Interview with Jiang Rong, author of ‘Wolf Totem’

Antoaneta Bezlova – IPS

Copyright IPS
Q&A: ‘Unlike the Wolf, Sheep Are Afraid of Freedom’
BEIJING, Jun 6 (IPS) – The censored world of Chinese contemporary writing is an unlikely place for the rise of literary mystery. But ‘Wolf Totem’, which has sold millions of copies in China and won the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize last fall, is the ultimate whodunit.
The identity of its reclusive author, Jiang Rong, remained a mystery for much of the four years during which the book broke sales records at home, weathered fierce polemic and managed to attract the attention of foreign publishers along the way. Up until the book’s English language debut in Penguin’s edition this year, few interviews with the author — now revealed to be a dissident intellectual who spent 18 months in prison after participating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests — have appeared. But even as his real name, Lu Jiamin, has come to light, the mystery surrounding the book has not faded away.
Chief among the mystifying questions is how so scathing a criticism of China’s autocratic culture managed to escape the watchful eyes of communist propaganda department’s censors and become a bestseller. All the more because it makes its critical points of Han Chinese people’s numbness to despotism by raving about the independent spirit of borderland, non-Han ethnic cultures like the Mongols.
IPS correspondent Antoaneta Bezlova talks with Jiang Rong, in a rare interview, about the many mysteries surrounding the controversial work. IPS: By some estimates your book – the “Wolf Totem”, is the most widely read book in China since the little red book of Chairman Mao Zedong’s quotations? Is this true?
Jiang Rong: I believe it is. The official print of the book has sold between 2.5 and 2.6 million copies but the pirated versions have sold many more. Virtually everybody in the provinces — from migrant workers to government officials and taxi drivers, is reading pirated copies of the book. I don’t mind. These pirated versions are cheap and by now there are so many that even if the government decides to ban my book these copies would ensure its life underground.
IPS: How do you explain the continuing popularity of the book?
JR: It is quite a phenomenon. For the first three years after its 2004 publication, “Wolf Totem” was, continuously, the most read book in China. Now, in its fifth year, the book is still at number five on the most popular books charts. I don’t think there has ever been another Chinese novel to preserve its popularity for so long. It is not only the pirated copies that prove it. Some big companies have financed its reprint themselves and distributed it to their employees. Corporate executives like the book. So do people in the military.
IPS: Why?
JR: Because it attacks the weakness of the Chinese national character. Chinese people are inherently weak; they can’t stand up for themselves. They need an emperor to protect them. Even when they rebel, ultimately they still want to install a better, more enlightened emperor. In my book, I have compared Han Chinese (the dominant ethnic group) to sheep. Sheep are always afraid of freedom. Unlike the wolf, which roams free, the sheep needs shelter and protection. It is cattle. “Wolf Totem” summarises my own experiences in organising liberal democratic movements in China. Each time, I had people who rallied with me. But at the end, they all ran away and I was always the one left to suffer the consequences. I was labeled a “counter-revolution ary” five times in my life. I was sent to prison twice.
IPS: What is the meaning of the wolf in your story?
JR: The wolf symbolises the free spirit. In traditional Chinese culture, which is inspired by Confucianism, all wolf stories are bad. Wolf is a swear word. But in my book, the wolf totem revered by nomadic Mongols, stands for freedom, independence, competition, strength and teamwork. If Chinese people want to be free, they need to nurture these characteristics. They need to change their national character. National character is the reason behind the failure of Chinese political movements.
IPS: What about the role of Mongolian grasslands in your book?
JR: The book is based on my own experiences as an educated youth sent for “re-education” in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. But there is more to the autobiographical element. I wanted to write a book attacking China’s sheep like mentality and criticising our nation’s cultural roots. Unlike Japan, which has learned to embrace Western ideas, China has always resisted the West’s influence. Chinese people resist Western culture because they believe their own culture is superior. In the past this way of thinking has often prevented them from advancing. Obviously, I couldn’t use the West as comparison to make my point. I had to choose the grassland culture of nomadic people, which lies between China and the West.
IPS: Some foreign critics have called your book racist. What is your opinion?
JR: I wrote the book as a self-reflection. I needed to make Chinese people look inside themselves and see their weaknesses. In my original epilogue I explain the motives for my call to emulate the wolf as a way to make Chinese people stand up and fight for freedom. Unfortunately, the English translation didn’t carry my epilogue and some foreign critics interpret the book as a prod to Chinese people to be more forceful in their dealings with the West. But I believe that the wolf character needs to be both nurtured and controlled.
IPS: Did you not worry about the book being banned?
JR: I concealed my identity knowing that if I had revealed my name, at the very beginning, the book would never have been published. Five days after it came out, “Wolf Totem” made it to the number one on the bestselling lists. There were many government officials and senior leaders who liked it. They thought the story was good. Some said they have never read a book like this before. I wrote about culture and not politics. Culture may seem far from politics but it goes deep down to the nation’s roots. It was only six months later that the censors found out about my identity. By then the book was very popular. That is how it went.
IPS: Do you think you have succeeded in your intention to transform the national character?
JR: I recently saw a sign on one of the public buses in Beijing, which read: ‘A wolf can walk a thousand miles’. I think I have succeeded in undermining the traditional thinking of Chinese people. The wolf has now become quite a fashionable thing for young people. They like its rebellious element. And the wolf stands for freedom. (END/2008)

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