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From Red Sorghum to Crazy Rich Asians

By Yang Xina (People's Daily Online)    09:20, March 28, 2019

I still remember the first time I watched a Zhang Yimou film (Zhang Yimou, one of the most prestigious film directors in Chinese mainland who went on to be the chief director of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games). It was in 1988, and the movie was called Red Sorghum.

China had not set up a film rating system in 1988, and there was no warning of the film's content, so my parents couldn’t be blamed for taking me - a five-year-old - to watch it.

I didn’t understand the content of the movie, but I was impressed by its intense colors, like red, which probably represented the color of the sorghum wine and the cruelty of the war fought against Japanese invaders. However, as a child, I was confused by some parts of the film.

When two men, almost naked, stood in blood at the end of the film, we left the theater. Confused and shocked, my parents probably experienced the same emotions as I did. There was a scene in the movie about how urinating into the wine was said to be the secret to making it taste better. I asked innocently, "Why did they have to urinate into the wine? Does it really make the wine taste better?"

As I grew older, I started to watch other films directed by Zhang, such as Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiuju (1992) and No One Less (1999). While I found myself becoming able to appreciate the artistic style of the director, I still failed to connect with the movies on an emotional level.

Raise the Red Lantern was set in the 1920s when feudalism still rooted in China; the Story of Qiuju was set in a rural part of China; No One less was also about poverty and illiteracy problems in China’s rural areas.

Though the movies may have failed to identify with the Chinese audience, especially those who now lived in urban areas, they drew attention at international film festivals and won several world famous film awards, including the Golden Bear Award in Berlin, Silver and Gold Lion Awards in Venice, Cannes grand pix in France, and one was even nominated for an Oscar (Ju Dou, 1990, Best Foreign Pictures Nomination). In 1992, Raise the Red Lantern also made 2.6 million dollars at the box office in North America.

In the late 1980s and 90s, films directed by Zhang Yimou were probably one of the most successful Chinese cultural products exported to the world. Although they won great acclaim for Chinese filmmaking, they also left unexpected impressions on their foreign audience. Many Chinese citizens abroad were faced with questions such as "Is it true that a Chinese man can marry four women?" or "Do Chinese woman still bind their feet?"

As time goes by, China has become the second largest economy in the world, so we thought that the image issue would be solved naturally as time and economy move on. The government is also making efforts: we have set up 525 Confucius Institutes and 1,113 Confucius classrooms in 146 countries and regions, with the aim of strengthening mutual understanding and promoting Chinese learning.

However, in Dec. 2018, a Dolce & Gabbana video once again brought China's image under the spotlight, igniting great controversy in China. In the video, an Asian model, wearing expensive D&G jewelry, awkwardly ate pizza and other Italian food with chopsticks, which were described as a pair of "stick-like things" in the video.

The video was criticized as insensitive and racist, showing disrespect to the Chinese culture. However, when angry netizens rushed to Instagram asking for an apology, the CEOs didn't think it was inappropriate at all and refused to apologize at first.

According to the store listings on its website, the company has outlets in 25 cities in China and based on a 2017 Mckinsey report, Chinese luxury consumers account for over 500 billion yuan in annual spending, representing one third of the global luxury market, which means that the Chinese market is of great importance to the luxury brands. Therefore, it's unlikely that the company created the video with the intention of offending Chinese consumers. However, we are still surprised by such a "mistake."

A similar incident happened to Victoria's Secret model Gigi Hadid, who was criticized for being racist by imitating a Budda-like cake by pinching her eyes in a short video. Many people who watched this video considered this gesture an insult to Asians. As the incident happened just before Victoria's Secret's first show in Shanghai, it was assumed that Gigi was rejected from the show for this reason. Though she apologized on Weibo later, many netizens didn't buy it and even replied that if "there was any use of apology, what's the use of a policeman," a joke quoted from a famous soap opera from Taiwan.

While we are still wondering if there are any misunderstandings between the two sides, the movie Crazy Rich Asians seems to go to another extreme. It was praised as the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority Asian American cast in a modern setting since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. The film grossed over $238 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade. It's an updated Asian version of the classic Cinderella story. However, Cinderella is now an economics professor in New York University, and Prince Charming is her low profile history professor colleague, who is, in fact, heir to the wealthiest family in Singapore with a Chinese background.

We have to appreciate the effort Hollywood has made in blending the two cultures and making it easier in the Chinese market. Interestingly, although it's a movie which has little to do with the Chinese mainland, it still quotes a saying from Napoleon Bonaparte at the beginning of the film--"Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world." (Actually Napoleon never said this, and it was created in the late 19th century by a patriotic in the Qing Dynasty to inspire the people).

The film was a great success in the U.S., but unsurprisingly, it failed in China. The cast of the film speak standard American and British English, but almost none of them speak standard Chinese except for the old Nanny. Some of the background music can be traced back to as early as 1920s China, and even our grandparents would consider the songs strange and obsolete. Most of the Asians in the movie were described as money-splurging and pretentious, and only those main characters who received education in America or Britain, and made up their minds to fight against the old traditional Chinese culture were considered to be brave and worthy of happiness.

The extravagant lifestyle of the wealthiest family in the movie reminds us of Chinese tourists in recent years, who have stunned foreigners with their purchasing power. Has the image of Chinese evolved from a group of people who live in extreme poverty to a bunch of "Crazy Rich Asians" who could, as seen in the movie, joke, “Eat your nuggets, there are children starving in America.” We can see from the film that except for some traditional scenes added to make it more Chinese, like women getting together to make dumplings, we barely see anything related to Chinese culture. All the scenes are filled with western language, lifestyle and ideology.

In fact, Crazy Rich Asians is an American rom-com and a movie paying tribute to American culture. Chinese culture is still described as submissive, passive and family-oriented which will, at last, be toppled by American culture which is considered to be more independent and freedom-seeking in the movie.

Fortunately, in recent years, some foreign media channels have tried to present China more comprehensively. The BBC has produced a series of documentaries introducing various aspects of China, such as Are Our Kids Tough Enough?, a series which contrasts the Chinese and British educational system, and another one titled Chinese New Year: the Biggest Celebration on Earth, which introduces the Spring Festival in China.

The world has shown a strong desire to get to know more about China and Chinese culture. Though it still holds some stereotypical impressions, we could at least enjoy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon produced by Hollywood in 2000, where the concept of Xia was first introduced to the western world. People were also stunned by Hollywood’s cartoon characters such as Mulan or Kungfu Panda, where traditional Chinese culture was unveiled more than in the original Chinese ones.

We are no longer the group of people described in Red Sorghum, nor are we those Crazy Rich Asians; we are just ordinary people who are eager to know the world and want to be treated in the right way.

With the rapid development of science and technology and the integration of different cultures, we shouldn’t be divided by geographical or political ideas such as the East or the West or misguided by any false interpretations.

Though there is still a deep divide between different cultures and ideologies, we have to take a more proactive role in understanding each other and not allow ourselves to be confined by stereotypes. After all, we are still on our way to know better about ourselves and others.

The author Yang Xina is a teacher at the Bazhou Second Middle School in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of People’s Daily Online. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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