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The novel “Wolf Totem” was one of the best selling books in China in the late 2000s and won the Man Asian Literature Prize. Written by Jiang Ring, a former Red Guard who spent much of the 1970s in Inner Mongolia, it is about a man much like the author who is sent to Inner Mongolia to teach the herdsmen there. During his stay he is the one who receives an education--about life on the steppe, especially wolves who are despised for killing the herdsmen’s animals but are revered. Central episodes include adoption of a wolf cub by the main character and a ferocious battle between a starving wolf pack and a herd of wild horses. The book was translated into English by Howard Goldblatt.

Howard Y. F. Choy of Wittenberg University wrote: “Wolf Totem became a cultural sensation in China when it was published in 2004---a flashpoint for historical, spiritual, and cultural concerns. Although Jiang Rong intended his debut novel as a political fable to appeal for freedom and popular elections, it has often been regarded in commercial circles as a business handbook for the practice of wolf wisdom in market competition. As a cultural phenomenon, its wolf symbolism is as celebrated as it is controversial: it critiques Confucianism in light of militarism, calls for environmental protection and sustainability according to the law of the jungle (or, in Jiang Rong's own term, “grassland logic”), and advocates “peaceful” survival of the fittest through territorial expansion and a renewed space race.” [Source: Howard Y. F. Choy of Wittenberg University, MCLC Resource Center Publication , April 2009]

“Jiang Rong is a pseudonym of Lü Jiamin, a former political science professor and democracy activist jailed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Wolf Totem is a quasi-autobiographical novel about a Han Chinese urban intellectual's personal experience on the steppes in north-central Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Chen Zhen, the author's alter ego, spends a decade of nomadic life in the Ujimchin Banner on the Chinese border of Inner and Outer Mongolia. It is in this contact zone that the protagonist ponders the complex interrelationship between Mongolianness and Han Chineseness. He soon becomes fascinated with Mongolian wolves and Genghis Khan (1167-1227), the phantom of a wolfish heroism that once occupied China and founded a vast empire across Eurasia. When Chen risks a clash with his hosts' totem and taboos by adopting a wolfkin as a pet, he finds himself adapting to a nomadic brave new world, where he witnesses a wilderness paradise in the process of being lost to the impact of internal colonization. The novel closes with Chen's burden of guilt over having ‘snipped off the canines of the . . . cub, stripping him of his freedom with a chain during his short life, and in the end crushing his head.”

“The pleasure of reading is swiftly aroused in the beginning of the novel by its wolf lore---pages of breathtaking descriptions of wolf raids on gazelles and prized horses, followed by bloody wolf hunting. The problem with such pleasure is that the gory graphic details render violence not only delightful and entertaining, but also sublime and sacred. Wolves are portrayed as warriors and strategists, with high spirits and esprit de corps, and masterly hunting tactics in spying, encircling, ambushing, assaulting, and intercepting; they are, moreover, apotheosized as messengers from Tengger, Mongol heaven. Nevertheless, these powerful sections of the narrative fail to develop into an interesting story, as they soon yield place to the grandiose theory of evolution one third of the way into the novel. As Lee Haiyan observes, in the course of the “scientific experiment” of raising the cub, Chen Zhen's “loving gaze that elevates it to a mythic being is also an epistemological gaze that reduces it to a lab creature.” Little Wolf is simultaneously deified as the object of a new totemism and objectified by “wolfology” at the same time.”

"Structurally, each of the thirty-five chapters opens with epigraphs excerpted from historical documents or studies. An example is the legend about Mongolian ancestry from the opening of The Secret History of the Mongols : “At the beginning there was a blue-grey wolf, born with his destiny ordained by Heaven Above.” Indeed, Jiang Rong rewrites 5,000 years of Chinese history in the last 50,000 characters of his 500,000-character book so as to make it conform to his lupine discourse. ...The author concludes his grand narrative by opining that the Chinese people are not so much “descendants of the dragon” as “disciples of the wolf” and that nomads are the ancestors of the Han farming people. Seeking a barbarian civilization in the term “civilized wolf” as a modern transition from ancient “civilized sheep” to future “civilized man,” he advocates “nomadizing” peasant mentality and the necessity to “Mongolianize” Han culture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the jarring sermon that comprises the last one tenth of the work has also been cut from the English rendition.”

