Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
THE WOLF TOTEM & THE CALL OF THE WILD: CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS—-FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CONTEMPORARY WORLD AUTHORS SHOWCASE SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
The savage heart and the human heart are the same heart. And they must live together in the same world. Alas poor humanity!
As Goethe puts it for us in Faust:
Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust,
die eine will sich von der andern trennen:
Die eine hält in derber Liebeslust
sich an die Welt mit klammernden Organen;
die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dust
zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen.
Faust 1, Vor dem Tor.
Two souls alas! are dwelling in my breast;
And each would cut free from its brother.
The one, fast clinging, to the world adheres
With clutching organs, in love’s insistant lust;
The other strongly lifts itself from dust
To yonder high, ancestral spheres.
Oh, are there spirits hovering near,
That ruling weave, twixt earth and heaven are rife,
Descend! come from the golden atmosphere
And lead me hence to new and varied life!
The Call of the Wild is as eternal as the call to Civilization, and the two pulling at our heartstrings leave us with an abiding Love-Hate relationship of profound ambivilance towards both. Both “The Wolf Totem” by Chinese contemporary writer Jiang Rong and the American classic, “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London take us on an Odyssey of exploration across the continental divide between the confined life of modern civilization and the realm of instinctual unrestraint in the harsher yet vital realm of the wild and wilderness. Each embraces the archetype of the freely savage instinctual life of the predatory wolf as a vehicle for the exploration of the human condition. Each in its own fashion has lessons to teach us on that journey about who we are and the nature of the world we inhabit.
Jiang Rong’s “Wolf Totem” is a story set in the time of the Maoist Cultural Revolution of China during which schools were closed and students and city youth were sent to the countryside for years to “learn from the peasants” and to “build Socialism in New China.”
That generation shared something in common with the prior generation who went off to war and revolution, in that both found themselves in an environment in which the old rules did not apply and in which they had to struggle to adapt to a new environment with changed imperatives and come to a new definition of themselves within it.
Wolf Totem thus commences following the life of Chen Zhen, a young student from the city who finds himself drafted to join a group of nomadic Mongolian herdsmen and horsemen in the Olonbulag, a region of the endless grassland and steppe on the borders of China between Inner and Outer Mongolia. He and a small group of city-bred youth thus find themselves living in yurts on the open grassland and even on the first night are caught up in a wolf pack attack on their encampment’s flocks of penned sheep which is driven off only through the staunch physical courage of the Mongolian men and women battling eyeball to eyeball with the savage predators.
Wolf Totem, in addition to giving us such compelling accounts of action and survival in the wild, is also however a “Bildungsroman” in Goethe’s sense of a tale of the education, coming of age and character formation of a young man through formative experiences through which he sheds immature illusions, acquires a more sustainable knowledge of the world and acheives some greater maturity and moral growth. Here, in the tradition of the Bildungsroman, the youthful Chen Zhen also finds a mentor to guide his steps and instill a deeper understanding of the world about him in the person of Old Bilgee, a seasoned Mongolian herdsman and hunter who is also a sometimes elder leader of his nomadic community. Helping Chen overcome his fear of the wolves, he takes him to observe them in their habitat, teaching him their ways, character and habits as well as how the herdsmen have devised ways to combat them and even hunt them down for their valuable pelts and the honor of having defeated a worthy and fierce opponent. He also introduces Chen to the age-old culture and wisdom of the Mongolian herdsmen and hunters, which has enabled them to survive and participate for millennia in the harsh but vital life of the endless steppe grasslands.
Surprisingly, Chen learns from his experiences with Bilgee that the Mongolian herdsmen do not regard the wolves as simply hated enemies, though they at times ravage their flocks and even whole herds of their horses, but that they have come to regard them as spiritual guides and brothers—-“best of enemies” grounded in a mutual respect that takes on a mythic and quasi-religious dimension, the Mongols taking the wolves as their tribal totem and affirming the spiritual bond between the free-roving animals and themselves. Both share the fierce independent spirit of hunters and sovereign powers of the steppe, a spirit profoundly unlike the subservient spirit of the feudal Chinese peasant-farmer tied to the soil and broken to social control, a spirit that quite literally prefers death to loss of freedom and the fierce vitality of the wild.
