Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong

01/10/08, Biblio

It is difficult not to be reminded of the violence that has consumed China in the twentieth century when reading a novel set during a period, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, that contributed so much to such social convulsions. Jiang Rong’s first novel, Wolf Totem, weighing in at over 520 closely printed pages, is set in Inner Mongolia in the 1970s, in the unspoiled, almost forgotten, grasslands of the (fictional) Olonbulag, where nomadic Mongolian shepherds and horse-herders lead tough, hard-bitten lives with their horses, sheep and dogs amidst ferocious wolves. Into this apparently ancient and unchanging life arrives our protagonist, Chen Zhen, a Beijing intellectual and a Han Chinese (more of this later), following Mao’s exhortation to urban intellectuals to steep themselves in the countryside. Jiang Rong – the pseudonym of Lu Jiamin, a retired academic – himself travelled to the East Ujimqin Banner in Inner Mongolia in the late 1960s and lived there with the native nomads for twelve years. Of the many problems that beset this book, a significant portion originates in the fact that Chen’s experiences in the grasslands read as unmediated, transcribed notes and diaries, not as fiction.

Reading the first 200 pages, structured around three enormous and impressive set pieces, and an intimately related event of crucial significance, it is, paradoxically, both predictable and shocking when the book changes its tone from a version of the georgic to a bleak, tragic version of the epic of conquest, dispossession and loss. The three set pieces centre around the most important creature in the grassland: the wolf. In the first, we witness an army of them encircle and then slaughter a flock of thousands of gazelles; the second features a pack of wolves decimating a herd of seventy or eighty warhorses; the third, the hunting of these wolves by humans. Insinuated between the last two is the story of Chen, now enamoured of and obsessed with the wolf-lore and wolf-legends of the nomadic people, stealing a wolf cub from its den to raise as his own in order to better understand the ways of a creature that has held sway over this part of the world since ancient times.
In fact, in frequent and large passages of pseudo-historicising that mark the book, the wolf is seen as the key transformer of civilisations: watching the pack of wolves surround and kill the gazelles, Chen understands that illiterate military geniuses, such as Genghis Khan, ‘were able to bring the Chinese … to their knees, to run roughshod over their territory, and to interrupt dynastic cycles’ because they ‘had the greatest of all teachers in military strategy; they had an excellent and remarkable clear model of actual combat; and they had a long history of struggle with crack lupine troops. … Where had the tiny race of people who had swept across Asia and Europe and created the Great Mongol Empire, the largest landholding in the history of the world, learned their military secrets?’ These animals appear to position him ‘at the mouth of a tunnel to five thousand years of Chinese history’, leading him to wonder often on the counterfactual, ‘If there had been no wolves on the Mongolian grassland, would China and the world be different than they are today?’

More convincing than this, although every bit as polemical, is the complex, delicate ecology and ecosystem of the grasslands that Jiang Rong describes and illustrates exhaustively. Like all ecosystems, the web is an interrelated and enmeshing pattern of food chains, with predators and prey, so it comes as a big surprise when Chen is informed by Bilgee, the Wise Old Man of the novel, that ‘the grass and the grassland are the life, the big life.’ Everything else – wolves, humans, cattle, horses – depends on the grass: ‘All else is little life that depends on the big life for survival.’ As Chen ponders on this, he runs into an intractable opposition:
The nomadic inhabitants safeguarded the “big life” – the survival of the grassland and of nature were more precious than the survival of the people. Tillers of the land, on the other hand, safeguarded “little lives” – the most precious of which were people, their survival the most important.

Chen, as representative of Han agrarians, falls into the latter category, an outsider in this world. The novel is structured, obtrusively and unsubtly, around related polarisations: nomads versus settlers, wolves versus sheep, Mongolians versus Chinese, old ways of life versus new, nature versus man, agrarian economies versus hunting-herding. Some of the least successful sections of the novel – and there are many – are the ones that fall into overt essays on the subject, often taking the form of careful ethnological observations, or ecological polemics, or admonitory sermonising about the perils that depredation of traditional lifestyles hold for mankind in general and the Chinese in particular.

