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.