Another important dimension of Wolf Totem in our age of environmental awaremenss is that of its concern with the fragile balance of nature on which all life depends. Chen Zhen is brought face to face with this issue, a prime concern in modern China as rapid industrialization and heavy population pressure has scarred the natural landscape and ecosystem, when he participates in saving the life of a pregnant gazelle mother wounded in a wolf attack:
“Chen approached the gazelle slowly and looked into her eyes. He didn;t see a gazelle; he saw a docile deer about to become a mother. She possessed motherly beauty in her big, tender eyes. He rubbed the top of her head; she opened her eyes wide, now seeming to beg for mercy…Why did they not strive to protect these warm, beautiful, peace-loving herbivores, instead of gradually moving closer to the wolves, whose nature was to kill? Having grown up hearing tales that demonize wolves, he said without thinking, ‘These gazelles are such pitiful creatures. Wolves are evil, killing the innocent, oblivious to the value of a life. They deserve to be caught and skinned.'”
“Glaring at Chen, the old man said angrily, ‘Does that mean the grass doesn’t constitute a life” Out here, the grass and the grassland are THE life, the Big Life. All else is little life that depends on the big life for survival. Even wolves and humans are little life. Creatures that eat grass are worse than creatures that eat meat….Grass is the big life yet it is the most fragile, the most miserable life. Its roots are shallow, the soil is thin, and though it lives on the ground it cannot run away….The yellow gazelles are the deadliest, for they can end the lives of the people here….Half of a Mongol is a hunter. If we could not hunt, our lives would be like meat with no salt, tasteless. We Mongols go crazy if we can’t hunt, partly because that safeguards the big life of the grassland. We hunt animals that eat our grass many times more than we hunt animals that eat meat.'”
“Chen who had been a skilled debater, could say nothing. Much of his worldview, based on Han agrarian culture, crumbled in the face of the logic and the culture of the grassland. The nomadic inhabitants safeguarded the “big life”—–the survival of the grasslands and of nature were more precious than the survival of people. Tillers of owned land, on the other hand, safeguarded ‘little lives”—the most precious of which were people, their survival was the most important. But, as Bilgee had said, without the big life, the little lives were doomed.”
Both the Wolf Totem and Jack London’s Call of the Wild focus in their narrative on the interwoven lives of wolves and dogs as a window on the human heart and condition. In the Call of the Wild the narrative as a whole is told from the point of view of Buck, a powerful Saint Bernard-Scottish Collie who is stolen from his benign California home and sold as a dog-sled animal destined for the harsh snow-driven environment Alaskan Klondike Gold Rush. He is abused by ignorant and heedless adventurers driven by their greed for gold but is rescued by a true frontiersman, Thornton, and together they live in the wilderness, surviving and prospering successfully, coming to love one another with a powerful bond. Thornton is treacherously killed by Indians, however, and Buck then encounters and joins a wolf pack, requiring him to revert to his more savage instincts for hunting and fighting, until his overall strength and intelligence leads him to become the leader of the pack. He returns each year, however, to the grave of his dead master Thornton, whom he notwithstanding all, still loves. Buck becomes a kind of Nietzschean “Ubermensch” or “Superman,” or shall we say “Uberhund” or “Supercanine” by combining the civilized strength, character and intelligence of the dog bonded with his woodsman master, with the more vital instinctive strength of the wolf.
Such a superior individual as Buck also fulfulls a Darwinian role in leading the onward and upward process of evolution towards fitter and stronger species. The dog as a species is said to have originally evolved from the wolf in a symbiotic bond with civilizing humans. Yet while sharing the boons of civilization first as hunting then herding helpmates, then as simply as pets the domesticated dog as a species lost a great deal of its savage strength, even as it may have gained in social bonding and intelligence, a process of degeneration of powers ending in breeds of lapdogs and foppish poodles and Pekinese.
