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. Ostensibly it is about a
young Beijing student, Chen Zhen, who is sent to
China's Inner Mongolia by the People's Revolution in
the 1960s to live among the nomads and herd sheep.
He lives with a handful of other students in a
typical Mongol yurt (a collapsible circular tent
made of animal skins), tends sheep, makes friends
with a couple of his peers among the Mongols and
cultivates a mentor-type connection with a Mongol
elder named Bilgee. Chen even adopts a wolf cub,
Little Cub, to raise as his own, hoping the
proximity will help him understand the complicated
relationship between man and wolf in this alien and
That would be a fine story in itself. However, Jiang didn't win the coveted literary Man Asia prize for writing a "fine story." That's just the surface, the top layer, the icing on the cake. The next layer belongs to Jiang's extraordinary narrative describing the incredible beauty that characterized the vast Inner Mongolian grasslands, known as steppes, up until the 1960s:
"Spread out before him was a dark green basin with layers of mountain peaks to the east Mountains of many colors dark and light green, brown deep red, purple rose in waves as far as one could see, to merge with a mountain of pink clouds."
As well as the nearly uninhabitable conditions: "[The mosquitoes'] wings never stopped moving, so fast that only their bodies, the size of tiny shrimp, were visible to the naked eye, and he suddenly felt like a man who had sunk into a lake and was looking up at vast schools of plankton."
Indeed, it would be no understatement to say that these descriptions give the landscape as much of a role in the story as Bilgee, Little Wolf or even Chen himself. Truly, the tale would be incomplete without knowing the lay of this land as Chen saw it. Nor could the reader ever begin to comprehend the tragic fate of the landscape at the hands of shortsighted government officials.
The next layer revolves around Chen's education in the fine art of, what is often called in the west, resource management. As he is tutored by the wise Bilgee in the history and customs of the Mongol people (who share everything except a government with the people of the Independent State of Mongolia to the north) Chen becomes keenly aware of the delicate balance, the tightrope dance, that sustains our - human, beast and land - mutual existence. These are some of the richest and at the same time, most tedious, passages since the characters' monologues often resemble prepared political speeches. That notwithstanding, however, we can all do with a reminder about the importance of respecting and not abusing our planet.
Jiang, a former political prisoner, has some severe criticism for the way his government has handled positioning China as a player in the 21st Century. Some of which we're aware of due to the increased spotlight on Beijing as a result of last year's Olympics. For example, the thoughtless desertification of the Mongolian grasslands has caused waves of yellow dust to dangerously pollute the air in Beijing. Additionally, he highlights the way the Chinese government handles the ethnic differences between Mongols (nomadic descendents of Genghis Khan) and the Han Chinese (agrarian Confucians who comprise over 90% of the country's population).
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 itself.
About the Author
Jiang Rong is the pseudonym of Lu Jiamin (in Chinese, the family name comes first). To protect himself from what he describes as "the least liberal country in the world", he wrote Wolf Totem under a pen-name and carefully hid his real identity. It was not until he won the Man Asia prize in 2007, three years after the book was first published, that anyone outside a small circle of friends knew what Jiang looked like. Before the Man Booker prize he had given interviews but never allowed his photograph to be taken. Some critics have dismissed this as a marketing gimmick but for Jiang it was a matter of survival. Speaking after the Man Asia prize was announced he says ..... continued at BookBrowse.
This review was originally published in April 2008, and has been updated for the March 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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