Chapter 1: Wolf Totem

Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong book cover

“As soon as wolves entered the picture, our lives got a lot more interesting and a lot more exciting” 

Wolf Totem (p. 51)

My life certainly became a lot more interesting when I started to study wolves, just as one of the characters from Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, translated by Howard Goldblatt, says here. Reading Wolf Totem itself was an interesting experience; I’d never read anything like it before, and I’m not sure I ever will again.

Wolf Totem is a semi-autobiographical novel (Jiang Rong is a pseudonym for the author Lü Jiamin) following a student from Beijing named Chen Zhen, who is living with the natives of the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in the 1960s. Chen quickly becomes fascinated with the wolves with whom he shares the grassland. Wanting to learn more, he captures a wolf cub whom he names ‘Little Wolf’, and attempts to raise it.

It’s a long book with a rather dense style: ‘tome’, as it has been described, is the right word for it (Kremb, 2006). There’s also a lot going on – maybe not plot-wise, but certainly meaning-wise – so there’s number of angles from which you can approach the book. One of these is political and metaphorical/allegorical, reading the Han Chinese as sheep and Mongolians as wolves. I’m not going to go into this, mostly because I’m far from qualified to do so, and also because a lot of the reading material I’ve found discusses it at some length (see, for example, Hong, 2016). Instead, I’m going to approach Wolf Totem from the point of view which speaks most to me: an ‘ecocritical’ angle, looking at the novel as a meditation on the natural world and mankind’s place within it, and how wolves both affect and are affected by man. In other words, I’m using wolves, not humans, as a starting point. 

Using an ecocritical approach has generally been much less popular than taking the cultural/allegorical perspective (Hong, 2016), and maybe I’m wrong to divorce the metaphorical from the literal, but I think that it’s equally possible to read the book in both of these different ways. To me, sweeping the literal meaning aside to focus solely on the allegorical denies the power of Wolf Totem as an environmental narrative that has great potential to teach us the extent of the negative effects of our treatment of the natural world. And these days, can we afford not to read in this way? Wolf Totem is certainly too relevant not to do so.

In any case, whichever way in which you read it, it can’t be denied that everything in the novel comes back to wolves: ‘stories of men and wolves on the grassland are the soul of the novel’ (He, 2014).

The benefits of wolves and the balance of control

“In the two years I’ve been here,” he said, “the wolves have caused me nothing but trouble. I never expected that one day I’d benefit from their efforts.”

“We Mongols benefit from their efforts all the time,” the old man said 

(pp. 30-31)

When you look at Wolf Totem from an ecocritical point of view, one of the first things that you find is an articulation of the role of wolves in top-down trophic cascades. Simply put, this is the idea that removing wolves (or any apex predator) from the top of the ecosystem will allow numbers of the prey population below them in the chain, such as deer, to overpopulate. In turn, the overpopulation of ungulates negatively affects the flora which they eat, and therefore, the other fauna that rely on this flora to survive.

An iconic and oft-quoted passage from the book spoken by one of the Mongolians, Bilgee, epitomises this. In this scene, Chen Zhen has just helped to rescue a pregnant gazelle who is trapped in the snow:

she possessed motherly beauty in her big, tender eyes. He rubbed the top of her head; she opened her eyes wide, now seeming to beg for mercy. Chen stroked the helpless, feeble creature kneeling at his feet, and felt his heart shudder. Why did he not strive to protect these warm, beautiful, peace-loving herbivores instead of gradually moving closer to the wolves, whose nature was to kill? Having grown up hearing tales that demonize wolves, he said without thinking, “These gazelles are such pitiful creatures. Wolves are evil, killing the innocent, oblivious to the value of a life. They deserve to be caught and skinned” (p. 44).