It is part of London’s worldview and implicit lesson that not only the dog but man himself degenerates and weakens under conditions of civilization and that the evolution of truly superior dogs and men require a hybrid combination of the strengths of the wild and the strengths of civilization, accessible to over-civilized weakened man or dog through hearkening to the “Call of the Wild,”
reuniting intimately with the both the “outer wilds” of the wilderness frontier, but also the “inner wilds” of revitalized instinct and primal life.
Though the Wolf Totem is not primarily told from the point of view of either a dog or a wolf as in London’s classic, the interaction of dogs and wolves is a central focus. Chen Zhen adopts a stray half-breed dog, half dog and half wolf named Erlang, the name of a famous Chinese warrior, and who like Buck combines the strengths of the wild with those of civilization. Erlang has lived both with men and with the wolves in the wild and becomes the best wolf-hunting dog of the Mongols, killing many wolves with his bared fangs yet protecting the herds and men faithfully.
A second animal at the center of the story is “Little Wolf” a wolf cub which is stolen from its mother’s den by Chen Zhen in an act of bravado to prove his manhood, and then taken back to the encampment where he attempts to raise the cub and study the characteristics of the wolf “scientifically.” In this respect “Little Wolf” parallels the dynamic of London’s sequel to Call of the Wild, “White Fang,” an inverted mirror image of Buck’s progress towards immersion in the wild, in which a wolf-dog is taken from the wolf pack and gradually adapts his wildness to civilization and men, finally enjoying a blessed existence and fathering many generations of pups on an idyllic California farm after having saved his master’s life through his bravery, strength and loyalty. Little Wolf’s destiny is not to be so benign however and has no Californian happy ending. Chen Zhen raises Little Wolf who is befriended by the formiddable Erlang. However as the wolf cub grows from adolescence to maturity he becomes a threatening danger to the Mongol encampment’s men and animals and must be kept chained to a stake. Little Wolf as he gains adult strength however cannot accept such restraint. When other wolves surround the encampment and bay into the night he goes wild trying to break loose and join them. Bilgee, having originally advised the wolf cub be killed and not raised in the encampment, renews his advice that Chen Zhen should kill or release the cub. Little Wolf finally injures himself fatally by wildly struggling to break free from the steel chain and collar, and the wound becoming infected Chen is forced to kill him. Bilgee admonishes him, stating that for all of his “scientific” study of the wolf he has never understood his spirit—that a wolf would literally rather die than be deprived of freedom and the life of the wild.
As in the Call of the Wild, Jiang Rong’s saga of wolves, dogs, and the Mongolian huntsmen-herdsmen of the steppes becomes an implicit symbolical critique of civilization, human and psrticularly Chinese society, incorporating many of the same Neo-Darwinian elements:
“‘Since I’ve been herding horses’ Zhang said, ‘I’ve felt the difference in temperament between Chinese and the Mongols. I did everything I could think of to make myself strong, and now I find that there’s something lacking in us…..’
Chen sighed again. ‘That’s it exactly!’ he said. ‘China’s small-scale peasant economy cannot tolerate peaceful labor. Our Confucian guiding principle is emperor to minister, father to son, a top-down philosophy, stressing seniority, undonditional obedience, eradicating competition through autocratic power, all in the name of preserving imperial authority and peaceful agriculture. In both an existential and an awareness sense, China’s small-scale peasant economy and Confucian culture have weakened the people’s nature, and even though the Chinese created a brilliant ancient civilization, it came about at the cost of the race’s character and has led to the sacrafice of our ability to develop. When world history moved beyond the rudimentary stage of agrarian civilization, China was fated to fall behind.'”
“A fighting spirit is more important than a peaceful laboring spirit. The world’s greatest engineering feat, in terms of labor output, our Great Wall, could not keep out the mounted warriors of one of the smallest races in the world. If you can work but you can’t fight, what are you? You’re like a gelding, you work for people, you take abuse from them and you give them rides. And when you meet up with a wolf, you turn tail and run. Compare that with one of those stallions that uses its teeth and hooves as weapons.”
