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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

Wolf Totem: A Novel

1. One of the Mongol customs strange to Westerners is their practice of sky-burial, in which the corpse is allowed to fall randomly out of a wagon and is left for hawks and wolves to devour. However, the Mongols consider burial in coffins equally strange. What are some of the other examples of cultural differences in Wolf Totem, and how do they color Jiang’s work as a whole?

2. How does Bilgee’s idea of Tengger differ from ideas of heaven with which you are more familiar? How does the Mongols’ idea of heaven influence their way of life and vice versa?

3. What philosophy of existence stands behind Chen Zhen’s attraction to the wolves? What place, if any, does this philosophy provide for kindness and mercy? How do you respond to Chen’s worship of strength and his devotion to the kill-or-be-killed order of the grasslands? Is there something unsettling about his views?

4. Discuss the character of Bao Shungui, the military representative who leads the extermination campaign against the wolves. How well does Jiang enable us to understand his motivations? Is he simply ignorant, or is there something more complicated to his personality?

5. Erlang, the massive dog with wolflike inclinations, may have struck you as one of the most intriguing characters in Wolf Totem. What makes the dog so interesting?

6. Although many of Jiang’s characters express uneasiness and even anguish over the fate of the grassland, none of them openly rebel against the governing authority, and most of them, in one way or another, play a role in the wolves’ destruction. Why?

7. Chen’s friend Yang is also horrified by the government’s encroachment on the Olonbulag. How do the reasons for his sense of revulsion differ from those that motivate Chen?

8. Evaluate Chen’s motives for capturing and raising Little Wolf—an act that he long defends but comes at last to regard as an unpardonable sin. Do you consider Chen’s experiment justifiable or is it just another crime against Tengger?

9. Jiang Rong does not hesitate to ascribe elements of human intelligence and emotion to the wolves in Wolf Totem. While this practice creates sympathy for the wolves, it is perhaps unscientific in its assumptions. Does this tendency to anthropomorphize help or hinder the reader’s understanding of the wolves?

10. How does Little Wolf’s inability to howl in wild wolf language influence the cub’s sense of identity?

11. Jiang Rong implies that the Mongolian grassland was, in large part, a victim of Maoist doctrines and policies. However, the story of the destruction of the Olonbulag may not be entirely different from that of the destruction of the American wilderness—a destruction accomplished by a capitalist republic. Do you see any important distinction between the two events?

12.Jiang Rong mourns the passing of the Mongolian frontier. Yet, although the beauty and adventure are gone from their lives, in the epilogue Batu and Gasmai are shown enjoying a much more comfortable standard of living that they ever had on the wild plains. Play devil’s advocate for a moment: Does Jiang romanticize a way of life that few of us would really choose as an alternative to the comforts of modern life?

Wolf Totem: A Novel
by Jiang Rong

  • Publication Date: March 31, 2009
  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143115146
  • ISBN-13: 9780143115144