In response, an infuriated Bilgee asks:

“Does that mean that the grass doesn’t constitute a life? That the grassland isn’t a life? Out here, the grass and the grassland are the life, the big life. All else is little life that depends on the big life for survival. Even wolves and humans are little life. Creatures that eat grass are worse than creatures that eat meat. To you, the gazelle is to be pitied. So the grass isn’t to be pitied, is that it? The gazelles have four fast-moving legs, and most of the time wolves spit up blood from exhaustion trying to catch them. When the gazelles are thirsty, they run to the river to drink, and when they’re cold, they run to a warm spot on the mountain to soak up some sun. But the grass? Grass is the big life, yet it is the most fragile, the most miserable life. Its roots are shallow, the soil is thin, and though it lives on the ground, it cannot run away. Anyone can step on it, ear it, chew it, crush it. A urinating horse can burn a large spot in it. And if the grass grows in sand or in the cracks between rocks, it is even shorter, because it cannot grow flowers, which means it cannot spread its seeds. For us Mongols, there’s nothing more deserving of pity than the grass. If you want to talk about killing, then the gazelles kill more grass than any mowing machine could. When they graze the land, isn’t that killing? Isn’t that taking the big life of the grassland? When you kill off the big life of the grassland, all the little lives are doomed. The damage done by the gazelles far outstrips any done by the wolves. The yellow gazelles are the deadliest, for they can end the lives of the people here” (p. 45).

For Bilgee, the most important thing on the grassland, as its name suggests, is the grass itself. It is the ‘life’ that sustains all other ‘lives’, the beating heart of the landscape. Without it, neither small nor large mammals that graze on it can survive, including livestock and the men who tend to them: “if the grassland dies, so will the cows and sheep and horses, as well as the wolves and the people, all the little lives” (p. 234).

But despite its importance to all of the people and animals that live on it, the grassland is “thinner than people’s eyelids” (p. 234), a delicate and fragile organism. This is where the wolves come in. They help to maintain the grassland by killing the deer, mice, rabbits, and marmots who, if left unchecked, would overgraze the land (the latter three also creating vast burrows which riddle the ground with holes) and kill off this ‘big life’ that sustains them (see p. 237).

While it therefore seems paradoxical, the wolves actually help to protect the deer population by killing some of them. They prevent the deer and other small mammals from becoming their own demise:

“there are many destructive animals on the grassland, but ground squirrels, rabbits, marmots, and gazelles wreak the greatest damage. If there were no wolves, squirrels and rabbits alone would lay waste to the grassland within a few years. Wolves are their natural enemy: they keep them in check” (pp. 250-251).

Killing deer also helps the Mongolians, as they can’t control the ungulate population alone:

“when the brigade came here for the spring birthing of lambs, tens of thousands of gazelles had stormed over from Outer Mongolia. We couldn’t chase them away, even with rifles. If they ran off during the day, they returned at night to fight over grass with the birthing ewes. Luckily the wolves came and, in a matter of days the gazelles were gone. If not for the wolves, there’d have been no grass for the ewes and no milk for the newborn lambs; we’d have lost tens of thousands of lambs” (p. 441).

The same goes for the Mongolians’ own animals. The Mongolians’ ‘most important responsibility has been to protect the grassland, since it’s the foundation of livestock raising’, which is ‘a difficult task that requires keeping the population of grazing animals in check, especially the horses’ (pp. 250-251):

“the herd would grow too fast without wolves. Just think, a herd can have over a hundred foals each year, a twenty or thirty percent growth if most of them survived. Each year there would be new mares ready to give birth, which means the growth rate would be even higher. The number of horses in a herd would double after three or four years. Under normal circumstances, we only sell four- or five-year-old horses and keep the younger ones. Uljii says that except for rodents and rabbits, horses do more damage to the pasture than any other animal. A Mongol horse can consume enough grass to feed several cows, even a hundred sheep” (p. 375).

As well as this, ‘their hooves are murder on the grassland’, as are the cows, whose ‘weight and […] heavy hooves tear up the ground’ (p. 251). Though ‘wolves are responsible for [livestock] losses’, therefore, ‘the absence of those losses will prove catastrophic’ (p. 250).

Even though the wolves predate on their sheep and horses, the Mongolians thus recognise that without wolves there would be no grassland, without which they would lose their livelihood:

“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” (p. 238).

The wolves perform ‘ecosystem services’ which benefit both nature and human: ‘you can’t count all the benefits the wolves bring, far greater than the damage they cause’ (p. 238). 

It is not the wolves who are a ‘scourge’ (p. 208), therefore, it is the horses (p. 423) and the gazelles (p. 17). As Rong notes, “heaven and man do not easily come together, but a wolf and the grassland merge like water and milk” (p. 228). Though this sentence describes the wolves’ ability to camouflage themselves in the grass, it is equally applicable to the inextricable relation between the two, and the role which wolves play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem: ‘“the presence of wolves is the ecological index to the existence of the grassland. When the wolves are gone, the grassland loses its soul”’ (p. 520). 

