The mastiff guard dogs of the Tibetan pastoralists preceded their owners into modernity. Early this century China discovered an utterly modern fashion for Tibetan mastiffs, traditionally used to guard the black yak hair tents, and the few possessions of pastoralists, while the herders were out with their herds.

These fearsome dogs are utterly loyal to their owner, and ferocious towards anyone else, kept from attacking by rope and a stake driven into the ground. This attribute perfectly displayed the worldview of the new class of urban Chinese bosses, the laoban, who dominate modernity with Chinese characteristics. The laoban’s mastiff exemplified the qualities the boss required of his staff: total loyalty to the boss and a predatory attitude to everyone else.

The mastiff craze reached extraordinary heights, and Tibetans who knew their dogs went into business to supply the trade, investing in this new market. In 2006, at the peak, China’s Foreign Language Press published in English a glossy 98 page paean to the mastiff, opening with this poem: “The Tibetan mastiff lives in Tibet,/ the most mysterious snowy plateau in the world./ Boasting ferocity rivalling that of lions and tigers,/ aristocratic aloofness and elegance,/ unquestionable loyalty,/ and an amazingly high degree of intelligence,/ the Tibetan Mastiff deserves/ the honour of being titled ‘the Holy Dog.’”[1]

In Xi Jinping’s China, ostentatious laoban displays of wealth and power are now frowned on, and the bottom has dropped out of the mastiff market. The New York Times reports: “Mary Peng, the founder and chief executive of the International Center for Veterinary Services, said ‘Ten years ago, it was German shepherds, then golden retrievers, then Dalmatians and then huskies. But given the crazy prices we were seeing a few years ago, I never thought I’d see a Tibetan mastiff on the back of a meat truck.

“At the peak of the mastiff mania, some breeders pumped their studs with silicone to make them look more powerful; in early 2013, the owner of one promising moneymaker sued a Beijing animal clinic for $140,000 after his dog died on the operating table during face-lift surgery. ‘If my dog looks better, female dog owners will pay a higher price when they want to mate their dog with mine,’ the owner told the state-run Global Times newspaper, explaining why he had asked surgeons to alter the dog’s saggy mien. Li Qun, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University and an expert on Tibetan mastiffs, said speculators were partly to blame for sabotaging what had been a healthy market. But also, as prices spiraled upward, unscrupulous breeders began mating pure Tibetan mastiffs with other dogs, diluting the perceived value of the breed and turning off would-be customers.

“These days, those mastiff breeders left in the business are suffering from overcapacity, as it were. Buyers have largely disappeared, and prices have fallen to a small fraction of their peak. The average asking price for desirable dogs — those with lionlike manes and thick limbs — is hovering around $2,000, though many desperate breeders are willing to go far lower. ‘If I had other opportunities, I’d quit this business,’ said Gombo, a veteran breeder in China’s northwestern province of Qinghai. ‘The pressure we’re under is huge,’ he said. Since 2013, about half the 95 breeders in Tibet have gone under, according to the Tibetan Mastiff Association, and the once-flourishing Pure Breed Mastiff Fair in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, has been turned into a pet and aquarium expo.  In some ways, the cooling passion for Tibetan mastiffs reflects the fickleness of a consuming class that adopts and discards new products with abandon.”[2]

Those who live in modernity know well this boom and bust cycle. It is new to Tibetan pastoralists who see at first the promise of a better life, aided by propaganda posters on the grasslands depicting the promised new resettlement housing looking like apartments on a village green. But the peri-urban cinderblock is not the destination. From there, China expects the exnomads to reinvent themselves as factory workers or as feedlot ranch hands forking barley and soybean meal into troughs for cattle fattening prior to industrialised slaughter. This is the plan.

Mastiff Rock Dog book cover

Can you believe, in today’s China, the biggest hit movie is based on the writings of a Tiananmen dissident gaoled for years for his views; the movie version directed by the Frenchman who directed Seven Years in Tibet?

On the face of it, Wolf Totem, 狼图腾,first the book and now the hit movie, would seem to contradict everything we know about Xi Jinping’s China, especially the insistence on rigid ideological conformity and the strict, swift machinery of censorship.

This movie will no doubt be championed in the west as an environmental pic showing how the Chinese can learn to love nature, notably the wolves of Inner Mongolia, and maybe the Mongols too. Given western yearnings, we’d like to believe China can embrace wild nature and ethnic minorities, so that approach will be good marketing.

