Wolf Totem Premieres at International Cinema

Eric Hyer discussed the controversial novel-turned-film Wolf Totem and its implications for Chinese national identity at an exclusive International Cinema premiere.

3. Wolf TotemPROVO, Utah (Sept. 8, 2015)—For Chinese author Jiang Rong, the Mongolian wolf is more than just a grassland animal – it is a powerful symbol of democracy. At International Cinema’s premiere of Wolf Totem, director of Asian Studies Eric Hyer discussed what lurks between the lines of Jiang’s controversial novel and its larger implications for Chinese national identity.

BYU International Cinema was one of the first venues in the United States to show Wolf Totem before its theater debut. Premiering in the United States this September, Wolf Totem is a novel-turned-film that tells the story of Chen Zhen, a young Chinese student sent to Inner Mongolia to teach Chinese culture to Mongol nomads.

Working as a shepherd, he develops an interest in grassland wolves and the role they play in Mongolian economy and culture. Chen Zhen adopts a wolf pup for observation, but ultimately the wolf cannot be tamed to live among humans and is left behind.

Hyer explained that this could be a metaphor for the Chinese’s inability to tame the Mongols, the wolf’s ferocity and inability to assimilate being a symbol for what China must do to succeed in a world of capitalism and democracy.

Though the book leans more toward themes of Chinese nationalism and the need for China to embrace a symbolically wolf-like culture of democracy, it was also praised for its environmental message, a message emphasized much more in the film than in the book.

“The Chinese did not want the film to dwell on the nationalistic and ethnic conflict issues that were in the book,” said Hyer.

Jiang Rong is actually the pseudonym for Lü Jiamin, a political scientist imprisoned for participating in the Tiananmen Square Movement in 1989. Lü, Hyer said, had a clear political agenda when writing the novel.

On the surface, Wolf Totem examines the relationship between the Mongolian grassland’s wolves and sheep. The sheep, docile and subservient to authority, represent civilized China, whereas the wolves symbolize the dynamic and powerful wolf spirit of the Mongols.

“He implies that the Chinese people have been weakened over the centuries by a Confucian culture that teaches Chinese to be servile followers,” Hyer said. “He argues that the wolf nature of the Mongols is the best model for Chinese national character to be reinvigorated with progress.”

Jiang believes that the ferocity of the wolf serves as the best model for a solution to China’s future development, an assertion that left many Chinese critics uneasy at a time when a renewal of Chinese national character was being debated.

“Jiang Rong actually began getting death threats once his name became public,” said Hyer.

He continued, “The novel was popular in China and invoked varying responses because it tapped into the growing sense of cultural emptiness and social dislocation among Chinese provoked by the rapid modernization and westernization of post-Mao China.”

A compelling and complex film with a French director (Jean-Jacques Annaud, Seven Years in Tibet) and an international cast of Chinese and Mongolian actors, Wolf Totem is worth watching; if not for its poignant environmental message, then for its political subtext. Though some of the main themes of the novel involving Chinese nationalism do not dominate the film, they are nevertheless referenced and clearly dealt with, Hyer said.

He concluded, “These themes are taken out of the movie, but they do come up to some degree if you’re sensitive to what was said in the book.”

—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French)