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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

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.

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.

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.

The reason why I wrote “Wolf Totem” was to tell the Chinese people to change their character. If you don’t change, you will not be able to adjust to today’s economic trends. Also, the economic importance of agriculture has already waned, and although there are a lot of farmers, their contribution to the domestic economy is very small. This indicates that society is growing and developing fast. However, the cultural character of Chinese people isn’t growing in step, and this is leading to very big problems.

Many people ask: Even though China is a strong country in the global economy, why are the demands for freedom and democracy in China so weak?

China is in the middle of changes. I feel it is necessary to push it along in these changes.

It is difficult for people to get rid of the spiritual restraints of the past. That’s why I want to inject them with some of the original genes of the nomads. We used to have it. In history, nomadic culture used to have an equal status, but in China mainstream Confucianism became too strong. So now I use this disappearing nomadic culture to attack the current culture and make people aware of the nomadic culture’s strength.

In “Wolf Totem” I present five essential characteristics: freedom, independence, competition, stubbornness and teamwork. These five spirits are especially strong in wolves and grassland people. A wolf would rather die than capitulate. Freedom needs stubbornness, because democracy and freedom have never been given to people as a gift — one always has to fight and bleed to get it. In the West, people have fought for democracy since the (1400-1600) Renaissance, through religious reforms and until the (18th-century) Enlightenment. The whole system developed over several hundred years.

China has not gone through this kind of revolution. I want to dig out a spirit of freedom (ziyou jingsheng) that is strong, authentic and belongs to China. I want to shock the traditional Chinese culture with it. My goal has been achieved because the novel is having a big influence in China.

Although you emphasize that a wolf has good as well as bad sides, its nature is still to be a predator. Would it still be possible for people to have a peaceful society if the “wolf spirit” became the norm? Don’t you think that the core argument in your book could easily be borrowed by aggressive nationalists? Wolves are violent, but nomads still get along with them. That’s because wolves have two sides. I think that capitalism is exactly like a wolf — it’s also two-sided. That’s why China is learning about capitalism, because it both promotes productivity and improves people’s living conditions. “Wolf Totem” is about the good side of the wolf — after all, a totem is an idol of worship.

I preach a mix of wolf and sheep. I spent the last part of my novel clarifying this. One should not unconditionally advocate a wolf spirit, because the wolf is a violent predator. One could compare a wolf to nuclear energy — people benefit from it when it’s properly used, but it could be destructive if misused.

It’s the same with the liberal spirit. If you don’t restrict it, it can hurt other people because it has both good and bad sides. Nothing is perfect. I advise people to treat disasters, difficulties, wars and enemies as they would a wolf — but to treat friends, partners and family members as tenderly as sheep.

In history, governments with only a wolf spirit haven’t lasted long, like the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C). The best ones, such as the Han Dynasty and the Tang Dynasty (616-907), had both characters. I observe critically in my novel that a too-strong wolf spirit led to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the creation of the Red Guards. So I don’t advocate at all an absolute wolf spirit. I believe my viewpoint is very correct.

Are you a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)? No, I have never been.

Was it not required for good students to join the CCP? I never behaved well in school. I always had a free mind. Although both my parents were party members, I refused to join the party. Later I realized that those people I loathed joined the CCP. Their purpose was to get promotion and more money. People whom I looked down upon all wanted desperately to enter the party.

However, I think the party is undergoing big changes. I can give you three examples.

First, the CCP’s opinion of capitalism has shifted 180 degrees. The theoretical basis of the CCP is Marxism. In the “Communist Manifesto,” the root message can be expressed in one sentence: Eradicate the system of private ownership and capitalism. It also says that the source of all evils is capitalism, but the proletariat will throw away their yoke and finally overthrow capitalism. They are the gravediggers of capitalism. So why is the CCP turning to capitalism now? Because it has realized that capitalism is good, and the passion to learn about it is bigger than in many other countries. The CCP also realized that the leftism of the Cultural Revolution was reactionary and simply not as good as capitalism.

There is another viewpoint on Marxism. To examine whether a system is progressive or backward, a main standard of judgment is whether it can promote the development of productive forces. Capitalism promotes the development of our society, whereas the socialism during the Cultural Revolution blocked it and almost dissolved society itself.

After the CCP adjusted its thinking, it abandoned its former socialist path and switched to a course of reform. So now, China is currently following a capitalist path, but with some socialist elements. It’s a mixed economy.

Why is North Korea so backward? The reason is that it hasn’t had this kind of change. They don’t allow reforms, capitalism or the market economy.

Second, we can say that the CCP has abandoned the system of one-man dictatorship. The most reactionary aspect of Chinese culture is the lifelong-tenure system. This in fact creates a fascist dictatorship. No one can replace the emperor. The Chinese “emperor” Mao Zedong (1893-1976) only wielded power until he died. Deng Xiaoping (China’s de facto leader from 1978 until the early ’90s) is a great man, because he was against this lifelong-tenure system. However, the real change happened in the transition from the leadership of Jiang Zemin to that of Hu Jintao (after Jiang stepped down from the CCP’s Politburo in 2002). Now, the national leader can only serve for two terms of 10 years altogether. Hu Jintao is now in his second term, and his successor has already been designated.

