Finding Flaws In The National Character Jiang Rong's life has spanned the history of the People's Republic of China. The 63-year-old writer of the acclaimed novel Wolf Totem is a democracy activist who has spent time in prison, as well as an old-school intellectual in the tradition of the classical scholar. He sees his role as speaking out against wrongdoing and injustice, whatever the cost.

Finding Flaws In The National Character

Finding Flaws In The National Character

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First of a three-part series

Chinese author Jiang Rong, 63, calls himself a "freedom fighter" and says he wrote his bestselling novel Wolf Totem to change society. It's been criticized as anti-Communist and as being a right-wing nationalistic take on Chinese power. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

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Louisa Lim/NPR

Louisa Lim/NPR

Read An Excerpt From Wolf Totem.

As the People's Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 60th birthday, what is the state of the world's most populous nation? We posed the question to three best-selling Chinese authors from different generations and look at their country through their works.

The 2004 best-selling book Wolf Totem is said to be second in circulation in China only to Chairman Mao Zedong's Little Red Book. The author, Jiang Rong, 63, is an unusual hero for the country: a child of the revolution who became a democracy activist. His novel is a thinly veiled political fable about freedom.

The author's real name is Lu Jiamin. Wolf Totem was about 30 years in the making and published under the pseudonym because it was thought necessary to keep Lu's true identity — and his political background — secret for the book to be published under China's communist system.

When Mao announced the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Jiang was just 3 years old, a child of former Red Army soldiers.

In 1967, amid China's Cultural Revolution, he volunteered to go to the countryside to learn from the peasants. He was 21, a fervent revolutionary Red Guard, yet rebellious enough to take two crates of Western literary classics to the countryside with him. He spent the next 11 years in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

His life there, studying the Mongolian nomads and their worship of the wolf, became inspiration for his novel.

Jiang, now a retired professor, says he wrote the book in order to change society. "I'm a freedom fighter. China needs the spirit of freedom and I wanted to create that. I think the spirit of the wolf is one of freedom, independence and competition," he says.

Attacking Confucianism

Wearing his thick horn-rimmed spectacles and a V-neck beige sweater, Jiang doesn't look like a freedom fighter as he sips coffee in the lobby of a five-star hotel. But looks can be deceiving. In Wolf Totem, the author attacks the weakness of the Chinese national character by criticizing the ethos that underlies it, Confucianism.

"Confucianism wants people to become sheep. Its central tenet is obedience, following the emperor," Jiang explains. "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," he says.

The book tells the story of Chen Zhen, a university student from Beijing in Inner Mongolia in the 1960s. It is a challenging read: More than 500 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's sold 2.5 million copies, and an estimated 20 million pirated copies are in circulation.

Wolf Totem made world headlines in 2005 when Penguin paid a 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.

"Young business leaders were reading it because they saw messages about how to be a good leader, 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 Mongolia, and history, and grasslands that they didn't know. There's a very strange universality, which is why we've seen a very positive response in the West," Lusby says.

The Wolf Spirit Of China's Capitalism

Nowadays, Jiang believes the wolf spirit is taking hold in China, partly driven by 30 years of capitalism.

"In the economic sphere, Chinese people are already very fierce wolves," Jiang says. "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."

That economic shift has taken a huge toll on China's environment. Jiang addresses it in the novel's epilogue, which describes a return after 30 years to Inner Mongolia. The lush grasslands have become drought-stricken, dying, sandy prairies, and dust storms from desertification threaten to swallow Beijing.

Jiang says China's predatory capitalism must change. "On the surface, our economy is developed. But our millionaires are built on sand. The foundations are unstable, and in a few years their riches might disappear," he says.

"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," Jiang says.

A Critical Voice And A Champion For Democracy

Jiang is not just a critical voice, but also a democracy activist. Heavily involved in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, he spent 18 months in prison.

His pedigree as an activist goes back further; he spent three years in prison while in Inner Mongolia for counter-revolutionary behavior — for criticizing Lin Biao, who at that time was Mao's second-in-command. And in 1978, he 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 by its own standards.

"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 just a small child. You can't put too much pressure on it, or you'll squash it to death," Jiang says.

Despite his criticism, Jiang says he is optimistic about China's future. One reason is the success of his book. That such a book, by such an author was allowed to be published shows China is changing, he says, smiling. And that it's been so widely read shows the very real thirst for freedom in China today, he says.

Excerpt: 'Wolf Totem'

Chen was given an opportunity to see how hard it was for wolves to survive on the grassland. In spite of their fertility, probably only one in every 10 cubs lived to adulthood. A sudden storm that drops several feet of snow in a very short period can kill off vast numbers of wolves, from cold or from hunger. A wildfire that blots out the sky can also wipe out vast numbers, burned or suffocated. Packs of starving wolves fleeing famine or natural disasters can slaughter half the local wolves. Few can survive the spring thefts of newborn cubs from their dens, autumn trapping, early-winter encirclement hunts, and the deep-winter hunts. The old man said that the grassland wolves are the descendents of the hungry wolves. The original animals, which lived lives devoid of want, were subdued by hungry wolves fleeing from famine. The grassland had always been a battlefield, and those that survived were the strongest and wisest, the ones best suited to eating and fighting, animals who could eat their fill yet never forget what it was like to be hungry.

Chen discovered over time that grassland wolves held many sacred articles of faith where survival was concerned, of which the fight for food and independence was the most fundamental. When he was feeding the (wolf) cub, he never felt as if he were giving it life, as he did with the dogs. The wolf showed no gratitude, for he did not consider himself as being raised by a human and was incapable of reacting slavishly just because he saw his master coming with his food. The word raise was absent in the relationship between Chen and the cub. The wolf was his prisoner for the time being, not his ward. A unique spirit of obstinacy underlay his territorial nature; this knowledge sent chills up Chen's spine, for he was no longer confident that he could successfully keep the cub and see him to adulthood.

In the end, Chen abandoned the desire to pet the wolf while he was eating and respected his noble natural instincts. He continued to crouch down a few paces away and observe the cub quietly, grateful for the lessons in wolf behavior.

Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong. Translation copyright © 2008 by The Penguin Press. Originally published in Chinese as Lang Tuteng by Changjiang Literature and Arts Publishing House, 2004.