China's Robinson Crusoe

I’ve been reading Wolf Totem and having a lot of fun doing so. The book, based on Jiang Rong’s time as a sent-down youth in Inner Mongolia. was a huge best-seller in China. Why is this book a Thing Chinese People Like? Nicole Barnes says that the book is nostalgic drivel aimed at Chinese who long for a world with fewer skyscrapers and more manliness and seek it in Mongolia. A lot of the novel is also nostalgia for the past. If you want to recapture the ancient knowledge of the East, Mongolia is apparently the place to do it. Our Chinese heroes spend a lot of time trying to keep wolves from eating the sheep, and learning about the symbiotic relationship between the Mongols, the steppe, and the wolves, and thus the foundations of Asian society.

Chen felt himself to be standing at the mouth of a tunnel to five thousand years of Chinese history. Every day and every night, he thought, men have fought wolves on the Mongolian plateau, a minor skirmish here, a pitched battle there. The frequency of these clashes has even surpassed the frequency of battles among all the nomadic peoples of the West outside of wolf and man, plus the cruel, protracted wars between nomadic tribes, conflicts between nationalities, and wars of aggression; it is that frequency that has strengthened and advanced the mastery of the combatants in these battles. The grassland people are better and more knowledgeable fighters than any farming race of people or nomadic tribe in the world. In the history of China—from the Zhou dynasty, through the Warring States, and on to the Qin, Han, Tang, and Song dynasties—all those great agrarian societies, with their large populations and superior strength, were often crushed in combat with minor nomadic tribes, suffering catastrophic and humiliating defeat. At the end of the Song dynasty, the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan invaded the Central Plains and remained in power for nearly a century. China’s last feudal dynasty, the Qing, was itself founded by nomads. The Han race, with its ties to the land, has gone without the superior military teachings of a wolf drillmaster and has been deprived of constant rigorous training exercises. The ancient Chinese had their Sun-tzu and his military treatise, but that was on paper. Besides, even they were based in part on the lupine arts of war.

Millions of Chinese died at the hands of invasions by peoples of the North over thousands of years, and Chen felt as if he’d found the source of that sad history. Relationships among the creatures on earth have dictated the course of history and of fate, he thought. The military talents of a people in protecting their homes and their nation are essential to their founding and their survival. If there had been no wolves on the Mongolian grassland, would China and the world be different than they are today?
Jiang Rong p.99

Wolf Totem actually fits pretty well with the other book I am reading for fun at the moment, Rose’s Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Rose’s book was very well-received,which is not surprising as it is a very good look as what ordinary British folk read and what they got out of it in the couple of centuries before 1945. One book that was quite popular for a very long time was Robinson Crusoe. Like Wolf Totem it is a ripping yarn with extended didactic passages. Like Wolf Totem it is a story of civilized men outside the city. Rose suggests that Crusoe was popular in part because appealed to both members of the new middle class who were no longer able to provide what they needed with their own hands and to those who were still working with their hands and liked reading a book that represented what they did as important.

Wolf Totem has a lot of that as well. As a keyboard jockey I like books about places where everyone is doing something and it is clear exactly what benefit each thing provides. The is particularly clear in Wolf Totem, since Jiang goes through the workpoint value of each job a person can do and shows how each is perfectly calibrated to the exertion the work requires and its value to the group.1 Would you be willing to go without electricity to live in a world where every day you did things of real value and this was accepted by everyone around you, and sucking up and bullshit were totally impossible? Apparently some people in China would too.

More later (mabye) on ethnic politics in the book.


  1. I’m guessing that many of his readers have no memory of how the workpoint system actually functioned 

3 responses

  1. I read the Chinese version. A good read.

    But what I found interesting was the interaction between the Chinese officials, party members, peasants, “re-educated educated youth”, sheep herders, horse herders, etc. I found how government orders are followed, or not followed, the difference in values between Han and Mongolians, etc. are much more interesting than the description of the land, the environment, and nature.

  2. Read it, couldn’t really stand it! It’s interesting to think about how the book ticks all the “right” boxes: Chinese people, for whatever reason, love Jack London even though nobody reads him, love “Dances with the Wolves”… the environment, return to nature, ethnic minorities, Cultural Revolution, good dollop of nationalism, and bizarre rhetoric about how the Chinese should be wolves (thus justifying acts of violence and exploitation? If Americans are hawks Chinese should be wolves??) — one can be cynical about it and think that the author is remarkably shrewd and aware of market conditions and have written a book that slots into a niche really well. Definitely one for a “sociology of literature” analysis. I look forward to the film based on the book, and the videogame based on the film…!

  3. Interestingly, the impulse to long for the countryside or the wilderness is not particular to any culture, rather a manifestation of a certain stages of development. Much of its appeal reflects the immediacy of place and living. But I wonder how much nostalgia we can attach to it. Obviously, Mongolia is not in the past (no matter what we might think of its social development). Rather, it’s another form of life simultaneous to the urban culture to which we have become accustomed. If there is any time travel involved, it’s harder to get to places bypassed by modern technology.

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