An epic Chinese tale in the vein of The Last Emperor, Wolf Totem depicts the dying culture of the Mongols-the ancestors of the Mongol hordes who at one time terrorized the world-and the parallel extinction of the animal they believe to be sacred: the fierce and otherworldly Mongolian wolf
Published under a pen name, Wolf Totem was a phenomenon in China, breaking all sales records there and earning the distinction of being the second most read book after Mao's little red book. There has been much international excitement too-to date, rights have been sold in thirteen countries. Wolf Totem is set in 1960s China-the time of the Great Leap Forward, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.
Searching for spirituality, Beijing intellectual Chen Zhen travels to the pristine grasslands of Inner Mongolia to live among the nomadic Mongols-a proud, brave, and ancient race of people who coexist in perfect harmony with their unspeakably beautiful but cruel natural surroundings. Their philosophy of maintaining a balance with nature is the ground stone of their religion, a kind of cult of the wolf.
The fierce wolves that haunt the steppes of the unforgiving grassland searching for food are locked with the nomads in a profoundly spiritual battle for survival-a life-and-death dance that has gone on between them for thousands of years. The Mongols believe that the wolf is a great and worthy foe that they are divinely instructed to contend with, but also to worship and to learn from. Chen's own encounters with the otherworldly wolves awake a latent primitive instinct in him, and his fascination with them blossoms into obsession, then reverence.
After many years, the peace is shattered with the arrival of Chen's kinfolk, Han Chinese, sent from the cities to bring modernity to the grasslands. They immediately launch a campaign to exterminate the wolves, sending the balance that has been maintained with religious dedication for thousands of years into a spiral leading to extinction-first the wolves, then the Mongol culture, finally the land. As a result of the eradication of the wolves, rats become a plague and wild sheep graze until the meadows turn to dust. Mongolian dust storms glide over Beijing, sometimes blocking out the moon.
Part period epic, part fable for modern days, Wolf Totem is a stinging social commentary on the dangers of China's overaccelerated economic growth as well as a fascinating immersion into the heart of Chinese culture.
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. (Mar.)
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March 26, 2008
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