This is what happens by the end of the novel. The wolves have been exterminated, and the grassland withers, infested by mice, a dismal picture of a once lush paradise now dry and barren:

In the spring of 2002, Batu and Gasmai phoned Chen Zhen to say, “Eighty percent of the Olonbulag pastureland is now desert.”

[…]

A few days later, a yellow-dragon sandstorm rose up outside his window, blocking the sky and the sun. All of Beijing was shrouded in the fine, suffocating dust. China’s imperial city was turned into a hazy city of yellow sand.

Standing alone by his window, Chen looked off to the north with a sense of desolation. The wolves had receded into legend, and the grassland was a distant memory. A nomadic herding society was now extinct; even the last trace left by the wolves on the Inner Mongolian ancient Cave of the wolf cub—would be buried in yellow sand (p. 524).

While readers of the novel should be aware that it is somewhat reductive to say that no wolves equals no grassland (Hong, 2016), what Wolf Totem does help us to recognise is that we need to protect all parts of the natural environment, from the ‘big’ to the ‘little’ lives. Whatever the exact role played by wolves is – and this we still don’t fully understand – we do know that ecosystems are fragile and complex webs that require both predator and prey. As Rong recognises, we need to ‘understand that […] the ecological environment we live in and depend on for existence is a very complicated system where all that belongs is equally important’ (Hong, 2016).

By eradicating predators, therefore, humans are in effect ‘playing God’, determining the fate of not just one species but many, including humans. It’s not just the herdsmen of Mongolia who rely on nature to survive; no matter how far removed from the ‘wilderness’ we might live, we all rely on it. If we destroy it, we are in effect destroying ourselves.

While this is a very good reason to protect the natural environment, it’s not just all about humans, nor putting our own immediate interests first; Wolf Totem also ‘asks us to look at nature as a system rather than from an anthropocentric perspective, to consider events based on all their ramifications rather than evaluating them based on what their immediate effects are for us’ (Black, 2013).

Though the Mongolians do kill wolves and the other animals, both to ensure the survival of their livestock and to make sure that they have enough grass to eat, both they and wolves know that they can’t overexploit any of the species (an equivalent to the overgrazing of the deer): ‘”the wolves […] don’t kill off all the marmots, so there’ll always be a supply for the next year. That’s true for the herdsmen as well. We take only the adults, not the young animals”’ (p. 238). Killing wolves is a necessity to allow the nomads to farm their sheep, but the very land which their sheep graze on (and thereby, the humans themselves) is dependent upon those who eat its grass (sheep, gazelles, mice, and marmots) being kept in check by wolves. The Mongolians recognise that there is a much bigger picture than food for today, or water for tomorrow. They are ‘not portrayed as invaders upon or “outside of” nature, but rather part of it—and they must understand and follow its rules or face disaster’ (Black, 2013). Thus:

in spite of the violence, life on the grasslands is a battle waged without hatred. It lacks the attempt to dominate, to subjugate, to gain the upper hand. The terms “enemy” and “ally” are meaningless. The nomads must constantly defend their herds from the ravages of the wolves, they even engage in annual wolf hunts to decimate the packs, but at the same time they honor and respect the wolves, for the wolves prevent the gazelles from destroying the grassland pastures upon which their flocks depend. […] Humans are not portrayed as invaders upon or “outside of” nature, but rather part of it—and they must understand and follow its rules or face disaster (Black, 2013).

As Chen notes, the ‘“wolves and Mongols protect the grassland together” (p. 123); they collaborate to ‘ensure the environmental integrity of the grassland’, in a ‘dynamic symbiotic process’ (Varsava, 2011). The humans protect the wolves, so that the wolves can protect the grassland.

Ensuring the future of the grassland, therefore, is all about balance, a ‘sustainability according to the law of the jungle’ (Choy, 2009), which Rong terms ‘grassland logic’ (p. 257). But it’s a difficult equilibrium to strike, a ‘delicate ecological balancing act’, as Goldblatt puts it (p. vi), between controlling nature and letting it run its course, deciding which option is best for humans and the landscape that they live within, both now and in the future. As Bilgee says, ‘“protecting the grassland is hard on us. If we don’t kill wolves, they’ll be fewer of us. But if we kill too many of them, there’ll be even fewer”’ (p. 123). He ‘“has to endure the sadness of wolves slaughtering the livestock, while feeling the pangs of having to kill wolves. But for the sake of the grassland and the people, he has to do whatever’s necessary to preserve the balance of interdependent relationships”’ (p. 381). As with the saying ‘“the Yellow River causes a hundred calamities but enriches all it touches”’, and Chen’s acknowledgement that ‘the Chinese would never deny that the Yellow River was the cradle of the Chinese race or that it was crucial to the survival and development of their race even if it sometimes overflows its banks and swallows up acres of cropland and thousands of lives’ (pp. 90-91), we must learn to accept wolves as a vital part of the natural world, even if sometimes they negatively affect humans.

