Confucius, Nietzsche, and Wolf Totem


Confucius, Nietzsche, and Wolf Totem:

The Culture of the Wolf versus the Civilization of Sheep

George A. Dunn

We have learned differently. We have become more modest in every way. We no longer derive man from “the spirit” or “the deity,” we have placed him back among the animals.

            ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist (588)

Lü Jiamin’s critically acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel 狼图腾 (pronounced: Láng​ Tú​téng; Wolf Totem in English) was an unlikely bestseller when it was first published in the People’s Republic of China in 2004 under the pseudonym Jiang Rong. A fictionalized account of his life among the nomadic herders of Inner Mongolia, where he was sent to live and work as a student during the Cultural Revolution in the late ‘60s, it offered a devastating critique of the civilization of the Han Chinese from the perspective of the Mongol culture of the grasslands, the destruction of which Lü witnessed firsthand. Through the observations of his alter ego, the student Chen Zhen, and the reflections of his wise Mongol mentor, the elder Bilgee (called Bilig in the movie version), Jiang introduced the Chinese public to the ancient but now imperiled worldview and lifestyle that had sustained Mongol culture for millennia and at one time enabled their conquest of China, in addition to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, under the leadership of Genghis Khan.

In early 2015, the renowned French director Jean-Jacque Arnaud (The Name of the Rose, The Lover, Seven Years in Tibet) brought Wolf Totem to the big screen, beguiling Chinese audiences with the visual splendor of some of the last remaining unspoiled grasslands of Inner Mongolian and thrilling them with riveting action scenes of the marauding Mongolian wolves, who are the centerpiece of Lü’s story. I was fortunate to see it in Beijing last spring, on a wide screen in glorious 3D. It has just been released on DVD (and for online streaming) in the United States and, even with the spectacle scaled down to fit a smaller screen, it is still an extraordinarily beautiful piece of cinema. As is to be expected, some of the novel’s more meaty philosophical reflections—which Lü conveyed largely through lengthy speeches by Chen, Bilgee, and others—had to be sacrificed for the sake of dramatic expediency, while the sharper edges of Lü’s social critique have been blunted presumably in order to satisfy the Chinese censors. Even so, it remains a thought-provoking story that packs a powerful emotional wallop.

Learning from the Wolves

Wolf Totem is, among other things, a coming of age story, in which the protagonist Chen Zhen’s encounter with the culture of the Mongolian nomads leads him to discover some disconcerting truths about himself and the civilization that shaped him. At the heart of Mongolian culture, Chen Zhen finds a deeply felt ecological sensitivity, a concern for the fragile balance of life on the Mongolian steppe that pivots on the nomad’s intense awe and admiration for the predator who stands alongside them at the apex of the food chain—the wolf. The nomads have a complex relationship with their “totemic” animal. Because wolves prey on livestock, they must sometimes be hunted and killed—and some of the movie’s most heartbreaking scenes depict wolf cubs being stolen from their lairs, hurled heavenward to the accompaniment of prayers beseeching the Mongolian sky god Tengger to accept their souls, and then plunging to their death. But, unlike the Han Chinese settlers, whose reckless exploitation of the environment eventually brings ecological disaster to the grasslands, the Mongols are wise enough not to hunt the wolves to extinction. They recognize the vital role of these predators in preventing gazelles and other grazing animals from overrunning the delicate grasslands, the so-called “Big Life” on which all the “little life” depends for survival.

Accompanying the nomads on an expedition to scavenge frozen carcasses leftover from a wolf attack on a herd of gazelles that drove them into a deep snowbank, Chen Zhen surveys the carnage and, clearly distressed, voices a sentiment that reflects an all-too-common stereotype about wolves: “Wolves are evil, killing the innocent, oblivious to the value of life.” But his mentor Bilig is quick to correct him: “No, gazelles are the cruel ones. They eat all the grass. Out here, the grass is life, the Big Life. All else is little life that depends on the Big Life for survival.” Bilig’s serene acceptance of merciless slaughter amounts to a “transvaluation” of customary values that may seem shocking to those of us who harbor sensibilities that are much more genteel than any dweller of the harsh Mongolian steppe can afford to indulge. But in the midst of our civilized handwringing and often mawkishly sentimental ideas about disrupting the “harmony” of nature, it’s good to be reminded of what the Mongolian nomads have always known from firsthand experience—the balance of nature is not something that emerges irenically in an amiable spirit of compromise, but rather an unstable equilibrium that must be established again and again through bloodshed. “The price of this controlled balance is blood flowing like a river,” remarks Chen Zhen in the novel, contrasting the balance struck on the steppe to the traditional Chinese ideal of a peaceful balance of opposites. “This sort of ‘middle way’ is more combative and more real than the Han Chinese ‘middle ground’ (374).”

