What defines a culture? It is quite difficult to form an answer to these questions since many everyday details can make up a culture. People see culture in the way they greet, the food they eat, the heroes they respect and their entertainment. The film industry does only represent different cultures, but also an overall perspective of certain ethnic groups. Examining the changing depictions of Chinese characters in American movies enables us to understand how Chinese stereotypes evolved over time.
Before WWII: A Symbol of Evil and Fatuity
A series of movies about stories of Dr. Fu Manchu, directed by Rowland V Lee and released from 1923 to 1980, imply the Western stereotypical view towards Chinese people before WWII. The movies depicted an evil character, Dr. Fu Manchu, based on novels by Sax Rohmer. In every movie, Dr. Fu Manchu tries to use his inventions to control the world, but is always stopped by a white hero in the end.
(Image Source: Horrorpedia)
Dr. Fu Manchu exhibited the American view of Chinese people as both foolish and hideous during the early to mid 20th century. In that period of history, because of the fatuity of the emperor, the Qing Dynasty came to an end, giving the Western empires a chance to invade China and take control of it. What’s worse, many Chinese people were now addicted to Western-supplied opium, making them unable to fight the Western intruders. These historical factors all led to the negative Western view towards the Chinese shown in the film series of Dr. Fu Manchu.
WWII: Brave Warriors Still in Need of Help from the West
(Image Source: Robert Donat)
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, a film directed by Mark Robson, was released in 1958. It told a story of a Western missionary Aylward in China during the WWII. Aylward settled in Yang Cheng and set up a hotel for travelers where they could hear biblical stories. However, her peaceful life was soon interrupted by the Japanese invaders. With the help of Li, a friend of Aylward, she led one hundred Chinese kids to the neighbor province so that they could be evacuated to safer areas. After a difficult and dangerous journey, although Li sacrificed himself to save the others from a Japanese patrol, the rest of them finally arrived in the province in time to catch the trucks for evacuation.
The story in the film took place during WWII, a time when China became a significant ally of the US for the first time in history. Because of sharing a common enemy in fascist Japan, the US supported China in resisting Japanese armies. The peaceful relationship between the US and China led to the positive characteristics of the Chinese people in the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Nevertheless, the film still portrays China as a weak country which was in need of the help from the US.
Diplomatic Opening: Positive Characteristics
In the 1970s, one of the most famous Chinese actor in Hollywood, Bruce Lee, got involved in the shooting of a series of action movies including Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon and The Game of Death. In these movies, Bruce Lee played the role of a martial artist. He fought villains with kung fu and protected his family, friends, teachers and even the dignity of the country. Bruce Lee was so symbolic and influential that he even affected the personality of Chinese characters in the Western film industry in the next century. Since Bruce Lee, Chinese people usually play the role of the master of kung fu or that of the leader of the army in the Western films.
The diplomatic opening between China and the US was a turning point of the figures of Chinese people in Western movies. In 1972, President Richard Nixon visited China and issued the Sino-US Joint Communique, which symbolized the beginning of the bilateral relations between these two countries. Soon after, the Western attitudes towards China changed dramatically, as shown by the depiction of Chinese people as martial artists in the Western films. However, instead of characters with diverse personalities, most of the Chinese characters in the films were martial artists who simply knew how to fight.
Beijing Olympic Games: Key Elements to Success
Another turning point of the stereotypes of Chinese people in Western film industry took place around 2010. Lots of Western movies such as Now You See Me (2016) and Transformers 4 (2013) were filmed in China. In addition, Chinese characters began to play increasingly important roles in movies. For example, in the movie 2012, the protagonists were saved by a kind Chinese mother in the end.
Transformers 4 set being shot in China. Michael Bay in the middle. (Image Source: Video and Filmmaker)
In 2008, the Beijing Olympic Games presented a modernized, wealthy and confident China to the world. In 2010, the Shanghai Expo reinforced such image of China in the international community. As the international status of China increased dramatically, the Western film industry started to reconsider how they depict Chinese characters. They began to present Chinese characters in more diverse ways, less limited by stereotype and capable of being strong in their movies.
It is fascinating to understand the close connection between the film industry and politics, as well as international relations and history. As one of the most ubiquitous and flexible mediums in modern culture, movies can tell us a lot about our changing world.