Book Review - Wolf Totem
For the author to be awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize and for the fact that the book is a huge bestseller in China, there is no doubting that the book has some very laudable qualities despite what some critics say.
But before dwelling on the good points, let me just quickly point out the one thing that I find hardest to accept, and that is the author’s tendency to explain away the weak disposition of the Chinese ethnic race with a simplistic rationale that it is due to the traditional sedentary agricultural lifestyle since the ancient times, and then to attribute all glory and success in certain historic periods to the venturesome nomadic characteristics of China’s hunter-gatherer tribes who came to be the rulers during those periods. Based on this premise, he came to the conclusion that in order for China to become once again a power to be reckoned with, Chinese people ought to discard their submissive character and assume a more aggressive, or wolf-like, outlook on life and the world at large.
There may well be a million factors and nuances that can help explain Chinese racial characteristics, and the traditional farming lifestyle may be one of them. But this is a subject that is outside the scope of this review. (Bo Yang’s “The Ugly Chinese” may be a good way to start exploring the subject.)
Despite that, the author penned in one scene a poignant and sad analogical description of typical weakness of Chinese character that is particularly disturbing. It is the scene where a herd of sheep was being attacked methodically by a pack of wolves, and where those sheep that luckily escaped just stood and watched as others were being slaughtered. “This scene reminded him of what Lu Xun wrote in an essay: some Chinese imbeciles stretched their necks and eagerly watched the Japanese soldiers behead Chinese prisoners – it is exactly the same scene now. No wonder the nomadic tribes regard the Hans as sheep. The wolves are devilish to devour the sheep. But it is those selfish, callous and craven sheep-like people who are even more loathsome and more disheartening.”
As for the strong suits of the book, there are plenty. Not least is the honest warning about the urgent need to protect the environment. Reckless farming of natural grasslands in Inner Mongolia has had the devastating effect of letting the soil dry up and turn into sand, resulting in frequent severe sandstorms that have been plaguing cities like Beijing for years. This ‘farmers’ invasion’, along with their deliberate purging of the grassland wolves, entirely skewed the natural cycle that had gone on peacefully for centuries – a stinging reminder to the whole world that humans have been destroying the natural environment with their own hands.
Jiang Rong has nothing but praises for the natural cycle that had maintained the ecological balance in the Mongolian grasslands, with the wolves playing a key part in the cycle. Nobody knows the importance of letting nature take its course better than the nomadic people. They roam with their herds of sheep and cattle because there’s a need for grasses in the grazed areas to grow again, so that they can rotate among the patches of grasslands. The wolves who feed on gazelles, mountain beavers, rabbits and field rats are doing the nomads a great favor because these animals are unwelcome grazers. But if the wolves grow to such a number that these can no longer fill their stomachs, they would threaten to feed on the domestic herds and even horses. So the nomads in turn would, when occasion calls for it, hunt down wolves just to keep their numbers in check, but never to eliminate them completely, because they are the natural grassland protectors. Unfortunately, this ecological balance is destroyed when the farmers begin to ‘invade’ the grasslands….
The down-to-earth and unpretentious writing style throughout the book has captured my heart, and I was especially moved by the part about the protagonist Chen Zhen raising the wolf cub and how he tried to bond with it. The story is so compelling, vivid, and rich in emotional details, that it’s hard not to believe that it is a true life experience. The cub’s inevitable destiny, which it brought on itself in fighting for its freedom, seems to be an iron proof that wolves are a species that cannot be domesticated by men. In praising the free-spirited and audacious cub, is the author not also trying to say that freedom is worth fighting for, even if it means giving up one’s own life?
Doris Lessing once said that a novel is an outpost of journalism which reveals information about areas of life that readers don’t’ know and that successful novels are those that report the existence of an area of society or a type of person that is not yet admitted to the general literate consciousness. In this sense “Wolf Totem” certainly is a successful novel, as through it we come to know about a place, a people and a lifestyle that many of us would not ordinarily be able to come into contact with.
Lastly, the author’s plain but flowing story-telling technique tends to keep the reader in suspense and unable to stop turning the page as he/she gets sucked into the world of the Mongolian wolves and grasslands. Gripping episodes include the wolf pack’s strategic cornering of a group of gazelles into a half-frozen lake; the wolves’ brazen and vicious attack on a pack of horses; the villagers’ vengeful hunting and killing of wolves after the latter’s predatory massacre of the villagers’ horses; the farmers’ hunting of swans on the swan lake and the student’s futile attempt to save two big swan eggs from the greedy farmers.
All in all, “Wolf Totem” is more of an entertaining novel than a scientific study of wolves and much is based on the author’s life experience in Inner Mongolia during his youthful days. There are nonetheless strong messages that the author wanted to put across, the most important being: a call for immediate action to save the environment before it’s too late and an advocacy for following the wolves’ example of freedom loving and dauntless character.