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A typical British review reads: “Harsh and beautiful, Wolf Totem reminds us that nature is not always kind and bears witness to the tragic rejection of that lesson in the name of progress in the 1960s, and offers a warning about the consequences of China’s rapid industrial development today.” The reviewer is dutifully echoing the book’s blurb: “A stinging social commentary on the dangers of China’s over-accelerated economic growth.”

But it is foreign readers who are being stung. Suggesting that Wolf Totem is about nature being a bit unkind is like saying that Animal Farm is a country tale for children. This is no ecological fable, but a nationalistic tract in fictionalised form, backed by incoherent theorising of a quasi-racist kind. If the People’s Liberation Army and big businessmen are encouraging their staff to read it, it is not for its story about our furry friends, or its concerns over the Inner Mongolian grasslands, but for its brute political message.

Not that the reviewers are entirely to blame. Large chunks of the Chinese text — including many a wacky, racialist reflection — have been silently axed in a way calculated to make the work more appealing to a kidult generation, for whose attention all publishers now strive. The result is less about how the Han Chinese and Mongolians are ­descended from the same blood line, and how today’s China should show the Genghis Khan spirit, and more about the rescue of horses trapped in ice, or fetching descriptions of gazelles gambolling on the sunny steppe.

What Jiang is saying in his book, often explicitly, is that the Han Chinese have degenerated into a bunch of sheep, who have allowed ­domestic and foreign wolves to gobble them up without complaint. He is not alone in his call for a more vigorous China. A decade ago, a book called China Can Always Say No proved another shock bestseller. (The title is an echo of the famous Japanese essay of 1989, The Japan That Can Say No, which called for a more independent Japanese foreign policy.) Just as the British Foreign Office is said to exist for the protection of foreign interests, so Waijiaobu, the Chinese Foreign Relations Ministry, is called Maiguobu — “the Sellout China Ministry” — by its critics. Since bits of the country were literally sold off to the Russians or Japanese by bribe-taking Chinese politicians, generals or officials in the early 20th century, the charge has historical bite.

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August 22nd, 2008
2:08 AM
Actually,seeking to blend the strong, hale, and virile with the civilized, spiritual, and sophisticated is nothing new. Indeed, it's necessary. Without constant infusion of the virile, society becomes decadent and weak. But, without high ideas and spiritual values, man is not much above beast. So, it's good that the novelist wants to fuse the high culture of the Chinese with the free spirit of the Mongols. The reviewer says Mongols did not respect women, and it's true that Mongol women didn't have the freedom that modern women have. But, they were, in many ways, freer than Chinese women who had their feet bound and were stuck on little farms from cradle to grave. A book like this can be misinterpreted and dangerous, but if used intelligently, it's the sort of message we all need. If Jack London fused Darwinism with socialism, I don't see why we should not try to fuse the primal and hale with the civilzed and intellectual.

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