Of Canons and Cannibalism:
A Psycho-Immunological Reading of “Diary of a Madman”

By Carlos Rojas

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, no. 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 47-76

In the preface to Lu Xun’s 1918 short story “Diary of a Madman,” the narrator describes his discovery of a journal written by an old acquaintance, and explains that he has decided to transcribe and publish the document “in order that it might be of use to medical doctors (yijia).” This essay asks how, precisely, one might understand this appeal to medicine (yi), and more generally how to understand the relationship between medicine, cultural production, and political reform in early twentieth century China.

To address these question, the essay approaches Lu Xun’s story via its broader literary context–including a set of contemporary New Youth essays that propose a microbiological model to explain societal reform, suggesting that political reformers are comparable to the immune system’s white blood cells. This immunological model, however, is haunted by the necessary possibility that the immune system may mistakenly begin attacking the body’s own healthy tissue. At a metaphorical level, this possibility of immunological collapse serves as a reminder that political reform is similarly grounded on a process of reading and recognition, and consequently contains the necessary possibility that reformers may mistakenly attack “healthy” elements of society itself. Seen in these terms, Lu Xun’s famous trope of cannibalism in “Diary of a Madman” becomes a symbol not only of the target of reformist efforts, but also of the destructive misdirection of those reformist efforts themselves.