Analysis of Wolf Totem

“Chinese critic Li Jianjun has pointed out that Wolf Totem is a product of an age of evacuated values and cultural crisis, with humanism in retreat and science at the forefront, and in which the law of the market has become a new ideology, or rather, a new form of the Marxist-Maoist philosophy of struggle.[6] Indeed, Jiang Rong's extremism echoes Stalin's social Darwinist statement about “the jungle law of capitalism” in his 1931 speech to industrial managers: “You are backward, you are weak---therefore you are wrong; hence, you can be beaten and enslaved. You are mighty---therefore you are right; hence, we must be wary of you.”“ [Source: Howard Y. F. Choy of Wittenberg University, MCLC Resource Center Publication , April 2009] “Wolf Totem is reminiscent of Zhang Chengzhi's educated youth fiction of Inner Mongolia produced in the late 1970s and 1980s, including his novella “The Black Steed” and novel Golden Prairie, in which Zhang reconstructs his Hui identity by identifying with yet another minority nationality rather than the Han majority. In the context of Chinese literary history, Nicole Barnes considers “Wolf Totem the latest literary expression of a long-lived Chinese political identity crisis in which fear of emasculation drives Han men to their nation's cultural frontier in an existential search for virility and assertiveness, qualities believed to be more abundant among the ethnic minorities than among China's Han majority.” The antidote Jiang Rong prescribes for the “feminized” Han national character is the “blood transfusion” of Mongolian machismo.

“While the Han majority has taken pride in its ability to Sinicize all minorities, the novelist proposes to introject Mongolian otherness onto Han selfhood in antitheses of nomads/farmers, carnivores/herbivores, brutalism/domestication, liberalism/Confucianism, and wolf worship/sheep spirit. In these simple binary pairs the former is deemed good, brave and intelligent, whereas the latter is bad (if not evil), weak and stupid. Such binary oppositions present to us not only a clash of nomadic and agrarian civilizations but also, because the latter is derogated to the rudimentary stage of world history, a crisis of superiority and inferiority complexes.

“Although Jiang Rong's alleged opposition to Han chauvinism in his ethnic epic turns the superiority of the Han majority and the inferiority of the ethnic minorities upside down, its representational construction remains homogeneous...Chen Zhen's “sympathy” for his miserable Mongolian compatriots under the government's wolf-eradication campaign is expressed in environmentalism---in the term's two senses of ecological concern and belief in the influence of the milieu on the race. With the desertification of twenty-eight percent of the Chinese territory, Han colonizers are condemned for continuously cultivating the fragile grasslands into farmlands. Cultivation contaminates a pure landscape and tames wild nature.

Shanghai Baby, La La La and Other Racy Novels in China


“Shanghai Baby” was a very popular, racy novel published in the 1990s and written by Wei Hui. Set in Shanghai, it is about a 25-year-old waitress named Coco who falls in love with handsome but impotent drug addict and has an affair with a virile but married German man. Wei Hui studied literature at prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai and continued to live with her mother even after her book became a success.

“Shanghai Baby” went through six printings before it was banned for being pornographic nine months after it was first published. After this bootleg copies were available all over China and the book was published in Japan, the United States, Taiwan and South Korea. There was talk for a while of a movie. Some of the places mentioned in the book---particularly a public toilet where two character had sex---became tourist sites. “Shanghai Baby” is still banned in China.

Another popular, racy work published around the same time was “La La La” (1995), a semi-autobiographical work by Mian Mian. It details the story of a 17-year-old girl who experiments with bisexuality, heroin and sex with foreigners in Shenzhen.

Mian's novel was written first. She accused Wei of stealing her work and being a "good girl trying to be bad." The two women became known as the "Shanghai Babes." They engaged in a highly publicized cat fight on the Internet and in the Chinese-equivalent of the tabloids.

