It’s hard to resist his soft fur and stubby legs. His wings are wide and covered in colorful scales of green, blue, and purple underneath. When he looks at you, you know exactly how he’s feeling, despite the absence of a face. Morris is a dijiang—a mythical creature that can be found in Chinese legends, and more recently, in the Marvel blockbuster hit Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. For many audiences who watched Shang Chi, this was the first time they had ever heard of a dijiang or seen anything like it. The dijiang, however, is just one example of the many different creatures that exist within the world of Chinese mythology, and just one example of the many ways that Chinese culture can be shared with others.
In the last few years, Chinese culture has been featured in different pieces of American media. Chinese customs and values are prominently displayed in the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians and in the 2019 film The Farewell. Awkwafina is Nora from Queens incorporates aspects of Awkwafina’s character’s Chinese background into her daily life and experiences. More and more stories featuring characters of Chinese ancestry are being developed for and shown in mainstream media. This had led to a key question: what is the best way to import and share Chinese culture with American audiences? How can sharing the culture be done successfully? And finally, what are some of the challenges that must be overcome when carrying out such a task?
Apart from the mesmerizing fight scenes, tense family interactions, and adorable mythical creatures, Shang Chi serves as a means to import Chinese culture to Western audiences. The importance of family and the legacy one’s name carries are two examples of Chinese culture that are introduced through the film. By tying together fantasy and reality, and incorporating mythical creatures into its storyline, Shang Chi may have introduced an overlooked category that could help to bring Chinese culture to Western audiences’ attention. Stories and legends of mythical creatures have the potential to pique moviegoers’ interests and widen their scope of view in terms of what makes up Chinese culture. One USC international student from China commented on the effectiveness of the mythological creatures in Shang Chi, remarking that “even though the [West] might portray [mythical creatures] differently…[at its] core it’s Chinese culture and [there are] different kinds of Chinese creatures, and since no one knows how they actually look, everyone can have their own interpretation. As long as it’s a Chinese story, I think everyone will be open to that.”
According to BoxOffice Mojo, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was the second most successful movie in America released in 2021, grossing $224.5 million domestically and $207.1 million worldwide, for a total of $431.1 million globally. Audiences rated the movie 4.6 out of 5 stars on Google Reviews and 92% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps the success of Shang Chi can be accredited to its action-packed storyline and stunning detail. Those factors, however, are only a part of the big picture; the overall success of Shang Chi has shown that American audiences are not only ready to see more diverse stories being told, but they also want to see more stories that are representative of diverse populations being told.
The concept of promoting East Asian cultures and civilizations through media is not at all new. In the 1980s, Japanese media had a goal to display itself as a great cultural power through its promotion of East Asian culture. Moving into the 1990s, China, too, sought to shed its image as a hard-line socialist state to a dynamic member of the East Asian community. Similarly, in the early 2000s, the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, spread across Asia in the form of Kpop and television dramas. By about a decade later, Hallyu spread to western countries, bringing a glimpse of Korean culture and lifestyle to audiences across the globe.
Chinese-language media has more recently been well received. Production companies in China and Taiwan have produced idol and television dramas that are easily accessible overseas through the internet. In 2018, iQiYi––one of China’s top online video streaming sites––released a historical drama titled The Story of Yanxi Palace. This drama took place in the Qing Dynasty and tells the story of how a low-ranking palace maid works her way up as one of the most powerful concubines in the Forbidden City. This drama was streamed millions of times across the world. The immensely positive reception of this piece on an international scale has proved that Chinese stories can succeed in other countries, and has left many wondering what the exact formula is to produce a global hit.
To learn more about exporting Asian shows to Western countries, the example of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, can be a good place to start. When analyzing the success of Hallyu, there are certain factors that made it rise to the level it has reached today. One of these factors is the internet. YouTube in particular has been a vehicle for Korean songs, music videos, dramas, and more, making them easily accessible worldwide. With apps such as Instagram and Twitter, fans can see what actors and idols are trending, fostering a global community of Korean pop culture fans.