Above all, the wolves are the Mongols most important teachers, as any good adversary should be. The wolves challenge them to become stronger, cleverer, and more daring. Indeed, Chen Zhen’s mentor even goes so far as to claim that the battle strategies that won the Mongols an empire extending from the Pacific Ocean to the gates of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries were learned from the wolves. “How do you think Genghis Khan defeated the great armies of the world with so few mounted warriors?” Bilig asks Chen.  “He learnt the art of war by studying the wolves that you have in front of you.” But perhaps most importantly the wolves embody the noble ideal of a free and untamed spirit that the nomads aspire to emulate in every way. As Chen Zhen discovers over the course of the novel: “Neither food nor killing was the purpose of the wolves’ existence; rather, it was their sacred, inviolable freedom, their independence, and their dignity” (162). He finds a similarly fierce love of freedom lodged in the breasts of the nomads who took the wolf for their totem.

Civilized Confucians in Sheep’s Clothing

If the Mongols emulate the wolf, then the Han Chinese, who appear in the story as colonizers of the grassland intent on converting it to agriculture, are, in the words of Bilgee, “sheep”—weak, docile, easily controlled, herd animals. Speaking through his fictional counterpart Chen Zhen, Lü rests much of the blame for these defects of the Chinese character on the legacy of Confucianism. Emphasizing hierarchy, deference to authority, and the ritualization of all aspects of daily life, Confucianism has on most standard accounts been one of the great civilizing forces in Chinese history, fostering a way of life that stresses harmony and non-abrasive social interactions to such an extent that the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in his Autobiography of his discovery during a trip to China that “a civilized Chinese is the most civilized person in the world” (341). Yet, speaking in the novel, Chen concludes that the very same philosophy that created such “a brilliant ancient civilization” has also “weakened the people’s nature” and contributed to China falling behind and suffering a century of humiliations at the hands of the more barbaric Western powers (304). In contrast, he observes, “nomads have been the only Easterners capable of taking the fight to the Europeans, and the three people who really shook the West to its foundations were the Huns, the Turks, and the Mongols. The Westerners who fought their way back to the East were all descendants of nomads. The builders of ancient Rome were a pair of brothers raised by a wolf” (217-218).

Ironically, though, even with their allegedly weakened nature, the Han Chinese settlers sweeping across the steppe like “yellow sand” (524), are still capable of posing an existential threat to the Mongols ancient nomadic way of life. Just as the ravenous gazelles are the real “predators,” threatening to devour the Big Life that sustains all the little life on the steppe, so too the Chinese farmers invading from the south are another “herd” that, if left unchecked, threaten to overrun the steppe with their own form of “overgrazing.” As the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche had forcefully pointed out in the 19th century—only to have their insights seconded in the intervening centuries by a swarm of subsequent analysts of human “herd behavior”—the mediocrity of the herd animal doesn’t necessarily render him benign. According the Nietzsche, the rise of the autonomous herd, governed by dull obedience and mindless conformity, pursuing ease and comfort as its highest aspirations, represents the supreme danger to the human future, since it destroys the conditions requisite for the emergence of human greatness. Wolf Totem’s depiction of the cultural demise of the wolf-like Mongols before the onslaught of the sheep-like Han enacts a tragedy that Nietzsche would regard as not only an ecological calamity, due to the erosion of the delicate balance of life on the steppe, but also as an atrocity against the human spirit, due to the erosion of what is noblest within it.

One of Lü’s avowed aims in telling his story is to promote the emulation of the wolf as an antidote to the softness and passivity that he believes millennia of Confucian civilization has bred into the Chinese spirit, leaving the Chinese particularly susceptible to domination by both foreign and homegrown despots. “If you don’t change the base,” he has said in an interview, “then even if one form of despotism dies, another will emerge. I am trying to influence the cultural base of China. I think that is more important and effective than direct confrontation” (“Living with wolves,” The Guardian [London], November 22, 2007). Lü’s strategy for transforming China’s cultural base is the same one that Nietzsche believed had always been adopted by the greatest artists and philosophers, those whom he regarded as humanity’s true “commanders and legislators,” namely, the erection of new ideals and emblems of human greatness (Beyond Good and Evil, 106). “Not around the inventors of new noise does the world revolve, but around the inventors of new values,” he wrote (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 104). In Lü’s case, however, the values he wants to infuse into Chinese civilization are far from new but are, in fact, thousands of years old, embodied in a vanishing way of life that takes its inspiration from a beautiful and noble species of wild predator that is now as endangered as the nomadic culture for which he served as a totem.

