ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


Home   ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music) 


  Wolf Totem, as the translator Howard Goldblatt puts it, “is a work

that compellingly blends the passion of a novelist who lived the story

he tells and the intelligent ethnological observations of a sympathetic

outsider” A reading of Wolf Totem turns you into an empathetic witness.



Books by Jerry W. Ward  Jr.

Trouble the Water (1997) / Black Southern Voices (1992) / The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)  / The Katrina Papers

*   *   *   *   *

On Reading Wolf Totem

By Jerry W. Ward Jr.


Your reading of Jiang Rong’s Lang Tuteng. Changjiang Literature and Arts Publishing House, 2004; Wolf Totem. New York: Penguin, 2008. persuades  you to hear a tangential echo from Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, Chapter XVIII: In What Way Princes Should Keep Their Word.

Since a prince, then, is required to know how to assume a beastlike nature, he must adopt that of the fox and that of the lion; for a lion is defenseless against snares, and a fox is defenseless against wolves. Hence a prince ought to be a fox in recognizing snares and a lion in driving off wolves.  Those who assume the bearing of the lion alone lack understanding.

In the context of the 2012 presidential election, you are asking what kind of animal is President Barak Obama and what kind of animal is Mitt Romney.  Machiavelli’s political theory tells you what kind of animals Obama and Romney ought to be, but you alone must read between the lines of The Prince and read the habits of Romney and Obama.

Wolf Totem is a better political work of art than The Prince, because you read the novel as a long ecological poem and as an indirect allegory on the Chinese (Han) character.  Addressing a specific period in modern Chinese history—The Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976, Wolf Totem fulfills what in the West you call the Horatian imperative (instruct and delight) without being entrapped by the vulgarity of propaganda and thus falling short in aesthetic appeal.  Rong’s novel instructs so well because it delights so thoroughly. 

The merely political melodrama of an American election is dull in the face of Rong’s snow-sparkling tragedy of Nature and man.  You do not confuse the concrete impact the American election will have on your daily life with the transcendent impact Wolf Totem has on your imagination. You are merely grateful that Rong has deepened your understanding of what bodes ill for China’s future. Developmental excesses, particularly in China’s urban centers, begin to take their toll before the first portions of steel and cement are thrown against the sky.  America, like Huck Finn, has already been there.

Using the focalization that can be accomplished from the limited omniscient point of view, Rong writes superbly about good choices and poor choices, about the knowledge and sacrifices required to sustain life in extremely brutal environments. The novelist affirms that humility is man’s last best resort on this planet, for Nature is the ultimate winner.  The lessons that Chen Zhen, the rusticated student, must learn from Old Man Bilgee, the Mongolian elder, on the amoral grasslands of Inner Mongolia are precious.

The four olds (old thought, old customs, old practices, and old culture) shall be with us when memory of the infamous Red Guards is nothing more than the yellow sand that turns imperial Beijing “into a hazy city”(524).  Wolf Totem, as the translator Howard Goldblatt puts it, “is a work that compellingly blends the passion of a novelist who lived the story he tells and the intelligent ethnological observations of a sympathetic outsider” (vi).  A reading of Wolf Totem turns you into an empathetic witness.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.      September 26, 2012

 *   *   *   *   *

Lü Jiamin (born Jiangsu, 1946) is a Chinese writer, most famous for his best-selling 2004 novel Wolf Totem, which he wrote under the pseudonym Jiang Rong. He is married to fellow novelist Zhang Kangkang. . . .

Lü began thinking about and writing up the ideas behind Wolf Totem as early as 1971, while still in Inner Mongolia, but did not yet begin to write anything down. He returned to Beijing in 1978, where he participated in the Beijing Spring movement, becoming editor-in-chief of the eponymous literary journal Beijing Spring. A year later, he entered the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. After his graduation, he became an associate professor at the China Labor College. He was arrested for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, but was released in January 1991 without ever having been tried, along with Liu Suli and Chen Po as well as student leaders Xiong Yan and Zhou Suofen. He finally produced a complete first draft of Wolf Totem 1997, and only submitted the final draft to his publisher at the end of 2003. His hardest work on the novel was done in the final six years; his wife, herself a famous novelist, described how he "locked himself in his office every day and refused to tell me what he was doing". . .  Lü describes himself as a "critical left-wing thinker", and remains a supporter of democracy and individualism; in a 2005 interview with British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, he expressed his belief that China risked becoming "like Nazi Germany" if it did not further democratise.wikipedia

*   *   *   *   *

A Decade in the Grasslands
Excerpt by Jonathan Mirsky

Wolf Totem By Jiang Rong
(Translated by Howard Goldblatt)
(Hamish Hamilton 526pp )


Here is the story. During the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, two 'educated youths' from Beijing, Chen and Yang, members of the social class most persecuted by Mao's fanatics, volunteer to live on the Inner Mongolian grasslands. For eleven years they adapt themselves to a wholly un-Han, indeed anti-Han, culture. The herdsmen, manoeuvring themselves within the fragile balance of the grasslands, admire, fear and worship the wolf, an animal that Hans not only fear but loathe above all others. Chen and Yang fall under the spell of the grasslands, including the spirituality of the herdsmen whose 'feudal' beliefs are proscribed by the Party.

