Wolf Totem traces the last throes of Inner Mongolia’s grasslands and its people’s nomadic lifestyle. It’s a poignant, if overly long, account of the consequences of displacing traditional values and land practices.
Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, Viking 2008
China, nomads and wolves: why is this fiction review on a hiking blog, you might ask? Well, having worked my way through it, I was struck by some ecological and cultural crossover with the Australian context – or indeed anywhere modernity and tradition have come into conflict.
Set in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution, Mao’s Zedong’s last gasp effort to retain power, Beijing student Chen Zhen has moved to north-central Inner Mongolia: a harsh landscape where nomads compete with marmots, mice, gazelles and mosquitoes for the grasslands where they raise their livestock. Here, Chen develops a strong affinity for the grasslands, and the people who inhabit it.
Above all, he admires the grassland wolves, savvy predators from whose savage intelligence, he learns, the Mongols’ military success is apparently drawn. The wolves occupy a special place at the heart of Mongolian culture. His mentor, the elder herdsman Bilgee, describes how the wolves preserve the grasslands, keeping herbivores like marmots and gazelles in check. If not for them, the grasslands would be overgrazed and turn to sand like the encroaching Gobi Desert. But the affinity with wolves goes deeper: they are totemic: worshipped, feared and respected. When a Mongol dies, his body is given to the wolves in a sky burial, similar to that of the Tibetans, so that the soul can re-join the great Mongolian Sky God, Tengger.
The wolves and humans are not allies, however: wolves prey on the herds of sheep and horses. Constant vigilance against wolf attack is part of daily life for a nomad. And yet, the cultural and ecological value of the species means that balance is imperative. As one of Chen’s fellow herders explains:
“The grassland is a complex place,” Uljii said. “Everything is linked and the wolves are the major link, tied to all the others. If that link is removed, livestock raising will disappear out here. You can’t count all the benefits the wolves bring, far greater than the damage they cause.”
It’s a story that echoes, in some ways, the Australian dingo, one of Australia’s few mammalian apex predators, viewed for so long as a scourge by farmers. But recent research suggests that apex predators like the dingo play an integral role in ecological balance.
Wolf Totem also explores the way in which age-old land management practices have helped preserve fragile wild places such as the Mongolian steppes.
The idea that an indigenous people has valuable eco-spiritual knowledge sound resonate with Australian readers. The comparison deepens when we take into account the quasi-colonial influx of Han Chinese to Inner Mongolia; these are sedentary farmers who view the wolves as a a pest. This view hardens after an entire horse herd is massacred by a pack of desperate wolves.
Soon the Han settlers start a campaign against the wolves. More and more migrant farmers arrive, bringing entrenched cultural attitudes and land management practices with them. The outcomes are evident today: much of this area has experienced desertification and the frequency and severity of North China’s dust storms are increasing.
Mirroring this catastrophic effort to subjugate the land is Chen’s attempt to raise a wolf cub he has captured. The cub refuses all efforts at domestication: its fierce nature will not submit to human will or a human way of life. It is a relationship that cannot end well.
But did I enjoy reading this book? Author Jiang Rong spends far too much time describing the social hierarchy of wolves and horses. He spends even more time anthropomorphising wolves: cunning predators, military masterminds, vengeful fighters. It’s all a bit much and a strong editor could have easily cut the book down by a third, strengthening its impact.
Perhaps Jiang is too close to the subject; it is loosely autobiographical after all. Yet without this sort of insight into minor, yet epochal moments, the slow collapse of the world can seem insurmountable. Jiang teaches us that we need to develop a cultural and ecological literacy if we are to preserve wild places and, as twee as it sounds, live sustainably.