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Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008

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Writing in a world of wolves

Jiang Rong discusses the book about China he wrote anonymously and the phenomenon it has become


By MATTHIAS MESSMER and HSIN-MEI CHUANG
Special to The Japan Times

Jiang Rong (pen name of Lu Jiamin), who is now 62, was born in Jiangsu Province, China, and educated in Beijing. In 1967, at age 21, he volunteered to go and work in Inner Mongolia, where he'd heard about the practice of people there paying homage to "wolf totems" erected in the rolling grasslands that stretch as far as the eye can see.

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Broad horizons: Award-winning author Jiang Rong (above) shown during his recent JT interview, when he expounded at length on his upbringing in a changing China, his periods of being imprisoned for his opinions and much more besides — including, primarily, the insights he drew from living in Inner Mongolia, where shamanistic totems such as this one (below) helped inspire his best-selling novel. MATTHIAS MESSMER PHOTO
News photo

During his 11-year stay in Inner Mongolia, Jiang fell afoul of the authorities over his political views and was imprisoned for three years. After returning to Beijing in 1978, he successfully passed graduate school exams and went on to study at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, where he was active in the Xidan Democratic Wall Movement. Then, while working as a political-science researcher after graduation, in 1989 he joined the Tiananmen Square protests and was again imprisoned.

His book, the autobiographical novel "Wolf Totem," was published in Chinese under his pen name in 2004. Within five days, the first edition had sold out.

With its central character an educated urbanized youth from Beijing living amid the grasslands of Chen Zhen, the novel's two primary themes are ecology and freedom. Despite also exploring and criticizing failings of the Chinese character — and, implicitly, the current Chinese political system — "Wolf Totem" was the best-selling book in China from 2004 to 2006. To date, more than 2.4 million Chinese-language copies have been sold, as well as an estimated 4 million pirated versions. In particular, the novel has a huge following among younger people and entrepreneurs. Some management manuals have even adopted the wolf as an ideal icon for business, while there are those, too, who regard it as a treatise on military strategy.

Because of his background as a political activist, many of the author's earlier writings under his real name were banned by official censors. Fearing the same fate would befall "Wolf Totem," Jiang Rong has kept a low profile in China since its publication. Indeed, his real identity only became widely known in 2007, when — after being awarded the first international Man Asian Literary Prize — he revealed his real identity and allowed foreign media to photograph him.

To this day, however, Jiang/Lu neither does any television interviews nor allows himself to be photographed by Chinese media.

Despite his personal popularity, or his prize for "Wolf Totem," Jiang's writing has received mixed reviews both in China and internationally. Some detractors have accused him of advocating violence and fascism, while others have said his work makes China "lose face."

Beside Jiang's vivid storytelling, there are other obvious reasons why this novel became so popular. For one, the "wolf spirit" he brings to the story fits perfectly with China's desired image of a strengthening nation — just like the image being promoted in the current Olympics campaign. But after thinking twice, the troubling notion does surface of whether learning from the wolf might open up a new era of nationalism in China.

"Wolf Totem" was published in Japanese in 2007 by Kodansha, titled "Kami naru Ookami," and in English by Penguin Books in 2008, titled "Wolf Totem." This interview was conducted a few weeks ago, before the start of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing on Aug. 8, 2008.

Congratulations on winning the first Man Asian Literary Prize. Your novel "Wolf Totem" draws on your personal experience of living in the Mongolian grasslands. It is said that you volunteered to work there — but what was your motivation? Thank you. In 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, there were no classes any more in school. Every organization was busy with "denunciation meetings." We were in an anarchic situation. I felt it was a waste of time to stay in the city. No future. Ever since my youth I had been a romantic type. I liked the idea of the vast grasslands. I was also influenced by foreign novels such as "And Quiet Flows The Don" by the Russian writer Mikhail Sholokhov. At that time, we felt the young people were weak. Many criticized us for not understanding the nature of society. However, we had the ambition to do something big. Spending my time in Beijing and attending "denunciation meetings" was for me nonsense, so I volunteered to work in the countryside to train myself and to understand more about society.

