Defending Chinese Culture & Kung Fu Panda

There are many sensitive topics in Chinese discourse and few more sensitive than the edifice known as “Chinese culture,” so it’s no surprise that Chinese are hashing out the implications of another smash hit involving Chinese characteristics to come out of Hollywood, Kung Fu Panda 2.

Disregarding self-aggrandizing lunatics like Zhao Bandi, the discussion online (where discussions are their most “public”) revolves around a few questions:

Why can’t China produce a film like this? Is Kung Fu Panda a true representation of Chinese culture? What is Chinese culture?

Let’s take a closer look at these questions below:

If You Have to Ask …

For many commentators, the answer to the first question is simple. Censorship, rote learning and a politicized movie industry prevent great works with international appeal from coming out of Mainland China — Farewell my Concubine being one notable exception. Posts like this on Douban are representative of this view:

Last night I read online that the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television pushed Transformers 3 and Harry Potter 7 to later time slots in order to protect Beginning of the Great Revival, I thought to myself, the Mainland wouldn’t hesitate to do such a thing. No matter if it’s true or false, everyone should think about it. Killing dis-harmonious elements and blocking outside forces as a means of weaponizing the cultural realm will ensure that we never create inspired work.

There are other works which follow the same theme, like writer NanQiao for the Oriental Morning Post’s, “A Look at How Hollywood Plays the ‘Chinese Elements’ Card,” which also goes a bit deeper into the issue. He begins by asking the question that every Chinese engaged with this topic is asking:

From Mulan to Kung Fu Panda, how come others can take our culture, turn it into a tasty meal and sell it back to us at a profit?

Kungfu Panda 2It seems that “stealing culture” is not the only thing that galls. When Hollywood (i.e. foreigners) can profit off of stealing culture, then the discussion becomes heated and a solution must be found. NanQiao is not the only one mentioning the profit issue. Virtually every discussion mentions that “they’re making money off of us” — this is a very important aspect of the discussion because the importance of profit can come from a few different points of view:

  1. They’re turning our culture into a product to be packaged and sold!
  2. They’re making money off of us! It should always be the other way around!
  3. Not one Mainland Chinese movie has come even close to making the same amount of cash that Hollywood movies have made in the Chinese market
  4. Movie tickets in China aren’t cheap. An average ticket for Kung Fu Panda 2 costs more than 100RMB, while the average salary hovers around 2,500 per month for young people. Going to the movies is a luxury for the average person.

NanQiao answers his question by discussing “cultural strength” (文化强势) and the ability of Hollywood to recognize and synthesize (what Americans feel to be) worthy cultural elements into a seamless narrative and the inability of Chinese films to do the same:

When we speak of “cultural strength” things get blurry because it is the perception of value that determines something’s worth. Chinese are not sure what has value and what does not, whereas Americans seem to have a much clearer and more confident idea of what holds value. This has contributed to the success of the movies.

For NanQiao, a clear and confident idea of what is culturally valuable determines a culture’s strength vis a vis another, therefore America’s clarity and China’s confusion lead to an imbalance in cultural strength ie much higher profits for Hollywood movies.

Chengdu in the Limelight

For the answer to the second question, lets first take a look at Chengdu’s reaction to the movie. The first Kung Fu Panda movie came out in June of 2008, not even a month after the Wenchuan Earthquake. At the time Chengdu was very worried about its image and as tourism numbers fell to 2003 levels, they were looking for something to help reverse the bad press.

So they extended an invitation to Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and his team to come out to Chengdu and see what a real panda looks like. Katzenberg immediately agreed and took a trip out to the Panda Breeding Center (who promptly named one of their pandas after Po). During the making of Kung Fu Panda 2, the municipal government again extended an invite and the whole film crew including art director Raymond Zibach visited the city.

They stopped at Kuan Zhai Xiangzi, Qing Cheng Mountain, Dujiangyan and Jinsha (slurping up some noodles and hot pot along the way). The story was already done by the time the team arrived in Chengdu, but their experiences in the city inspired them to re-do some of the animation and insert dandan noodles, elements from the breeding center and Kuan Zhai Xiangzi and a lot of the scenery from Qing Cheng Mountain.

