The sheer size of China’s population is the nation’s blessing and its curse. The hundreds of millions of workers who can produce goods cheaper and faster than anywhere else drive its rise as an economic superpower, but this astounding human density has taken a toll on the environment: The needs of 1.3 billion people have left little room for unspoiled wilderness. Then there is the psychological cost. Let’s just put it this way: If you’re one in a million in China, there are 1,299 others—and counting—just like you.
Those facts might help explain the amazing success of Jiang Rong’s debut novel, Wolf Totem. First published in Chinese in 2004, the book has sold over four million official copies and many times more in pirated versions. Its publishers believe Wolf Totem to be the second-most-read volume in Chinese history, after a small red book by a politician of middling fame named Mao Zedong. Jiang’s novel is a phenomenon, one written by a Beijing professor with no literary experience and a relatively uneventful life, save for the eleven years he spent as a student on the prairies of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s and ’70s.
That experience forms the heart of Wolf Totem, which follows a young intellectual named Chen Zen as he comes to Inner Mongolia—then, as now, a semiautonomous province of China—and learns the ways of the Mongol nomads, descendants of Genghis Khan. Central to their culture is the Mongolian wolf, scourge of their sheep herds but at the same time a spiritual totem of the Mongol god of the prairie. Though the nomads hunt the wolf, they also revere it, because by killing herbivorous species like gazelles that, left unchecked, could ravage the grasslands, the wolf enforces the delicate ecological balance that allows the prairie to flourish.
Chen takes the nomadic philosophy to heart, and in page after page, he extols its virtues: freedom and individualism, both of which he finds lacking in the “sheeplike” Chinese. But Chen’s very presence is a sign that the Mongolian way of life is nearing its end. The Chinese officials who aggressively control the region launch a campaign to exterminate the wolves in an effort to make the grasslands safe for agriculture. Chen can only watch in sorrow as Mongol culture dies along with the wolves, but even he is far from blameless; stealing a wolf cub from its mother and raising it in a doomed effort to understand the animal, Chen only brings about the destruction of what he has come to love.
Overlong and often repetitive, Wolf Totem is far from a great piece of literature. The real value of this environmental parable lies in what its popularity tells us about China today: That millions of Chinese would turn to a novel implicitly critical of their culture’s environmental negligence is a phenomenon in its own right—and heartening, too, for as China grows, so will its impact on the global environment. In Wolf Totem’s sad coda, Chen returns to Inner Mongolia decades later and sees that the grasslands have become a desert. If China can’t learn from the Mongolian wolf—the spirit of natural balance—Inner Mongolia’s fate may belong to us all.