IT'S NEARLY 400 pages of stories about wolves, and peppered with sentences that start like this: 'As for the Northern Wei dynasty ...' So why has the best-selling novel Wolf Totem sold 610,000 copies on the mainland since May last year, and why was it a gift of choice for both government officials and fancy corporations during this Lunar New Year? The answer, suggests the book's Beijing publisher, An Boshun, lies in its message of freedom. 'People desire freedom,' says An, a tall, rangy man dressed in blue jeans and a publisher's brown cardigan with patched elbows. An, chief editor at Changjiang Literature and Art Publishing House, one of the mainland's best-known literary publishers, is sitting at his computer in the company's offices in an apartment complex in northern Beijing. He toys with a red, Double Happiness cigarette packet, occasionally pulling out a cigarette and lighting it, then striding to a window to wave out the smoke. 'Wolves are free,' he says. 'However many tens of thousands of years of history we humans have been through, we still have animal genes inside us. And genes don't evolve that fast. So I think our desire for freedom is absolutely inborn. Chinese people have been oppressed and insulted for too long by their officials, and this book touches a chord in us - we want the freedom that wolves have, that wolves have always had.' 'It isn't letting up,' says An, pointing excitedly to February sales lists from each of Beijing's two biggest book shops, where Wolf Totem is selling between 300 and 400 copies a week. There's another mystery to Wolf Totem, the best-seller that just keeps going: just who is Jiang Rong, the author of this quasi-philosophical treatise on the Chinese national character that holds that the Chinese people should throw off their dictatorial 'dragon' culture and their ineffectual 'sheep' nature and become more 'wolfish', fiercer and freer? All we know about Jiang is that he is male, about 58, an economics professor at a Beijing university, and that in 1967, aged 21 and hoping to avoid having to 'make revolution' during the Cultural Revolution, he applied to the Communist Party for permission to leave Beijing and live with herders in Chinese-ruled Inner Mongolia. Oh, and An lets slip - his forefathers' surname was also Jiang, the same as in the pseudonym. So is his name now Jiang? It is, An says. It probably wouldn't take much sleuthing to find Jiang, but since he protects his privacy fiercely, there's not much point in flushing him out. Besides, says An, who has known Jiang for more than 10 years, 'I can speak for him on this subject.' The reason Jiang refuses interviews is simple. 'He's sensitive. And he says everything he has to say is in the book; especially in the last part. He has nothing else to say.' Narrated by a young Han man named Chen Zhen, Wolf Totem is an account of 11 years spent among the Mongolians in Chinese-ruled Inner Mongolia. The book interweaves stories about wolves with observations about Mongolian and Han culture. Chen's - or Jiang's, since the book is almost entirely autobiographical - theory of the Chinese national character is simple. During the course of thousands of years of agricultural life, the Han people have become docile and sheep-like, easily pushed around by their rulers and by outsiders, Chen believes. And crucially, Chinese people are incapable of working together, and are especially prone to intrigue and infighting. Chen illustrates his point with lots of description. When a wolf gets into a herd of sheep and begins killing, Chen, watching paralysed from the sidelines, berates his own lack of courage: 'I'm really useless. I'm as cowardly as a sheep. Ashamed.' Chen Zhen shouts aloud: 'I'm worse than a steppe dog, worse than a woman of the steppe. I'm not even as brave as a nine-year-old child of the steppe'.' Jiang offers a way out of this cultural dilemma. 'Only by dropping the feudal and autocratic nature of China's 'dragon totem' and by adopting the progressive and free spirit of the 'wolf totem' ... can the Chinese people in the future open up grand new arenas of existence and development.' Jiang's theories have hit a nerve on the mainland, where the book is a talking point, spawning 145 pages of chat on one internet site alone. Unsurprisingly, its survival-of-the-fittest ethos has inspired admiration among China's new business elite. One fan is Zhang Ruimin, chief executive of Haier Group Company, who is No6 on Fortune magazine's list of the 25 most powerful Asian businessmen. 'After reading Wolf Totem I feel there's something to be learned from many of its more unusual observations,' Zhang says. 'The most useful is the need to unite when engaged in a struggle and to work together and fight to the very end. A business opponent who behaves like this is the most effective, and most fearsome kind.' Zhang Xin, co-chief executive of SOHO China, the trend-setting real estate developers whose New Town, Jianwai, and Shangdu developments in the capital are setting a cultural standard, is also a fan and insisted on distributing the book to select clients in the company's traditional New Year gift package. Government officials received a copy of Briton Philip Short's Mao: A Life, a biography of Mao Zedong, but a company spokesman said everyone else got Wolf Totem. But many feel there is a darker side to Jiang's book. In Taiwan, where people live under the threat of invasion from the mainland, some commentators interpreted it as a symbol of assertiveness as the mainland becomes richer and more powerful. Ordinary Chinese frequently cite a desire 'not to be pushed around any more' as a reason for admiring the book. When pressed as to who is pushing China around today, some cite Japan, others point to a history of losing territory to western colonial powers, but most are not that sure. 'I too hope that China one day will stand at the pinnacle of global society again,' says one reader, named Zhang Lao. The wolf has a long history as a symbol of aggressive nationalism. It was Adolf Hitler's favourite animal - the Nazi dictator named his East Prussian headquarters the Wolfschanze or Wolf's Lair, and neo-Nazis today admire the wolf's killing instinct. But some Chinese commentators feel that China already has too much, not too little, of those qualities. 'I think it's not that China has too little wolfish spirit, but that it has too little sheepish spirit,' says Ge Hongbing, a literature critic and professor at Shanghai University. 'China has no religion. There's too little love around and too much hate. Class struggle, socialism versus capitalism, we've been at it for so many years now and it's not over yet.' Wolf Totem has also spawned self-help manuals and business strategy books. The message is the same - no more Mr Nice Guy. Plan ahead. Get kicking. Be ruthless.