Yet, another popular, racy novel “You Can't Control My Life” (1998) was written by Miao Yong, a young woman who grew up in western China, attended a teacher's college and then came to Shenzhen and worked as a secretary. The novel is about a secretary who becomes a mistress of a Hong Kong businessman and becomes engaged in casual sex, drugs and gambling.

Many Chinese writers now write about sex. Descriptions of lengthy orgasms by female writers are popular as are Henry Miller novels. Other popular racy novels include “Breakup Dawn” and “Happiness That Last Half Day Long”. Han Han and Guo Jingming are so-called “Pretty Women” writers wrote who found fame writing online about their lives and problems.

One of the best-selling books in China in 20009 was “The Story of Du Lala’s Promotion” by Li Ke, about a young woman who achieves success in the male-dominated Chinese corporate world. The book was widely embraced by women in China as a how-to manual for getting ahead in the business world. Li Ke is a pseudonym.

One enthusiastic reader of “Du Lala’s Promotion” told AFP, “It gave me guidance and ideas. I learned a lot from this book---about how to communicate, how to survive in an office, how to ask for a pay raise and how office love affairs are taboo.” Another, am employee of a foreign firm in Beijing, said, “I don’t feel alone any more. There are thousand of Du Lalas who try to make it on their own live better lives, like me. It’s a very practical book for active young women.”

Under the Hawthorn Tree Sensation

Dalya Alberge wrote in The Guardian: “A novel by an anonymous Chinese author living in America, which started life as a blog, has become a worldwide publishing sensation. It has been snapped up by publishers in 15 countries who have been impressed by the fact that it has sold more than a million copies in China and inspired a film by an Oscar-winning Chinese director. Some publishers even bought it before reading a translation. Yet none of the publishers, translators or editors knows the author's identity. [Source: Dalya Alberge, The Guardian, January 7, 2012]

Under the Hawthorn Tree, a tragic love story set during the Cultural Revolution, is written under the pen name of Ai Mi. All that is known about the author is that she leads a reclusive life in Florida, having gone there to study. She is thought to be in her fifties or sixties, if only because her insight into the Cultural Revolution suggests someone who experienced first hand the political and social persecution of Mao Zedong's last decade. She tells her readers that it was inspired by a true story. Her central character---a young woman from a "politically questionable family" who falls in love with the son of a general---is based on a real person with names and places disguised.

In a publishing world where an author's identity is often more important than their talent, it is striking that publishers as far afield as Italy, Norway, Brazil and Israel have responded to the writing alone. Lennie Goodings of Virago bought it without knowing a word of Chinese---and was relieved to discover that it lived up to her expectations when she commissioned an English translation. She said: "It's a beautiful love story, almost like a Romeo and Juliet. It has that real simplicity about people trying to love each other across class. [Set] against the Cultural Revolution, it shows the startlingly intimate reach of politics in that period [which] even affects---and infects---their love."

Goodings asked someone from Shanghai who works in Virago's accounts department to read it: "Her face fell and she said, 'I'm not interested in the Cultural Revolution. It's my parents' generation.' The next day she was at my shoulder, eyes brimming, saying 'it's so wonderful and I cried'. On the basis of that, I bought it blind." Although the original blog was serialised on a website that was blocked by the Chinese authorities, an admirer had passed it to one of China's state-affiliated publishers, which has been overwhelmed by its sales.

Anna Holmwood, the English translator, said: "It doesn't present a problem for the Chinese government. If you were to take a particular political line about the Cultural Revolution, that might be problematic. But nowadays people are very open about talking about what a terrible time it was."

In the opening chapter of the book...the central character is befriended by a Russian who teaches her a Russian song, The Hawthorn Tree. Ai Mi writes: "Of course, this had to be done in secret. Not only had everything associated with the Soviet Union become dangerous but, just as importantly, anything contaminated by the idea of 'love' was considered the bad influence and the putrid remains of the capitalist class. The Hawthorn Tree was deemed 'obscene', 'rotten and decayed', and of 'improper style' because the lyrics spoke of two young men---in love with the same young maiden."

