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Savage civility

Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong - translated by Howard Goldblatt (Hamish and Hamilton)

Sarah Boyes
posted 13 June 2008

China’s Cultural Revolution of 1966 – 1969 is often invoked simply to criticise its notorious excesses, that it served not to rejuvenate, but to clear the cultural landscape altogether. The avowed political aim was to destroy the four pillars of China’s past – old thought, old culture, old customs, and old practices – that were believed to uphold bourgeois social structures. Until the working class could permeate all parts of life with Maoist ideas, China’s political transformation would remain incomplete.

Whilst the purges were used as a political strategy to dislodge Mao’s adversaries, the idea of ‘cultural revolution’ is worth some interrogation more broadly, especially as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Paris ‘68, and China goes through a new cultural transformation of its own. ‘Culture’ can be equated with art and with image, how we behave, what ‘values’ our life expresses (as some thinking behind contemporary policy suggests), or, as the advert for the BBC’s Culture Show would have it, we don’t know what it is, but it’s happening next. Culture means youth piss on street corners and art makes us better people; culture is what we consume. But far even from the Culture Wars of the 1980s, Culture seems confused.

Jiang Rong is a product of China’s Cultural Revolution, and far from lamenting, he interrogates its deeper premise that culture is much more – and, further, more important – than any of the above, in his debut novel Wolf Totem. Through imaginatively documenting his own experiences, he attempts to kickstart political debate.

During the mid-1960s, those loyal to Mao – the young Red Guards – were encouraged to criticise openly the four old pillars in the cities, using amongst more violent methods the art of poster-making. There is an obvious parallel with those posters created in 1968 in Paris as a cultural challenge to the old elites. In both cases, posters were meant to influence the complex of associations people have with certain images in a bid to encourage new ways of thinking. Rong’s literary effort to recast the terrifying wolf from Chinese stories and myth as a respectful role model is in this tradition, rather than being straightforwardly propagandistic: he’s not too subtle, but neither is he straightforward.

After getting riotously out of hand at the end of the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution was swiftly followed by the ‘up to the hills, down to the countryside’ movement, which sent millions of young Chinese to rural communities. This time the idea was for the peasantry to teach the young intellectuals about the needs and nature of labour, and propaganda posters were one of the main forms of communication between state and people and amongst rival groups. Referred to now as China’s ‘lost generation’, many died of starvation or exhaustion, others returned home in their thirties, some blaming themselves for the apathetic attitude of their own children they claim to have spoiled.

Rong volunteered to relocate to Outer Mongolia in 1969. His English translator tells us that unlike many of his contemporaries, he ‘did in fact learn from and befriend the herdsmen with whom he lived and worked’ for over ten years. He was later involved in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and kept his real name secret until only recently: Jiang Rong is a pen-name. Wolf Totem is widely considered a success, said to have sparked fierce internal debate about the nature of Chinese character, has been translated into several languages and won the intriguing First Man Asian Literary Prize (the Asian version of the Man Booker).

The book itself takes an odd approach: novel, anthropological study and philosophical discourse, it skids happily between being geeky and gripping before bumping towards a slightly disappointing end. Despite some maudlin passages, Rong can’t be accused of romanticising a pre-industrial time when wolves and men stood as equals, as it might superficially appear. He’s simply concerned with observing and understanding the practices of the nomads, and the narrative mostly focuses on the moral and emotional effect this has on him. He’s dual spokesperson: Outer Mongolian to the Chinese and Chinese to everybody else, not caught between fact and fiction but navigating a path between the two roles.

From the outset, the protagonist Chang Zhen is drawn to the wolves. Taken under the wing of the community’s ‘alpha male’ who wants to cultivate those who would better explain his ideas to the elite (the Outer Mongolians have no written culture, something this book tries to put right), he embarks on an experiment to domesticate a wolf-cub and learn its mysterious secrets. The novel broadly traces Zhen and ‘Little Wolf’s’ relationship as Chinese settlers move to the grasslands, reinvesting the idea of spirituality with some life as Chen struggles to understand the wolf totem, whose symbolism is set on the first page when Old Man Bilgee says to him:

You’re like a sheep. A fear of wolves is in your Chinese bones. That’s the only explanation for why you people have never won a fight out here.

The wolf totem stands for dangerous individuality, opposed to the dullard mentality of the sheep who watch passively when under attack (‘“Well, the wolf is eating you and not me!”...their fear was measured by a sense of gloating. None made a move to stop the wolf’), it celebrates savage ability and self-reliance alongside pack mentality and self-sacrifice. It’s nuanced individualism. But despite the book’s intent, Rong ultimately bows out by working from an ecological perspective, which though it provides a complex description of the whole grasslands system, does so at the expense of carrying his conclusions over to modern-day China in any concrete sense, which was presumably part of the point.

