A Defense of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem

By Timothy Weston

I have a confession to make: I was moved by Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, think it’s an important novel and that it’s well worth reading. The reason I say I feel a need to “confess” as opposed to just being able to state this is because recent postings on The China Beat, as well as some of the reviews referenced in those postings, attack the book with a sharpness and thoroughgoingness that initially made me question my own taste and to think that I was politically incorrect for liking and being impressed by the novel as I read it. But after finishing Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Wolf Totem—a book that we now know is the work of Lu Jiamin, using “Jiang Rong” as a pseudonym—my conviction remains unchanged that this is indeed a major work. Reactions to the novel have varied widely, as Jeff Wasserstrom pointed out in an earlier post to this site. Here, very briefly, I’d like to add one more voice of praise, for in my opinion it would be a pity if, swayed by the negative things they have read about it here or elsewhere, China experts (or other interested readers) were to decide that reading the novel isn’t worth the effort.

Before saying more I want to make clear that I agree with many of the criticisms made of the book: it is didactic, does lack character development, and is too long. Moreover, to the extent that it advocates that Chinese adopt wolfish cunning and aggressiveness as national characteristics, it does open itself to the charge of being nationalistic, though personally I did not find this theme overly offensive. Fully mature and great literature it may not be, but courageous, imaginative, and a deserving winner of the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize I think it is. No other novel, from any country, has given me so deep an appreciation for the vitally important and interconnected roles played by all creatures and species within the natural environment, or of the fragile relationship between we human beings and the ecological setting in which we live. At a moment when awareness of our endangerment of the planet is rising to new levels, Jiang Rong has produced a profound lament about what it can mean when human beings and human societies carry on with little-to-no regard for the natural environment.

This message is of course universally relevant and highly timely. The fact that is has been articulated so passionately by a Chinese writer is remarkable, given the low level of environmental consciousness usually attributed to contemporary China. Here, then, we have a powerful Chinese contribution to the global discussion about our human-caused planetary environmental crisis. For me, this is a welcome development.

Also welcome, in my view, is Jiang Rong’s willingness to merge his tale of environmental destruction with an open discussion of Han Chinese cultural and political imperialism. In Wolf Totem disregard for other cultures (in this case nomadic Mongolian culture) goes hand in hand with disregard for the natural environment; the same unthinking mindset produces both. Having noted with sadness the scarcity of publicly expressed Chinese compassion for the feelings of Tibetans during the recent disturbances in Tibet and elsewhere, I find it refreshing to encounter Jiang Rong’s concern over Han insensitivity to minority peoples.

While Jiang Rong is critical of Han Chinese ignorance and arrogance with regard to minority cultures and ways of life within China, Wolf Totem is not a simplistic good guy versus bad guy story, nor an overly determined good ethnic group versus bad ethnic group tale. Ethnicity is not treated in an essentialist fashion in this novel. Chen Zhen, the novel’s protagonist, is a Han Chinese, as are several other important characters, and they develop a deep appreciation for the environment and the brutal and amoral ways of nature. Han Chinese are not irredeemable, in other words. Nor are Mongols portrayed as being wholly in touch with nature; among other things, in fact, the novel narrates fissures within Mongol society along generational, geographic and ideological lines. As with the Chinese, some Mongols are shown to be sensitive to the environment and some are not.

As environmental studies becomes an ever more important part of school curricula there’s a growing need for books that speak to environmental issues in creative and compelling ways. While reading Wolf Totem I kept thinking about how to use it in my teaching. Since I am a historian, I thought of pairing it with Mark Elvin’s recent monumental historical study, The Retreat of the Elephants, or with Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War Against Nature. My sense is that Jiang Rong’s literary exploration of environmental issues in China would work well with those more academic treatments.

There is of course also the question of why Wolf Totem has been so amazingly popular in China. I can imagine an entire class session devoted to that issue alone, for if, as one blurb on the cover of Goldblatt’s translation states, the novel has in fact outsold any other book in Chinese history since Mao’s little red book, that is a truly astonishing fact. What does it tell us about Chinese society today? No doubt many things, not all of them positive (other reviewers are likely right that the macho tone of the novel is at least partially responsible for its extraordinary appeal in China). Nevertheless, at this time, when the price of decades of disregard for the natural environment is becoming painfully obvious to more and more Chinese, my hunch is that a great many of the millions of Chinese readers of Wolf Totem have been attracted to the message of environmental warning that is its central theme. Along the way, of course, they are treated to an unusually self-reflective discussion of Han Chinese relations with minority peoples who belong to the Chinese nation. One can hope that in this way, too, the novel is having a positive affect on those who have been reading it.


Anonymous said...

The author of Wolf Totem deserves what he gets. He has committed several unforgivable crimes.

First of all, he was successful. All other authors will automatically call him to task, to come up with whatever imaginable, or unimaginable short coming of the book. Wolf Totem is not perfect, and is popular. Therefore, the author is guilty.

Secondly, as a Han, the author dared to criticize Han. That means he is a Han Traitor. As a Han Traitor, he should be condemned.

