02.09 Wolf Totem

Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong
February 2009 Meeting

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  1. hilaryfbbc

     /  March 10, 2009

    Call me one of the ‘wilfully perverse’ (cf Moira’s comment above!)if you will – I really did think this was an impressive work,a ‘tour de force’. The style seems to me as if it could be rather oriental in its nature, (although I bet we lost loads of subtleties in the translation). At first I was trying to feel horrified by the blood and guts elements, but soon found it a remarkably engrossing and emotional read about a lost way of life. A wake up call to environmental campaigners.
    ‘Nuff said: this “read” in particular shows you can’t please all of the people all of the time – well not in Belper Bookchat, anyway; aren’t books brilliant?

  2. Sarah

     /  February 24, 2009

    Wolf Totem is an account of a young Chinese intellectual, Chen, who volunteers during the cultural revolution to become a herder in the grasslands of Mongolia. It explores ecological balance, and contrasts agrarian and nomadic existence.

    The ecological message was delivered precisely and simply, with chilling logic. As the grassland is destroyed by the rapacious Chinese in a bid to put food in mouths, I was led to reappraise some of my most basic tenets. Namely that people must be fed and housed above all else. Whilst not entirely prepared to cast that thought adrift, it now comes with a “but…” By no means a comfortable read, it was all too easy to see Inner Mongolia as a microcosm for the world environment…

    Politically, the interpretation seemed less well-defined. The introduction made it clear that the wolves were a metaphor for the Mongolians, and the sheep represented the Han Chinese. I sometimes object to being told how to read a book, but on this occasion it worked well. Initially it was hard to read the book in the prescribed manner. The Chinese would insist on appearing as predatory wolf-like beings, herding and constraining the sheep-like Mongolians…

    As the nature of wolves and Mongolians is slowly revealed they seem to merge together. The Chinese remain the aggressors, but it becomes possible to see how the passive sheep can be considered aggressive, capable of the mindless destruction of the grassland on which their very existence depends. The controlled ferocity of the Mongolians is mirrored in the feral but noble nature of the wolf. (An example; the wolf who is run to death by the jeep.)

    The position stated in the introduction engendered an awareness of my preconceptions, which served to illustrate how removed was my final position. (Actually, by the end I was more inclined to see the Chinese as mice, the most prolific consumers and destroyers of natural resources on the grassland.)

    The religion and culture of the Mongolians was intriguing. I didn’t find the apparent anthropomorphic treatment of the wolves inappropriate. I have a sneaking admiration for these fearsome warriors myself. The anthropomorphism doesn’t come from Chen, but is observed by him in the Mongolians. As an intellectual, you might expect him to be scornful of such primitive beliefs. He clearly is not. Why would an intelligent man be receptive to notions as outlandish as the battle plans of wolves?

    The more I think about it, the less I can support the accusations of anthropomorphism. The wolves are complex, double-faceted beings. In one aspect the wolves are dangerous predators against whom the Mongolians must protect themselves and their livestock with extreme prejudice. In another sense the wolves are an earthly aspect of the Mongolian sky god, Tengger. I may be mistaken but, if I recall correctly, on the numerous occasions on which the wolves are attributed with supernatural powers, it is at the times when their behaviour is spiralling out of control as a direct result of man’s tampering with the ecological balance. As the behaviour of the wolves becomes more extreme in an attempt to redress the balance, it is the hand of Tengger which is perceived by the Mongolians, not the humanisation of the wolves.

    The root of the Mongolian religion appeared to be a “primitive” worship of nature, ie an understanding and undertaking to maintain the ecology. In today’s climate such an attitude would be considered green and forward thinking! A practical, working religion.

    Towards the end of the novel the story becomes more personal to Chen. Against the wishes of the Mongolian herders Chen adopts a wolf cub. Given that the wolf is a prime religious symbol this can only be considered extremely blasphemous, but the herders are remarkably tolerant under the circumstances.

    Chen takes the wolf cub to learn about the wolves. The wolf cub becomes semi-tamed, and is effectively rendered toothless. At about the same time, with striking similarities to the biblical Garden of Eden story, some unspoilt pasture is discovered (a paradise) and it is here that Chen tempts the younger generation with eggs. Eggs are a food forbidden by Tengger… The young people fall from grace, and all is lost.

    What Chen learns is of himself. Despite his good intentions, his actions unwittingly mirror the larger destruction wreaked on the herders’ way of life by the Chinese as a whole. It is his good intentions that under score the inevitability of the disaster.

    By the end of the book it is clear that Chen has mentally extrapolated his actions and holds himself solely accountable for the downfall of the grassland.

    I believe that this largely autobiograpical book was written as a tribute and a penance; out of the author’s huge sense of guilt and despair at the loss of the grassland. A desperate attempt to preserve a little of a beautiful, savage, unique way of life. As such I found it deeply moving.

  3. richardbbc

     /  February 23, 2009

    After the last two somewhat scathing reviews I thought for a moment it would be foolish to draw attention to the fact that I was one of those five or six people who had finished the book especially as some of the criticisms are fair so far as they go. But I cannot forget how on the night those who had read the book were at least prepared to defend its qualities or more than happy to declare that they had enjoyed it. Wolf Totem is indeed a strange book but it also one that clearly has the ability to command a certain respect from anyone prepared to give it a chance and read it to the end.

