For a long time i've been fascinated by Mongolia and i've pretty much gobbled up every book i could find on that country. And i have to say that this book is my favorite of them all. Although, not set in 'actual' Mongolia, this book paints a beautiful picture of the lives and trials of the people living in the mongolian grasslands. The book is an autobiographical story of a young chinese intellectual 'Chen Zhen' who was sent work in the remote grasslands as a part of his 're-education' during the Chinese cultural revolution.
Its a tale of the incredible beauty of the rugged grasslands. One of my lasting memories from the book is the scene of the hunt in the snow lake. The wily Wolves chase a herd of Gazelles into a deep snow field and have them trapped in the deep snow. After the wolves have had their fill, the herdsmen go out to the snow field and set about gathering the dead Gazelles. Knowing that the snow crust is not strong enough to support their weight, the herdsmen make makeshift boats out of the felt rugs they carried with them. They stand steady on a piece of rug, lay down another roll of felt infront of them, step on it and then repeat the process by moving the first piece infront of the second. "They do this over and over again as if piloting a pair of felt boats, gliding towards a living gazelle".
Its a tale of the symbiotic balance between the herdsman, the wolves and their environment. The village elder 'Bilgee' talks about "Big Life" and "Little Life". The "Big Life" is the grassland which sustains all the "Little Life", the people, the cattle, the wolves and the gazelles, around it. The wolves although disliked play an important part in sustaining the 'Big Life' by periodically taking out the cattle, the gazelles and the rodents which left unchecked would destroy the grassland by their over grazing. The herdsmen in turn, by not overgrazing and by hunting the wolves, maintain the balance between predator and the prey and the environment. If only the rest of the world understood and appreciated this relationship.
Its a tale of human greed and selfishness. When the chinese took over the grasslands, they saw the wolves as pests which needed to be eliminated inorder to improve production of cattle from the grasslands. Ignoring the voices of reason from the elders they set about on a campaign to eradicate the wolves and even the herdsmen lured by the promise of quick buck take part in the eradication, thereby slowly over time destroying the very land that had sustained and gave them life over the millennia. The young chinese student, Chen, who has come to appreciate the way of life of the herdsmen watches helplessly as his countrymen unwittingly go about destroying the grassland.
One of the surprising elements of the book for me was how the author, a Han chinese himself, goes about criticizing his own people and stands up for the ethnic mongol minority. He often compares the chinese as 'meek sheep' and the mongols as 'brave and burly wolves'. His admiration for the Mongol way of life clearly shows through in the book and i was actually pretty surprised how this book was allowed to be published in China. But at the end of the day, im happy they did. Its a truly remarkable book and i've read it twice already.