Chinese Culture and the Politics of "Kung Fu Panda"

Chinese Culture and the Politics of "Kung Fu Panda"

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- In the age of globalization, there’s a caveat that often rings true: “You know your culture is a big hit when somebody else is trying to sell it back to you!” Nowhere is this more obvious than the example of the run away box office smash, Kung Fu Panda, and its sequel. A wildly successful animation produced by Steven Spielberg in 2008 about a panda who wants to learn kung fu and his bumbling way toward greatness, the movie became the biggest box office hit in China’s history. Its sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2, released last month, again became a record-breaking film in China.

If the Chinese are in awe as to how their own cultural heritage is being successfully repackaged by Hollywood and sold back to them, some artists and thinkers are rather peeved. In an open letter to the public, the artist Zhao Bandi encouraged Chinese moviegoers to boycott the film as well as other movies from the West that exploit Chinese cultures. Kung Fu Panda films “twisted Chinese culture and served as a tool to kidnap the minds of the Chinese people," he wrote. “Don't turn it into a money-making day for Hollywood, and don't fool our next generation with American 'fast food'.'" Back in 2008, some government officials also considered censuring the first installment, but to no avail.

After all, Chinese moviegoers love Kung Fu Panda and want more of it. Which also set the Chinese blogospheres abuzz with soul-searching questions along the lines of “Why can’t we produce such brilliant movies ourselves?" and “How can we leave it to foreigners to tell our stories while we make movies that are steeped in melodrama?” and “What is it about our society that creativity is so stifled?” and so on.

Those who find it odd and upsetting that others are now impersonating them (and many are very successful at it) have yet to come to terms with the Information Age, which seems to come with an inevitable a.k.a. the Appropriation Age. For ours is a world in which traditions exist side by side for the borrowing and taking, and ultimately, the mixing. Indeed, from religion to cuisine, from medicine to music, from dance to literature, from agricultural practices to filmmaking, all are available to the contemporary alchemists to reshape and re-imagine. So much so that it now seems self-evident that the energy that is fueling the major part of the 21st-century global village is that of the hybrid space in which re-invention is key.

Which beckons this question: If others reinvent your culture and sell it back to you, what is gained, and what is lost?

On the Food Network last year, Rachael Ray was teaching television audiences how to make Vietnamese pho—beef noodle soup—and she got the recipe wrong. Besides calling it a Thai-inspired dish she used –gasp!– pork instead of beef, and didn't include fish sauce. Ray caused a stir among pho purists and the Vietnamese Diaspora, and this response from Vietnamese American chef and food author Andrea Nguyen: “Pho is in the dictionary…I’m rather appalled that the producers of the Rachael Ray Show would do such an injustice to pho noodle soup. I wish that her show producers would go the extra mile for Asian food.”

Yet, a couple decades back, the soup itself was but the private cuisine of refugees in Little Saigons across the world. It certainly wasn’t in the American English dictionary, nor taught on national television. So while it’s understandable for those who grew up with pho to be upset when their tradition is exploited, and especially have the story of the soup’s origin misinterpreted, one can’t help but wonder: Well, is the new recipe any good?

What is gained, if it’s any good, is a new flavor, a new way of looking at a beloved classic. What is lost is of course a cherished tradition, a way of life altered by newness. But such is the recipe of invention, isn’t it, that it entails a pinch of spontaneity, and a tablespoon or two of betrayal?

Listen to Andrew Lam on New America Now
on the issue of Kung Fu Panda.

No one owns culture, in the end, and the most popular tend to transgress borders, and in time, shed old skin for a myriad of rebirth. Think about it: while a pho purist might be upset that his sacred broth is “perverted” by someone else, he himself has no qualms about drinking filter café sua da—filter coffee with condensed milk—and eating his banh mi pate --the popular Vietnamese sandwich made of baguette and ham and pate that’s been for generations the staple of the Vietnamese and is now sold in major cities across America. Never mind that the entire convention, with the exception of cilantro and chilies and pickle and Maggi sauce, is borrowed heavily from Vietnam’s former colonizers, the French, with whom many still have a love-hate relationship.