  4. moirabbc

     /  February 22, 2009

    I endorse Maddi’s funny and entertaining comments about this one. I admit to being the gritty reader referred to and 90 pages were endured through gritted teeth. The piledriven message of the nomads being at one with nature is repeated ad nauseum. Rabidly red in tooth and claw, it had all the subtlety of a Maoist ballet during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution.
    1 or 2 people did confess to enjoying this book and it is hard to believe they were not being wilfully perverse, but I think we should let the library service know this book provoked the most intemperate reactions. These sturdy hardbacks would make good cavity wall insulation in the new Belper Library, so all is not lost.
    I rather hoped this book might be a literary version of the Weeping Camel film but it was not.

  5. madeleinebbc

     /  February 22, 2009


    When my fellow ‘book chatter’ emailed me to say she couldn’t take any more of this month’s book and was more than willing to hand it over after 90 pages I was prepared for a struggle. But I wasn’t prepared for this! The lengthy, cliche and adjective laden descriptions read as if written by a 14 year old who’d just had the ‘metaphors and similes’ lesson. I found it excrutiating. The ascribing of human emotions to the animals seemed hopelessly naive. Wolves with ‘murderous thoughts of revenge in their eyes’ anyone?

    90 pages!! I’m full of admiration for the resolute grit and determination shown by one woman. I got to page 5, before wanting to stop and then battled on for another 70 pages, before deciding that life was too short to give time to such utter drivel. After researching past reviews I found I was not alone in holding such contempt for the book. The Literary Life column in last week’s Telegraph suggested the novel as a contender for the Delete Key Awards 2009 – for the year’s worst writing – a response to low level writing in high priced books. Really they were spoilt for choice, but selected this curdled thought to illustrate: ‘Heaven and man do not easily come together, but the wolf and the grassland merge like water and milk’.

    I was ABSOLUTELY STUNNED to find that a number of club members not only finished but enjoyed this tome. I was quite prepared to nominate this title as the WORST EVER BOOK IN THE WORLD EVER chosen by Belper Book Chat… comeback Black Dog, all is forgiven…. I was ready to email the Library service and advise them to recall all copies, burn them and pretend that they never existed, in order to save fellow book groups from the pain.

    Oh well, I’m glad that others enjoyed it, and it certainly gave us something to discuss. I admit that I can’t really fairly review something that I din’t finish. The nicest thing I can say is that perhaps the essence of this book has been Lost in Translation… Can a million Chinese be so wrong?

  6. malcolmbbc

     /  February 20, 2009

    Does this book take the prize for defeating the greatest number of BBC readers? At our meeting, it seemed that only 4(?) of the assembled throng had finished the book. It seems I was doing better than most to get halfway!

    OK, so it is a long book, weighing in at over 400 or so pages, but this shouldn’t be enough to deter such hardened readers, sureley? It seems that for most of us, this was simply too much like hard work. The plot moves very slowly and seems to consist (at least for the half of the book that I did read) with one encounter with wolves after another -wolves attacking deer, wolves attacking horses, men attacking wolves, men raiding wolf den and so on.

    Wolves are of course central to the story. It seems that the Mongol tribesmen both feared and revered the wolves. Wolves attack grazing sheep and other animals, so they are hunted and their skins are highly prized. But hunting is kept to a minimum because it is also recognised that the wolves keep down populations of rabbits and deer that would otherwise destroy the grassland so essential to survival on the plains.

    Those who finished the book say that it covers a long time period, so we can witness the inevitable damage to the plains when traditional wisdom is ignored. Whilst I didn’t get to the end, this would have been no great surprise as one of the main characters explains the basic ecological truths several times over, in the earlier chapters.

    So, quite hard work, but I was still disappointed not to finish the book. Why? Because for me, the descriptions of a totally different lifestyle were absolutely engrossing. From the initial description of wolves hunting deer, through to a wonderful illustration of nomads “boating” on fragile ice by spreading out skins to bear their weight, there is a lot to enjoy.

  7. michelebbc

     /  February 19, 2009

    “Set during the Cultural Revolution, “Wolf Totem” describes the education of an intellectual from China’s majority Han community living with nomadic herders in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Not much was known about the pseudonymous author on the book’s first publication in 2004; only last year was Jiang Rong revealed as Lu Jiamin, a recently retired professor at one of Beijing’s most prestigious academic institutions. It is also now clear that he was one of the former Red Guards who, following Mao’s advice that urban intellectuals re-educate themselves in the countryside, traveled to Inner Mongolia in the late 1960s.

    Jiang Rong, who invokes Lu Xun’s ambition to transform “national character,” clearly wishes to use a fictionalized account of his life with the nomads to advance an argument. But the author’s preoccupation with his Chinese audience may not be the only source of frustration for foreign readers of Howard Goldblatt’s generally fluent translation. Jiang Rong seems to have barely attempted to transmute his experiences and epiphanies into fiction; his book reads like an extended polemic about the superiority of nomadic people and the dangers of a triumphant but brutishly ignorant modernity.”
    New York Times


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