Wolf totem

By Louisa Enright | Aug 25, 2010
Photo by: Patrisha McLean

Millions of Chinese have purchased Jiang Rong's novel "Wolf Totem" (2004), published in the West in 2008. The novel, according to its English translator, sparked a heated debate about the national character of the Chinese people. I would argue that Rong's metaphors apply to Americans as well.

In 1969, student Rong took part in Mao's Cultural Revolution where up to 20 million young city dwellers relocated to rural areas. Rong went to a remote grassland, Inner Mongolia's East Ujimqin Banner, and for 11 years lived with and grew to love deeply the traditional herdsmen. Called Olonbulag Banner in the novel, this grassland produced Genghis Khan and the famed Mongol hordes of the 12th and 13th centuries who overran Rong's Han ancestors.

Rong experiences the moment when the Chinese people, who are agrarians, occupy the grassland, try to farm it, and in the process destroy the delicate balance of shepherds, sheep (the right animal for the grassland), and the predator wolves that are the linchpin of this system. In scant months, the wolves are hunted with military vehicles and slaughtered with rifles. In a few years, a lush portion of the pristine grassland is fouled by farmers and turns to desert. In a few decades, the whole grassland becomes a desert, and the herdsmen are penned into individually owned, fenced enclaves and a lifestyle that is a parody of their traditional culture.

What has been lost is what one Chinese student in the Olonbulag, Zhang, calls "the middle way." The Han Chinese, he says, prefer extremes where the east wind overpowers the west wind, or vice versa. But the grasslanders use the contradictions inherent in their world, specifically the wolf, who controls the "big life" of the grassland by being a strong predator of the "little lives." What derives is a balanced, sustainable system where all within the system must be strong to survive.

The Han Chinese, says Zhang, "know nothing about life on the grassland. All they care about is quantity, quantity, quantity. In the end, they'll lose everything by being single-minded." And, predicts Zhang, "millions of peasants keep having babies and reclaiming the land. The population equal to an entire province is born every year. Who can stop all those people from coming to the grassland?"

Rong's character in the novel, Chen Zhen, visits 30 years after his departure. Zhen sees that the grassland can no longer support the life it once supported and that livestock numbers are being reduced. The grassland cannot even support the horses whose "hooves once shook the world." Motorcycles have to be used instead. "Mice," says Zhen, "are kings on the wolfless grassland."

Zhen fears, when he sees an area supporting huge, penned sheep flocks, that what he is seeing is "a false prosperity," experienced just before the Inner Mongolian grassland dies off. He discovers that much pasture land is leased to outsiders by Mongolians who have become drunks. One of the old-timers reports that these "outsiders" from farming-herding areas "don't give a damn about capacity, so they raise two or three thousand sheep on land that can only support five hundred. Their sheep graze the land for a few years and turn it into sand; then they get out of their lease, sell their sheep, and go back home to do business with the money they got here."

Zhen, whose career has been spent studying system models, economic politics and urban and rural issues in China, makes the following assessment: "We've witnessed the `impressive victory' of an agrarian society over a nomadic herding society. Current government policy has developed to the stage of `one country, two systems,' but deeply rooted in the Han consciousness is still `many areas, one system.' It doesn't matter if it's farmland or pastureland, forest or river, city or countryside; all they want to do is mix them all up to create a `unified' flavor. With the `impressive victory' has come a tremendous amount of subsidies, but the grassland could not return even if the subsidies continued for the next century."

Already children are detached from the workings of nature. A teenager riding a motorcycle is seen killing a hawk with a rifle. He is oblivious to the fact that the hawk kills the mice whose overpopulation is helping to kill the grassland. Once powerful and necessary hunting and guard dogs, if they are kept at all, have become pampered pets.

In the spring of 2002, Zhen gets a call from his old friends on the Olonbulag. Eighty percent of the pastureland is now desert. The whole area, say the callers, will now be changed from "settlement herding to raising cows and sheep, more or less like the animal pens in your farming villages. Every family will build rows of big houses."

Zhen did not know what to say. But Rong ends the novel with a "yellow-dragon sandstorm" that "rose up outside his window, blocking the sky and the sun. All of Beijing was shrouded in the fine, suffocating dust. China's imperial city was turned into a hazy city of yellow sand." The sandstorm embodies the problem of the national character of the Han Chinese: they are destroying their habitat because they refuse to understand and live within nature's mechanisms.

Dan O'Brien, in an Eating Well magazine article (2009), wrote that Americans killed 60 million buffalo. By 1900 only 400 survived. Today, writes O'Brien, "the Plains are broken up by fences that hold cattle destined for feedlots. Most of the native prairie has been plowed under, leaving the land bare to the ravages of wind and water erosion. Native grasses have been replaced with government-subsidized commodity crops, such as corn, cotton, and wheat. These crops grow with the aid of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that run off into the water. With less available habitat, native animals and birds are being squeezed out. To complete the circle, most of the subsidized corn is fed to the cattle that replaced the buffalo" (the right animal for the grassland).

Lierre Keith, in "The Vegetarian Myth" (2009), notes that 99.8 percent of our native prairie is gone. Nature, she writes, sees bared soil as an emergency and responds with quick-growing annuals. Industrial agrarians plant long rows separated by chemically sterilized bare soil, which results in topsoil loss and a lack of nutrients in industrial food.

History shows clearly, writes Keith, that the repeated result of grain-based systems is population growth, topsoil loss and the eventual collapse of a bioregion. The "last people who know how to live sustainably -- how to integrate themselves into the living landscape of grasslands and rivers -- are [being] pushed off by the agriculturalists, to disappear into a hostile world where, like the [native] animals, they will surely die."

The world population is too great; there is no more "new" land. Keith says, "we're out of topsoil, out of water, out of species, and out of space in the atmosphere for the carbon we can't seem to stop burning."

We are all in Rong's space of "false prosperity." The sandstorm made by our national character has already arrived. Minimize local impact by supporting organic (sustainably grown), nutrient-dense foods.



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