s short story, but most translators use A Mad Man’s Diary to differentiate.
Again, despite the initial similarities, the two stories are actually quite different. Gogol’s story stars Ivanovitch, a man of supposedly noble status, yet shunned and ridiculed by those he looks up to. The protagonist is a rather arrogant man, very much obsessed with position and appearances. He wants so much to be accepted but he gets little more than pity, if not outright derision.
As the entries progress, we find Ivanovitch descending into madness. The dates are undoubtedly a giveaway, and his mad ramblings reveal his eventual descent into madness. The seed was always there, of course, but by the end we find a man destroyed and beyond help.
In sharp contrast to Gogol’s Ivanovitch who craves acceptance, Lu Xun’s unnamed mad man rails angrily against conformity. He believes that his neighbours – even his brother – are all cannibals and that they intend to eat him next. 4000 years of cannibalism, he rants, is something he simply cannot fight.
They seek to consume him, he believes, and so he begs his brother to change his ways and return to civility. Unfortunately, speaking up on his fears of cannibalism only reveals him as a mad man to his family and his neighbours. Unlike Ivanovitch, however, the preface to the entries explains that the said mad man was eventually cured of his delusions, and now laughs off his entries as the ravings of a lunatic.
Lu Xun’s mad man fears one thing: conformity. He is forced to be one of them, and though he seeks to fight them off he realises that he can’t. There’s simply no way he can win. Cannibalism, in this case, is a metaphor for China’s stubborn desire to cling to conservative tradition and outdated mode of thinking. It is a catch-all for the decaying foundation that Lu Xun constantly rants against.
Chinese culture is hyper social, as I constantly tell my students. Everyone’s all up in everybody else’s business, and the worst thing that can happen to you is to be ostracised. In this short story, the “mad man” is the only one sane, but they “cure” him and turn them into one of them, eventually, acceptable and accepted.
I wonder which one of our mad men is actually sane.