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What does the huge appeal of books like the anti-American China Can Always Say No and the nationalistic Wolf Totem tell us about ­China in the future? First, a simple truth: that in China, as in Russia, the guzzling of American cultural products does not guarantee that Western values are being swallowed with them. On the contrary, the guzzling can be accompanied by eructations of envy and resentment at being an enforced consumer of foreign goods. (This ought not to be news in modishly anti-American Britain, where a parallel paradox exists.)

Chinese anti-Americanism was not, however, the sole reason for the book’s success. The point about China Can Always Say No is that it was anti-Western without being reactionary in domestic political terms, and that it appealed to the young. In other words, in today’s China it is possible to be 30-ish, a Hollywood movie fan, democracy-minded and fearsomely nationalistic. For analysts of China’s future foreign policy, this is a crucial fact. (In Russia there is a wrinkle: the chauvinist youth movement Nashi — “Our People” — which worships Putin, and even nastier groups like the National Bolsheviks, are cool towards what they call dermocratsiya — dermo meaning shit.)

If Wolf Totem has greatly outstripped its predecessor in popularity, it is partly because it is fiction, though with its thin storyline and banged-home moral — gnarled Mongolians are forever telling Chen that the Chinese understand nothing of the wolf — this is no great ­novel. What matters is the message, and Jiang’s views come across with bar-room subtlety, as when Chen soliloquises on the Chinese character: “In world history nomads have been the only Easterners capable of taking the fight to the Europeans, and the three peoples who really shook the West to its foundations were the Huns, the Turks and the Mongols. The Westerners who fought their way back to the East were all descendants of nomads. The builders of ancient Rome were a pair of brothers raised by a wolf … The later Teutons, Germans and Anglo-Saxons grew increasingly powerful, and the blood of wolves ran in their veins. The Chinese, with their weak dispositions, are in ­desperate need of a transfusion of that vigorous, unrestrained blood.”

Dismissing passages like this as cod philosophy, as some have done, misses the point: cod or caviar, millions of Chinese are swallowing it, and by allowing the book to be published, the authorities plainly ­approve. Sometimes, the flavour is not so much the call of the wild as a bugle summons: “The way I see it, the most advanced people today are the descendants of the nomadic races. They drink milk, eat cheese and steak, weave clothing from wool, lay sod, raise dogs, fight bulls, race horses, and compete in athletics. They cherish freedom and popular elections, and they have respect for their women, all traditions and habits passed down by their nomadic ancestors. Not only did they inherit their courage, their militancy, their tenacity, and their need to forge ahead from their nomadic forebears, but they continue to improve on those characteristics … Learning their progressive skills isn’t hard. China launched her own satellites didn’t it? What’s hard to learn are the militancy and aggressiveness, the courage and willingness to take risks that flow in nomadic veins.”

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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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