Wolf Totem by author Jiang Rong: An Immersive Journey into the Vanishing World of the Mongolian Steppe!


The endless blue sky stretches overhead, meeting the golden sweep of the grasslands that roll on and on toward the horizon. A brisk wind ripples through the grass, bringing with it the musky scent of horses and yaks. In the distance, you can just make out a group of nomads galloping across the steppe on horseback, whooping and hollering as they race. This is the Mongolian steppe, an ancient landscape that feels untouched by time. Yet it is a world that is slowly disappearing, as modernization creeps ever closer to even the most remote regions.

Wolf Totem, the bestselling 2004 novel by Chinese author Jiang Rong, serves as a remarkable window into this vanishing way of life. Partly autobiographical, the novel follows a student named Chen Zhen who is sent to live among nomadic herders during China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. What unfolds is an immersive tale that reveals the stark beauty and inherent struggles of existing in harmony with nature in such an unforgiving environment.

Wolf Totem by author Jiang Rong

You can find Wolf Totem by author Jiang Rong on your favorite bookstore, including Amazon.com and Amazon UK.

If you loved Wolf Totem, please check out our review of To Kill A Mockingbird by author Harper Lee: Exposes the Dark Side of Humanity!

About author Jiang Rong

Author Jiang Rong

Jiang Rong is a contemporary Chinese author best known for his epic historical novel Wolf Totem. Born in 1946 in Beijing, Jiang had an early interest in literature and studied Mongolian at Beijing University. After graduating in 1968 at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Jiang was sent to live in Inner Mongolia as part of the Down to the Countryside Movement. This transformative experience living among nomadic herders for over a decade inspired Jiang to write Wolf Totem years later.

Wolf Totem, published in 2004, became a cultural phenomenon and the second bestselling book ever in China. The semi-autobiographical novel contrasts the collectivism of Han Chinese culture with the individualism and freedom of Mongolian nomads. The story follows a student from Beijing who is sent to live among Mongolian herders during the Cultural Revolution. He develops a powerful bond with a wolf cub and comes to appreciate the ancestral wisdom of the nomads’ way of life, which is threatened by agricultural settlement and political turmoil. Wolf Totem was a critique of rapid development under communism, touching on universal themes of man’s relationship with nature.

Jiang Rong spent over ten years researching and writing Wolf Totem. The social commentary and persuasive argument for protecting traditional Mongolian culture resonated widely. The book won numerous awards, including China’s inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007. Wolf Totem was made into a popular Chinese film in 2015. An English translation by Howard Goldblatt brought Jiang’s work to wider international acclaim.

As a dissident writer, Jiang Rong remained anonymous for years due to political sensitivities around Wolf Totem’s themes. He finally revealed his identity as Lu Jiamin in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics. Lu Jiamin is the pen name of dissident writer Lü Jiamin, who had previously been jailed for his involvement with the Tiananmen Square protests.

Jiang Rong’s second novel, Song of King Gesar, was published in 2013 and continued his exploration of Tibetan and Mongolian folk culture. Jiang’s writing draws on extensive research into ethnic minority oral traditions. His unique immersive experiences living among nomadic peoples and fluency in Mongolian language have allowed Jiang to share the spirit of grasslands culture with readers worldwide through epic historical fiction. Jiang Rong’s novels opened a window into threatened indigenous ways of life and brought wider attention to the need for cultural and ecological preservation in China.

An Evocative Portrait of the Mongolian Steppe and Its Nomadic Inhabitants

From the very first chapter, Jiang Rong’s exquisite descriptions transport the reader directly onto the Mongolian steppe. He vividly captures both the stunning vistas and quiet moments of daily life among the nomads and their livestock.

Chen Zhen arrives in the grasslands an outsider, but over time he sheds the ways of the city for the traditional customs of the Mongolian herders. We experience right alongside him the joys of riding horses across the open plains and the challenges of surviving brutal winter storms in the frigid climate.

The author threads in details that reveal the unique worldview of the nomads. For example, the way they refer to specific places using imagery like “the Ridge Where the Wind Sings” or “the Mountain Where the Snow Never Melts.”

Through Chen Zhen’s eyes, we gain an appreciation for the ingrained wisdom and values of living harmoniously with nature. The herders possess an intuitive understanding of the ecological balance of the steppes honed over generations of relying on the land for survival. Their spiritual beliefs intrinsically connect them to the animals, lands, and cycles sustaining life on the grasslands.

