STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is the year that a great power of the future looks back at its past. It's the 60th anniversary of China's Communist Revolution. In 1949, Communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed a new government.
Mr. MAO ZEDONG (Chinese Communist Leader): (Foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: Thousands answered by shouting long live Chairman Mao, long live the Communist Party.
Mr. ZEDONG: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)
INSKEEP: Sixty years later, China's Communist Party remains alive, but the people in the crowd might have been stunned to see the way it's evolved. Over the next three days, MORNING EDITION will see China's changes through the eyes of three Chinese generations. We'll meet a man in his 60s, another in his 40s, a third in his 20s. All of them are prominent Chinese writers, and all have been talking with NPR's Louisa Lim. And Louisa, where do we begin?
LOUISA LIM: Steve, we're starting with a man called Jiang Rong. He's 63-years-old, so he was just three years old when Chairman Mao made that famous proclamation at Tiananmen Gate, and he's really a child of the revolution. His parents were both Red Army soldiers.
INSKEEP: His parents, meaning his mother and his father both were soldiers.
LIM: That's right.
INSKEEP: But was he also involved in the revolution as he started getting older?
LIM: Yes. He was deeply involved in the revolution. In 1967, when he was 21-years-old, he was one of the first educated youths to volunteer to go to the countryside to learn from the peasants. This was one of the communist's initiatives to send the intelligentsia to the countryside. And he went to inner Mongolia. He was revolutionary enough to volunteer to go, yet he took with him two crates of Western literary classics.
And he spent the next 11 years in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. And his life there, living with the Mongolia nomads, studying their way of life and their worship of the world, that became the inspiration for his novel, "Wolf Totem." It's a book that's said to be second only in circulation to Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book." And it's a book that he says he wrote in order to change society.
Mr. JIANG RONG (Author): (Through Translator) I'm a freedom fighter. China needs a spirit of freedom, and I wanted to create that. I think the spirit of the wolf is one of freedom, independence and competition.
LIM: Jiang Rong doesn't look much like a freedom fighter. He's got thick horn-rimmed spectacles and he was wearing a V-neck beige sweater when I met him. We actually met in the lobby of a five-star hotel where he was sipping coffee. But looks can be deceiving. In "Wolf Totem," he actually attacked the weakness of the Chinese national character by criticizing the ethos that underlies it: Confucianism.
Mr. RONG: (Through Translator) Confucianism wants people to become sheep. Its central tenet is obedience, following the emperor. In essence, the political system during the Cultural Revolution was the same as that of the last several thousand years. Both were autocratic, totalitarian, and dictatorial. I'm criticizing China's cultural roots. It's not a surface problem. It's like grass. If you cut it out, the roots are still there.
LIM: The book is a challenging read, 500-plus pages of minutely observed descriptions of the struggles between wolves and humans with lengthy digressions into philosophy, anthropology and farming. It's been criticized as anti-communist and as being a right-wing nationalistic take on Chinese power. But it sold two-and-a-half million copies, and probably another 20 million pirated ones.
(Soundbite of news broadcast)
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: It made news in 2005 when Penguin paid a then record $100,000 for the English language rights. Penguin's general manager in China, Jo Lusby, says the book's layers of meaning speak to different audiences.
Ms. JO LUSBY (China General Manager, Penguin): Young business leaders were reading it because they saw messages about how to be a good leader and how to run a good business and how to be a strong person. Some people were reading it just because they saw a wonderful story about Mongolian grasslands and history and culture they didn't know. And so there's a very strange universality, which is why also we've seen a very positive response in the West.
LIM: Nowadays, Jiang believes the wolf spirit is taking hold in China, partly driven by 30 years of capitalism.
Mr. RONG: (Through Translator) In the economic sphere, Chinese people are already very fierce wolves. The rest of the world fears the Chinese wolf. When it comes to social freedom and freedom of speech, they're more like wolves - look at the Internet. But politically, Chinese are still sheep.
LIM: That economic shift has come at a huge cost to China's own environment. That much is clear in the novel's epilogue, which describes his return after 30 years to Inner Mongolia. The lush grasslands have become draught-stricken, dying, sandy prairies, and dust storms from desertification threaten to swallow Beijing. Jiang Rong says China's predatory capitalism must change.
Mr. RONG: (Through Translator) On the surface, our economy is developed, but our (unintelligible) are built on sand. The foundations are not stable, and in a few years, their riches might disappear. China needs to change its unsustainable model of economic development. This is a nomad's way of thinking: To protect the individual, you must protect the wider ecology.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
LIM: Jiang Rong is not just a critical voice, but also a full-on democracy activist. He was heavily involved in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, spending 18 months in prison.
His pedigree as an activist goes back further still. He spent three years in prison while in Inner Mongolia for counter-revolutionary behavior. And in 1978, he also helped organize a democracy movement known as Beijing Spring. But much as he wants more political freedom, Jiang lashes out at the U.S. for judging China on its own terms.
Mr. RONG: (Through Translator) The U.S. took 150 years to fully realize democratic power. A hundred years ago, China was still ruled by an emperor. When it comes to freedom and democracy, China is still a small child. You cannot put too much pressure on it, or you'll squash it to death.
LIM: But Steve, despite all his criticism of China, he's still very optimistic about the country's future, and one reason is because of the success of his book. I mean, he said to me, the very fact that such a book was allowed to be published by an author with a background like his, it shows that China's changing. And that so many people are reading it and talking about it, that shows the thirst for freedom in China today.
INSKEEP: We're listening to NPR's Louisa Lim. And by the way, you can read an excerpt of that book online. And Louisa's series on a changing China continues tomorrow. Who will we hear from then?
LIM: Yes, tomorrow we'll hear from a 40-something writer whose latest book caused a huge controversy when it was released in China. And he believes that capitalism is more damaging to traditional Chinese values than communism.
INSKEEP: Three Chinese authors from three generations this week on MORNING EDITION.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.