Friday, 10 April 2015

Wolf Totem

Détails sur le produitWolf Totem is a Chinese book written in 2004 by Jiang Rong (Lü Jiamin from his true name). It was a best seller in China and has been translated in 25 languages. A film has been made out of this book this year (director Jean-Jacques Annaud). It tells the history of a young Han Chinese deported to Inner Mongolia who learns about the traditional life of the Nomads while living among them and becomes fascinated, if not obsessed, by the wolves.
The author is a Han who spent 11 years of his life among the Mongols of Inner Mongolia, where he had been deported for “reeducation” during the Cultural Revolution, like a lot of educated people at that time. He witnessed the last true nomadic life in this borderland before it disappeared and became –apparently- a fervent admirer of the Mongolic way of life. The book he wrote is a novel, but is largely inspired by his own experience. He wrote a formidable account about the nomadic life, the world’s vision of Mongols and their relations with the wolves. That the action takes place in the 20th Century doesn't actually matter.

The author develops of course arguable theories about the supposed superiority of a “nation of wolves” like the Mongols (or partially the Westerners the author said) over a “nation of sheep” like the Chinese. One may even find his admiration for the wolves sometime irritating. But I highly recommend the book to any player of Wind on the Steppes, since the author’s vision fits after all those of the steppe Nomads: the wolf is indeed their model and the totem of most of the tribes.

Reading this book is an immersion into the nomadic life and into the nomadic understanding of nature and its fragile balance, especially in the Steppe, and recalls all the respect due to it. You’ll understand how the pastoral way of life has been dictated by scarcity and efficiency. You’ll learn a lot about wolves as well, since there are present at every page, and how the two main predators and regulators act together or against each other to maintain balance and sustainability in the steppe. You’ll understand how the life is a constant struggle and why the wolves, guided on Earth by Tengri, are at the same time competitors of the Nomads and essential for their life in the steppe. They are enemies but also revered models, a kind of animal counterparts. This understanding is essential to play a Nomad.

The book is a valuable source for providing credibility and realism for interesting role playing as a Nomad or to lure PCs from settled countries unaware of the basic rules and taboos in the steppe. Beyond that, a GM can find enough material to imagine exciting scenarios involving wolves: a good game does not absolutely require ugly monsters and high fantasy magic. Wolves are very clever, suspicious, patient and able to use surprisingly complex collective tactics: they are tough opponents. Hunting them or simply protecting cattle against their voracity is a difficult task requiring intelligence, skill and patience. Add the fact that Nomads would fight them but not destroy them, since their disappearance would be a catastrophe for the Steppe and you have all the ingredients for intelligent and intense role playing.

I still haven't seen the movie, but I doubt it can give as many details as the book. According to the trailer, it has probably been softened for a wider audience.

I wish you a good reading.

[I take the opportunity of this new post to add some references in the sources article: Wolf Totem, of course, but also 3 Osprey books which I forgot to mention –how could I?]

[addendum from 27 April 2015: I've now seen the movie. It is very nice and well made, although with more pathos than in the book -and a bit too many slow motion close-ups of wolves. There are unsurprisingly much less details than in the book, so if you really want to learn about Mongols and wolves, read it. and if you want 116mn of entertainment, watch the movie]

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