1900 & 2020 — An Old Anxiety in a New Era

Viral Alarm


It has become something of a commonplace for those in- and outside of the People’s Republic of China to dwell on the Xi Jinping ‘new age’ (2012-) as a momentous inflection point in the history of post-Mao China. The macro and micro-aggressiveness of the Chinese party-state’s presence on the world scene are often tied to a new form of assertiveness dubbed ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ 戰狼外交.

As we argue here, China’s wolf warriors — rhetorical blowhards who share much in common with fellow modern-day ‘keyboard warriors’ everywhere — have been a feature of that nation’s life throughout its modern history. In recent times, they have taken to a form of cosplay inspired by the box-office darlings ‘Wolf Warrior’ (2015) and ‘Wolf Warrior 2’ (2017) and, although some analysts see books like the best-selling When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques, published in 2009, as egging on China’s bloated sense of self, in reality extremist patriotism has enjoyed both political and commercial successes since the early 1990s (see, for example, my 1995 study ‘To Screw Foreigners is Patriotic: China’s Avant-Garde Nationalists’, more on this below). Moreover, the militant rhetoric of Chinese and the bellicosity it readily enables, has a history dating back to the Taiping War of the mid-nineteenth century (for details, see ‘New China Newspeak’).

The following essay focuses on the disturbing echo that can be readily detected between the xenophobic extremism of late-dynastic Qing politics and recent developments occasioned by the 2019-2020 coronavirus epidemic. In particular, Zi Zhongyun, the author whose work we feature here, notes the resonances, if not the repetition, of the unsettling themes and tropes of the two ‘gengzi years’ of 1900 and 2020. (A ‘gengzi year’ 庚子年 occurs every thirty-seven years in the traditional sixty-year lunar calendrical cycle. In modern times, and in the popular imagination, ‘gengzi years’ are associated with disaster and hardship: the gengzi year of 1840 coincided with the First Opium War with Britain; 1900 was the year of the Boxer Rebellion, discussed below; and 1960 marked a particularly harrowing period during the Great Famine that followed the Great Leap Forward.)

Long before the 2020 gengzi year or, for that matter, before irregular explosions of anti-foreign fury became a commonplace in contemporary China, back in 1986 the novelist Liu Xinwu 劉心武 published a semi-fictional account of Beijing’s first ‘soccer hooligans’, or 球氓 — ‘Zooming In on May 19’ (5.19 長鏡頭) — which took as its theme the anti-Hong Kong soccer riot in the city on the night of 19 May 1985. In his reportage, Liu discussed rising youth frustration and anger, as well as the Boxer-like vandalism the accompanied it, as being part of a wider post-Mao malaise. He also forecast a dark future for youth protest in China (see ‘Related Material’ below for details of the English version of Liu’s account).

Roiling patriotic sentiment of a kind that frequently transgressed against the strictures of Communist Party protocol has been a feature of life in the People’s Republic since 1989. In shoring up and re-invigorating its own authority, the Party has painstakingly ‘curated’ nationalist zealotry since implementing a well-funded policy of patriotic education from late 1994. An early analysis of this approach, its historical roots and future potential was the subject of ‘To Screw Foreigners is Patriotic’ (see below for details), an academic work that I published in mid 1995. As I noted at the time, a noteworthy  feature of populist anti-Western patriotic yearnings was the hope that in the future China would be led by a strongman in the mold of Mao Zedong (this was a theme of my book Shades of Mao: the posthumous cult of the Great Leader).

Soon thereafter, some of the market-oriented young, avant-garde propagandists interviewed for that work were involved in the ‘China Can Say No’ phenomenon. Be it in the commercial realm, among Party thinkers, the educational sphere and, increasingly, in China’s online life, there would be no going back.


Zi Zhongyun (資中筠, 1930-) is a noted expert in the People’s Republic on American diplomatic history and the study of the United States more broadly. She is also a much-published translator and former head of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. Mme Zi studied English and French at Tsinghua University from 1948 to 1951.

On 24 April 2020, Zi Zhongyun released an online meditation cum-cry-of-despair under the pseudonym ‘A Learned Woman of China’ 中華女先生. In what is both an historical overview and a personal reflection she reviews the kind of national and existential anxiety that thinking people in China have shared, to a greater or lesser extent, since the late-nineteenth century. The two revolutionary Chinas born of the collapse of dynastic rule — the Republic of China and the People’s Republic that succeeded it on the mainland in 1949 — were forged in a fiery crucible of righteous nationalism and xenophobic outrage. War, invasion, internecine strife, radical self-hate and bloody mindedness throughout the twentieth century formed the bedrock of patriotic neurosis in China today.

Previously, we have discussed some of these issues in our work on Tsinghua professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, as well as in ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’, the China Heritage series focussed on the impulse to resist Beijing unleashed in the former British colony by the Communist Party’s misrule. It is also an abiding theme of Chinese concerns about the presumed flaws of what is called ‘the national character’. For more on this topic, see, for example the observations of the Hong Kong-based writers Lee Yee 李怡 and To Kit 陶傑 in ‘China, The Man-Child of Asia’ (China Heritage, 26 September 2019).

A translation of Zi Zhongyun’s essay is offered here as a chapter in our series ‘Viral Alarm’ (for more essays in this collection, scroll to the end of this chapter). Its themes also overlap with ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University — Voices of Protest & Resistance (March 2019-)’, a China Heritage series that features Zi Zhongyun’s outspoken defense of her beleaguered friend Xu Zhangrun (see ‘My Tsinghua Lament’China Heritage, 3 April 2019). We are also including ‘An Old Anxiety in a New Era’ in Lessons in New Sinology and as a part of our ongoing Translatio imperii sinici series.

