Lessons for the sheep­ish

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Roger Uren

Wolf Totem By Jiang Rong Vik­ing, $ 32.95, 526pp

JIANG Rong’s novel Wolf Totem , which won the in­au­gu­ral Man Asian Lit­er­ary Prize last year, is a per­fect ex­am­ple of how a work of fiction can con­vey pro­found in­sights into hu­man ex­is­tence and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Writ­ten by a Bei­jing- based au­thor who had been sent to the grass­lands of In­ner Mon­go­lia dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, Wolf Totem paints a vivid pic­ture of the lives of Mon­go­lian no­mads and their re­la­tion­ship with the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, and in do­ing so ex­poses some of the fail­ings of Chi­nese so­ci­ety and cul­ture, rang­ing from the de­feat of large Chi­nese armies by small Mon­gol forces to the de­struc­tive in­flu­ence of Chi­nese com­mu­nist bu­reau­crats as they sought to ex­tend their agri­cul­tural pol­icy across the Mon­go­lian grass­lands.

At a deeper level, the novel also con­tains a pow­er­ful mes­sage about en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and the need for de­vel­op­ment pol­icy to take into ac­count the con­di­tions of dif­fer­ent places, rather than adopt a one- size- fits- all approach.

Wolf Totem is told from the per­spec­tive of Chen Zhen, a stu­dent ex­iled to the grass­lands who be­comes fas­ci­nated by the Mon­go­lian no­mads’ approach to life, par­tic­u­larly by their skill at coun­ter­ing the bru­tal­ity and cun­ning of the wolves while cul­ti­vat­ing their sheep and horses. But while the wolves are the en­e­mies of the Mon­go­lians, who be­come ex­tremely an­noyed when Chen Zhen finds a wolf cub and tries to raise it as a pet, they re­gard them as al­most sa­cred an­i­mals wor­thy of re­spect.

The Mon­go­lians un­der­stand ‘‘ the key to pro­tect­ing the grass­land is lim­it­ing the num­ber of wolves we kill’’ be­cause the wolves pro­tect the grass­lands from the de­struc­tion of ‘‘ ground squir­rels, rabbits, mar­mots and gazelles’’.

The novel is mak­ing a uni­ver­sal point and at one stage the di­a­logue even cites Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence. In talk­ing with the head of the Mon­go­lian fam­ily in whose yurt he is liv­ing, the well- read Chen Zhen quotes the Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence with the rab­bit, which he ex­plains dev­as­tated large tracts of agri­cul­tural land af­ter its in­tro­duc­tion to the con­ti­nent by English set­tlers. ‘‘ Bring a map with you to­mor­row,’’ Chen Zhen’s Mon­go­lian host says. ‘‘ I want to see this place for my­self. Then the next time some­one says they want to wipe out our wolf pop­u­la­tion, I’ll tell them about Aus­tralia.’’

While the text con­tains oc­ca­sional ref­er­ences to the sex­ual ap­petites of Mon­go­lian women, Wolf Totem is free from the ro­mance and sex­ual pas­sages that pro­vide the driv­ing force of much fiction, West­ern and Chi­nese. The nar­ra­tive is car­ried for­ward by the com­plex and of­ten con­fronta­tional re­la­tion­ships be­tween Han Chi­nese and Mon­go­lians, and those Chi­nese such as Chen Zhen who have de­vel­oped a sym­pa­thy with the Mon­go­lian approach to life and who be­come in­creas­ingly crit­i­cal of trends in China proper, from the crazi­ness of the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion through to the lack of democ­racy.

De­spite be­ing a well- ed­u­cated grad­u­ate from the Chi­nese school sys­tem, Chen Zhen be­comes at­tached to the no­madic tra­di­tion and fre­quently high­lights the ad­van­tages of civil­i­sa­tions de­rived from no­madic so­ci­eties over the Han Chi­nese peas­ant- based cul­ture: ‘‘ The most ad­vanced peo­ple to­day are de­scen­dants of no­madic races. They drink milk, eat cheese and steak, weave clothes from wool and com­pete in ath­let­ics. They cher­ish free­dom and pop­u­lar elec­tions, and they have re­spect for their women.’’

The ten­sions gen­er­ated by Chen Zhen’s con­flicts with party ap­pa­ratchiks, sent to the re­gion to in­tro­duce Chi­nese- style farm­ing prac­tices that are po­ten­tially fa­tal to the grass­lands, give the nar­ra­tive a com­pelling char­ac­ter and form a nat­u­ral con­text for the au­thor’s po­lit­i­cal mes­sage. De­spite — or per­haps be­cause of — the highly scep­ti­cal approach it takes to Chi­nese cul­tural, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal val­ues, Wolf Totem has be­come a best­seller in China.

The novel’s rich tex­ture, with nu­mer­ous ref­er­ences to Chi­nese and world his­tory and de­tailed ac­counts of life on the grass­lands, re­flects an enor­mous amount of re­search by Jiang. He be­gan to write the novel in 1971 and in 1997 sub­mit­ted his fi­nal draft to his Chi­nese pub­lisher, who then re­quired fur­ther edi­to­rial work be­fore the book was pub­lished in 2004.

Jiang Rong is a pseu­do­nym and, de­spite his enor­mous lit­er­ary suc­cess, the au­thor has kept an ex­tremely low profile. In­deed, for the first three years af­ter Wolf Totem ap­peared only five peo­ple knew his real name — Lu Ji­amin — and that he was a po­lit­i­cal econ­o­mist at a large re­search in­sti­tu­tion. It is only in re­cent months, af­ter win­ning the Man Asian Lit­er­ary Prize, that he has be­come more open about his iden­tity.

The English ver­sion of the novel, which was trans­lated by Howard Gold­blatt, reads ex­tremely smoothly. Al­though Gold­blatt trans­lates some of Jiang’s terms into reader- friendly English that dif­fers from the orig­i­nal Chi­nese — wolf kings, for ex­am­ple, be­come al­pha males — the English nar­ra­tive is fluid and largely faith­ful to the Chi­nese. De­spite its length — more than 500 pages — Wolf Totem is highly read­able and de­liv­ers im­por­tant mes­sages about is­sues rang­ing from the prob­lems of gov­er­nance in China to en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and the bonds that can de­velop be­tween hu­mans and an­i­mals.

Roger Uren served in the Aus­tralian em­bassy in Bei­jing dur­ing the 1980s and later headed the Asia branch at the Of­fice of Na­tional As­sess­ments. He has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about China and is vice- pres­i­dent of a Hong Kong­based Chi­nese- lan­guage television broad­caster.

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