Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: November 3, 2005
BEIJING – For the author of one of China’s best-selling novels of recent years, and moreover, one about rugged life among wolves on the Mongolian plains, Jiang Rong makes a surprisingly timid introduction.
“I am sorry, I have no name cards,” said the man meekly as he entered the living room of his home here, where a foreigner was waiting to see him recently. Having no cards, at least, seemed appropriate, for much about Mr. Jiang, beginning with his real name, is a mystery.
When asked who he is, the writer demurred, embarking on a halting defense of his efforts to remain anonymous from behind the screen of his heavy-framed, somewhat antiquated eyeglasses. “This is the first time I’ve received anyone in my home,” he said. “You must understand, my situation is a bit complicated.”
This much is known: Mr. Jiang, a 59-year-old political scientist at a Beijing university, has written his first novel, “Wolf Totem,” a stirring allegorical critique of Chinese civilization, which he calls soft and lacking in individuality and freedom. He volunteered for farm work on the prairie of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution and became versed in the ways of China’s northern hinterland. And although he will not comment, it is rumored that he was in political trouble in China in the late 1980’s, perhaps spending time in prison.
There are also these much happier facts: The legally published version of Mr. Jiang’s book has sold at least one million copies in China since its release last year, along with perhaps six million black market copies and other knockoffs. The novel was also recently bought by Penguin for $100,000, a record for the overseas rights for a contemporary Chinese writer. And Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director, a specialist in dark fantasies like “The Lord of the Rings,” has bought the story rights to the novel and plans to produce a film based on it, recounting how a young Han Chinese man and his friends steal a young wolf from its pit and raise it in their tent.
The main character, clearly drawn from Mr. Jiang’s own experience, watches with mounting dread as the Han population and cultural influence on the plains rise, leading to the killing off of the wolves and the desertification of the grasslands.
One might assume that the delicacy of Mr. Jiang’s situation lies in the novel’s criticism of China’s Han majority and its Confucian-inspired culture, which he repeatedly called autocratic and sheeplike. The author insists this is not so, however, and the evidence seems to support him. “Wolf Totem” vaunts the cultural merits of Mongolian nomads, which the author lists as “freedom, independence, respect, unyielding before hardship, teamwork and competition.” It has been talked up abundantly on television programs, handed out by corporate executives as a motivational tool and, it is said, praised among the officer corps of the People’s Liberation Army.
There is another mystery at work besides Mr. Jiang’s identity, however: how could a book that is heavy on anthropology and philosophy, concerned with obscure rituals and Mongolian folk tradition, and lacking in traditional plot lines have captured the attention of so many readers?
The appeal, Mr. Jiang says, lies partly in the book’s explanations of one of history’s great riddles: “How could Genghis Khan have conquered the world with so few people?”
“The answer lies in something shared between East and West, and that is the nomadic culture,” Mr. Jiang said, chain smoking in his austere living room, his face lighted sharply by the crisp rays of autumn light that filtered in from his garden. “The nomadism that people always talk about is full of killing and violence, but what it is really about is freedom. This wolf totem culture began earlier in Mongolia and is more sophisticated than anywhere else.”
According to Mr. Jiang, Chinese civilization is the product of two strains, nomadic and agricultural, and each has its symbols, the wolf and the dragon. For the author, the wolf is akin to the soul of the Mongolian grasslands, a worthy rival to man as well as a symbol of heaven itself. “You can look at the wolf and dragon as opposites,” he said. “The dragon represents autocratic emperors. The wolf means freedom, the mother of democracy, and China opposes freedom more than anything else.”
He said the gradual demise of China’s wolf heritage helps explain how the country was surpassed by the West. “As long as most people are lambs, the dragon has no problem,” he said in what seemed like a thinly veiled comment about China’s politics. “But the more wolves there are, the more interesting things become.”
Mr. Jiang’s iconoclasm is the product of an unusual upbringing. His parents fought in China’s war against Japan on the side of the Communists and were seriously injured. They became government officials after the Communist takeover in 1949, leading to a relatively privileged life for their son, an avid reader and lover of foreign culture from an early age.
“I was deeply influenced by my mother, who took the family out traveling on the weekends,” he said. “Before 1964, when controls on everything tightened, I could find movies from India, the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union. I could read foreign news reports from my father’s copies of Reference News,” a news digest circulated only among party cadres.
On the eve of the Cultural Revolution, a period of extreme radicalism that lasted from 1966 to 1976, Mr. Jiang volunteered to do agricultural work in Inner Mongolia, he said, preferring it to the other, far more popular volunteer destination of the day, the far northeastern province of Heilongjiang. “Everywhere I looked people were confiscating books, and I was collecting them,” he said. “I brought two big cases of hundreds of books with me: Balzac, Tolstoy, Jack London and Jane Austen. If I had gone to Heilongjiang, I would have been living with the army, and they would have been confiscated.”
Mr. Jiang said he chose the most remote place he could for his 11 years on the plains, the Elun grasslands, so close to the border that he could see Mongolia’s mountain ranges. The story he wrote had been with him, he said, for more than 20 years, and was forged in friendships on the plains and an appreciation for the Mongolian reverence for the wolf and for the environment.
The book was six years in the writing, during which time the author shared it with no one, including his wife, who is a well-known novelist herself.
Today, Mr. Jiang says, laughing slyly, friends who know of his past in the grasslands contact him to talk about the book. They ask, “Do you know the writer?” he said. “Can you help me with an introduction?”
Copyright The New York Times