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.
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