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Book Review: Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong — Translated By Howard Goldblatt

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Throughout the history of so-called civilization, zealousness and fanaticism has come in many forms, from the political to the religious. The word zealot is taken from the name of a group of fanatic Jews who fought against the rule of Rome during the reign of King Herod and the time of Christ in what is now present day Israel. That their name has stuck in our language to symbolize over the top devotion is not due to any success they had in the field of battle, but because of the mass suicide carried out by their members during the siege of the town of Masada.

Unfortunately the majority of the original zealots’ successors didn’t follow in their footsteps by limiting their deeds to self-harm. The worst atrocities throughout this planet’s brush with human kind have been carried out in the name of God, nationalism, or political ideology as inflexible visions or beliefs won’t stand for dissension or accept the possibility that another way could have validity. The Inquisition burnt heretics at the stake to save their souls; the Nazis used inferior races for medical experiments and slave labour before killing them; and today, countless men and women are convinced that killing others while blowing themselves to bits ensures their ascension to heaven.

One of the modern era’s worst examples of fanatic excess also happens to be the one that we in the West know the least about. The Cultural Revolution held mainland China in the grip of terror for around a decade. It is assumed that Mao Zedung was the motivating force behind it’s initial implementation in 1966 as he sought to consolidate his personal power. Academics, professionals, and artists were deemed to have begun to put on airs and were in need of re-education in order to properly appreciate the goals of the Revolution. Universities were closed and young people were formed into brigades of Red Guards, with the purpose of using them to impose the new order.

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Part of the campaign saw Red Guard members and university students dispersed to the far corners of the country to help stamp out beliefs or behaviours that were considered contrary to the goals of the party. In 1967 Jiang Rong, (which is a pen name for Lu Jiamin) was one of those young people. When the schools were closed and his academic career halted, he volunteered to go to Inner Mongolia where he spent the next eleven years working and living with the nomadic people native to the area. Wolf Totem, published by Penguin Canada, is a fictionalized account of this period. It was first published in Chinese in 2004 and has now been translated into English by Howard Goldblatt.

Chen Zhen is one of a group of students who has been sent to live with the Mongolian Nomads who inhabit the grasslands of Inner Mongolia since before the time of Genghis Khan. Like people throughout the world who depend on the land for their survival, the Mongols have figured out how to live in harmony with their environment to ensure their continued existence. For hundreds of years they have raised sheep, goats, cattle, and horses in harmony with the needs of the wild creatures and the grasslands. In fact, so important is the continued existence of the prairie to them, they consider themselves the protectors of the grassland first and herdsmen second.

As Chen spends more time with an elder in the work brigade he is assigned to, the more he comes to understand just what the grasslands mean to the Mongol. It’s from this same man, Bilgee, that Chen learns about a third key element upon which the lives of the nomads depend; the wolf. Although the wolf is the enemy of livestock and the Mongols are constantly at war with them, they also revere them as a source of knowledge and for the role they play in preserving the grasslands.

The Mongols understand the importance of a large predator in an environment where vegetation is limited and rodents multiply like, well, rabbits. Without the large predator, not only would the pest population quickly get out of hand, but the gazelle population, native to the Mongolian plains, would soon deplete grazing land the nomads depend on if the wolves didn’t keep their populations in check. This doesn’t mean that the wolves are allowed to use their livestock as a buffet either; if a pack becomes a nuisance and preys too often on the nomad’s herds they will be hunted down.

Chen soon learns that the wolves are not only a valued citizen of the grasslands, but also grows to respect their intelligence and battle planning. He hadn’t really believed Bilgee’s contention that Genghis Khan owed his military success to learning from the way the wolves hunted until he actually saw them exercise a brilliant flanking and encirclement manoeuvre while hunting down a herd of gazelle. Unfortunately while Chen, and maybe a couple of the other Chinese students, are gaining an understanding and appreciation for the wolves and the way in which the nomadic Mongols have co-existed with them, the traditional way of life is considered counter-revolutionary because it is based on beliefs other than those sanctioned by the party.

While the academics need to be re-educated through manual labour, it is also the job of the Red Guards to fight against what they see as the superstitious beliefs that are found among people like the nomads. With the fervour of missionaries the world over, they have no tolerance for what they consider heresy. Some even accuse the old nomad Bilgee of helping wolves escape from a hunt he had organized because of his beliefs. It sounds ridiculous to our ears to hear someone call a wolf the enemy of the proletariat and calling for their eradication because they are a threat to livestock, but there’s not much difference between that and some of the reasons given for killing wolves in the West.

It is the age old clash of the demands of civilization against the needs of the environment being played out on the pages of Wolf Totem. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to know who is going to win and who is going to lose this battle. Chen is bearing witness to the cultural genocide of the Mongols; the great grasslands will be turned into pastures, the herds put into pens, and the wolves exterminated.

Jiang Rong has done a masterful job of depicting life among the nomads, from his descriptions of their everyday lives, to a terrifying ride through the night in a fierce snow storm with four horse herders desperately trying to defend their charges from an all out attack by a wolf pack. So vivid is his description that you feel like you are riding with the herders as they helplessly watch the wolves bring down horse after horse in a series of suicide attacks.

They leap onto the backs of the horses and dig their claws and teeth into them. The wolves’ claws and teeth have been embedded so tightly that as the horse fights to throw the wolf off, it ends up disemboweling itself as it is raked end to end by the wolf, before it falls beneath the hooves. When you read that it was female wolves who recently gave birth who conducted the attacks, Bilgee’s assessment that the attack was in vengeance for men killing litter after litter of wolf cubs the previous week is enough to send shivers down your spine.

It’s not often that we get the opportunity to read about life in China, and although the Cultural Revolution was officially denounced during the 1970’s with the trial of the Gang Of Four, (the name given to the four leaders, including Mao’s third wife Jiang Qing, in charge during the worst excesses of the period) it is rare for the Chinese government to allow anything this outspokenly critical of the Party and its policies to be made public.

Wolf Totem is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that everybody who cares about the state of the world should read. No amount of Earth Days, or Earth Hours will ever be able to replace the things we have lost through our own stupidity and fanaticism. The Red Guard’s behaviour in Inner Mongolia in the 1960s and 1970s is no different from the destruction of natural habitats the world over in the face of progress.

There was another country, once long ago, where the original people considered themselves the preservers of the land and tried to live in harmony with the animals they shared it with. They too were considered the enemy of civilization and lost their way of life, and witnessed the desecration of the land and the decimation of the wild animal populations. Communist or Christian, it doesn’t seem to matter, greed wins out in the end.

Wolf Totem can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or through an on line retailer like Indigo Books

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.