As Chen and Bilgee recognise, mankind is not “the primary element” (p. 88), and should not have full primacy over nature. In fact, as Chen notes, human management alone is not always effective. He tells Bilgee that in Australia:

“[…] someone introduced rabbits into the country, and since there were no wolves, the rabbits reproduced like mad, littering the countryside with their burrows, holes all over the place; eating up most of the vegetation; and creating enormous losses for the livestock farmers. The government tried everything they could think of to fix the problem, but nothing worked. Finally they began covering the ground with steel-wire netting that allowed the grass to grow but kept the rabbits from digging out, hoping to starve the rabbit population in their underground burrows. This plan also failed. The grassland was too vast, and the government couldn’t lay out enough netting to cover it all. I used to think that the Mongolian grasslands were so lush that there must be vast numbers of rabbits. But then I came to the Olonbulag and saw that the rabbit population was actually quite small. A major contribution by the wolves, I take it” (pp. 154-155).

It is naïve (at best) to presume that to allow nature to take its course, to let wolves keep the ungulate and small mammal populations in check, ‘“is a primitive way to go about it”’, and that ‘“we can protect the grassland with scientific methods”’ (p. 449). It’s not always the case that humans can do a better job than nature itself.

Therefore, while the fact that the Mongolians kill wolves to ensure the future of livestock rearing does acknowledge that where there are humans and wolves, the former will inevitably play a role in ‘managing’ the latter, there is also a clear recognition of the fact that the extent of this management is key. We can control nature so rigidly that we have ultimate primacy, allowing nothing to prevent our own activities such as livestock-rearing. We have the power to kill wolves (and other wildlife) indiscriminately, with little care for the long-term consequences. But this does not mean that we should. As we learn by the end of Wolf Totem, this ultimately benefits no one and nothing.

The war between the wolves and humans demonstrates this in vivid bloodiness. It begins when the humans ignore the rules of balance, taking every gazelle frozen in the snow and leaving none for the wolves (p. 65): ‘the great cycle has for the first time been broken by human greed’ (Le Guin, 2008). Knowing that ‘there would be a high price to pay for the wolves’ hunger’ (p. 65), in anticipation of the attack that they know will follow, the grasslanders carry out a vicious extermination of wolf pups. In retaliation, the wolves decimate a herd of horses (pp. 66-83), ‘employing the cruelest, bloodiest, most inconceivably suicidal methods in the arsenal of Mongolian wolves’ (p. 80), ‘so set on revenge that they were uncommonly ferocious and fearless’ (p. 71). As Bilgee notes: ‘on the grassland it’s not a good idea to overdo anything. A cornered rabbit will try to bite a wolf, so how could a frantic female wolf not fight to the death?”’ (p. 100).

Yet some do not learn from this experience. They double down on their wolf-killing efforts, thinking that ‘“if we don’t kill them now, we’re next on their menu”’ (p. 92), that:

“for people and wolves, it’s a life-or-death relationship—you or me […] keeping them at a minimum isn’t enough; we need to wipe them off the face of the earth! Let them get their revenge? We’ll see how they do after I’ve killed them all! I’m not going to rescind my order” (p. 100).

The cycle of vengeance goes on, and the humans conduct an ‘encirclement hunt’, trapping the wolf pack and slaughtering them. Again, nobody wins here – in a gory battle-scene, wolves, dogs, and horses are all lost. It’s a cycle of vengeance, paid for in blood. Bilgee knows this, and rejects the description of the slaughter as ‘glory’:

“the greater the glory, the deeper my sins. This cannot happen again. If there are any more hunts like this, the wolves will disappear, and the gazelles, the ground squirrels, the rabbits, and the marmots will rise up. That will be the end of the grassland […]. We and our livestock will pay dearly” (p. 199).