Sheng Keyi

Sheng Keyi is a well known writer in China. As of 2011, when she was 38, she had published five novels and a number of short stories. In 2003, she won the Most Promising New Talent award. Her most well-known work "Northern Girls“ was first published in Chinese in 2004 and is scheduled to be published in English in 2012 by Penguin. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, April 14, 2011]

A shy person who doesn’t appear to seek the limelight, according to the New York Times, Sheng has a led a life that echos that of many characters in works. She grew up in a village in the southern province of Hunan and headed for the southern economic boomtown of Shenzhen in the 1990s. She held several jobs over seven years, including at a securities company and a magazine, before leaving to write full-time in 2001.

During her stint as a working girl she picked up many details about the seedy side of life in China . "When I lived in Shenzhen, I remember hearing that working in a gynecological hospital was one of the best ways to make money because there was such a regular demand for abortions," Sheng told the New York Times. "Enormous numbers of people have gone down the drains. It’s like a whole city down there." In “Northern Girls“ there are tales of forced sterilizations. "Forced sterilizations happen here," Sheng said. In order to meet strict population quotas, especially in the countryside, sometimes family planning officials and the police "will grab people and take them to clinics and force them to undergo these operations." Wanting to sterilize a woman who has already exceeded her allotted number of children, they "sometimes go to a house, and if the wife isn’t there, they may grab the young daughter who isn’t even married yet and drag her off to the clinic and do the operation."

Meng Fanhua, a prominent literary critic and professor at Shenyang Normal University, calls Sheng "a unique presence. She has always focused on life at the lower end of the social scale---on the despair, and the courage to live, that is there." Eric Abrahamsen, co-founder of a Web site devoted to Chinese literature in translation, www.paper-republic.org, says Sheng’s writing stands out for its style, and nuance. "There’s something very forceful and full-bodied about the language. It’s very physical," he said. Yet, "She’s got a subtlety about what it means to be a woman, that others lack."

Sheng Keyi's Northern Girls

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, “Qian Xiaohong, the heroine of “Northern Girls“ , a critically admired novel by the rising literary star Sheng Keyi, could be any young woman serving you in a restaurant, or leaning on a mop watching you walk over the floor she has just washed or, though she fights this fate, sitting behind a glass door in a pink-lit "hairdresser" shop, its rotating barber pole outside signaling illegal sexual services within. Millions of women like Ms. Qian have left China’s villages for its cities, looking for their place in the sun, since the government began sweeping economic---though not political---reforms in 1978. The result has been enormous social change affecting everything from family relationships to fashion to sexuality.” [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, April 14, 2011]

"I wanted to write a story about girls from the countryside, what it’s like to be seeking yourself in the city and trying to maintain your independence. And I think it’s very hard," Sheng told the New York Times. "These are women whose eyes and bodies see and feel the ruthlessness of the age, the difficulty of surviving," Ms. Sheng writes in an afterword to a new edition of her novel, published this year. Barely educated and vulnerable, "They are women on whom society’s eyes rarely rest for long. I feel that to present their struggle for survival, that’s interesting, and it’s valuable, it’s important."

Tatlow wrote: “A major part of migrant women’s struggle is dealing with attempts to exploit them sexually in the big cities, where prostitution flourishes and often offers better pay than other jobs, making their sexuality a central issue, says Ms. Sheng. Many academic studies, and some overseas works, notably Leslie T. Chang’s "Factory Girls," have focused on the special challenges facing female migrant workers as they grapple with new freedoms in the cities. Yet Ms. Sheng’s technique of writing through, and about, women’s bodies, is unusually intimate and direct. Her choice of a striking physical attribute for Ms. Qian---unusually large breasts---highlights what she says is a serious issue: How can a poor woman who attracts considerable male sexual attention hold on to her morals in a highly amoral society”

"I wanted to give these girls an exterior sign to symbolize their worries and anxieties as they head into China’s urban society," Ms. Sheng said. Her exploration of women’s bodies and how they shape their destinies leads her into new literary territory, says the reviewer and poet Ma Ce. "Northern Girls” is about bodies and freedom, but more importantly, it’s about the limits to that freedom," Mr. Ma wrote in an essay.

