Orientalism, that essentializing exoticization of the East is, we all know, a deplorable thing — but those of us who have been drawn to Asia know something else, too. We know that it was often the crudest Western representations of Asia and Asians — the Chinese restaurant with the cheesy decor and dishes as outlandish (compared to mom’s meatloaf) as chop suey — that sparked our interest.
This sort of kitsch, however, can intrigue not only naive Westerners, but also other Asians. The Japanese, for example, have long enjoyed tales of ancient China, a big brother seen by some Japanese as more Asian than the archipelago, and thus a likely site for wise sages, recondite philosophy, and, of course, the odd dragon.
Though we can only speculate as to Atsushi Nakajima’s reasons for choosing to set his stories in China, it’s hard to imagine that this sort of orientalism didn’t play into it. Those not absolutely averse to this view of Asia, or who are willing to excuse a bit of orientalism when it’s between Orientals (as Asians used to be called), will enjoy Nakajima’s take on the mystic East.
They will enjoy it not least because underneath the Asian kitsch there is a hard core of philosophy. Philosophy can seem distant from the day-to-day business of living of our lives, even — or especially — when that philosophy deals with what translators Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner identify as Nakajima’s primary concern: “the fundamental questioning of the meaning of existence.”
Perhaps this is why Nakajima’s settings, distant both temporally and geographically, seem appropriate. In addition, this distance makes it easier for us to accept events as outlandish as those that occur in the title story: a man turns into a tiger, a tiger that is also a poet.
When the story begins, however, the tiger is still a man, one fortunate enough to have qualified for a position as a government official.
He is, however, not satisfied. “He preferred to leave a name as a poet … to serving as a minor official who had continually to bend his knees to superiors.”
He resigns his position to pursue his art, fails, and returns to government service, but the humiliation he feels at seeing how his contemporaries have risen above him in the hierarchy is too much. “He at last went mad,” Nakajima’s laconic narrator reports, and the cool understatement is effective in reminding us that this story is more philosophical monologue than blow-by-blow of a descent into madness.
The protagonist’s transformation into a tiger, a change that occurs in tandem with the loss of his mind, is, of course, emblematic of a philosophical position the author wishes to convey.
The tiger explains to Nakajima’s narrator: “We are all the trainers of wild beasts … and the beasts in question are our own inner-selves.”
Fortunately the philosophical didacticism does not overburden the wonder that such fantasies must contain in order to succeed. The account of the man’s metamorphosis into tiger, for example, grips us in a way that Confucian moralizing may not.
In addition to the philosophy that undergirds Nakajima’s foray into China there is also war, specifically what some refer to as “the fifteen-year war,” the dark fifteen years that culminated in Japan’s 1945 surrender. It is hard to read, for example, “Li Ling,” an account of the Han dynasty’s struggles along its Northern borders against “the Xiongnu nomads, known to the West as the Huns,” and not think of the fighting in which Japan had embroiled itself on the same ground.
The story is, among other things, a consideration of loyalty. Li Ling, a Han general, comes to admire the Huns who have captured him and finds ways to excuse his moves toward collaboration.
Another Han general, Su Wu, though enduring an exile much harsher than Li Ling’s cushioned captivity, does not yield an inch. When Su Wu learns of the Han Emperor’s death he “wept and wailed for seven days until at last he coughed up blood.” Li Ling’s eyes remain dry.
The difference between the two men is clear, but even as we recognize a certain nobility in Su Wu, a certain baseness in Li Ling, the strength of the story lies in our inability to wholly condemn Li Ling — the Emperor, after all, was responsible for the massacre of his family — and in our inability to wholly admire Su Wu, whose fanatical emperor worship may have reminded those who read the story when it appeared in 1943 of certain excitable and dangerous contemporaries.
Enjoy, then, the undeniable appeal of the exotic in Nakajima’s stories, but for their full impact, read them carefully enough to discover the war, the philosophy and the humanity concealed behind the gilded brocade.