January 11, 2011

A Mongol Ecological Theodicy of Wolves

The old Mongol speaks to the Chinese student/sheepherder:
"Wolves are intelligent, they're looked after by the gods, and they get help from all sorts of demons. That makes them a formidable enemy."
But also,
"Don't forget what I told you, that wolves are sent by Tengger [Heaven/sky god] to safeguard the grassland. Without them, the grassland would vanish. And without wolves, we Mongols will never be able to enter heaven. [At the time, these Mongols practiced a form of "sky burial" using wolves rather than vultures.]

"If there are too many of them, they lose their divine power and turn evil. It's all right for people to kill evil creatures. If they killed all the cows and sheep, we could not go on living, and the grassland would be lost. We Mongols were also sent by Tengger to protect the grassland. Without it, there'd be no Mongols, and without Mongols, there'd be no grassland.

"Are you saying that wolves and the Mongols protect the grassland together?" Chen asked, moved by what the old man said.

A guarded look came into the old man's eyes. "That's right," he said, "but I'm afraid it's something you ... you Chinese cannot understand."

"Papa, you know I'm opposed to Han chauvinism and that I oppose the policy of sending people here to open up farmland."

The old man's furrowed brow smoothed out and, as he rubbed the wolf trap with horse's mane, he said, "Protecting the grassland is hard on us. If we don't kill wolves, there'll be fewer of us. But if we kill too many of them, there'll be even fewer."
The time is the 1960s Chinese Cultural Revolution. Chen, a young man of less-than-impeccable proletarian credentials, has been jerked away from his studies in Beijing in 1969 and sent to the boondocks to "learn from the people."

In this case, "the people" are pastoralist Mongols in Inner Mongolia, part of the People's Republic of China, following a more or less traditional lifestyle but now collectivized and organized into "work brigades."

The book, Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, translated by Howard Goldblatt (Penguin, 2008), has been "a runaway bestseller" in China, even though it is full of Mongols telling Chen that the Han Chinese are "sheep" and "herbivores" who always lose wars to Mongols. They even suggest that Mongol women are better in bed—as well as willing to go hand-to-fang with wolves in defense of their flocks.

Largely autobiographical, Wolf Totem was written in the late 1980s. To quote the translator's note, it "ushered in heated debates on the Chinese 'character.' 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."

I am not quite a third of the way through and enjoying it immensely.

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