Author: Lin Gao (林高), Singapore Translated by Claire Hennessy, United States
Published on May 10, 2007 in Singapore's United Morning Express-Literature City (新加坡联合早报之文艺城), Huang Kaide(黄凯德)'s short story The Spots of The Leopard (豹变) has won accolades from many for its gripping plot that constantly engages its readers in an emotional roller-coaster. And yet, there is more to its veneer charm. The novel's meta-structure, subtle cues, pronounced characterization, and sophisticated syntax interweave a dense web of meanings:
Meanings that are cooped up beneath their cosmetic spellbound await readerly participation to be set free.
This is where the canny meets the uncanny and where the familiar plot pattern joins with the sophistication of the moral. The protagonist Leopard Wang (王豹) is troubled by a condition worse than infertility: [according to his culture,] not having a son to carry his family name or to take care of him in his old age is a big deal. He has so far exhausted every possible means, including being exhausted by trying to conceive. His wife then says,“since we are already infertile, what’s the point of having sex?” which further upsets the relationship. It just so happens that there is a black panther on the loose from a new zoo under construction. The panther is thus presented as a “cure” for Wang's infertility. According to some folk prescription, “all ferocious carnivores” are sexually active and highly fertile, and their penises are considered as natural aphrodisiac tonics. Without delay, Wang borrows a sow from his brother-in-law and names it "black sister-in-law" (乌嫂) in the hope of spreading its female productive mojo onto his wife. More preposterous to its ritual purpose is its intended mission as bait for the black panther. Ironically, things go south as the black panther runs away.
Before long, Leopard Wang discovers the panther hiding in a ditch near a racetrack. He then tries to light up the ditch to capture it, which also ends in futility—The panther would rather be burnt alive than become his cure. Watching it struggle, Wang finds out that it is after all a female. Struck hard by this, he begins to see all his previous efforts and investment in false beliefs as simply conjuring up a huge fictitious bubble. In a moment of epiphany, he feels something unspeakable burning inside, as if “the young leopard began to take on its prominent spots.” He then goes home drunk and forces himself on his wife who feels her husband’s "beastliness" again. The next year, Wang is seen visiting the new zoo with his wife—in his arms is his two-month-old son.
The author does not take heed to reveal the protagonist’s plan. Wang’s illogical behaviors are presented in front of other characters as irrationalities and puzzles accumulate one after another. When Wang asks his nephew Akun (阿昆) to help with the hunting, the nephew initially “has thought it as simply an opportunity for some reward from the government until he sees that life-and-death look in his uncle's face.” Suspicions from other characters are only built around Wang's increasingly desperate gestures including his intention of using a durian to strike the panther on its head should all weapons run out.
The character’s meticulous executions of conveiving a child effectively brings out the most profound criticism, as the intended absurdism leaks through the character’s farcical demeanors and speech patterns. The author skillfully delineates the character’s psychology through exposing Wang's unspeakable embarrassment for being impotent. Possessed by the thought of “I want a chubby little son so bad,” Wang is seen praying in front of every god of fertility, pestering every gynecologist, sucking empty every raw sea-turtle egg, licking up every drop of pythons’ blood, noshing on every male frog, and swallowing every bite of tree branch that is tonic for improving sexual prowess. It is through these details that Wang's motivation is subject to scrutiny.
Comedic delineations are trenchant life observations of the artist who then extracted them onto the paper and into archetypes.
The author's criticism of Wang's philistine sexual awareness often lands in farce and irony, behind which is the implied lesson on the concept of reproduction. The author ingeniously demonstrates that apart from the instinctual nature and cultural obligation involved in human reproduction, sex is also part and parcel of a harmonious marital relationship as well as the true exertion of being a human. Yet, once sex is given a purpose in fulfilling marital obligations, producing heirs, carrying the family name, complying with social expectations, and bringing honors to one's family, it instantly loses its fundamental value.
This is not to deny, however, that sex is inherently a social construct, since it cannot escape its moral, religious, cultural and even legal obligation. After all, no one can completely filter out the social noise that tenaciously knocks on one's door. It is true that the modern concept of reproduction has certainly gone beyond our esteemed realm of individuality. Particularly, each marriage has to prove itself "successful" with the so-called "product" from that relationship— the child. Yet, at the minimum, one needs to be consciously independent of such a socially constructed discourse. Otherwise, one is just an operative instrument participating in the guarenteed functioning their social machinery. Otherwise, sex is just another productive tool.
