Chapter 2: Jackal and Wolf

Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi book cover

Humans just cannot help themselves from associating the most vicious, most malicious and most ruthless things with the wolf.

Jackal and Wolf (p. 213)

Continuing the theme from Chapter 1, in this post I’m going to talk about another Chinese novel: Shen Shixi’s Jackal and Wolf, translated by Helen Wang. Shen Shixi is frequently described as the ‘King of Animal Novels’ in China, and Jackal and Wolf has been described as his magnum opus (Lu, 2015). For me, this book certainly lives up to these reputations.

Jackal and Wolf follows the life of a female jackal named Flame, who lives near the Tibetan border (p. 1). After her two pups are killed by a female wolf, an opportunity for revenge presents itself to Flame when she encounters the same she-wolf caught in a hunter’s trap, her own two pups helpless by her side. Flame quickly dispatches one of the pups, but finds herself unable to kill the other. Telling herself that it is sensible to keep one alive, to ‘fatten it up’ for eating later, she refrains from killing it and instead takes it home to her cave. She names it ‘Sweetie’ in reference to what a delicious snack she will make during the harsh winter, when food is scarce.

However, Sweetie’s name soon takes on a different significance, as Flame becomes more and more attached to this sweet little pup. Despite many opportunities to kill Sweetie Flame consistently resists, and the wolf soon grows big enough that Flame does not have the strength to overpower and kill her. Even after she reaches full size, Flame still considers getting rid of Sweetie in other ways that don’t directly involve her killing the adopted wolf, such as leaving her alone in the wilderness or letting another animal kill her. However, Flame reaches a point where Sweetie becomes a daughter to her, especially after she rescues the wolf from a pit in which she is trapped, and on another occasion, prevents another jackal from killing her. After these incidents they are truly family, blood-related or not.

I haven’t found many reviews or commentaries on this book, so this post is going to be a bit different from last time: I’m not one of many voices contributing to the narrative about the book, as I was with Wolf Totem. The focus in this piece is also much less ecologically-focused, and while Wolf Totem was written primarily from the third-person perspective of a human (though we did get occasional glimpses into the hearts and minds of the wolves, mostly Little Wolf), Jackal and Wolf is very different as the third-person narrator instead follows Flame. We see the world entirely through the jackals’ eyes, and any humans in the book are very much secondary characters. Interestingly, though, like Jiang Rong Shen Shixi also learned about wolves and other animals while spending time in a rural area in the 1960s, though he was living in Xishuangbanna (a southern province of China) rather than Inner Mongolia.

Also unlike Wolf Totem, Jackal and Wolf is a children’s book, appropriate for ages ‘from 9 years’ according to the publisher’s (Egmont) website, though on it’s listed as 12+. In any case, the book would appeal to older audiences, as it did to me, and has valuable lessons to teach people of all ages about both animals and the way humans treat them.


Two of the biggest issues that come up in relation to any writing about wolves (or indeed, any animal), which is certainly true of Jackal and Wolf, are anthropomorphism and personification: the attribution of human characteristics to non-human entities, especially animals. This is a common way by which humans attempt to understand other animals and objects with which we share the world, and it is one that has a long tradition. Medieval riddles, such as the Old English riddles found in the Exeter Book manuscript, are often written from the point of view of an animal or object, or sometimes an animal that becomes an object, such as an ox who is transformed into leather. Older still are the Aesopian fables which originated in Greece long before Christ, which depict animals with human characteristics – especially the ability to speak, a particularly popular marker of rationality, and thereby, humanity – in order to teach moral lessons. Interestingly, Jackal and Wolf is described as ‘a touching animal fable’ on the blurb; this is true to the extent that it the novel has the potential to impart a moral message through its animal characters.

While anthropomorphisation can be a method by which to understand animals, however, the question is whether we are actually understanding them on their own terms, or whether we’re just projecting our own understanding onto animals, who are mute and therefore unable to correct our assumptions or tell us their own stories. Can we ever really get into the heads of animals, or can we only imitate what we think they might think? Are we just projecting ourselves into and onto them? In other words, how much of the ‘real’ animal is even present in these literary jackals and wolves?

