China Books

Lupine lactose intolerant

wolf_totem_cover.jpg

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.

You might also want to listen to a much more positive review of the book from NPR, or read Jonathan Mirsky's review in which he says "Wolf Totem is the best Chinese book I've read for many years and the only really good novel." You can buy the book on Amazon.

Milking Wolves’ Totem —reading Linda Jaivin on Jiang Rong’s lupine love story

by 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 Goldblatt

Reviewed 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.
If Wolf Totem were a person, it would be one raised by wolves: somewhat autistic, lacking in empathy. The students don’t worry overmuch about someone falling off a horse in the middle of a stampede but choke up over the death of a swan. Several times we are told Chen could never love a son as much as he loved his wolf cub. There’s no reason to think otherwise.

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.

There are currently 14 Comments for Lupine lactose intolerant.

Comments on Lupine lactose intolerant

thin characterisation

"bloated with banality, repetition and cliché"

"a weird blend of emotional disconnect and mawkishness"

"somewhat autistic, lacking in empathy"

"crypto-fascist"

Is Wolf Totem really fiction? It sounds like a stunningly realistic portrayal of life in China.

It seems Western award giver types are always looking for reasons to trip over themselves to hand out awards to and lavish praise on "groundbreaking" Asian (esp Chinese in recent years) artsy types.

In doing so, I think in many cases they are not actually "getting it" and are just finding the person of the moment to put up on a pedestal and praise. Kind of like the red-hot art market craze going on now.

Naturally there are talents but is it necessary to bend over backward to award someone something because of the region or political system he's from all in the name of current chic and correctness??

"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.’"

Yup, because London says it's so...

I wonder how Messrs Lu and Goldblatt will use the new arseholes Ms Jaivin has so kindly and deservedly ripped for them?

Jim: Presumably, to produce more fine works of this sort.

What would Jiang make of wolves in monk's clothing?

As a former student of Howard Goldblatt's, I would like to speak up in his defense. Since first hearing that he was producing the English translation of for Penguin, I've often wondered if he actively sought the project or was chosen by the publisher. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Prof. Goldblatt, he is responsible for the English translations of many modern and contemporary Chinese novels and short stories. In fact, he is widely celebrated as the best Chinese-English translator working today. In short, my guess is that he was asked by Penguin to translate and agreed because the project was both prestigious and relatively lucrative (as compared to other self-chosen "labors of love" such as Zhu Tianwen's , Wang Zhenhe's , Mo Yan's and , and the works of Xiao Hong). I remember him admitting to a group of students that he occasionally agreed to certain projects for reasons having nothing to do with a work's literary value, and I am certain that is an example of this. I've read the first 200 pages of the Chinese version of () and, like Prof. Barme, am unlikely to finish it. Likewise, I will not rush to purchase the English translation. Rather, I recommend that we all read Howard Goldblatt's recently published English translation of Mo Yan's ( - glowingly reviewed by Jonathan Spence in the NY Times). And for a real treat, check out his translation of Wang Zhenhe's baudy satire (). Great stuff.

In fact, he is widely celebrated as the best Chinese-English translator working today.

Not by people competent to evaluate him, he's not.

I liked the book. It was a well written adventure story of a Chinese (Han) urban youth living among Mongols and learning about the respect they had for wolves.

What I don't understand is why Linda Jaivin, a soft-core porn writer, was asked to do a review of this book.

She notes that "Chen and his friends rarely discuss anything so mundane as sexual desire or love . . ."

I thought what a strange thing to say. Anyone familiar with life in China during the cultural revolution knew that "sexual desire or love" would not be a priority topic for Chinese youth to discuss.

In Ms. Jaivin's soft-core porn novel, "Eat Me," she writes, "Slowly, she hiked her short black skirt up above the lace tops of her stockings. She wore no underwear. She never wore underwear. What was the point? She touched herself, and found that she was warm and wet . . . she widened her stance. In one swift movement, she reached out and, grabbing him by the back of his head, brought his mouth up to her cunt. He gasped. 'Eat me,' she commanded."

Maybe this is the kind of discussion she wanted the youth to have on the Mongolian plain.

Ms. Jaivin believes that the author'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."

Ms. Jaivin obviously does not like this book, however, she tries to disguise it by throwing around a lot of "blubber" herself.

Why doesn't she describe it that way a reader described Ms. Jaivin's book, "Rock 'N' Roll Babes From Outer Space"?

* (amazon.com reader) - "Honestly, I turned to my wife and said on page 30 'This [book] is horrible.' I turned to her again on page 110 and said, 'This may be the worst book I've ever read in my life.' One week later, when I was still struggling to finish it, she asked, 'Why don't you just put it down.' My reply was that I truly could not believe it was as bad as it was - and I was waiting for it to get better. I can honestly tell you that as I read the last paragraph, I was filled with rage at the realization that I had in fact been duped. To paraphrase Jaivin's writing style in this book 'It's like the biggest piece of ....-o-rama ever!!! As if!!!' Don't waste your money, or more importantly, your time."*

Ms. Jaivin says the "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."

Again, a reader's response to Ms. Javin's characterisation of her book, "Eat Me" -

*(amazon.com reader) - "If you like poor character developement and favor a mindless attempt at erotica - this bud's , er book's for you. I sincerely hope women do not fantasize 'politically correct' scenarios where they end up on top ALL THE TIME. I found this book very unrealistic, the characters cliche, and the erotica....limp."

