The View from a Snowy Cave in Mongolia – Wolf Totem, Part 1

We’re going to start out look at Rong Jiang’s bestselling novel Wolf Totem (姜戎的”狼图腾”), which has been rather controversial; Mongolian representatives came out later and said his portrayal of their customs and beliefs wasn’t accurate.

But the book has been translated into many languages and is available in English although I’m going to read it in Chinese.  It has also been made into a movie. You can buy the Chinese edition here:

Wolf Totem

It was published in 2004 and runs 408 pages with 35 chapters and some afterword or other back matter. It also has an editor forward which asks if the Chinese are a people descended from dragons or wolves. The editor mentions how elusive the subject of the wolf totem in Mongolia is and how the author Rong Jiang was originally from Beijing and went to Inner Mongolia where he grew up and raised wolf cubs, which sparked his interest in wolf folklore, so the suggestion is that this novel is somewhat autobiographical.

Each chapter starts with an epigraph on wolves from numerous sources. Chapter 1 has two quotes, the first of which talks about a dog clan claiming their ancestors were two white dogs which became a dog totem.

Chapter 1 delves right into the action. Main character Chenzhen is in a snowy cave using binoculars to get a glimpse of the Mongolian prairie wolf. An old Mongolian man Bilige is at his side. Chenzhen has been living on the prairie for 2 years at a camp deep in the mountains. He fears the wolf packs, but he and Bilige have no weapons but a horse cudgel. They see a flock of Mongolian gazelle eating grass on the mountain slope, but a pack of wolves is edging nearer to them at the cave. He can barely breathe as he watches them.

Chenzhen has only encountered wolf packs on the prairie once before. Two years earlier when he came from Beijing, he was assigned to act as a shepherd at Bilige’s house. Bilige gives him a black horse to take out, and while Chenzhen is riding across the snowy plain, afraid of getting lost or caught in a blizzard, the horse gets spooked when a pack of wolves appear. Chenzhen is impressed with the prairie wolves, comparing them in his mind to the wolves he has seen in the Beijing zoo. The pack has 30 to 40 members and is led by a white wolf. Bilige taught him that wolves are very afraid of guns and steel weapons, but Chenzhen doesn’t have anything like that with him at this moment and is forced to use a steel stirrup. He takes a pair of them and clangs them together to scare off the wolves, and the white wolf leads the pack away to the mountains. He hasn’t seen a wolf pack since, has only encountered a handful of wolves while tending sheep, though he did see their kills often enough.

His flashback ends, and he is watching the wolves crouch closer to the gazelle. He knows that when wolves get in a sheep pen, they fight with the sheep dogs. These fights wake the household, and Chenzhen has experienced this twice. He would go out with a flashlight to see what was happening. One of the times with the help of the dogs, they kill the wolf, and Bilige promises to show Chenzhen how to skin it. Another member of the family promises to give him a puppy to raise to fight the wolves.

Chapter 2 begins with an epigraph about the Xiongnu, a race of mixed ancestry also possibly known as the Huns who lived in Mongolia at one time.  The quote is from the History of the Wei and Northern Dynasties.

[image by jesse]

This epigraph is provocative. It starts off explaining that the Xiongnu chief had two daughters who were so beautiful that his people thought they were gods. He built a tower or platform and set his two daughters on it then addressed heaven, while a wolf howled day and night before the tower. The younger girl saw that in response to her father calling out to heaven a wolf has come, like an angel or a god. One of the girls married the wolf and had a child. Many of these epigraphs recall this sort of lore, but I’m not going to get into details on all of them.

Chenzhen and Bilige spend some time in the cave watching the gazelle and the wolves. There are nearly 1,000 head of gazelle on the slope, and they discuss the problems that arise grazing them in the snow or too much in one location. There is another quick flashback to Chenzhen eating gazelle dumplings and talking with a horse herder in the yurt he was staying at. He thinks back to his student days in Beijing and how the crazy “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign of the Red Guard didn’t mean they should destroy this old man’s traditional tapestries and carpeting. Four other classmates from high school are staying with Chenzhen in the yurt, but they are all on friendly terms.

For readers unfamiliar with the “Four Olds” campaign, here is a short explanation:

Since it is so cold out, herders use wolf skins on mattresses or for trousers layered with sheep skin, yet Bilige confirms that wolves are considered prairies guardians. The shepherds use abandoned military equipment on the prairie from previous wars for hunting or to keep track of their herds. Bilige explains the finer points of how wolves hunt gazelle in small groups using ambush and waiting as their main tactics. Chenzhen is fascinated by the wolves and respects them immensely. While the men are watching, the wolves grab a few of the gazelle, blood spurts into the cold air.  The rest of the gazelle, alert to the danger, go running though they are reluctant to move. Suddenly, a landslide blocks their way, and they try to figure out what to do, caught between dangers in either direction. After observing this situation for awhile, Bilige announces that they can leave the cave and head home.

Two days later when the weather is clearer, Chenzhen takes a fellow student Yangke with him to see Bilige. Yangke is the son of a famous Beijing University professor who is known for his good personal library, and he and Chenzhen discuss the history of wolf worship and Han Chinese agricultural history. At Bilige’s place, they join a group of people including a pack of dogs, a number of horse and ox herders, and a regiment of soldiers in 8 carts full of people. Bilige’s son Batu is with them, as well as another man Lanmuzhabu.  They all trek to the scene of the wolf attack the day before. Lanmuzhabu talks about the accuracy of his marksmanship, and there is a dispute about his handling of wolves when he was tending a horse herd. Batu is his witness, but it still seems uncertain as to whether the wolf skins Lanmuzhabu was selling actually came from that encounter.

Meanwhile, Bilige brings out the dogs to start tracking the wolf pack in the snow by the scent of the wolves’ urine. They see the partially eaten bodies of the dead gazelles from the attack the night before on the mountain slope. Chenzhen and Bilige look around with binoculars while those men on horseback surround the area looking for wolf tracks. They also investigate a snowy lake nearby where a handful of gazelle are standing not far from the slope. Chenzhen observes these living gazelle through his binoculars. The hunting party shovels a path through the snow and takes their caravan of carts down the mountain bridge. A gazelle herder Sangjie talks with Bilige about the wolves and jokes about having enough money to get a new yurt and marry a girl; they do also have some women and children in their caravan.

As their hunting expedition begins in earnest and heads for areas of deep snow, Chenzhen and Yangke are left in charge of large carpets which they are supposed to spread on the hardened surface of the snow. Yangke steps out onto them to test his weight, and it holds. Bilige decides if the carpet can hold both Yangke and Chenzhen, then it will hold a few gazelle easily enough. As Chenzhen gets closer to one of the gazelles, he finds it very weak and beautiful, pitying it in the face of the evil wolves. Bilige sets him straight on the realities of the food chain. Shouldn’t he also feel bad for the grass that everyone abuses? It also is alive. He also scolds Chenzhen about the way the Han study books but only know a lot of preposterous ideas. The hunting party plans on selling these gazelle, so Chenzhen is instructed to stick a hook in their necks without damaging their pelts so they sell for a good price. After they prepare the two gazelle to take back home on their ox carts, the hunting party rests and has a picnic with some milk tea, roasted meat and a communal wine pot.

I suspect this book doesn’t have a strong plot but is a string of slower moments like these, so I’m not going to give too much of a blow by blow description.  I just will summarize the most interesting scenes like these.  So far it seems fairly timeless rather than set in the late 1960s.

Part one of a four part series.


About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization since 2007 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards.
This entry was posted in China and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s