We all know the cultural stereotypes which are frequently projected onto wolves in literature. At best (in fables) they are stupid and greedy, and at worst (in fairy tales, for example) they are savage monsters who predate upon people, often children. However, numerous studies have shown that wolves pose very little threat to humans, whom they will usually avoid (Linnell, 2002). In fact, seeing wolves in the wild is very difficult, and even wolf biologists struggle to do so: often they must study the markers which wolves leave behind instead, such as carcasses of prey, or scat (Marvin, 2012).

Literary traditions about wolves, therefore, have very little to do with actual wolves, but are instead human fears and insecurities projected onto and interpreted in terms of natural predator behaviours. Carnivorousness becomes rapacity, scavenging becomes slyness, and depredation upon livestock – sheep are an easy meal for wolves, often taken advantage of when natural prey populations are scarce, frequently as a result of human activities – becomes wanton thievery.  

I like to think of there being two different types of wolves: ‘real’ wolves and ‘cultural’ wolves. Although they are related, these ‘species’ are very much distinct. However, real wolves pay the price for the existence of their rapacious cultural cousins; we persecute wolves not based on ecological fact (often wolves are culled in unsustainable numbers), but on stereotypes and fear.

Anthropomorphism can both help to alleviate the problems associated with ‘cultural’ wolves, but can also encourage them. For example, anthropomorphism in the Aesopian fables perpetuates the stereotype of wolves as rapacious and greedy, but in Jackal and Wolf it helps to create empathy with the animals. As I mentioned last time, however, balance is still needed even when we empathise with animals, so that we don’t put pressure on wolves to be ‘saints’, replacing one stereotype with another. I did previously argue that we shouldn’t attribute any characteristics to wolves at all: they’re just animals (or, in other words, the real wolf should be the only one in our minds). But the power of ‘cultural wolves’ means that this is probably an impossibility. The cultural wolf is not going extinct any time soon.

In lieu of divesting them from all cultural meanings, it might be better to at least try to balance some of the negative meanings with positive ones, or replace them with neutrality; though anthropomorphism is certainly not a means by which to eradicate the cultural wolf, it can at least help to replace the rapacious, savage character we know as the ‘wolf’ today with a more moderated and much less negative version.

Jackal and Wolf does this extremely well. We get a glimpse into Flame’s head, a front-row seat to her fears, desires, and her compassion: ‘rather than relying on description of external features and actions to evoke the feelings and emotions of animals, Shen Shixi goes directly into their inner world to show them’ (Hou, 2017). At times, the anthropomorphism – being inside Flame’s head – does allow for a corrective to the traditional stereotypes about animals, as when it is noted that:

Yes, jackals are carnivores and will scoff the fur with the flesh. They have to kill to get meat. They have to kill so that they can go on living. In this sense, it is understandable that they take the lives of others. But jackals do not kill for fun. Killing is not entertainment (p. 132).

Wolves, who sometimes commit ‘surplus killing’ (killing more prey animals than they can eat), are often thought to hunt and kill simply for the enjoyment of slaughter. But this behaviour is only natural: just as it is human instinct to take more than we need, can we blame the wolf’s instinct to do the same when the opportunity presents itself? We use the natural behaviour of wolves as an excuse to persecute them, labelling them greedy and rapacious killing machines despite the fact such behaviour is easily rationalised in ecological terms.

Nonetheless, Flame’s inner mind ‘is clearly based on the desires and responses of human psychology’ (Hou, 2017): we must bear in mind that this is not a ‘real’ jackal, despite the fact that Jackal and Wolf takes a much more balanced approach to the animal. No matter how realistic, no matter how well animal stories ‘“probe deep into animals from the ‘scientific’ perspective of animal behaviorism, and render a true picture of the animal life”’ (Wang, 2011, cited by Hou, 2017), ‘any attempt to represent the nonhuman is mediated, and the nature and scope of the stories that can be told about animals will be shaped by these mediations’ (Hou, 2017). Animal stories may provide a unique insight into an animal’s mind, but it is one that must first be channeled through human understanding and language.

