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.