The balance of man and wolf works like this. Everything depends on the grass feeding the sheep, horses and goats, which the herdsmen use for food, clothing and shelter. The grasslands are also home to marmots, mice, rabbits and gazelles that, if left alone, devour the grass and destroy the herdsmen's lives. Wolves maintain a balance by eating these grass-guzzlers. A Mongol explains to a wolf-hating official: 'If there were no wolves, squirrels and rabbits alone would lay waste to the grassland within a few years. Wolves are their natural enemy; they keep them in check.' The wolves also prey on the sheep, goats and horses, however, which need protection—yet here, too, there is a delicate balance: by attacking the horses the wolves destroy the weakest ones, ensuring that the surviving ponies become hardy and agile.

The Mongols, and soon Chen and Yang, believed that it was those sorts of horses, the survivors of generations of wolf attacks that carried the cavalry of Genghis Khan and later the Manchus when they overran and conquered the Chinese. But above all it was the qualities of the wolves—tactical, strategic, imaginative, flexible and merciless—that the observant warriors of the grasslands adopted to achieve their conquests. Chen, who has learned most about wolves through his attempts to raise a captured cub, realises that 'the purpose of the wolves' existence . . . was their sacred, inviolable freedom, their independence, and their dignity'.

The Mongols and Hans rise convincingly from Jiang's narrative in ways that anyone who has ever encountered Hans in Mongolia, Xinjiang or Tibet will recognise. The Hans, the new ruling class, are trigger happy—ready to use automatic weapons on any creature they eat (wolves, swans, marmots are all targets)—and scornfully, insensitively transform the grasslands into pasture, which inevitably turns into the desert that now rolls yellow sandy clouds over Beijing, where this summer they will choke Olympic sportsmen and women.

A Han marmot-killer tells Chen, who is watching in agony the destruction of the culture he has grown into: 'What do we care about next year? We go where there's food and never worry about the year after that.' But killing the marmots for food is not the ultimate reason. Wolves feed on marmots. 'We were sent here by Chief of Staff Sun, who said that marmots not only destroy the grassland [which they don't do if kept down by wolves] but also serve as the main source of food for the wolves before winter sets in. So marmots are included in our wolf-extermination campaign.'

Twenty years after leaving the grasslands, Chen/Jiang, now a middle-aged, highly qualified academic, returns for a visit. He is writing Wolf Totem. He sees young Mongols racing across the steppes on their motorcycles and shooting anything in sight. The Mongols' yurts—felt tents—have been replaced by brick houses with televisions broadcasting Animal Planet. Chen remarks, 'We've witnessed the "impressive" victory of an agrarian society over a nomadic herding society. Current government policy has developed to the stage of "one country, two systems," but deeply rooted in the Han consciousness is still "many areas, one system".' That's pretty subversive. But here comes the blow to the Party's guts: 'Since China doesn't have a competitive, scientific, and democratic system for selecting top talent, honest and frank people are denied a chance to rise up.'

This magnificent book is not a tiresome polemic. Jiang pulls off the difficult trick of writing convincingly about spirituality and nature. An elderly herdsman explains how wolves run down gazelles: they prey on those careless gazelles that wait until daylight to urinate. If they try to run then, they suffer cramp. 'You see, a gazelle can run like the wind, but not all the time, and wise old wolves know that's when they can bring one down alone. Only the cleverest gazelles are wise enough to forsake the warmth of sleep to get up to relieve themselves at night. They never have to worry about a wolf running them down.'

Decades after his years with the herdsmen, Chen looks out of his window. 'A yellow-dragon sandstorm rose up outside his window, blocking the sky and the sun. All of Beijing was shrouded in the fine, suffocating dust. China's imperial city was turned into a hazy city of yellow sand . . . The wolves had receded into legend, and the grassland was a distant memory.'

