Summary and book reviews of Wolf Totem by Rong Jiang

Wolf Totem

By Rong Jiang

Wolf Totem

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Book Summary

An epic Chinese tale in the vein of The Last Emperor, Wolf Totem depicts the dying culture of the Mongols - the ancestors of the Mongol hordes who at one time terrorized the world - and the parallel extinction of the animal they believe to be sacred: the fierce and otherworldly Mongolian wolf.

Published under a pen name, Wolf Totem was a phenomenon in China, breaking all sales records there and earning the distinction of being the second most read book after Mao's little red book. There has been much international excitement too - to date, rights have been sold in thirteen countries. Wolf Totem is set in 1960s China - the time of the Great Leap Forward, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.

Searching for spirituality, Beijing intellectual Chen Zhen travels to the pristine grasslands of Inner Mongolia to live among the nomadic Mongols-a proud, brave, and ancient race of people who coexist in perfect harmony with their unspeakably beautiful but cruel natural surroundings. Their philosophy of maintaining a balance with nature is the ground stone of their religion, a kind of cult of the wolf.

The fierce wolves that haunt the steppes of the unforgiving grassland searching for food are locked with the nomads in a profoundly spiritual battle for survival-a life-and-death dance that has gone on between them for thousands of years. The Mongols believe that the wolf is a great and worthy foe that they are divinely instructed to contend with, but also to worship and to learn from. Chen's own encounters with the otherworldly wolves awake a latent primitive instinct in him, and his fascination with them blossoms into obsession, then reverence.

After many years, the peace is shattered with the arrival of Chen's kinfolk, Han Chinese, sent from the cities to bring modernity to the grasslands. They immediately launch a campaign to exterminate the wolves, sending the balance that has been maintained with religious dedication for thousands of years into a spiral leading to extinction-first the wolves, then the Mongol culture, finally the land. As a result of the eradication of the wolves, rats become a plague and wild sheep graze until the meadows turn to dust. Mongolian dust storms glide over Beijing, sometimes blocking out the moon.

Part period epic, part fable for modern days, Wolf Totem is a stinging social commentary on the dangers of China's overaccelerated economic growth as well as a fascinating immersion into the heart of Chinese culture.

1

As Chen Zhen looked through the telescope from his hiding place in the snow cave, he saw the steely gaze of a Mongolian grassland wolf. The fine hairs on his body rose up like porcupine quills, virtually pulling his shirt away from his skin. Old Man Bilgee was there beside him. This time Chen did not feel as if his soul had been driven out of his body, but sweat oozed from his pores. He had been on the grassland two years but still had not lost his fear of Mongolian wolves, especially in packs. Now he was face to face with a large pack deep in the mountains, far from camp, his misty breath quivering in the air. Neither he nor Bilgee was armed— no rifles, no knives, no lasso poles, not even something as simple as a pair of metal stirrups. All they had were two herding clubs, and if the wolves picked up their scent, their sky burial would come early.

Chen exhaled nervously as he turned to look at the old man, who was watching the wolf encirclement ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

There is so much to glean from Jiang Rong's sprawling semi-autobiographical novel that it's tempting to suggest a second read, if not the whole book, at least parts of it. Although Jiang has taken criticism in other reviews for underdeveloped characters, there is no need to develop them further. So what if, aside from Chen, Bilgee, Little Cub and the landscape, the others are distinctly 2-D? The story is told. The points are made. Powerfully. Jiang's recollections of his time on the steppes of Inner Mongolia are tinged with the sweetness of youth remembered. His environmental, ethnic and political statements stand as bold as the wolf himself. There is no finer way to prepare for the Olympics than by introducing oneself to the culture of China and Inner Mongolia.   (Reviewed by Donna Chavez).

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Media Reviews
Guangdong News

It has taken 30 years of Jiang Rong's life to complete the novel Wolf Totem. In fact a work of this depth can hardly be called a novel, but rather a dedicated piece of research, in this case, research devoted to all that is Mongolian, with folk tradition, anthropology, history and philosophy binding together the book's various theories. More simply put, it tells of the lives of Mongolians on the grasslands and of their complicated feelings towards the wolf.

The Guardian - Ursula Le Guin

The rather naive style of the book recalls Jack London (much admired in China): lots of action, straightforward value-judgments, informative lectures by the characters - narrative in the service of a message. The set-pieces are painted with a broad brush.

Publishers Weekly

Jiang Rong writes reverently about life on the steppes in a manner that recalls Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf.

Kirkus Reviews

Jiang's story is a careful, quiet one of cultures in collision...any admirer of Jack London-or of Dersu, or Farley Mowat, or other chronicles and chroniclers of wolf-human interaction-will find this a treasure.

Los Angeles Times - Michael Standaert

What could have been one of the strongest aspects of this novel -- the ecological subtext -- also fails. Jiang's descriptions about how the wolves are essential -- eating the gazelle, marmots, mice and other animals that without a predator would destroy the ecology of the grassland -- could have been more powerful had they and the rest of the book been less preachy. The only redeeming quality of the novel is that it gives a vivid snapshot of the culture, spirituality, ethics and lifestyle of some of the last nomadic herders in Inner Mongolia. Had it only stayed there awhile.

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Beyond the Book

Wolves as Totems

Although many in the USA will associate totems - objects, animals or plants revered as a symbol of a tribe and often used in rituals - with Native Americans, totems are found in many cultures throughout the world, tracing far back into prehistory. Google the word and you'll find websites such as animaltotem.com, devoted to helping one find ones personal animal or insect totem.

As a Han Chinese with a background in the teachings of Confucius, Chen Zhen...

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