An Homage to the Wolf as a Powerful Symbol of the Steppe

One of the most captivating aspects of the novel is the revered role of the wolf in nomadic culture. Packs of wolves roam the steppes, playing an essential part in the environment despite being feared and hunted by herders protecting their livestock.

In Mongolian oral history, it is said that nomads originated from wolves, with wolf milk said to forge a supernatural bond between wolves and humans.

Wolves became entwined in the mythology of the Mongols, featuring prominently in tales of great leaders like Genghis Khan. The wolf represents qualities like intelligence, loyalty, and fierceness for the herders.

Chen Zhen develops a profound fascination with wolves through several poignant encounters. He comes to regard the wolf as a powerful symbol of the steppe itself – free, resilient, and possessed of a will to survive against the odds.

The native herders instill in him a respect for the wisdom of the wolf, cementing its status in Chen Zhen’s mind as a paragon of the delicate natural order on the steppe.

Exploring How Modernization Upends the Ecological Balance

At its core, Wolf Totem is a cautionary tale of the disruption brought by modernization and settlement to these ancestral lands.

When Chen Zhen first arrives, the way of life out on the grasslands has remained largely unchanged for generations. The herders live as stewards of the land, moving their livestock across the steppes in harmony with the seasonal rhythms.

But signs of change begin to intrude from the outside world. The introduction of technology like motorcycles and rifles disturb the delicate balance between herders and wolves. New settlers plow fields and construct houses, steadily replacing the open pastures.

Chen Zhen bears witness as the encroachment of agricultural and industrial development gains momentum. With sensitive observation, Jiang Rong reveals the repercussions for both the indigenous human and animal populations.

The novel highlights how settler values starkly clash with the traditional Mongolian reverence for the wild spirit of the wolf and the freedom of the steppes. Chen Zhen struggles to reconcile his academic learnings with the ecological wisdom of the herders.

This theme underscores humanity’s propensity to tame and dominate the natural world. Chen Zhen reluctantly confronts the reality that the extinction of the wolf seems inevitable, mirroring the disappearance of the nomadic way of life.

An Impactful Coming of Age Tale

On the surface, Wolf Totem is a powerful ode to the Mongolian steppe. But at its heart, it’s a profound bildungsroman novel, following Chen Zhen’s intellectual and emotional maturation over the decade he resides with the nomads.

Chen Zhen represents members of a younger generation seeking to forge connections between disparate cultures in a time of momentous change. He becomes deeply enamored with the Mongolian traditional way of life. But as an educated Han Chinese man, he remains tied to the values of his own heritage.

Over the course of the novel, Chen Zhen accompanies the reader on his own inner journey. We experience right alongside him the joys and frustrations of bridging different worldviews.

Chen Zhen yearns to find balance between his duty to modern society and his sympathy with the herders’ spiritual connection to the land. His inner turmoil mirrors a broader cultural identity crisis playing out across China in the 20th century.

This thoughtful character development and poignant coming of age tale lends the novel great emotive power. It transforms an ode to the Mongolian steppe into a universal story that compels self-reflection.

Final Reflections on a Modern Classic

Wolf Totem has rightfully earned its place as a contemporary classic of Chinese literature. The novel offers profound insights into both Mongolian culture and timeless themes of humanity’s relationship with nature.

Jiang Rong provides a gorgeously written elegy to a disappearing way of life that still rings with deep relevance today. He transports readers to the sweeping vistas of the steppes and invests us in the experiences of the herders.

Yet the story remains grounded in intimate character development and the emotional journey of Chen Zhen. We come away reflecting on both the broader themes of ecological balance and cultural change, as well as the paths to achieving inner harmony.

Few settings feel as vivid or transportive on the page as the Mongolian steppe rendered by Jiang Rong’s evocative descriptions. The wolf itself emerges as an unforgettable character in its own right – a powerful embodiment of freedom and the wild spirit.

For anyone seeking not just an immersive adventure novel but a meaningful examination of humanity’s relationship with nature, Wolf Totem merits a spot at the top of your reading list. This modern classic offers rare insights into Indigenous cultures balanced delicately with the environment, insights that only grow more valuable as such ways of life slide toward extinction.

Overall, Wolf Totem is an impactful tale that stays with you long after the last page. Chen Zhen’s experiences will resonate across cultures and generations, reminding us of the inherit wisdom of indigenous peoples and the importance of safeguarding biodiversity in our shared home. It is a story that insightfully explores the contrasts between civilizations while revealing our shared human yearnings for freedom and meaning.


What is the genre and setting of Wolf Totem?

