China, Red in Tooth and Claw

Wolf Totem is a disconcerting mixture of nationalism, lupine metaphors and nostalgia for the age of nomads. But what does the novel’s runaway success tell us of the aspirations of the new China?

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Being something of an old China hand, I have done my bit in getting China wrong. As an over-enthused young diplomat in Beijing during the early Cultural Revolution (1966-69), I sent a report based on a Red Guard pamphlet I had scavenged, detailing the death by hara-kiri of the “renegade capitalist-roader” Deng Xiaoping. Meeting him 12 years later took the edge off my scoop, though at least the Red Guards were right about the capitalist road.

Today I am less credulous, unlike, it seems, many a publisher, ­reader or reviewer of books from China. When it comes to misinterpreting major foreign works, the British have form: Gogol’s Dead Souls was cosily entitled “Home Tales from Old Russia” in its first translation, someone having failed to spot that its anti-hero, Chichikov, is the devil himself. Now comes a hugely important novel about China, whose message, though not devilish exactly, should profoundly disturb the West. Instead it has been trivialised, sentimentalised and generally misconstrued.

Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong, a former sociology professor, has sold untold millions in China (untold partly because of piracy) and won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007. The tale is autobiographical. As a vulnerable intellectual in the Cultural Revolution, the hero Chen Zhen (like Jiang himself) goes to Inner Mongolia to purge his bourgeois soul. There he stumbles across the meaning of existence, in the form of the nomadic life of the Mongolian grasslands, and above all in the wolf, whose exultant freedom and ferocious energy he contrasts with the sheep-like Chinese race. Returning 20 years later, he finds the wolves exterminated, the grasslands turned to dust polluting ­Beijing, and the nomads riding motorbikes.

A typical British review reads: “Harsh and beautiful, Wolf Totem reminds us that nature is not always kind and bears witness to the tragic rejection of that lesson in the name of progress in the 1960s, and offers a warning about the consequences of China’s rapid industrial development today.” The reviewer is dutifully echoing the book’s blurb: “A stinging social commentary on the dangers of China’s over-accelerated economic growth.”

But it is foreign readers who are being stung. Suggesting that Wolf Totem is about nature being a bit unkind is like saying that Animal Farm is a country tale for children. This is no ecological fable, but a nationalistic tract in fictionalised form, backed by incoherent theorising of a quasi-racist kind. If the People’s Liberation Army and big businessmen are encouraging their staff to read it, it is not for its story about our furry friends, or its concerns over the Inner Mongolian grasslands, but for its brute political message.

Not that the reviewers are entirely to blame. Large chunks of the Chinese text — including many a wacky, racialist reflection — have been silently axed in a way calculated to make the work more appealing to a kidult generation, for whose attention all publishers now strive. The result is less about how the Han Chinese and Mongolians are ­descended from the same blood line, and how today’s China should show the Genghis Khan spirit, and more about the rescue of horses trapped in ice, or fetching descriptions of gazelles gambolling on the sunny steppe.

What Jiang is saying in his book, often explicitly, is that the Han Chinese have degenerated into a bunch of sheep, who have allowed ­domestic and foreign wolves to gobble them up without complaint. He is not alone in his call for a more vigorous China. A decade ago, a book called China Can Always Say No proved another shock bestseller. (The title is an echo of the famous Japanese essay of 1989, The Japan That Can Say No, which called for a more independent Japanese foreign policy.) Just as the British Foreign Office is said to exist for the protection of foreign interests, so Waijiaobu, the Chinese Foreign Relations Ministry, is called Maiguobu — “the Sellout China Ministry” — by its critics. Since bits of the country were literally sold off to the Russians or Japanese by bribe-taking Chinese politicians, generals or officials in the early 20th century, the charge has historical bite.

