Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Thursday, May 8, 2008 at 7:56 AM
Below is a review by Linda Jaivin of the recently published English translation of Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. The review was first published in The Australian Literary Review, on May 7, 2008, and is republished here with their permission, together with an introduction written for this website by Geremie R. Barmé.
Milking Wolves’ Totem —reading Linda Jaivin on Jiang Rong’s lupine love storyby Geremie R. Barmé
Linda Jaivin’s review of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem is a timely intervention on a subject that has been a hot China topic in the international media. Again, it is one that touches on the issues of non-Han ethnic cultures, this time dealing with a novel the author of which finds succour in what writers like Rae Yang (see her memoir Spider Eaters) and Yuan Weishi (the Zhongshan University historian attacked in early 2006) have called “wolves’ milk” (langnai). That is, the atavistic politics of passion and rhetorical violence fostered by ideologues, media carpet-baggers and the “engineers of human souls” in the guise of supporting righteous patriotic fervour.
Wolves in chic clothing have been around for most of the “open door and reform period”, an era that marks its thirtieth anniversary this year. Indeed, contemporary Chinese cultural producers have been making a meal of borderland themes and peoples to express cutting-edge artistic and ideological views since the 1980s. Some writers and artists have sought in various borderland ethnic Others an invigorating tonic replete with the essence of the masculine, the swarthy and the heroic, one they hope can infuse the peoples of the Central Plains (Zhong Yuan) with greater vigour and militancy (and make them a buck and a name in the process).
One thinks, for example, of some of the early the writings of Zhang Chengzhi, the Beijing Hui writer who came to post-Cultural Revolution fame for his novels about the Mongolian and later Chinese sufi worlds (since his fame as a novelist has long overshadowed his first career, most people don’t know that he was one of the founders of the Red Guard movement), or indeed of the director Tian Zhuangzhuang who made such films as Liechang Zasa and Horse Thief. Then there is the famous “misty poet” (menglong shiren) Yang Lian whose Nuoerlang cycle of poems set in Tibetan China, and he is in good company with Ma Jian, author of the vile Stick Out Your Tongue, another example of priapic narcissism. (Editor's note: you can download a Chinese language article by Barmé from 1986 about 'borderland fever' originally written for The Nineties Monthly in Hong Kong: PDF 1, 2.)
Commentators have debated the value and significance of Jiang Rong’s best-selling Wolf Totem for some time, especially since its prize-winning debut (and canny marketing) in English. For me the Chinese version of the novel was so odious that I failed to finish it; I fear that, having read Linda’s scarifying review (reprinted below), I won’t get much further with Howard Goldblatt’s rendition. But in reconsidering this grim gem of Chinese literary production, I am reminded of another writer in this vein, one who has long been forgotten by mavens of new Cathay: Yuan Hongbing.
Yuan is worthy of recall at this moment for, in his best-selling 1990 “Sino-fascist” (my description) screed Wind in the Wilderness (Huangyuan feng), he called for “rebirth of the China spirit” (Zhonghua jingshen). He declared that the upcoming Asian century would require a new kind of Chinese “totalitarian style”, one which would “fuse the weak, ignorant and selfish individuals of the race into a powerful whole”. In this looming new era, he declared, the Han race would need strong, idealistic, dignified and free men to achieve such an end. “Scientific rationalism has said all it can within the context of Western civilization”, he said. It was now necessary to “cast aside the attitude of national defeatism, [for] if we fail to do so, the China Spirit will not be smelted into an iron will, and it will be as lifeless as the fallen leaves of history”.
In the guise of Han-China bashing works like Wolf Totem excoriate the soft, the compassionate, the humane and the feminine—perceived weaknesses of China. They exploit the Other to worship an unreflective, ultra-masculine and über-virile ideal.
Yuan Hongbing’s words have come to mind as I have read the lucubrations of Wang Xiaodong (who has crowned the “4.19” movement of this year as China’s new May Fourth) and Gan Yang (who has celebrated the global Chinese protests as emblematic of a “new internationalism”). Fire in the blood has been a theme of many works of popular culture in China for some time (indeed, it is hardly unique to contemporary China, though censorship and guided public opinion make for a heady mix). But what happens when people go on the “wolves’ milk” drip again? One thing’s for sure, the cubs you get are going to be more than mere ankle-biters.
Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, translated by Howard GoldblattReviewed by Linda Jaivin Published in the Australian Literary Review, May 7 2008
Boy meets wolf. Boy loses wolf. Boy writes Wolf Totem, wins inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize. A multi-million copy bestseller in China since its release four years ago, Wolf Totem is as much a phenomenon as it is a novel. Its fans liken it to Moby Dick. It has spawned a children’s version, manga, a big budget movie (to be released this year) and several counterfeit sequels. China’s businessmen trawl it for pearls of lupine wisdom. Environmentalists wave it like a manifesto. Now Wolf Totem is out in translation, ready to sink its fangs into a broader Western readership.
Jiang Rong (real name: Lu Jiamin) based Wolf Totem on his experiences as a Chinese student living among nomads on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in the Cultural Revolution. In 1966, Mao fired up China’s urban youth to fight his factional enemies, literally as well as ideologically. Several years later, having accomplished his goals and tiring of the havoc, Mao dispatched the students to the countryside and border regions to cool off, for the rest of their lives if necessary. It was an experience which branded, scarred and in a way, culturally privileged a generation. Over the four decades since, they have reflected on those extraordinary times in countless, increasingly nuanced and even humorous novels, stories, memoirs, poems, films, plays and artworks; Wolf Totem comes from this tradition.
