Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Wolf Totem

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Wolf Totem

by Rong Jiang

Wolf Totem by Rong Jiang X
Wolf Totem by Rong Jiang
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2008, 544 pages
    Mar 2009, 544 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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Beyond the Book

This article relates to Wolf Totem

Print Review

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, 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 has difficulty understanding the importance his Mongol hosts place on the wolf as a totem or symbol of reverence. Especially since the wolf would seem to be their mortal enemy – packs of them prey on herds of Mongol sheep, cattle and horses, threatening their livelihood. However, as Bilgee demonstrates, wolves are a critical link in the delicate chain that preserves the grasslands which are vital to feeding the livestock upon which the rest of China depends. Since wolves also consume gazelles, field mice and marmots who, left unfettered, would eat the grasslands barren, the Mongol herders view them as performing a service, culling their numbers by hunting only when absolutely necessary. On the other hand, the Han Chinese view wolves as enemies worthy only of wholesale annihilation.

Thus, sadly, measures to control the wolf population described in Wolf Totem seem just the beginning of the mass elimination of the species from the steppes of China.

A worldwide debate rages on as to the status of the gray wolf. Ranchers and farmers despise them and oppose any efforts to re-introduce them where the wolf population has been thinned. Proponents see the wolf as an integral part of the world's ecosystem and favor sustaining the species. While Wolf Totem makes a strong case for the latter position, the tactics require a sensitivity to nature that few individuals, and even fewer governments, appear to possess.

Interesting Links:

  • Everything you could want to know about wolves and more at
  • Frequently asked questions about Inner Mongolia at, including a map and short history.

This "beyond the book article" relates to Wolf Totem. It originally ran in April 2008 and has been updated for the March 2009 paperback edition.

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