Qingcheng Shan

Qingcheng Mountain, located an hour outside Chengdu, is a center of Daoism and host to countless temples

The city of Chengdu practically gloated over this “free press” — in an article written for China Business, Peng Ge and Pei Yu elaborate on the efforts by the Chengdu Municipal government to get elements of the Du into the movie:

The invitation that led to the film crew coming to Chengdu was a planned effort to promote the city. Through the appearance of many elements of the city of Chengdu in the film the whole world was able to gain an impression of the city. A group of more than 100 people exists within the government whose sole job it was to promote Chengdu through this movie. This is a plan that was carried out over 3 years, but did not cost a single penny.

The authors go out of their way to show that the government did not spend a single penny on the “free PR” they received from the movie, despite mentioning a “person in the know” who said that the cost for this PR was around the RMB3million mark. It is safe to assume that the government expected to pay for having parts of Chengdu’s culture portrayed in the film, because Hebei Province happily invested in the movie Aftershock, about the Tangshan earthquake of 1976. So when Katzenberg said that he would put scenery from Chengdu into Kung Fu Panda 2 “as a gift to the children of the disaster zone” and when Zibach gushed that “I was so delighted and moved by Mt. Qingcheng that I insisted it be a major feature of the sequel,” the city of Chengdu was taken aback:

Chengdu officials met with the film people for dinner in Kuan Zhai Xiangzi and Jeffrey Katzenberg came out directly and said that he would put elements of the Chengdu into the movie. The officials were surprised because they assumed they would have to pay out a large sum of money in order to have that happen.

For the Chengdu government, Kung Fu Panda and it’s sequel are direct representations of the culture and beauty of the city. The pandas, the mountain scenes, all of the streetside vendors — according to their PR releases, these were directly inspired by Chengdu. The government’s goal was PR and ultimately profits, so for them the elements of China within the movie were not only adequate, but outstanding (in part because they “didn’t cost a penny”).

But for many netizens, including NanQiao, Kung Fu Panda 2 is very much an American movie and lacks the strong ties to Chinese culture that the first installment had. The jury is still out.

The scenery and setting were very Chinese, but the main character Po is very American. The peacock and the Master are quintessential Chinese characters, but the heroic stand at the end is considered an “America! F*ck Yeah!” type of moment, even though Po used Qing Cheng Mountain Tai Qi. All across the web there are comments that range from “They know us better than we know ourselves!” to “It’s an American kid dropped into the middle of China!”

As we can see here, there seems to be a disconnect between what is and is not Chinese culture and what is and is not valuable. For the city of Chengdu and Hebei Province, PR and the possibility of increased tourism adds value to the cultural elements within a film; for the average Chinese netizen, the answer is still unclear.

Asking the Wrong Question

For years Chinese have been told that their culture is not only unique, but that nobody else out there can really compare with or even fully comprehend the depth of China. When Chinese find out that, actually, some things are universal and that, yes it is possible to understand the deep values of Chinese culture precisely because they are universal then a whole new round of soul searching ensues.

Kungfu Panda 2

Laughter is universal. When I watched the movie last weekend, I laughed my ass off and so did everyone else in the theater. Even when the jokes were pure-Jack Black slapstick.

Pain is universal. When Po’s mom left the little guy and he said “mama?” the whole theater fell silent and I felt the tears come. Somebody nearby was sobbing.

Inner peace is universal. When Master Shifu catches a drop of water off of the cliff face and guides it intact onto a leaf, demonstrating the power of inner peace, I knew exactly what he meant, even though I am neither Taoist, Chinese nor a Tai Qi master.

These elements were placed within a Chinese context and nothing more. If anything, the scenery itself helped bend the American cultural elements within the film, not the other way around. As I left the theater last week, I asked one of the ushers if he had watched the movie and he said of course several times. Then he said:

You Americans probably don’t like this movie much, because it stresses the power of the group over that of the individual.

I could only smile at the irony there.

Kung Fu Panda is a movie that is first and foremost a Creation, inspired by the very best of China. Perhaps the discussions the film has engendered across the Chinese blogosphere will lead to a clarification of what is truly valuable about Chinese culture.

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. He's lived in Chengdu on and off for twelve years and currently makes his home in the South of Chengdu.

30 Responses to “Defending Chinese Culture & Kung Fu Panda”

  1. I haven’t seen Kung Fu Panda 2 (is it worth seeing in the theater?) but I’ve already heard some similar claims to rights on panda narratives.