What does the huge appeal of books like the anti-American China Can Always Say No and the nationalistic Wolf Totem tell us about ­China in the future? First, a simple truth: that in China, as in Russia, the guzzling of American cultural products does not guarantee that Western values are being swallowed with them. On the contrary, the guzzling can be accompanied by eructations of envy and resentment at being an enforced consumer of foreign goods. (This ought not to be news in modishly anti-American Britain, where a parallel paradox exists.)

Chinese anti-Americanism was not, however, the sole reason for the book’s success. The point about China Can Always Say No is that it was anti-Western without being reactionary in domestic political terms, and that it appealed to the young. In other words, in today’s China it is possible to be 30-ish, a Hollywood movie fan, democracy-minded and fearsomely nationalistic. For analysts of China’s future foreign policy, this is a crucial fact. (In Russia there is a wrinkle: the chauvinist youth movement Nashi — “Our People” — which worships Putin, and even nastier groups like the National Bolsheviks, are cool towards what they call dermocratsiya — dermo meaning shit.)

If Wolf Totem has greatly outstripped its predecessor in popularity, it is partly because it is fiction, though with its thin storyline and banged-home moral — gnarled Mongolians are forever telling Chen that the Chinese understand nothing of the wolf — this is no great ­novel. What matters is the message, and Jiang’s views come across with bar-room subtlety, as when Chen soliloquises on the Chinese character: “In world history nomads have been the only Easterners capable of taking the fight to the Europeans, and the three peoples who really shook the West to its foundations were the Huns, the Turks and the Mongols. The Westerners who fought their way back to the East were all descendants of nomads. The builders of ancient Rome were a pair of brothers raised by a wolf … The later Teutons, Germans and Anglo-Saxons grew increasingly powerful, and the blood of wolves ran in their veins. The Chinese, with their weak dispositions, are in ­desperate need of a transfusion of that vigorous, unrestrained blood.”

Dismissing passages like this as cod philosophy, as some have done, misses the point: cod or caviar, millions of Chinese are swallowing it, and by allowing the book to be published, the authorities plainly ­approve. Sometimes, the flavour is not so much the call of the wild as a bugle summons: “The way I see it, the most advanced people today are the descendants of the nomadic races. They drink milk, eat cheese and steak, weave clothing from wool, lay sod, raise dogs, fight bulls, race horses, and compete in athletics. They cherish freedom and popular elections, and they have respect for their women, all traditions and habits passed down by their nomadic ancestors. Not only did they inherit their courage, their militancy, their tenacity, and their need to forge ahead from their nomadic forebears, but they continue to improve on those characteristics … Learning their progressive skills isn’t hard. China launched her own satellites didn’t it? What’s hard to learn are the militancy and aggressiveness, the courage and willingness to take risks that flow in nomadic veins.”

A strange ingenuousness characterises many such passages (respect for women is nomadic?), most strikingly in the open appeal for greater aggressiveness and the talk of racial types. It is as if Jiang, ­professor though he was, is unaware of the forces he is conjuring. When he idealises the nomad’s reverence for his homeland and wolfish blood, and prates on about Han and Mongolian blood being the same, it is hard to prevent the words Blut und Boden edging into European minds.

Yet things are more complex, not to say confused. Just when we think we have got Jiang’s number, as some exotic species of nature-worshipping romantic patriot with fascistic frills, we learn from interviews he has given that he is a democrat who has been jailed for his liberal beliefs. In one such interview, he invokes the lessons of Nazi ­history: China without democracy, he says, would be in danger of ­becoming like Germany in the 1930s.

A comforting view — were it not that in 1930s Germany there was a democracy of sorts, and it elected the Führer, not least because the Germans were persuaded that foreigners had done them down, and because of his racist attacks on Jews. And like Jiang, with his mystical descriptions of nature red in tooth and claw, the Nazis were big on life in the wild too.