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Harsh land: Life in Inner Mongolia is never far from death. MATTHIAS MESSMER PHOTO

There were two places to go at that time. One was to an army camp in northeastern China; the other was to Inner Mongolia. I didn't fancy military life but I wanted to experience something totally different. So I went to Inner Mongolia. Looking back now, I think it was the right decision. It sounds as if your volunteering had more to do with your personal romanticism than with the revolution? Not exactly. We believed that we were going to make revolutions later. Revolution requires a strong will. Both my parents went through wars. They thought we were too weak and had to get trained and form our characters in tough conditions. We had both liberal, romantic and revolutionary influences. Revolution was like an ideal passed on from father to son. I think that Westerners don't understand the Chinese of our generation, because we had a revolutionary education as well as a liberalistic one. Apparently, when you returned to Beijing from Inner Mongolia, you chose to enter the Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. Was that not against your liberalist thinking? This is only a superficial understanding. At that time, the Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought was the most liberal and open institute in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The director was Professor Yu Guangyuan, who was a leader of the reform-thinking movement. The vice director was a very important dissident who went to the United States after the Tiananmen Incident. Another researcher was expelled from the party during an antiliberalist purge. The main people at the institute were important figures in the reform and opening-up of China, and the country's free and open atmosphere came from these leaders. However, their understanding of freedom differed from mine. Theirs came from within the party and reflected reformist thinking in the Communist Party — which was not exactly my way of thinking.

Chinese society is undergoing a big transformation, especially economically. Materialism plays a central role in daily life. Values have become shaky. Do you attempt to give your Chinese readers some kind of values orientation through literature in these times of transformation? This book has very strong values. I have studied throughout my whole life questions of freedom, and how China can become a genuinely free country in the future. This has made me aware that the nature of Chinese culture and of the Chinese themselves is very problematic. For instance, the fundamental problem of Confucian culture is the requirement for unconditional obedience. So people don't oppose. What they do, they do to survive. The reason why Yu Hua's book "To Live" was so popular was that survival is a big problem in China. China has no religion but it has its beliefs. I can encapsulate what I mean in the oft-quoted sentence "haosi buru lai huozhe (it is better to live badly than to die well)." There is another telling line from a Song Dynasty (960-1279) novel: "Ning zuo taiping quan bu zuo luanshi ren (it's better to be a dog in a peaceful time than a human in a chaotic time)."

China has a big population, and it's had a lot of disasters and wars. So it's not easy at all to survive in such a country. For Chinese people, there is no higher aim than survival. This derives from the agricultural lifestyle. People in an agricultural society only want a stable life. Such people don't even have to leave their village during their whole life. Everyone tends their own plot of land and their world view is very narrow. So I feel that the Chinese have a sheeplike character. It's very passive — waiting to be killed. They cannot control their own fate. Lu Xun criticized the Chinese as being "house-pet-like." This character trait is terrible, and in terms of modern history, it is why the Chinese have often been defeated.

There have been five times in Chinese history when people from minorities have ruled the country. When I was in the grasslands of Mongolia, I wondered how so few people could have ruled China five times. So I began to study the differences between Mongolian culture and Han Chinese culture.

Later, I extended this to a topic which I expound in the novel: Chinese culture is basically a slavery culture (nuxing wenhua), a sheeplike culture (yangxing wenhua) and a house-pet-like culture (jiachuxing wenhua). With this character, it is difficult to pursue freedom and democracy. Several thousand years of agricultural living led to this character, which has made freedom rather irrelevant. As long as you can live well, that's good enough.

So people support society the way it is, and life today is indeed better than before.

There are many upheavals going on in modern Chinese history. Traditional culture was for a long time rejected and attacked, and many people say that China today has lost its traditional roots. With the economy now growing so rapidly, the population's cultural level bears no comparison to its material power. Does the story of "Wolf Totem" shed light on this problem? There is a basic philosophy in my book: The means of existence of a people determines their characters. And their characters determine their destiny.

I think the problem of the Chinese people lies in their means of existence. The people didn't have problems in the beginning. During the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), the Chinese were very open, intrepid and extraordinary. But things deteriorated slowly with time.

Why was that? The Chinese led a half-agricultural and a half-nomadic life in the beginning. Our ancestors were nomads, which I provide a lot of evidence for in the book. We call ourselves yanhuang zisun (descendants of the emperors Yan and Huang, who were both nomads). The Chinese used to live in the area of Tianshui in today's Gansu Province. They later came to the central plains, where they assimilated with other people and became their masters. The central plains were the best-suited region for agriculture in the world, and so that land became the essence of the people. That agricultural existence took away their originally open, intrepid spirit and initiative.

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