On Reading Wolf Totem
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