Click here to read reviewer Max Falkowitz's take on Wolf Totem.
The delicate relationship between man and nature is explored in this ambitious novel set in the threatened grasslands of Inner Mongolia.
Chen Zhen is one of many Beijing students sent to Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution to work as sheepherders and horse herders. Living with the nomads in the border region of Olonbulag, he is taken under the wing of ‘Papa’ Bilgee, the wise and respected elder who teaches him about the delicate relationship between the nomads and the grassland wildlife - especially the wolves, which Mongols believe are the "protective spirits of the grassland" and thus command their respect and reverence. The Han Chinese, though, are determined to eradicate the wolves, which feed on their livestock. "If we killed them off, the grassland would perish, and then how would we survive? This is something you Chinese don't understand."
Chen’s fascination with wolves crosses a line when he captures a wolf cub with intentions to raise it:
"You can kill a warrior; you cannot humiliate him. You can kill a wolf; you cannot raise it. Now here was a young Chinese deep in the heart of the grassland, on Mongol ancestral land, where the inhabitants worshipped Tengger, a sacred place where they paid homage to their wild forebear, their master of wisdom, their war god, and the protector of the grassland, the wolf totem, and he was raising a wolf as he would a dog, a true outrage."
Would a wolf raised under such conditions still be a real wolf? Will the grasslands be destroyed forever? Although the book is set in1960s’ China, the ecological issues it discusses are still relevant today.
Wolf Totem, which won the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, is the semi-autobiographical novel written by Jiang Rong, the pen name of retired Beijing university professor and former political prisoner Lu Jiamin.
Wolf Totem is Lu’s ode to nature, a love song to the Mongolian grasslands but with a moral firmly behind it. Thus, as a modern-day fable, there is an obvious separation between good and bad. In Wolf Totem, the Mongols are the ‘good guys’ – especially wise Bilgee, who can say and do no wrong – whereas the Han Chinese, with their “sheeplike nature,” are in the midst of taking over Mongolia’s grasslands and consume and demolish all nature in sight:
“This was likely the last spot in the northern grassland that still retained its primitive beauty. Chen Zhen was mesmerized by the sight. But even as he marveled, anxiety entered his heart. Once men and horses come, he was thinking, the primitive beauty of the place will quickly be lost, and no Chinese will lay his eyes on such natural, pristine beauty ever again.” The author seems determined to teach readers good from bad, and at every possible moment reiterates his message as loudly as possible.
Despite its flaws, Wolf Totem is an engaging read as it takes readers into a land that is mystical and wild.