The Rise of Wolf Culture: Thoughts on Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf

By Jianhua Chen; translated by Isabel Galwey

The first ten years of the twenty-first century have passed in a snap of the fingers. Many trends have come and gone, but nothing has prevented the onward march of the globalized economy. The world, the globe, and our everyday lives are undergoing historic changes — and so are our value systems. People live as if in constant movement; danger accompanies opportunity.  People have become more materialistic, more impatient, and more fragile. Under all this pressure, they seek relaxation and pleasure. This era has been described as the “digital age,” the “information age,” but also the “the age of entertainment.”[i]

Half a century ago French Philosopher Guy Debord posited his theory of the “society of spectacle:” that the urban environment brought about by capitalism is coloured by its alienated, fetishistic ideologies — and citizens unconsciously live in accordance with its capitalistic logic. Now, new digital technology and internet culture have brought about a new world of mass media, stranger even than the “spectacular society.” Nobody is interested in “ideology” anymore. The intelligentsia of the 20th century were at the forefront of ideological movements, but in an age dominated by mass media, these intellectuals are powerless. Ideology itself, however, has not been absent. Rather, it has remained in the background of everyday entertainment. Ideology is transmitted though the globalised circulation of cultural products and aesthetics. Our essential values — what is “truth” and what is “good and evil”— are undergoing unprecedented and dramatic changes.

Recently I watched the TV animation series Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf (2005), which is as good a starting point as any to begin this discussion. There can hardly be a soul who doesn’t know this animated series and its spin-off film, which smashed box offices and raked in millions this year. It is the pride of the domestic Chinese animation production and has performed far beyond the expectations of its studio. One unexpected aspect of the film’s success is that it was not only a hit with its original target audience — 4 to 14-year-olds — but rather it performed well across all demographics. But what really grabbed people’s attention was the response of white-collar women: “we want to be like the Pleasant Goat, but we want to marry the Grey Wolf.” A quick search online turns up the “top ten reasons” to marry Grey Wolf, the first of which is that “he loves his wife more than he loves himself.”

The makers of the film have since said that they never expected that the antagonist, Grey Wolf, would win himself such a dedicated adult following, but this phenomenon really comes from their creativity. The wolf has always been known as a sinister and savage animal, but these creators didn’t follow the old, archetypal pattern: instead, they created a “loveable” anti-hero. In fact, this creative impulse embodies the collective consciousness which has been taking shape since the beginning of the new century. Before Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, there were already a number of cultural products in which the wolf and the sheep’s love was no secret — and, in fact, the wolf’s traditional role was thoroughly subverted. For example, in 2006 the song The Wolf that Fell for the Lamb was a huge viral hit — a song which recounted the deathless love between the lamb and wolf. A similar tune was Dao Lang’s Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, which could be heard almost everywhere for a time. If, in these songs, the wolf lays his warmth, sweetness and sensitivity before the “lamb,” then the Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars Miriam Yeung and Rainie Yang’ s song Wolf is Coming offers a different metaphor: the wolf as the cool Prince Charming and a sweetheart lover in girls’ daydream. 

In Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, the wolf is also loving, but only to his own kind — there is still a boundary of good and bad between him and the sheep. Although this boundary is very blurred, as the audience surmised, the film is ultimately a comedy, and the relationship between wolf and sheep is played for laughs. What is interesting is the reaction of these white-collar women. Through the projection of their imaginations, the wolf is drawn from the film itself and transformed into an idol “husband” — suggesting that the romance of lamb and wolf is already a part of their subconscious. As others have pointed out, the “wolf craze” had already started to take hold at the end of the last century. For example, Chiyi Chin’s 1980s hit I am a Wolf from the North had already become fashionable on campuses. The lone wolf without a home stirred the emotions of young people, but at that time he never expected that he might fall in love with the lamb.    

