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September 29, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright September 29, 2009 William A. Callahan. Used by permission.


China Beat has examined the bestselling novel Wolf Totem (Lang tuteng) from a number of different angles, including reviews (by Nicole Barnes and Timothy Weston) as well as several cultural critiques of the book and its media coverage (by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Haiyan Lee). Now, on the eve of China’s big anniversary, and in a moment, simultaneously, when ethnicity is a crucial flashpoint in the PRC, William Callahan reflects on what the book tells us about China’s nation-building ideology.

The fantastic success of Jiang Rong’s Lang tuteng [Wolf Totem] shows how notions of Chinese identity and culture are moving in new directions (Wuhan: Changjiang wenyi chubanshe, 2004). This novel, which is based on the author’s experience living in the Mongolian grasslands during the China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), has sold over 25 million copies since it was published in 2004, making it China’s no. 2 bestseller after Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book.” The novel is popular abroad as well: its English translation won the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 (Howard Goldblatt, trans., Penguin, 2008).

Wolf Totem is an autobiographical story about a Han student who leaves his intellectual family in Beijing to go to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Chen Zhen, the main character, lives and works with nomadic Mongolians. As a shepherd, Chen becomes fascinated with wolves and the role they play in the local economy and culture of the grasslands. He is drawn to wolves’ strength, cunning and ferocity, and adopts a wolf pup to “scientifically” study how they “think.” But in the end Chen has to kill the wolf pup because it can’t be tamed to live among humans.

Wolf Totem is praised for its environmentalist sensibility: the Han student criticizes his people’s economic invasion of the Mongolian grasslands that complements Beijing’s military invasion. Chen watches as Han settlers ruin the grassland environment as they try to turn it into farmland. The novel ends with a plea to ethnic Han to preserve the grasslands and its ecological balance of nomadic Mongolians, sheep and wolves. This environmental message was popular among foreign readers; the Man Asian Literary Prize judges praised Wolf Totem for giving a “passionate argument about the complex interrelationship between nomads and settlers, animals and human beings, nature and culture.”