Wolf Totem, therefore, challenges both our preconceptions about wolves and our need for control, forces us to confront ‘“those forms of instrumental reason that view nature and the animal ‘other’ as being either external to human needs, and thus effectively dispensable, or as being in permanent service to them, and thus an endlessly replenishable resource’” (He, 2014, citing Huggan and Tiffin, 2010). While we often see ourselves as ‘above’, we are as much a part of the ecosystem as any other species, and we can, and do, have a dramatic impact upon its health and long-term viability.

Little Wolf’s death, in particular, is a tragic display of the consequences of mankind’s efforts to control animals, his death mirrored by the ultimate downfall of the grasslands. Refusing to be tamed, and suffering severe illness as a result of Chen’s efforts to do so, Chen must kill Little Wolf:

even the protagonist, who loves the grasslands and is eager to understand them, manages to commit a grave transgression, one that is the result of ingrained attitudes and thought patterns that he does not succeed in overcoming. […] he ultimately sees nature as something that can be used and mastered. Although his desire to raise a wolf pup is born of his reverence for the animals and his desire to know them better rather than to destroy or enslave them, his actions nonetheless are an attempt to assert dominance, to control and possess the object of his study. He realizes too late the error that he has committed (Black, 2013).

Humans need to learn to relinquish some control, while maintaining just enough to ensure that both mankind and the natural world survive. Though it’s not possible for humans to completely relinquish power over nature (most land is owned by someone, and it is rarely completely unmanaged; even if we return it to nature, ‘rewild’ it, it’s still not truly wild), we do need to learn to strike a balance, like the Mongolians do. Perhaps it’s more a question of controlling mankind’s need for control, than controlling nature itself.

Are wolves ‘bad’?

“The wolf is a very complex subject, one that touches on many important issues. No wonder you’re so fascinated by them” 

(p. 215)

Mirrored by the delicate balance of the grassland, for the Mongolians there also exists a delicate balance between revering wolves (hence, ‘totem’), and fear of them:

the wolf is their spiritual totem, but a physical enemy. Raising one like a pet is something a herdsman could not condone; it was a blasphemy in the spiritual sense and consorting with the enemy in the physical realm (p. 333).

The best way to describe the intersection of these opposing views might be ‘respect’. Chen has a similar view, with fear and fascination found in equal measures.

Perhaps we might think of this as a microcosm of the different attitudes towards today. Wolves are the site of so much conflicting information and messages; we can at once empathise with them, admire them, and want to protect them, but we can also fear them, demonise them, and sometimes kill them. All of these views exist in the Mongolians’ minds, a complexly interwoven nexus of attitudes. It is remarkable that they all exist within the same group of people in Wolf Totem; these days, it tends to be a battle between those who want to protect wolves, and those who want to kill them.

The attitudes we have about wolves, as acknowledged in Wolf Totem, owe a lot to the cultural representations of them. Chen remembers reading a story:

about a hunter who rescued an injured wolf and returned it to the forest after nursing it back to health. One day later, the hunter opened the door of his shack and found seven dead the snow, and several Sets of wolf tracks… It was the first story he’d read about friendships forged between wolves and humans, and the first to show a different side of wolves from all the books he’d read and movies he’d seen. The books were mostly of the “Little Red Riding Hood” variety or of wolves eating little lambs, or cruel and scary stories of wolves eating the hearts and livers of small children (p. 329).

While sympathetic wolf stories are becoming more common, the vast majority of cultural associations with wolves, which come from literature, film, and TV, are negative. As Chen notes early on in the novel, when he thinks about ‘all the fairy tales he’d read as a child’:

the “gray wolves” were stupid creatures, greedy and cruel, foxes were clever and likeable. Not until coming to the grassland did he realize that in nature there is no wild animal that has evolved more highly or more perfectly than the gray wolf. Books, and especially fairy tales, he saw, often misled people (pp. 46-47).

Thanks to cultural (mis)understandings of them, ‘a fear and hatred of wolves is in our bones’ (p. 33).

Reading Wolf Totem, on the other hand, allows a different perspective from all of the literature we grew up hearing and reading, prompting us to reconsider what we know about wolves. In the famous passage quoted earlier, for example, Bilgee challenges the assumption that wolves are ‘bad’ and deer are ‘good’ – something that we often see in TV documentaries where the viewer is often set up to empathise with the prey rather than the predator. Here, however, Bilgee turns that on its head, questioning that presumption. Chen, like us, has to reconsider what he thinks he knows about wolves, and the conclusions that he has drawn about them from his cultural understanding.

