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BOOK REVIEW: WOLF TOTEM by Jiang Rong

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by Jiang Rong

Khidki (Window)

–Read Initiative—

This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about.

     Wolf Totem is a 2004 Chinese semi-auto-biographical novel by Chinese author Lu Jiamin who wrote the book under the pseudonym Jiang Rong. The book was published in 2004 in China and since, has been translated into 30 languages. The author’s true identity did not become public until several years after the book’s publication. He has used auto fiction techniques that merges the auto-biographical and fictive elements of the story. It is about the experiences of a young student from Beijing who is sent to the countryside of Inner Mongolia, which is a Mongolic autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. Its border includes, most of the length of China’s border with the country of Mongolia. The young student is sent there in 1967, at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution. Also referred as, ‘The Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement, often simply known as the Down to the Countryside Movement, was a policy instituted by the People’s Republic of China in the late 1960s and early 1970s. An offshoot of the pro-bourgeois thinking prevalent during the Cultural Revolution in China, in which, Chairman Mao Zedong had declared that certain privileged urban youth, would be sent to the mountainous areas or farming villages to learn from the workers and farmers there. In all, about 17 million youth were sent to the rural areas as a result of the movement.

    Wolf Totem is narrated by the main character of the novel, Chen Zhen, who is a Chinese man in his late twenties, and who also, like the author, leaves his home in Beijing, China, to work in Inner Mongolia a province in China during the Cultural Revolution. Through descriptions of folk traditions, rituals, and life on the steppe, Wolf Totem, compares the culture of the ethnic Mongolian nomads, who are citizens of the People’s Republic of China, but are ethnic Mongols, and the Han Chinese farmers in the area. Han Chinese are East Asian ethnic group, historically native to the Yellow River Basin region of, modern China. They constitute the world’s largest ethnic group, making about 18% of the global population, speaking distinctive variety of Chinese languages.

    According to some interpretations, the book praises, “Freedom, independence, respect, unyielding nature before hardship, teamwork and competition” of the nomads, and criticizes the “Confucian-inspired culture” of the latter, which was “sheep-like”. The book condemns the agricultural collectivisation, the collective farming imposed on the nomads by the settlers, and the ecological disasters it caused, and ends with a 60-page “call to action” that is disconnected from the main thread of the novel.

    The author has mentioned that he got inspired to write Wolf Totem by accident. One day he ignored the advice of the clan chief of the group of nomads with whom he was staying, and accidentally stumbled into a pack of wolves. Terrified, he watched them, as the wolves chased a herd of sheep, off a cliff, then dragged their corpses into a cave. From then on, fascinated by the wolves, he began to study them and their relationship with the nomads more closely, and even attempted to domesticate one.

    The book sold well, almost immediately, after its release, selling some 50,000 copies in just two weeks. Pirated editions began to appear five days after the book first appeared on the shelves. By March 2006, it had sold over four million copies in China, and was also broadcast, in an audiobook format in twelve parts during prime time on China Radio International. Jiang also released a children’s edition of the book in July 2005, cut down to roughly one-third the length.

    Despite the author’s refusal to participate in marketing the book, deals for adaptations of the novel into other media and translations into other languages have set financial records. Penguin Books paid US$100,000 for the worldwide English rights, setting a record for the highest amount paid for the translation rights to a Chinese book. An unspecified Tokyo publisher paid US$300,000 for the rights to publish a manga (graphic) adaptation, and Bertelsmann bought the German-language rights for €20,000. The author believes that, “in the West they may understand his book more comprehensively than in China.”

    Other writers took advantage of the author’s anonymity to write fake sequels to Wolf Totem, including two books titled, Wolf Totem 2, as well as Great Wolfof the Plains, all with the imprint of the Chang Jiang Arts Publishing House. As a result, in April 2007, the author issued a statement that denounced all such “sequels” as fraudulent. He indicated that he was doing research for another book, but would not be publishing anything new in the short term.

    Wolf Totem has also been the subject of criticism. Charu Nivedita, in his review in The Asian Age, called the novel fascist. He wrote, “Won’t we all prefer a peaceful desert to a fascist grassland, where, one dominating race devours all other in a macabre ritual of bloodbath?” German sinologist Wolfgang Kubin described the book as “fascist” for its depiction and treatment of the farmers. Pankaj Mishra, reviewing the English translation for The New York Times, described Jiang’s writing as “full of set-piece didacticism.

   Mongol writer Guo Xuebo a scholar of Mongolian literature and history, has said that the wolf was never a traditional totem used by ethnic Mongolians. On the contrary, the wolf is the biggest menace for their survival. His post to this effect on Sina Weibo a Chinese internet site, on 18 February 2015 was questioned by many others. On February 25, he wrote an open letter, condemning the novel and the film, saying they “humiliate the ancestry, distort the history and culture, and insult the Mongolian people.” Independent from his views some others wrote, the wolf is a revered animal, which is regarded as having a heavenly destiny in Mongolia. On 20 January 2016, the Inner Mongolia Academy of Social Sciences, the leading academic and research institution in Inner Mongolia, said that the wolf totem does not exist in ethnic Mongolian belief. The institution found, remains of ancient Mongolian totem worship, in varying degrees, among some tribes in ethnic Mongolia, but concluded there is no unified ethnic totem for Mongolian people after a wide range of fieldwork from April until July 2015 in Inner Mongolia.

    Film adaptation:Wolf Totem is a 2015 Chinese-language film based on the novel. Directed by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud who co-wrote with Alain Godard and John Collee. The Chinese-French co-production features a Chinese student who is sent to Inner Mongolia to teach shepherds and instead learns about the wolf population, which is under threat by a government apparatchik. An apparatchik was a full-time, professional functionary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union or the Soviet Government. 

    The Beijing Forbidden City Film Corporation initially sought to hire a Chinese director, but filming humans with real wolves was considered too difficult. New Zealand director Peter Jackson was therefore approached, but production did not take place. Annaud, whose 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet is banned in China, was hired despite the history. The film was finally produced by China Film Group and French-based Reperage. The French director, who had worked with animals on other films, acquired a dozen wolf pups in China and had them trained for several years by a Canadian animal trainer. With a production budget of US$40 million, Annaud filmed Wolf Totem in Inner Mongolia, where the book is set, for over a year.

    The film premiered at the European Film Market on February 7, 2015. It was scheduled to be released in China on February 19, 2015, for the start of the Chinese New Year, and in France on February 25, 2015.

    A good book has many takers just as this one that was also adapted into a movie. I would give the book seven out of ten.

By Kamlesh Tripathi

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https://kamleshsujata.wordpress.com

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