Wolf Totem | Jiang Rong
A warning about environmental degradation, a critique of governance in China, an epic wolf battle—Wolf Totem contains all this. A publishing phenomenon in China, the novel can now be read in English.
In 1967, a Beijing graduate student decided on an unusual change in career. Hounded by the Communist Party of China for being too intellectual, he moved with three friends to Inner Mongolia to take up shepherding.
During a time when all of China was at war with the “four olds” (old thought, old culture, old customs and old practices), Jiang Rong, the young intellectual, fell in love with his new home and its nomadic society, immersed in an ancient, spiritual way of life.
The grasslands of Mongolia form the book’s backdrop
Thirty years later, as a political scientist back in Beijing, Jiang finally wrote a fictionalized account of his time in the grasslands. Immediately after publication, Wolf Totem gripped the Chinese so much that it became the second best-selling book of all time in China—only Mao’s little red book has outsold it.
Now, with Howard Goldblatt’s English translation, we get to read all about battles of man versus wolf, and also get a glimpse of the current cultural mindset in China.
What is it about Wolf Totem that drew in Chinese readers? Was it Jiang’s anti-government stance? The argument against communism? Or, were readers just fascinated by the cunning, mysterious ways of wolves and the warrior-like men and women who braved them? It certainly can’t be the literary merit of the book. Written by an academic, the characters are sketchy, and take a back seat to the wolf action. The language is stiff and the plot is plodding and repetitive.
What there is of a plot follows Jiang’s alter ego, Chen Zhen, torn between his “adopted” Mongolian father Bilgee, the “alpha wolf” of his Mongolian group of herdsmen, who insists that the grasslands need the wolves to survive, and Bao, a Communist government official, who wants to take over the fertile grazing lands for farmland and eradicate the wolves. Though he sides with Bilgee, Chen eventually angers the old Mongolian when he steals a wolf cub from its den and raises it.
But this story plays second fiddle to the electric, emotionally-charged scenes of the wolves in battle. Whether it’s a huge battle, with the wolves systematically capturing and slaughtering an entire horse herd, or a Mongolian woman attacking a lone wolf after her sheep, Jiang brings the scenes alive. And, in the heat of battle, the Mongolians who fight the wolves to survive—but never to wipe them out—become heroes.
Jiang’s depiction of the wolf-surviving Mongolians and the weak “sheep-like” Han Chinese led to a great debate in China over national character. The book harshly criticizes the Chinese: “The most important thing for an overpopulated race is to stay alive. There can’t be any nutrients left over to feed aesthetic cells.” And, “How could this nation, where even sparrows have been eaten nearly to extinction, where the only things left are toads, be a place for swans?”
Finally, the book—written in Beijing, a city overwhelmed by pollution—cries out for ecological healing. Bilgee, the Mongolian herdsman, teaches young Chen the way of the Wolf Totem, which means that the world will provide—if only men balance their needs with the earth’s needs. Kill only enough wolves to keep their population in check, so that they can keep the mouse population in check, so that the mice do not overrun the grasslands, so that the herds have grass to eat.
But only Chen listens to these warnings, and by the end of the book, when Chen returns in 1997, the fertile grasslands have turned to desert, and Chen knows why: “A yellow-dragon sandstorm rose up outside his window, blocking the sky and the sun. All of Beijing was shrouded in the fine, suffocating dust.”
Biljee’s words have reached most of China. It’ll be interesting to see what the rest of the world learns from the wolves.