When he does, he finds that ‘wolves, so fierce and tenacious, [… are] burdened with weak, fragile hearts’ (p. 358); that they are merciful (p. 101); that they ‘won’t bother people and their animals as long as they have food to eat’ (p. 16); that they ‘are afraid of people, since we’re their only predators’ (p. 135); that contrary to popular belief, they do not have an easy time catching their prey (‘most of the time wolves spit up blood from exhaustion trying to catch them [deer]’, p. 45), even despite the fact that they know about ‘weather, topography, opportunity, their and their enemy’s strengths, military strategy and tactics, close fighting, night fighting, guerrilla fighting, mobile fighting, long-range raids, ambushes, lightning raids, and concentrating their strength to annihilate the enemy’ (p. 97). They are also ‘more family-oriented than people, and much more united’:

“Do you know why tigers and such can’t survive out here? And why wolves dominate the grassland? It’s because of their pack mentality. Tigers make a kill for themselves, not for other tigers, not even for their mates or offspring. But wolves kill for themselves and for the rest of the pack, even those that can’t be in on the kill—the Old, the crippled, the nearly blind, the young, the sick, and the nursing females. All you see now are the carcasses, but when the alpha male howls tonight, half the wolves in the Olonbulag and any others that can claim some kinship with this pack will show up, and there won’t be anything left by morning. A wolf takes care of the pack, and the pack takes care of each wolf. They stick together, which is what makes them such formidable foes” (p. 246).

In fact, wolves might not be the ‘worst’ species: that title belongs solely to man. Again and again, this is proven to be the case in Wolf Totem. It is humans who instigate the human-wolf war when they take all of the wolves’ prey, something the wolves themselves wouldn’t have done:

“If you kill off all the gazelles at one time, what will you eat the following year? Wolves aren’t greedy like humans. They know how to figure things out, big things!” (p. 41).

Humans, unlike wolves, prioritise themselves and their present prosperity over others and the future.

They are also ‘crueler than the wolf’, as Bilgee notes (p. 104). Though we thankfully never see it, for example, dying wolves are described as subject to ‘certain humiliating treatment’ (p. 101) by the men who have killed them, though based on how they are treated elsewhere, it’s not hard to guess. For example, at the end of the novel, wolf-hunting is ‘nothing more than entertainment for humans’, when a group chase down a wolf in a car (p. 454). When it is finally exhausted and caught, one of the men, laughing, says that they’ve ‘chased it stupid’, and he pets it as is ‘crumple[s] to the ground’ (p. 456). Earlier, a wolf whose mate is killed is heard ‘wailing in front of the burial spot […], heartbroken, soul-stirred, devastated’ (p. 292). This is what killing wolves does: reduces them to crumpled, sorry animals whose mates will howl, heartbroken, over their bodies, all in the pursuit of human dominion. While ‘the wolf-caribou relationship […] is one of symbiosis rather than wanton predation’ (He, 2014), and ‘there is no cruelty in the wolves’ slaughter of the gazelles […] when humans wage war there frequently is’ (Black, 2013).

Even the marmots don’t escape the humans’ cruelty. In a scene that’s upsetting to picture, a group of people release a captured marmot with a firecracker laced with chilli and diesel strapped to its tail into its burrow, to kill all the marmots inside (p. 481). It is ‘a greedy, malicious extermination scheme’ (p. 481), to which the behaviour of wolves does not even come close. As Bilgee notes, the humans ‘“don’t mind using the cruelest means possible to kill them all, including the old and injured ones. […] Wolves could never be as evil”’ (p. 467).

Perhaps nothing is crueller, however, than when one of the characters wants to use Little Wolf’s howling to lure his pack and kill them (“I didn’t realize that raising this little wolf might work out so well,” Bao said with a smile, “If the mother and the rest of the pack come tonight, we can kill seven or eight of them. Where are you going to find a better opportunity to lure wolves than with one of their own cubs?”, p. 380). It’s hard to think of something more cruel than using the crying of a kidnapped child to lure and murder the mother and family.

Even Chen, the most vocal wolf proponent, is not innocent. In his attempt to raise Little Wolf, he discovered:

how rapacious and vain humans can be. There would have been nothing wrong with picking the biggest and strongest of the seven cubs. So why had they brought the entire litter home? He should never have taken Dorji and Gao Jianzhong along. But would he have only brought one cub back with him if they hadn’t been there? Probably not. Bringing back the whole litter represented conquest, courage, reward, and glory; it won him the respect of others. Compared to that, those seven lives were like grains of sand (pp. 167-168).

As with the avaricious humans at the beginning of the novel, Chen prioritises himself and his reputation over the lives of the wolves, killing all but the one he wants to raise. Even afterwards, while he acknowledges that what he did was wrong (‘”six cubs paid with their lives for this one, and who knows how many more will die”‘), he still maintains that ‘”I can’t stop now: Scientific experimentation is like butchery sometimes”’ (p. 381).

Even though the humans are almost always at fault, it’s all too easy for them to pin the blame on wolves. For example, Bao even finds a way to blame them for his own misguided attempt to kill them by burning the reeds in which they had hidden, which only succeeds in killing the Mongolians’ best breeding bulls:

The charred hides of the animals were still splitting, producing terrifying cracks like ominous spirit writing and mystical curses […]. Everyone shunned Bao Shungui, who stood there, alone, alongside the bull carcasses, his face and clothes soot-covered. Suddenly he blurted out, “The wolves will pay for the deaths of these two bulls! I don’t care what any of you say—I won’t rest until I’ve killed every last wolf on the Olonbulag!” (p. 212).

Humans, it turns out, are more bestial, more savage, than the animals themselves. As Chen asks, ‘how […] can anyone who does injury to Mother Earth be considered civilized?’ (p. 46).

As one character predicts, humans are the downfall of the grassland and therefore, of themselves:

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. If our people wait to gain an understanding of the grassland until it’s been claimed by the desert, it’ll be too late to do anything.”

“People are just too greedy,” Bilgee said, “and too many are ignorant. You can give these fools a hundred reasons to do the right thing, but you’re just wasting your time” (p. 234).

By the end of the novel, blind hatred of wolves, and a blindness to the role that they play, has wiped out both them and the ecosystem which they helped to maintain. Just as the grassland is a delicate entity, its survival balancing on a knife-edge, a shift in the attitudes towards wolves can be a tipping point, leading to a future where there are no wolves left to hate anymore, ‘chased out of China and off the stage of history, condemned with a terrible reputation’ (p. 438). As Varsava notes, Jiang Rony ‘portrays […] the physical world, the socio-cultural domain, [and] the interaction between the two’ (Varsava, 2011); how we think of wolves can, and does, affect how they are treated in the real world.

Both ecologically and culturally, it is not the case that “each generation controls its own affairs”’, and that ‘“the next generation”’ should not be our ‘“concern”’ (p. 257). The next generation learn from those who come before them. For example, when Chen returns to the grassland after a long absence, he meets a young man who he has just seen shoot a hawk. When Chen asks him why, he replies:

“For fun.”

“You’re a high school student. Don’t you know you’re supposed to protect wild animals?”

“The hawks take the lambs, so why can’t I shoot them? There are so many mice here that hawks fly over from Outer Mongolia. So what if I kill a few of them!” (p. 512)

It’s not only the withered grassland that this young man has inherited; it’s his indifference (at best) to nature itself. Ultimately, both our attitudes and behaviour need to change, and neither can be separated from the other. This goes for both the attitudes towards and treatment of wolves in particular, as well as nature on a broader scale.

However, though Wolf Totem encourages sympathy for the wolves; challenges the attitudes and stories that lead to their demise (‘real understanding of wolves cannot happen through the repetitions of outdated, naïve fairy tales, in which wolves are often portrayed as evil and destructive’; He, 2014); and, rightly, demonstrates we must all learn to change our negative attitudes if wolves are to be given a chance to survive, it is important that, as with the ecological argument about wolves, we don’t overdo it and ‘trade one stereotype for another’ (Harayda, 2008). We don’t have to (and shouldn’t) think that wolves are all bad, but neither should we consider them saviours or ‘saints’ (Mech, 2012), or, as Karen Thornber describes it, ‘lov[e] nature to death’ (Thornber, 2012), as Chen does with Little Wolf. This might be called a form of wolf management, both ecologically and socio-culturally; just as we must strike a balance between killing wolves to reduce human-wolf conflict (in some places, wolves are deeply abhorred precisely because they can’t be hunted, and pay the price in blood anyway), we must also mediate between the ‘saint’ and ‘sinner’ stereotypes which we have given to wolves. As Haiyan Lee put it: ‘let wolves be wolves, neither “an enemy species” to be extirpated […], nor a heroic species to be worshipped’ (Lee, 2008).