Thirdly, he portraited Chinese government officials not in their best light. That's criticizing the government, and therefore should be convicted of crime to humanity.

Fourth, he didn't say a good thing about Party Members. That's betrayal at its worst.

Fifth, he is being too nice to wild animals. Instead of exploiting them, he tried to understand and protect them. That's stupidity deserving the worse punishment.

Sixth, the main character did not follow orders straightly. This will have very bad influence on the readers, some of them may be young and impressionable. This will ultimately undermine the authority of the government, if not the Party. The author is dangerous to the Chinese government.

With all these crimes committed, he deserves whatever is coming to him.

Andy Field said...

Great comments Tim. I for one agree with you. I'm in the middle of reading Wolf Totem now. I agree that it is too long and that the characters could be better developed. Then again, the main characters in the novel are the wolves, not the people. I've heard this novel dismissed by Chinese literary scholars. Fair enough, everyone has their opinion. But I think that this a wonderful and unique piece of world literature. Notice I didn't say Chinese literature. The fact that it was written originally in Chinese doesn't necessarily make it a representative work of Chinese literature--especially since only a few of the characters are Chinese. I think this novel has to be reckoned within the field of world literature, not Chinese literature, and there it stands up and deserves to be noticed. The author's painstaking accounts of the interactions between wolves and their environment (including other animals and humans) are simply stunning. The battle scenes are epic. One reads it and is transported deeply into this unknown world (unknown by all except the few million Mongols who inhabited/inhabit that world). Above all, the author's humanity really shines through in the novel. His deep love and appreciation for the people, animals, and environment show through clearly. And despite some of the naivety of the novel as a work of literature, I think that aspect of it trumps the somewhat awkward and didactic use of characters and dialogue to express his understanding of the world he writes about. Also, I don't agree that this novel makes the Party look bad. Bao Shungui is no wooden party leader. One comes to understand his POV and sympathize with his own imperatives and directives. Here is where the criticisms have in my opinion been misguided. I don't think that this novel is meant to denigrate the Party or the government, but that it rather reflects the political tensions of that period, and of colonialism in general--when a technologically superior state takes command of people and resources on its periphery. In fact, as a representative of the colonizers, Bao (who one discovers eventually is actually a Mongol, not a Han Chinese) is extraordinarily sensitive to the culture and the value system of the Mongols, yet his political training still leads him to overrule some of their ways of life, especially with regard to the wolves. These are just some of the things that reading the book has raised in my mind, half-baked as they are, and I admit that I haven't finished it yet (it's a slow read for me), but I thought I'd let you know how much I appreciate your effort to get people to take this book seriously. --Andy Field

Nicole E. Barnes said...

Thanks for your confession, Tim. I am glad that the thoughtful comments of someone whom I respect as much as you can balance out my own tirade in the blogosphere.

Andy Field said...

just one amendment to my original comment--when I wrote that Bao Shungui was "extraordinarily sensitive" to Mongol culture I hadn't reached the part about the swans. I take it back completely. Maybe I was projecting the protagonist, Chen Zhen, onto Bao. But then again, Chen's decision to raise the wolf wasn't the most sensitive one, though it was done in the spirit of investigation and study. A true Neo-Confucian I suppose. Gewu!

踏青龍 said...

Do you ever read the Chinese version? The original Chinese version is different to the English version.

for example
in ENglish version,

If a man or race lacks the death-before-surrender spirit, a willingness to die along with the enemy, then slavery is the inevitable result. Whoever takes the suicidal spirit of wolves is destined for heroism, and will be eulogised with songs and tears. Learning the wrong lesson leads to samurai facism, but anyone who lacks the death-before-surrender spirit will always succumb to samurai facism

- Wolf Totem, Chapter 6 pg 96

in Chinese is this

The English version is a good statement about fighting against slavery.
However, do you understand what the Chinese versioin ? The author praise 董存瑞、黄继光、杨根思 as examples to fight slavery.
But do you know who is


Do you know which army they were in? Who was their target they want to kill? Which war was they in?
All of them were in the communist army.
董存瑞 died in the civil war by which Communist overthrew the legal goverment of Repulic of China.

黄继光 and 杨根思 both died in the Korea war which was intentionlly stated by the north Korea and supported by the China communist.

what did they die for? Exactly for the intention to slave people but not to against slavery!!!

welcome to my blog


K said...

Thanks for your post. I also agree whole-heartedly; many reviews I've read tended to focus on the political and social theories presented by the author. However, taking it from a perspective of ecology (and well, I am baised as I am an environmental scientist) opens up an wider applicability and relevance across the globe. I think this is part of the wide international appeal of the book.
And as for spambait9876's comment, the author is certainly deserving of praise, for thinking critically about his world around him, unlike some brainwashed sheep of from Chinese government.

Lloyd Lofthouse said...

Mr Weston,

I read Wolf Totem and felt it was worth reading too. And yes, Wolf Totem is not perfect and the author too a risk considering that Chinese culture does not like to talk about the Elepant in the room but for the rest of the world Totem is an important snapshot of an element of China and its culture--a path toward a better understanding for a complex people and country.