Our thanks, as ever, to Reader #1 for timely corrections to the draft of this extended study of the bane in wolf’s milk.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
28 April 2020


Related Material:

Zhao Lijian 趙立堅, model wolf-warrior twitteratus


Still Suckled on Wolf’s Milk


Much is made of ‘Wolf Warrior’ and ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’. This has been long in the making, and some would argue such as the author of the present essay, in the late-Qing era (although ethnic-inflected or race politics has been a feature of Chinese history from even before the dynastic era, which started with the founding of the Qin empire)

As Victor Mair has remarked in a short study of ‘wolf’s milk’ in Chinese culture:

The “wolf’s milk” trope essentially means a “tough upbringing” (e.g., growing up during the Cultural Revolution — hē lángnǎi zhǎngdà 喝狼奶长大).

It was famously used in this passage of the article by Sun Yat-Sen University professor Yuan Weishi 袁伟时 that got Freezing Point (Bingdian 冰点) magazine closed for a couple of months in January 2006 (when it reopened without editor Li Datong 李大同):

In the late 1970s. having gone through the three disasters of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, people realized in their sorrow that one of the sources of those disasters was that “we had grown up on wolf’s milk”. More than twenty years later, as I happened to glance through one of our secondary-school history textbooks, what startled me was that our youth are still drinking wolf’s milk!


Victor Mair, ‘Wolf’s milk’,
Language Log, 7 April 2018

Mair also quoted some of my own observations:

In January 2006, Hu Jintao, China’s President and General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party, reportedly ordered the closure of the online publication Freezing Point 冰點. Edited for some years by two well-known journalists from China Youth Daily 中國青年報, the e-paper had published many controversial articles on governance, the environment, politics and culture in China. However, in a recent issue it had reprinted a piece by the historian Yuan Weishi 袁偉時, a professor at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou 廣州中山大學.

This is no place to delve into the arcana of Yuan’s piece, suffice it to say that the well-known, and relatively outspoken, historian expressed his dismay on reading some of China’s modern history high school textbooks. In them he found dangerous distortions of the historical record. Highly selective and ideologically-driven descriptions of events leading up to the infamous razing of the Garden of Perfect Brightness 圓明園, the imperial Manchu demesne outside Beijing which was destroyed by Anglo-French forces in 1860, and the Boxer rebellion of 1900, were not only incorrect but, Yuan warned, serve only to inflame nationalistic passions among impressionable teenagers. Yuan also cautioned that the irrational spirit guiding history teaching in China today endangers the country’s mature and rational participation in the global community. He recalled that the xenophobic violence of the Red Guard generation was bred by just such a biased education.

Inculcated with a sense of patriotic ire through their school days, and convinced that the outside world was a malevolent enemy set on subverting China’s revolution, the Red Guards attacked all things foreign during the early months of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Countless people would lose their lives in the ensuing mêlée, although today very few people will admit to being involved with murder. The US-based academic Rae Yang [楊瑞, author of Spider Eaters] and an interviewee featured in our 2003 film ‘Morning Sun’] is one of a handful of former Red Guards who is candid about her past. She recalls that her teachers were astounded by the visceral fury of the young rebels. Why should they have been so surprised that we acted like wolves, she asks. After all, we had all been fed on a constant diet of wolves’ milk at school. In his article on teaching history in China today, Yuan Weishi observed with dismay that,

‘Our children are still being fed wolves’ milk!

— from GR Barmé, ‘Eating Chinese
a historical banquet’, April 2007
(with minor changes)


‘Everyone has left, but the new moon floats in the sky as on water.’ Painting by Feng Zikai


Preserving Life and Protecting the Heart

Just like in many other modern nation-states around the world, xenophobic nationalism underpinned the motivations, cohesion and rationale of China’s two twentieth-century republics. For entirely understandable reasons, foreign aggression, in particular that of the Japanese empire, inflamed patriotic ire. From the 1930s, the ‘virus of nationalism’ further infected society, as well as the body politic. Various writers and thinkers identified the ailment and warned of its long-term threat. One of them was Feng Zikai (豐子愷, 1897-1975):

Following the Japanese invasion in 1937, the essayist, translator and artist Feng Zikai acknowledged that the existential threat to China felt as though ‘we are in the throes of a disease, and only strong medication can help us fight this illness and survive.’ But, he cautioned, ‘As the virus is eliminated and we regain our health it is essential that we take proper nourishment. And what kind of nourishment is crucial to our long-term well-being? Peace, happiness, and universal love, and the basic ingredient for “preserving life” itself: art.’

from ‘Silent China & Its Enemies’
China Heritage, 13 July 2018

Hide and Bide No More

Following Beijing’s successful Olympic Year in 2008, Deng Xiaoping’s famous ‘hide and bide’ strategy transmogrified into something more robust, even if many of the key elements of China’s muscular approach to the world were evident from the early 1950s.

As China recovered from the international and economic setback  created by the disaster of 4 June 1989, Deng had suggested an approach summed up in a gnomic twenty-four characters:


Observe unfolding events with equanimity; remain secure in our stance; remain unperturbed in the face of challenges; hide our capacities and bide our time; avoid claiming leadership while advancing our cause.