Qian Xiaohong’s breasts are a boon and a burden. "Like pomelos, while those of her best friend, Li Sijiang, are like tangerines," Ms. Sheng said. "Of course, a woman with pomelos is going to have a harder time in society than a woman with tangerines." Yet Ms. Qian, eager to grasp her freedoms, enjoys her sexuality. This is established on the first page of the novel, as rendered by the Beijing-based translator Eric Abrahamsen: "All the decent girls in the village wore loose clothing and hunched their shoulders---protecting their chests was the first step in protecting their reputations. Only Qian Xiaohong walked with her mounds thrust forward, bearing down mercilessly, like dark clouds threatening a city."

The focus on female bodies leads to harrowing territory, too. Ms. Li is seized by officials in a small town during a family planning crackdown, taken to a hospital and forcibly sterilized. Ms. Sheng said that publishers initially refused to touch her book because of that passage. And so, although "Northern Girls" was the first novel she wrote---"my virgin work"---it wasn’t her "first birth." Another, less controversial, novel, about a young working-class couple’s relationship, was published first. Abortion also features. Inadequate sex education, especially in the countryside, means many migrant workers become unintentionally pregnant.

Alai and Hollow Mountain

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Alai, a Tibetan writer who goes by one name, is author of the six-volume “Hollow Mountain“, about a Tibetan village in the throes of a 50-year tumultuous transformation is a microcosm of rural China at large. Alai told the China Daily, “The protagonist of my novel is the village, not a person, and this village is broken and unstable, with an array of people on center stage at various times.” [Source: Raymond Zhou, China Daily, April 15, 2009]

Alai is from the Tibetan area of northwestern Sichuan. He won the title of “Outstanding Author of 2008," the year the last installment of his magnum opus was published. Alai emerged in 1998 with his debut novel “Red Poppies“, now available in English. Its original title in Chinese is “The Dust Settles“, and it is also set in Tibet. Alai’s writing career started in the 1980s, first with poetry and then with fiction. He is now president of the Sichuan Writers Association.

Alai doesn’t like being called “Tibetan writer,” explaining that the label “puts me down,” and insists that what he wrote applies not only to the Tibetan area, but also to all of rural China: “Our urban development comes at the cost of the rural area. An increasing burden is imposed on the countryside, something it has to bear. Things have turned for the better in the past 30 years, but fundamentally farmers' living conditions are less than ideal and their fate is one of tragedy.

“Alai says he is not a “brave man” and adds that he should not pretend to be one. “I take history and literature very seriously,” he reveals. “I write about the dark side not because I want to expose it, but because it is the truth. The value of charting the sad course of history is to make people think. If something like that happens again, people will be vigilant. If we all forget, in a generation or two nobody will know anything about it, and that'll be our tragedy, just like building on a fault-line even though you know it's there.”

“The Tibetan in 2008 he said exposed what he calls “the beautiful misunderstanding rampant among the rest of the world, including China”. This “beautiful” misunderstanding, he says, has sown the seeds of mistrust among people of different ethnicities. Alai says the outside world has a romantic version of Tibet that has little to do with its real history. They imagine Tibet to be “a cradle of myths”, which epitomizes the opposite of all undesirable things in a material world. They choose to be oblivious to the fact that most people in Tibet lived in ignorance and life did not improve for hundreds of years. “Alai takes upon himself the task of “demystifying” Tibet. “The Tibetan people are a member of the human population, and what they need is not how to be the servants of god, but to be human beings.” He also takes care not to see himself as a spokesman for all Tibetans. “Nobody -not a monk or any other person, or myself - has the right to take the place of all the people in this region. Only individuals who form this whole can present the whole picture of this race and this culture.”

Alai on Artistic Quality

Alai, one of China's few best-known Tibetan writers, is encouraging some of his peers to readjust their profit-oriented goals and concentrate instead on artistic quality. He made the remarks at the recently concluded sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). [Source: Liu Lu, China Daily, March 20, 2012]

The NPC deputy and chairman of the Sichuan Writers' Association says contemporary publishing circles suffer from an erroneous belief that sales are a barometer of a book's popularity. So to please the public, some writers seek popularity through creating vulgar works that "undermine the artistic nature of literature".

