A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’
10 Discussion Questions
By Jiang Rong
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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At the age of 21, Jiang Rong left school went to live and work among the nomads of the Inner Mongolian grasslands. He stayed for 11 years and, in his first novel, fictionalizes his experiences in the region, including that of raising an orphaned wolf cub. After leaving Mongolia, Jiang became a professor and activist for democracy who was jailed after the Tinananmen Square massacre. He won the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize for Wolf Totem, which reportedly has had a readership in China second only to that of Mao’s little red book.
1. Most Americans have read few, if any, books by living Chinese authors. What ideas did you have about Chinese fiction before you read Wolf Totem? How did the novel affect your ideas?
2. Jiang tries in this novel to refute stereotypes of wolves, including those in fairy tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood.” [Page 329] How effective is that effort? Does he ever trade one stereotype for another?
3. Translators often have trouble translating gracefully slang that relates to sex or other bodily functions (which may sound comical enough in the original language). For example, the well-regarded translator Howard Goldblatt has a native Mongol say, “I nearly peed my pants [sic].” [Page 133] While reading Wolf Totem, how aware were you of the translation? Did the translation seem to enhance or undermine the book?
4. A blog for China-watchers, the China Beat, calls Wolf Totem “nostalgic drivel” thechinabeat.blogspot.com/2008/03/coming-distractions-wolf-totem.html. Do you see parallels between Jiang’s descriptions of nomads and the romanticized portrayals of American Indians or other groups that are common in the U.S.?
5. Wolf Totem isn’t a pure allegory like Animal Farm, a novel widely regarded as a critique of Stalinism. But the book does have allegorical elements. Wolves and sheep are extended metaphors for, respectively, the vigor of China’s lost nomadic cultures and the passivity of recent generations. How would you compare Wolf Totem with any other novels that make use of extended metaphors or allegorical techniques?
6. China has violated human rights so aggressively that you may have been surprised by Jiang’s characterization of its people as passive and weak-natured. His stand-in, Chen Zhen, believes that “China’s small-scale peasant economy and Confucian culture have weakened the people’s nature” and hindered the country’s ability to develop. [Page 304] He also faults other aspects of the culture. How credible is the critique of modern China that runs throughout the novel?
7. A critic for the New York Times Book Review found it remarkable that Wolf Totem had become so popular in China when it’s “so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic.” The critic wondered if the novel had sold well because it exhorts the Chinese “to imitate the go-getting spirit of the West” or because it “captures a widespread Chinese anxiety about their country’s growing physical and moral squalor.” [“Call of the Wild,” by Pankaj Mishra, the New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2008, page 11.] Why do you think the novel sold well in China? Why might it sell well in the U.S.?
8. The same NYTBR review also said that the novel proceeds at a glacial pace. What accounts for the slow pace? Is it the repetition? The set pieces? The lack of a strong narrative arc or sustained conflict? Is a slow pace always a detriment to a novel?
9. Characters in Wolf Totem attribute “powers of intellect” to wolves [Page 130] and sometimes go so far as to say, “Wolves are smarter than people.” [Page 240] Americans have a fascination with books, movies and television shows about animals that appear to be smarter than humans, such as the old TV dramas Lassie and Flipper. What do you think explains this? What does Wolf Totem have in common with other tales of animals that seem to have a higher I.Q. than the rest of us?
10. Wolf Totem reflects conspicuous editing lapses. One sentence appears in almost identical form on back-to-back pages: “In the end, Chen had to abandon his desire to touch the cub while he was eating” [Page 264] and “In the end, Chen abandoned his desire to pet the wolf while he was eating … ” [Page 265] And the book lists the “four destructive pests of the grassland” as “field mice, wild rabbits, marmots, and gazelles” on page 237 and as “squirrels, rabbits, marmots, and gazelles” on page 251. Jiang may have written and Goldblatt translated those sentences. But it’s an editor’s job to point out such redundancies and inconsistencies, which conscientious authors will usually fix. If you had been the editor of Wolf Totem, what changes would you have suggested?
Wolf Totem. By Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95. Published: April 2008 www.penguin.com. Jiang Rong is the pen name of Lu Jiamin. A review of Wolf Totem appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 27, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/27. For more on the Man Asian Literary Prize, click here www.manasianliteraryprize.org/2008/index.php.
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Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.