This social commentary piece reveals to readers what it was like to be a Chinese person living in the time after foreign invaders–the UK, Russia, America, and other western powers–swiftly crushed what was supposed to be the “Heavenly, Celestial Empire” or China. The novel tells the true story of an entire nation in denial of the changing tides of the world order and the cause/effect of this massively historical event during the 1800’s and early 1900’s. There is no better piece of literature to understanding the way Chinese felt and thought about their own situation post-Opium War and during the time of foreign invasion/colonialism.
Within the nine chapters of this story, the reader will become familiar with a character that is perpetually self-deceiving. While it is humorous–the absurd extent of the hopelessness–the distressing nature of the protagonist is likened to that of Don Quixote. This portrayal by the author of Chinese people of that time period is considered so accurate and alluring that the phrase “you are being Ah Q” has become synonymous with “you are deceiving yourself” and has become a common expression in modern society. As the character faces hardship and even blatant public humiliation, he adamantly claims that he is “certainly fortunate,” despite how obvious it is he is not.
The novel is written by one of the most cherished and admired authors of China’s history, 鲁迅 (lǔ xùn). It can be said that without reading 鲁迅, you can’t understand modern China. Because of his popularity, 鲁迅’s works have been the subject of much debate between the Communist Party and Nationalist Party, as to the actual interpretation of his work, with both sides claiming the true meaning of his work either being Marxist or capitalist in nature. Mao Zedong claimed 鲁迅 to be among his most favored authors.
If you truly claim you understand Chinese culture, then you have read this satire. China’s education system today places a heavy emphasis on understanding what happened to China during the 1800’s and early 1900’s. During the early 1800’s, Chinese people saw themselves as the strongest power, unstoppable and unbeatable. After just a few decades with a number of conflicts with the West, China came toppling down, but the people were in complete denial, just as Ah Q demonstrates again and again in the story.