The author of Wolf Totem compared the historical weakness of the Chinese people to that of sheep. He, as an Han, admired the strength and cleverness of the Mongol people. He explained that the Mongols believed they inherited their strength and wisdom from learning how to survive in a very harsh environment from the Mongolian wolves.

Of course this is all legend, myth, and fantasy but it is just a story. Obviously, Ms. Jaivin and her co-writer, Geremie R. Barmé, have a political agenda in mind for making their clumsy attack on this book. The comment about "crypto-fascist" in reference to admiration of Genghis Khan exposes Ms. Jaivin's out-of-date political correctness.

I liked the book. I believe any open-minded person, Chinese or non-Chinese, would enjoy it. I did not like Ms. Jaivin's or Mr. Barme's pseudo intellectual review. For Mr. Barme's to stop reading the Chinese edition of the book after only 60 pages indicates a weakness in his Chinese understanding.

I read the English and am now reading the Chinese edition. I find both the writer and translator to be very professional and skillful in presenting this interesting story.

I agree with Ma Bole. I know from personal experience that Prof. Goldblatt's Chinese is impeccable. As his wife, Sylvia Lin, admits, he does make the occasional mistake, but they are so few that they are best viewed as exceptions that prove the rule. Several Chinese friends of mine who were also students of his have suggested that if you were to speak to Howard Goldblatt over the phone, you would be unable to tell that he was not a native speaker. How many western scholars have you ever heard fully engage a Chinese-speaking academic audience in their own language? Not many, and perhaps none so well as Howard Goldblatt.

I don't plan on reading 'Wolf Totem' (too many poor reviews and too little time), but I've enjoyed a number of HG's other books. I second Ma Bole's recommendation that we read his translations of Mo Yan and Wang Zhenhe. In fact, don't be too suprised if Mo Yan wins a Nobel someday soon (I understand that his name has been short-listed). If he does, it will be because Howard Goldblatt's translations have made his work available to a wider audience.

I know from conversations with Prof. Goldblatt that he sometimes takes on projects at the request of the publisher. His translation of the Cultural Revolution memoir 'Blood Red Sunset' by Ma Bo is just one example. Perhaps 'Wolf Totem' is another.

Edmund might do well to remove the stick from his rear end. For every one of him, there are many others who regard HG highly. If you are interested in reading contemporary Chinese fiction, there is no better place to start than with Goldblatt's translations.

@ Brad:

You write "I believe any open-minded person, Chinese or non-Chinese, would enjoy it."

Think about that for a second. The syllogism sez: "If you are open-minded, you will like this book; therefore, if you do not like this book, you are not open-minded."

The appropriate response to such pedantic crap? Eat me.

Look: Wolf Totem is demonstrably didactic, repetitious and laden with nationalist allegory. And you like it. Okay, fine, you like it. People like all kinds of things.

But your attempt at a take-down of Jiavin's review--which echoes a great number of other reviews, perhaps the majority, in its basic conclusions--is downright goofy. Go ahead and defend Jiang Rong's work, but attacking the reviewer using amateurish comments from Amazon.com is pathetic. What, did you decide to spend a few minutes googling Jaivin and then give the ol' cut & paste a workout? That's how you roll? Lame.

@Brad:

"How many western scholars have you ever heard fully engage a Chinese-speaking academic audience in their own language? Not many, and perhaps none so well as Howard Goldblatt."

Barme would definitely be one; his book 'In the Red' includes accounts of personal conversations with a lot of influential Chinese writers and critics. So I don't think that his failure to finish the book indicates the "weakness of his Chinese understanding."
BTW, I don't think either reviewer was criticizing Goldblatt's translation skills either.

brad:

Since I published your comment yesterday morning, I have been regretting it. You have little to say about Wolf Totem except that you like it, and the rest of your post is just an ad hominem attack on Jaivin, of whose work you are obviously ignorant.

If you had spent a little more time Googling with your eyes open, you would have found the answer your own question as to why she was asked to review this novel: in addition to being a novelist, she is a widely published literary critic with a strong background in Chinese, language and culture.

Finally, what you call soft porn, I call a cracking good read.

Maybe you should actually read Eat Me before copying and pasting Amazon.com reviews. You can buy it here.

Having read "Wolf Totem" in the English translation only, I don't qualify to comment on the Chinese original, however: I found the English translation to be a good book.

The characters seemed well enough drawn up to me; of course I am not a literary critic, but then, I found the author's genuine concern for the grassland and a vanishing way of life to be the real main character of the story.

Many of Ms Jaivins' criticisms I cannot really argue with as I personally find them to be matters of taste in literature and writing styles which it is almost impossible to be objective about.
However, I do think that "...His oft-stated respect for his hosts does not prevent Chen from raising a wolf cub in conscious violation of Mongol customs and beliefs..." is an illustration of the author's way of making his characters believable. After all, Chen Zhen is Han Chinese and even deep respect for his hosts does not completely undo his background and upbringing.

All the "wolf myths" mentioned are not presented as scientific facts but as spiritual knowledge which is why I found it easy to accept them as just that: the way in which the Mongols look at their world.
It is also easy to imagine why they would grip a group of young students with relatively little intellectual stimulation since their education was interrupted, or at least not very far-fetched.

China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
laomo2010x80.jpg
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives