Almost as if on cue for my upcoming trip, I read 3 books about China recently.
Wolf Totem won the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 for the best Asian novel that hadn’t been published in English. Well, it went on to be published in English after the win, and it turned out to be a surprisingly fluid and sentimental novel. Set in the Inner Mongolian* grasslands in the seventies, it’s about a young Chinese who becomes obsessed with wolves who act as both gods and demons on the plains. They’re revered by the native Mongols who pay homage to them and regard them as deities, hence the book’s title, whilst at the same time they ravage the horse and sheep herds of these same Mongols. This constant battling plays a big role in the Mongols’ lives, who spend a lot of time protecting their herds from these predators and hunting them. This state of affairs is essential to the land as the wolves’ predation limits the amount of herd animals, as well as wild gazelles and marmots, preventing their grazing from killing off the grass and causing desertification. In addition, the wolves are cunning and loyal, hunting in packs and using tactics that exploit land, weather and animal behavior. Beijinger Chen Zhen, the main character, becomes so filled with reverence for the wolves that he decides to raid a wolf den and capture a cub and raise it. He succeeds but not ultimately. What makes the book so good is how informative it is about the grassland’s ecology without being pedantic. The author based this book and the main character on his own experience in the grasslands where he spent 11 years and it shows in the grasp of detail about the environment, the culture and ecology of that place. There is a bit of excessive piousness regarding the nomadic grassland Mongol way of life, which Chen constantly contrasts with the more passive and environmentally-harmful way of the Chinese peasant lifestyle. This is why the fearsome Mongol horsemen were able to defeat vastly numerically superior foes including China’s Song Dynasty back then in the time of Genghis Khan and his immediate descendants, Chen reasons as he realizes how the Mongols got their superior war knowledge from fighting the wolves all the time. Yet for all that, the agriculturalists usually win out over the nomads, as China was able to absorb much of Mongolia, hence Inner Mongolia. Towards the end, not to spoil it, but it is not a good ending for the nomads and their way of life as Chinese settlers are brought in to raise livestock on the rich grasslands and modernity gradually creeps in. It is haunting to see how prescient the wise Mongol elder who Chen regards as a father is about the dangers of overgrazing and desertification. In real life, China is suffering an alarming amount of desertification including in that same area, among which one of the effects is Beijing being blanketed by dust storms from time to time. Wolf Totem is definitely more than about Mongols and wolves.
Initially I didn’t like how Jung Chang’s Mao-The Unknown Story (cowritten with Jon Halliday) was going. I’d heard about this book when it came out in 2005 and I knew it was very critical about Mao, but it seemed like every sentence and paragraph was filled with derision and criticism about Mao, some of it contradictory. He wasn’t smart, he didn’t stand for anything, he lied, he was a coward, he was a tyrant etc. But it’s also filled with some explosive statements and it’s filled with a ton of interesting and provocative information. Some famous events such as the Long March and the Xian Incident (when Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped by a Xian warlord supposedly to force Chiang to agree to talks with the Communists in order to deal with Japanese invaders) are revealed by Chang to be not what they seemed. And for other famous events like the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and the Korean War, Chang reveals Mao to be exactly the kind of crazed tyrant for whom the lives of Chinese citizens meant nothing and who bullied and took revenge on peers regularly. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of these events and of Mao’s immense faults, but this book made me learn a lot more. Chou Enlai, the suave foreign minister and the number two, was a toady who was intimidated and controlled by Mao, Liu Shaoqi, the president until he was purged and imprisoned, was a man of some not so insignificant conscience who stood up to Mao and paid for it, and Deng Xiaoping was a tough and pragmatic survivor who was crushed by Mao but still endured. I’m still mystified though as to how millions of Chinese were able to get out of poverty during Mao’s time given the tremendous upheavals and food shortages that occurred, and I still can’t help think there’s more to Mao than this, or at least his rule. * Update: This book was heavily criticized by experts including for probable dubious sources, simplification of Mao’s rule and definite bias. Despite this, nobody disputes the main point- that Mao was ruthless and callous and many people died and suffered under him.
It seems like everybody is going to China these days and writing about it. Days like Floating Water is about a retired American who volunteers with her also retired husband to go to a small town near Ningbo and teach English in a technical institute. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was a pleasant read, and the couple taught in China back in 1999, eight years before the book was published. The McKees do rather well, living and teaching in a small town where the only other foreigners were a handful of fellow English teachers and where buying stuff requires an hours-long bus trip. This is 1999, when China’s economic boom was still in the early stages but the fast pace of China’s modernization drive is apparent enough. During the McKees’ stay, they get a new home and at the end, their school is transformed into a brand-new university. I’m not exactly a big fan of the notion that breakneck transformation is always positive though. The two Americans, more specifically the writer, become really attached to their students, inviting them to come after classes (which many do) and starting up new projects. Doubtless, they face lots of challenges from home plumbing inanities to braving the famous China lining up experience to obstinate bureaucracy. It’s a decent book written with a lot of tenderness and heart.
* Inner Mongolia is one of China’s autonomous regions and is just across the border from the nation of Mongolia which is sometimes referred to as Outer Mongolia.