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."


# 1.   

I've long heard of the book but haven't read it yet because it seemed to me like another book trumpeting chauvinism. From this article it seems that's not true.

Paul, November 19, 2007, 4:41a.m.

# 2.   

I have not had the chance to read this book yet. But it reminds me of The Call of the Wild, which I read at college twelve years ago. As far as I understand, Jack London applauds just what Jiang Rong is bemoaning today: "freedom, independence and integrity." The differences are that wolf is contrasted against dog by London and against sheep by Jiang, and that story is told when it happens in the American story and three decades after it happens in the Chinese story. Although the Chinese people have worked hard to catch the recent growth in computer and internet, they have still "lost to foreign powers" in humanities. Probably as slowly as sheep, they are on the right way, aren't they? I love your review and interview very much. But I am afraid that I do not like the beginning paragraph. For one thing, the mainland's best-seller lists are always crammed with political/historical books, for example, Zhang Yihe, Yi Zhongtian, etc. For another, after experimenting and experiencing feudalism, (semi-)colonialism, capitalism, socialism, and socialism with Chinese character in less than one hundred years, the Chinese writers, probably including Jiang, wants to "come back to national character" more than politics (although the latter appears an interesting game and tool for them). Of course, I understand that it is an attractive openning in newspaper.

dahu, November 20, 2007, 5:50a.m.

# 3.   

Yes, the first paragraph is a little cavalier! I guess a part of the reason I left off journalism was the need to writestuff like that. Or, more precisely, I couldn't figure out how to do it without writing stuff like that.

Jiang would love to discuss politics directly if he could. He began with political problems and worked backwards from there; in a way it is still current politics which is most important to him.

Actually, another main theme of the book is that rulers who secure control by ruining the spirit of their people will eventually ruin the entire nation. If an emperor (or what have you) maintains order by keeping his people ignorant and frightened, and choking off dissent and the exchange of ideas, he is degrading the nation as a whole. The result is not only that the entire culture suffers, but that the government itself is also made weak and ignorant. It's a tempting idea, and one which seems to be borne out by modern Chinese history.

"they have still "lost to foreign powers" in humanities."

I don't believe there is any such thing as 'losing' in the realm of the humanities, particularly in the sense of being defeated by a foreign power. A country 'owns' its economy to some extent; it does not own its arts. Art is made by artists, and it is there for all to appreciate who can. The more a society thinks of artists as a national asset, and obsesses about why it's not producing great art, the more the artists are hindered from getting their work done. Let them go!

Eric Abrahamsen, November 20, 2007, 11:47a.m.

# 4.   

Ugh, sorry, that last was a rant.

Eric Abrahamsen, November 21, 2007, 1:20p.m.

# 5.   

“If an emperor (or what have you) maintains order by keeping his people ignorant and frightened, and choking off dissent and the exchange of ideas, he is degrading the nation as a whole.” I agree on it.

For the past two weeks, Southern Weekend published a series on the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. One of the important lessons of the Utopia is that by ‘keeping his people ignorant and frightened’ and ‘choking off dissent and the exchange of ideas,’ Stalin and his colleagues ruined not only the country, but the ruling party itself. In a way, the once formidable power did not die from the Peaceful Revolution as the party had feared, but from the Great Purges inside and outside the party like the frog in boiling water.

Thank you correcting my comment, “They have still ‘lost to foreign powers’ in humanities.” In fact, I do not put forward any such meaning of national contest here as some domestic writers and officials remark, admiringly, indignantly or arrogantly on Nobel, Oscar, etc. I mean that Jack London could writewhatever he liked and whenever his story happened, while Jiang has to wait for three decades after his story happened when the story becomes less sensitive or when the situation becomes less restrained. In this way, the Chinese writers lag behind their foreign counterparts. Of course, I come to know that I should not say ‘lost to foreign powers,’ because ‘powers’ mean ‘nations.’

It is nice to read your blog from time to time.

dahu, November 23, 2007, 6:55a.m.

# 6.   

I disagree with the emphasis placed on Confucianism in the statement proffered by the author of this post by Jiang Rong "Rujia['s]... primary goal is to stifle freedom. It's a philosophy made for the benefit of the emperor."

I believe Taoism is as much or more responsible for this than Confucianism. I offer Waley's Translations: "...The sage rules/ By emptying their hearts and filling their bellies/ Weakening their intelligence and strengthening their sinews/ Ever Striving to make the people knowledgeless and desireless" Chapter III "Heaven and earth are ruthless/ To them the Ten Thousand Things are but as straw dogs/ The sage too is ruthless/ To him the people are but as straw dogs" Chapter V

Chapter 80 is relative to this discussion in its entirety, but I will quote only the part which is most widely known. Also one of the most quoted passages in all of Chinese Literature: "The next place might be so near at hand that one could hear the cocks crowing in it, the dogs barking; but the people would grow old and die without ever having been there." The Chinese 邻国相望,鸡犬之声相闻,民至老死,不相往来 was shortened into a Chengyu in 《桃花源极》as follows 阡陌交通,鸡犬相闻, and 鸡犬相闻 can be used by itself to express the idea of a utopia. The layers of literary meaning added to this passage by later works cannot be described in a blog comment, but I would like to propose that Jiang Rong is wrong when he attributes the harsher side of Chinese political philosophy to Confucianism. The Taoists were much harsher, at least at the beginning (esp. the Qin and Han Dynasty which he mentions specifically)

Will, July 22, 2008, 10:11p.m.

# 7.   

Despite having a real soft spot for the mysticism of Taoism/Daoism, I have to admit those very passages have made me very uncomfortable in the past. Sure sounds a lot like dyed-in-the-wool political authoritarianism, not to mention paternalism.

Nonetheless, I'd want to know more before I laid this at Daoism's door. There's always such a vast gap between what a philosophy expounds and what it ends up getting used for – just ask any fan of 'real' communism what they thing of the Soviet Union's implementation, or China's... I'd be very curious to know how Jiang Rong would respond, though.

Eric Abrahamsen, July 24, 2008, 5:12a.m.

# 8.   

I have read the book, and like it very much. It's worth reading. And after that I become very interested in wolf.

lee, March 13, 2009, 12:38a.m.


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