How the Western world perceives China through the medium of cinema.

Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000, was a financially and critically successful film that reinvigorated the Chinese action movie genre for Western audiences. It’s success was not only due to it’s thrilling and wonderfully choreographed action scenes, but rather because Ang Lee effectively managed to integrate traditional Chinese culture and values into the storyline. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s success has influenced many other successful Chinese movies such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. The popularity of these films illustrates the desire from audiences to see vast and varying cultures in film. Unfortunately, however, China has not always been depicted in such a positive way on screen.

For decades, Western cinema goers were exposed to Hollywood’s representation of what East Asia and Asians were apparently like, and in many cases it was not always an accurate representation. Filmmakers built up imaginary Chinese figures; caricatures with washed out skin speaking in an impenetrable language. These caricatures often failed to be treated as fully developed human beings, but instead as a mere catalyst to advance the main protagonist’s own narrative. If a film actually featured an Eastern Asian central character, they were predominantly portrayed by white actors, often while artificially changing their looks with the use of make-up or prosthetics. Katherine Hepburn in MGM’s Dragon Seed, Marlon Brando in The Teahouse of the August Moon and Christopher Lee in a series of Fu Manchu films are just a few actors who have used make-up in order to approximate East Asian facial qualities while playing Asian characters.

From 1929, Hollywood produced many films featuring the aforementioned figure of the dastardly Dr. Fu Manchu. Menacing, dangerous and evil, the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu character is perhaps a reflection of Hollywood and America’s xenophobic fear projected into cinematic propaganda, thus potentially influencing American audiences’ perceptions during a time when the ‘yellow peril’ was still prevalent.

Fast forward to the 1960’s where even the classic Audrey Hepburn film Breakfast at Tiffany’s features the inclusion of racial stereotyping in the guise of American actor Mickey Rooney portraying Mr. Yunioshi. The bucktoothed, squint-eyed caricatured approximation of Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi is nothing more than ‘comedic’ filler that does not advance the storyline in any shape or form. He essentially only exists within the film to provide laughs.

China’s depiction in cinema did improve greatly by the 1970’s with the arrival of The Big Boss, an action movie staring Chinese American actor Bruce Lee in his first major theatrical role. Bruce Lee has since become a cinematic icon for his role in redefining the Chinese action genre, and for helping to coin the ‘Kung Fu’ genre. Not only were his films thrilling, but they also portrayed China in a positive light that helped educate Western audiences about Chinese cultures and traditions without the unnecessary inclusion of racial stereotypes and prejudice.   

Since Bruce Lee redefined Western perceptions of China and Eastern Asia, more and more films started to respect Chinese culture. The animated Disney film Mulan, based on the story of a famous female warrior in ancient China, is a successful example of a Hollywood production appreciating and respecting Chinese heritage.

 “Chinese content is one way to attract this colossal audience. The addition of Chinese flourishes is a decorative marketing tactic – a way of getting through the front door…”

– Gao Jun, Vice General Manager of Beijing New Film Association Co., Ltd.

Mulan’s story is one of growth, strength and courage. A story full of Chinese culture that is both educational and recreational. It is a story that is inspirational to both Eastern and Western audiences alike, much like the stories of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers.  Even Hollywood has begun adopting and emulating Chinese cinematic conventions and styles such as the Wachowski brother’s Matrix trilogy and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2, to name a few.

When audiences flock to such films, it proves that Western perceptions of East Asia are finally becoming healthier and that the image of Fu Manchu, along with other racial stereotypes is hopefully now a thing of the past. 

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