Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Genealogy of Yun Ling’s Ressentiment in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists

(Summary/Introduction of a full-length paper for Southeast Asian Literature class)

Teoh Yun Ling is a woman of ressentiment — a French term, explicated by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, to signify a subjugated feeling of hate and negative sentiment directed against an outer force that oppresses a subject. This ressentiment, within Yun Ling, stems from her containment of memories as a lone survivor of a brutal Japanese camp during the Second World War. According to Nietzsche, one’s ressentiment – as a negative and reactive sentiment that is not acted – turns creative when it sets forth an “imaginary revenge” against an oppressor, hence giving birth to values (GM I, 10). In the case of Yun Ling, her internalized loathing against the Japanese, though not acted, becomes creative when, after working at the War tribunal, she submits herself to become an apprentice of the Emperor’s gardener and carries out an “imaginary revenge” by permeating the imagination and consciousness of her perceived Japanese oppressor.

This reading of Tan Twan Eng’s Garden of Evening Mists intends to trace the path and examine the stages of ressentiment contained within the consciousness of a war survivor who directs her subdued loathing against her former captors, the Japanese, after their occupation of Malaya. Grounding the paper’s analysis on Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals (GM), this paper aims to represent Yun Ling’s narrative as an interpretation on the evolution of ressentiment as an internalized hatred — tracing the origins of its conception towards its eventual dissipation. Alongside the interpretive elaboration of ressentiment is the exploration of other Nietzschean concepts pertinent to Yun Ling’s narrative such as: 1.) justice as an invention of the powerless; 2.) forgetting as a positive form of repression; 3.) memory as a painful continuation of a promise; and 4.) the body as the site of history. Lastly, these aphoristic ideas from Nietzsche are contextualized to explicate aspects relevant to Yun Ling’s character such as her Malaysian Chinese identity, the Japanese occupation of Malaya, and healing through Japanese aesthetics. 

Evolution of Yun Ling’s Ressentiment

A Malaysian Chinese held prisoner in a Japanese labor camp with her sister, Teoh Yun Ling carries within herself brutal memories of wartime atrocities committed by Japanese troops throughout their occupation of Malaya. During her internment at the camp, she not only lost two fingers and was brutally scarred by the army; but more painfully, lost her sister Yun Hong in a mass murder committed out of desperation by the losing Japanese troops. These tragic memories in the vicious camp aggravated Yun Ling’s internalized hatred towards her oppressors and initiated the formation of ressentiment against them. 

Ressentiment, a concept developed by Nietzsche to explicate the source of society’s production of a value system, is embedded in the weak and oppressed whom the German philosopher refers to as the “slaves”. Historically abused by the masters because of their inherent weakness, the slaves staged a creatively imaginative revolt against this oppression by developing a value system which judges all actions by the masters as “evil” and their own as “good”. According to Nietzsche, there was a “slave revolt of morality” when the values held by the masters – strength, nobility, and power (associated with the Greeks and Romans) – are labeled “evil”, while the slaves (Judean, Christian) consider their own values of kindness, guilt, and meekness as “good”.

In this struggle between master and slave morality, ressentiment is central to the later ascendance of the slave’s “good” morality because of its symbolic and imagined qualities. In his reading of On the Genealogy of Morals, philosopher Gilles Deleuze refers to ressentiment as the “spirit of revenge” where, due to the experience of “too strong excitation (pain)” by an individual, a reaction ceases to be acted and instead felt (senti) internally and increasingly over time (111). In other words, persistent subjugation towards a person of ressentiment leads to the buildup of resentful hatred not avenged through action, but by internalized and imaginary revenge, which denounces the oppressors’ (masters) every action and values as “evil”. 

