Wolf Totem

25 Aug 2014 |

Wolf Totem is a 2004 novel about a young Han Chinese student who travels to Inner Mongolia, and finds himself making a personal and spiritual connection with the indigenous wolves.

It is not a specifically furry book, but it explores themes that will resonate with many furries who have an introspective and personal connection to their species of choice. This flavour of furry can be seen as animism, where we imagine that we have a spiritual* connection with a non-human animal.

* Spiritual, roughly, means "not real" or "not tangible". I include this definition to avoid looking overly fruity.

Our student's connection with the wolves is, more or less, a furry one. He doesn't imagine himself a lupine animal-person but he does feel a close connection with wolves in general. He explores his bespoke spirituality via the more structured totemism of the Mongols, which gives the book its title.

Wolf Totem is a book worth exploring if you identify with an animistic version of furry, especially if you are a wolf. It's also worth reading for its visceral, bloodthirsty, violent set pieces, which rival anything I have ever seen or read.

Wolf Totem has structural and thematic similarities with Carroll Ballard's 1983 (film) masterpiece, Never Cry Wolf. In Never Cry Wolf, our hero is a Westerner in Inuit country; in Wolf Totem, he is a Han Chinese in Mongol country. Like the Inuit, the Mongols are nomadic, existing as a smaller contributor to a larger ecosystem.

The Mongolian grassland is a place of extreme weather: white-hair blizzards in winter to humid heat and mosquito swarms in summer. Survival is such an environment is fraught.

The (human and non-human) populations of the grassland have adapted to survive these extremes by finding ecological niches. The two main predators, humans and wolves, are often in conflict but are also co-dependent. The wolves will risk an assault on human-raised cattle in times of starvation, while the humans rely on the wolves to keep scavengers and parasites in check. Like all nomadic societies, the Monogls do not have the safety net of a permanent settlement and so rely on the wolves, and other members of the ecosystem, for their continuing survival.

The vagaries of seasonal weather mean that that humans—like the wolves—experience feasts and suffer famines. Accordingly the deity of the Mongols, Tengger, is a sky god who controls those things that are outside of the influence of humans. The wolves, rivals and helpers*, are agents of Tengger. And so the Mongols adopt the wolf as their representatives to god: the wolf totem.

* making them, ugh, frenemies

The best parts of Wolf Totem are those that describe the bloody battles between man and wolf. Early on in the book, wolves slaughter a herd of gazelle during winter, leaving bodies preserved in the snow. The humans scavenge a few bodies, providing them with a rare glut of food during a lean time, and plan to leave the rest to feed the wolves over spring. However outsiders to the group, motivated by money from selling the pelts, extract all the remaining gazelles.

The hungry wolves, desperate, attack a herd of Mongolian military horses. The slaughter of these horses during a blizzard is a terrific, horrific scene:

"Horses whose bellies had been ripped open by wolves had just filled their stomachs with the first grass shoots of the year, mixed with some that remained from the previous autumn, and their abdomens were taut and low-slung; when the thin hide covers were torn away by wolf fangs, the stomachs and supple intestines spilled out onto the snow."


In balance with this aggressiveness, the Mongols know that the wolves play an important if subtle role. They prey on the weak of other species—marmots, gazelle, horses, even humans—thereby ensuring strong and durable populations. This natural selection ensures that the grassland inhabitants are more able to withstand the extremes of weather.

This is a very strong echo of Never Cry Wolf. There, wolves are shown to keep the caribou strong by weeding out the weaker members of the herd. Human hunters, on the other hand, target the largest bulls and therefore imperil the herd's survival. And similarly, in Wolf Totem, human outsiders will destroy the delicately balanced grassland ecosystem.

Wolf Totem is written from the perspective of a Han Chinese student, an outsider to Mongol culture. While this is based on the author's real experiences, it works as a neat narrative trick: the readers learns about Mongol culture aside our protagonist.

The student is nearly killed by wolves in the book's opening sequences, setting up his obsession. This scene is another that parallels very closely with Never Cry Wolf: there, the protagonist is devoured by wolves in a fever dream. In both cases, the wolf is taken as a symbol of personal identity (similar to that taken by many furries).

The similarities between Wolf Totem and Never Cry Wolf are striking but apparently coincidental. In both cases the protagonist is an academic observer, one who is drawn into a reactive, natural lifestyle in contrast to the deadening city. In both cases, the reader is taken on a journey from ignorance to enlightenment. Although where Never Cry Wolf is subtle and haunting, Wolf Totem can be repetitive and heavy-handed.

In each story the protagonist is welcomed by the local nomadic population, and adopts a version of traditional spiritual beliefs. This is possibly a problematic kind of cultural appropriation, where a simplified version of a complex (native) belief system is presented as innate spiritual wisdom. (This is the same process that sometimes leads to outright racist characterizations like Hollywood's "Magical Negro", whereby a black person applies mystical powers to help a white person, as in The Matrix, The Green Mile, and The Black Stallion.) However in Wolf Totem, like Never Cry Wolf, the protagonist doesn't so much appropriate the local beliefs as create a personal, bespoke version—something a lot closer to furry. In both cases, the connection with the wolves is complex and nuanced, and so arguably errs on the side of respectful.