Some diplomats and thinkers, be they in the People’s Republic or elsewhere, remember the days during which Deng’s dictum held sway, roughly from the early 1990s up until the mid Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao era, with a measure of nostalgia. Leaders believing that China had been biding long enough and that the Global Financial Crisis along with the discombobulation of the US and Europe in 2007-2010 emboldened them to hide no more. Rather it seemed time to press the advantage (an early indication of this was what one international political leader called the ‘ratfucking’ behavior of Chinese delegates at the December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit). In years since, a diet of ‘wolf’s milk’ and ‘wolf warrior’ adulation has shown what kinds of people are taking the lead.

As a result, some people who devoted professional careers to serving their respective nations in the hope of building a better future have been witnessing what must seem like a diplomatic ‘death by a thousand cuts’. As is the case in China, so too for diplomats, public servants, thinkers and academics worldwide who had worked not only to maintain and advance a more equitable, and not merely transactional, relationship with the People’s Republic are seeing their efforts and work betrayed by a stark reality. Zi Zhongyun’s remarks below reflect the concerns of one of China’s most thoughtful, and outspoken, international figures.

Before proceeding to Zi Zhongyun’s April 2020 essay on two of China’s baleful ‘gengzi years’, we first recall an observation she made in early 2015:

The Empress Dowager Still Reigns on High,
The Boxers Continue Wreaking Havoc Below



Chinese leaders and the masses enjoy a symbiotic relationship. It is of crucial importance for the people to be truly aware of what is going on. Not all that long ago [during anti-Japanese demonstrations around the 18 September 2012 commemoration of Japan’s past aggressions and present stance in relation to the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands dispute], there were a number of particularly ugly episodes in which protesters went on a destructive rampage in the name of ‘patriotic action’. These events left me feeling profoundly dejected.

Over the last century we have made no real progress: Empress Dowager Cixi is still at the helm at the Court in Beijing; below her the roiling masses of Boxer patriotic-thugs thrive as ever. I’m not particularly happy about comparing our present leaders to Cixi, but the protests [in 2012] were encouraged, condoned and perhaps even organised by them. They were hoping thereby to divert attention from the problems they are facing at home by encouraging everyone to focus on a foreign enemy instead. But this is their stock in trade. This time around, however, things really got out of hand and eventually the authorities had to step in and forcibly repress the vandals. Then they had to reach an accommodation with the foreigners.

In my view we need to change the way we think about such matters and consider them from an entirely different angle. Should we act by and for ourselves, the people, or will we continue to be cannon-fodder for the incumbent dynasty?


from Zi Zhongyun 資中筠, ‘上面還是慈禧,下面還是義和團

《阿波羅新聞網》, 2015年1月11日


Source: from a version of Zi Zhongyun’s text read out on YouTube


An Old Anxiety in a New Era
1900 & 2020

Zi Zhongyun

Translated and annotated by Geremie R. Barmé

Translator’s Note:

Explications and notes are marked by italic text within square brackets.

It is an unsettling truism that history repeats itself. Of course, each repetition plays out in its own unique way. Today, in the digital age, that is more true than ever.


The devastating events of that notorious Gengzi Year [of 1900-1901] are so well known that it is unnecessary for me to rehearse them here. Yet, still, when it comes to the question [that bedevilled participants in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion] of just what constitutes true ‘patriotism’ as opposed to ‘national betrayal’, even after the passage of 120 years no meaningful consensus has been reached.


That’s why I’d say that no meaningful lessons are ever learned from history; and that’s why the same old script gets performed time and again. Karl Marx famously remarked that history does indeed repeat itself — ‘first as tragedy, then as farce.’ The sobering reality is that even the farce ends up as yet another tragedy. [As the Tang-dynasty poet Du Fu wrote:] ‘One grieves as deeply even be it a different age and another hurt’. Even when there is a cyclical return things reappear but under another guise and in a different way. Despite that, they are essentially the same: in recent years successive waves of anti-Western mania have welled up, crested and broken in China. You’ll recall the attacks on certain makes of car from one particular nation [Japan, in 2012], or the various boycotts that have targeted one product or another. On and on the list goes. Then there is all of the rhetorical violence that suffuses the Internet.

Who could have guessed that things would get exponentially worse during the coronavirus epidemic? Numerous absurd rumours have been doing the rounds, although they all feed into one overriding sentiment to ‘bolster China and disparage the West’. [Note: 扶「華」滅洋, the author’s reworking of the famous Boxer-era slogan ‘prop up the Qing, obliterate the foreigners’ 扶清滅洋.] What this shares in common with that last time [in 1900] is that, yet again, Chinese anti-Westernism is retracing a direct path to ideas that are in their essence anti-human, anti-science and a wholesale rejection of our shared humanity. This is so much the case that, even as the deep hurt caused by the virus has yet to be fully addressed, there are those in China who have been celebrating the agonies of others. [Note: this is a reference to the slogan that appeared in Shenyang in March 2020, illustrated below.]

‘Enthusiastically Celebrate the Coronavirus in America; Wishing the Virus a Long and Successful Journey in Japan’. A scene at ‘Mother Yang’s Congee’ 楊媽媽粥店, an eatery in Shenyang, the provincial capital of Liaoning, on 23 March 2020

When a foreign leader [the British prime minister Boris Johnson] caught the virus in China hundreds of thousands of online users expressed delight. What kind of vile and deprived bloodlust is this? It simply reflects a complete lack of basic humanity. Yet, paradoxically, as their desire to ‘obliterate whitey’ comes from a place of moral superiority.

