Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, Travel Writing, and
the Myth of Mongolian Pastoralism

By Phillip P. Marzluf

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no.1  (Spring 2021), 161-191

This essay challenges the conventional interpretations of Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem (Lang tuteng) as an important ecocritical text that illuminates a cultural and social harmony between Han Chinese urban students and rural Inner Mongolian herders during the Cultural Revolution. Though acknowledging the environmental themes of Wolf Totem, this article re-defines the novel as an example of travel writing, an interpretive strategy that enables readers to see Jiang Rong’s rhetorical moves and isolates the asymmetrical relationships among the Han Chinese students and the Inner Mongolian herders. Examining Wolf Totem as travel writing also places this text within the larger history of travel writing set in northern China and Mongolia, a discourse that has contributed tenacious and possibly dangerous tropes about Han Chinese and Mongolians over the past 150 years.

As an example of travel writing, Wolf Totem reveals three asymmetries that challenge the depiction of harmony among the Han Chinese and Inner Mongolian characters. The first asymmetry shows that cultural and social hybridity works positively for the Han Chinese urban “travelers,” who have the ability to absorb and adapt Mongolian practices, values, and identities; however, at the same time, Jiang Rong depicts Mongolian attempts to take on Chinese identities as dangerous for the environment and for the purity of Mongolian identity. In the second asymmetry, Jiang Rong simplifies Mongolian intellectual contributions to oral folk knowledge, an illiteracy that is depicted as a cultural weakness, whereas the Han Chinese students have access to the power of writing. In the final asymmetry, Jiang Rong places the wen-wu dichotomy over the Inner Mongolian grasslands, producing a space of pure masculine wu, from which the Han Chinese urban students can strengthen themselves. Through these three asymmetries, Jiang Rong creates a mythical Mongolian belief system based upon the wolf and perpetuates a common travel writing trope that Mongolian cultural identity is on the verge of disappearance.

This article asks readers to bear these three problematic asymmetries in mind as they contemplate Wolf Totem as world literature, as a text that depicts Han Chinese and peripheral ethnic groups living and working together in harmony—a message of Han Chinese tolerance and cultural sensitivity that the Chinese Communist Party hopes to project in its massive economic projects linking China to its neighbors and to more distant nations.