A culture that needs preservation may very well be a culture ready for the museum. Which is to say, yesterday’s bold experiments are today’s classics and what betrays today’s tradition may very well find its place in tomorrow’s sun. As to the controversy of pandas and Kung Fu, some may be surprised to find that Chinese kung fu is not purely Chinese. Historians may disagree but the 5th-6th century figure, Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk from South Asia, looms large among Chinese martial arts practitioners as well as Buddhist scholars. Legend has it that, along with being the patriarch of Zen Buddhism, the reportedly ill-tempered but holy sage taught monks at the Shaolin Temple marvelous ancient yoga breathing techniques (which enabled him to scale tall mountains to arrive in China in the first place). Boddhidarma’s disciples and their disciples went on to invent a myriad of kung fu fighting styles.

Recently, a writer for Asia Times chimed in on the issue as to why some can sell you your own image better than yourself with this: “Perhaps it is just that it takes distance to grasp some essential elements. The best historian of modern Italy is an Englishman, Dennis Mack Smith—not an Italian.” Speaking of Italian, the traditional pasta is a culinary anagram from elsewhere. Noodles from China—grazie, Marco Polo!—and tomato from South America, the combination of which makes up a traditional dish cherished by a European nation. Which is to say, the borders have been porous all along.

In an essay titled “My Kitsch is Their Cool,” the writer Sandip Roy, an Indian immigrant to America, talked about how the world changed. “Madonna wears a bindi,” and “The Kronos Quartet reinterprets Bollywood composer R.D. Burman,” and “Body-hugging T-shirts worn by gay guys in the Castro say “San Francisco” in Devanagari script.” There are even Bollywood appreciation classes at universities, Roy noted with amusement. “Our Krishnas and curries are now public property to be sampled, remixed.”

The most creative people of our times seem to be those who can immerse in apprenticeship in others’ cultures while retaining elements of their own. They are aware that nothing—neither identity, nor traditional dishes nor classical songs—is meant to be etched in stone, but that new art demands appropriation, integration and reinterpretation. And with the Internet shrinking the globe, and with the world defined by mass movement, rendering geography obsolete, the whole world becomes a virtual library of Alexandria. It follows that the other has become us; and that, naturally through cultural revolution, that the mute, loveable panda should stand on two legs, talking jive, and doing some marvelous, kick ass kung fu.


Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His next book, "Birds of Paradise" - a collection of short stories- is due out in 2012. 


 

Comments

 
Anonymous

Posted Jun 15 2011

Produced by Steven Spielberg? You might want to double check this.

Anonymous

Posted Jun 16 2011

Excellent piece, Andrew, and very relevant to the Indian diaspora as well. Well done!

Anonymous

Posted Jun 16 2011

Andrew Lam's piece about Steven Spielberg's "Kung Fu Panda" made a few good points, but misses a fundamental issue, i.e. "cultural imperialism" and the relentless "brainwashing" which spreads Hollywood toxins and pop schlock, being hyped as "hip" "chic" and "modernity" in accordance with how the "gweillos" define it.

Truth is China's quest to modernity and growth is being sabotaged and compromised by its "compradore" ruling class. The new generation of Chinese youth, obsessed with trying to ape the West, and Western chic, has swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, all the toxins of hyper-individualism, selfishness, and the "me, me, me" syndrome so au courant in mainstream America.

"Kung Fu Panda" epitomizes the dilemmna for China, i.e. how and when to draw the line between adapting Western ideas and technology, without corroding and losing the essence of Chinese culture, in the face of the challenges of modernization, globalization, and commodization in an Information Age.

As a Chinese intellectual, I have pointed out more than a decade and a half ago that China is losing the war on culture, and that cultural imperialism and the "brain-washing" of China's next generation bears a thoughtful, coherent, and vigilant response which is surgical.

