A Book About the Lost Mongolia

Hustai National Park, Mongolia
Hustai National Park, Mongolia


Destination: Inner Mongolia

Book: Wolf Totem


Bert Latamore

Guest Bert Latamore talks about a book that won the first ever Man Asian Literary prize (partner of the Man Booker prize for writing in English).

Wolf Totem, a Tour Guide to Inner Mongolia

by Guest Bert Latamore

Some travel books tell you how to get somewhere and what to see when you get there. Others take you to place you will never get to see in person, and a very few take you into the heart of a unique place. Wolf Totem is one of that last group. A run-away best seller in  the PRC, it is the novelized autobiography of author Jiang Rong’s life in Inner Mongolia, living with the descendants of Genghis Kahn, during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s.

Partly inspired by now- Professor Jiang’s politics – the book carries an obvious message to the Han Chinese, by far the dominant ethnic group in China – Wolf Totem is a fabulous adventure story on a par with Kipling, wrapped around portrait of a unique place and people, wrapped around deep study of the complex love-hate relationship between the Mongol nomads and wolves and the central role that balance plays in the fragile Steppe ecology.

One word of warning – this is a huge, episodic, sometimes rambling book with little discernible plot, closer to 19th Century British and Russian novels than to modern American books in structure. Its unity comes from the land and people in which it is deeply rooted. It takes readers into the yurts of the Mongols and onto the vast plains of Inner Mongolia. It portrays a place full of breathtaking beauty and bloody horror, the annual cycle of the Mongol nomads, the battles they fight with the huge winter wolf pack for their very lives, their relationship with the half-wild dogs who stand beside them resolutely in that war, and their losing fight to preserve their way of life and the Steppe itself against the pressures of modern China.

Part of its power comes because Prof. Jang wrote in Chinese ideograms, which stand not for words but directly for the concepts behind them. This focuses the writer on meaning and insight rather than sound and spelling. And Prof. Jang is a very insightful thinker who has spent a lifetime analyzing his formative years as a Han Chinese student in Mongolia. And we are also fortunate that Penguin found the perfect translator for the English edition in Howard Goldblatt, whose sensitive work preserved the tone and insight Prof. Jang intended.

As a result, rather than a vacation tour, Wolf Totem is a full immersion into a place and culture that were little changed from the 12th Century, when Mongols conquered half the world. And sadly, it also is a chronicle of the destruction of both and of the disaster that happens when modern cultures try to exploit fragile ecosystems without understanding them, a lesson as relevant to the West today as it was to the PRC then. Today the once fertile plains of Inner Mongolia are a desert, and sandstorms reach as far as Beijing. In the early 1970s China literally ate up Mongolia in its quest to feed its huge population, and Jiang was there to witness and, ultimately, report on it.

So would I like to visit Inner Mongolia? Certainly not if we mean today’s ecological disaster. But if I could go there as it was when the young student Jiang Rong first saw it; if I could ride across it on horseback, see the proud Mongol horse herd thunder past, watch the wolves hunt antelope across a verdant landscape, and walk by beautiful, unspoiled lakes full of waterfowl as he did, yes, that would be the journey of a lifetime.

Photograph by “m d d”, from his Flickr collection, under Creative Commons license.

Bert Latamore has been a writer all his adult life, and now specializes in writing about technology. He also serves as a book doctor and business report writer. His motto, “You provide the information; I craft the words.”
I met Bert about 15 years ago in an on-line group called “Aspiring Writers Club”. The core of that group continues to correspond and despite the fact that we live at opposite ends of the country, I am happy to say that Bert and I (and our spouses) have met face to face more than once over the years. I have always admired his writing, and am very happy to have him guest here at A Travelers’ Library.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

7 thoughts on “A Book About the Lost Mongolia

  1. Debbie,

    I don’t know really. According to the end of the book, no. Also I am not sure how much of Mongolia was devastated — it is a very large place. I do know that they now get sandstorms in Beijing, which the hero in the book predicts.


  2. I’m wondering if any of your readers saw the article about breastfeeding in Mongolia in Mothering Magazine this month?! It was so interesting — apparently it’s a very very pro-breast feeding country and if you nurse in public everyone nods and smiles at you and tells the baby to “drink up.” This book sounds really interesting. I’ve never even considered visiting Mongolia, but maybe I should!

  3. Excellent review of the book! Too bad the landscape you read about no longer exists. I wonder if there is any attempt being made to repair the damage?

  4. Jessie, Thank you for the compliment. The review is inspired by the book, which is as close to a total immersion in Mongolia as a book can get. It is a big book and very episodic but well worth the time. I only wish it had been longer.

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