A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing Beijing's Unwanted Best Seller

People across China are trying to uncover the name of the mystery author behind the much-discussed best seller "Wolf Totem," which has sold millions of copies. The tome's author is a known Chinese dissident who is writing under the nom de plume Jiang Rong. If he had used his real name, the book never would have been published.

By Jürgen Kremb in Beijing

The cover of the best-seller "Wolf's Totem," which depicts the Chinese as will-less lambs. 

The cover of the best-seller "Wolf's Totem," which depicts the Chinese as will-less lambs. 

Are we wolves or just sheep? That is the subject of fiery discussions among China’s history-obsessed readers, its critical intellectuals and growth-drunk industrial moguls.

The country’s Han Chinese, who make up a majority of the population of the People’s Republic, are a compliant herd of sheep that had to learn from the tyranny of Mongolian wolves -– at least according to the main theory of the 650-page tome “Wolf Totem.” The book is currently breaking all sales records and, except for the Mao Bible, no publication has attracted more readers in China. Since first appearing in 2004, the book’s author, who hides behind the pseudonym Jiang Rong, has pulled in 10 literature prizes for his crude combination of autobiography, animal stories and ethnological observations of the Mongolian plains. The best voices of Radio Beijing have read the 12-part audio book during the broadcaster’s “Gold Time,” its best time slots. Some 4 million volumes are now in circulation.

It’s the kind of success story the Communist Party loves to hear about. Foreign publishers are engaging in bidding wars for the translation rights to the novel. One Tokyo publisher forked out $300,000 for the comic rights alone. Penguin Books, which plans to publish the English translation, set a Chinese record when it paid an advance of $100,000 for the world-wide English rights to the book. And Bertelsmann's Random House division ponied up €20,000 for the German rights.

Yet despite all the success, there’s a hitch -- Jiang Rong refuses to take part in the marketing of the book, regardless of whether it’s the Communist Party’s propaganda machine or a foreign publishing house. The aging author may have scored a best seller his first time up to bat, but he’s no wolf. The 60-year-old sits on a rattan stool in a bamboo garden in Western Beijing -- as shy and reserved as the Panda bears for which his country is famous. 

From dissident to author

"Photos?" -– No, not for publication, just for memories, he says. "I hate all the hype. I almost had a heart attack just writing the thing." He gave away the theatrical rights –- an appearance at the premiere would have been a nightmare for him. Only five people –- including his wife -- know who is behind the pseudonym. The political scientist, who works at a major university in the capital city, invited SPIEGEL ONLINE to his house for an interview. The author has not yet revealed his true identity to Chinese journalists, and he spoke on the condition that this publication also agree not to do so. Under his real name, the Chinese censors would have never approved the book’s publication. Following the student uprising and massacre at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Jiang was placed in jail for two years. Today, he is still prohibited from teaching. Nor is he allowed to hold a passport or leave the country.

The Communist Party accused him of belonging to the circle of dissidents that sought to persuade the country’s Communists to introduced democratic reforms during the spring of 1989. His intellectuals offense? Attempting to peacefully transform the Communist Party into one that adhered to the principles of social democracy.

Understandably, he exercised great caution when he sat down to write his book. Almost six years ago, his wife, a major fixture on the Chinese cultural scene, began noticing odd changes in her husband’s behavior. At first, she chalked it up to his age. “Suddenly he began locking himself in his office every day and refused to tell me what he was doing.”

Inside the six square-meter room, and hemmed in by towering bookshelves, the political scientist began soul searching, helped along by behavioral studies, ecology and the history of the Mongolian plains. The result is a kind of Chinese wolf dance, an autobiography of a young Chinese man who tries to live with the wolves.

The life of the wolves

After growing up in Mao Zedong’s communist Beijing, Jiang Rong fled the madness of the Cultural Revolution by volunteering for work in the Mongolian grasslands, where he lived with a nomadic family.

One day he decided to ignore the advice of the clan chief and set off mindlessly into the wilderness on his own. Without realilzing it, he stumbled onto the hunting grounds of a pack of wolves. Through a mixture of terror and fascination, a young Jiang watched as the predators cleverly chased a herd of sheep over a cliff to their death. The corpses were dragged into a cave to be saved like frozen food to provide winter nourishment for the wolves.

He was fascinated, and from then on he began studying the wolves' lives. His tragic and melancholic attempt to domesticate one of the wild animals is perfect for the Hollywood screen -- especially the moment when he realizes that taming one of the clever beasts is akin to killing it.

The book’s damning societal critique doesn’t begin until he describes how soldiers arrived on the steppe from the capital city and forced the Mongolian nomads to abandon their nature-based lifestyle. Jiang has to accompany the uniformed men during a wolf hunt and watch as it transforms into a gory attempt at extermination.

As more soldiers arrive, the number of wolves killed increases. Just as in Tibet, the colonization by the Chinese causes an ecological disaster for the intact natural landscape of Inner Mongolia. Chinese settlers transform the steppe into fields, but without the wolves, rats quickly become a plague. Wild sheep graze until the meadows are dust. Mongolian sand storms glide over Beijing to Seoul. Once a mere parable, the story is now reality every spring, an example of the serious impact China’s uncontrolled explosive economic growth is having on its neighbors.  

Ideological misunderstandings

But the gifted storyteller doesn’t just leave readers with a bleak outlook. A 60-page call to action attached to the end of his book reminds local literary critics of the book “Huang Shan.” “Huang Shang” is the anthology of cultural criticism penned by leading Chinese intellectuals that provided the ideological kindling for what would become the fires of the student revolt in 1989.

Jiang's theory: the Han Chinese have become patient lambs, willing to accept any leadership rather than seize the reins and sculpt their own future, as wolves would.

But this can also be misinterpreted. Kai Strittmater of the Süddeutsche Zeitung felt the book laid the groundwork for the Latin Americanization of China –- a transformation from a communist dictatorship to a fascist government. Nonsense, counters the author, pointing to his history as a critical left-wing thinker. 

But since the publication of “Wolf Totem,” at least four books aimed at China’s management elite have asked the same question: "How can we use the wolves' strategy to make China even more successful?" The government has used the propaganda apparatus of the Central Committee to disclose the fact that members of the powerful Politburo have studied the book and deemed it a “significant work.”

All of this happened, of course, before the country’s security agency sent a highly classified dossier to the country’s political chiefs, divulging just who had written about his dances with wolves. Once Jiang’s identity had been revealed, publishers were told they could no longer publish books under pseudonyms unless the central censors had been made aware of an author’s true identity -– and political leanings. The directive came too late to stop Jiang Rong’s success.

Translated from the German by Andrew Bulkeley


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