    It seems quite silly, but as you say, “Chinese culture” itself is essentially regarded as an immortal dragon by Chinese people. And to it’s credit, it helped make a blockbuster film which undoubtedly sees China as one of its most lucrative markets.

  2. “From Mulan to Kung Fu Panda, how come others can take our culture, turn it into a tasty meal and sell it back to us at a profit?”

    I wouldn’t say this is cultural imperialism, the overzealous bloggers are looking for yet another excuse to point the finger at the west. China has made thousands of films/ tv series and stories that echo the same themes of Kung Fu Panda, but are lacking in terms of humor and creativity.

    Although I haven’t seen the latest installment, Hollywood does a good (if not the best job) in appealing to universal feelings, and all-encompassing moral lessons.

    I remember watching the first film at the theater in the States when I was a mentor for some inner-city youth. Although the boy’s (my mentee) native language was Spanish, he probably could have understood the lessons in the movie if it were in Chinese.

    Cartoons speak to people young and old across cultural boundaries. If anything, the Panda series have improved Western’s view of China while also raising Chinese patriotism. Nearly every new Chinese friend has asked me if I have seen Kung Fu Panda, and fan art is plastered across douban and weibo. Isn’t that something Chinese bloggers should be proud of?

    • I think it is great that people on this site are engaging these topics, and I am happy I came across this site for this reasons. I feel far too often travelers and expats alike willfully disengage their ‘adventures’ from any social or political context.

      I, having never seen Kung Fu Panda 1, was surprised at how much I loved the second installment, but i immediately started thinking about as a text. Firstly, i found it hilarious/interesting that i was watching a movie made in America, about China, in China with a Chinese person, in English with Chinese subtitles. Subsequently i started thinking about what kinds of impressions it would give my friends back home of China, and what kinds of impressions it would give my Chinese friends about Western attitudes towards China.

      Having studied a bit about the representation of African Americans in Hollywood movies, I was wary of a few of the caricature-ish nature of some of the characters (thought its a long way off from Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany;s), but in the same time its a cartoon, and cartoons are this way. I think one of the most impressive things about Kung Fu Panda (and something I was not aware of after the first movie) is its incredible success in China, and seeming ability to repackage simplistic aspects of Chinese culture and sell to Chinese people.

      It is always complicated when one culture takes on representing another, but I think the most important thing is that people are talking about it.

      thanks,

  3. Great article.

    It’s foolish for people to shout “boycott” or oppose the movie simply because it was made by Americans. The greatest movies transcend cultural boundaries because, as you mentioned, they deal with timeless and universal values and struggles.

    • i should say you are misunderstanding. What you said is not what those guys mean. the movie was boycotted not because that it was made by Americans, but because the movie makers made the movie by taking advantage of Chinese elements not correctly.
      As far as i am concerned all the Chinese elements are chosen and employed selectively and purposedly, not reflecting the true essence of Chinese culture, but beautifying the ever extremely prejudiced policy against Chinese people and their own mistakes committed to Chinese people in American history.
      It seems the Americanized Panda is so popular with the auduence including the Chinese kids and the old. Actually, the film is good, if we do not mention whether it is derived from Chinese stories or fairy tales. But concerning the Chinese culture, it is made up, at most, it is the Emperor’s New Clothes.In other words, we can say the Chinese cluture is distorted.
      i will present you some details from the movie.
      1. Father the duck is so happy with his present state to earn his life in his small and humble restaurant, with a skirt like apron around his apron, hoping his adopted (must have adopted the son) son would inherit his small private run restaurant. Why was he depited as a happy man yet doing socalled woman’s things?
      2. a father and a son form a family,a happy family, the father attending his son by himself? curious about it? without Mother,wife? Where was the mother, i advise you to read the history book to find the anwer.

      many other details are distorted in the movie. you are not a Chinese, so you can’t feel what Chinese people feel, in particular , those people fond of , know and appreciate Chinese culture.

      So those people are not to be blamed. To watch the movie from their standpoint, you will think what they are worrying about really makes sense.

      • Hi Debbie, thanks for the comment. Unfortunately you have fallen into the same trap that most Mainland Chinese fall into, specifically, the belief that the essence of Chinese culture is a secret sauce that only Chinese can taste.

        Perhaps you skipped over the point of the last part of the essay, but the true beauty of Chinese culture has little to do with your examples (so called woman’s things?) but with the “timeless beauty and universal values” that all humans can and should learn and appreciate.