Since time immemorial, there’s been a saying that “the nature of jackals and wolves can never be changed” — that is to say, the archetypal wolf is ferocious and cruel. Many stories about wolves involve the idea or value of “integrity.” In China, “the wolf in the mountains” (zhongshan lang) is a byword for treachery. From a young age we have all heard Aesop’s fable about “the boy who cried wolf:” the moral of the story is an exhortation to be honest, or face the wolves alone. We have all read Grimms Fairy Tales and Little Red Riding Hood, too — and so we are vigilant for the wolf’s disguises. But since the coming of the new century, there has been an awakening. Suddenly, the phrase “the wolf is coming” is no longer a frightening one.

This surge of “wolf culture” has been a global phenomenon, and has a number of complicated causes. In the midst of global warming, the 9/11 terror attacks, and the sweeping global economy, the wolf is ascendant, making his howl heard above the din. In recent years wild animals have suffered unchecked hunting, and natural ecosystems have been severely damaged. Of course, wolves have been amongst the species affected. What is interesting is that wolves have found particular favour with the environmental movement, with special appeals for “wolf rights.” In February 2007 the German department for environmental protection held a symposium titled “Who is the Big Bad Wolf?” Lung Ying-tai, a Taiwanese public intellectual, responded with a piece reversing the popular verdict on wolves, arguing that Grimm’s Fairy Tales had “blackened their name” and expressing outrage on their behalf. The essay concluded with the parting shot: “The wolf comes. That’s really great!” A number of documentaries and feature films favourable to wolves came out around this time, including the American Living with Wolves (2005) and the French Survivre avec les Loups (2007) and La Jeune Fille et les Loups (2008). All these works attempted to portray wolves’ general goodwill towards human beings.    

What’s more, the wolf has come to be regarded as a new resource of cultural capital. The year 2004 saw the release of a novel, Wolf Totem, in which wolves become a symbol for the glorification of the people’s spirit. The book tells the story of an educated youth who is sent to Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution for re-education. There he hears a large number of myths and legends related to wolves, and recounts stories of his own personal experiences with the wolf pack. In the author’s favorable narrative, the wolf has an alert and tenacious nature. When hunting their prey they are steady and ruthless; though they can bear solitude they have a pack spirit. The narrative of the novel is told from a historical viewpoint, through episodes of reminiscence and reflection. It reveals that at an early point Chinese culture had already lost its wolf-like vigor and so its spirit ebbed, leading to its victimization in modern times. Drawing on the spirit of the Mongolian grasslands, the author reinstated the “wolf totem” in Chinese culture. In this way, Chinese culture may finally become a winner. This novel became a bestseller, not only because it gave the average reader a sense of excitement and adventure, but also because it offered an opportunity to reflect on those lost years, opening a door onto their primitive and violent zeitgeist. After Wolf Totem’s great sales, the author was confident enough to also release a book for children entitled Little Wolf Little Wolf (2005), hoping that from an early age they would develop their independence and fighting spirit; in other words, he wanted children to study how to be tough wolves. 

Frankly, Wolf Totem is not a great work of literature — and yet its influence has stretched far beyond China’s borders. In only a few years it has been translated into at least 10 languages. This phenomenon is quite fascinating. Works of contemporary Chinese literature seldom find such commercial success on the international market. According to readers of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, the most interesting thing was the depiction of the foreign land of the Inner Mongolian grasslands — but on a deeper level, the book suited the requirements of our present reality. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and 911, the world has once again entered a period of warring nation-states, in which nobody can tell who is going to win. In the meantime, all the whole global flows of capital across borders seem unstoppable. Without any difficulty, it enters into every country, removing every obstacle in its path. Since the fading of Cold War mentality, there has been a need for a new philosophy defending “survival of the fittest.” The symbolic authority of the wolf is more like “soft power:” it is about desire for power, and anyone can possess it. In 2007, shortly after the release of this novel, Shochiku Company released a blockbuster about Genghis Kahn’s military accomplishments called Blue Wolf.

