“Instinctually Allegorising Ruth Hung’s Seminar on Wolf Totem” by Benjamin Lam

The Wolf Totem.jpg

November 5, 2018 happened to be sandwiched between two significant “democratic” exercises—the previous day saw an “independence referendum” in New Caledonia, where the pro-independence indigenous Kanaks outnumbered by European and Asian settlers to legitimise the continued exploitation of their native land—home to a quarter of the planet’s nickel deposits—for the benefit of the French treasury. The following day were the American midterm elections, which were meant to bring a blue wave of pushback against Donald Trump’s policies. The Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives—though in Nevada, voters found a dead brothel owner a better representative than a Democrat for the state legislature—and Nanci Pelosi effectively reinterpreted the concept of checks and balances to bipartisanship, but nonetheless provided a challenge to the leadership of a reality TV celebrity, in line with the dictates of Freytag’s triangle in the story of the 45th president—the outcomes of which appear to have been a consolidation of political violence and self-legitimising power.

In such a context, I listened to Dr Ruth Hung analyse the anomaly that is the nationally, ethnically, and internationally recognised novel, Wolf Totem, by which scholars such as Wolfgang Kubin have described as being “fascist”, and whose author, the pseudonymous Jiang Rong, would still be a mystery if it weren’t for the Man Asian Literary Prize leaking the reclusive writer’s identity. Ruth analyses the self-legitimised allegorical readings of novel by the state, corporations, and the media, to tell the “sheeple” to learn from wolves.

The palimpsestic nature of the novel with a montage of quotations from various classics appears to show how, in Edward Said’s words, “molested” the author is, to the extent that such a fictional memoir came into existence and the political and ideological positions of the author are indeterminable. Lü opts for the pseudonym Jiang, then forgoes first-person narration to a shadow that is the protagonist in the novel, Chen, and pre-emptively engages in self-criticism to appease the censors. After the publication of the English version, he further criticised translator Howard Goldblatt’s use of “Chinese,” as opposed to “Han,” to include the Mongolians as an ethnic group in the Chinese nation, his reason for saying this was unclear.

Though Jiang apparently lauds democracy, Ruth elaborated on how he in fact reinterprets Western liberal democracy as anarchical, lacking legitimacy and appropriates it as a means of a nationalistic project for militarising one’s selves for a supposed national crisis. She further comments on how out of place this mentality is, when the socioeconomic environment has changed drastically for the better since the 19th century, such that the “Sick Man of Asia” has become the world’s second largest economy. Ruth makes a point in specifying that man’s pursuit of development is endless, comparing this type of justification with Phaedrus’s The Wolf and the Lamb, where the tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny. Even though I remain sceptical of the non-existence of the crisis, given its reliance on the external factors in the domain of international relations, as opposed to the wolf finding an excuse to fault the lamb for its own benefit, the conclusion drawn, of course, is still that there are problems with a sub-optimal Nash equilibrium, and how the sub-optimality can always be used to justify any disruption to the equilibrium whenever any natural asymmetry randomly arises from fluctuations. That is, unless it is a self-fulfilled prophecy. Conveniently, this helps answer China’s ideological crisis in proceeding from the Cultural Revolution and embracing neoliberal policies since the Open Door Policy.

The Bildungsroman, in which Chen regrets his stupidity in raising a wolf cub, is indisputably violent. This violence is perhaps worsened by his rhetoric necessitated by his limited intellect. Chen’s solution to Xiao Lang’s biting problem was dental surgery, which was practically a death sentence for the wolf cub, as it could no longer survive in the wild. Towards the end of the disaster that was the experiment of keeping the cub captive, Chen euthanised it with a spade. The problem is of course Chen acting on his curious fascination, which led to a series of unfortunate events,  reasoned by self-righteousness, even though one already has a track record of poor judgment, continuing his disregard of the moral patience of the wolves—clear victims in the novel.

Ruth quotes from Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness towards the end of her paper:

When one ape attacks another, and this attack is carried out with malice aforethought […] an attack must have grounds, where these are supplied by the presence of the appropriate evidence. This evidence provides his attack with justification and so makes it warranted. Grounds, evidence; justification, warrant: only a truly nasty animal would have need of these concepts. The more unpleasant the animal, the more vicious it is, and the more insensitive to the possibility of conciliation, the more it has need of a sense of justice. Standing on its own, alone in all of nature, we find the ape: the only animal sufficiently unpleasant to become a moral animal.

Throughout the seminar, I couldn’t resist breaking the character 狼 down ideogrammatically to 犭(犬)—canine—and 良—good, and linking it to the definition of the character for independence. 羊爲羣。犬爲獨。犬好鬥。好鬥則獨而不羣。The lambs congregate; the canines are independent. Canines like to fight, and this thirst for blood causes them to be independent and not to live in harmony. I suppose the model of the wolf, though an example par excellence of the canine, in fighting for survival, ultimately fails to live harmoniously with others, and forces itself to stand its own ground in desolation. I can imagine these canines as herding dogs, which cannot actually live with one another, and precisely for that reason, are good at working together and ward off wolves, but even this cultural system only works precisely because there is a shepherd which feeds them so that they do not have to fight for survival. I’ve been stuck at this impasse ever since.

November 25 was Kowloon West’s turn to take part in an absurd exercise, where supporters of the disqualified young(er) localist candidates, or “supporters of independence,” were to support the 61-year-old Chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China with “taking back their seat,” so as not to lose the needed “representation” to maintain a “balance of power” so as to protect local interests. The violence of the disqualification and the by-election’s in-built bias are met with the same erasure of voices by the camp that electors voted against, and the dissatisfaction is only amplified. When the slogans of “vote for” become “vote against.” I suppose it would be fair to say that China is the neoliberal leader in fighting against the totalitarian transnationals that are Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple, which is actualised through rooting for the national Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, and Xiaomi. The two groups cannot really be distinguished on ideological grounds, nor can they really be distinguished by the structure of the end product. I can’t help but question the viciousness in human nature, and feel sorry for the victims, which happen to be the independent, fighting wolves.


BenjaminBenjamin Lam is a graduate of the Department of English (Class of 2017). [Read all entries by Benjamin.]


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