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Wolf Totem

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Wolf Totem
Cover of the first edition
AuthorJiang Rong (pseudonym)
Original title狼图腾
LanguageChinese and has been translated into more than 30 languages
PublisherChangjiang Literature and Arts Publishing House
Publication date
April 2004
Publication placeChina
Media typePrint (Paperback)
LC ClassPL2942.3.A44 L36 2004

Wolf Totem (simplified Chinese: 狼图腾; traditional Chinese: 狼圖騰; pinyin: Láng Túténg) is a 2004 Chinese semi-autobiographical novel about the experiences of a young student from Beijing who finds himself sent to the countryside of Inner Mongolia in 1967, at the height of China's Cultural Revolution.[1] The author, Lü Jiamin, wrote the book under the pseudonym Jiang Rong; his true identity did not become publicly known until several years after the book's publication.[2]


Wolf Totem is narrated by the main character, Chen Zhen, a Chinese man in his late twenties who, like the author, left his home in Beijing, China to work in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution.[3] Through descriptions of folk traditions, rituals, and life on the steppe, Wolf Totem compares the culture of the ethnic Mongolian nomads and the Han Chinese farmers in the area. According to some interpretations, the book praises the "freedom, independence, respect, unyielding before hardship, teamwork and competition" of the former and criticizes the "Confucian-inspired culture" of the latter, which was "sheep-like".[1] The book condemns the agricultural collectivisation imposed on the nomads by the settlers, and the ecological disasters it caused, and ends with a 60-page "call to action" disconnected from the main thread of the novel.[4]

The author has said he was inspired to begin writing Wolf Totem by accident: he ignored the advice of the clan chief of the group of nomads with whom he was staying, and accidentally stumbled across a pack of wolves. Terrified, he watched as the wolves chased a herd of sheep off a cliff, then dragged their corpses into a cave. From then on, fascinated by the wolves, he began to study them and their relationship with the nomads more closely, and even attempted to domesticate one.[4]


Wolf Totem exhibited strong sales almost immediately after its release, selling 50,000 copies in two weeks; pirated editions began to appear five days after the book first appeared on shelves.[5] By March 2006, it had sold over four million copies in China, and had been broadcast in audiobook format in twelve parts during prime time on China Radio International.[4] Jiang released a children's edition of the book in July 2005, cut down to roughly one-third the length.[4][6][7]

Despite the author's refusal to participate in marketing the book, deals for adaptations of the novel into other media and translations into other languages have set financial records.[8] Penguin Books paid US$100,000 for the worldwide English rights, setting a record for the highest amount paid for the translation rights to a Chinese book; an unspecified Tokyo publisher paid US$300,000 for the rights to publish a manga adaptation, and Bertelsmann bought the German-language rights for €20,000.[4] The author has said that he believes that "in the West they may understand [my book] more fully" than in China.[6]

Other writers took advantage of the author's anonymity to write fake sequels to Wolf Totem, including two books titled Wolf Totem 2, as well as Great Wolf of the Plains,[9] all with the imprint of the Changjiang Arts Publishing House. As a result, in April 2007, the author issued a statement that denounced all such "sequels" as fraudulent; he indicated that he was doing research for another book, but would not be publishing anything new in the short term.[10]

Critical reaction[edit]

Despite Jiang's stated refusal to attend any awards ceremonies or participate in any publicity, Wolf Totem has received more than 10 literary prizes, as well as other recognitions, including:[4]

  • Named as one of the "Ten Best Chinese-language Books of 2004" by international newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan[11]
  • Nominee for the 2nd "21st Century Ding Jun Semiannual Literary Prize" in 2005[12]
  • Recipient of the first Man Asian Literary Prize, November 2007[13]


Wolf Totem has also been the subject of criticism. Charu Nivedita, in his review in The Asian Age, called the novel fascist. He wrote, "Won’t we all prefer a peaceful desert to a fascist grassland where one dominating race devours all other in a macabre ritual of bloodbath?"[14][15] German sinologist Wolfgang Kubin described the book as "fascist" for its depiction and treatment of the farmers.[16] Pankaj Mishra, reviewing the English translation for The New York Times, described Jiang's writing as "full of set-piece didacticism."[17]

The Mongol[18] writer Guo Xuebo (郭雪波), a scholar of Mongolian literature and history, has said that the wolf was never a traditional totem used by ethnic Mongolians; on the contrary, the wolf is the biggest menace to their survival. His post to this effect on Sina Weibo on 18 February 2015 was questioned by many others. On February 25, he wrote an open letter, condemning the novel and the film, saying they "humiliate the ancestry, distort the history and culture, and insult the Mongolian people."[18][19] Independent from his views, the wolf is a revered animal, which is regarded as having a heavenly destiny in Mongolia.[20][21] On 20 January 2016, the Inner Mongolia Academy of Social Sciences (内蒙古社会科学院), the leading academic and research institution in Inner Mongolia, said that there is no wolf totem in the beliefs of ethnic Mongolians. The institution found remains of ancient Mongolian totem worship in varying degrees among some tribes in ethnic Mongolia, but concluded there is no unified ethnic totem for Mongolian people after a wide range of fieldwork from April until July 2015 in Inner Mongolia.[22] According to critic Ruth Y.Y. Hung, who reviewed the novel for the international journal boundary 2, the novel's use of wolves as an allegory connects various discourses that subvert literary demands and animal lives, thereby stripping these subjects of their distinct identities and material existence outside of human-centered culture and politics.[23]

English translations[edit]

Film adaptation[edit]

Wolf Totem is a 2015 Chinese-language film based on the novel. Directed by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud who co-wrote with Alain Godard and John Collee, the Chinese-French co-production features a Chinese student who is sent to Inner Mongolia to teach shepherds and instead learns about the wolf population, which is under threat by a government apparatchik.

