Wolf Totem and the Post-Mao Utopian:
A Chinese Perspective on Contemporary Western Scholarship

By Li Xiaojiang
Translated by Edward Mansfield Gunn

Reviewed by Yiyan Wang
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2019)

Li Xiaojiang, Wolf Totem and the Post-Mao Utopian: A Chinese Perspective on Contemporary Western Scholarship Tr. Edward Mansfield Gunn. Leiden: Brill, 2018. Ix-xviii + 574. ISBN: 978-90-04-27672-7 (Hardcover).

Li Xiaojiang 李小江 is a scholar well-known for her ground-breaking research and extensive publications on gender and women’s issues in Chinese society. Her monograph, Post-Allegory: A Rigorous Explication of Wolf Totem  (后寓言:〈狼图腾〉深度诠释) (Wuhan: Changjiang wenyi, 2010), is a remarkable departure from her usual areas of research. The version here being reviewed is a translation of the 2013 revised edition (修正版), Wolf Totem and the Post-Mao Utopian: A Chinese Perspective on Contemporary Western Scholarship (后乌托邦批评:〈狼图腾〉深度诠释) (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin), rendered into English by Edward Gunn. It offers, exactly as the subtitle indicates, “A Chinese Perspective on Contemporary Western Scholarship.”[1] Li’s analysis and positioning of the novel, Wolf Totem 狼图腾 (Jiang Rong 2004; translation by Howard Goldblatt 2009), as a “post” allegory, is a preparation for the core task of the book—to critique contemporary Western scholarship and to propose a new critical paradigm: post-utopian criticism. While Gunn faithfully translates the title of this revised edition as “the Post-Mao Utopian,” I use Li’s original term, “post-allegory” (后寓言), because it is her point of entry for and may help us understand her argument about “post-utopianism.”

The book consists of three main parts. Part 1, Textual Analysis, is comprised of textual analyses of the novel Wolf Totem. Part 2, Allegorical Interpretation, discusses the impact of postmodernism and postcolonialism on Chinese academia. The book’s 27-page “brief” conclusion, which I consider to be a third part of the book, describes what post-utopianism is and does.

The textual analysis in Part I centers on three questions. First, what kinds of stories does Wolf Totem narrate? Second, why was there such a wide readership for Wolf Totem? Third, how did Wolf Totem captivate readers? The author uses these questions as entry points into discussions at deeper levels. In answering the first question, Li discusses at length what constitutes “allegory” and “modern allegory” in the history of world literature and Chinese literature. She traces the allegorical tradition from ancient fables concerning human nature, such as Aesop’s Fables, through modern allegories, which tend to tell stories of nationhood as a way to evoke a shared sense of imagined community. Li argues that Wolf Totem presents a unique development in this narrative tradition, proposing that the novel be considered “post” allegorical because it is a product of the post-Mao era written in the postmodern age. Wolf Totem‘s narrative is primarily concerned with the consequences of human civilizational achievements and compels the reader to reflect on existential questions; it is therefore, post-allegorical. She further asserts that Wolf Totem should not be read as an ecological narrative about human degradation of the environment, nor should it simply be taken as a national allegory. It is an allegory implicating humanity in the “post” era, she insists, further bolstering her use of the term “post-allegory” (35).

Li Xiaojiang poses the questions about the reasons for Wolf Totem’s appeal to readers in order to elaborate on the aesthetic qualities of the novel. For her, the narrative is refreshingly innovative. Its existential themes, like those of earlier narratives, explore the meaning of human life through the life story of the protagonist, but its choice of the wolf as protagonist enables it to bypass some of the political entanglements of human society, in particular, Chinese historical and social issues, and enter the ecosystem of “Prime Nature,” as she calls it. Prime Nature in the novel is most prominently embodied in the main setting, the vast and wild grassland, a stage for the wolf to perform its central role as the spirit of freedom. Readers are drawn in as the narrative unfolds into an extremely engaging plot of nature versus culture. At the same time, in its employment of both “action words” (146) and “sensuous vocabulary” (148), Wolf Totem also allows readers to indulge in a textual beauty that is in short supply in much of post-Mao PRC fiction. That the story ends with the demise of both the wolf and Prime Nature further enhances the story’s attraction, since many readers are drawn to well-told tragedies.

