Posted by: koolwine | October 14, 2012

China (Inner Mongolia): Wolf Totem

A Beijing student volunteers to live and work among a group of herders in Inner Mongolia and becomes enamored with their nomadic existence, especially their complex bond with the grassland’s wolves.

Country Focus: Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China.  Out of ignorance and, admittedly, my desire to read this particular book, I assumed that Inner Mongolia was within the country of Mongolia, but it turns out that this region is a subdivision of China.

Wolf Totem
By Jiang Rong
Translated by Howard Goldblatt
Originally published in Chinese as Lang Tuteng by Changjiang, 2004.
My edition: Penguin, 2009.
526 pgs.

Genre: Fiction
Time period:

Awards: Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)


During the Cultural Revolution, students in Beijing were encouraged to participate in work-study-like programs in the Inner Mongolian grasslands.  Jiang Rong signed up.  His novel, Wolf Totem, is largely drawn from a decade’s worth of memories generated from living with the area’s native Mongol herders.

Chen Zhen, a Han Chinese and Jiang’s fictional counterpart, takes an immediate liking to the Mongols, particularly wise old Bilgee, who becomes his mentor and father figure.  Bilgee and the rest of his people are descendents of  Genghis Khan, whose vast empire more than quadrupled Alexander the Great’s.  The secret to Khan’s legendary battlefield domination?  Wolves.  The Mongols believe that Genghis Khan cribbed all of his battlefield tactics from wolf pack hunting strategies.

Jiang proceeds to illustrate the wolves’ cleverness, tenacity and viciousness via a blood-curdling account of late-night, blizzard-stricken battle between them and a couple of herdsman who are trying to protect their herd of warhorses.   Only someone with Jiang’s intimate knowledge of the combatants and the topography could have written so deftly of this bloody encounter and its aftermath.

The decimation of such a valuable herd draws the ire of Chinese headquarters. Military representative Bao Shungui arrives to document the carnage, and pledges to kill every wolf on the grassland, an area that he is tasked to turn into farmland.

Wolf Totem is at heart a Dances with Wolves story.  The Mongol herders play the role of the indigenous Lakota;  land-hungry Han Chinese substitute for the encroaching Americans.  The Mongols live subsistence-based “small lives” that depend on the “big life” of their beloved grassland, and the spirit they call “Tengger” watches over them.  Centuries of this lifestyle have taught them that a delicate balance must be maintained between the humans, the wolves, the gazelles, the marmots and the mice or else the grassland will turn to sand.

The herders have already seen portions of their world vanish under the hands of  the invading Chinese, who systematically slaughter all of the endemic species and turn the grassland into farmland.  Bereft of its natural balance, the farmland turns to sand after only a few years.  The Chinese move on to another area and follow the same destructive pattern.

While this larger story plays out, Chen becomes deeply fascinated by the Mongols’ complex relationship with wolves, apex predators who serve as their teachers, saviors and enemies.  Out of pure selfishness, he steals a wolf cub from its den and ties it up at the camp.  He claims that raising the cub is a worthwhile biological “experiment.”  This decision receives approval from neither the herdsman, who frown on the enslavement of a creature they revere, nor from his countrymen, who want the animal shot, nor me.  Chen’s  insistence on keeping  “Little Wolf” despite the cub’s obvious physical and mental suffering was difficult for me to read.

Jiang is about as subtle in asserting his ecological viewpoint as Ayn Rand is in promoting objectivism in Atlas Shrugged.  Although I’m on Jiang’s side, his repeated philosophizing made me feel almost as worn-out as the besieged grassland.  However, Wolf Totem‘s message – that only a system of give and take, with losses accepted on both sides, will ensure that the environment survives as a whole – is an often neglected one in today’s win/lose society.  It’s one that could stand some consideration in my own state of Montana, where ranchers, environmentalists and hunters argue heatedly over the wolf population.  Some might say the answer is “kill or be killed,” but Jiang and his Mongol friends assert that a humble coexistence amongst ourselves and the rest of the world’s creatures must be realized, lest like the grassland, we will all be blown to dust.


“When people run into trouble out here, they look up into the sky and ask for Tengger’s help, just like the wolves.  We’re the only two species that pay homage to Tengger.”
The old man’s gaze softened as he looked at the cub.  “In fact,” he continued, “we learned that from the wolves.  Before we Mongols came to the grassland, the wolves were already raising their voices to Tengger.  It’s a hard life out here, especially for them.  Old-timers often shed tears of sadness when they hear wolves bay at night.”
Chen knew that what Bilgee said was the truth, for he had observed that only wolves and humans revered Tengger, with their howls or with their prayers.  Life on this beautiful yet barren spot of land was burdensome for humans and for wolves, and in frustration they unburdened themselves by their daily cries to Tengger.  From a scientific perspective, it was true that wolves bayed at the moon so that their voices could be heard far and wide.  But Chen preferred Bilgee’s explanation.  Without spiritual support, life would be unendurable.





  1. I saw a description of this book somewhere else and was thinking about reading it as a representative of Mongolia for my world reading project. Thanks for pointing out my error!


    • I also found out that Tahiti is an “overseas country” of France after reading Frangipani by Célestine Hitiura Vaite…so this wasn’t the first time I’ve goofed up. Am glad to have taken those detours though. Part of the learning experience. Got another option for Mongolia?


      • Mongolian fiction seems to be quite rare doesn’t it. I’ll probably read some travel writing from Mongolia since there seem to be a number of interesting options. I’m definitely going to keep Wolf Totem in mind for future reading though.


  2. […] I didn’t know existed (Mauritius), a bogus biography (Jordan), and a geographical mistake (Inner Mongolia – akin to confusing New Mexico with Mexico, […]


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