The Beijing Forbidden City Film Corporation initially sought to hire a Chinese director, but filming humans with real wolves was considered too difficult. New Zealand director Peter Jackson was approached, but production did not take place. Annaud, whose 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet is banned in China, was hired despite the history. The film was produced by China Film Group and French-based Reperage. The French director, who had worked with animals on other films, acquired a dozen wolf pups in China and had them trained for several years by a Canadian animal trainer. With a production budget of US$40 million, Annaud filmed Wolf Totem in Inner Mongolia, where the book is set, for over a year.

The film premiered at the European Film Market on February 7, 2015. It was scheduled to be released in China on February 19, 2015, for the start of the Chinese New Year, and in France on February 25, 2015.

Animated film[edit]

In November 2015, Le Vision Pictures has entered into a two-picture deal with The Lion King director Rob Minkoff and producing partner Pietro Ventani to co-develop and produce the epic animated feature based on the novel.[25]

See also[edit]

  • Zhang Chengzhi, a senior of Jiang's at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who was also sent down to Ujimqin Banner during the Cultural Revolution and rose to fame through his writings about Inner Mongolia
  • Tengger, the Mongolian sky-god discussed in the novel


  1. ^ a b French, Howard (2005-11-03), "A Novel, by Someone, Takes China by Storm", The New York Times, retrieved 2007-04-20
  2. ^ Bougon, Francois (2008-03-11), "Chinese ex-prisoner now global literary star", The China Post, retrieved 2008-03-14
  3. ^ Jiang 2004
  4. ^ a b c d e f Kremb, Jürgen (2006-03-21), "A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: Beijing's Unwanted Best Seller", Der Spiegel, retrieved 2007-04-20
  5. ^ Wu, Fei (2004-05-26). 姜戎:用半条命著《狼图腾》. Xinhua News (in Chinese (China)). Archived from the original on September 11, 2004. Retrieved 2007-04-20.
  6. ^ a b Spencer, Richard (2005-10-29), "Best-seller urges Chinese to release their inner wolf", The Daily Telegraph, archived from the original on 2008-03-21, retrieved 2006-04-20
  7. ^ 姜戎将出《狼图腾》少儿版《小狼小狼》. Sina News (in Chinese (China)). 2005-08-10. Retrieved 2007-04-20.
  8. ^ Cheng, Ye (2005-06-07). 《指环王》班底助阵特中国电影《狼图腾》. Beijing Youth Daily (in Chinese (China)). Retrieved 2007-04-20.
  9. ^ Chinese: 草原狼王. ISBN 7-80701-337-0
  10. ^ Jiang, Rong (2007-04-12). 姜戎发表郑重声明揭露《狼图腾》伪书. Xinhua News (in Chinese (China)). Archived from the original on October 13, 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-20.
  11. ^ Zhang, Hailing (2005-01-16), 2004亞洲週刊十大好書揭曉, Yazhou Zhoukan (in Traditional Chinese), retrieved 2007-04-20
  12. ^ 第二届"21世纪鼎钧双年文学奖"揭晓. Sina News (in Chinese (China)). 2005-04-05. Archived from the original on 2005-09-09. Retrieved 2007-04-20.
  13. ^ "Chinese author scoops book prize", BBC News, 2007-11-11, retrieved 2008-03-14
  14. ^ "An extended Mongolian metaphor | The Asian Age". The Asian Age. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  15. ^ "An extended Mongolian metaphor". Charu Nivedita. 2015-01-08. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  16. ^ 德国汉学权威另一只眼看现当代中国文学. Deutsche Welle (in Simplified Chinese). 2006-11-26. Retrieved 2007-04-21.
  17. ^ Mishra, Pankaj (2008-05-04), "Call of the Wild (Wolf Totem - Jiang Rong - Book Review)", The New York Times, retrieved 2008-05-04
  18. ^ a b 徐伟 (13 March 2015). 蒙古族作家郭雪波:《狼图腾》究竟错在哪里?. 凤凰周刊 (in Chinese (China)). Retrieved 3 February 2016.
  19. ^ 张楠 (25 February 2015). 蒙古族真的信仰狼图腾吗?郭雪波:狼是蒙古人天敌. 扬子晚报 (in Chinese (China)). Retrieved 3 February 2016.
  20. ^ LeGrys, Samuel (Fall 2009), "Grey to Green:The Wolf as Culture and Profit in Mongolia and the Importance of Its Survival", SIT Digital Collections, retrieved 21 April 2019
  21. ^ Watters, Rebecca (13 February 2019), "An Ancient Rural Culture Deals With Wolves Halfway Around The World", Mountain Journal, retrieved 21 April 2019
  22. ^ 李爱平 (21 January 2016). 内蒙古社科院调查发现:蒙古族没有狼图腾. 中国新闻网 (in Chinese (China)). Retrieved 3 February 2016.
  23. ^ Hung, Ruth Y.Y. (November 2020) "Against Allegory: for the Wolves in Wolf Totem." boundary 2 47.4. pp. 25-61.
  24. ^ New and forthcoming titles and highlights from the backlist (PDF), Australia: Penguin Books, 2007, retrieved 2007-06-14
  25. ^ Mercedes Milligan (10 November 2015). "Le Vision, Rob Minkoff Partner for Animated Wolf Totem". animationmagazine.net. Retrieved 5 September 2016.