Jiang Rong's 'Wolf Totem': The year of the wolf

A novel set on the Mongolian border during the Cultural Revolution is set to become an international hit. But some see it as a critique of China's ruling party

Depending on how you read it, China's biggest publishing sensation in years, Wolf Totem, is a moving novel of nomads and settlers and their relation with wolves on the Mongolian steppes, a guide to doing business in New China, an ecological handbook, or a piece of military strategy.

Set on the desolate grasslands of Inner Mongolia, a Chinese province bordering the country Mongolia, the novel tells the tale of nomads and settlers and their relation with wolves.

The bestseller is based on the personal experiences of Jiang Rong, a university professor in Beijing, during the tumultuous period of Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Read by millions in China since it appeared in 2004, the publishing house Penguin hopes Wolf Totem will have British readers learning the ways of the wolf when it lands on bookshelves in the UK in March. Its Hamish Hamilton imprint will publish the intriguing blend of philosophy, arcane history about gods and ruling dynasties, and messages about learning from the wolf.

The publishers, who broke records when they paid more than 50,000 for Wolf Totem, are also confident the book will raise the profile and popularity of Chinese fiction in Britain and reach a general readership in the UK.

Wolf Totem paints a very different picture of China from the one usually presented to Western audiences, more used to "scar literature" describing the ravages of the era of former supreme leader Mao Zedong, and memoirs such as Wild Swans by Jung Chang, or the confessional chick-lit of Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby.

Like many other young Communist intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, Jiang became a Red Guard and he took his ideological fervour to the countryside in his case to the Gobi in 1967, where he came very close to the packs of wolves which roam the wide grasslands found there.

"I spent 30 years thinking and six years writing Wolf Totem, and my only hope was to produce an appealing story," is how the 62-year-old Jiang described his work.

In the late 1960s, local Mongolian farmers still led a nomadic lifestyle, roaming the steppes with their sheep and cows, in harmony with nature. They both loved and hated the wolves, which would attack them and their livestock, but were also their objects of worship.

The place where Jiang pitched up had just a few hundred inhabitants in an area of 4,000 square miles and there are parallels between the book and the kind of territory explored by the novel Dances with Wolves, which Kevin Costner filmed in 1990.

The book's hero, Chen Zhen, is forced to fight the wolves to protect his life. He sees a group of women and children fighting off a giant wolf trying to steal their sheep. Chen develops a relationship with Little Wolf, a cub he finds in a burrow, and Jiang has said in an interview that this really happened to him.

It is from Little Wolf that he learns a lot about the true nature of wolves and he achieves spiritual inspiration from Mongolian religious rituals based around the dogs.

Jiang returned to Beijing in 1978 but decided to write the book only much later. The author argues that the wolf's tactics were adopted by the armies of the 13th-century Mongol hordes, led by Genghis Khan, who conquered a huge part of Asia and Europe, getting almost as far west as Vienna.

It is a real surprise the book did not fall foul of the Communist Party's beady-eyed censors, as it can be read as a call for greater personal freedom and individual responsibility. It is also critical of the philosophy of Confucianism the Communist Party has promoted a return to traditional Confucian values in recent years to fill a spiritual void left by breakneck economic growth.

The novel has featured at management forums, is a popular choice as a Chinese new year present among People's Liberation Army generals, and was discussed in minute detail on chat sites around the country when it was published in China. It sold quickly, and Chinese publishers believe there are millions of pirate copies out there.

It has been condemned in some quarters. Wolfgang Kubin, one of Germany's leading literary critics and a top sinologist, says the book is "fascist" and "causes China to lose face".

But it has some enthusiastic backers too. In November last year, it won Asia's first major literary prize, which was launched by Man, the backers of the Booker prize, and which was aimed at giving a greater global voice to the continent's writers who have traditionally lacked a platform. Adrienne Clarkson, a Chinese-Canadian and former governor general of Canada, who chaired the judging panel, described it as a "masterly work".

The book is also taking the publishing world by storm, as it is the first publication to come out of Penguin's China venture, which is headed by Jo Lusby.

It was the first English-language trade publisher to set up a permanent office in mainland China. That Wolf Totem has been translated by Howard Goldblatt, one of the most eminent translators from Chinese into English, is seen as a serious signal of intent. "It was a book that sold itself in the old way publishing used to work," said Lusby, a Chinese speaker who has lived in China since 1997. "It's a very Chinese story and I liked the idea of publishing something that was popular in China.

"The book is not pandering to people's clichs in terms of the impact on contemporary China. I felt it would work because it's an old Mongolian man talking to a young Han Chinese guy, so a lot of explaining goes on quite naturally. It's assuming the core reader knows nothing about culture. It takes the reader by the hand," said Lusby. "Jiang Rong set out to write a book with many layers. You can read it on a simple level. It's about the need for true freedom, about living according to true nature."

A central idea in the book is that Chinese people have become sheepish in the face of China's "dragon", or imperial and dictatorial culture, and they need to learn to awaken their long-suppressed nature. Lusby believes the book is far from a nationalistic screed, however, and its message should have a global appeal.

"The core message is that people should behave more like wolves, rather than sheep. But that's not saying they should take over the world," she said. "There hasn't been a big hit in terms of a Chinese book in fiction. It's a little bit of an experiment. I do feel it will be read outside the usual Asian interest section in the bookshop. It's targeted in the UK at the general reader," she said.

The book is already selling well in Italy, and An Boshun, Jiang's friend and an editor at the Wuhan-based Yangtze River Culture Publishing House, said he had no doubt the book would appeal to British readers in the same way as it had to the Chinese, because people want to read about freedom.

"You see the courage and the deeds of the wolves, it's much more innate and appealing to us than the freedoms in the textbooks, even the kind discussed by French philosophers like Victor Hugo," he said.

Wolf Totem in Chinese contains lengthy passages about Mongolian customs and wolf symbolism, but thousands of words of this are believed to have been cut to make it more palatable for a Western readership.

Its success reflects the way the publishing business in China has opened up considerably since the days when the Xinhua bookshops stocked only Chairman Mao's Little Red Book and approved volumes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

China's publishing business is largely composed of tens of thousands of small, state-run companies. In 2006, the industry printed 234,000 titles, and some 6.4 billion books, but the business is feeling the pinch as a growing number of readers choose to go online to download pirate copies. Novels on mobile phones are also becoming increasingly popular.

While Chinese cinema has developed a strong international reputation, and its artists are commanding six-digit figures in the world's auction rooms, China's literature has failed to make as much of an impact across the globe, with the exception of Jung Chang and writers like Xinran and Ma Jian.

Mo Yan, who wrote Red Sorghum, is probably the most popular Chinese novelist abroad. Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby and Chun Sui's Beijing Doll both did well outside China, but their tales of sexual exploits and social liberation in China's burgeoning urban environment are banned in China itself.

Censorship of publications is extremely strict, which acts as a deterrent to would-be novelists and memoirists, and the huge social changes wrought in the country have led to many young people focusing more on making money than on writing novels or poetry.