Even Shen Shixi himself noted that his stories “are actually about humans but from a different angle … Humans have the same struggle between good and evil, between fate, or basic instincts, and free will” (Lu, 2015, cited by Hou, 2017). To an extent, I would agree with this; there certainly is as much for humans to learn about themselves as there is about animals in Jackal and Wolf, facilitated by the personification of the animals.

However, Shixi also notes that:

“It is natural that people are concerned first about their own self-preservation, and later about nature, other lives and the meaning of life as a whole. So literature on the Chinese mainland focused back then on people’s lives first. But recently, as society modernized, people started to pay attention to other things as well” (Lu, 2015).

While they might teach us about humans, the focus remains the animals all the same, and I would argue that Jackal and Wolf has a lot to teach us not only about humans, but also about both nature and our relationship with it. Putting oneself in the mind of the jackal encourages us – perhaps forces us – to change perspectives, to acknowledge that human eyes and minds are not the only ones that see and perceive the world. It may help us to connect with nature (as Shixi notes is the reason for the growing interest in literature about animals in the above quotation), to break down the walls imposed by society and ‘culture’. Again, as Shixi notes:

“animal fiction[’s … ] subject matter can easily penetrate through human culture and social formality, break the confinement of morality, as well as dismantle the falsehood in the civilized society, so as to reveal and show the original state of life, that is, a combination of beauty and ugliness. With the vicissitude of societies, culture may flourish or decline, social formality may be replaced, moral thoughts may get rectified, civilization may progress, but the cruel struggle for survival, the strong will to live and the pursuit or splendor will never change” (Shen, 2010, quoted in Hou, 2017).

Jackal and Wolf serves as a reminder that we are all animals, and just as much a part of the natural world as the animals in the novel. Though we may put up a veneer of ‘difference’, this is just a construction that is as fragile as the natural world itself.

Indeed, this isn’t a fairy tale world where animals can speak and lead lives with happy endings, as it so often is in animal fiction, particularly in stories written for children. The world in which Flame lives is harsh, nature cruel and unyielding:

the life of animals […] is extremely hard. Danger from their natural enemies competition among the same kind, shortage of food, and hunting by humans have always stood as great threats to their lives No matter how smart, sly, and strong the animals are, they would eventually be killed by other animals or by people. There are thus numerous traps in jungles, and there is no happy ending or final closure. Even if an animal happened to escape from one crisis, it may never escape the next (Hou, 2017).

Flame’s story is a series of one tragedy or hardship after the other. No sooner have we moved into summer, with its bounty of food for the jackal and wolf, than we have come back round to winter once more, and the annual struggle begins all over again. The harsh reality of the natural world is not hidden away; ‘the descriptions of [the animals’] fight for survival is often graphic with nothing censored’, and Shixi is quick to acknowledge that ‘whichever way you look at it, carnivores can’t survive unless other living creatures die’ (p. 45). It’s an animal-eat-animal world.

Animal stereotypes and evil humans

Despite her differences from the humans, however, Flame’s attitude to wolves does mirror that of people towards these animals. For the jackal, as for us, ‘wolves arouse terror. Other carnivores – like lynxes and bears – arouse fear, but not terror’ (p. 6), and the reason for the enmity between jackals and wolves is because, ‘in Nature, the rule of survival is that the closer two creatures’ needs are in terms of habitat and food, the stronger the competition and the tenser the relationship. Jackals and wolves have competed since the beginning of time. Wolves hate jackals; jackals hate wolves’ (p. 7). The same is true of humans and wolves; our fractious relationship with wolves, and our persecution of them, is in no small part because of competition for space and other animals (deer and sheep).

But unlike many humans, Flame does have empathy for other animals even when she is in direct competition with them. Not only does she take in Sweetie – and her efforts to persuade herself that she is only keeping her as a snack are not convincing (she doth protest too much), and only become less so as time goes on – but almost every time she encounters another female animal, even those who attack her, she wonders whether they have children of their own back at home whom they are simply trying to feed, just like her. When Sweetie steals a piglet for the same reason (to feed her own pup, and her adopted mother), the humans do not understand this, meeting a wolf in a dire situation with bloodlust, not sympathy.

