In the 1960s, a number of China's best and brightest followed Chairman Mao's call to find their roots by going "up to the mountains and down to the villages." One student named Lu Jiamin traveled to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, where he found a culture that had lived in harmony with nature for a thousand years. Key to that culture was the Mongols' relationship with the local wolves; the species was smart, aggressive, and ruthless, and the people who survived alongside them worshiped them as the earthbound servants of their god, Tengger. Years later, Lu (under the pen name Jiang Rong) wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about his time in Mongolia, and how the Mongol philosophy could be more relevant to Chinese society than Mao and his cohorts would've ever believed.

Wolf Totem follows Chen Zhen, a Lu stand-in who develops an obsession with the grasslands' most effective predators. It's easy to see why; over and over, Totem details the animals' almost preternatural efficiency, either in lectures from Chen's mentor, an old native named Papa Bilgee, or through accounts of the wolves' attacks on local game. It's during those attacks that the novel first comes alive. One late-night assault on a group of valuable war-horses is as nail-bitingly tense as the best of Jack London's work, and when Chen witnesses first-hand the slaughter of a gazelle herd, his awe at the wolves' cunning is impossible not to share.

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There's a power to Totem's action sequences—and in the relationship Chen develops with an adopted wolf cub—that's more effective than a hundred speeches. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop Jiamin from including those speeches. Totem has a point to make about the agrarian culture of the Han Chinese and its destructiveness when compared to the Mongols' respect for the natural world, but Jiamin doesn't trust his readers to get the message without having it shoved down their throats. It makes for a unique reading experience that can't be recommended without certain reservations. At its best, Totem is a riveting adventure that doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of peasant life; at its worst, it's an educational film from the '40s, with wolves instead of evil spring genies. Enjoyment of the former hinges on having a good deal of patience during the latter.