Over a century ago [as Han nationalism identified a twofold enemy: the invader-occupying Manchu-Qing dynasty and the Western trading powers, along with the Japanese Empire], this attitude found expression in terms of a crude racial divide — ‘they are not of my kind’. Later [under Mao] this took the form of class antagonism and the two-line struggle [between the revolutionary line of the Communist Party on the one hand and the reactionary bourgeoisie on the other]. Now homage is paid to the fluttering banner of nationalism. As long as you wrap yourself in the flag anything or anyone who is cast as belonging to that amorphous and heinous category of ‘inimical foreign powers’ can be treated in the most inhuman fashion. Moreover, anyone who does or says anything construed as offering a defense of the ‘enemy’ is readily denounced as a ‘race traitor’.


History might not be set on replay in exactly the same way, but there certainly are striking similarities [between 1900 and 2020]:

Members of the ignorant masses cast themselves in a useful role as a violent mob; those among them who have heretofore been lurking on the periphery now, suddenly graced with the attention of the court, find that they are ‘called to the capital’ to serve. Filled with a sense of self-importance they exert themselves in the expectation of approbation and reward. Opportunists of all kinds realise that there might also be an opening for themselves  and they pile on in frenzied anticipation. Before you know it, what started out as a small, rabble rousing claque has become a formidable monstrosity. Many are now convinced that it is possible that the Court will shower them with largesse in recognition of their service and they get completely carried away and behave in a most wanton fashion. The capital itself is thrown into disarray by all of the unseemly commotion thus generated. The crowds of louts and vagabonds egg each other on as though there is no tomorrow. They indulge in an orgy of ‘murder, mayhem and theft’ sweeping away all social and legal norms in the process (we are witness to ample evidence of all of this in their online behaviour).


Another thing that [the xenophobic mood in 2020 and that of 1900] share in common is that the actual number of foreigners who end up getting hurt in the mêlée is relatively small; the majority of the victims of the mob violence are invariably one’s own innocent compatriots. In actual fact, those online thugs have their sights trained on their fellow Chinese and nothing they say has any effect on foreigners apart, that is, from generating considerable wariness and enmity towards China in every quarter.

The One [Xi Jinping] is evidently of the view that these ‘wired louts’ are a useful adjunct to the ministrations of the state, or rather they they can do things that officialdom itself would never dare. Thus, within China the louts target and excoriate any and all who do not agree with them; internationally they put on a voluble show of force to which our power holders acquiesce.

You can’t help wondering whether, back in the day [that is, in 1900] was the Old Buddha [the ruling Empress Dowager Cixi] really befuddled enough to believe the nonsense spouted by the Boxers that they were impervious to the bullets and bayonets of the foreigners? I very much doubt it. But people often betray their own common sense when they think it will be to their advantage. She indulged the Boxers because after the 1898 coup against the Guangxu Emperor putting an end to his Hundred Days Reform Cixi was certain that the imperial powers were itching to get rid of her and restore Guangxu. Maintaining her grasp on power was paramount. As for the members of the Manchu nobility who advocated war against the foreigners, well, they saw it as a chance to advance their own interests. That’s why they didn’t give a second thought to forging documents as part of the ruse to convince the Dowager of their bellicose cause. They also greatly exaggerated the strength of what they called ‘Boxer Citizens’ (after the failure of the rebellion these same people would be decried as ‘Boxer Bandits’). They fooled themselves into believing that the Boxers were an expression of ‘popular opinion’ and at court they argued that it was crucial to ‘take advantage of the will of the people’. In their befuddlement Dowager and nobility alike gambled with the fate of the nation.

In the wake of the Boxer Rebellion

The incident that finally set it all off was the murder of that German diplomat [Clemens von Ketteler, who was shot dead at point blank range by a member of the Qing imperial guard on 20 June 1900] on official orders. That couldn’t be blamed on the Boxers and, at that explosive juncture, anyone who disagreed [with the decision to take up arms and use the Boxers to expel foreigners and missionaries from China] was regarded as being treacherously in league with the aliens and opposed to the court (if truth be told, they were actually regarded as being the ‘Emperor’s Faction’ that was pitted against the ‘Dowager’s Clique’). — Irony upon irony was the fact that in the Qing imperial court which was entirely dominated by Manchu officials, anyone who expressed dissent was regarded as a ‘Traitor to the Han’ [that is, the Han-Chinese or nikan, the subject people dominated by the Manchus who had established the Qing after having invaded and occupied Ming-dynasty territory in 1644.]

The upshot of all of this was abject failure and self-inflicted disaster. When the full extent of the rout [of the Qing military and Boxer forces by an invading foreign coalition army that occupied Beijing and pacified the surrounding area] unfolded, all of the haughty bluster soon turned to craven obsequiousness. The court was reluctantly forced to seek a negotiated peace. So, in the end, regardless of how the power holders went about doing things [by first supporting the Boxers and then betraying them to sue for peace] the only ones who really suffered were the common people. As for the surging tide of bellicose thugs who had enthusiastically joined in the uprising, apart from a few members of the Manchu-Qing nobility, the rest simply ended up spent and discarded.


Another difference between the situation today and that of the past is that most of the ignorant masses who threw their lot in with the Boxers were as illiterate as they were ignorant. Some of those fellows demonstrated sincerity and a kind of masculine braggadocio believing that they should throw themselves body and soul into the meat grinder of battle for the sake of a heaven-ordained cause. Nowadays, China boasts an educated population and our online thugs are not only literate they are often fluent writers: you can just imagine them hiding away in their gloomy garrets, anonymously launching poisonous salvos with no sense of shame or responsibility. They don’t care how much havoc they wreak, they are in it for the game and for gain. They are lowlifes and profiteers. The minute their arrant behaviour calls down misfortune on our land they head for the hills; don’t expect any of them to own up to what they have done or to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Remember, it is more than likely that their wives, children or even they themselves are living in the very ‘Enemy Nation’ against which they are aiming all of that online vitriol.