The Nietzschean Culture of the Wolf

The movie version of Wolf Totem is obliged to omit much of the novel’s philosophical reflections on wolves and sheep as emblems of human types. Nonetheless, Arnaud’s powerful scenes of the Mongolian wolves in action capture their strength and beauty, their resourcefulness and patience, their prowess and expert teamwork, in a way that dramatically conveys just what it is that Lü and the Mongolian nomads find so awe-inspiring in these predators. Nietzsche was also an admirer of the “beast of prey,” some of the most impressive hallmarks of which he believed could be discerned in the character of such “noble races” as the Romans, the Vikings, and the Homeric heroes. Were he familiar with Wolf Totem, he would almost certainly add the Mongols to his list. Coincidentally, Nietzsche makes a telling distinction between culture and civilization that maps almost perfectly onto Lü’s contrast of the wolf-like Mongols and the sheep-like Han. “The great moments of culture,” he wrote in a note from 1888, “have always been, morally speaking, times of corruption; and conversely the epochs of willed and forced animal taming (‘civilization’) of the human being have been times of intolerance of the spiritual and most bold natures” (The Will to Power, 75). According to Nietzsche, civilization sets out to tame the human animal, suppressing its wild nature and rendering it more tractable to social control. But while the civilizing project of a philosophy like Confucianism claims to “improve” those human beings whose wild passions it tames and tempers, Nietzsche believes that the contrary is nearer to the truth: “To call the taming of an animal its ‘improvement’ is in our ears almost a joke” (Twilight of the Idols, 28). Civilization flattens the human spirit and cows the beast within. Culture, on the other hand, does just the opposite, uncorking the creative energies of bold, risk-taking natures and allowing them to flourish. Culture is the business of wolves.

None of this is to say that civilization is necessarily or in every respect a bad thing. The same holds true of Confucianism, a tradition for which I have the utmost respect and admiration. Perhaps what we need is to find a way to sustain a fruitful tension between what civilization and culture each represent at their best, like sheep and wolves sharing the Big Life of the grasslands despite their antagonism—indeed, sustaining that Big Life through their ceaseless antagonism. And, as it turns out, it’s with a dream of the wolf lying down with the sheep that Lü leaves us in the end. The “spirit of the wolf totem,” he writes in the voice of Chen Zhen, “should be considered one of the truly valuable spiritual heritages of all humanity. There’d be hope for China if your national character could be rebuilt by cutting away the decaying parts of Confucianism and grafting a wolf totem sapling onto it. It could be combined with such Confucian traditions as pacifism, an emphasis on education, and devotion to study” (377). The total suppression of the wolf spirit, on the other hand, is a violent assault on our nature that can only result in the degeneration of human life and the damming of the greatest fount of culture.

Wolf Totem and Nietzsche together sound a lament that one of the chief casualties of civilization has been the wild animal spirit. Civilization imperils both the beast in the wild, such as the majestic Mongolian wolf that educated and inspired the nomads on the steppe, and our own ancestral wildness, from which what is best in us has grown. Wolf Totem suggests that the two forms of wildness go together, such that the loss of one could entail the loss of the other—which is one good reason among many for acting quickly to reverse the precipitous decline in the worldwide wolf population before it’s too late. Mark Rowlands makes a similar argument in his book The Philosopher and the Wolf, which I also highly recommend. Rowlands recounts the years he spent with his adopted wolf companion Brenin, “a creature that was, in most important respects, unquestionably, ably, demonstrably, irredeemably and categorically superior to me” (84-85). Like Lü, Rowlands believes that the wolf harbors something wild and primordial in his soul, traces of which are still present within us despite the vast evolutionary distance that separates us from the wolf. At the same time, the wolf embodies a nobility that both Rowlands and Lü believe it would behoove us to try to emulate.

The Wild, the Beautiful, and the Deadly

What could inspire this emulation if not our recognition of the extraordinary grace and beauty of the wolf, which, like any experience of beauty, must awaken in all but the most spiritually obtuse the desire to honor it in some way? “When power becomes gracious and descends into view: beauty I call such descending,” wrote Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 104). Arnaud’s amazing cinematography in Wolf Totem brings the elemental beauty of the powerful Mongolian wolf to life for those of us who may never have the opportunity to see real wolves running, playing, hunting, stalking, and killing in the wild. The freedom of the wolf, his delight in his prowess, his command of the steppe, all of which so inspired his nomadic disciples, are rendered visible and palpably cogent. At the same time, Arnaud’s source material— Lü’s original novel Wolf Totem—can help us to think deeply about what this particular experience of beauty might have to tell us about ourselves.


Jiang Rong, Wolf Totem: A Novel, trans. Howard Goldblatt (New York: Penguin, 2008)

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage

Books, 1968)

———The Antichrist in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York:

Penguin Books, 1977)

———Twilight of the Idols, trans. Richard Polt (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing

Company, 1997)

———Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 2002)

Rowlands, Mark, The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death,

and Happiness (New York: Pegasus Books, 2010)

Russell, Bertrand, Autobiography (New York: Routlege, 2009)

George A. Dunn has edited, co-edited, and/or contributed chapters to numerous books in the Wiley-Blackwell Pop Culture and Philosophy series, most recently co-editing Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy with Jason T. Eberl. He is currently working on a book titled A Friend Come From Afar: Leo Strauss in China, co-edited with Dr. Peng Lei, Deputy Director of the Renmin University Center for Classical Studies.

View the complete list of books: Pop Culture Cover Fan

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