In a recent interview in The Bookseller Jiang Rong said that the Hans are still sheep-like: 'the real meaning of the book is to criticise the Chinese mentality'. Not wholly sheep-like, though: out on the grasslands, when Chen/Jiang returned there after many years, the Chinese were slaughtering wolves by blowing their heads off with explosives.—literaryreview

Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist specialising in Chinese matters

*   *   *   *   *

Wolf Totem: A Novel

By Jiang Rong  and Translated by Howard Goldblatt

A publishing sensation in China, this novel wraps an ecological warning and political indictment around the story of Chen Zhen, a Beijing student sent during the 1960s Cultural Revolution to live as a shepherd among the herdsmen of the Olonbulang, a grassland on the Inner Mongolia steppes. Chen Zhen is fascinated by the herdsmen, descendants of Genghis Khan, and by the grassland's wolves, with whom the herdsmen live in uneasy harmony. When Mao's government orders the mass execution of the wolves to make way for farming collectives run by Chen Zhen's own people, the Han Chinese, he makes for a somewhat passive hero. Except for Bilgee, the wise old herdsman, and Director Bao, the face of the Communist government in the Olonbulang, the novel's secondary characters make little impression. The wolf packs, however, are vividly and beautifully described. As Chen Zhen helplessly witnesses the consequences of the order, he risks the enmity of both the herdsmen and the state officials by capturing a wolf cub and lovingly raising it as his own wolf totem. Jiang Rong writes reverently about life on the steppes in a manner that recalls Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf.—Publishers Weekly

*   *   *   *   *

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt

By Chris Hedges and illustrator Joe Sacco

Look at the poorest areas in the United States, "sacrifice zones" where human beings and natural resources have been used and then abandoned. A former New York Times correspondent, Hedges reported from Ground Zero beginning just after the 9/11 attacks. In 2002, he was part of the team of reporters at the New York Times awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism. Over the past decade he has become one of the leading chroniclers of the state of the nation. Hedges joins us to discuss the 11th anniversary of 9/11 and his tour of the nation’s economic disaster zones. "The most retrograde forces within American society have used the specter of the war on terror or terrorism in the same way the most retrograde forces within American society used communism or anti-communism to crush any kind of legitimate dissent or any questioning of the structures of power," Hedges said.

*   *   *   *   *

The Courage to Hope

How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear  

By Shirley Sherrod

Sherrod sets the record straight on her forced resignation from the Department of Agriculture in 2010. The author. . .was director for the USDA's Rural Development in Georgia when conservative political blogger Andrew Breitbart attacked her for allegedly reverse racist comments she made at an NAACP event. The threat of exposure on national TV was enough to send the USDA running for cover, and she was dismissed. Sherrod decided she had to fight back. She and her husband have been directly involved in the struggles for political and economic justice in Georgia and elsewhere since the 1960s, and they were part of Martin Luther King's movement for civil rights. She writes about growing up in segregated Georgia and the circumstances surrounding her father’s murder and the arson of her family home—at that time, “fear was the daily diet that kept the status quo alive.” In the ’70s, Sherrod and her husband worked with other farmers in Georgia on experimental projects.

Denied drought assistance funds by the USDA, they faced foreclosure and joined a class-action suit to redress the discrimination. Eventually, they won the settlement, a decision strongly opposed by conservatives. Sherrod writes sharply about the continuing legacy of racism and how economic policy, hidebound bureaucracy and plain malice affect poor people everywhere, and why pretending that we are in a post-racial world doesn’t help anyone. An inspiring memoir about the real power of courage and hope.

*   *   *   *   *

A Slave in the White House

Paul Jennings and the Madisons

By Elizabeth Dowling Taylor / Foreword by Annette Gordon-Reed


Paul Jennings was born into slavery on the plantation of James and Dolley Madison in Virginia, later becoming part of the Madison household staff at the White House. Once finally emancipated by Senator Daniel Webster later in life, he would give an aged and impoverished Dolley Madison, his former owner, money from his own pocket, write the first White House memoir, and see his sons fight with the Union Army in the Civil War. He died a free man in northwest Washington at 75. Based on correspondence, legal documents, and journal entries rarely seen before, this amazing portrait of the times reveals the mores and attitudes toward slavery of the nineteenth century, and sheds new light on famous characters such as James Madison, who believed the white and black populations could not coexist as equals; French General Lafayette who was appalled by this idea; Dolley Madison, who ruthlessly sold Paul after her husband's death; and many other since forgotten slaves, abolitionists, and civil right activists

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *

*   *   *   *   *

ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more)


posted 27 September 2012 




Home  Jerry W. Ward Jr. Table and Bio