This deplorable situation is only getting worse and, given the kind of unwarranted self-congratulation encouraged by the recent Amazing-China-boosterism [inspired by a swaggering and sensationally popular 2018 propaganda-documentary, ‘Amazing China, My Country 厲害了, 我的國], it is hardly surprising that we are now subjected to fabricated stories about how neighbouring countries are supposedly pleading with Beijing to be allowed to merge with the ‘Chinese Motherlands’. [Note: in mid April 2020, articles appeared on the Chinese Internet claiming that Kazakhstan was applying to become part of China. In response, the Kazakh foreign ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador in Almaty to issue a formal protest.] On the global stage stories like this feed an existing anxiety that China is secretly harbouring plans to invade and absorb other nations. It results in avoidable diplomatic friction. The authorities may have staunched the damage for the moment, but the long-term influence of this kind of ‘patriotism’, one that directly undermines the national interest, is hard to counter. In fact, it is a canker that will continue to metastasise. In the process, this infection will continue poisoning people’s minds here in China and serve only to encourage future transgressions. In all of this one can detect, to a greater or lesser extent, the ugly traces of official or quasi-official involvement. Mixed messages are still constantly being sent out. [Note: For example, in mid April 2020, the French foreign office summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest against ‘wolf warrior diplomat’s’ claims that overwhelmed by the coronavirus epidemic France was leaving its older citizens to die.] The situation has decayed so much that to turn things around now and restore the level of international trust that China had previously enjoyed is all but impossible. It would be a challenge for even the most talented, cultivated and practiced diplomats.


The most significant difference between the unfolding crisis at present and that of the past is that, this time around, foreign invaders did not unleash the disaster that is sweeping over us. [Note: for more on this, see Xu Zhangrun, ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’, China Heritage, 24 February 2020.] Quite the opposite: now we are an exporter nation, and our ‘export’ has reached far many more than the original Eight-Nation Alliance [also known as the ‘Gaslee Expedition’, an expeditionary force 55,000 men strong dispatched to relieve the foreign embassies beleaguered by the Boxers in Beijing].

In the past, the self-isolating self-quarantined Qing Empire was forced to open up by the aggressions of the Western trading powers. We, however, have been celebrating China’s Open Door for over four decades now and we have enjoyed boundless benefits from it. Yet, today, we may well be forced to retreat back into ourselves. In the past, we wanted to expel the Foreign Devils; nowadays they are packing up and leaving in droves of their own accord; to persuade them to stay will be a downright challenge. [In the imperial edict in which she accepted the fact that China would pay damages for the losses incurred by the foreign powers as a result of the Boxer Rebellion, the Empress Dowager declared] ‘Given the bounty of this our China, we will be more than equal to the task of satisfying the needs of other nations’. Despite the revived imperial-era mirage that ‘All Nations [are anxious to] Pay Court to Us’, as well as all of the paeans to China that have been bought by massive bribes paid to other countries, when it comes down to it, there’s simply no more cash for such gestures. Overnight, it is as though we are finding ourselves facing threats from every quarter. There’s a great line, although sadly it’s not of my invention, that goes: ‘At the moment the trend isn’t de-globalisation as much as global de-Sinicisation.’ This is the true crisis confronting our 1.4 billion compatriots.


Whenever I think of the late-Qing period I heave a heavy sigh of weary recognition and resignation. It was a time when the empire was shaken to its very foundations by tumultuous storms. Yet, even then, there were people like the Five Great Ministers at court, men like Hsü Ching-ch’eng and Yüan Ch’ang, who were clear-eyed about the approaching maelstrom. They remonstrated with the throne [protesting against the breaches of international law that led to the disasters of the Boxer Uprising], offering up their advice on pain of death — indeed, all five were executed principally for the unforgivable crime of having engaged in ‘inappropriate discussion of the deliberations of the court’ 妄議朝政. [Note: Rules governing ‘Inappropriate Discussions of the Major Policies of the Centre (of the party-state)’ 妄議中央大政方針 came into force from late 2015 when Communist Party Central and its Disciplinary Commission issued warnings against, and stipulated the punishment of, idle speculation regarding Party policy, leaders and factional infighting.]

Just take a look at the kinds of people serving at ‘Court’ today: can you imagine any of them daring to ‘advance advice in a robust faction’ or engage in ‘inappropriate discussion’? And what about those who are not serving the power holders, the individuals out in the wider community? Well, of course, there has been the growth of self-media and, technically, most people have the wherewithal to make themselves heard one way or the other, but with each workaround that people may devise the authorities always concoct a countermeasure in response. The voices of those who are truly concerned about the fate of this nation — the men and women of conscience and rationality who strain to be heard — have repeatedly been censored, silenced and shut down. As for the ignorant and the shameless online thuggees — those who give vent to that vile plethora of verbal violence and vilification, those who abuse the basic human rights of others, overstep the mark legally and even go so far as to denigrate the very laws of the state to which they pretend loyalty — well, they get a free pass. Are you honestly going to tell me that this is what they really mean by ‘appropriately guided opinion-making’?


