Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Jiang Rong is the pseudonym of Lu Jiamin (61 or 58 depending on which report you read), "a political economy professor working at a university in Beijing", and winner of the inaugural Man Asia Prize (which Sharon at Bibliobibuli has spoken about on several occasions). Both Jonathan Watts at The Guardian and Donald Greenlees at The International Herald Tribune have covered the story.

No surprises in these facts:

  • Rong is an ex-Tiananmen Square protester
  • The book, Wolf Totem (Lang Tuteng), celebrates an ethnic minority, and
  • Criticises the Han majority
  • Chronicles the writer's experiences during the 1966-76 cultural revolution
  • From 1967 to 1978, he lived on the Inner Mongolian steppe

However, there are some curious facts that are more unexpected:

  • The book is a publishing phenomenon in China
  • Where it has sold two million legal copies (and with an estimated 10 times that number of pirated copies)
  • The propaganda minister has praised its style
  • It has been the subject of literary debates
  • It has been the subject of management motivation courses
  • It has been the subject of military training lectures

Rong did not attend the award ceremony in Hong Kong but he should be heartened by the response to Sharon's blog post about how "Asian story arcs differ significantly from Western ones", according to Nuri Vittachi, a prime-mover in the establishment of the prize who was shouldered out of the judging panel by other experts.

Vittachi has complained that the prize is 'too Western' and also chronicles the evolution of the set-up. These are his 'facts':

  • Vittachi had the idea originally
  • And was also the main speaker at the presentation at which Man Group plc gave the green light
  • But Peter Gordon wanted to play a senior role in managing the prize, and
  • Gordon set up a separate organization, chaired by himself, and Vittachi was forbidden to play any role in it
  • The set-up now is "strictly expats only", with no Asian authors involved in any significant roles in administration or judging

Says Vittachi. But here are the real facts. The admin people are, as follows:

  • Mr Peter Gordon (Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival),
  • Prof. Christopher Hutton (Head of School of English, University of Hong Kong),
  • Prof. David Parker (Head of English Department, Chinese University of Hong Kong) and
  • Ms Sue Gourlay (Man Investments)

The judging panel, however, is slightly more Asia-centric:

  • Andre Aciman, Egyptian
  • Adrienne Clarkson, Hong Kong Chinese who emigrated to Canada in 1942
  • Nicholas Jose, Australian who's done a stint (1987-1990) as "Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy" in China

Bizarrely, the Web site of the prize does not contain any mention of the award, while there are numerous media reports available. According to a blog post:

The prize winner was announced at a celebratory dinner at Cipriani Hong Kong. Jiang Rong was awarded USD 10,000 and the book’s translator, Howard Goldblatt, was awarded USD 3,000.

The Bloomberg site tells us the book was published (in Chinese) by Changjiang Art and Culture Publishing House. But The China Daily site tells us it was published by Yangtze Literature and Art publishing House. This link gives a long precis of the book's contents.

Penguin will publish it next year in English.

The China Daily link is interesting in what it displays as the elements that would appeal to China's ruling apparatus:

Jiang argues that agriculture has made people adopt what he calls a "sheep-like temperament."

"They are tame, meek and passive, doomed to be beaten and bullied. On the other hand, the nomadic steppe people have guts and bones just like the wolf."


He describes how [wolves] are considered the embodiment of all the features that any creatures, including man, should possess in order to earn a dignified survival in the harsh environment.

Superior in wit, grit and patience, they are aggressive, relentless, and intractable. On the other hand, they always play by the rules of the game, killing only when hungry, as the maintenance of a wholesome steppe society mandates, and preparing at any time to sacrifice for its team.

Here is some true, battle-hardened Asian essentialism. Rong's earlier subjection to the Party's hegemony over ideas only makes his writing the book now ("Jiang said he prepared for the book for 25 years, then spent six years writing it") more interesting.

The parallels with Tokyo governor Ishihara are striking.

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