“The wolf totem has a much longer history than Han Confucianism with greater natural continuity and vitality. It should be considered one of the truly valuable spiritual heritages of all humanity. There’d be hope for China if our national character could be rebuilt by cutting away the decaying parts of Confucianism and grafting a wolf totem sapling onto it. It could be combined with such Confucian traditions as pacifism, an emphasis on education, and devotion to study. It’s a shame the wolf totem is a spiritual system with a scant written record. The fatal weakness of the grassland is its backwardness in written culture.”
Thus Wolf Totem sees Chinese salvation from a recovery and renaissance of instinctive vitality and a renewal of its “fighting spirit” from drawing on its frontier heritage on the steppes. Other writers from Rousseau to D.H. Lawrence have made similar cultural prescriptions from a “return to nature” of the Romantics to Lawrence’s call to return to a primordial sexually-rooted spiritulity in rejection of overly cerebral, mechanical and rational Western culture, and even Marshall McLuhan celebrated the “retribalization” of the electronic media in rejection of the over-linearity of Gutenberg culture. Jack London also celebrated the American frontier heritage, and most of his books were forays into the wild, either the wilderness of the frontier or at sea. Some have read a Nietzschean ethic of the “Superman” into his works, seeing a potential of a triumph of Social Darwinism in those extraordinary individuals whose encounter with the wild gives them the hybrid strength of both the wild and civilization. At the same time it is well to remember that London was a committed Socialist, having run for the mayor of Oakland on a socialist platform, and many see London as criticizing predatory capitalism in his portrayals. Other commentators on London on the contrary see a drift into possible fascism, as they did with Nietzsche and such writers as Carlyle who also emphasized the “great man” theory of history, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence and even Darwin, when twisted into the form of “Social Darwinism” and the cultivation of a fascist “fighting spirit” for “Lebensraum” and survival of the fittest race or nation. The Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin has focused on such dangers in harshly criticizing Wolf Totem for its ‘fascist” tendencies.
It is also worthwhile to mark the differences in the primitivist prescription and Neo-Darwinian aspects of Call of the Wild and Wolf Totem. London celebrates such extraordinary individuals as Thornton or Wolf Larsen of his “Sea Wolf,” reminiscent of the strengths and idiosyncracies of Captains Nemo and Ahab. Jiang Rong’s novel, on the other hand does not develop such a cult of the superior individual. If it is informed by Darwinism it is the Darwinism of the species or collective, not the indivuidual. Darwin’s evolution, even in its progressive version, was never about the survival of the individual but of the species or tribe. Wolf Totem’s wolves survive by working, hunting and fighting together. The Mongols and other humans also struggle and survive by strong social cohesion. Nomadic tribal society was communistic before Communism.
The theme of renewal through reintegrating the wild also informed the composition of my own work in my recent contemporary and futurist epic Spiritus Mundi. After degenerating through failure, despair and loss of faith, drugs, alcoholism and attempted suicide, its protagonist Robert Sartorius recoups his strength through a scuba-diving adventure in the Maldives islands in which he saves the life of his friend Teddy Zhou, battles sharks and Later, after he falls in love with and marries Eva Strong, their lives are strenthened by a honeymoon of several months traveling from Kenya to South Africa, where Sartorius and Eva climb Mr. Kilamanjaro together and he saves her life from the world’s most deadly snake with a machete. Similar to Hesse’s “Steppenwolf” Sartorius overcomes self-destructive instincts in a renewal of sexuality, love and spirituality. In Spiritus Mundi however, the return to the primal is less the Freudian version of revisiting the homicidal instincts of “Totem and Taboo” and the Oedipus Complex, but more of the Jungian variety, in returning to the archetypal spirituality of the collective unsconscious of C.G. Jung and D.H. Lawrence.
For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:
For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…
World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: The Novel: http://www.amazon.com/Spiritus-Mundi-…
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG
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