But in China, both the book and the movie have quite different meanings. The book, by “Jian Rong”, pseudonym for political scientist and former Tiananmen protester Lu Jiamin, was an enormous hit when it first came out, selling in China an amazing 25 million copies. Only Mao’s Little Red Book beats that.

Lu Jiamin has reinvented himself more than once, as one must in today’s China. A profile of him in The Guardian in 2007, when the English translation of the 2004 Chinese original won the Man Asian Literary Prize, starts with Lu as a fervent revolutionary Red Guard: “ In the fervid early months of the Cultural Revolution, in 1966-67, Jiang Rong was in a Red Guard gang that ransacked homes in Beijing, confiscating and burning any books deemed counter-revolutionary. Western novels and Chinese classics were condemned as equally evil. These works were seen as promoting bourgeois decadence, imperialism and old thinking. Like all good Maoists, Jiang knew his duty: he should turn the words into ashes.”

Lu Jiamin/Jiang Rong embraced Mao’s slogan that “It is Right to  Rebel,” have been born to a family of rebels who took power. The Guardian says: “He was born in 1946 in Jiangsu province to a politically red-blooded family. His parents were former Red Army soldiers, heroes of the war against Japan. The author’s biggest influence was his mother. In the 1920s and 30s, she had been an underground member of the communist party in Shanghai. After Mao took power in 1949, she moved into education, working for the women’s federation and running the Jiangsu provincial nursery school. Jiang’s father – a bureau chief in the ministry of health – was denounced [in the Cultural Revolution] as a ‘black gang capitalist-roader’. Even though he was a disabled veteran who had fought the Japanese, his persecutors beat him so badly that he nearly died.” The former rebels had become the new class, the power elite, and were in turn rebelled against by the Red Guard. Lu’s response was to join the Red Guards himself: “He rounded on his accusers, joined the student Red Guard and rose to become deputy head of the revolutionary core group in his college. Didn’t he feel torn, after what happened to his father? ‘Yes, there was a confusion in my mind. But I thought things would improve,’ he says. ‘There was a conflict within me between Mao’s theories and western liberal theories. There were plenty of bad things. I was against the beatings, the arson and seizures of possessions,’ Jiang recalls. ‘I took part in some of them. But in the depths of my heart I was against violence and mob activity. It was against my character.’”

He obeyed Mao’s call for educated youth to go live in the countryside with the masses. Rather than waiting to be sent down, he went voluntarily, to Inner Mongolia and it was in his years there that he met the Mongols, who were fast being outnumbered by waves of poor Han Chinese peasants ploughing the grasslands –the direct cause of today’s dust storms that envelop Beijing. In Inner Mongolia he also learned about wolves, and they became his central metaphor, for what is wrong with China, and how China can save itself, by becoming more wolfish.

Twenty years later, in neoliberal capitalist China he joined the Tiananmen protesters voicing their patriotic dismay at the corruption that came with China’s opening and reform. He was gaoled for at least a year –some reports say two years- for again being seen as a rebel.

Then Lu Jiamin turned to writing, in the vein of so many Chinese intellectuals, fixated on the endless mission of saving China, not only from outside threats, but from itself. Wolf Totem was written as a polemic, an exhortation to the Han nation of sheep, as he calls them, to learn to become wolves.

What Lu means by this is made plain in a 64-page afterlude to the Chinese original, omitted in the translations into 30 other languages.  Just in case Han Chinese readers didn’t get this autobiographical novel’s message, Lu’s “Rational Exploration: A Lecture and Dialogue on the Wolf Totem” unrolls a fullscale ideological program for saving China in a hostile world. William A. Callahan, professor of international relations at London School of Economics explains:

“While Chinese people generally fear wolves as forces of savage violence, Wolf Totem praises their ferocity, strength, and violence. Rather than seeing wolves as a problem that needs to be exterminated from the Mongolian grasslands, Jiang examines –in detail- how cultivating ‘wolf nature’ can aid China’s future development. Jiang tells us that the Chinese people have been weakened over the centuries by a Confucian culture that only teaches them to be followers. He argues that the nomads’ wolf-nature is the best model for China’s national character. China risks being a ‘plump lamb’ that militant countries might gobble up. Because Han are soft and weak, Jiang explains, outsiders prey on them –just as wolves prey on sheep.”