There is another mode of interpretation: From bottom-up, and vice versa. One's sexual awareness reflects the personality of the character, and by extension, the society. From top-down, society produces and shapes a certain personality, and by extension, one’s sexual awareness. It all boils down to the questions of whether the superstructure lags behind its base, whether its ideology is overtaken by its ruling class, and whether its citizens are becoming walking-dead zombies.
Society is a mirror in which we look into ourselves rather than a web of moral values that mire us.
This is further expounded by the author's criticism over the protagonist's unreflective sexual awareness. Sex, under its social pressure, brings the character neither real happiness nor profound reflections over the meanings of life and marriage. Wang is the example of those who are losing their subjectivities and falling unconscious to a social machinery in which they are made to function like puppets.
We seldom hear the voice of Wang's wife except under a few rare circumstances, such as where she expresses her suspicions towards Wang's stealthy behaviors, her bewilderment and frustration towards her husband’s distraction from her, and elsewhere, her exclamation of her husband’s “recovered beastliness” in bed. Does this mean that she is meant as a representation of the censored female voice by her culture? We, more than often, tend to be led by clichés that blur the important role a “minor character" would play. Even though the wife is presented as but another puppet within the system, the author manages to convey that she is just as unaware of her own sex as her husband is, who undoubtedly is the major character and whose philistine sexual awareness needs to be brought out to light with a mirror— by someone just like himself. Let's not forget that even though Wang speaks more than his wife does in the entire story, none of his utterances is his own since they are all socially constructed.
The novel is set in the early 1970s’ Singapore, which dictates the historical and psychological transition of its characters. Beginning with a black panther escaping from a new zoon yet under construction—historically open to the public in June 1973—brings back an important moment of the era, one that also engraves permanent marks on its citizens. “Leopard Wang first heard that the government has cut down trees in the middle of the jungle near the village and town to develop and build a zoo with a size of dozens of acres. The south and the north are along two reservoirs, and the colony is farther to the east. The high-end residential areas of the era, and the high-end clubs that used to only allow the British and those rich Southsea merchants to host dances and leisure." In order to capture the black panther, "and especially in a year when the search for top ten most wanted criminals was in its hype”, the authorities dispatched hundreds of police officers without delay. Armed with live ammunition, the police literally besieged the entire zoo. "It is said that no such a large scale of dispatch has been seen ever since the wipe-out of the Communist Party; conspiracy theory roamed around the incident as well, which presumably meant to chase away people who attempt to sneak in at night."
The social context of the time implies the process under which Wang's values and perspectives reorient and reform, as strong criticisms over the political upheaval of that era in that country can only be implied through those silently acknowledged historical moments.
The perspectives that Leopard Wang inherits from his own parents are unflatteringly outdated: He has been beaten for truancy by his mother whereas his father claims that “it’s fine if he doesn't study hard. It will be purely a matter of fate to be a human or an animal in the future.” His father named him “Leopard” and his sister “Tiger,” hoping the children would follow the footsteps of successful people and become wealthy upper-class citizens. This is the upbringing that shaped Wang’s sexual awareness.
The ending is anti-clamatic, culminating in the novel's strongest irony. Although it is difficult to tell whether the protagonist has truly awakened from his old value, after all, he is no longer after the penis of a black panther, and his life will be never the same. The character is therefore free of his philistine mentality over sexuality which, allowing him the opportunity to become “human” again, as he is able to enjoy his sex now. As the Chinese sexologist and sociologist Li Yinhe (李银河) once claimed, “what we do is to change [Chinese] people’s old perception of sex, and make them realize that sex is not a bad thing; it can be good, in fact, good enough to bring them happiness.”
Originally published in Mandarin on May 6th, 2010
Lin Gao is a Singaporean writer and winner of the 2014 Singapore Literature Award and the 2015 Singapore Culture Award. His works include "The Taste of Being Chased 《被追逐的滋味》", "Reading by the Window"《一窗阅读》, "Lin Gao Juan" (prose)《林高卷（散文）》, "Taste Reading" (co-written with Cai Xin) 《品读》（与蔡欣和写）, "Appreciation" (co-written with Chen Zhirui)《赏读（与陈志锐合写）》, "Appreciation 2"《赏读2》, "Lin Gao's Miniature Novels"《林高微型小说》, "Meet Poems"《遇见诗》 and "Frame the World"《框起人间事》, etc.
Claire Hennessy is a scholar, writer and translator based in the United States.