Why read Wolf Totem?

Wolf Totem is not always an easy read. It’s sometimes slow, and often dense (although, I do agree with Varsava that its length is ‘mimetically commensurate to the slowly evolving, highly complex nature of much environmental degradation as it works its gradual, inexorable harm’; Varsava, 2011). It’s definitely not an easy read for animal-lovers. There’s graphic descriptions of bloody fights with wolves, and the scene where Little Wolf’s brothers and sisters are killed by being flung into the air, to meet their end when they come back down and hit the dirt, is particularly heart-rending. But this is something wolf advocates can’t shy away from – this was, and still is, how wolves are treated, a reminder of both the harsh reality that wolves must be managed in our human and livestock dominated world, and of the mistreatment they have suffered in man’s pursuit of domination. 

We need to learn the lessons that Wolf Totem teaches us, listen to Jiang Rong’s ‘ecological cri de coeur’, (Penguin, Wolf Totem Reader’s Guide), his ‘“scream” (the title of a painting by Edward Munch) for awakening and self-critique’ (He, 2014). The withered, dying grassland and its nonchalant young inhabitant at the end of the novel shows ‘what it can mean when human beings and human societies carry on with little-to-no regard for the natural environment’ (Weston, 2008). This, now more than ever, is ‘universally relevant and highly timely’ (Weston, 2008). As Rong himself describes it, Wolf Totem is ‘a lesson to the world’ (Hill, 2008).

References / further reading

Rong, Jiang (2008). Wolf Totem, trans. by Howard Goldblatt. London: Penguin

Black, Brenda (2008). ‘“Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw”: Jiang Rong’s “Wolf Totem”’. Available at: https://seeingthewoods.org/2013/01/31/nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw-jiang-rongs-wolf-totem/

Choy, Howard Y. F. (2009). ‘Wolf Totem’ review. Available at: https://u.osu.edu/mclc/book-reviews/wolf-totem/ 

Harayda, Janice (2008). ‘A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jiang Rong’s “Wolf Totem”’. Available at: https://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/28/a-totally-unauthorized-reading-group-guide-to-jiang-rong%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98wolf-totem%E2%80%99/

He, Chengzhou (2014). ‘The Wolf Myth and Chinese Environmental Sentimentalism in Wolf Totem‘. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 21.4, pp. 781–800

Hill, Justin (2008). ‘Jiang Rong: The Hour of the Wolf’. The Independent, 21 March 2008. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/jiang-rong-the-hour-of-the-wolf-798697.html

Hong, Chen (2016). ‘Further Questions about the Ecological Themes of Wolf Totem‘, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 23.4, pp. 755–769

Huggan, Graham and Helen Tiffin (2010). Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment. London and New York: Routledge

Kremb, Von Jürgen (2006). ‘A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Beijing’s Unwanted Best Seller’. Der Spiegel. Available at: https://www.spiegel.de/international/a-wolf-in-sheep-s-clothing-beijing-s-unwanted-best-seller-a-407184.html

Le Guin, Ursula K. (2008). ‘Keep off the Grass’. The Guardian, 22 March 2008. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/mar/22/featuresreviews.guardianreview39

Lee, Haiyan (2008). ‘The Lord of the Wolves?’, China Beat. Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/chinabeatarchive/208/

Mech, L. David (2012). ‘Is Science in Danger of Sanctifying the Wolf?’. Biological Conservation, 150, pp. 143-149

Penguin Random House, ‘Wolf Totem Reader’s Guide’. Available at: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/299261/wolf-totem-by-jiang-rong/9780143115144/readers-guide/

Thornber, Karen (2012). Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatures. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Varsava, Jerry (2011). ‘Jiang Rong’s “Wolf Totem”: Toward a Narrative Ecology of the Grassland of Contemporary Inner Mongolia’. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 18.2 (2011), pp. 283-301

Weston, Timothy (2008). ‘A Defense of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem’, China Beat. Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/chinabeatarchive/146/

2 thoughts on “Chapter 1: Wolf Totem

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: