China Beat Archive


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June 19, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright June 19, 2008 Haiyan Lee. Used by permission.


Since hitting the bookstores in China in 2004, Wolf Totem has been a most unlikely bestseller and a phenomenon to be reckoned with. From the start, it has been riddled with paradoxes: it was written by a political science professor who had to remain anonymous because of his run-ins with authority in 1989; it went on to win ten domestic literary prizes with the endorsements of party officials, scholars, and business tycoons alike; the audio version was serialized on Radio Beijing; its sales figure is dwarfed only by that of Mao’s Little Red Book in the history of modern publishing in China; the author (Lu Jiamin) has come out of hiding after winning the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize, but is not allowed to travel abroad to promote his book.

The novel also has the distinction of attracting unprecedented international attention after and largelybecause it had become a mass cultural sensation within China, thereby breaking the pattern of writers and their works achieving fame overseas only to be ignored or spurned by mainland readers and critics—thanks usually to censorship, but not always. It is perhaps one of very few bestselling Chinese novels that has genuinely stirred up some controversy among international critics and managed to split critical opinion (almost always strongly-worded) pretty much down the middle (see Jeff Wasserstrom’s earlier survey of the reviews for this site). And to top it all off, The New York Times reported in 2005 that Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings series, has bought the movie rights toWolf Totem.