Sadly, from my vantage point.... China is losing the war because its ruling "compradore class" has sold out Chinese sovereignty and self-dignity under a false and short-sighted goal of hypermaterialism, modernization, and mercantalism.

As a Chinese living in San Francisco, I am mindful of the losing "culture war," sandbagged between a homeland culture which is becoming corroded by Western schlock, hyperconsumerism, and greed..... while at the same time being subjected to eco-racism, political marginalization, and cultural emasculation by the white hip liberal majority of San Francisco.

Whether or not it is about the banning of "shark fin soup," or "live poultry sale" in the UN Plaza Farmer's Market, or "goldfish sale" or these myriad racist piling happening in San Francisco, fact is white people are bullies, racists, and hubristic.

Andrew Lam glosses over the predatory, hubristic, and greedy interloping of Hollywood against native cultures in the non-Western world. In the name of globalization and modernity, as defined by the white man, he promotes "kumbaya" and acculturation, as defined and dictated by the white man.

No wonder Google and the Googlers can't understand and fathom why they are no longer welcome in China. No wonder white hipsters can't understand that many Chinese pundits believe that China needs another "cultural re-awakening" and a campaign to exorcise the bane of Western cultural imperialism.

No wonder China limits the number of Hollywood films allowed in Chinese movie theaters to no more than 20 films a year.

Culture matters. And in the era of globalization and the information age, the struggle to control and shape media content is key. He or she who controls the content of information and media control the minds. And if you control the minds, you become the master, and you can exercise dominion over your slaves.

Unfortunately, China's ruling "compradore class" has sold out China's patrimony. The war is lost without another "cultural revolution." And absolutely, the Chinese masses need another revolution to free themselves from the yoke of Yankee Imperialism.

Besides, Steven Spielberg is a sanctimonious, greedy "prick" from Hollywood. He is not welcome in China. And his attempt to peddle "cultural toxins" being passed as Hollywood schlock should be called for what it truly is ---- gweillo garbage. Mi Dian Kung !

Anonymous

Posted Jun 16 2011

Andrew Lam's piece about Steven Spielberg's "Kung Fu Panda" made a few good points, but misses a fundamental issue, i.e. "cultural imperialism" and the relentless "brainwashing" which spreads Hollywood toxins and pop schlock, being hyped as "hip" "chic" and "modernity" in accordance with how the "gweillos" define it.

Truth is China's quest to modernity and growth is being sabotaged and compromised by its "compradore" ruling class. The new generation of Chinese youth, obsessed with trying to ape the West, and Western chic, has swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, all the toxins of hyper-individualism, selfishness, and the "me, me, me" syndrome so au courant in mainstream America.

"Kung Fu Panda" epitomizes the dilemmna for China, i.e. how and when to draw the line between adapting Western ideas and technology, without corroding and losing the essence of Chinese culture, in the face of the challenges of modernization, globalization, and commodization in an Information Age.

As a Chinese intellectual, I have pointed out more than a decade and a half ago that China is losing the war on culture, and that cultural imperialism and the "brain-washing" of China's next generation bears a thoughtful, coherent, and vigilant response which is surgical.

Sadly, from my vantage point.... China is losing the war because its ruling "compradore class" has sold out Chinese sovereignty and self-dignity under a false and short-sighted goal of hypermaterialism, modernization, and mercantalism.

As a Chinese living in San Francisco, I am mindful of the losing "culture war," sandbagged between a homeland culture which is becoming corroded by Western schlock, hyperconsumerism, and greed..... while at the same time being subjected to eco-racism, political marginalization, and cultural emasculation by the white hip liberal majority of San Francisco.

Whether or not it is about the banning of "shark fin soup," or "live poultry sale" in the UN Plaza Farmer's Market, or "goldfish sale" or these myriad racist piling happening in San Francisco, fact is white people are bullies, racists, and hubristic.