        Until moviemakers (and moviegoers like you) step back from cultural jealousy and chauvinsim, you will always find your culture represented by others to the rest of the world… and even to you.

        • Secret sauce indeed. I can’t ever remember hearing the word ‘culture’ expressed ad-infinitum anywhere else as I have in China. I’m sure this would be explained as ‘well that’s because your culture isn’t as long or complex’.

          I came to the conclusion that the constant fanning of the ‘cultural flame’ on Chinese TV and elsewhere was simply a nice little ‘them and us’ propaganda tool used for control.

          Chinese culture is interesting to a degree. But like you say, it’s hardly as ‘mystical’ as they would like to think. As long as you can suspend western critical thought and the desire we have to categorize, a person can ‘get’ Chinese culture very easily.

          You might wish you hadn’t bothered afterwards mind you, but after many years you don’t end up with much choice. Same as them.

  4. Chinese people were raving about how good the Chinese language dubbed-over version of this movie was, so I agreed to go with a Chinese friend. I was impressed with how much of the original wording of English script was abandoned for making a high-brow Chinese-langauge version, without changing much of the intended meaning.

    I always remember a 007 clip I caught some Chinese friends watching on their computer. James Bond was having an intense conversation with a lovely lady on a train, and they’re each implying the other has a tarnished history via subtle word play. Having seen the scene before, I thought to myself: “Ooh, I love this part, I wonder how Chinese people will react to it.” So I started watching it from their perspective, by reading the Chinese subtitles below, which read:

    “你不知道我是这样吗?” (You don’t know what I’m like?)
    “我不会以为你是那样…” (I wouldn’t think you’re like that.)
    “那你觉得我是什么样?” (So, what do think I am like?)
    “我就知道你是什么样的…” (I know what you’re like.)

    My jaw dropped as I realized how easy it is loose meaning in translation, and my friends skipped to the next scene.

    I’m not sure if Kung Fu Panda 2′s superior translation is the good work of Dreamworks or China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). I just know it was good.

    • How difficult was the Chinese version to follow? It includes subtitles, right? I have a tough time understanding everything without subtitles.

      Recently I watched Ong Bak on blu-ray, which I was excited to see for the first time. No english vocal track so I watched in in mandarin with traditional chinese subs (no simplified). It was difficult.

      Speaking of Kung Fu Panda 2 though, everyone is still talking about it. I was watching Memento in my office today with a small group and in the middle of the movie someone turned to me during a lull and whispered “Have you seen Kung Fu Panda 2?”

      • On a scale from not difficult to extremely, I’d call it at “rather.” But in context I understood 95% of it.

        From what I could tell (Chinese readers, correct me if I’m wrong), this Chinese dub-over was a tasteful combination of mainly highly educated language with proper idioms and proverbs, and a dash of modern young-speak and internet slang. It’s similar, maybe, to the language of The New Yorker magazine in how it uses elitist language to appeal to high society, while drawing in modern slang and phrases to keep it fresh.

        An important purpose of any speaking in a movie is to draw up funny, sad, serious, heavy and other associations in the minds of the audience. So, just as Jack Black had a good sense of what would sound funny, heavy and so on to his native audiences, so too, it seems, did these translators and voiceover actors who recorded this Chinese version for their audiences.

  5. I would like to try it in Chinese next time I watch it, cuz I think KF2 deserves two theater sessions

  6. I didn’t know the movie was talking about Chengdu until I read this.

    It’s good you mention it because you live in this city, you know about the Pandas etc but I don’t..

    In fact hardly ever do I read something about Chengdu here in Brazil. I only remember the Foxcon factory explosion (that had some highlights here only because they are planning to build a factory here) earlier in this year and the earthquake a few years ago.

    Anyway good post!

  7. Why is it assumed that if Chinese stories focus on the collective, then Hollywood movies could only focus on individualism?

    True: Superman, Batman, Spiderman–all individual Lone Rangers (though some of their like retain sidekicks).

    Also true: X-men, Fantastic Four, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen–all collectives, working together for a common cause.

    • @Kaycie yer welcome ;)

      I think the black and white representations that we often hear in China are part of the problem: We Chinese are X, You Laowai are Y and that’s why movies that blend the two are so disconcerting for many people because black and white becomes rainbow and all those colors make the safe truth hard to distinguish.

      relax, i say, and enjoy the ride.