Both the scope and the depth of Li Xiaojiang’s analyses are impressive. Locating Wolf Totem in the context of world literature and in the context of Chinese literary history, she shows familiarity with texts from different languages and cultures and from different historical times. She spends pages and pages tracing the appearances of the wolf figure in world literature in order to demonstrate that the wolf has been a recurrent motif and that it appears as an antagonist in fables across many cultures. In contrast, Wolf Totem treats the wolf as a hero with courage, wisdom, and compassion, and above all, the spirit of freedom. Li holds that Wolf Totem’s attachment of a positive allegorical meaning to the wolf stands out as original and innovative (domestically, she notes, Wolf Totem was preceded by a comparable allegorical novel, Jia Pingwa’s 2000 Remembering Wolves [怀念狼]).

The detailed close readings of many narratological features of Wolf Totem demonstrate not only Li Xiaojiang’s familiarity with world literature but also her awareness of critical theory and its application in literary and cultural studies in Western academia. Most significantly, her discussions show a fluency in navigating the two Western discourses she sets out to critique: postmodernism and postcolonialism. She believes that contemporary Western scholarship has predominately been centered on these two paradigms. Based on her extensive knowledge of the theoretical issues and geopolitics of global academia of recent decades, Li takes up the issue of theoretical or intellectual “aphasia” (失语症) in Chinese scholarship (citing Cao Shunting 曹顺庆, Roman Jacobson, and others). Although she does not blame the West entirely for the (perceived) inability of Chinese academics to speak to the world, she finds that Western domination of international academia certainly contributes to the difficulties encountered by Chinese scholars trying to find their academic voices. At the same time, she also finds it problematic that postmodernism and postcolonialism permeate Western scholarship since, in her view, postmodernism is a theory from and for the first world—namely, those countries who were colonizers until the mid-twentieth century—and postcolonialism is a theory from and for those who used to be colonized by the first world. She does not find either particularly useful at dealing with issues facing the “third world” or at explaining texts from a third-world country such as China. Since the third world tends to produce allegorical texts, as suggested by Fredric Jameson, Li Xiaojiang proposes post-utopian criticism as an analytical tool. She believes post-utopianism can enable Chinese academics to find and establish their voices in international academia, something she is attempting with this book.

I hope the above is a fair summary of what Li Xiaojiang has set out to achieve with this book. When I accepted the invitation to review Wolf Totem and the Post-Mao Utopian, I was curious about Li Xiaojiang’s perspective on gender representation in Wolf Totem. I was also curious about Edward Gunn’s commitment to translating such an enormous work and was expecting to find his informed commentary on the viewpoints Li Xiaojiang articulates. But although Li Xiaojiang discusses many aspects of Wolf Totem’s narrative, she neglects gender, and the translation includes no commentary or explanation from Gunn, such as the reasons for his commitment to the project, his lexical choices as translator, etc.

This book is a very difficult one to review. The most difficult issue the book raises for this viewer is “identity,” because Li Xiaojiang foregrounds identity politics. She positions herself as an academic from China, which she considers a developing country in the third world. Hence her question:

Being a Chinese scholar, I need to examine myself: to what degree can you ‘legitimately’ and ‘reasonably’ employ ‘post-’discourse? (534)

[T]hank god that there has been the good fortune to have the position of third world in which to excoriate the discursive world of the hegemony of the West. Its name is ‘postcolonial criticism.’ On this discursive platform any Chinese scholar may speak without permission from above, consciously complete the transformation of identity, and keep up with postcolonial theory. (540)