A difficulty about criticising Jiang (and resurgent nationalism in general) is that there is truth in what he says about China being too enfeebled in the 19th-century to stand up to Europe’s buccaneering spirit. “No fightee, my coward John Chinaman” jeered Punch magazine in 1858 at a time when we were imposing the Treaty of Tianjin on a prostrate China. Jiang’s critique of his gutless countrymen reminds me of the 19th century Chinese commander obliged to explain yet ­another defeat to his emperor at the hands of the barbarians, who ­decided to take the high ground. Imagine China as an exquisite piece of porcelain, he wrote in a fancy memorial to the Throne. Now think of the foreign invaders as a rough stone…

But that was then. Although the Chinese indeed displayed herd-like instincts in totalitarian times, Mao and his legions of Party faithful, who slaughtered some 70 million of their flock, can hardly be ­described as lacking wolfish appetites. And having myself encountered plenty of heartfelt racial hostility during the Cultural Revolution, I recall how easily the sheep could turn wolfish when spurred on by chauvinist propaganda. Nor was China under Mao quiescent int­ernationally: the Korean War, fomenting revolution in Indonesia or Malaya, the border war with India, the near-war she provoked with Russia on the Ussuri river in 1969, or her later incursion into Vietnam are examples.

More pertinently from today’s viewpoint, there seems no absence of lupine instincts in Chinese business practice, now that their formidable manufacturing, marketing and banking energies have been released, notably when it comes to quietly appropriating the technology of gullible foreign firms who set up shop there. Nor are the Chinese employers sheepish when it comes to exploiting their workforces: the migrant workers on Olympic building sites are paid about £18 a week.

Jiang Rong has apparently complained that his book has been ­misunderstood. He has done little to make himself clearer. The book’s contradictions jolt us back and forth, rather as we are disorientated by the alternately soothing and strident noises we hear from Beijing, where a new suaveness coexists with a gratingly Maoist style the ­moment there is trouble. The Dalai Lama is “a jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes, an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast”, we were recently informed by the Communist Party leader in Tibet.Meanwhile at home and abroad, sparks of Chinese nationalism are ­increasingly easily struck: French supermarkets in China were picketed after President Sarkozy’s linkage between Tibet and the Olympics; in Australia, patriotic overseas Chinese outnumbered pro-Tibet demonstrators when the flame was paraded there; and Chinese students have raised the flag on US campuses. If the Olympics go badly, we could see more thwarted patriotism on the streets.

Now and again in Jiang’s book, through a mist of paradox, a thesis begins to take shape that appears to reconcile the author’s nationalism with his liberalism. Democracy entails the possession and assertion of individual liberties, something the large majority of Chinese have ­always lacked. To the extent that the wolf symbolises an urge to freedom, it makes sense to encourage them to become metaphorically more wolf-like — though Jiang is careful to mark limits. “Neither food nor killing,” Chen reflects, “was the purpose of the wolf’s existence: rather it was their sacred, inviolable freedom, their independence and their dignity.”

In the same spirit, he says: “There’d be hope for China if our ­national character could be rebuilt by cutting away the decaying parts of Confucianism and grafting a wolf totem sapling onto it. It could be combined with such Confucian traditions as pacifism, an emphasis on education, and devotion to study.”

Finally, we seem to be getting some rationality and moderation — but wait: appealing to Confucian traditions contradicts what has gone before, since it was Confucianism and its Maoist successor that turned the Chinese into sheep. Nor does a call for pacifism sit easily alongside appeals for a more assertive national character. As for the implication of wolves lying down with lambs, in a happy synthesis, we should remember that in the book Chen’s attempt to raise a tame wolf cub proves doomed, as the call of the wild takes over.

These fundamental inconsistencies will worry the average Chinese reader less than us; for them the import will be clear enough. Nor is Jiang likely to have reflected on Western reactions when he wrote his book, or realised that foreigners might be puzzled to hear a Chinese democrat extolling national aggressiveness, or suggesting that when it comes to dealing with the West, Genghis Khan got it right.

