Choleric Villains: a Kung Fu Panda case study

Lately I’ve been thinking about and discussing the two basic types of choleric. I’ve also been watching a lot of Kung Fu Panda with my son. So let’s use the villains of Kung Fu Panda to explore the two types of choleric and how they function!

Tai Lung 

Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 feature well-developed villains with sympathetic origin stories.

The villain of KFP1 is Tai Lung, an orphan snow-leopard adopted and trained by Master Shifu in the Jade Palace, who so excels at martial arts that he and his teacher both assume Tai Lung will become the Dragon Warrior.

But when Grand Master Oogway decides Tai Lung is not Dragon Warrior material, Tai Lung is outraged. He goes on a rampage and is eventually defeated by Oogway and imprisoned.

In simple temperament terms, Tai Lung is clearly choleric.  He is proud, ambitious, confident, angry and vengeful against those who have wronged him.

He pursues his revenge with the determination and focus of a choleric, having already displayed extraordinary patience, biding his time until the opportunity to escape presents itself.

Having escaped, he immediately returns to his goal of obtaining the Dragon Scroll, convinced that he is – or deserves to be – the Dragon Warrior.

Lord Shen

Lord Shen, the villain of KFP2, is the scion of a family of peacocks who ruled Gongmen City and brought joy to the people through their mastery of fireworks.

When Shen begins experimenting with fireworks as a potential weapon, his parents consult a soothsayer who warns that if Shen doesn’t alter his course, he will be defeated by “a warrior of black and white”.

Interpreting the prophecy, Shen takes his army to wipe out all the pandas in China and thereby avoid his fate. On his triumphant return Shen’s parents are horrified and banish him.

Like Tai Lung, Shen is proud, ambitious, confident, angry and vengeful. He bides his time while further developing his explosive new weapons and awaits the opportunity to exact revenge (symbolically) against his now deceased parents, returning to his ancestral home before setting out to conquer all of China.

Using MBTI to unpack temperament

The similarities between Shen and Tai Lung as cholerics are obvious. Of course they are also villains, which makes the comparison very direct.

Disclaimer: Not all villains are choleric and of course not all cholerics are villains. But cholerics have qualities that lend them to being either great heroes or great villains….great anything, potentially.

But there are specific areas of difference between Tai Lung and Shen that can be observed in real-world cholerics too.

Power in oneself vs power over others

One of the most fundamental distinctions between cholerics is the nature of their ambition, which directly relates to their underlying skills or cognitive functions in an MBTI context.

Tai Lung is a skilled warrior. He is very nearly the most skilled warrior in the world of KFP1, which is the foundation of his pride and also the means by which he pursues his ambition to be recognised as the Dragon Warrior.

In MBTI terms, Tai Lung has introverted intuition (Ni). 

Like all the cognitive functions, it’s hard to understand Ni if you don’t have it. As a non-Ni user, the best I can grasp is that Ni-users intuitively know how to do things.

Intuition is simply unconscious mental processing. The difference between Ni and Ne (extroverted intuition) is that Ne unconsciously processes information and patterns about the external world, while Ni unconsciously processes the user’s own actions, skills, and “how to do things”.

Strong Ni users seem to have a knack or talent in at least one area, sometimes many. They know how to dress well and present well. They take to hobbies and skills with instinctive sureness.

They might not be able to explain to others how they know, because the processing is unconscious, but in art, music, sports, or martial arts, their skill is evident.

For an Ni choleric (INTJ or ENTJ) ambition is channeled through this innate facility.

Hence Tai Lung’s pride and ambition are all about his own excellence, being the best. In his own mind he is the Dragon Warrior, and therefore deserves the Scroll that promises to further enhance his already superlative skill.

Non-villainous cholerics with Ni might describe their ambition in terms of being the best they can be, or wanting to compete with themselves (as an INTJ friend put it).

After all, Tai Lung doesn’t want to conquer all of China, he just wants to be the best.

The kind of choleric who does want to conquer all of China

While Tai Lung is the embodiment of kung fu as an individual skill honed to near-perfection, Lord Shen will happily destroy kung fu in the pursuit of his own ambition.

Instead of the power within himself, Lord Shen cultivates power over others, beginning with his intuitive realisation that the fireworks created by his parents could be used for violence.

This detail of Shen’s origin story is a perfect clue to the kind of intuition he wields: extroverted intution (Ne).

Ne is all about patterns and connections in the external world. As an Ne-user I can fully appreciate Shen’s recognition that the explosive power of fireworks could be “repurposed”. NB: but as a melancholic the idea doesn’t appeal to me!

