Set on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Rong’s (the pen name of Beijing Sociology professor Lu Jiamin) story paints a vivid picture of the grasslands and the fragile balance between humans and their surroundings. Written more in a style of classical Chinese novels, the work is a collection of stories and experiences lived by the character Chen Zhen which forms the background for a didactic description of man’s effects on his environment. Chen, like Jiang Rong, is a sent down youth – young persons during the Cultural Revolution who poured into the hinterland for re-education through hard work alongside the peasant classes. He comes under the guidance of a wizened old Mongol herdsman who teaches him, through tales and object lessons, the ways of the grassland and its importance to the world in which the Mongols live.
At the center of this life are two images that come to dominate the story: the wolf and the grassland. And both prove to be metaphors for the greater themes of the book. The grassland, the source of life and the stabilizing force in the Mongol life cycle, is emblematic of nature itself and, for all its grandeur, is presented as infinitely fragile. The wolf, and particularly the wolf totem, represents the spirit of strength and survival. Both appear threatened throughout the work and one is left wondering if there is any future for the strength of the grassland or the spirit of the wolf.
As the character Chen Zhen alludes, and Pankaj Mishra similarly observes in his New York Times review, there is a hint of Lu Xun in Jiang Rong’s novel. Chen Zhen, watching a wolf devour one of his sheep “was reminded of the writer Lu Xun, who had written about a crowd of dull-witted Chinese looking on as a Japanese swordsman was about to lop off the head of a Chinese prisoner. What was the difference between that and [the wolf eating a sheep while all the others looked on]? No wonder the nomads see the Han Chinese as sheep. A wolf eating a sheep may be abhorrent, but far more loathsome were cowardly people who acted like sheep.” (319) With this and other blatant pillories of Han Chinese mentalities and practice, Wolf Totem is an unmistakable call to something greater, but it is the nature of that call which is so interesting and so helpful in understanding the tensions of a developing China.
Jiang Rong’s work seems to have a diverse appeal. As Mishra points out, “this sort of parade-ground bellicosity echoes the rhetoric of China’s neo-conservative intellectuals, eager to see their country beat the West at its own game. Yet Jiang Rong, who was jailed as a democracy activist after the Tiananmen Square massacre, also mentions “freedom and popular elections” as among the salutary “traditions and habits” contemporary Westerners inherited from their nomadic ancestors.” The rally call to be strong, the bitter indictment of unconscious development, and a push for a contra capitalistic moral sensibility appeal to the deepest felt needs of contemporary Chinese society.
The message that likely propelled the book past the sensors is the quasi-militaristic call to unite and struggle, like those Mongol warriors that went before and the wolves that inspired them. Chen, ruminating on the strengths of the wolf, declares that “If a man or a race lacks the death-before-surrender spirit, a willingness to die along with the enemy, then slavery is the inevitable result” (99) and later, having made the connection between the strength of the wolf and the strength of the Mongol warriors he describes how “back in the time of Genghis Khan, that’s when the Mongols really learned from wolves. Every tribe came together, like spokes on a wheel, or a quiver of arrows…Our downfall came when we lost that sense of unity. Now it’s tribe against tribe, individual arrows fired in anger, but easily deflected and broken.” (247) It is not hard to see how such an admonition would fit in with the often touted need to build up a harmonious society. Such strong calls for unity and fortitude are a consistent theme throughout the book.
But it is not the most pronounced theme. Coming through much louder is the indictment of reckless progress and development. This is seen not only through the constant negative portrayal of gradual Han migration to and abuse of the grassland, but also through their brutal assault on the wolves of the grassland. This destructive relationship with both wolves and grassland is emblematic of the growth and expansion in China that has cost the environment immensely. If anything, this problem emerges as the plot of the work, as we follow Chen’s realizations concerning the wonder and beauty of the grassland on into the results of destructive top-down government policies. In one of the most poignantly heartbreaking moments of the story, the boys are reflecting on recent Han hunts of a flock of beautiful swans. They conclude, “How could this nation, where even sparrows have been eaten nearly to extinction, where the only things left are toads, be a place for swans?” (283) This seems a rhetorical question matching the whole grand tragedy of the grassland.
A subplot to this theme of destructive progress is a rather heavy indictment of the Party-State. Numerous figures, foils against which the more nobly portrayed herdsmen are contrasted, are meant to embody the failures of the state. One of the major problems Jiang Rong condemns is the placing of politically approved leaders in positions that are far beyond their skill level. Though this initially takes place in the setting of the Cultural Revolution – a notable aberration in terms of Party-state function – Jiang confirms the issue as a modern one in Chen’s return trip to the grassland many years later. He notes that “Since China doesn’t have a competitive, scientific, and democratic system for selecting top talent, honest and frank people are denied a chance to rise up.” (508) But the criticism doesn’t stop there; it extends to the obvious problem of how differences attempt to survive in a Han Chinese context. Chen seems less than optimistic. “Han consciousness is still ‘many areas, one system.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s farmland or pastureland, forest or river, city or countryside; all they want to do is mix them all up to create a ‘unified’ flavor.” (510) With such biting, though fitting, criticisms, one wonders how this book ever made it to publication – especially as “harmony” has been the Party’s watchword during recent years. It is not, however, odd to think how this would have contributed a second source of interest for the Chinese reader and insight for the non-Chinese.
The most dynamic theme in the book is doubtless the spiritual lessons that swirl around the central plot. In the last few years, the question of what beliefs hold firm the core of Chinese culture and society has been much debated. The heavy growth of Christianity and the recent government push for pop-Confucianism are just two manifestations of this. Yet, as Mishra deftly observes, “few books about today’s China can match Wolf Totem as a guide to the troubled self-images of so many of its people as they stumble, grappling with some inconvenient truths of their own, into modernity.” Many of Chen’s didactic speeches and much of Wolf Totem’s polemic force focuses on this point. The crux of Jiang Rong’s argument seems to be that “there’d be hope for China if our national character could be rebuilt by cutting away the decaying parts of Confucianism and grafting a wolf totem sapling onto it.” (377) For Jiang, as for many others, something is missing in the moral outlook of China. For most, this debate makes Jiang’s book such an enticing read.
Whether or not there is value to Jiang’s conclusions about the direction Chinese thought and spiritual sensibilities should take, he is certainly spot-on in his assessment of Chinese society’s current tensions and needs. Deepening nationalism, a critical assessment of the role of the state, and a stirring call to moral reform touch the nervous center of contemporary Chinese society and make Wolf Totem, if not the best literature, a valuable lens into a growing China that is struggling to find itself.