Wolf Totem is a coming of age novel that also fits into the genre of historical fiction. The story is set in Inner Mongolia during China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Chen Zhen, a young student from Beijing, is sent to live among nomadic Mongolian herders on the steppes of Inner Mongolia. Cut off from modern society, he learns the traditions and value systems of the Mongolian nomads who live in harmony with the natural world. The endless grasslands and roaming wolves immerse readers in the beautiful yet unforgiving landscape that shapes the locals’ worldviews.

What inspired the author to write Wolf Totem?

The author Jiang Rong (real name Lu Jiamin) actually spent over a decade living among Mongolian nomads in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution when he was sent to work as a government cadre and teacher. Many of Chen Zhen’s experiences in the novel mirror events from Jiang Rong’s own life during this transformative time. The novel grew out of the author’s fascination with the clash between the modern world and the traditional way of life of the nomadic herders.

What is the significance of the wolf in Mongolian culture?

In Wolf Totem, the wolf takes on symbolic importance representing the wild freedom of the Mongolian steppes. Wolves feature heavily in Mongolian mythology and folklore as wise spirits, with an origin story stating Mongolians were descended from wolves. The nomads revere the wolf for its intelligence, independence and connection to the natural landscape. But it is also a threat to their livestock that must be hunted. The wolf represents the complex interdependence between the herders and the natural world.

How does the novel explore the contrast between modern and traditional cultures?

Chen Zhen enters this traditional Mongolian community as an outsider from urban Beijing. He becomes enamored by the nomadic way of life but also experiences a cultural identity crisis. As an educated Han Chinese man, Chen Zhen grapples with balancing his modern scientific worldview with the ecological wisdom of the herders. Over time, the encroaching effects of agricultural development and settlement increasingly threaten the delicate natural balance of the steppes as well as the nomadic culture intrinsically tied to it. The novel highlights the devastating impact of modernization on indigenous communities in the name of progress.

What is the role of religion and spirituality in the nomads’ lives?

The nomads in Wolf Totem practice Tibetan Buddhism, mingled with their traditional shamanistic animism which ascribes spiritual qualities to animals, nature and the land itself. Their religious beliefs intrinsically connect the herders to the land, wildlife and cycles sustaining life on the grassland. Through rituals and taboos, they show reverence toward the non-human entities that allow their way of life to endure generation after generation. Chen Zhen comes to appreciate how interwoven the nomadic culture is with its spiritual relationship to the natural world.

How does Chen Zhen change over the course of the novel?

At the start Chen Zhen is a young idealistic student eager to assimilate into this traditional community. But over the decade living among them, he goes through profound intellectual and emotional changes. He becomes infatuated with the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle but also comes to terms with the reality that this way of life is disappearing. Chen Zhen matures from a starry-eyed youth into an adult who, despite sympathizing with the herders, feels compelled to return to modern society. His journey mirrors the identity struggles playing out across China.

What is the significance of the wolves being killed in the end?

The decline of the wolf population on the steppes parallel the demise of the nomadic way of life as modernization encroaches. By the end, with much regret, Chen Zhen participates in mass wolf hunts, recognizing they are doomed to extinction. The death of the last wolf seems metaphorical for the disappearance of the Mongolians’ traditional way of life and spiritual connection to the land. While Chen Zhen is saddened, he comes to accept the reality of this cultural change.

How does the novel critique Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution?

Although rarely mentioned directly, the novel contains veiled anti-Mao and anti-Cultural Revolution messages. The ignorance of the Red Guards and the establishment’s disruption of indigenous communities mirrors the flawed thinking during the Cultural Revolution that valued ideology above all else. Between the lines, the book challenges the wisdom of this troubled period in China’s history.

How was Wolf Totem received when it was published in China?

Published in 2004, Wolf Totem was an immediate sensation in China, capturing the imaginations of urban Chinese who had limited understanding of these minority cultures. It remained on bestseller lists for years. However, because it subtly questioned Communist party policies, the Chinese government banned its sale within Inner Mongolia over concerns it could incite unrest. Despite this censorship, the novel reached global acclaim, further exposing the English-speaking world to Chinese literature.

Why is Wolf Totem considered a modern classic?

Wolf Totem is an enduring classic because it transports readers to a disappearing world most have never experienced firsthand. It provides beautiful social commentary on the environmental destruction that often accompanies modernization. The inner journey of Chen Zhen remains relatable across cultures. While mourning a lost way of life, the book helps us reflect on our relationship with nature and the costs of progress. It reminds us of the value of indigenous cultures living in harmony with their lands.

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