Shen’s power is almost totally externalised, as represented by the cannons he invented and the army of wolves and gorillas he commands. While he has kung fu skills of his own, they are clearly insufficient to achieve his true aims and ambition.

Lacking the innate talent of the Ni choleric, Lord Shen’s ambitions are not grounded in his own personal attributes. This is reflected in his willingness to destroy his own ancestral home in pursuit of something greater.

Instead of being motivated by his own innate skill, what motivates an Ne choleric like Shen is the self-evident truth that bigger is better:

Soothsayer: “Are you certain it is the panda who is a fool? You just destroyed your ancestral home, Shen!
Shen: “A trivial sacrifice, when all of China is my reward.

Yet at the same time, Shen’s Ne is apparent in his respect for the Soothsayer, a fellow Ne user whom he spares in part to prove her wrong, but also in recognition of her own gifts.

As a fellow Ne user, Shen is intrigued by the Soothsayer’s predictions and insights. He sends her away only when he is confident that his own path is certain.

The weakness of cholerics

In temperament terms, an Ni choleric would be choleric with a secondary temperament of sanguine, and an Ne choleric would have a secondary temperament of phlegmatic. But that’s an “all things being equal” scenario.

In practice we can see that different cognitive functions can be exaggerated or diminished through circumstances, formation, and our own choices.

Tai Lung’s excessive ambition was fostered by Shifu, his adoptive father and teacher. Shifu encouraged Tai Lung’s desire to be the Dragon Warrior:

Tai Lung to Shifu: Who filled my head with dreams?! Who drove me to train until my bones cracked?! Who denied me my DESTINY?!?

Things get a bit subtle at this point, but I think the “filled my head with dreams” aspect would relate to Tai Lung’s introverted Feeling function (Fi) in either a tertiary or inferior position; my guess would be inferior.

Fi is all about ideals, meaning, and “dreams”. But in an inferior position, Fi is very rudimentary.

At various stages in life our inferior function is more influential, and it’s common for people to suppress their dominant function and be driven by their inferior.

In Tai Lung’s case, that would mean his dominant extroverted Thinking (Te) was suppressed, and his inferior Fi was engaged and stimulated by Shifu’s excessive encouragement.

So when Tai Lung is denied the long-expected meaning of becoming the Dragon Warrior he is enraged and goes on a pointless and destructive attack on the valley, ending in his defeat by Oogway and imprisonment.

Living under the shadow of rudimentary Fi, he actually weakens his “efficiency”, his Te, and loses everything of value.

A healthier choleric would have had a clearer sense of his own goals to begin with. He would have found a different way to excel, even if that meant spurning the Jade Palace altogether.

Ironically his loss of control showed that he had less confidence in his own abilities, because he had tied them so strongly to the specific “dream” of becoming the Dragon Warrior.

The search for meaning is his downfall not only in this first instance, but in his subsequent effort to obtain the Dragon Scroll.

The weakness of Lord Shen

As an Ne choleric, Lord Shen has extroverted Feeling (Fe) and introverted Sensing (Si) in his tertiary and inferior positions; but in which order?

There’s a case to make for either option: ENTP or INTP. Honestly, I’m not sure which is correct.

But his character flaws certainly relate to extroverted Feeling, which is all about harmony with others. For Lord Shen it was his parents’ horror and rejection following his attempted genocide of pandas that scarred him. Shen thinks his parents hated him, and is unable to reconcile their repudiation of his actions with their parental love.

But even prior to the incident, it is curious that Shen didn’t buy into the foundation of his parents’ power – the colour and joy that their fireworks brought to the lives of ordinary people. If Shen had more well-developed Fe he ought to have been more appreciative of that relationship between his parents and their subjects.

The frightening aspect of Lord Shen’s Fe is that he massacred the pandas without realising the effect this would have on his parents, and without having previously heeded their worries and fears about his attempts to weaponise fireworks.

It’s suggestive of psychopathy – not only that he would massacre the pandas but more importantly that he would fail to understand his parents response!

What went wrong with Shen?

Unlike Tai Lung, there is no indication that Lord Shen was misled, or that his head was “filled with dreams”.

What seems more likely is his parents’ failure to properly educate their son and instill in him more compassion or care for others. By the time he was willing and able to massacre all the pandas in China, it was already too late in his development.

While this indicates a failure to develop Fe, it also suggests (or rather, my brother suggested while discussing this question) an Si-related failure to fill a young Shen with formative memories that would reinforce the virtues of compassion, benevolence, and mercy.