While many of the most popular American social media sites are unavailable in mainland China, that does not mean that Chinese media cannot be propelled by means of said platforms outside of China. In the example of The Story of Yanxi Palace, many global fans watched this historical drama on YouTube. Additionally, when considering the factors that propelled this series to success, much of the evidence points towards a high production budget, great attention to detail, and a fast-paced storyline––all factors that Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings possesses as well.
One of the difficulties that Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean media all face is that once these different cultures leave the Asian region, they tend to lose their individual identity and become categorized together as being “Asian.” Though it is not inaccurate to label them as “Asian,” doing so undermines the rich individual identities of each culture. This issue is further compounded by the fact that in America, stories about Asians living in Asia, and Asian Americans who were born or raised in America with multiple identities are often grouped together. This issue is reflected in the casting of many different pieces of media. The interviewed international student also expressed concern over this issue, saying “If it’s… a Chinese American concept, then just have Chinese American actors. They can best present it. But when it comes to a Chinese [topic] then have Chinese actors playing it. That would be great.”
Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is unique in the sense that part of the movie takes place in America, part of it in China, and part of it in the mythical realm of Ta Lo. As a result, it depicts both Chinese American and Chinese cultures. According to Professor Ben Lee, clinical professor and co-director of the Communication Management program at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, the brief scenes at the beginning of the movie were a “superb portrayal of modern Chinese American life.” Seeing Katy’s mother’s concern for her daughter’s future and Katy’s grandmother asking when Sean and Katy were getting together are experiences that Asian American audiences may relate to. However, when it comes to the scenes taking place in China or Ta Lo, Professor Lee notes that many scenes portray stereotypes as this film was produced from a Western perspective. He cites one key example: clothing. The clothes the people in Ta Lo wear do not resemble Chinese clothing of any particular time period. Instead, they carry more of a Southeast Asian style. Additionally, the opera mask the villain wears also carries a strong stereotypical feel.
When it comes to sharing stories with Western audiences, Professor Lee notes that it may be best to move away from stereotypical roles and move towards presenting stories that are universally human and relatable. He cites the small, LA-based production company Wong Fu Productions as executing this concept well. Wong Fu produces short films and series that portray the Asian American experience through stories that are universal and relatable. The short film In Between shows the struggle of growing up with multiple cultural identities and how difficult it can be to juggle between them. The short series Yappie illustrates some of the challenges of facing stereotypes and cultural expectations. While both of these examples focus on the unique Asian American experience, they also carry themes that other audiences can relate to, such as coming of age, self-discovery, and navigating relationships.
In terms of telling Chinese stories, Professor Lee emphasizes the importance of filmmakers immersing themselves in the culture. He notes that it is important for filmmakers to spend time in the country, otherwise “it will be very hard to move away from stereotypes.” Perhaps “the hardest barrier to cross is the idea that there is one monolithic China… China is very different and very diverse.” Stories of people living in Beijing will be very different from those of people living in Guangzhou, just as stories of people living in New York are very different from those of people living in Kansas. Filmmakers must make a more considerate effort to learn about the culture they are writing about. American storytellers writing about China should spend time there. Similarly, Chinese storytellers should spend time outside of China. Because, as Professor Lee mentions, “culture is not just about costumes and dragons, it’s a particular worldview.”
Although Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not entirely representative, Professor Lee notes that it is “a great effort” and a step in the right direction. The careful attention to details in parts of Shang Chi, such as the reverence of ancestors to the number of claws on the dragon, shows the effort placed towards making the story authentic. Making such an effort is incredibly important when representing another culture. In the words of the interviewed international student, “It makes me feel that the culture is… valued by the production team… The visual design, the style, the theme, it’s Chinese style, which means they are not using their interpretation for that but they [are learning] something about the Chinese and that makes me feel that as a Chinese audience [member], I am valued.” With the right efforts and careful attention to detail, it will be possible for Chinese stories to be told and––like Morris––make their journey to the West.
Photo Credit: Marvel Studios (https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/02/shang-chi-doesnt-have-a-release-date-in-china-why-thats-a-big-deal.html)