When Penguin bought the translation rights in 2005, Rong was interviewed in the Telegraph saying he chose to write a novel because it best communicated his ideal of freedom, which he suggested was understood in the West better than in China. A steady trickle of Chinese writers have been making their way into western bookshops since China’s economic liberalisation of the 1980s, most recently Xiaolu Guo, who was shortlisted for last year’s Orange Prize with her Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Translated and published works show an interesting trend, from short story collections from domestic Chinese in 1996, increasingly towards Chinese writers discussing China, in English, today. What’s new is not the notion of marshalling a more full-blooded cultural dialogue with the West, but writing more explicitly for it. But Wolf Totem is a work in translation, and any whiff of individualism or cultural critique should not be interpreted as ‘Western’ impositions; Rong is using a tumultuous period of China’s history to engage with the present day.

The book’s heart isn’t its bugle call for self-confidence, but the careful interplay between myth and rationality that casts both as integral to a broader worldview: the wolf totem may seem nostalgic, but it illustrates what Rong thinks is missing in a China shot through with Confucianism and unsure about its past. Sky burials, the grassland god – or totality - ‘Tenger’ and the nomads’ imitation of the wolves aren’t irrational, argues Chen, once you understand the environment they come in; perhaps the drive to eradicate them came too heavy-handedly and lost its impetus in the process. Then there’s detailed descriptions of Outer Mongolia itself, nuggets of military history and insights into everyday life as a nomad. A part of Wolf Totem’s allure lies with the first-person feel, and the style can have a likeable awkwardness: ‘the sunlight had turned from white to yellow, and the sheep were once again grazing, having moved several hundred feet to the west’ that, even if it comes down to the translation, works well.

The real engagement with the Cultural Revolution is weaved through the text as a discussion of cultural identity, the transmission of knowledge down generations. A punctuating moment comes when Little Wolf finds his voice:

A stolen gong will never ring out, they say, but this stolen and human-nurtured wolf rang out with no help from the thief, in triumphant self-assertion. Then Chen realized that the cub was howling to be found: he was calling for the wild to which he belonged. Chen broke out in a cold sweat, feeling suddenly hemmed in between man and wolf (p361)

Little Wolf’s howling isn’t accepted by the pack and they leave him behind; finally, the cub’s natural stubborn streak leads to his death. His resistance to domestication might be inspiring were the issue one of nobility or authenticity, but actually it’s just sad: Zhen failed, but there again the point was there’s always there’s only so far some things can change so fast. The focus is firmly on Zhen, who holds himself responsible. And importantly, he broadens the resonance of the wolf symbol, referencing Hesse’s Steppenwolf and the Grimm Brothers’ Little Red Riding Hood as he muses that wolves have long been feared by countries that have them, taken to represent wild impulses that must be overcome or reconciled with civility. Whilst he challenges the status quo by saying championing lupine characteristics, underlying his view is a deeper, abstract point about the sort of society this takes.

But though Rong’s subject is freedom it is also progress, and as much as this means finding the metaphorical wolf in the man and the man in the wolf – both personally and on a national level – then his point is the process is both real and ongoing. The metaphor reaches its limits as the Chinese exhaust the fertility of the grassland and kill off the wolves with rifles, poison and gas. The wolf totem is ultimately subsumed by a modernising process, which itself fails due to lack of resources. The book ends with Zhen moving back to China proper to reclaim his life as an intellectual, before coming back to visit Little Wolf’s family den and his old friends only much later, guilty and nostalgic, promising to visit again soon. His is primarily a sentimental attachment; he doesn’t in principle oppose the appropriation by Chinese settlers. (One oddness in the reception of Wolf Totem as an environmentalist tract is that Rong is no conservationist: he argues for a stronger forward momentum. )

Though Wolf Totem explicitly aims to challenge Chinese self-perceptions through the culture, Rong’s book seems in line with a government that has recently begun to pour money into a rejuvenating the arts, and more fully embracing market capitalism and some of its cultural forms. And he seems to have completed his initial task: to learn from the peasantry, and bring his new understanding to the cultural fore.

See China’s New Cultural Revolution discussed at the one-day Battle of Ideas satellite Battle for China conference on Saturday 12 July 2008, organised by the Institute of Ideas as part of the CHINA NOW festival, in partnership with Norton Rose.


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