For this reader, being Chinese should not hinder one from adopting any critical framework, although one’s political and cultural background surely influence one’s judgements and choice of research questions. Furthermore, China’s status as a “third-world” country is problematic, given China’s 2001 entry into the WTO, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and China’s rise to second largest economy in the world, etc. In any case, why should an academic assess a literary work in or against the interests of a nation? Additionally, Li Xiaojiang’s discussion is deeply rooted in a binary perception of China and the West. In my view, the “West” and “China” are categories too big to be treated in any meaningful or productive way. As a result of these differences in our perspectives, I feel a distance between the questions Li raises and what I believe to be more productive and worthwhile approaches to researching the issues she addresses. For instances, it is important for her to know the answers to the following questions:

What are the [presumably Chinese] things that postmodern discourse cannot explain?

How large is the proportion of these elements that it cannot explain in the present world?

Are they questions of structures in the whole or in part? (551)

These questions are too general and too big for this reader. No one has ever argued that postmodernism can or even attempts to explain all aspects of social issues and natural phenomena. Neither is anyone obliged to use postmodernism if they find it inapplicable.

Despite the differences between our positions, I am, however, sympathetic to what Li asserts as the dilemma scholars in China face, burdened as they are by competing demands. On the one hand, China’s domestic discourse compels them to write for an internal audience with well-established analytical and rhetorical paradigms of its own. On the other hand, the dominant discourse of international academia requires them to be familiar with conventions and conversations they are not educated or trained in. The latter, however, is not an insurmountable challenge, as Li herself avers: “[A] scholar of the East schooled in Western studies actually has a tremendous advantage over Western discourse in trans-cultural studies. . . . Once you grasp it and become familiar with employing it, it becomes an instrument in your hands? (536). However, “it is in facing our own land that there is difficulty: you are speaking postmodern theory while situated in a state of proceeding into ‘modernisation’, even stopped at a ‘pre-modern’ state” (540).

There is certainly an element of truth in Li’s observation that

Chinese scholars who had never tasted colonization themselves realize their own circumstances: no matter whether it is the postmodern or postcolonial, others have already reserved it for themselves, and there is always an awareness of feeling hollow when we borrow the words. The discursive nature of the so-called third world has always been parasitic on the ideological flesh of the ‘first-world,’ and never truly independent of it. (547)

More important for her, postmodernism and postcolonialism are inadequate for China, because socialism was in practice and Marxist ideology continues to be in use. It is in consideration of all these factors that Li Xiaojiang presents her new analytical paradigm, post-utopian criticism, as a way for third-world textual producers—namely, scholars in China—to deeply engage in unfolding the allegorical meanings of the texts produced there and to directly address issues facing Chinese society. Li, however, does not provide a clear definition of post-utopian criticism. She says:

Post-utopian criticism is not the same as anti-utopianism.

The former is an analytical category; the latter a political attitude.

As a tool of analysis, post-utopia is internalized, unlike the ‘separation’ to which ‘anti’ leads, body and mind are within it, and the criticism is also self-criticism. (552)

For Li Xiaojiang, the post-utopian analytical approach can unite those who, regardless of their ethnicity, nation, political party, social class, gender, or age, “persistently pursue a dream, those who have seen through the evils of the modern, of civilisation, and even of human nature, yet refuse to abandon seeking good” (555). Born out of utopian practice, post-utopian criticism, in her view, will enable scholars to re-conceive right and wrong, and to once again find meaning in and for human history.

In summary, this book is a grand narrative itself, both in terms of its size and its content. It touches many scholarly and non-scholarly issues, which this reviewer has struggled to represent adequately. I admire Li Xiaojiang’s courage to undertake such an immense task and to take scholars in the West to task, especially with regards to Western theoretical claims—explicit or implicit—to universality. Although I do not see eye to eye with Li on many of the issues discussed in the book, I recommend Wolf Totem and the Post-Mao Utopian to colleagues. Li Xiaojiang’s perspective on contemporary Western scholarship is well worth knowing and deserves further discussion.

Wang Yiyan
Victoria University of Wellington

[1] This subtitle, though accurate, is not part of the Chinese title.