Andrew Lam glosses over the predatory, hubristic, and greedy interloping of Hollywood against native cultures in the non-Western world. In the name of globalization and modernity, as defined by the white man, he promotes "kumbaya" and acculturation, as defined and dictated by the white man.

No wonder Google and the Googlers can't understand and fathom why they are no longer welcome in China. No wonder white hipsters can't understand that many Chinese pundits believe that China needs another "cultural re-awakening" and a campaign to exorcise the bane of Western cultural imperialism.

No wonder China limits the number of Hollywood films allowed in Chinese movie theaters to no more than 20 films a year.

Culture matters. And in the era of globalization and the information age, the struggle to control and shape media content is key. He or she who controls the content of information and media control the minds. And if you control the minds, you become the master, and you can exercise dominion over your slaves.

Unfortunately, China's ruling "compradore class" has sold out China's patrimony. The war is lost without another "cultural revolution." And absolutely, the Chinese masses need another revolution to free themselves from the yoke of Yankee Imperialism.

Besides, Steven Spielberg is a sanctimonious, greedy "prick" from Hollywood. He is not welcome in China. And his attempt to peddle "cultural toxins" being passed as Hollywood schlock should be called for what it truly is ---- gweillo garbage. Mi Dian Kung !

Anonymous

Posted Jun 16 2011

Andrew Lam's piece about Steven Spielberg's "Kung Fu Panda" made a few good points, but misses a fundamental issue, i.e. "cultural imperialism" and the relentless "brainwashing" which spreads Hollywood toxins and pop schlock, being hyped as "hip" "chic" and "modernity" in accordance with how the "gweillos" define it.

Truth is China's quest to modernity and growth is being sabotaged and compromised by its "compradore" ruling class. The new generation of Chinese youth, obsessed with trying to ape the West, and Western chic, has swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, all the toxins of hyper-individualism, selfishness, and the "me, me, me" syndrome so au courant in mainstream America.

"Kung Fu Panda" epitomizes the dilemmna for China, i.e. how and when to draw the line between adapting Western ideas and technology, without corroding and losing the essence of Chinese culture, in the face of the challenges of modernization, globalization, and commodization in an Information Age.

As a Chinese intellectual, I have pointed out more than a decade and a half ago that China is losing the war on culture, and that cultural imperialism and the "brain-washing" of China's next generation bears a thoughtful, coherent, and vigilant response which is surgical.

Sadly, from my vantage point.... China is losing the war because its ruling "compradore class" has sold out Chinese sovereignty and self-dignity under a false and short-sighted goal of hypermaterialism, modernization, and mercantalism.

As a Chinese living in San Francisco, I am mindful of the losing "culture war," sandbagged between a homeland culture which is becoming corroded by Western schlock, hyperconsumerism, and greed..... while at the same time being subjected to eco-racism, political marginalization, and cultural emasculation by the white hip liberal majority of San Francisco.

Whether or not it is about the banning of "shark fin soup," or "live poultry sale" in the UN Plaza Farmer's Market, or "goldfish sale" or these myriad racist piling happening in San Francisco, fact is white people are bullies, racists, and hubristic.

Andrew Lam glosses over the predatory, hubristic, and greedy interloping of Hollywood against native cultures in the non-Western world. In the name of globalization and modernity, as defined by the white man, he promotes "kumbaya" and acculturation, as defined and dictated by the white man.

No wonder Google and the Googlers can't understand and fathom why they are no longer welcome in China. No wonder white hipsters can't understand that many Chinese pundits believe that China needs another "cultural re-awakening" and a campaign to exorcise the bane of Western cultural imperialism.

No wonder China limits the number of Hollywood films allowed in Chinese movie theaters to no more than 20 films a year.

Culture matters. And in the era of globalization and the information age, the struggle to control and shape media content is key. He or she who controls the content of information and media control the minds. And if you control the minds, you become the master, and you can exercise dominion over your slaves.