As for the external factors that influence that earlier history: at the time of the Boxer Rebellion in the summer of 1900, the imperial powers of Europe were embroiled in their own dramas and had no particular motive to launch new acts of aggression in China. For its part, Imperial Japan was not yet fully prepared [to pursue its own military ambitions]. Instead it was the Russians who took immediate advantage of the situation and they sent a force to occupy territory in our north west. Thereafter, they pressed on Beijing a series of outrageous demands hoping to negotiate a treaty outside the framework of the mutually agreed contents of the Boxer Protocol [signed on 7 September 1901 that formalised the end of the Boxer Rebellion]. The Qing court refused the Russian demands leaving unresolved a series of long-term territorial problems [the origins of which far pre-date 1900]. As a result of the Russo-Japanese War four years later [in 1904-1905] the Japanese gained a sphere of influence in north-east China [and Korea], but that is a story for another time.

In their approach to bringing an end to the Boxer Rebellion the Americans pursued their policy of [the protection of] ‘equal privileges’ [for all countries trading with China] and by getting involved they reaped a reward. America was just moving away from a long-standing policy of isolationism and non-interventionism as they came to play a completely new role on the global scene. A thriving and buoyant America was in the ascendant; it was an America that was home to many educators and political figures both with grand visions and big hearts. Despite being confronted by the virulent xenophobia of the Chinese they made an unprecedented decision to return part of the reparations imposed on the Qing Court by the Boxer Protocol directing the money to be used to support education work in China as well as the training of Chinese students overseas [as part of what were known as Boxer Indemnity Scholarships, funded from 1908]. The aim was to help cultivate generations of talented young Chinese in their pursuit of a meaningful understanding of the outside world while in the process acquiring the kinds of practical knowledge that could directly contribute to the nation’s modernisation.

Boxer Indemnity Scholarship recipients, 1909

Inspired and pressured by the leadership of the United States, aided and abetted by the not-inconsiderable endeavours of our own diplomats, the British, French and Japanese got the message and in various ways repaid part of their share of the Boxer Indemnity, also to support education in China. There is no doubt that this had an impact on this country’s epoch-making political transformation [in the wake of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, following which a two-thousand-year-old dynastic system was replaced by a nascent Chinese Republic], and that it continued to have a positive influence. Of course, American policy also served well that nation’s long-term interests; but, more importantly, it was in the national interest of China itself. Indeed, it is impossible to overstate the significance of the multifarious contributions that ‘Gengzi Students’ [that is, those educated with funds from the ‘gengzi year’ Boxer Indemnity], as well as the generations of graduates of an institution originally constituted as Tsinghua College (later Tsinghua University) made to China’s modernisation.


Over half a century has now passed; that time is gone and the scene has changed. Some forty years ago China enjoyed a fresh start when it opened the door and established an equitable relationship with America at what was to be a new phase in the relationship, one that included those first groups of Chinese students who went to study in the USA. Other developed nations joined in one after another and, over the years, China has reaped inestimable benefits from melding itself with the global system. Indeed, that’s why it enjoys the prosperity evident everywhere in our country today. Of course, it goes without saying that all of the countries that have engaged with China have also enjoyed the benefits.


Now things have been moving in reverse. Given the way things have been going in China this country is set upon making enemies for itself in all directions, so much so that what is unfolding right now is unsettlingly similar to the situation back in the ‘gengzi year’ of 1900. This time around, however, the United States is no longer the country it once was. After a century during which it enjoyed virtual hegemony, it is now a nation riven by division and conflict; it is a tangle of chaos. America is facing a profound systemic crisis, one that begs thorough-going reform. Moreover, neither side can presently boast of having the kinds of far-sighted and open-minded politicians who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century, people who could formulate policies that not only benefitted themselves but also generated common weal, policies that over time contributed to nations learning to beat swords into plowshares.

Absent, too, are the leaders possessed of a magnanimity of spirit and a sense of global responsibility of the kind that we witnessed in those first precious years following the Second World War. Instead, the landscape is populated by politicians who put narrow party interests ahead of all else. Wherever we look we see leaders who have been back footed by a pandemic that is sweeping the world. Will the ‘self-correcting mechanisms’ embedded in the American system still prove to be effective? Yet, even if they are, it is impossible to know how long any substantial re-calibration there may take. Regardless, we should be in no doubt as to the fact that the present state of affairs and the actions being taken [by the Americans] are not advantageous to China.

People speculate that after the pandemic has passed a momentous transformation is coming that will transform the old world order. What is already evident is the fact that although the pandemic has touched every part of the globe, it has not, as many hoped for, increased awareness of the fragility of our existence and the need for us to act and live as one. Quite the opposite: there will be less cooperation across borders and ever-greater divisions.

Perhaps I am going too far when I say that we are going to be witnessing a wholesale ‘de-Sinicisation’. After all, there are many unknown unknowns at work. If the present momentum only partly holds sway, the mere unfolding of such a process will still prove to be disastrous.

Many far more learned people than me have offered their analyses and views about the overall situation in China. I lack their wit and insight. All I have is a vague sense of anxiety; all I know is that I have no grounds for optimism.



It is impossible from here to appraise meaningfully what is going on on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Here in China, however, I can say without a doubt that as long as Boxer-like activities are given the official stamp of approval as being ‘patriotic’, as a long as generation after generation of our fellow Chinese are educated and inculcated with a Boxer-like mentality, it will be impossible for China to take its place among the modern civilised nations of the world. Instead, our national tragedies will be far from over.


