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Wolf Totem

A Chinese novel about life with Mongol nomads in grassland and about the extinction of wolves in favor of farm settlements

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Call of the Wild

  • May 14, 2009
  • by

What a great book this could have been.


During the Cultural Revolution, a Han Chinese student from Beijing, with intellectual family affiliations, which made him double suspicious to the tyrants of the day, spent years with shepherds and hunters in a grassland area of Inner Mongolia, with the descendants of Jengis Khan. (Thousands of young people had to make similar experiences; my assistant in my current job spent years watching pigs in Manchuria.)


He developed a deep respect for the culture of the nomads, and a strong fascination with the wolves that were at that time still populating the wild land. Descriptions of wolf observations are the strongest part of the book. Also strong are the thoughts about the co-existence of the Han and the Mongols. His 'host' and mentor, an experienced shepherd and hunter, had nothing but contempt for the soft civilized farmer nation, that had at some time in the past overcome the rule of the Mongols and turned the power situation around.


Essential element in the nomad civilization is the veneration of the wolf as the teacher and guardian of life. Jengis Khan conquered the world because he learned from the way of wolf packs in hunting. Wolves are protecting the environment by eliminating overpopulations of wild grazers, like gazelles. Co-existence is hard and precarious though, with scary encounters and constant fights for the life of the herds.


And then the stupidity of state power destroys the habitat: the area is chosen for farmer settlement, wolves are eliminated, the grassland dies. Beijing suffocates in sand storms every spring.


What should have been a great book is just an interesting one, unfortunately. Hard to say whether the dry writing is the author's or the translators fault, but a fact is, when it should be exciting and suspenseful, it is more often dreary and a little boring. China does not have an abundance of good fiction writers, to my sorrow.

This story ought to have had a Jack London at the typewriter!

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Ranked #468
Member Since: May 6, 2009
Last Login: Jul 4, 2009 01:36 AM UTC
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About this book


"A panoramic novel of life on the Mongolian grasslands during the Cultural Revolution, this masterly work is also a passionate argument about the complex interrelationship between nomads and settlers, animals and human beings, nature and culture."--Man Asian Literary Prize website, viewed 1/29/10.
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Books, Fiction, Ecology, Wolves, Nomads, Grassland


ISBN-10: 0143115146 (pbk.)
ISBN-13: 9780143115144 (pbk.)
Author: Jiang Rong
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
Date Published: March 31, 2009 (reprint ed.)
Format: translated by Howard Goldblatt from Chinese. Man Asian Literary Prize, 2007
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"Call of the Wild"
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