Wolf Totem tells the story of the destruction of the Mongol nomadic lifestyle, and the balance of the grassland ecosystem. This starts with the arrival of the Han students, including our protagonist. They are respectful and curious about the Mongols, but they still push—and sometimes flout—the boundaries of what is considered respectful to Tengger. But the final nail in the grassland coffin comes from the incursion of the Han Chinese Establishment, specifically Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution.

Wolf Totem is set in 1971. This was at the height of Mao's cult of personality, and the goal of his Cultural Revolution was to empower the weakest in society via an establishment-led peasant uprising, intended to destroy inequality between classes. His two targets were traditional beliefs (because they are a roadblock to change) and liberal education (because this creates a class of bourgeois elites).

The outcome was that anything that fit the description of the "Four Olds"—old customs, culture, habits, and ideas—was targeted for destruction. This led to mass book-burning, destruction of buildings, and banning of cultural or religious ceremonies. It also brought China's education system to a virtual halt, producing a generation of under-educated individuals.

Regardless of the intent of the Cultural Revolution, the outcome—destruction of history and banning of education—is about as perfect a description of evil as I can imagine. It echoes the Nazis in 1930s Germany, or the Taliban in 1990s Afghanistan, or just about any example of cultural or religious whitewashing you care to name.

And so it is inevitable that the Mongols will lose their grassland at the hands of the Cultural Revolution and the rapacious Han. They will give up their nomadic way of live and resettle in fixed farming communities. Wolf Totem takes us through this seachange, which happens quickly and mercilessly.

The Mongol community is pragmatic in the face of this enforced change. They understand that they have limited ability to withstand the influx of Han culture, bureaucracy and infrastructure. And so they adapt. The most egregious victims of the change in Chinese Mongolia are the wolves, who are seen by the Han as merely a predatory species. Our student protagonist is helpless as he learns that he is the vanguard of the force that will destroy them.

Wolf Totem has some shortcomings. The characterization of the Mongol way of life as "good" and the Han as "bad" is glib, simplistic, and sometimes contradictory. For example, there is a description of Mongol wolf traps—whereby the trap is boiled and covered in horse grease to hide human scents—which are said to be an example of man's intellect and cunning. Yet later, there is a description of Han wolf traps—using the same equipment to the same end but with more effective subterfuge—which is said to be unambiguously evil.

At times like this, Wolf Totem occasionally falls into "Magical Negro" thinking, where the author ascribes a spiritual infallibility to the exotic Mongols. It is as if Mongol acts are assumed to be justifiable (and so are rationalised as such), whereas Han acts are assumed to be bad or evil. This simplistic point of view remains even when the acts are very similar, and even when the actions of the Han make a lot of sense.

There is no doubt that there is a lot of suffering associated with the Mongols' nomadic lifestyle. They are barely able to withstand the extremes of weather, and their stalemate with the wolves ensures constant conflict. The Han's move towards permanent farming settlements provides stability and safety for the Mongols and their livestock. To get all utilitarian for a moment, it's arguable that this reduction in (human and livestock) suffering more than offsets that caused by the hunting (to local extinction) of marmots and swans. (The wolves are also hunted, although Wolf Totem unusually pulls its punch by suggesting that the wolves are merely "driven" across the border to Russia.)

The arrival of the Han is heralded as a death knell for the land. However there is an epilogue where our protagonist returns, decades later, to discover a moderately successful farming community, and that everyone is doing pretty well for themselves.

This isn't to underplay the negative effects of the Han's incursion: cultural loss, environmental damage, and destruction of the grassland's natural ecosystem. But it's not as black-or-white as Wolf Totem makes it seem. (Never Cry Wolf makes the same mistake. The environmental message, while laudable, has all the subtlety of The Lorax.)

There are also some minor translation issues in Wolf Totem. At times, the reader is assume to be au fait with Chinese terms like li. At other times, the reader is treated with condescension, such as several references to Swan Lake which is unnecessarily and repeatedly clarified to be a Russian ballet.

Wolf Totem is also very repetitive in places. I suspect that this is due to challenges in translating from Chinese to English, where nuanced or modified nouns are translated back to the same English word. I can't help but feel that it needed a brave translator/editor to cut the length of the book, perhaps by as much as half. As it stands, the narrative of Wolf Totem flags, particularly early on.

There are also a couple of very minor outright errors, which suggest to me that the translation and publication may have been rushed. Such errors are not really acceptable given that the translation is for a major publisher who paid $100k for the English rights. It also feels like a failure to properly respect the book itself, which has sold some 20 million copies—that's slightly more than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; slightly less than The Hunger Games.

Still, notwithstanding these quibbles, Wolf Totem is worth the read for the unmistakably furry animistic spirituality, and the visceral scenes of life and death. But if reading's not your thing, there is always the coming 3D film adaptation directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of The Rose), due to be released in February 2015.