Wolf Totem

I’ve been reading Wolf Totem. And the timing, in reading it in Mongolia, is excellent.

A few people here have already commented on it – coworkers, somebody in the gym locker room – it’s quite popular here, despite being originally written by someone Chinese.

For those who haven’t read it, it’s an account by a Chinese student sent to work as a herder in an Inner Mongolian community in the sixties. He’s particularly interested in wolves – as animals, as ecological lynch-pins, and as a cultural symbol for Mongolian nomads.

There are a few obvious shortcomings. None of the characters are really developed in any real depth – in fact they’re largely used as props, to spout the somewhat repetitive talking points the author has on a) wolves are smart b) Mongolians have learnt a lot from them c) because they’ve learnt from and become like wolves, Mongolians are better than Han Chinese, and d) the steppe grassland depends on wolves.

But for all that, it’s still worth a read (particularly if you have any interest or are visiting Mongolia). He does a good job of talking about how the wolf, as a peak predator, holds a lot of the other steppe species in check – horses, marmots, field mice – that would otherwise wreak havoc.

It’s also one of the first person accounts I’ve read that captures a little bit of what it might be like to live in a Mongolian community. There are nice details about food preparation, about transportation, that I haven’t seen elsewhere, and what he wrote about arguments and drinking and the way people talk seemed plausible, from the little I’ve experienced.

Another interesting aspect was that he was writing as a Han Chinese person, living in a very different setting. While there wasn’t a lot of detail on that (more of a driving home of point d) above), it did reflect some interesting things. One was the way that they have such different cultures – I think outsiders often have a tendency to lump Asians into a single bucket – but he drew out some of the more obvious issues, the things that became contentious. Towards the end of the book there’s a somewhat tragic account of a new valley being opened up, only to be swamped by people, and ruined environmentally. Part of that process, as he describes it, is an influx of new settlers who come from farming communities, and have a different attitude than the nomads (whom he tends to idealise a little as these guardians of nature). It’s interesting noting, in his protagonist, the shift from being an outsider to being someone who identifies with the Mongolian nomads, and sees the new wave of incoming Han Chinese as outsiders. You feel, then, for someone who’s gone through a difficult transition that leaves them a little stranded between two settings.

The postscript (possibly final chapter? I forget) I particularly appreciated – it was an account of his visiting later, after he’s lived in Beijing for decades. It’s depressing – because of how different he finds everything – and honest, and makes for good reading.

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