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Excerpt: 'Wolf Totem'

Chen was given an opportunity to see how hard it was for wolves to survive on the grassland. In spite of their fertility, probably only one in every 10 cubs lived to adulthood. A sudden storm that drops several feet of snow in a very short period can kill off vast numbers of wolves, from cold or from hunger. A wildfire that blots out the sky can also wipe out vast numbers, burned or suffocated. Packs of starving wolves fleeing famine or natural disasters can slaughter half the local wolves. Few can survive the spring thefts of newborn cubs from their dens, autumn trapping, early-winter encirclement hunts, and the deep-winter hunts. The old man said that the grassland wolves are the descendents of the hungry wolves. The original animals, which lived lives devoid of want, were subdued by hungry wolves fleeing from famine. The grassland had always been a battlefield, and those that survived were the strongest and wisest, the ones best suited to eating and fighting, animals who could eat their fill yet never forget what it was like to be hungry.

Chen discovered over time that grassland wolves held many sacred articles of faith where survival was concerned, of which the fight for food and independence was the most fundamental. When he was feeding the (wolf) cub, he never felt as if he were giving it life, as he did with the dogs. The wolf showed no gratitude, for he did not consider himself as being raised by a human and was incapable of reacting slavishly just because he saw his master coming with his food. The word raise was absent in the relationship between Chen and the cub. The wolf was his prisoner for the time being, not his ward. A unique spirit of obstinacy underlay his territorial nature; this knowledge sent chills up Chen's spine, for he was no longer confident that he could successfully keep the cub and see him to adulthood.

In the end, Chen abandoned the desire to pet the wolf while he was eating and respected his noble natural instincts. He continued to crouch down a few paces away and observe the cub quietly, grateful for the lessons in wolf behavior.

Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong. Translation copyright © 2008 by The Penguin Press. Originally published in Chinese as Lang Tuteng by Changjiang Literature and Arts Publishing House, 2004.

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Jiang Rong