Disclaimer: This brief book review does not contain spoilers.
Wolf Totem is the unimaginably sad and beautiful story of the nomadic Mongolian people and their relationship with the grasslands they inhabit, including its wildlife – wolves, dogs, horses, mice, marmots, ox, sheep, among others. This is not a romantic story of pastoral times. Most of the time the Mongolian tribes are at war with the ecosystem, alongside most other species, in the attempt to survive the harsh climate and environment that surrounds them. Throw into the mix the complex political context during Mao’s cultural revolution of the 1970s, the Chinese expansion into Mongolian lands, the demonization of wolves and of anything deemed “primitive” and the story unfolds a powerful message.
Written by a Chinese man – Jiang Rong – who spent 11 years of his youth immersed in the Mongolian grassland, learning about its culture and traditions, he illustrates the complexity of an ecosystem, in which all its parts – including the fearless nomadic herders – have co-evolved alongside one another over millennia. Rong explores various dimensions simultaneously: the spiritual and the physical, the intuitive and the empirical, the ancestral and the present. Bilgee, one of the story’s most important characters is a wise, divine being, carefully distinguishing between “little” lives and “big” lives, telling of the grassland’s fragility, demonstrating the importance of every element in the Olongbulag, endlessly honoring Tengger – the Mongolian sky-god. Chen, one of the story’s Chinese students, mirrors Rong’s experience and learns much from Bilgee. Through his own captivation with wolves and Bilgee’s wisdom, Chen comes to understand the true meaning of the mythic Mongolian wolf totem. Unfortunately, the tale also demonstrates how easily this wisdom is labeled “backward” and how cultural imperialism, and an infatuation with “progress”, modernity and technology can exterminate what took millions of years to perfect.
The themes in this story are so relevant to today’s society. Rong’s story – though fictional – should be required reading, necessary so that we can come to respect all life and its immeasurable value, making us see that the natural world humans believe to dominate is but barely understood.