Jiang Rong is the pseudonym of a Beijing writer who spent 11 years, beginning in 1967, in a voluntary exercise that involved young intellectuals. Their aim was to familiarize themselves with life on the steppes of Inner Mongolia.
Wolf Totem, a fictional take on Rong's experiences, has sold more than a million copies in China. Penguin bought the global English language rights, and, thanks to Howard Goldblatt's excellent translation, we can now read a landmark in publishing history.
Wolf Totem is the story of Chen Zhen, who arrives in the Olonbulang, a remote grassland in Inner Mongolia, in the late 1960s. When he settles with nomadic herdsmen there, he is witness to a remarkable, beautiful way of life, endearing despite its hardships.
The Mongolians consider the wolf the soul of the grasslands, a creature in communion with Tennger, the Mongolians' heaven, and the savior of the grasslands, primarily because it keeps the small animal population in check. Yet the blood thirst of the wolves is a permanent danger, and the herdsmen's relationship with the wolves is one of uneasy admiration. Chen Zhen finds himself drawn to the legend of the wolves, their savagery and warrior spirit, and decides to steal a wolf cub from a den and raise it secretly.
The book gradually moves into its other major theme: the subjugation of ethnic tribes. When the Chinese government sends representatives to the grasslands to oversee creation of farming collectives, the first target is the wolves. In the battle between herdsmen and government, there is little doubt whom Chen Zhen will side with.
In many respects, Wolf Totem goes beyond definitions. The fight between Mongolia and China, grassland and mainland, wolf and human, is a study in anthropological contrasts. In its scope, the book resembles Tolstoy's War and Peace, and in its evocation of the hold of the animal spirit on human imagination, it surpasses Moby Dick.
Vikram Johri is a writer in New Delhi, India.