Shen’s attempt to use his intellect (Ti and Ne) to conquer China with gunpowder is a merciless and violent recapitulation of his parents’ “conquering” Gongmen City through the joy and wonder accomplished by their fireworks.

Without an appreciation for the happiness of the people and the virtues that go along with that, Shen would see his own path as a bigger, better, and more glorious version of his own parents’ success.

Cholerics in real life

Learning about the four temperaments helped me understand myself, but it also helped me understand how and why some people act like complete a***holes when it seems like they should (and maybe do) know better.

Cholerics in general are weaker in the “feeling” functions of the MBTI. In Big 5 terms, they are more “disagreeable” than “agreeable”.

Villains with troubled origin stories aside, cholerics tend to be proud, which they might prefer to describe as being objective about their own strengths.

For Ni cholerics, their strength is the innate talent facilitated by introverted intuition, coupled with extroverted thinking (Te) that helps them be very goal-directed and efficient.

For Ne cholerics, their strength is the systematic world-modelling comprehension of introverted thinking (Ti), enabled and given full-flight by extroverted intuition.

Being strong and disagreeable is advantageous if life is a competition. But cholerics struggle when they seek to “win” at non-competitive goals or attributes such as being agreeable.

A common trope for successful cholerics (villainous or not) is to reach the pinnacle of success only to realise that they have neglected or even harmed the things they valued but did not excel at.

That’s why the choleric “solution” is essentially a softening or slowing down where it might otherwise be easier for them to fight, compete, and perhaps win. It’s for cholerics, I think, that we have the spiritual advice to embrace weakness, meekness, humility, and poverty of spirit.


Temperaments and the MBTI

Following up on the previous post where I introduced Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter, how about we take a look in more detail at the implications of linking the temperaments to the Myers-Briggs system?


We’ll stick with the Idealist type, which corresponds to the Melancholic temperament.

First a brief run-down on the MBTI.

I was reintroduced to the system in my previous workplace as part of a Human Resources thing. I use the word ‘thing’ advisedly, since that particular episode defies more insightful analysis.

I fully intended to write something hateful and contemptuous about it, but found in the course of further research that I had a great deal of sympathy for the system, if not the practice of it in a corporate environment.

As with my aversion to corporate meditation, the problems lie in the self-serving, incoherent, and banal spirit that infects everything it comes into contact with, no matter how good or noble or valuable (or simply harmless) it may be.

So I spent some time digging deeper into the MBTI and came across various good resources.

The core of it lies in the cognitive functions of perceiving and judging. Perceiving comes in two forms: Sensing (S) and Intuition (N). Judging also comes in two forms: Feeling (F) and Thinking (T).

That gives four possible combinations of perceiving and judging: SF, ST, NF, and NT.

Broadly speaking, you could say that Sensing is about facts, details, and precision. Intuition is about patterns, similarities, and generalities. Feeling is about meaning, relation, and authenticity. Thinking is about reason, systems, and achieving goals.

To make matters more complex, the MBTI theory holds that these perceiving and judging functions are further divided by introversion and extroversion. That is, we use different functions to perceive interiorly as opposed to exteriorly, and likewise with judging.

If a person uses Sensing to interpret the exterior world, they will use Intuition to interpret the interior world. If a person uses Thinking to arrive at judgements about external things, they will use Feeling to reach decisions about internal ones.

In terms of notation, we can add a little i or e to the functions. So an NF person may be NiFe (introverted Intuition and extroverted Feeling) or NeFi (extroverted Intuition and introverted Feeling).

Not only are your functions introverted and extroverted, but you yourself are also more or less introverted or extroverted. In fact, introversion and extroversion of the individual (as opposed to the functions) is one of the most solidly researched and supported aspects of personality theory generally.

Why does this matter? Well, if your functions are NiFe, but you yourself are predominantly introverted (I), then your individual focus is going to be centred more on your introverted function: Ni – introverted Intuition.  That is to say that your introverted Intuition is going to figure more in your experience of life than your extroverted Feeling.

An Extroverted NiFe person will have the inverse experience. They will still have introverted Intuition, but their extroverted Feeling will be more central to their experience.

For some reason, the Myers-Briggs notation settled on four characters. So instead of writing, for example, INiFe, they write INF, and add a P or J to tell you which of the functions is extroverted.

Thus, an Introverted person who has introverted Intuition (Ni) and extroverted Feeling (Fe) will be written as INFJ, because the Judging function is extroverted. Conversely, an Introverted person who has extroverted Intuition (Ne) and introverted Feeling (Fi) will be written as INFP.

