This post will finish off our current series on Rong Jiang’s bestselling novel Wolf Totem (姜戎的”狼图腾”). In chapter 16 after the spring rain, the men are delivering lambs near the mountain slope at one of the camps. The air is full of the stench of rotting corpses left by the wolves that had been thawing out in the warmer weather. Because they now have more than 1,000 new baby lambs, Chenzhen, Bilige and Niaoliji go in search of better pasture with lusher grass. They pass by a mountain famous for its otter dens and observe their activities. Bilige explains the importance of otter products and the value of their pelts to Chenzhen as the dogs sniff around the dens of wary otter families. They also discuss how corsac foxes and wolves eat the otter.
It turns out that the otter is associated with the hordes of mosquitos that breed on the prairie, though the wolves are undaunted in eating them anyway, but the Beijing students get bitten up by mosquitos enough for the connection to bring up bad memories for Chenzhen. They move on, looking for good grazing land, and at one point, they come across a location that Chenzhen observes through his binoculars in this particularly beautiful passage:
眼前是一大片人迹未至，方圆几十里的碧绿大盆地。盆地的东方是重重叠叠 ，一层一波的山浪，一直向大兴安岭的余脉涌去。绿山青山，褐山赭山，蓝山紫山，推着青绿褐赭蓝紫色的彩波向茫茫的远山泛去，与粉红色的天际云海相汇。盆地的北西南三面，是浅碟状的宽广大缓坡，从三面的山梁缓缓而下。草坡像是被腾格里修剪过的草毯，整齐的草毯上还有一条条一片片蓝色，白色，黄色，粉色的山花图案…。[p 153]
Before his eyes was a large swath of land untouched by a human presence, circling tens of li around a dark green basin. On the basin’s eastern side were piled layer upon layer of waves forming a mountain heading straight for the Daxinganling Mountain Range. Green and blue mountains, brown and ochre mountains, blue and purple mountains, all advanced in rainbow technicolored waves toward the vast, far-away mountains floating in a sea of pink clouds converging on the horizon. In the other three directions, the basin became like a shallow depression with a broad, gentle slope and a ridge that descended little by little. The grassy slope looked like a clipped grass rug prepared by Tengri, and on the even grass rug spread a varied pattern of blue, white, yellow and pink mountain flowers….[My translation]
They come across a sheep that has been attacked by a wolf pack and let the dogs finish it since the wolves have disappeared without eating it. The men also take some of the meat to roast for themselves.
In chapter 18, Chenzhen stirs a thick milk meat congee he plans on feeding his wolf pup as he enjoys the fragrant aroma. The dogs outside are crying, but this is only for the young wolf. He thinks about how the mother wolf would feed it a sort of makeshift warm congee in the wild, and he reflects on how the dogs have now accepted the wolf pup, which is already getting bigger after a month. Erlang takes an interest in Chenzhen’s interaction with the wolf pup, which reminds Chenzhen of a Jack London story, “Love of Life,” which can be read here:
That author seems like an interesting one to read along with this novel in general, though I have to admit I have never read any of London’s work.
When feeding time is over, Chenzhen sees Bilige approaching his yurt with an ox cart, so Chenzhen puts the wolf pup back in his den and prepares to greet Bilige. Bilige wants to see the wolf pup, but Chenzhen invites him in for tea first, which Bilige complains they make too black. Chenzhen tries to explain that he intends on mating the wolf pup with a female dog when the time comes, but Bilige scoffs at this, stating that the Mongolian wolf will eat a dog, that he’s dreaming if he thinks he can mate the two. There is also a religious aspect to Bilige’s objection: wolves eat human corpse and help them return to Tengri, while dogs eat human dung. He says no one would ever think of raising a wolf like this. The wolf is heavenly, the dog earthly, in Bilige’s estimation. He accuses Chenzhen of offending Mongolian religion with his mating plan!
Chenzhen realizes he has never seen Bilige so angry before, not even when they set off the firecracker in the wolf den. Bilige tells him that he thought the Han students didn’t understand Mongolian rules when Chenzhen started talking about raising a wolf pup. Chenzhen thinks sadly that he is allowed to either kill or woship the wolf, not raise one himself, according to these rules. When Bilige objects to Chenzhen using an affectionate form of address for him because he’s so offended, Chenzhen goes into apology mode, pleading with Bilige not to disown him.
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Baoshungui and Niaoliji, and the men also confront Chenzhen about the wolf pup. While they seem open to the idea of the wolf helping them protect the flocks, they state they will kill it if it harms anyone and talk about selling its skin. They consider this some strange science experiment of Chenzhen’s. He has no choice but to listen to Niaoliji’s advice that the wolf pup be tied up with an iron chain attached to a stake. After the deed is done, the wolf pup constantly bites at the chain to try to break free, and Chenzhen looks on with an aching heart.
His contemplation of the wolf pup’s fate is interrupted by Jiyuan Zhang’s arrival on horseback, sporting a bandage on his forehead. He is trying to tame the horse, and the novel goes into a long explanation of the temperament of Mongolian horses. These horses are very fiery, and taming begins when they are three years old, but the Ujimqin horses are particularly explosive in temperament. Here are some really awesome photos of horses from this region that shows this specific breed of horse:
The herders have a system for naming their horses as they tame them that is based on a color coding of the horse tamers, for example, Bilige is red, etc. Horses are central to life on the prairie. If you don’t have a good horse, it’s like having no legs. The sheep and ox herders are expected to tame their own horses, too. The horse herders have tamed quite a few horses, yet when they encounter a particularly wild temperament, even they can get hurt. This section also explains briefly how the Mongolians define manliness, how being the best at fighting wolves, taming horses, and resisting the Han can turn them into a hero in the community.
After Jiyuan Zhang’s arrival, the men discuss his horse taming activities in more depth. His horse kicked him in the forehead and knocked him out, but Batu was around to help him. He says he is lucky the horse is small, because he’d be dead if it was big after a kick like that. Jiyuan Zhang has been taming six horses that spring. The men are talking not far from Chenzhen’s yurt near a grassy slope, and the horse herd stops to graze there. Yangke and Chenzhen meanwhile admire one of the stallions. The novel explains here how the horse herd is divided and some of the finer points of Mongolian horse breeding culture. There are 500 horses with a certain number of tens of horse clans, each headed by a stallion. The biggest horse clan is around seventy or eighty horses, while the smallest is ten. Jiyuan Zhang notes that the stallion is the lord over the prairie, and that it isn’t afraid of wolves or humans. Yangke says he’d like to study horse herding more, and the men go into Chenzhen’s yurt, taking a water bucket full of seventy or eighty duck eggs from the cart.
The book continues along these lines with the leisurely slice of life picture of daily activities on the Mongolian prairie during the Cultural Revolution. I’m cutting it off at about the halfway point since it’s very high-profile in English makes it much more accessible than most of the books I cover. You can buy the English translation here to find out what happens:
One final shot before we end this series:
Part four of a four part series.
Next Time: We return to Japan with The Snow White Murder Case by Kanae Minato!