Third, the CCP agreed to allow Hong Kong to elect its own chief executive in 2017 and its legislators in 2020. People in Hong Kong were very surprised to hear this news. This schedule was announced in 2007, the 10th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China. This indicates that the CCP has hopes for the democratic system, and that the party doesn’t totally deny it. Great Britain ruled Hong Kong for almost a century, but a democratic system wasn’t put in place. Hong Kong was a colony. However, I think the CCP wants to give democracy a try, although the CCP hopes it will still maintain its power. I think it could. The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party is an example in this respect, as there have been many elections in Japan, but other parties couldn’t beat it.

Though I am a dissident, I don’t want to overthrow the CCP. I think that if we had had another party, our economy wouldn’t have developed so quickly. I just want to push the CCP’s reforms.

Can you give us some theoretical or practical suggestions for the Chinese to address their character deficiencies? There are three aspects: First, insist on opening up and reform. Failures in the past resulted from isolation. For example, the Chinese media is now constantly reporting on the current American presidential election, and this has a huge influence on Chinese youth. A writer named Liang Xiaosheng recently wrote a story about going to monitor a class election of fourth-grade students. He reported that the language they used was that of the U.S. presidential election, such as “solicit for votes”; while the candidates had to express their principles and political views. Access to such influences informs the younger generation that our leaders must be elected level by level if our president is to be a true leader of the people. Before, such thinking was not allowed to be propagated; now Chinese are aware of this.

Netizens [a noun describing so-called citizens of the Internet] discuss online why officials should be supervised. They say officials are civil servants; the money they spend is our taxes. This Western thinking flows in slowly. Another example: Netizens moved in to investigate as soon as it was discovered that a few tents were not used properly for the earthquake victims in Sichuan Province.

Second: Continue to strongly develop the market economy in China. The proportion of nationally owned enterprises is still too high. Banks’ money is mainly loaned to inefficient state-owned businesses.

Third: We must criticize the traditional Chinese culture. This includes Confucianism, values originating from the past agricultural society, Maoism and narrow-minded nationalism.

More than 2.4 million copies of your book have already been sold in China since it was published in April 2004. Why do you think your novel achieved such a tremendous success? I can name two reasons: One is the urban life that suffocates people’s spiritual space. There is a sentence in my novel that has become very popular: “The grassland has the most spacious originality and freedom.” This sentence includes a totem for ecology and freedom, which young people long for very much. Many of them have backpacked to the grasslands. The nomads there are afraid that the grasslands may be destroyed by tourism — which is also the reason why I didn’t use the real name of the area where I stayed in the novel. Today, the population is bigger, ecology is worse, and freedom is less — all these factors make people yearn for a spacious, green and free environment.

The other reason: People realized that these days it is impossible to survive and develop without the “wolf spirit.” Many entrepreneurs like this book a lot; they buy it for their employees. Our society and economy is undergoing a rapid transformation, so we need a transformation of mentality too. Such a transformation requires an idol. I happened to find this idol, and many young people say that the “wolf totem” is my totem.

Some Western friends told me that my wolf story is even more interesting than Jack London’s ["Call of the Wild" (1903) or "White Fang" (1906)]. Westerners don’t like many Chinese novels, such as the 18th-century “Dream of the Red Chamber” [by Cao Xueqin], but they like mine.

Why did you wait for 25 years to write this novel? If I had written it earlier, it wouldn’t have been possible to publish it. Besides, there are a lot of things behind the story that I needed to know, study and digest. “Wolf Totem” is a six-layer story: First, the grassland; second, the biological chain of the grassland; third, the function of the wolf in this environment; fourth, the characters of Mongolians and Han Chinese people; fifth, the comparison of the two people; and sixth the critique of traditional Chinese culture.

I am not concerned about being a particularly productive writer. I rewrote my story many times. Other writers worry about lack of materials for stories. With me, it’s the opposite. Hence I needed a lot of time to select and digest. I think it was worthwhile. This was my first novel, but its influence is bigger than that of 10 other books put together. I think a writer should instill his or her own life, wishes, characters — and all he or she pursues — into the stories.

Some people write for money, and some play with words; I dragged my life entirely and completely into this writing. There are very few writers like me. Still I will stick to this principle in my future writing. It’ll be slow, yet more powerful.

Matthias Messmer is a Swiss writer, essayist and travel photographer based in Shanghai. His works focus on cultural and social topics related to China and Asia. His most recent book, “China — Schauplatze West-ostlicher Begegnungen” (2007) examines Western images of China in the 20th century. Hsin-Mei Chuang is a Taiwanese writer based in Shanghai. She writes stories and reports on literature, architecture, art and design. The two regularly conduct interviews with various personalities in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.