Wolf at the Door
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
In September of 2006 the South China Morning Post ran a profile I wrote of Jiang Rong, the author of Wolf Totem. Given Wolf Totem's recent win (and the fact that the profile is getting quoted in recent news stories) I wanted to reprint that article here.
Wolf at the Door
HOW DOES A book about Mongolian wolves - a book weighted down with complex historical theories, written by an unknown university researcher with a history of trouble with the government - sell a million copies in China? The mainland's best-seller lists are crammed with business manuals and martial arts fantasies. Why is the reading public devouring an old man's recollections of the Cultural Revolution, and his muted call for reform of China's political system?
Wolf Totem - part memoir, part socio-historical treatise - is one of the most popular books in recent memory. Since its publication in April 2004, it's sold more than one million copies legally, and perhaps six times that number in pirated editions. It's spawned a children's version called Little Wolf, Little Wolf, a film adaptation is to be produced by the Forbidden City Film Company, and an English translation is due next year, Penguin having paid a record fee for the rights.
For all Wolf Totem's popularity, next to nothing is known about its author. Jiang Rong is the pseudonym of an economics researcher at a Beijing university, a man who doesn't show up to his own press conferences, who's kept his identities so separate that his university colleagues had no idea he'd written a book.
His anonymity is not entirely voluntary - in conversation Jiang hints at past political troubles that resulted in his being barred from teaching, and from much of public life, for the past two decades. But surely that would also exclude him from publishing books? "At the time they didn't know it was me," says Jiang, a 59-year-old man with piercing eyes and a sly grin. Did that cause him problems once they found out? "Yes", is his only answer.
Public reaction to Wolf Totem has been diverse. Schoolchildren read it for the thrilling tales of wild wolves, while businesspeople study the lessons of competition and independence Jiang draws from his lupine subjects. Some party leaders have called for it to be banned, citing its subtle attacks on the government's power, while others, Jiang claims, say it points the way for the party's future.
The book holds deep critiques of Chinese history and civilisation, encompassing everything from the earliest dynasties of Chinese history, to modern attempts at democratic reform.
Jiang's book had its origin in the early Cultural Revolution, when he and several thousand other idealistic youths set out from Tiananmen Square to work and learn in China's hinterland. It was November 1967, a year before Mao Zedong made the so-called rural re-education of China's youths mandatory. "We went of our own volition," Jiang says. "We were very idealistic, very leftist. We wanted to study the question of China's future development, to make a contribution to the nation, and we felt the best way to do that was to get out into the real world."
The real world, in this case, was northern Inner Mongolia, where Jiang and a handful of others herded sheep on the grasslands. For the next 11 years, until the age of 32, it was Jiang's home - the source of his tales of wolves, nomads, and environmental degradation that make up the bulk of Wolf Totem, and a place for him to think about his country's future.
"I brought two full cases of books with me, something I wouldn't have been able to do if I'd gone anywhere else. I had all kinds of books - whatever they criticised, I went out and got."
And that wasn't his only unusual freedom. Far from the capital, radio signals came in loud and clear. "There was Russia's ITAR-Tass, the NHK from Japan, Voice of Germany, Voice of America, the BBC was particularly clear. We listened almost every day for 11 years: news, music, everything." Now, 30 years later, Jiang's glee seems undiminished. "We knew more about what was going on in China than people in the heart of Beijing!"
Far from the political directives of the centre and tapped into a wide spectrum of data, Jiang pondered the question of reform. He continued thinking about it after his return to Beijing and graduate school, and still later as a professor.
Jiang began by studying the economic reform of the 1980s, which led him to look into political reform, and then history, philosophy, literature and law. At last he arrived at this question: why, after decades of nominal independence, haven't the Chinese people done a better job of demanding freedoms from their government? In 1996, he began writing Wolf Totem, his attempt to answer that question.
"I realised that it all came back to national character," he says. "Lu Xun, Wen Yiduo ... all the May Fourth intellectuals wanted to know why China had lost so consistently to foreign powers for the past hundred years. They all came back to the question of national character."
For Jiang, the Chinese national character is rooted in Confucius. "Rujia [the Confucian school of thought] is a terrible, terrible thing. Its primary goal is to stifle freedom. It's a philosophy made for the benefit of the emperor."
Jiang attributes the formidableness of the Han and Qin dynasties to their roots in nomadic culture. But as emperors sought to expand their territories, their Confucian advisers instructed them to emphasise agriculture over animal herding. Farmers, worried about their land, were unlikely to stir up trouble. Nomads and merchants, accustomed to a far greater degree of liberty, were harder to control.
In this view Chinese history is shot through with tension between the rural and the nomadic, which are represented in Jiang's terminology by the sheep and the wolf, respectively. The great power of the Tang dynasty he attributes to an even mixture of wolf and sheep elements. The Song dynasty was all sheep - agriculture led to great wealth, but having grown soft, the dynasty fell to the invading Jin in two short years.
Jiang says the wolf totem is one of the oldest elements of Chinese culture, suffocated by the rise of Confucian philosophy. The dragon, the traditional image of China, represents the power of the emperor, not the strength of the country or its people, he says. The government has quietly forbidden media discussion of this dichotomy between wolf and dragon.
Although Wolf Totem, in its later chapters, expressly makes the case that modern Chinese people are passive, domesticated and dependent, Jiang leaves his final conclusions unspoken. But if the word "democracy" appears only once or twice, the meaning should be plain to anyone. He bemoans the loss of wolfish qualities such as freedom, independence and integrity, and writes of a time when the Chinese people had strength enough to order their own affairs.
In conversation, he's more explicit. Citing foreign journalists who've interpreted Wolf Totem as a call for a more aggressive China, he shakes his head impatiently. "World wars are caused by autocratic governments, ruling over nations of sheep. If the people become wolves, and demand reform from their government, they will be less of a threat to the world."
Jiang doesn't expect the political message to be accepted right away. Just as a historical shift from nomadism to agriculture once tamed China's wildness, it may eventually be restored by the introduction of market capitalism. Nothing pleases him more than the news that Wolf Totem is required reading in many of China's top companies, and a favourite of students.
"Political reform will be made slowly," he says. "But look how far we've come: if I'd tried to publish this 20 years ago, it would have been condemned as a poisonous weed and banned. That's progress."