One relevant question at this point is: why is it the wolf, and not the lion or tiger, which has become such a fashionable cultural touchstone of our time? Both because lions and tigers are lacking the complex “wolf nature” (langxing) which is making such a global comeback, and because when searching through history for cultural resources, it becomes apparent that wolves are inseparable from humanity. In the endlessly circulating image of the “wolf-human” or “werewolf,” we find a secret “crossover” between wolves and humans. In today’s age of miracles and calamities, what could be a better symbol than the wolf? What could better respond to this unforeseen, sweeping change? I happened to see a blog posted by the famous Chinese crosstalk actor Guo Degang. It was titled “even if I have the medicine, I will not give it to you for free,” and in the last sentence he uses the aphorism: “living among the crowds,  it is necessary to keep the firm nature of the wolf.” No matter where this phrase first came from, “wolf nature” has become widely recognized — this is merely one example.    

The “werewolf” cuts a conspicuous figure in the new century. The Cold War-style, black-and-white, clear-cut ways of thinking have changed. Indeed, acknowledging the “wolf nature” in humanity, and face up to the darker side of our nature, such as our ruthlessness and hypocrisy, is a step forward. It can give rise to a new space for thought and creativity; for example, the “wolf falling for the lamb” rejects the wolf’s stereotypical image and offers instead a new idea, opening up the topic of romantic love.

From an abstract point of view, the significance of the love story between wolf and sheep is its implication of risk as part of the miracle of happiness, encapsulating the contemporary experience of modern romance. Audiences of online music include a wide variety of people from all walks of life. In these songs, injured wolves are saved by lambs, and together, they find comfort in the wilderness, escaping the bullets of hunters and stoically facing an uncertain future. What a dreary life and tragic heroism! In the globalized China today, this type of song embodies the primitive passions of capitalism and freedom of speech which exploded across the internet. This romantic love goes hand in hand with the rising phenomenon of the globalized economy and its cultural order’s psychedelic, illusory aesthetics. It also embodies ordinary people’ desires and imaginations, their hopes and fears for reality.

“Wolf nature” has come rushing out of the dark corners and up onto the stage of the new century. Whether as loveable villains or as respected heroes, the driving force behind their appearance is the changed rules of the game: the desire to conquer, the worship of power, and, in China, the maxim that “money is everything.” These new paradigms obscure human nature and ignore “integrity” — the most crucial point defining the narratives of wolves. We now have a global “integrity crisis,” which we will have to face collectively. We are also experiencing a test of human nature.

At this, the white-collar ladies who want to marry Grey Wolf might well exclaim: “Come on, don’t politicize it! In times like these we all need a bit of entertainment, having some fun isn’t such a big deal.” Yes — dancing with wolves is our present reality. But embracing our “wolf nature” is like walking on a high wire. In the carnivalesque atmosphere there is seldom time to reflect, but you should still be skillful and alert — otherwise, you will fall off that tightrope under your feet. 

[i] This essay was translated and adapted from Jianhua Chen, “Wolf Comes! Change of Values in Twenty-First Century China,” Twenty-First Century Bimonthly (Ershiyi shiji) no. 121 (October 2010): 44-48.


Jianhua Chen received PhD degrees in Literature from Fudan University and Harvard University. He taught at Shanghai University, Fudan University, Oberlin College, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Currently he is Chair Professor at Chinese Classics Institute, Fudan University, China. His works include From Revolution to the Republic: Chen Jianhua on Vernacular Chinese Modernity (Special Issue of Contemporary Chinese Thought, Fall 2012), Revolution and Form: Mao Dun’s Early Novels and Chinese Literary Modernity, 1927-1930 (Brill, 2018), and many books and essays on the history of Chinese poetic hermeneutics, Ming-Qing literature, revolution discourses and translation theory, literary and visual modernity in China. 

Isabel Galwey is a final year undergraduate studying Chinese at the University of Oxford, UK. Her research interests include the study of modern and contemporary Chinese art, design, literature and film, with a special focus on animation. She is also interested in creative dialogues between China and the world. This summer she completed a Laidlaw Programme research project exploring the urban in contemporary Chinese animation.

The translation was financially supported by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (RGC Project Number: ECS 26400114)

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