Unfortunately, China's ruling "compradore class" has sold out China's patrimony. The war is lost without another "cultural revolution." And absolutely, the Chinese masses need another revolution to free themselves from the yoke of Yankee Imperialism.

Besides, Steven Spielberg is a sanctimonious, greedy "prick" from Hollywood. He is not welcome in China. And his attempt to peddle "cultural toxins" being passed as Hollywood schlock should be called for what it truly is ---- gweillo garbage. Mi Dian Kung !

Anonymous

Posted Jun 16 2011

Andrew Lam's piece about Steven Spielberg's "Kung Fu Panda" made a few good points, but misses a fundamental issue, i.e. "cultural imperialism" and the relentless "brainwashing" which spreads Hollywood toxins and pop schlock, being hyped as "hip" "chic" and "modernity" in accordance with how the "gweillos" define it.

Truth is China's quest to modernity and growth is being sabotaged and compromised by its "compradore" ruling class. The new generation of Chinese youth, obsessed with trying to ape the West, and Western chic, has swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, all the toxins of hyper-individualism, selfishness, and the "me, me, me" syndrome so au courant in mainstream America.

"Kung Fu Panda" epitomizes the dilemmna for China, i.e. how and when to draw the line between adapting Western ideas and technology, without corroding and losing the essence of Chinese culture, in the face of the challenges of modernization, globalization, and commodization in an Information Age.

As a Chinese intellectual, I have pointed out more than a decade and a half ago that China is losing the war on culture, and that cultural imperialism and the "brain-washing" of China's next generation bears a thoughtful, coherent, and vigilant response which is surgical.

Sadly, from my vantage point.... China is losing the war because its ruling "compradore class" has sold out Chinese sovereignty and self-dignity under a false and short-sighted goal of hypermaterialism, modernization, and mercantalism.

As a Chinese living in San Francisco, I am mindful of the losing "culture war," sandbagged between a homeland culture which is becoming corroded by Western schlock, hyperconsumerism, and greed..... while at the same time being subjected to eco-racism, political marginalization, and cultural emasculation by the white hip liberal majority of San Francisco.

Whether or not it is about the banning of "shark fin soup," or "live poultry sale" in the UN Plaza Farmer's Market, or "goldfish sale" or these myriad racist piling happening in San Francisco, fact is white people are bullies, racists, and hubristic.

Andrew Lam glosses over the predatory, hubristic, and greedy interloping of Hollywood against native cultures in the non-Western world. In the name of globalization and modernity, as defined by the white man, he promotes "kumbaya" and acculturation, as defined and dictated by the white man.

No wonder Google and the Googlers can't understand and fathom why they are no longer welcome in China. No wonder white hipsters can't understand that many Chinese pundits believe that China needs another "cultural re-awakening" and a campaign to exorcise the bane of Western cultural imperialism.

No wonder China limits the number of Hollywood films allowed in Chinese movie theaters to no more than 20 films a year.

Culture matters. And in the era of globalization and the information age, the struggle to control and shape media content is key. He or she who controls the content of information and media control the minds. And if you control the minds, you become the master, and you can exercise dominion over your slaves.

Unfortunately, China's ruling "compradore class" has sold out China's patrimony. The war is lost without another "cultural revolution." And absolutely, the Chinese masses need another revolution to free themselves from the yoke of Yankee Imperialism.

Besides, Steven Spielberg is a sanctimonious, greedy "prick" from Hollywood. He is not welcome in China. And his attempt to peddle "cultural toxins" being passed as Hollywood schlock should be called for what it truly is ---- gweillo garbage. Mi Dian Kung !

Anonymous

Posted Jun 16 2011

Whether it was David Carradine in the TV serial, "Kung Fu" dribbling out his phoeey hominems about Chinese philosophy and faux-values, or Steven Spielberg's "Kung Fu Panda," fact is this shallow, artificial, stereotypical portrayal of Chinese culture is so emblematic of the ignorance, parochialism and provincialism of mainstream Americans.