The imaginary revenge for a person of ressentiment involves an obsessive thinking over past suffering deeply embedded within the consciousness and memory; an association which Deleuze summarily describes as:

“The man of ressentiment in himself is a being full of pain: the sclerosis or hardening of his consciousness, the rapidity with which every excitation sets and freezes within him, the weight of the traces that invade him are so many cruel sufferings. And more deeply, the memory of traces is full of hatred in itself and by itself. This is an essential link between revenge and memory” (116, emphasis mine).

Associating vengeance and memory is a feature of ressentiment related to Yun Ling’s narrative as a war survivor who is unable to overcome her resentful hatred against her former oppressor. It is through identifying Yun Ling’s judgment and unconscious actions, in the novel, that the stages of her ressentiment can be explored; for while it is known that the development of her ressentiment traces its origin from the atrocities committed by Japanese troops, it is unclear how Yun Ling’s ressentiment evolves, progresses, and gradually dissipates when she met the Emperor’s gardener in the highlands of Malaya. 

There are specifically four stages identified to demonstrate the development of Yun Ling’s ressentiment – from its conception up to its eventual dissipation – which both corresponds to the plot progression of the novel and Nietzsche’s aphoristic concepts in On the Genealogy of Morals. At first stage of her ressentiment, Yun Ling works at the War Tribunal as a clerk, prosecutor, and ultimately a judge to investigate and sentence Japanese war criminals. Seeking justice however did not allow her ressentiment to dissipate as, true to Nietzsche’s assertion, justice is an invention of the weak (slaves) who are too powerless to directly harm their oppressors (GM I: 10). 

Yun Ling’s ressentiment enters its second stage when she still failed to forget her past because post-war events surrounding her become bitter reminders of Japanese atrocities. Forgetting, for Yun Ling, is impossible since pain nurtures the memory, or more aptly, “only that which ceases to hurt stays in the memory” (Nietzsche, GM II: 3). Due to growing frustration, Yun Ling directs her loathing against external entities – her bosses, colleagues, and the state – which, according to Nietzsche, is only typical for a person of ressentiment who constantly needs to “direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself” in order to trigger its external stimuli for reaction (GM I: 10).

Yun Ling then decides, after getting sacked from her legal work, to fulfill a promise to her sister who died in the camp. On the third stage of her ressentiment, she decides to create a memorial Japanese garden in order to carry out her sister’s dreams. Here concepts of “promise”, “debt” and “guilt” – which Nietzsche considered as man’s “capacities” that allow painful remembrance – have notably haunted Yun Ling’s consciousness. Being guilty because of an unfulfilled promise leads Yun Ling to seek the help of the Emperor’s gardener, with whom she is only allowed to become an apprentice “until the monsoon season”. As will be qualified in the paper, theirs is a relationship which can be described as typical for a master and slave relationship; for while the self-assured Japanese within Aritomo is subdued by Yun Ling’s narrative of war brutalities, Yun Ling’s hatred gradually dissipated by the sublime effects of Japanese aesthetics.

The last stage of Yun Ling’s ressentiment involves ultimately the reversal of the master-slave relationship between her and Aritomo. Here ressentiment triumphs to perform a creative revenge that subtly dominates the perceived oppressor. Notably, as their relationship flourish, Yun Ling is able to awaken Aritomo’s guilt and conscience through her wartime narratives. Soon after the garden is finished, Aritomo decides to use his artistry to make an inscription on Yun Ling’s body through the art of horimono – the Japanese tattoo. Here we see how – in the act of using the body as a site for inscribing her past – Yun Ling subjugates her Malayan Chinese identity through the Japanese taboo art in order to liberate herself completely from ressentiment. With the past written on her body, she is assured that “the palest ink will outlast the memory of men” (115). Meanwhile, for Aritomo, doing horimono for Yun Ling is his last act, his final oeuvre, before vanishing without a trace deep in the Malayan jungle.


Deleuze, Gilles. “From Ressentiment to the Bad Conscience”. Nietzsche and Philosophy. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. 111-119.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On the Genealogy of Morality”. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufman. New York : Modern Library, 1968. 452-532.  

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