  8. Recently I watched KF2 and have to say that the first one was much better. However, I loved the scene when Po and his posse where in the dragon costume and munched all the baddies.

  9. Like a lot of sequels, Kung Fu Panda II fell short of the original film’s benchmark. Jack Black was funny enough, but unlike Chinese who are worried Hollywood is profiting from stolen aspects of Chinese culture, I think there were far too many Americanisms in Kung Fu Panda II for the film to be considered a portrayal of true Chinese culture. Take the light saber duel at the end of the movie, for example. How exactly did Po obtain a light saber in ancient China? Similarly, the scene where the furious five fly a squadron of X-wing fighters into a death star seemed contrived. Also, was it necessary for Jack Black to make a cameo appearance in the middle of the movie and sing a Tenacious D song? Can you blame the Chinese for feeling Hollywood is hijacking and corrupting their culture when all of a sudden you see a sweaty Jack Black in the back of an animated Disney feature, wearing a Nacho Libre wrestling mask and singing, “Master Exploder.” It just ruins the whole thing!

    • I feel you Justin. The light sabre thing was right up my alley, but all of the Chinese in the theater just went stone-faced. I had no real problem with the cameo, because I love “the greatest song in the world (a tribute)” and i was too busy making out to actually see Jack Black.

      It was the Imperial March during the end credits that confused me.

      • from JP “i found it hilarious/interesting that i was watching a movie made in America, about China, in China with a Chinese person, in English with Chinese subtitles.”

        LOL

  10. I was pitiful. I watched KFP2 in cantonese, disaster for me. Im really looking forward to twilight in November.

  11. Well, I didnt watch Panda II but I did enjoy Panda I!! I still remember that movis gave me so many surprises and joys:P I have to say that Panda I totally grasped the elements of Kongfu, especially the focus on our sense of “diligense”(keeping practise ALONE no matter night or day, typically on a ROCK CLIFF near a sea or a valley:p), “peace”(origining from Buddism thing), “anything is nothing, nothing is anything”(very confusing, related to Taiji, the motion and shifts of the two opposite axes)…

    Anyway, but I think there are two kinda heros in our culture. One is , of course, people who are brave to sacrisfice their lives for the whole good. It is funny that there are the legendary “four beauties” in China’s history, two of them were trade to the enermy country for the temporary peace of the mother land. But within the literature works about that, almost all of them emphasise their selflessness and great sacrifice. No one mentions that maybe those beaties didnt want to go at all and they were just forced to get themselves sacrifised:p. Also, such sacrifice themes can be seen in many patriot movies in China, in which the hero usually dies for holding his truth/belief or for the whole good, such as never stepping back in front of invadors’ fireshooting, or simply saying “Fire at me!”(when the hero is surrounded by many enemies, he yells his location to the headquarter via intercom and asks the commander to send a fire arrow to shoot him so as to kill more enermies–Chinese soldiers would never give up or be surrenderred.) Actually, in terms of sacrifice, I think we are very like Janpanese–Die for our mission.

    However, the hero above is just too selfless and too right that it doesnt always meet the real humanity of people. So there is another kind of hero, which is from our Wuxia novel. (I think you guys know Wuxia, right? This is a genre of imaginary novel in which people have great knowledge about Kungfu and they can fly, fight with each other with dazzling martial skills, love and hatred, murder and justice. Their world is called “jianghu江湖”.) The hero in it is always a top master in a speacial kind of Kungfu that few people know. He doesnt want to be the president of the kungfu union with the big dream to rescure everyone. However, he kills the bad sometimes and enjoys the absolute freedom for living his own life. He can kill the corrupted officials who bullied the citizens; he can deny the highest authorities because he is absolutely powerful in kungfu and no one can stop him, neither the army; he hates the evil and if he meets something unfair, he would draw his sword and fight for the justice(We call this senario as “路见不平,拔刀相助!”) Basically, this kinda hero is individually powerful above the authority because of his unbeatable kungfu power. He ONLY fights for justice when he encounterres dirty things. At most times, he can 游山玩水 and explore the myteries of this world. We call this kinda of hero as ”侠”, who stands for justice as well as freedom.

    But i dont really think American can nod to these two types of heros…

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