A Madman's Diary

Lu Xun

Recently I was given a really cool birthday present: Selected Stories of Lu Xun. It’s got the Chinese on the left side and the English on the right. I tend to read in English first and then go back and study the Chinese later. Lu Xun (鲁迅) is simply the most famous modern author in China. Lu Xun’s writings predate Communism by a bit, and reflect the great turbulence China was experiencing in the early 1900’s.

Anyway, the first short story in the book is A Madman’s Diary. It’s really a fascinating little piece of literature. I’ll confess, I’ve been out of the literary analysis loop for some time, and my understanding of Chinese culture and history still has a ways to go, so I didn’t fully get the story right away. It’s frustrating to have one’s intellect blunted by disuse. Still, I knew there was a lot to it. I had a talk with my tutor about the story, though. He’s a big fan of Lu Xun. So I understand and appreciate it a lot better now. [ literary analysis ]

The story deals with cannibalism. The madman narrator believes that the people of his town are plotting to kill and eat him. What’s interesting is that the story refers to the fact that China has a long history of incidents of cannibalism. Under feudalism, when hard times hit, the peasants got hit hardest. Famines were common. And, as the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. One reference in the story I didn’t quite understand. It referred to the practice of “exchang[ing] sons to eat” (yi zi er shi — 易子而食). So I asked my tutor about it. I was completely shocked. In ancient China, when famine hit, there was a practice of two households exchanging a child, and then each household killing and eating that child. (You can’t eat your own child, right? That would be uncivilized.) It’s absolutely mind boggling to what extremes famine can drive human beings. My tutor told me there were also incidents of people being so hungry that they would eat mud and die from it.

It was just a little difficult to talk about this with my tutor. He answers my questions well (sometimes too well — and the guy talks fast with a really good vocabulary), and he’s committed to helping me learn more about Chinese culture. But the topic was cannibalism in Chinese history, and Chinese people have a tendency to be kind of sensitive about that which portrays China in a bad light.

I expressed total shock about the “exchange sons to eat” thing, and I think he was a little surprised. He told me he thought Western history contained incidents that are just as bad. I didn’t really doubt that, but I asked for an example. He thought for a few seconds and then brought up Roman gladiators. Not only were humans forced to battle beasts and each other in front of a live audience, but the audience actually got off on the carnage. Granted, that is pretty heinous. But the difference, I felt, was that in most cases of extreme human cruelty, the recipient is dehumanized in the eyes of the offender. It seems like that would be a little harder to do in an even exchange of children with a neighbor.

This conversation prompted me to do a bit of my own research. If cannibalism is a known part of Chinese history, I wondered just how well documented it is in English. I’m not very familiar with the scholarly resources of sinologists, so I just used Google. I found one page with information, but coming from a Japanese source it seems kind of suspect (notice that the information is even in a directory labeled “nanjing”). I also uncovered a plethora of other pages. I’m not going to list them here, because I can’t tell if those pages report the truth, or whether it’s simply some kind of sensationalist China-bashing. (If you want to see them, just do a Google search for “china cannibalism.”) I found one page debunking the claims of another page. Regardless, it’s all an information/misinformation mess, and I found very little referring to the historical incidents that I was looking for.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Do you know where I can find on Internet the chinese version of “kuang ren ri ji”

  2. I was shoked when my father told me that he’ve actually seen people using steam-bread to dip the “prisons'” blood and brain tisses after they were being executed, a lot of times, he says it’s a common scene when he was young, it’s about the time several years after the communists took over.

    He says it’s NOT out of hunger though, it’s because back then people believe human’s blood and brain tissue ,,,etc have medicinal value .
    He was grown up in Sichuan.

  3. Yeah if you dont have a deep interest in China then its easy to be fooled. Only if you take the time to find out why its so tricky will you get past the trickiness. The communist party has done all it can to make the chinese people believe that protecting the reputation of the communist party means thast they are being good to their country, They have done a good job of this. SO Chinese people cannot separate the communist aprty from China so they feel they cant say truthful things about the communist party or they will be harming the reputation of China.

    My friend, a Falun Gong practitioner was applying for asylum to stay in Canada and in her application she explained that in her province of Guanxi during the communist spychotic persecutions and purges, they would not only beat, humiliate and incite the whole village to hate certain people for imaginary crimes, they would kill them, in public and they were experts at grabbing the body parts that they wanted, i think the leader of the official gang would get the penis or something totally disgusting like this… Anyway the communists are no less than pure evil and im not exaggerating either. They eat babies they lie and destroy peoples minds they torture babies torture whoever they want and are demons thats for sure.

  4. Your response clearly shows that you have no grasp of the material, as the story is not about cannibalism, but rather an analogy of using cannibalism to describe the outdated traditional values that eat away at the individual. The author is part of the new culture movement and all of his work contributed to the movement, including this particular story.

