Continuing with our current series on Rong Jiang’s bestselling novel Wolf Totem (姜戎的”狼图腾”), we pick up the quiet storyline again in chapter 4 with Chenzhen learning some of the lore of the wolves on the Mongolian plains from the hunters he lives with. One of the things he learns about is a practice similar to Tibertan or Zoroastrian death rituals called the sky burial.
Sky burial was initially treated as a primitive superstition and sanitation concern by the Communist governments of both the PRC and Mongolia; both states closed many temples and China banned the practice completely from the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s until the 1980s.
Here is a very graphic description of how the Tibetans prepared the dead for their version of the ritual:
In Mongolia, the belief system that encompasses sky burial that the novel refers to is tengrism:
In the novel, it’s unclear which ritual the Mongolian version is closer to since Chenzhen describes it two different ways. One story he is told refers to a stone burial mound or circle of some type that Chenzhen goes in search of and discovers is too high for a wolf to get into according to the legends. In order for the souls of the dead to reach Tengri, the wolves must eat their corpses, but given how high the walls are on these burial mounds, Chenzhen thinks of them as “flying wolves.” He also hears some stories about wolves killing gazelle on these mounds or leaving bloody claw marks on the walls since they can jump onto them, but he investigates further, going to visit two sky burial locations around the mountain called Tsagaan Tolgoi. One site is on the northern side, the other on the northeastern side in a location called Black Rock Mountain, both near the Elun prairie. Here is some background on Zoroastrian towers of silence used for vultures in that part of the world for comparison:
Chenzhen also knows of stories where the dead are merely wrapped in felt and left out on the grass face up toward the sky and left for a few days for the wolves to eat. Usually nothing remains since the prairie has many hungry wolves.
In chapter 5, black clouds appear from out of the north, and snow kicks up. The wolves are starving since there are few gazelle on the prairie. Weather forecasts in the 1960s were unreliable, and on this day, the men have a new herd of horses of 70 or 80 head waiting for them in the northwestern part of the Elun prairie. This herd is all military horses of the legendary breed known for its beautiful body, endurance, speed and strength. Bilige’s son Batu was appointed a militia leader that has their care as part of his responsibilities. I was a little unclear about his connection to them, but a military representative comes with them to capture a large number of wolf cubs, which Chenzhen describes as rather cruel since they are still whelps crying for their mothers.
When the wind shifts, causing a storm of blowing snow called a “white haired wind,” Batu and Shacileng are forced out into the inclement weather to rescue the horses left out on the mountain slope. It is a tense, extended scene, and so far this chapter is one of the most suspenseful in the book. The men are unable to open their eyes because of the flying snow, and Batu can’t see his hand in front of him when he finally is able to look for it. When he shouts in alarm, he doesn’t even hear the echo because of the shrieking storm. When Batu makes it to one of the horses, he turns on his flashlight, which allows him to see about 100 meters ahead with its beam of light. He and Shacileng yell back and forth, and Shacileng wonders if wolves are near given how frightened his horse is.
A gray horse stopping beside Batu enters the light beam where he can see how visibly nervous it is. The horse is panting and has a bite wound on its neck, blood is gushing all over its chest and frozen drops of blood are congealing around the wound. Shacileng sees it too as the herd gets closer to the men, all of them scared like the gray horse. The men see a wolf creeping under the herd, then two wolves covered with snow from the whiteout. I’m a little confused as to how many men are out, but I think there are also two herders who are unaccustomed to being out at night and who don’t have any weapons.
At that moment, the herd faces either the danger of dying under the wolf attack in one direction or wandering into a small lake and drowning in the other. Shacileng tries to guide them with his flashlight and by shouting commands. If only they can get the horses to gather near some yurts nearby, they can sic dogs and more humans on the wolves. The horses are trying to fight back, kicking fiercely and injuring the wolves who sneak underfoot. Batu fleetingly thinks that he’ll come back out after the storm to gather the wolf pelts. As the herd gets closer to the small lake, the wolves are getting so crazy they have no fear of humans. Normally the wolves are no match for a stallion, but I don’t think this herd has one at the moment. Stallions usually stay on the outside of the herd formation, with the female and baby horses in the center of the ring, and the stallions will stomp on the wolves. Two kicks to a wolf, and it flees. I think they have a gelding leading this herd, however.
Batu is afraid to shoot his gun, though both men have long horse sticks. They can smell how close they are getting to the small lake, and the horses move to its southern edge so they can drink from it. However, since spring came early, the lake’s edge is now muddy and dangerous. The herdsmen try to whistle to get them to go a different direction, and Batu also whistles. The horses obey him and stop moving, gathering together instead. To the north are the blood-crazed wolves. They attack the horses, pulling one down after another, biting them and cracking their ribs and chests, blood and flesh flying. Batu and Shacileng watch this in their flashlight beams, barely able to even cry. Batu has never seen such crazy wolves and gets more and more afraid.
