Continuing our reading of Rong Jiang’s bestselling novel Wolf Totem (姜戎的”狼图腾”), the story picks up with Chenzhen’s quest to capture a wolf pup to raise. In chapter 9, Chenzhen goes with Yangke to Black Rock Mountain along with a couple of dogs and horses three hours before dawn. It’s cloudy with no moonlight or starlight. They suddenly hear a wolf howling toward the northeast and find a den. The hunting dogs help them kill the mother, but the pups won’t come out, and the boys decide that they can force them out since wolves are afraid of guns and gunpowder. They explode firecrackers in the hole; blue smoke billows out of the ground. Chenzhen yells to Yangke that he thinks this situation doesn’t look good. Indeed, they find when they can finally get into the den later that all of the wolf pups are dead. They find a second wolf den but retreat to Bilige’s yurt empty-handed.
In chapter 10, Bilige is furious when he hears that the two Han students blew up a firecracker in a wolf den and didn’t expect it to cause much damage. The old man tells Chenzhen what a sin it was, noting that the Han like to stir up trouble more than Mongolians do, and he really scolds him on how killing wolf pups can ultimately destroy the prairie. The smoke from the firecracker was likely to spread across the valley on the wind. Chenzhen promises not to do anything like that again as he is brought a bowl of sheep meat as they eat together. Bilige explains how the food chain works on the prairie, giving examples of how rabbits would overrun it if the wolves aren’t around to hold them in check. They plan on how to capture a wolf next time. The next morning, they eat with a 25-year-old ox herder Daoerji, and the four of them go out hunting wolves. They find a den where the mother is gone and grab her young pups that barely have their eyes open. The hunting dogs are going wild. The men hasten home, worrying that the mother is near and may attack them.
In chapter 11, the group of hunters returns home with seven wolf pups, and they sit around the stove eating roast meat with tea. Chenzhen wonders if he should take the extra pups he doesn’t want back to the lair and asks Yangke to go with him. He explains to Daoerji that his plan is to raise a male wolf and mate it with a female dog. In the group of 7 pups, there are 4 males and 3 females. The men talk about what to feed them, and Daoerji points out how silly it would be to use ox milk since wolves eat oxen. Someone takes the hunting dogs out so they won’t bite up the pups, whom Chenzhen is keeping in his school bag. Daoerji suggests the extra wolf pups should be killed instead of taken back to the den, noting that Chenzhen is a sheep herder after all, so he should have no qualms about killing wolves since that’s part of the job. One of them says a prayer to heaven and does the deed with a knife. The men plan on skinning the dead pups later for the pelts. Chenzhen puts the remaining pup in a pit just outside of their yurt.
Chenzhen and Yangke hang around the wolf den to watch over the wolf pup. After some deliberation, they decide to feed it dog’s milk rather than ox’s and take it to the dog’s den where three pups are already nursing with their mother Yilei. It takes a little coaxing since there is an age difference between the wolf pup and dog pups, and Yilei is wary of taking an enemy pup into her litter. Chenzhen still worries that the wolf pup will starve to death since it’s bigger than the dog pups and needs to eat more. Later, Chenzhen takes the wolf pup back to its special den. It’s dark out now, and he puts one of the female dog pups in with the wolf pup to keep it company. Erlang stands beside Chenzhen, watching the procedure. A few of the other herders stop by for a meal after hearing Chenzhen nabbed a wolf pup to raise.
Chapter 12 is another really intense chapter of conflict with a wolf pack. A group of people, horses and hunting dogs stand out on the prairie with Bilige looking worriedly toward the northwest. It is very dark all around them, and clouds block the light from the moon and stars. Chenzhen feels blinded and asks Bilige if he can turn on his flashlight. Bilige snaps at him, and Chenzhen doesn’t dare say another word. They are conducting nighttime warfare. The expedition also includes women and children as well as the hunters, which is interesting and unexpected. Bilige tells him to use his hearing and sense of smell to hunt, though Bilige does start to use a complicated signal system with his flashlight a little later. As wolves appear, the hunting party starts their war cry. The students from Beijing are kept far from the battle, as are the women and children, so Chenzhen must use binoculars to watch the action. There are over 100 dogs facing off against at least 20 wolves. The spectators start cheering for specific dogs to charge the wolves, and Erlang sustains numerous wounds as the animals bite at one another.
The scene is interrupted by a discussion about eating dead dogs in Mongolia and Chinese attitudes toward eating dogs. Poor people in China hate dogs because they attack the poor, so poor people eat dogs and find them quite tasty. Bilige asks Chenzhen if he will raise dogs when he returns to Beijing, and Chenzhen says he finds dogs lovable and considers them man’s best friend. The hunting grounds are quiet at this point, so the battle must be over. The women try to treat the dogs’ wounds, while some of the children cry over their dead pet dogs. Bilige demonstrates to Chenzhen how to skin a wolf.
In chapter 13, Baoshungui and Niaoliji lead a number of cadre inspectors around the grazing land where the war took place, and afterward they come to stand beside Bilige, dismounting their horses and claiming a great victory. Bilige considers this war they conducted a sin, reminding them again that without wolves, the prairie is finished, but the men just laugh. More than 30 wolf corpses lay on the hunting grounds, and they skin them. There is a discussion about how dangerous fire is on the prairie. When Chenzhen and Yangke get home and have dinner, they check on the wolf pup to see that he ate the meat they left for him, and Chenzhen takes the female dog pup back to her mother to feed.
When Chenzhen wakes up to the cold blue spring prairie sky in chapter 14, he gets dressed and goes out of the yurt toward the little wolf’s den but is stopped by an official leading a flock of lambs out of the sheepfold to graze. The first half of this chapter describes them drying the wolf skins procured from the big fight, but when Chenzhen finally checks on the wolf pup, he discovers that it may have been trying to dig its way out of the den when he studies the situation. The wolf pup tries to climb on the female pup’s back and head to get over the den wall, waking up the female pup. Chenzhen chuckles at this. Then Chenzhen tries to explain some of the world’s wolf lore, including the Xiongnu and Roman myths, to Zhang Jiyuan who has been helping him and who is interested in how he is raising the wolf pup. He takes the wolf pup to Yilei for feeding, which is easier this time since she is more used to the new member of her family. The chapter ends with Chenzhen returning to the flock of lambs.
In the next chapter, it is spring on the Elun prairie with everything blooming. The snow and ice are melting, revealing yellowed grass underneath. Zhangjiyuan and Batu go out to wait for wolves on the grassy slope because of the horse herd mishap. Batu intends to vent his anger on the wolves he finds. The men track a few wolves, but they are too far away to kill them.
Because this book is rather slow, following the characters going about their animal herding and hunting, it makes it a little hard to cover properly in this series. Since it is available in English and had a movie made of it a few years ago, I will only finish up next time with highlights of the second half.
Part three of a four part series.