Drafted on 13 April 2020
Revised on 23 April 2020





Zi Zhongyun with Xu Zhangrun, Beijing, 14 June 2019



Milking Wolves’ Totem
—reading Linda Jaivin on Jiang Rong’s lupine love story

Geremie R. Barmé

The following essay and review were published by Danwei on 8 May 2008. Linda Jaivin’s review first appeared on 7 May 2008 in The Australian Literary Review. My thanks to Jeremy Goldkorn and Joel Martinsen for their help in locating this material.


Linda Jaivin’s review of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem 狼圖騰 is a timely intervention on a subject that has been a hot China topic in the international media. Again, it is one that touches on the issues of non-Han ethnic cultures, this time dealing with a novel the author of which finds succour in what writers like Rae Yang (see her memoir Spider Eaters) and Yuan Weishi (the Zhongshan University historian attacked in early 2006) have called “wolves’ milk” 狼奶. That is, the atavistic politics of passion and rhetorical violence fostered by ideologues, media carpet-baggers and the “engineers of human souls” in the guise of supporting righteous patriotic fervour.

Wolves in chic clothing have been around for most of the “open door and reform period”, an era that marks its thirtieth anniversary this year. Indeed, contemporary Chinese cultural producers have been making a meal of borderland themes and peoples to express cutting-edge artistic and ideological views since the 1980s. Some writers and artists have sought in various borderland ethnic Others an invigorating tonic replete with the essence of the masculine, the swarthy and the heroic, one they hope can infuse the peoples of the Central Plains 中原 with greater vigour and militancy (and make them a buck and a name in the process).

One thinks, for example, of some of the early writings of Zhang Chengzhi, the Beijing Hui writer who came to post-Cultural Revolution fame for his novels about the Mongolian and later Chinese Sufi worlds (since his fame as a novelist has long overshadowed his first career, most people don’t know that he was one of the founders of the Red Guard movement), or indeed of the director Tian Zhuangzhuang who made such films as ‘On the Hunting Ground’ 獵場札撒 and ‘Horse Thief’ 盜馬賊. Then there is the famous “misty poet” 朦朧詩人 Yang Lian whose ‘Nuoerlang’ cycle of poems set in Tibetan China, and he is in good company with Ma Jian, author of the vile Stick Out Your Tongue 亮出你的舌苔或空空蕩蕩, another example of priapic narcissism. (Editor’s note: you can download a Chinese language article by Barmé from October 1986 about ‘borderland fever’ 邊塞熱 originally written for The Nineties Monthly in Hong Kong.)

Commentators have debated the value and significance of Jiang Rong’s best-selling Wolf Totem for some time, especially since its prize-winning debut (and canny marketing) in English. For me the Chinese version of the novel was so odious that I failed to finish it; I fear that, having read Linda’s scarifying review (reprinted below), I won’t get much further with Howard Goldblatt’s rendition. But in reconsidering this grim gem of Chinese literary production, I am reminded of another writer in this vein, one who has long been forgotten by mavens of new Cathay: Yuan Hongbing 袁紅冰.

Yuan is worthy of recall at this moment for, in his best-selling 1990 “Sino-fascist” (my description) screed Wind in the Wilderness 荒原風, he called for “rebirth of the China spirit” 中華精神. He declared that the upcoming Asian century would require a new kind of Chinese “totalitarian style”, one which would “fuse the weak, ignorant and selfish individuals of the race into a powerful whole”. In this looming new era, he declared, the Han race would need strong, idealistic, dignified and free men to achieve such an end. “Scientific rationalism has said all it can within the context of Western civilization”, he said. It was now necessary to “cast aside the attitude of national defeatism, [for] if we fail to do so, the China Spirit will not be smelted into an iron will, and it will be as lifeless as the fallen leaves of history”.

In the guise of Han-China bashing works like Wolf Totem excoriate the soft, the compassionate, the humane and the feminine—perceived weaknesses of China. They exploit the Other to worship an unreflective, ultra-masculine and über-virile ideal.

Yuan Hongbing’s words have come to mind as I have read the lucubrations of Wang Xiaodong (who has crowned the “4.19” movement of this year as China’s new May Fourth) and Gan Yang (who has celebrated the global Chinese protests as emblematic of a “new internationalism”). Fire in the blood has been a theme of many works of popular culture in China for some time (indeed, it is hardly unique to contemporary China, though censorship and guided public opinion make for a heady mix). But what happens when people go on the “wolves’ milk” drip again? One thing’s for sure, the cubs you get are going to be more than mere ankle-biters.



Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, translated by Howard Goldblatt

Reviewed by Linda Jaivin

(Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, 7 May 2008)


Boy meets wolf. Boy loses wolf. Boy writes Wolf Totem, wins inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize. A multi-million copy bestseller in China since its release four years ago, Wolf Totem is as much a phenomenon as it is a novel. Its fans liken it to Moby Dick. It has spawned a children’s version, manga, a big budget movie (to be released this year) and several counterfeit sequels. China’s businessmen trawl it for pearls of lupine wisdom. Environmentalists wave it like a manifesto. Now Wolf Totem is out in translation, ready to sink its fangs into a broader Western readership.

Jiang Rong (real name: Lu Jiamin) based Wolf Totem on his experiences as a Chinese student living among nomads on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in the Cultural Revolution. In 1966, Mao fired up China’s urban youth to fight his factional enemies, literally as well as ideologically. Several years later, having accomplished his goals and tiring of the havoc, Mao dispatched the students to the countryside and border regions to cool off, for the rest of their lives if necessary. It was an experience which branded, scarred and in a way, culturally privileged a generation. Over the four decades since, they have reflected on those extraordinary times in countless, increasingly nuanced and even humorous novels, stories, memoirs, poems, films, plays and artworks; Wolf Totem comes from this tradition.

