Wolf at the door

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 July, 2009, 12:00am

Jiang Rong has finally discovered why his controversial multimillion-selling book - which takes swipes at totalitarian rule and pours scorn on many elements of Han Chinese culture - has never been banned.

The author has heard through the grapevine that the censorship apparatchiks liked Wolf Totem's vivid writing and subtly reasoned arguments so much that they categorised the book as good, the author as bad.

For a country that can officially classify Mao Zedong as 70 per cent right, 30 per cent wrong, this compromise does have the ring of authenticity. Not that Jiang has cause to worry: it is too late to outlaw a novel that has sold about three million genuine copies on the mainland (and millions of fakes) and remained top of the best-seller charts for most of the past five years.

Wolf Totem has also been a major success in translation. While foreign readers may not fully appreciate all of the author's slyly worked criticisms of the Cultural Revolution madness in particular and Han Chinese arrogance in general, the power of the story, its strong characters and the atmospheric descriptions of nomadic life on the Inner Mongolian grasslands have helped it shift 70,000 hardback copies in English.

The story has an autobiographical core. The main character, Chen, is a Cultural Revolution-era student who is sent to the grasslands - as Jiang was - to help nomadic Mongolian peasants follow the correct revolutionary path. Instead of proselytising to the herders, Chen becomes charmed by their simple yet spiritual lifestyle and deep respect for nature, and is mesmerised by the intelligence, loyalty and family-orientated mores of the wolves.

The main thread does not seem controversial but Jiang consistently compares the pure and free lives the nomads and wolves lead with the sheep-like structure of Han Chinese society, before and during the Cultural Revolution. The much-vaunted civilisation is dismissed as an agrarian society with little independent thinking or respect for the environment.

Jiang considers himself an exception to the rule and he has the prison time to back it up. The author has been incarcerated twice, for taking part in the Democracy Wall movement and the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, and is still classified as an anti-revolutionary.

But Wolf Totem has shown the pen can be mightier than the sword when it comes to outwitting the system, and the novel has touched more people than any polemic essay or protest ever could.

'I am a die-hard free spirit, and there are not so many people like that, who want to rebel,' says the 62-year-old Jiang. 'If they suppress me, I want to rebel even more. After countless failures, I realised that even if you have a trumpet, few people hear you, so I decided to put my thoughts into a form that could reach millions of people.

'In China there is no other choice. I think this book changed a lot of people's minds. Young people in China have more of the free spirit that I am trying to convey, and through this book they understand more fully. Among Chinese there are two views: some love the book, some hate it. The ones who are most critical are those who say it is wrong to criticise your county. Some people on the internet say it is a poisonous weed, promoting bourgeois spirit, and should be banned. Every year so far, since it was published, it has been the number one or number two best-seller, with three or even four million copies sold so far.'

It has allowed Jiang to have a comfortable lifestyle, although he is hardly the type to spurge on luxury items. Apart from buying his son an apartment, Jiang's life remains virtually unchanged; extravagance for him means buying first-edition books of whatever takes his fancy, and adding extra bookshelves to accommodate the 20-odd translated versions of Wolf Totem.

Wolf Totem had a gestation period of almost 20 years; the original version was written then cast aside. When ultimately salvaged years later, the author subjected the story to savage editing and rewriting. It was published under the pen name Jiang Rong, although netizens quickly discovered the author's true identity, Lu Jiamin.

The book begins with a chapter that is as fast-paced as it is gory, describing how a pack of predatory wolves track, circle and attack a herd of sheep. Readers are fascinated, appalled and seduced into reading the next 500 pages. Jiang feels his descriptive powers have been helped by having an artistic background, using words, instead of a paintbrush, slowly and surely to build up a detailed picture.

'When you are describing buildings in the city, for example, it doesn't take much effort but when you talk about the grasslands then nobody has a clue, so you have to paint a thoroughly clear picture of what it is like.

'Once I started to describe the detail the problems arose. For example you write about wolves and then you suddenly think that people in cities would hate wolves, they would wonder how the Mongolian locals could donate their bodies to the wolves when they die.

'So you have to set the scene as to why they would do that and explain it in some detail,' he says.

'The majority of the descriptive scenes in the books are taken from reality and from other people's experiences. The wolf the character Chen keeps is the one that we caught in real life and raised for a year. It was impossible to tame it, and I didn't want to, but I became very close to the wolf; it felt like my friend.

'At that time I wasn't thinking of writing a book. I was fascinated by the wolves, I wanted to go and see them. I just love wolves. They are not evil animals ... they are intelligent and look after their family.'

He adds: 'This book is not just about my thoughts; it is a big part of my life, but also my passion. The people who want to ban it are quite touched once they have read it, and feel it would be a shame to ban it. Even though there was a lot of noise about banning it, there was never any real effort [to do so].

'It even touched people in the political area. I heard the propaganda department cadres finally decided the book was great, but the author was bad. I was jailed for a year and a half after June 4 [1989], so they said the book was politically bad, otherwise it would have been a great book!'

Surprisingly, perhaps, for someone who has spent most of his adult life in academia, Jiang is an admirer of the new wave of entrepreneurs, seeing them as true mavericks in the new China, the anything-goes capitalist-communist society created by Deng Xiaoping's open-door policy 'I think people who start and run their own businesses are free spirits,' says Jiang. 'A lot of people say this is the first book in China to represent the real free spirit. If you read the internet you can see that freedom of speech has reached a higher level. The stuff people used to think should be banned is no longer a big deal.

'For example, the Obama election was a big influence on the young people of China because it showed someone without a strong power base, or connections, can be elected. This is one of the results of the open door policy. You can see that democracy can be a stabilising factor contrary to a lot of thinking in China. I feel that China will move in that direction.

'The way China has changed in the past 60 years is equal to the things other countries experienced over two centuries. I can't imagine what China will be like in another 20 years. When people talk about all the reforms I feel that the open-door is most important; once people can see the outside world for themselves reform will naturally happen,' Jiang says.

The future may well see a film version of Wolf Totem - the rights have been sold - but filming it authentically will involve as much technical trickery as the making of Titanic. It's unlikely Jiang will try to follow it up: he seems content to enjoy his moment in the spotlight.

'I gave everything to this book and a sequel or follow-up is never as good. All my energy and emotions went into this book so I need to relax and take a break.'

Writer's notes

Name: Jiang Rong (pseudonym for Lu Jiamin)

Age: 62

Born: Jiangsu

Lives: Beijing

Family: Married to novelist Zhang Kangkang

Genre: semi-autobiographical novel

Latest book: Wolf Totem (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin), a polemic about the dangers of ecological devastation, political extremism and cultural arrogance. The author's lifetime work, which took two decades to research and write

Other jobs: Red Guard; sheep herder with Mongolian nomads; university research professor of history

What the papers say: 'Jiang has set the Chinese howling over his implication that they are long on sheep-like values and short on wolfish daring and courage.' - Financial Times '... few books about today's China can match Wolf Totem as a guide to the troubled self-images of so many of its people as they stumble, grappling with some inconvenient truths of their own, into modernity.' - The New York Times