Book Review of Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong.
Each generation grows a little weaker and more pathetic than the one before. You probably can’t fix a car as well as your father did, while your grandfather repaired jeeps under fire in WWII. Your great grandfather – well, he didn’t even enjoy the luxury of mechanization. He slumped across muddy no-man’s-land on foot in a pair of rotting boots he stole from a rotting Gerry. And your great, great grandfather? He tamed unmapped continents, cleared the land and obliterated entire peoples.
Look at your children (or the children of others, if you don’t have any). Whining about walking a couple of blocks to school, where they will find bathrooms sensitively designated for eighty-three different gender identities. Unable to interact without a screen. Most of them are autistic and allergic to everything.
What will your grandchildren be like? Invalids. Without the remotest physical challenge in life they will atrophy into sniveling, bedridden vegetables waiting to be canibalised by more vigorous, fecund tribes raised in the crucible of bitter strife and the daily horror of death.
Wolf Totem takes us back to the twilight of one of the toughest such peoples in history: the nomadic Mongols. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution students from politically problematic backgrounds were sent to the countryside to have proper, proletariat values beaten in to them. Chen, our protagonist, finds himself living in a yurt on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, herding sheep and battling monstrous wolves.
Far-flung regions of the Han empire were aptly described with the Chinese phrase, “Where heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” Distant, indigenous peoples were physically separated from Beijing and could sometimes pursue their traditional customs unmolested. For the nomadic Mongols this meant relocating along with their flocks between seasonal pastures. They worshiped the wolves, their fiercest enemy. In sometimes overenthusiastic detail, Chen and his Han friends describe the many ways in which the Mongols have learned hunting and battleground strategies from their ingenious nemesis. The wisest elders recognize the necessity of the wolves – they protect the grass by preying on herbivores such as gazelles and they prevent humans from overstocking their pastures. Without wolves, human herders must rely of self-control – not our strong point, and particularly not one noted of the massive, undernourished ethnic majority south of the Wall circa 1970.
The book begins with a desperate explosion of peerless human and animal will. The Mongol herders tirelessly defend their flocks against the wolves, twenty-four hours a day. During a nighttime attack, a sturdy local woman pulls a wolf off her sheep by its tail, calling upon her fighting dogs to finish it off. Mongol boys venture down wolf dens to steal cubs for fur – mollycoddling children out of such courageous acts would instill weakness and therefore threaten destruction for their people. Men battle giant packs of wolves in the blind, freezing chaos of winter snowstorms. For wolves and men alike, life is short and brutal. Disasters are frequent.
Like the wolves, the Mongols gracefully endure their life of violence and adversity. When their time comes to return to Tenger, their god, they go with calm acceptance. Not for them the morbid terror of oblivion held by feeble, civilized folk. How much richer must each piece of meat taste, how much sweeter the victory over an opponent, when one knows that any season may be one’s last upon the vast, merciless plains. Danger underscores the significance and dignity of each moment, of each humble task.
Chen soon learns to respect the ways of the Mongols and discovers as much as he can. However, he is soon followed by many more Han, few of whom share his intellectual curiousity. The People’s Republic demands modernization in all fields. New land is opened up to herding, and some to farming. The wolves and other animals are exterminated with new poisons, vehicles and military equipment. Within a generation life is changed forever.
In accordance with all the warnings of the elders, the Gobi Desert seizes the unguarded grassland for itself. Ancient pastures and hunting grounds are buried under yellow sand. With the wolves gone, the fearsome Mongol warhorses grow weak, lazy, slow and stupid. The dogs become small and timid. The people take to drink. In the absence of extreme adversity the inhabitants of the wild grasslands lose their unique spirit and sink into flaccid indolence.
In this we see a parable for industrialized societies. We no longer strive as we once did against weather, invading armies and disease. We all survive to childbearing age. The weaklings who once would have perished, do not. There is food and antibiotics for all. Our downward trend in strength can only be halted by genetic engineering or a catastrophe.
Of all the stereotypes of the Han Chinese, ‘self reflective’ is not one of them. Jiang Rong nevertheless holds up a mirror to his people and shows them as they appear to others – obstinate, inconsiderate, avaricious and determined to maintain forward momentum as any cost, as though pausing for thought might leave them trampled or starving. And yet, this was the most popular book in China since Mao’s Little Red Book. What did the Chinese think of it? Did they make the numbingly obvious connections with the present treatment of Tibetans and Uyghurs?
In the grassland battlefields the humans sometimes outsmart the wolves, but the wise pack leaders never fall for the same trick twice. Humans leaders, on the other hand, prefer to make those errors that have been made many times before.
Further reading: Shinzo Abe’s Secret Plan
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