For all Jiang’s expressions of good intent, like China with its ­Leninist-corporatist capitalism and “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, the book is ultimately incoherent. In the end, only two clear messages remain. The first is that a predilection for violence and conflict are deep in the wolf’s being and central to the world we live in — a force of nature not just to be accepted but revered. The second is an unavoidable implication that it is payback time in China’s relations with the marauding West, though there is little suggestion that wolfishness should take military, as distinct from economic, forms.

Jiang’s book is a pungent reminder that, for all the worthy calls at home and abroad for increased human rights and the rest, Chinese thinking does not fit Western categories. Nor is there much reason why it should. Their culture and experience of the world have been ­different over many millennia, and their contacts with the West on the whole negative; communism, like opium, it is worth remembering, was shipped in from abroad.

In The Writing On The Wall: China and the West in the 21st Century, Will Hutton says China will only come good when it absorbs Enlightenment values, presumably on the grounds that these values are universal. However, few on the Left appear to be insisting that the Enlightenment should become gospel in Muslim countries, so we are asking more of China than we dare ask of them. In any event, a little more humility on our part would be advisable, especially in China’s case. It was after all Enlightenment values such as rationalism and scientism that, carried to extremes, were ultimately responsible for communism. In that sense, it could be argued, not wholly perversely, that in China Enlightenment values have been tested to destruction. Nothing could be more rational than changing the “Go” on traffic lights from green to revolutionary red, which was done, briefly, when I was in Beijing.

The fact that China is as confused about its future as we are is troubling, even if it does not necessarily mean that Chinese revanchism will be a threat to the world, and that conflict is unavoidable. Though the opposite — that China will prove a wholly benign global power — seems even less likely.

We do not have to choose between the views of the “yellow perilists” or the guilt-stricken “panda-huggers”, who have tended to dominate China studies in America. What these books and their reception show is what you would expect: that there is a new flush of pride and bullishness in China, but that Chinese states of mind are confused, fluid and evolving.

What does the West think about the Chinese character? Nothing: we are debarred from having a view. “The one thing that is not allowed, that is absolutely forbidden,” Pierre Manent, a French political philosopher has observed about social and foreign policy debate, “is to recognise that there are differences between groups of humans that are significant and that demand to be taken into account in political actions.” All we are permitted to say about another person, Manent wrote, “is that he is just like me” (“mon semblable”).

If the Chinese are simply nos semblables, nos frères, then there’s no problem. Wolves and sheep we can forget. A fully functioning Chinese democracy is not just desirable but inevitable, as a liberty-loving, ­minority-respecting multi-party system springs fully formed from the nation’s womb. Those with illusions of this sort should contemplate the kind of democracy our Slav semblables, the Russians, have produced to date, then reflect on what the Chinese are likely to achieve, and when. It is not a question of the Chinese being unsuited to democracy — it exists in qualified form in Taiwan and Singapore — but of China’s political heritage, and Chinese timescales. Economic advance and political and cultural backwardness are incompatible, our moralists tell us, but they have co-existed for 30 years, and could do so for many more.

Thinking about the Chinese character — and having seen them at their most anarchic (in the Cultural Revolution), their most orderly (Hong Kong and Singapore), and in their in-between state in today’s mainland China, I have concluded that it exists — does not, of course, mean resurrecting stereotypes. To get a clearer view of where China may be heading, we have to move away from our tradition of demonising or romanticising the country, something we have done for centuries. (Voltaire kept a picture of Confucius in his study, just as some of his spiritual descendants had their picture of Mao.) All that is required is a small effort of imagination.

Put yourself in their position. With their size, their numbers, their antiquity, their glittering civilisation, then the brutal puncturing of their “Middle Kingdom” illusions by the colonial West, then the ­savagery of the warlords and the Japanese, then the even greater slaughter under Mao, and now their spectacular resurgence based on Western-style capitalism and technology — how would you behave? Might you not be at once cocky and resentful, confused as to who you are, and consequently a little prickly and assertive?

Of course there will be trouble with China. What do we expect, a garden of heavenly peace? The only uncertainties, it seems to me, are how much we shall have to confront, and how much can be pre-empted.