China Beat Archive



Nicole Barnes

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March 24, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright March 24, 2008 Nicole Barnes. Used by permission.


In just a few days, famed translator Howard Goldblatt’s latest book, Wolf Totem, will be released to eager readers of Chinese literature in English translation. Having proven his mettle as translator of Xiao Hong’s angsty prose and Mo Yan’s morbidly lascivious novels, Goldblatt has now tried his hand at a certain piece of nostalgic drivel that leaked from the pen of Jiang Rong, a newly acclaimed novelist whose original work, Lang Tuteng, appeared in 2004 after more than 30 years of labor and immediately shot to the top of the bestseller lists, selling two million bookstore copies and countless more pirated copies. Although he hid his unorthodox ideas behind a pen name, Jiang Rong’s endeavors earned him the very first Man Asian Literary Prize.

This semi-autobiographical novel follows the young Chinese intellectual, Chen Zhen, in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. Chen’s drunken admiration for the steppe leads him to kidnap and raise a wolf cub. The novel essentializes ethnic identity as utterly contingent upon nature, and identifies Mongols with the wolf (bold and brave), and Han Chinese with the sheep (meek and, well, sheepish). Despite its artless plot, Lang Tuteng appealed to millions of Chinese readers who found double happiness in its pages: romanticization of the Mongolian “wilderness” as the urbanites’ playground, and a symbolic reversal of the woes produced by internal colonization: wolves don’t lose to sheep. The novel’s closing scene underscores the limited capacity of this symbolic reversal, as Han immigration and resource exploitation turn the last of Inner Mongolia’s majestic grasslands to desert and a foreboding sandstorm shrouds Beijing. The ecological disasters of internal colonization come home to roost on Beijingers’ windowsills.