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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Book Review: Wolves and Other Mongolians

June 15, 2008

CHARLES FORAN
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
June 14, 2008

WOLF TOTEM
By Jiang Rong
Translated by Howard Goldblatt
Penguin, 527 pages, $26.95

Wolf Totem is indeed a novel about wolves. A sprawling novel, too,
deeply learned about its subject. A publishing phenomenon in China
when it first appeared in 2004, and recent inaugural winner of the
Man Asian Literary Prize, the book is also about the fragile culture
of the Chinese-controlled "Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region," the
grassland and mountain zone abutting the neighbouring nations of
Mongolia and Russia. About this subject as well, it is no less exhaustive.

If Wolf Totem marginalizes anything, it is what Chinese readers must
have originally expected to occupy the centre of the story: the
adventures of students sent to Mongolia in 1969 during the Cultural
Revolution. The narrative is a familiar one in contemporary Chinese
fiction. Most often cast as a bittersweet coming-of-age story -
during the Cultural Revolution, millions of students and
intellectuals were sent to the countryside to "learn from the
peasants" - such settings are generally backdrops for tales of lost
love and youth, the melancholy of vanished innocence.

The novel is having little of this, either. Along with his friend
Yang Ke, young Beijing intellectual Chen Zhen does escape the lunacy
of the capital and lives with Mongolian nomads for three years,
seeking a spirituality he expects to locate in the reading materials
he has brought along. He also makes the obligatory return decades
later to the site of the experience that so shaped him. There he
confronts the disappearance of the way of life he had come to admire.

Otherwise, though, Wolf Totem, written by the pseudonymous Jiang
Rong, a retired Beijing professor who volunteered to work in Inner
Mongolia at the age of 21 and wound up living there for 11 years, is
indifferent to the inner feelings and back stories of its Han
characters. Instead, the novel is a quasi-anthropological study of,
and literary paean to, Mongolian nomads and their great
allies/enemies, the fearsome wolves.

It is likewise a roaring adventure, replete with epic battle scenes
that cross Leo Tolstoy and Jack London, with the spirit of Genghis
Khan - himself a student of lupine war tactics - looking down. That
many of those battles are between wolves and gazelles, or wolves and
horses, in no way diminishes their grandeur.

Quite the opposite: The spirituality Chen ultimately discovers is
rooted in the balance of man, animal and earth. Mongolians revere
wolves, making them totems. Elders understand that the pitiless
landscape they inhabit requires balance to ensure survival. "Out
here," the Mongolian Bilgee explains, "the grass and grassland are
the life, the big life. All else is little life that depends on the
big life for survival."

Wolves are "little life." But so are humans. "Big life" is the
totality, bannered under the godhead known as Tengger. Early
inhabitants of the Central Asian plateau believed they were actually
descended from white dogs. "The ancestors of the Huns, the Gaoju, and
the Turks were wolf children," a character remarks, "all raised by
wolf mothers." More pointedly, Bilgee takes pains to undermine Chen's
view of "man as the primary element."

Substitute "man" with "Han," as in Han-Chinese, and the outline of a
parable about China and its empire begins to emerge. For a novel
published and celebrated in mainland China without its author ending
up - to date, at least - in trouble, Wolf Totem has a bold heart.

The parable is left largely explicit, aside from a few digs at the
absurdity of Maoist doggerel ("Wolves are the true class enemies!"
shouts one Red Guard) and an intriguing reference near the end to the
great modernist Lu Xun's theme of the ceaseless struggle within
Chinese society to probe its national characteristics honestly. "We
Chinese seem incapable of ridding ourselves of that flaw," a
character says of the habit of using things up until they are forever gone.

For the rest, Wolf Totem counts on its Moby-Dick-like chronicling of
the phenomenological details of Mongolia - an elemental world
eradicated by the colonization of the grasslands in the 1970s and
'80s, reducing much of the region to desert - to make its point about
how other people and other cultures exist inside China, whether or
not that "otherness" goes acknowledged, let alone respected. A movie
is apparently being made of the book, aimed to coincide with this
summer's Olympics.

Coincidentally, the Chinese empire is back in the news. The Western
media seem shocked by how possessive Beijing feels toward Tibet. Like
its similarly strong feelings for the "breakaway province" of Taiwan,
the "internal matter" of Tibet is a bracing reminder that China isn't
a country. It is a collection of 56 nationalities, overseen by the
dominant Han group.

How this dynamic gets expressed is rarely "real" to outsiders. But
anyone with the misfortune of belonging to one of those other 55
nationalities finds the dynamics only too real, and too rarely
self-examined. As one China watcher put it, with respect to the
certainty that the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games will involve
much ersatz singing and dancing by Tibetans with painted-on smiles,
Han Chinese firmly believe that everyone in China, except for
themselves, are crazy about folkloric dances in colourful costumes.
It is a small example of how non-Han cultures are debased, the better
to conquer, then assimilate, and then vanish them.

Wolf Totem may not be the most accomplished of novels -- Jiang Rong
has more passion and vision than style -- but if Chinese readers,
either now or later, are able to see clear to his fable of engagement
with the "others" that share, whether by consent or force, the
massive and diverse geographical entity known as the People's
Republic of China, it will serve as a cultural benchmark. Such an
engagement, after all, would amount to no less than a revolution -
albeit, a quiet (and real) one.

Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's new book is "Join the
Revolution, Comrade."
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