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.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created