The men try to use their flashlights and sticks to scare the wolves and drive the horses to the camp with the yurts, but Batu finally relents and prepares his gun, knowing that it will scare the horses even if he can kill a wolf. Shacileng also lights a fire. The horses neigh in fear. The wolves attack the men on horseback, biting Shacileng’s horse and ripping his skin gown. He cracks its skull open with the flashlight as they fight. Batu is now alone with his big black horse encircled by wolves. His horse tries to fight back, kicking and trampling the wolves as they attack. Batu hits the wolf with either a horse stick or iron hoops, and the big wolf falls into the snow. Two of the other wolves howl, and immediately the wolves snap out of their trance and are suddenly afraid, not daring to attack again. They regroup on the east side of the horses.
Batu leads his horse carefully toward the pond’s edge, thinking about dismounting and using the gun to protect the herd. He thinks the wolves aren’t afraid of him, however, and that he can’t kill enough of them with the gun. He prays to Tengri to give him the wisdom to save the horses. When he can’t open his eyes easily due to the flying snow and feels the cold acutely, he decides to start shooting.
After the snow storm, which lasted two days and nights, the prairie returns to a blast of early spring weather. Chenzhen and Shacileng are treating Batu’s frostbite while Batu’s horse has already been sent to a vet for care. Shacileng goes back out to the lake to look around. Chenzhen accompanies Bilige, asking how Batu will be punished for not saving the herd. Bilige asks if the Han students feel they should be punished. He says the military representative will consider their opinion if they do. Chenzhen considers Batu a good guy with bad luck, and Bilige feels Batu doesn’t need to be punished.
The next scene has them back at the lake shore looking over the remains of the herd’s confrontation with the wolves. Chenzhen gets to see it with his own eyes, but most of the carnage is covered by a layer of snow. It is a sad scene. Chenzhen tries to comfort Batu by calling him a hero for trying to save the horses by risking his life, but he is rebuked. Someone else on the scene Baoshungui considers Batu experienced enough to know not to have led the horses to the lake. It comes out in the conversation that Batu only had about ten shots that he hoped to scare the wolves with, and it was very dark and his flashlight batteries were weak, so he couldn’t see.
Bilige and Naioliji examine the scene of the horse corpses, trying to find the wolves’ path away from it in the snow. They shovel carefully around the horses’ bodies, looking for tracks and bloody claw marks. They eventually do dig up two dead wolves. Chenzhen feels deep pity for the wolf cubs since he notes one is a mother wolf, but Baoshungui tells him he’s talking nonsense, as if a wolf cub is raised like a human child!
The next chapter begins with an explanation that wolves’ most preferred animal to hunt and eat is the marmot, probably the tarbagan marmot. Chenzhen and Yangke get a puppy to raise, and they name it after the god Erlangshen because its strange coloring makes it look like it has three eyes. This part also goes briefly into some of the Quanrong Dog Clan’s beliefs about descending from two white dogs and its dog or wolf worship.
In the third scene, he talks more about his four classmates who share his yurt, that one of them is a horse herder, one an ox herder, and the other two gazelle herders. Batu’s horse herd has 500 horses, and they eat so much, there isn’t enough grass to graze the ox and gazelle or sheep near them – I’m not sure if the vague term might have changed to refer to actual sheep at this point, but the English-language translation should clear up that vagueness. There is a mention here more specifically of fat-tailed sheep, so maybe that’s what this refers to. Horse herding is considered dangerous, difficult work, but horse herders have a high status in their society. The ox herder watches over more than 140 head of oxen, while Chenzhen and Yangke watch over more than 1,700 sheep with a few goats mixed in. Sheep products are very important in Mongolian society, and Chenzhen realizes he has to stay focused because spending time talking or reading leaves the herd at risk of being attacked by wolves.
Yangke brought a box of history and other forbidden books with him from Beijing, and he reads them at night, particularly to study animal biology. Chenzhen decides he wants to catch a wolf cub to raise in their yurt, and Yangke is game to help him. They go out together in search of a wolf den, but don’t find one.
At the beginning of chapter 8, Chenzhen dismounts his horse after arriving at a yurt. He smells the scent of roasting meat, though not sheep. It’s something strange. When he enters and sees the family sitting around while a pot is boiling on the stove, he asks what sort of meat they are cooking and guesses wolf, but they also discuss horsemeat.
Later, Chenzhen talks with Bilige about getting a wolf cub. Bilige thinks the boys are wastrels and troublemakers, but then there was a clash of culture as the Chinese started moving onto the Elun prairie. The Mongolians are all herders with 140 or so yurts holding 700 to 800 people. During the Cultural Revolution, the “rustics” that were sent from Beijing numbered over 100, and some older soldiers also came and built houses and drove big cars. The Chinese usually hate wolves and maybe want their skins, they don’t want to suckle a wolf like Chenzhen.
Bilige and the men go back to the lake where all of the horses died. The snow covering the corpses is deeper, and the men check the footprints in the area, noting that there are fox prints mixed in with the wolf prints. They find a den, but the snow is too deep. Chenzhen asks if they can come back tomorrow to get a wolf on the northeast side of Black Rock Mountain, but Bilige hedges. After they return to the yurt for a hearty meal of sheep intestines and tell stories about Bayaer and Batu’s encounters with wolves and their techniques using fire to smoke the wolves out of their dens, Bayaer offers to help Chenzhen go out and capture a wolf cub the next day.
I like the way chapter 8 is framed at both the beginning and ending with warm domestic scenes of food inside the yurts. We haven’t had too much of that so far in the novel.
Part two of a four part series.