Angry like the wolf

After selling more than 2 million copies in Chinese, "Wolf Totem", by Jiang Rong, winner of the first Man Asian Literary Prize, comes now into English and to Bloom.

It has taken 30 years of Lu Jiamin's life (born Beijing, 1946), a Chinese dissident and author, to complete this novel, which he wrote under the pseudonym Jiang Rong. "Wolf Totem" can hardly be called a novel, but rather a dedicated piece of research devoted to all that is Mongolian, with folk tradition, anthropology, history and philosophy binding together the book's various theories. More simply put, it tells of the lives of Mongolians on the grasslands and of their complicated feelings towards the wolf. Despite the weight of learning behind it, "Wolf Totem" is not a purely academic undertaking, and therefore better examined alongside other sophisticated historical epics such as Tolstoy's "War and Peace." This is a book full of fascinating legends which have caused the most discussion among critics.
The novel vividly reflects the colorful lives of a ground civilization and describes the valiant, courageous and strong characters which are formulated in the bitter natural environment they inhabit. Pertaining to this natural environment the wolf has played a key role in its development. Legendary wolves, vast grasslands and valiant herdsmen form a metaphorical triangle in the drama: Wolves represent the heaven, grasslands represent the earth, and herdsmen represent the people. Jiang Rong's descriptions of Mongolia's terrible predators are touching for their humanized observations and compliments. Although the wolf is a terrifying animal, it also has a terrible beauty.
Jiang Rong reveals a new philosophical concept of ethnic existence. He thinks different ethnic character depends on different ethnic existence. To expound, ethnic character refers to an ethnic group's behavior and attitude towards heaven, earth, and people, while ethnic existence refers to the original natural environment of an ethnic group and the industries which developed from this environment, industries like hunting or farming. The author has done a great deal of historical research to explain this theory, which he uses to explain China's entire history, and even touch upon the history of the whole world. Meng Fanhua, a famous critic, takes a positive attitude, believing that modern people need to look at the wolf's story to reflect on the development of human society, where romanticism has replaced heroism.
Many are more doubtful than Meng Fanhua, and two philosophical ideas in the novel have aroused particular criticism. The first is Jiang Rong's musings on the nature of the wolf and the sheep. Issue has been taken with the summary of the Mongolian character as reflecting the wolf's nature, and the Han character as reflecting that of the sheep. In fact, there is even disagreement as to the accuracy of his definitions, with "wolf-like" in the book meaning valiant and daring, and "sheep-like" meaning tender and conservative. Clearly, Jiang Rong's theory cannot be consistently applied to history, with a number of bloody eras and events in Han history quite self evidently closer to the nature of the wolf than the sheep, but equally clearly not related to the wolf according to his criterion.
The other disputed point concerns the wolf totem and dragon totem, with the former belonging to the Mongol ethnicity, and the latter representing the Han. Whether the dragon is really the totem for the nation of Cathy, the ancient Han empire, is certainly highly debatable. Historians believe that the dragon and phoenix were used by ancient China's rulers only for self-aggrandizement and to frighten their officials and citizens, rather than as a national symbol. This original use of the dragon as a symbol of the ruling elite obstructs the idea that its totem represents the whole Han ethnicity, and makes any talk of Han people being the "offspring of the dragon" appear to be nothing more than a modern myth. Maybe we should take away from "Wolf Totem" the more down-to-earth conclusions of famous journalist Bai Yansong, who feels that on the grassland, wolves are respectable opponents, but not partners. For him, the Mongolian believes in, and worships the wolf because they feel that they deserve their respect as a worthy rival. More saliently, in terms of the need for the wolf's spirit in modern society, he does concede that people often recoil from the truth and the justice because of fear, but at the same time there are frequent examples of violence and outrage. So maybe the childlike conclusion that we can draw out of all this tortuous philosophical rambling is simply, that we all need something of the wolf and the sheep in us, depending on the situation.


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