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The Real Wordplay of Ah Q

By Memrise Blog

Yesterday morning I finally got around to plucking 阿Q正传 (The Real Story of Ah Q) off the bookshelf and beginning to read it. This is probably the most famous novel of the great giant of 20th century Chinese literature Lu Xun, and being an eager sinophile I should by rights have read it years ago. Indeed it has been lurking on my shelf for some time, but there always seems to be something just a little more pressing to do that has stopped me from actually getting my teeth into it. But this weekend brought the opportunity.

As a swift reward for seizing the moment, in the very first chapter I found the answer to a question that had been vaguely nagging at the back of my mind for some time: why should such a master of the Chinese language decide to resort to the use of an English letter in the title of his finest work? With tens of thousands of chinese characters to choose from, how could one of our lowly 26 letters be better fitted to the task than anything his own rich language could offer?

Well, it turns out that Lu Xun starts off the novel by telling us that he is writing a history of the life of a man that he once knew, (though this is fiction, not actually biography). He excuses the use of the letter Q by explaining that he never actually knew the real name of his central character; he knew that it sounded like “Quei”[1], but he did not know which character this represented.

It could have been 桂 (tree + earth + earth) meaning “sweet-scented osmanthus” (a kind of flower); but equally it could have been 贵 (beetle + cowrie) meaning (among other things) “nobility”. They are both pronounced “quei”[2]. So because he had only ever heard this man’s name spoken, he could not tell which one it was. These two seemed the most likely, but equally there were many more options besides. So how could he write about the character without knowing his name? Readers will, of course, create a different mental image of someone named “nobility” than someone named “sweet scented osmanthus”. If he had more context about the man’s family; a brother’s name, the time of his birth, then the context may have helped him to work out the answer. But he did not.

So Lu Xun decided to make use of the modern invention of using roman letters to spell out the sounds of characters; spelling out a sound was not something that had previously been possible in the Chinese language. He spelled out the sound “Quei”, and then abbreviated that to the first letter “Q”.

Being Chinese, and having been reared on characters packed with meaning but light on phonetics, he did not just see “Q” as being the letter that was pronounced “queue”. He also saw it as a pictogram: a picture of a man’s head, with a little “pony tail” hanging down to the side. This “pony tail” he actually saw as being a “queue” – the long braided hair that Chinese men wore at the time to demonstrate their subjugation to the ruling Qing dynasty; I don’t even know if Lu Xun realised the delicious co-incidence the pronunciation of the word “queue” as the same as the letter “Q” – if he did, then he didn’t mention it. Lu Xun, it may be useful to note, had cut off his own queue several years before as a demonstration of his emancipation and independence from the ruling authorities.

The character Ah Q was intended to represent a whole sector of Chinese society; a sector characterized by the “queues” they wore. Lu Xun took the letter Q, a lowly english phonetic, bereft of the depth of meaning of Chinese characters, and by using it not only to represent the pronunciation of a name, but also to draw a picture of the main character and his queue, gives us a fleeting insight into a totally different, and utterly Chinese, way of manipulating language.

It starts one thinking of other ways of looking at other English letters – for example, “i” could be seen as a picture of a lone, solitary figure, an embodiment of “I”, meaning me, a single person. Or “s” could be a picture of a snake – and snakes make a sibilant noise that sounds like “Ssss”; and “snake” even starts with the letter “s”.

Which slightly nonsensical thoughts lead me back to an old favorite of mine; the fact that our own character for “zero” is a simple, efficient “0” – a picture of an empty space, perhaps, while the Chinese character that means “zero”, 零, takes some 16 strokes to convey the meaning of “nothing”. Is this, perhaps, a symptom of our different understanding of what “nothing” means? I’m not sure, but it does seem sure that Lu Xun’s genius in Chinese transfers to give him a unique way of using our own language.


1 using the Wade-Giles romanization system that was in general use at the time

2 or “gui” in the modern pinyin romanization system