It is here that we can isolate the problematic heart of Wolf Totem. The normative value that Jiang Rong invests in one term of his opposition series, the nomadic, lupine, and pastoral, reveals itself to have outspokenly critical designs on Chinese civilisation and the Chinese character. We get a sounding of this right at the beginning: ‘People had gotten so caught up in the Cultural Revolution over the past couple of years that the traditional life of the grassland – a mixture of tending sheep and hunting wild animals – had been turned upside down, like a flock of sheep scattered in a blizzard.’ Of the myriad ramifications of this kind of thinking, one that goes straight to the heart of the debates that the book has sparked about the Chinese national character is the agrarian-hunter dichotomy and its symbolisms. Watching the wolves gather to hunt the gazelles, Chen, ‘saddened to have been born into a line of farmers’, reflects, ‘Farmers had become as timid as sheep after dozens, even hundreds, of generations of being raised on grains and greens, the products of farming communities; they had lost the virility of their nomadic ancestors, going back to the legendary Yellow Emperor. No longer hunters, they had become the hunted.’

While this kind of excoriation is turned inwards, approaching a kind of self-criticism directed towards the nation of the author himself, there is an outward vector to it too. This ploughs a furrow traced most conspicuously by Lu Xun, the first great Chinese modernist; Chen paraphrases him, ‘Westerners are brutish, while we Chinese are domesticated.’ The reasoning, based on the idea that Westerners are descendants of wolves and the Chinese of sheep, has important consequences to any debate about nationalism: ‘Over the past hundred years, domesticated China has been bullied by the brutish West. It’s not surprising that for thousands of years the Chinese colossus has been spectacularly pummelled by tiny nomadic peoples.’
This too can be interpreted as self-criticism, the type that precedes rabble rousing. At a historical juncture when the global shift of power is beginning to tilt definitively eastwards, this invitation to undertake an examination of the national character in terms of bellicose antagonism may have been one of the reasons why Wolf Totem has proved so popular in its homeland.

But Jiang Rong is nothing if not alive to the ruinous nature of this very call to aggressiveness – in the second half of the book, the predatory expansive urge of the Han settlers arriving in Inner Mongolia results in utter destruction of the grasslands and the eventual wiping out of the nomadic population. For the first time in the book, Jiang Rong manages to hit the affective notes in the final, genuinely moving pages when Chen, now reluctantly part of the Han settlers who hunt down wolves, has to kill his wolf cub. An epilogue, set thirty years after the events of the novel, sees Chen return to the Great Ujimchin Steppe, and discover for himself the end of the wolves – they’ve all been hunted down and killed – and the collapse of the whole ecosystem. From shrill, pulpit-banging nationalism we move to explicit political criticism: what is the true cost of China’s unstoppable march towards modernity? The ecological didacticism that marked the novel from the very beginning enacts itself with a deadening inevitability yet it is also undeniably impassioned and, therefore, works to move the reader to both anger at the irreversible havoc and sympathy at the loss. In its own way, it comes close to an Aristotelian notion of the effect of tragedy on the viewer.

So why doesn’t Wolf Totem work as a novel? In a letter dated February 3, 1818, John Keats wrote, ‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject.’ A substantial measure of the problem with the book is that it is insufficiently fiction and more of a strange combination of travel-writing, anthropological treatise, didactic essay, and homily. Its delights – a thrilling feel for landscape and nature; long, informative passages on how to skin wolves, lasso a horse (or indeed a wolf), steal a wolf cub from a den, set traps for wolves using horse meat and blood; Kurosawa-like battle scenes (stereoscopic, vast, teeming with animals, and played out against the backdrop of some of the harshest climate and terrain imaginable); an unclouded vision of nature red in tooth and claw – all these are unassimilated into the framework of fiction and, denied their tethering in plot, character, and interiority, create for a kind of repeated wobble in the reading experience.