Click here to read reviewer Sharlene Tan's take on Wolf Totem.
Few novels reward patient, sometimes plodding reading quite like Wolf Totem. Part case for conservationism, part Mongolian cultural study, part historical novel—then keep in mind its semi-autobiographical nature—and you wind up with a spare yet expansive portrait of nomadic herding life in Mongolia during China’s political and cultural upheaval of the ‘60s. Chen Zhen, the author’s mouthpiece, has been sent by the government out of school and city life to learn from the countryside. Chen and some other students are sent to the fictional Olonbulag, a herding region where Mongols must fight daily battles against both the elements and the objects of their totemic worship, the wolves.
Most of the students treat the excursion as banishment, but Chen takes up a fascination with the Mongolian way of life and their complex relationship with the wildlife population. The bulk of the novel meticulously relates this way of life, sounding a bit more like a carefully maintained utopian world than a tale of the brutally harsh steppe:
If there are too many [wolves], they lose their divine power and turn evil. It’s all right for people to kill evil creatures. If they killed all the cows and sheep, we could not go on living, and the grassland would be lost. We Mongols were also sent by Tengger to protect the grassland. Without it, there’d be no Mongols, and without Mongols, there’d be no grassland.
The narrative goes into extensive detail on herding, hunting, and housekeeping practices, which is where the patience comes in. Over 500 pages of this kind of reading can be tiring, especially given the novel’s uniformly positive attitude toward the Mongols. Its unsophisticated black-and-white juxtaposition contrasts idyllic nomadic life with ignorant, consumption-mad industrial/agricultural Chinese life. On top of this, the characters are all sympathetic (except, of course, the bureaucratic Maoist villains), but in an uncomplicated, uninteresting, monastic sort of way.
But the patience is well worth it. Through bare style and unbearably harsh life as its subject matter, the text assumes an austere beauty, its simplicity elegantly and eloquently conveying all the wonder of the grassland and its inhabitants. Reading Wolf Totem becomes something of a spiritual experience as the reader delves into the web of emotions which bind these people to their land in a way few other cultures can imagine, one which includes respect, fear, and transcendent love. I don’t mean that cheesy ying-yang Orientalist spiritual experience, either. While simplistic, the novel doesn’t play on clichés or symbols—only the starkness of what’s out there. This is particularly true for the wolves, to which the Mongols find themselves inextricably linked: “Heaven, earth, and man are a unity; it’s impossible to categorically separate men, dogs, and wolves.” It becomes easy to appreciate what lures Chen, a good student with everything to gain back home, so strongly to this wilderness, even to defying his own culture and all that it stands for in favor the “backward” herdsmen.
There are two main plots which accompany this intricate environmental/anthropological portrait. The first stems from Chen’s fascination with the wolves. The Mongols see wolves as friend and enemy; while they are necessary predators to preserve the grassland, they also kill countless livestock. While the herders are involved in a battle of wits to hunt the wolves (while always striving to preserve the population), Chen makes the rather un-Mongolian decision to raise a wolf cub. The elders criticize this attempt as an abomination of the natural order - as the wolves’ natural enemies, men have no business raising them like dogs - but that hardly stops him. The relationship he builds with Little Wolf becomes remarkably intimate as Chen pours his heart and soul into nurturing the creature, and the reader feels every ounce of it. Though the two try each other endlessly, and their relationship is about as unorthodox to Mongolian culture as one can be, it serves as an excellent foil for the complex ties between man and wolf. Chen and the cub tangible faces to the rest of the novel, its more philosophical and utopian aspects hit home with a surprisingly affecting emotional story.
The second plot conflicts the grassland herders with the Chinese government, an amalgam of ancient agriculturalism and the madness of the industrialist Cultural Revolution. Chinese farmers, also terrorized by the wolves, see no benefit to their continued existence. Not aware of their positive effects on farmland, such as killing mice which otherwise erode the soil unimpeded, the government has launched an extermination campaign. This has the added bonus effect of helping to strip the troublesome Mongols of their livelihood and make them abandon the grassland so it can be converted to more farmland to feed the ravenous and ever-growing Chinese population. Because of the black-and-white way the conflict is presented, the reader may be frustrated by the lack of nuance involved. But this also allows for universality: Western readers can relate as easily as if it were a story about Native Americans and Colonialists.
The Chinese imperialist narrative isn’t one we read about often, and this book is as good an introduction as any. It doubles as an anthropological survey of a culture with far more to it than just riding horses and conquering farmers, and as the Mongols (and their wolves) teach Chen countless lessons, they can teach us as well. Read by millions of Chinese as an introspective exposé of their national character, (as the wolves’ natural enemies, men have no business raising them like dogs) offers the same for us. The environmental and cultural lessons aren’t particularly new, but (as the wolves’ natural enemies, men have no business raising them like dogs) lends them a power which revitalizes their importance, straying both from cliché and the traditional Western perspective.