In Wolf Totem, protagonist Chen Zhen becomes fascinated with wolves, the totem animal of the Mongolians, whose independent, nomadic lifestyle also comes as a revelation. His oft-stated respect for his hosts does not prevent Chen from raising a wolf cub in conscious violation of Mongol customs and beliefs. The decision brings him into direct conflict with his Mongolian mentor, Bilgee.

Wise old Bilgee comes across as the archetypal ‘noble savage’ of the sort who used to populate Western fiction before writers became embarrassed by the concept, Marlo Morgan excepted. Bilgee teaches Chen about wolves and shows him how even vicious predators are an essential part of the natural environment. The fact that Chen calls Bilgee ‘papa’ begs the question: what has happened to Chen’s own parents and does he ever think of home — and if not, why not? There are no back stories on offer, none hinted at.

Unlike the characters in many other contemporary novels of the Cultural Revolution (think of Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, for example), Chen and his friends rarely discuss anything so mundane as sexual desire or love, or what and whom they left behind in the city or even their feelings about the cataclysmic events which have shaped their young lives. Their conversation seesaws between harsh intellectual critiques of China’s ‘peasant mentality’, moral lassitude and moribund civilisation on the one hand and on the other, panegyrics on the local way of life. ‘These Mongols,’ says Chen, ‘all I can do is stand back and admire them.’

That is a typical example of the novel’s dialogue, by the way. Jiang’s prose style is in general so bloated with banality, repetition and cliché, that comparisons to Moby Dick, to my mind, relate only to the ratio of blubber to ambergris. Howard Goldblatt’s translation abets, inflicting such vivid oddities as: ‘It’s not surprising that for thousands of years the Chinese colossus has been spectacularly pummeled by tiny nomadic peoples.’ One is at least spared the 60-page ‘call to action’ which concluded the Chinese original. At 500-plus pages, Wolf Totem is still thick enough to stun a marmot.

Marmots don’t come off too well in Wolf Totem. The hunted generally don’t. The wolves are the real heroes. If the human characters lack motivation, the wolves more than make up for it. Wolves plan for battle and harbour more ‘murderous thoughts of revenge’ than your average kungfu hero. They are capable of experiencing disgrace, humiliation, hatred, joy and religious awe. Wolves, we are told, trained Mongol horses and were behind Genghis Khan’s conquest of the world. They can take credit for the economic and political dynamism of the West. They are expert climatologists and devoted to the protection of the grassland (as opposed simply to being an integral part of its ecosystem). We know all this because Chen says it’s so.

Wolves are certainly intelligent animals with developed social behaviours and hunting strategies. Yet much of the ‘wolf nature’ theorising in Wolf Totem rings crackpot. The author pays homage to Jack London. But London managed to ascribe personalities to his wolf characters without unduly anthropomorphising them or investing them with mystical powers. London writes in White Fang, for example, that a wolf ‘did not think in man-fashion. He did not look at things with wide vision. He was single-purposed, and entertained but one thought or desire at a time.’ The cub in London’s novel learns that some behaviours result in pain, and others in pleasure, and acts accordingly; to obey the laws of the pack ‘was to escape hurt and make for happiness.’ Jiang read London, but it doesn’t appear he paid much attention.

Horses in Wolf Totem are also big thinkers, imbued with notions of responsibility and forward planning. Even mosquitoes – especially ones made ‘wolfish’ from lupine blood – are credited with rational intent. If this makes the animals sound like characters, they’re not — they’re simply talked about a lot. The inner lives of the garrulous humans, by contrast, are a weird blend of emotional disconnect and mawkishness.

Characterisation in Wolf Totem is as thin as a poorly felted yurt, the plot a ragged pelt stretched over a writhing cluster of historical, cultural and ecological hypotheses.

If Wolf Totem were a person, it would be one raised by wolves: somewhat autistic, lacking in empathy. The students don’t worry overmuch about someone falling off a horse in the middle of a stampede but choke up over the death of a swan. Several times we are told Chen could never love a son as much as he loved his wolf cub. There’s no reason to think otherwise.

Is sentimentality the last refuge of the crypto-fascist? Chen and friends praise the ‘murderous swath’ Genghis Khan’s warriors cut through Europe and Asia. Chen admonishes another Chinese to ‘be careful when you place the civil over the military’ and elsewhere states that a people who adopted the wolf’s gladiator-like temperament ‘would always be a victorious people.’ The author is not shy of using the word ‘race’ when praising (Mongol: good) or criticising (Chinese: bad).

The idealisation of the Mongols, held up in Wolf Totem as virile, free, independent and wolf-like has echoes of the fetishisation in the 1980s of Tibetans as both spiritual and sexually liberated by Han Chinese authors such as Ma Jian (Stick Out Your Tongue). The authors are ultimately most interested in making a point about their own culture.

The most effective passages in Wolf Totem describe how migrant workers, Chinese and sinicised Mongols alike, have ripped the guts out of the Olanbulag’s fragile grassland ecosystem as ferociously as a wolf taking down a gazelle. In its creepy and cack-handed way, Wolf Totem draws attention to the dangers posed by short-sighted materialism not just to the grasslands but, by extension, the earth itself. Perhaps that’s what moved the judges of the Man prize; it would astonish me to learn it was literary merit.

Viral Alarm, a China Heritage Series