This is the rant of a man of almost 70, still a rebel. Far from being an environmentalist, or liberal rebellion, Chinese writers have accused him of being a fascist. He is certainly a racist, not only about the wolfish nature of the Mongols, but the Europeans too are descended from wolves, which is how they were able to humiliate China. Prof Callahan again: “What Jiang calls the ‘Western race’ was able to dominate China and become the most advanced civilisation in the world. Europeans are ferocious, he explains, because they have wolves’ blood from the same Inner Asian sources: Huns, Turks and Mongols also attacked Europe. The Europeans wolf-nature was then used to conquer Asia. He argues that mixing wolf’s and sheep’s blood will produce the ‘modern Chinese civilised wolf’. In this racial struggle for the survival of the fittest, wolf-nature is worshipped for its strength, ferocity and violence. The story’s popularity in China comes from more than its nostalgic description of an exotic past; businesses and the military use Wolf Totem to train managers and officers in strategies for success in today’s world of life-or-death struggles, and the Politburo has studied the book as a ‘significant work.’”

So making it into a movie seemed a good move, bringing the super-patriotic rebel Lu Jiamin’s racist imaginary to an even wider audience. But who could make such a movie? That turned out to be difficult, not least because the plot requires the young hero, Lu Jiamin’s alter ego central character to befriend a young wolf, with lots of intimate close-ups.

If the movie was ever to be made, it needed a director who knows how to work with animals, and how to film them lyrically. Peter Jackson was meant to do a Lord of the Rings meets wolfman version, but nothing happened. The Chinese state-owned China Film Group finally settled on Jean-Jacques Annaud, maker of The Bear, but also maker of the 1997 hit Seven Years in Tibet, in which the saintly, other-worldly Tibetans seem to spend more time saving worms from the spade than anything else. With Brad Pitt in the lead it did much to make 1997 the peak year of the Tibet movement. Yet 10 years later, according to The Economist, “representatives of the Beijing Forbidden City Film Corporation visited him in Paris to ask him to make the film. Chinese producers wanted a foreign director for the project. Mr Annaud was an Academy Award winner with successful experience of working with animals (in his film “The Bear”). What about his Tibet film, he asked? They said the past was the past, he says. No apology would be necessary. In late December 2009, however, months after his hiring had been announced, Mr Annaud did apologise.”

Even a renowned bear-wrangler such as Annaud had much difficulty making the movie, not least because many in China were unimpressed by Lu Jiamin, and by the hiring of a Frenchman to make a movie meant to be quintessentially Chinese. Then there was the problem of actually training a young wolf to be camera-ready.

And there was the problem of trying to find a romantically unspoiled corner of Inner Mongolia where there is still grassland, since almost anywhere in this heavily industrialised province there are coal mines, petrochemical plants, power pylons, big cities, and tens of millions of Han Chinese settlers. They did finally find a filmshoot location in a remote corner of Xilingol.

So is Wolf Totem, the book and/or the movie, a lyrical pastorale, a paean to nature and an elegy for the Mongol nomads who have lost their pastures and livelihoods? Certainly the Man Prize committee thought so. You be the judge: thanks to Alibaba, it will soon be on a screen near you.

Lu himself, when talking to the wolfish westerners, including the Financial Times, seems to know what we want to hear: “’I never thought this movie could be made,’ said Jiang Rong, the author, who spent 11 years in the open grasslands of Xilin Gol during the Cultural Revolution as a ‘sent down youth’ and fell in love with the romance of nomadic Mongols and the wolves they worshipped and fought. Like the main character, he tried to raise a captive wolf cub that becomes a metaphor for a free spirit unwilling to submit to captivity. ‘I cried and cried writing about him. I soaked two towels,’ he said. Wolf Totem documents the end of both nomads and wolves due to China’s policies of converting open pastureland into farms for settlers — policies that have proven disastrous in Inner Mongolia as the region’s thin soil gives way to desert.”

Han man bonds with nature and the oppressed ethnic minorities?  Or a fascist vision for a wolfish China in the making? Go see for yourself, it should be on soon, and of course the trailer is up now.


[1] China’s Tibetan Mastiff, Foreign Languages Press, 2006

[2] Andrew Jacobs, As China’s mastiff mania dims, dogs are discarded, International New York Times Asia Edition, April 20, 2015

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