  5. tom,

    Stories can work on multiple levels, yes. And it’s also perfectly fine to discuss these levels separately. I didn’t discuss the story on the symbolic level, but I did link to another source that does. My deepest apologies if that’s not enough for you.

  6. I think it was just that he forgot to include the second part with the symbolism. The information on cannibalism was interesting and the symbolic analysis would have provided that one-two punch. I wouldn’t go so far to declare that his resonse “clearly shows he did not grasp the story”—a little harsh and stuck-up there tom…….i’ll use stuck-up instead of conceited, academic snobbery you clearly must think you know everything

  7. I just ran across this article because I was doing a little research and I thought I’d tell you that “yi zi er shi” was also practiced during the late early 1980’s under chairman Mao’s reign.

    • you are right ,during maos reign a large number of people die becauce of famine . the communist party said amost 30milloin people dead . the famous economist shihanbings experienced this span that his aunties family ate young female cousin when she was died .
      this thing happend from 1957–1959

  8. JB says that he (or she) was doing a little research and discovered that “yi zi er shi” — 易子而食) “was also practiced during the late early 1980’s under chairman Mao’s reign.” Since Mao died in 1976, it is quite clear that his “reign” (whatever this means) could not extend to the 1980s. Why there is so much misinformation on China?

  9. Tim Ribbion Says: October 11, 2009 at 3:47 am

    Where can I exchange my son for other son for consumption?

  10. I heard of “yi zi er shi” from my parents (who were both history majors). From what I understand, they exchanged children not because it’s more “civilized” but because the parents didn’t have the heart to kill their own children, even when they were starving to death. In any case, crop failure and famine were common occurences in the pre-modern world in both China & Europe.

    1. In Europe, the state was in general less centralized all through the Middle Ages than in China, so peasant revolts were easier to get started, so before people got to the stage where they had to engage in cannibalism, they were more likely to form a mob and try to get food however they can. Of course, there were plenty of peasant revolts in China as well, but a powerful state was more of a deterrent.

    1. In medieval Europe, there was incessant low-level warfare (and fairly common high-level warfare) between nobles (who, when the Middle Ages started, were little more than leaders of armed gangs), kings, clans, tribes, etc., etc. that tended to kill off excess population.

    2. Under European feudalism, in theory, the lords were suppose to provide for their peasants in times of need. In theory. Not sure how well that actually worked out.

    3. Because of the church, there was a greater taboo against cannibalism (they could say your soul would burn in hell, etc., to make you concerned about more than your current life). Also, because it was considered more of a sin, accounts of cannibalism would be scrubbed from the history books or simply not talked about/recorded. Still, there are plenty of recorded instances of cannibalism, infanticide, and children abandonment during famines in Europe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_of_1315%E2%80%931317. You can still see a relic of those times in the fairy tale of Hansel & Gretel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hansel_and_Gretel

    4. Europe was relatively underpopulated compared to China, and through all of the Middles Ages, most “civilized” areas of towns and fields were surrounded by forests, so when crops failed, people could try to forage in the forests or catch birds (or eat bark, etc.)

    5. Europe had more diseases. China had plenty as well, but from what I understand, Europeans were filthier and more disease-ridden, so most people would die from disease when weakened by hunger before they got to the point of starvation where they’d consider cannibalism.

  11. There was actually a letter penned by a serial child killer by the name of Albert Fish. In the letter he described the children being sold in a market he say’s “Meat of any kind was from $1–3 per pound. So great was the suffering among the very poor that all children under 12 were sold for food in order to keep others from starving. A boy or girl under 14 was not safe in the street. You could go in any shop and ask for steak—chops—or stew meat. Part of the naked body of a boy or girl would be brought out and just what you wanted cut from it…” the rest gets even more gruesome. But this shows that there was some cannibalism in china in our grand parents lifetime.

  12. Mr. Econotarian Says: February 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    You should take a look at the book “Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine” by Jasper Becker. He mentions the occurance of “Yi Zi Er Shi” during Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1959-1961:


  13. Yi zi er shi did take place during the Great Famine c. 1960. The people’s communes in the countryside, where the famine was worst, were kept totally isolated – by government order – from the cities (no travel permits issued, military deployed to towns with the order to stop anyone from the country from boarding trains or boats, etc.), so that nobody could get the word out about what was happening. People ate mud, leaves, the cotton stuffing in their padded jackets, and yes, children. Killing babies and selling their flesh as ‘rabbit’ meat was another thing I heard happened – like yi zi er shi, the aim was apparently to avoid eating your own child. Looking at both practices, it suggests that specifically the eating, but not the killing, of one’s own children was taboo. I have only the vaguest idea of the reasons behind this; it’s not something I wish to investigate.

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