Lessons for the sheepish
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.