Being something of an old China hand, I have done my bit in getting China wrong. As an over-enthused young diplomat in Beijing during the early Cultural Revolution (1966-69), I sent a report based on a Red Guard pamphlet I had scavenged, detailing the death by hara-kiri of the “renegade capitalist-roader” Deng Xiaoping. Meeting him 12 years later took the edge off my scoop, though at least the Red Guards were right about the capitalist road.
Today I am less credulous, unlike, it seems, many a publisher, reader or reviewer of books from China. When it comes to misinterpreting major foreign works, the British have form: Gogol’s Dead Souls was cosily entitled “Home Tales from Old Russia” in its first translation, someone having failed to spot that its anti-hero, Chichikov, is the devil himself. Now comes a hugely important novel about China, whose message, though not devilish exactly, should profoundly disturb the West. Instead it has been trivialised, sentimentalised and generally misconstrued.
Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong, a former sociology professor, has sold untold millions in China (untold partly because of piracy) and won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007. The tale is autobiographical. As a vulnerable intellectual in the Cultural Revolution, the hero Chen Zhen (like Jiang himself) goes to Inner Mongolia to purge his bourgeois soul. There he stumbles across the meaning of existence, in the form of the nomadic life of the Mongolian grasslands, and above all in the wolf, whose exultant freedom and ferocious energy he contrasts with the sheep-like Chinese race. Returning 20 years later, he finds the wolves exterminated, the grasslands turned to dust polluting Beijing, and the nomads riding motorbikes.
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