"The market-oriented approach does stimulate the creativity of Chinese writers, which has greatly contributed to today's literary boom," Alai says. "But there are serious problems behind this." The novelist says that while profitability is an indicator of success, a book's spiritual and artistic value is more important. "The development of the cultural industry cannot simply follow the development routes of other industries and be solely profit-oriented. In my opinion, a good literary work should not only be readable but also put an emphasis on artistic exploration and delve deeper into human nature and the diversity of culture."

Alai says the lack of spiritual qualities in works by Chinese writers means they are not as influential as they could be internationally. "Foreign publishing houses are looking for outstanding literary works from China that allow overseas readers to gain a better understanding of the country," he says. "They do not love just entertaining works."

More foreign works are imported than Chinese works exported, he adds. "If Chinese writers want to improve their international prestige, they must improve their literary quality," Alai says. He also urges the authorities to attach more importance to the export of Chinese literary works, because "they have a more lasting and far-reaching influence in regard to constructing China's soft power and offer a gateway for foreign readers to have a deeper understanding of the diversified aspects of China. When more true-to-life literature is created in China, Chinese literature will surely be more influential."

Alai started his literary career in the 1980s as a poet. His first best-selling book, As the Dust Settles, won the Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2000. He taps deeply into the interpretation of Tibetan history and culture. All his novels have been translated into several foreign languages and have been well received overseas.

Tibetan Rock Dog

“Tibetan Rock Dog“ is graphic novel by Rock star Zheng Jun that combines his three loves: cartoons, animals, and music. “The story unfolds in Tibet, where a Tibetan mastiff named Metal grows up in a Buddhist temple after his parents and siblings die protecting a peasant family. His grandfather, who learned the secrets of walking upright and speaking human language, trains him in canine meditation and teaches him about his ancient enemy, the Tibetan wolf. A rock musician on a pilgrimage adopts Metal as a son and takes him back to Beijing.” [Source: Danwei.org, March 17, 2009]

“But the big city isn't a paradise: his girlfriend's father doesn't approve of Metal, and when his band, Rockdog, hits it big, he runs afoul of a gang of hip-hop wolf hounds who resent his success. Will he be able to prove that rock music is a worthy pursuit for a dog? Can he save his girlfriend from the clutches of the evil rap artists? Will success come in time to pay for his master's hospital bill and save his club?” Tibetan Rock Dog Official Website http://www.tibetanrockdog.com/ CRI: The Dog Rocks in Motion Picture http://english.cri.cn/6666/2009/03/05/1261s460628.htm

Other Well-Reviewed and Popular Books in China

“Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out” by Mo Yan ( 2008 Arcade Publishing ) is a first rate novel, that in the words of Yale historian Jonathan Spence, “covers almost the entire span of his country’s revolutionary experience from 1950 to 2000.” The five narrators in the book are animals---an ox, a pig, a donkey, a dog and a monkey---who are the successive reincarnations of a man named Ximen Nao. The book has recently been translated into English by Howard Goldblatt.

The Chinese equivalent of Sherlock Holmes is Judge Dee, a fictional Tang dynasty magistrate that appeared in 18th century detective stories such as “The Chinese Bell Murders”, “Poets and Murder” and “The Phantom of the Temple”.

One of the hottest selling books in the early 2000s was “Harvard Girl”. It was written by parents who described how they prepped their little girl, beginning when she was an infant, to succeed at a America’s most prestigious university. The book's success inspired a dozen or so imitations: Harvard Boy, Cambridge Girl, Our Dumb Little Boy Goes to Cambridge and Tokyo University Boy. See Books.

In 2008, a Chinese writer won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s highest literary award,. Harbin-born Yang Yi, the award winner, come to Japan in the 1980s and has lived there ever since. Her Japanese-language novel “Toki ga Nijimu Asa” (“Morning when Time Blurs”) Is about a student idealistic student during the time of Tiananmen Square.

Dai Sujie followed up Balzac with “Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch”, a “clever look at the modern Chinese psyche.”

Image Sources: Amazon, University of Washington, Ohio State University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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