Andrew Lam misses the point by largely relying on the Anglophone media in Asia and westernized Asian intellectuals who can't see the forest from the trees.

Culture matters. Whether it is in the Islamic World, or in China, the struggle to maintain the essence of native, indigenous cultures against the toxins of Western cultures, and decadent, boorish, hyperindividualistic values is a battle which is being fought, and remains unsettled.

In the aftermath of World War I, after the Treaty of Versailles, Chinese intellectuals in Europe grappled with the issues of modernization, progress, westernization, and how to resuscitate and achieve modernization in a weak China, without losing its sovereighty, self-dignity, and the core essence of its culture.

The May 4th Movement was launched in 1919, and the intellectual reawakening of Chinese youths was intense.

Sadly, Marxism-Leninism as it was introduced into China failed miserably and ended up corroding Chinese civilizational culture. Today, the CCP has mistook the very core and essence of the May 4th Movement of 1919, i.e. which is "Learn from Western Technology, but keep and preserve the essence of Chinese core culture and values."

Shanghai chic and Beijing chic have taken in Western schlock, Hollywood pop culture, and gweillo values and pass them on as "modern," "superior," and "cool."

Mao's revolution has been sabotaged by Chinese "compradores" and a Westernized urban class which absolutely betrayed the Chinese masses. Mercantilism, hyperconsumerism, and hypermaterialism have taken over Chinese society and suffused it with a sick, decadent culture of greed.

The "yellow monkey" syndrome is pervasive among Chinese youths. It is cool and hip to ape the "Gweillo" and act "white."

Like the "lost" Japanese youths, who are neither here nor there, Chinese youths today are lost, completely "brain-washed" by the sick, decadent, boorish schlock culture of the West.

It is a losing battle for Chinese society.

At least, in the Islamic world, the struggle to preserve the essence of Persian and Arab cultures against the toxins of securalization and westernization has a fighting chance.

I am not against Westernization per se. But to assert that modernity has to be defined as values and culture which comports with Western chic or Hollywood schlock is totally sick, disgusting, and degenerating.

Don't confuse hip, white, Hollywood culture and values as universal.

Anonymous

Posted Jun 30 2011

Lol Even the Chinese intellectual cant understand the west. The Chinese will be left in the dust creatively if there so called intellectuals are writing the garbage that is below this. He does not understand how fast the west changes because its adoption of new ideas. Its called progress. While the west seeks enlightenment your culture sees the new ideas as an attack on itself but really it is in order with evolution and the natural change of all things (even culture) over time. The west is taking the good ideas and discarding the bad from your culture. But your holding onto the gems and the shit. Let the shit go embrace progress and don't ignore a good idea just because it wasn't invented by Chinese culture. Failure to adapt is why species go extinct and you can apply that everything.

Anonymous

Posted Jun 30 2011

Lol Even the Chinese intellectual cant understand the west. The Chinese will be left in the dust creatively if there so called intellectuals are writing the garbage that is below this. He does not understand how fast the west changes because its adoption of new ideas. Its called progress. While the west seeks enlightenment your culture sees the new ideas as an attack on itself but really it is in order with evolution and the natural change of all things (even culture) over time. The west is taking the good ideas and discarding the bad from your culture. But your holding onto the gems and the shit. Let the shit go embrace progress and don't ignore a good idea just because it wasn't invented by Chinese culture. Failure to adapt is why species go extinct and you can apply that to everything.

Anonymous

Posted Aug 27 2011

what has this got to do with marginalisation

Anonymous

Posted May 23 2012

hey, Chinese from san fran cisco. i would like to hear more of what you have to say. do you have a blog or anything. i am tired of hearing pro imperialist garbage on the internet and would like to hear something different for once. it sounds like you have this kind of a voice of a real activists, not the fake foundation funded ones.

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