Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong sold a million copies till today and not to mention the pirated numbers — like Mao’s Red Book in its heyday. I would classify this book under “anthropology” rather than calling it literature. This book sets a terrific pace like Oscar Lewis’ anthropological book La Vida.
There are no fictional elements in the book, but mostly the interview sessions of family members describing their life. Though it was an anthropological research, the eloquent narration of a life filled with cruelty, violence, carnal lust and perversions was avidly read by the readers just like a novel. In the wake of Cultural Revolution, Chen Shen, a young student from Beijing travels to the grasslands of Olonbulag in Inner Mongolia and happens to live with the nomadic herders for 11 years before returning to Beijing. Wolf Totem illustrates those 11 years of Olonbulag.
No one in the history plundered as many nations as Genghis Khan did. Hailing from a nomadic race from one of the least populated regions of the world whose Mongolian language did not even have its own script. How someone from such a primitive culture managed to do as much as he did; the reason, says Jiang Rong, is the Mongolian’s wolf totem.
It is from wolves that the Mongolians learnt their military tactics. The metaphor: Mongolians are wolf and Han Chinese are sheep. Wolves follow an extremely ordered social life and survive as teams, unlike the sheep; the whole flock of sheep watches with sparkling curiosity when one of them is slaughtered, probably expressing their relief at not being the one killed. Even the tremendous spirits and ability of the Chinese to build the colossal Wall of China could not prevent their defeat at the hands of Mongolians; their sheepishness stood in their way. Jiang Rong concludes it as a “binary opposition” between the nomadic culture and the agrarian culture. Mongols are like indefatigable wolves; in that sense Mongolia is a spiritual paradise. This is the fundamental message by Jiang Rong in the 700-odd pages of Wolf Totem. But in reality, does the spiritual paradise hold with a land of bloodbath, oozing from the mouths of the unrelenting wolves; they kill and devour all the life forms in the grasslands, including humans; and the humans just do the wolves.
The part of the novel where the wolves devour the young colts is horrific. Such a culture thriving in only cruelty, violence and bestiality inspires awe. The wolves’ freedom comes at the grand cost of the assimilation of other lives.
The nomadic chieftain tells Chen Shen if the wolves don’t hunt the gazelles, their population will burst uncontrolled and the grassland will turn into a desert. But won’t we all prefer a peaceful desert to a fascist grassland where one dominating race devours all other in a macabre ritual of bloodbath. In Japanese Zen, there is a concept “MU”; it contains great philosophical truths and can be simply explained thus: A lady being asked, “Your husband who beats you after getting drunk; …has he stopped that now?” She can neither utter “yes” nor “no”; silence remains the right answer. That is what is explained as the “MU” concept of emptiness by Zen that may have connection with the void of quantum physics. This may be an alternative to Jiang Rong’s binary opposition.
As I was reading Wolf Totem, memories of India’s sufis and seers kept coming to my mind. If you call the wolf a totem, what do you call Adi sankara, who made wolves and lions follow him like puppies?
The most wonderful thing on earth is giving oneself for others. He belonged to the 12th century. He requests his guru to tell him the “Brahma Ragasyam”. Only after many days of wandering and hunger fasting does the guru tell him the “secret”. Once this was done, the guru warns him, “If you tell this to others you will be damned to hell.” But the sishya climbs up the temple tower and says it out loud for the entire village to hear. “If having heard this secret all these people can go to heaven, I don’t mind being the one to go to hell,” he says. He is Ramanuja, founder of Vaishnavism.
The other wonder is renouncement. For a moment, think of the state of mind that renounces worldly bonds and wanders in the forests, homeless and lonely. Several kings in the history of India may have renounced their all. Nothing would equal that of Chandra Gupta Maurya, who gave up his all after being India’s most powerful emperor. He gave up his throne when he was 42. Became an ascetic and came to Sravana Belgola. And died in Sallekhana which is a Jain ritual of voluntary death by fasting.
Is there anything more sublime than the ruler of a vast kingdom renouncing all pleasures and leaving like an ascetic? Which of the world’s totems can explain this?
Charu Nivedita is a post-modern Tamil writer based in Chennai