As in Wolf Totem, the lupine stereotypes are subverted. Again, humans win the award for ‘worst species’, and are capable of far more damage than any other animal: ‘Flame knew how dangerous guns were, a thousand times more lethal than the sharp teeth of any wild animal. They meant instant death’ (p. 68). As hinted at in this quotation, the humans are more animalistic than the animals themselves. In fact, they are so brutal that for Flame, raiding the village’s livestock is not even ‘a last resort’, but rather, is ‘like a journey through hell’ (p. 51). She would almost rather die from starvation than risk being torn apart by dogs, or murdered by a human’s gun.

By showing us that the human perspective on the jackal and wolf’s livestock depredations is much less empathetic than it might be, especially through contrast with Flame’s own sympathetic tendencies, we are encouraged to alter our own views. We realise that predators probably want to go after livestock no more than we want them to; it is only because of the exigencies of their dire situation, the need for survival for both them and their pups, that they do so.

That Flame also looks after a wolf, her ‘natural enemy’, also attests to the fact that in the novel, ‘jackals and wolves are more than just fierce, cruel stereotypes. The animals are always struggling between their feral instincts and the heart to be better’ (Lu, 2015). Instead, ‘in Shen’s stories, animals often seem more emotional than humans. […] They live in a world where they are hunted, but try their best to preserve their families and their packs’ (Lu, 2015). Humans, however, do not attempt to be better. Arguably, their desire to preserve the lives of their livestock is not motivated by the same familial bonds as motivates the animals, but by the desire to force the natural world, and the instincts of predators, to submit to their dominion. Not only do they not empathise with predators in dire straits, moreover, but their empathy is not placed with their own animals either, only with themselves.

Through both the glimpses of humans that we get, and through the insight provided by seeing the world through an animal’s eyes, Jackal and Wolf thus both reveals how little humans understand of animals, and helps to alleviate our ignorance. As well as the livestock-stealing issue, it is also noted that:

The human view is that love doesn’t exist in the animal world, that an animal’s urges are driven solely by hormones and that when they come on heat, their desire derives from instinct, and they will mate with anyone — any time, any place, anywhere. Humans think that in the animal world it’s simply a case of meet and mate, that emotions between male and female don’t come into it. In the human world they describe male violence towards women as a beastly gratification of animal desire. It is as though the term wild animal is synonymous with barbarism and violence. They are effectively saying that animals do not have love; only animal desire. In fact, this is a gross misunderstanding, something humans do not understand about animals (p. 102).

Humans associate animals with wilderness and raw savagery, whereas people are part of civilization and society. A person who violates the rules of these social structures is therefore automatically aligned with animals, who have only base instincts. It seems that the possibility that animals are capable of deep feeling has not even been considered.

In turn, because of this human lack of understanding, once again animals suffer:

The self-important humans often stitch animals up, frame them as culprits. It is pitiful that humans value their own right of good character, but do not extend that right to animals. This means that animals suffer a great deal of unjust treatment (p. 102).

‘Self-important’ is perhaps the best adjective to describe humans, and our attitudes towards the natural world.

The most graphic example of this ‘unjust treatment’ is when Flame finds the trapped she-wolf. Even though ‘she hated the wolf and although she had wished the wolf were dead, right now she felt nothing but loathing for the hunters who had laid the traps. Man was the enemy of all jackals and wolves’ (p. 16). Though we see the world through the eyes of the wolf’s natural enemy and competitor, it is still a much more sympathetic gaze than our own. One can hardly blame her for feeling only hatred for humans.