Phew! This is hard work. Writing strictly explanatory material like this is rather exhausting. A structured, detailed approach is really better suited to a Sensing type.

Anyhow, as I was saying, all NF types are classed as Idealists in Keirsey’s system, which corresponds to the Melancholic temperament. But in MBTI terms, there are still notable differences between the various NF subtypes. An INFJ and an INFP may have a lot in common, but these commonalities will highlight their differences as well.

One way of thinking about these differences is in terms of temperament. There aren’t a lot of Melancholics around (half of them are hiding), but even so I know enough of them to spot consistent differences. Some Melancholics are a little, dare I say, Sanguine. Others are a little more Phlegmatic.

We might, in the typically crude style of the temperaments theory, suggest that some people are Melancholic-Sanguine and others are Melancholic-Phlegmatic. And if we look at the MBTI in Keirsey’s approach, we can see how this might work.

An INFJ has Ni and Fe as his predominant functions. But that means he also has Ti and Se as his tertiary and ‘inferior’ functions. Each of us uses all of the functions to greater or lesser degrees. What the MBTI really indicates is one’s preference or strength in the various functions. So when you see NF, you know immediately that S and T are in there somewhere.

Extroverted Sensing (Se) in Keirsey’s system signifies that a person is of the Artisan or Sanguine temperament. Whether you are an ISTP, ESTP, ISFP, or ESFP, you all have extroverted Sensing and are therefore all Sanguines.

This implies that all NFJ types are a little bit Sanguine, since they have Se as either their tertiary (for ENFJ) or inferior (for INFJ) functions.

Accordingly, all NFP types are a little bit Phlegmatic, since INFP and ENFP types have introverted Sensing (Si) as their tertiary and inferior functions respectively.

In theory then, all INFP types are Melancholic-Phlegmatic, though in practice it will depend on the individual as to how strong the relevant functions are. The functions of any given INFP will tend to be arranged as follows in order of preference: Fi, Ne, Si, Te.

But if you’ve ever done an MBTI test, you might find some unusual results. You might find, for example, that your inferior function is almost as strong as your dominant function.  In fact, before I really understood the functions I was never sure if I was INFP or INTP, because I usually scored equally high in both F and T.

As various sources suggest, the inferior function is not supposed to be so strong but can emerge under stress or duress, or even as part of a developmental stage. The idea is that this weakest function can come to hold a certain mystique, potency or promise. Discovering an underdeveloped function that is, in a sense, the other side of the coin to your dominant function can present apparent opportunities and adventure.

For me, the development of extroverted Thinking coincided with my discovery of a system of ethics and an approach to philosophy that was new, exciting, and extremely powerful.

I pursued this philosophy in a single-minded way for several years. It was pretty much all I talked about.  What I loved most about it was the clarity and certainty it provided, in stark contrast to the relativism and pluralism of the academic philosophy I had been exposed to.

And yet, the more I pursued it the more confined and restricted I felt. The sense of having all the answers at first provided wonder, but eventually the wonder collapsed in on itself. The excitement at having the tools to discover answers in time became weariness at the kinds of answers these tools could provide, or the kinds of puzzles they could solve.

In MBTI terms, I reached the limit of exploring my inferior extroverted Thinking. It no longer felt mysterious or interesting or powerful.  The answers it provided may have been as true as ever, but they were no longer satisfying.

Developing or relying on my inferior function skews the results of various tests, and can result in MBTI mis-identification. I did wonder in the past whether I was INTP or INFP…but if we revert to the temperaments theory such mis-identification becomes laughable.

An INTP is, like all NT types, a Choleric. An INFP is, like all NF types, a Melancholic. And while Melancholics and Cholerics can have a lot in common, on closer inspection there is really no mistaking the two.

Yet prior to discovering the four temperaments theory, I did see strong similarities between myself and several Cholerics I know. The similarities are real, but from a Melancholic perspective, they are not as significant as the elements that give us a different ‘feel’.

And this is, again, where the MBTI suffers compared to the temperaments theory.  By going into greater detail, offering 16 types rather than four main temperaments, by dealing in functions rather than reactions, the MBTI offers a lot more, but at greater risk of confusion and mis-identification.

In a very unMelancholic style, it turns the extremes of the four temperaments into the finely variegated 16 types. It reduces the ancient biological analogy of the humours to the interchangeable binary of the MBTI pigeon-holes, and loses something in the process.  Like the inferior function that (for me) it represents, I don’t mind delving into it on occasion, but it’s not something I can depend on wholeheartedly.