China Beat Archive



Timothy Weston

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July 25, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright July 25, 2008 Timothy Weston. Used by permission.


I have a confession to make: I was moved by Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, think it’s an important novel and that it’s well worth reading. The reason I say I feel a need to “confess” as opposed to just being able to state this is because recent postingson The China Beat, as well as some of the reviews referenced in those postings, attack the book with a sharpness and thoroughgoingness that initially made me question my own taste and to think that I was politically incorrect for liking and being impressed by the novel as I read it. But after finishing Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Wolf Totem—a book that we now know is the work of Lu Jiamin, using “Jiang Rong” as a pseudonym—my conviction remains unchanged that this is indeed a major work. Reactions to the novel have varied widely, as Jeff Wasserstrom pointed out in an earlier postto this site. Here, very briefly, I’d like to add one more voice of praise, for in my opinion it would be a pity if, swayed by the negative things they have read about it here or elsewhere, China experts (or other interested readers) were to decide that reading the novel isn’t worth the effort.

Before saying more I want to make clear that I agree with many of the criticisms made of the book: it is didactic, doeslack character development, and is too long. Moreover, to the extent that it advocates that Chinese adopt wolfish cunning and aggressiveness as national characteristics, itdoes open itself to the charge of being nationalistic, though personally I did not find this theme overly offensive. Fully mature and great literature it may not be, but courageous, imaginative, and a deserving winner of the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize I think it is. No other novel, from any country, has given me so deep an appreciation for the vitally important and interconnected roles played by all creatures and species within the natural environment, or of the fragile relationship between we human beings and the ecological setting in which we live. At a moment when awareness of our endangerment of the planet is rising to new levels, Jiang Rong has produced a profound lament about what it can mean when human beings and human societies carry on with little-to-no regard for the natural environment.