Later, we get a perceptive insight into the extent of this unfair persecution of wolves by men based on stereotypes and lack of understanding. Pondering a wolverine who, despite the name, is ‘clearly a kind of badger’, Flame observes that:

humans just cannot help themselves from associating the most vicious, most malicious and most ruthless things with the wolf. Hence the wolverine’s name. Little children are told stories about the ‘big, bad wolf’. And it gets worse! An aggressive person is called a ‘wolf’. ‘A wolf in sheep’s clothing’ is a person pretending to be something they are not. ‘A wolf at the door’ is a threatening visitor who has come to remove something you need. If you ‘let a wolf in the house’ you let the enemy into your life. The most poisonous flowers often have ‘wolf’ in their names: langdu (‘wolf-poison’) and wolfsbane. And what is the most dangerous mountain called? Wolf Mountain! All of these expressions give wolves a bad name (pp. 213-214).

This is depressingly true, a reflection of what I said earlier about how wolves are persecuted because of the cultural meanings we have imposed on them. All of the ‘wolves’ described in this passage are not ‘real’ wolves, but constructions of the human imagination, which are in turn projected back onto not only real-world wolves but other animals as well.

Even dogs do not escape the evil of humans. When Sweetie steals a piglet from a village out of desperation, Flame notes that:

the villagers who had been robbed of a chubby piglet were bound to be angry and to curse their hunting dogs for being as clumsy as pigs, for taking the food they gave them but being lazy good-for-nothing idiots. Who knows, perhaps they would kick them or lash out at them too, to teach them a lesson, make them more alert, more on their guard, ready for ambush (p. 280).

Like the wolves and jackals, dogs suffer equally as a result of humans’ attempts to force the natural world to submit to our own needs. As with the livestock, there is no empathy here with other animals, only human self-interest and preservation.

And, as Shixi notes, ‘it gets worse’: not only are wolves and other animals persecuted by humans because of competition and ill-informed conceptions, but we also ‘kill for fun’ and for ‘entertainment’ (p. 132), unlike jackals and all other predators. The line ‘wolves could never be as evil as humans’ from Wolf Totem (p. 467) comes to mind here. Who is the real ‘animal’?

Why read Jackal and Wolf?

Jackal and Wolf is much easier going than Wolf Totem (it would be weird if it wasn’t – it’s a kid’s book!). Nonetheless, it does have equally valuable (though different) lessons to teach us. It’s a warning against anthropomorphism that encourages stereotypes about the rapacity and greed of predators, though at the same time, anthropomorphism here serves as a way by which we can see the world in a different light, to empathise with the same animals we have previously demonised.

Though anthropomorphism might be considered a means by which agency is removed from animals (since it frames their thoughts and feelings in human terms), giving a voice to animals in turn gives us a chance to understand animals perhaps not on their own terms, but at least in a way that is less derogatory. Stripping away human stereotypes and assumptions, Jackal and Wolf gives us the opportunity to consider another perspective on the natural world, to understand why animals might act the way they do; acknowledging the limits of human knowledge; and encouraging us to reconsider what we think we know. Again, as in Wolf Totem (but in a very different way), we are reminded that the world does not – and should not – revolve around humans. Our homocentric worldview is limiting; there are many stories that could be told by every animal species on the planet, and maybe they do tell stories, even if they’re not in a language that we can understand.

We will never truly be able to understand what is going on inside a jackal or wolf’s head, but Shen Shixi comes perhaps as close as it is possible to get.

References / further reading

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

Shixi, Shen (2012). Jackal and Wolf, trans. by Helen Wang. London: Egmont

Hou, Ying (2017). ‘Writing Animal Novels in Chinese Children’s Literature’, trans. by Aiping Nie, in The Routledge Companion to International Children’s Literature. London: Routledge, pp. 280-288

Linnell, J. D. C., and others (2002). ‘The Fear of Wolves: A Review of Wolf Attacks on Humans’, Norsk institutt for naturforskning oppdragsmelding, 731

Lu, Feiran (2015). ‘Animal novelist sees parallels in human behaviour’. Shanghai Daily, September 22nd, 2015. Available at:

Marvin, Garry (2012). Wolf. London: Reaktion Books’s_Clothing

Shen, Shixi (2010). The Double-faced Hound. Hangzhou: Zhejiang Children’s Publishing House

Wang, Quangen (2011). ‘The Spiritual Weight and Multi-dimensional Construction of Animal Fiction’, Journal of Literature and Art, pp. 11-14

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