In Wolf Totem, protagonist Chen Zhen becomes fascinated with wolves, the totem animal of the Mongolians, whose independent, nomadic lifestyle also comes as a revelation. His oft-stated respect for his hosts does not prevent Chen from raising a wolf cub in conscious violation of Mongol customs and beliefs. The decision brings him into direct conflict with his Mongolian mentor, Bilgee.
Wise old Bilgee comes across as the archetypal ‘noble savage’ of the sort who used to populate Western fiction before writers became embarrassed by the concept, Marlo Morgan excepted. Bilgee teaches Chen about wolves and shows him how even vicious predators are an essential part of the natural environment. The fact that Chen calls Bilgee ‘papa’ begs the question: what has happened to Chen’s own parents and does he ever think of home -- and if not, why not? There are no back stories on offer, none hinted at.
Unlike the characters in many other contemporary novels of the Cultural Revolution (think of Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, for example), Chen and his friends rarely discuss anything so mundane as sexual desire or love, or what and whom they left behind in the city or even their feelings about the cataclysmic events which have shaped their young lives. Their conversation seesaws between harsh intellectual critiques of China’s ‘peasant mentality’, moral lassitude and moribund civilisation on the one hand and on the other, panegyrics on the local way of life. ‘These Mongols,’ says Chen, ‘all I can do is stand back and admire them.’
That is a typical example of the novel’s dialogue, by the way. Jiang’s prose style is in general so bloated with banality, repetition and cliché, that comparisons to Moby Dick, to my mind, relate only to the ratio of blubber to ambergris. Howard Goldblatt’s translation abets, inflicting such vivid oddities as: ‘It’s not surprising that for thousands of years the Chinese colossus has been spectacularly pummeled by tiny nomadic peoples.’ One is at least spared the 60-page ‘call to action’ which concluded the Chinese original. At 500-plus pages, Wolf Totem is still thick enough to stun a marmot.
Marmots don’t come off too well in Wolf Totem. The hunted generally don’t. The wolves are the real heroes. If the human characters lack motivation, the wolves more than make up for it. Wolves plan for battle and harbour more ‘murderous thoughts of revenge’ than your average kungfu hero. They are capable of experiencing disgrace, humiliation, hatred, joy and religious awe. Wolves, we are told, trained Mongol horses and were behind Genghis Khan’s conquest of the world. They can take credit for the economic and political dynamism of the West. They are expert climatologists and devoted to the protection of the grassland (as opposed simply to being an integral part of its ecosystem). We know all this because Chen says it’s so.
Wolves are certainly intelligent animals with developed social behaviours and hunting strategies. Yet much of the ‘wolf nature’ theorising in Wolf Totem rings crackpot. The author pays homage to Jack London. But London managed to ascribe personalities to his wolf characters without unduly anthropomorphising them or investing them with mystical powers. London writes in White Fang, for example, that a wolf ‘did not think in man-fashion. He did not look at things with wide vision. He was single-purposed, and entertained but one thought or desire at a time.’ The cub in London’s novel learns that some behaviours result in pain, and others in pleasure, and acts accordingly; to obey the laws of the pack ‘was to escape hurt and make for happiness.’ Jiang read London, but it doesn’t appear he paid much attention.
Horses in Wolf Totem are also big thinkers, imbued with notions of responsibility and forward planning. Even mosquitoes – especially ones made ‘wolfish’ from lupine blood – are credited with rational intent. If this makes the animals sound like characters, they’re not -- they’re simply talked about a lot. The inner lives of the garrulous humans, by contrast, are a weird blend of emotional disconnect and mawkishness.
Characterisation in Wolf Totem is as thin as a poorly felted yurt, the plot a ragged pelt stretched over a writhing cluster of historical, cultural and ecological hypotheses.
Is sentimentality the last refuge of the crypto-fascist? Chen and friends praise the ‘murderous swath’ Genghis Khan’s warriors cut through Europe and Asia. Chen admonishes another Chinese to ‘be careful when you place the civil over the military’ and elsewhere states that a people who adopted the wolf’s gladiator-like temperament ‘would always be a victorious people.’ The author is not shy of using the word ‘race’ when praising (Mongol: good) or criticising (Chinese: bad).
The idealisation of the Mongols, held up in Wolf Totem as virile, free, independent and wolf-like has echoes of the fetishisation in the 1980s of Tibetans as both spiritual and sexually liberated by Han Chinese authors such as Ma Jian (Stick Out Your Tongue). The authors are ultimately most interested in making a point about their own culture.
The most effective passages in Wolf Totem describe how migrant workers, Chinese and sinicised Mongols alike, have ripped the guts out of the Olanbulag’s fragile grassland ecosystem as ferociously as a wolf taking down a gazelle. In its creepy and cack-handed way, Wolf Totem draws attention to the dangers posed by short-sighted materialism not just to the grasslands but, by extension, the earth itself. Perhaps that’s what moved the judges of Man prize; it would astonish me to learn it was literary merit.
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