China’s image abroad : first meeting

The Chinese New Year was just last week, which I had the chance to experience. I was invited to celebrate the dragon year by two people from Tiajin, in the Beijing Suburb. Xinyu Zhang, a Chinese exchange student, Di Wang, who was born in Beijing but lived in the US for 17 years, and other Chinese students had a celebration where we made and ate dumplings! It is always a good opportunity to promote the country, bring together western and Chinese culture, meet people from the “Middle Empire”, and discover more about the most populous country of the world, its traditions, and what it means to be Chinese today!

Since the opening of the country after Mao’s reign, China has impressively developed itself in many ways in only thirty years. This “new” China is good for people who want to travel. Western tourists can discover this powerful country and its historical culture! The “new” China is also a good thing for Chinese students, who want to study abroad! When I’ve asked Chinese students if they want to stay and live outside China, they reply that they are just here to acquire some experience, improved their English, and bring back home new knowledge and skills. They’re not tempted to stay far away from their family and their traditions.

The first thought for many people, including myself, about the Chinese living in a western country is that they are always together and don’t really want to integrate. We can see this in many cities like Paris, London, and New York since there is always a Chinese area (most often called “Chinatown”). This is actually a quick judgment, as Di has said to me that a lot of Chinese people try to stay together because of the culture shock and the importance of their traditions. It is also hard for them to learn a completely different language.

Chinese people are really proud and respectful about what their ancestors have left them. Spirits are very active in the Chinese culture and it’s an honour for them to keep a strong link with the family. One thing I have discovered when I’ve met Chinese students for the Spring Festival is that they are reserved people. They are always happy to share and teach you about their culture, food, and history. The Chinese students also enjoy learning about our lifestyle and what we think about them and their food! XinYu had given me some “art paper” with the prosperity symbol. I learned that if you put the symbol upside down on your door that doesn’t only mean “prosperity” but that “prosperity is arriving to you”. I carefully put the sign on my door and crossed my fingers…

In thirty years, China has opened its frontiers to globalization in the way that we can find many restaurants and shops where imported Chinese items are sold. Most of those shops are owned by Chinese who are living abroad, so globalization is a good way for food to travel and let western people discover it!  One of the bad parts of that globalization is that some people, without any knowledge of Asian food, try to open a “Chinese style take away” place and give a bad reputation to Asian cooking! Di and XinYu have told me there is a few Chinese restaurants in Dundee whose quality and taste do not compare with the traditional Chinese recipes.

Chinese people who can travel and study abroad are only from the big cities and the upper class. They are really impressed with the European lifestyle which seems to be more peaceful, calm, and quiet, even in big places like London and New York. They all describe Chinese cities to be very busy, noisy, stressful and sometimes messy! When I ask the Chinese about the very different lifestyles in China, they are all unanimous in saying: “If you travel in China, you can’t ignore the countryside! You can’t discover China only through Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong! China is more than big busy cities and you can find everything you want.”

Made In China: China in the Digital Media

China’s portrayal to the western world is seen mainly through the news, film and documentaries. These are all digital and accessible from around the world and are a perfect place to understand a western viewpoint about China and how it is portrayed.

Over the recent years the main discussion involving China focus’s on the growth of the country that is soon to be the next super power in the world. American news has mixed opinions on China being bought into the new world, mainly the questions; is China a threat? Or is China’s growth something to be welcomed?
Here China is being seen as a worry to a current super power even though it has been stated that China wants to have a peaceful rise into power. This kind of fear mongering by the news gives the general public of America a negative feeling about China.
Anoither main story that has always piqued interest in the news about China involves the censorship that is imposed on the internet usage, this is also known as ‘The great firewall of China’. Blocking information that the Chinese government does not want their citizens to be exposed to. Censorship like this could be seen as oppressing human rights, this coupled with the 1 child rule imposed on the country puts China in a bad light to the western world.
This portrayal of China shows oppressed people, having rights taken away. The one child rule also shows signs of the removal of human rights, even though rights get taken away the Chinese population still hold their country highly and go by the rules. Enforcements like this haven’t been seen in the west until recently with proposed bills that threaten to follow in China’s footsteps (Bills such as SOPA/PIPA & ACTA).

Documentaries mainly portray China’s history and China as a whole. The history of china reflects where the country has come from and focuses on the great achievements the Chinese people have accomplished.
When portraying China the documentaries tend to show the honour the Chinese have for their country and the vast expansion that is happening along with the modern take over of traditional values and ways of life.
Modernism versus tradition is a reoccurring dilemma when China is portrayed, becoming modern a lot of traditions must be lost, for example ancient crafting techniques are slowly dwindling along with martial arts as students of the crafts want to join the modern world and not live in the past of China. Traditional Chinese people fear for their way of life, hoping their family traditions do not die out.

The majority of films either released from China or created and based in China by the western world focus towards the rich history of china with a lot of fantasy swordplay and martial arts involved, the films set in the past are generally around the time that china was unified, either just before or just after.
The films also tap into fantasy and the legends of china, some famous examples would be crouching tiger hidden dragon, also forbidden kingdom which hints on the tales of monkey.
Kung fu is a reoccurring concept in film about China, since Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and other great martial artists have been involved in the film industry it even started a trend where actors had to know what they were doing rather than bringing in someone who can do it for them. Another trend this bought in was the learning of martial arts by the general public.
In cinema china can be seen as the front of human progression, throughout history china has been at the forefront of technology and a hub of intelligence that the rest of the world followed behind.

Working to achieve a common goal is a known aspect of the Chinese, and the honour to serve their country that is rarely seen else where in the world where people have become used to easy living.
Known as honourable people, the Chinese are working as one towards a better China. The drive that built the great wall can still be seen among the inhabitants today with their drive towards becoming the next super power and breaking into a new world.

China’s Image Abroad- Tourism

Image                             Travel Brochures I used- Thomson and ‘Far East’ by Hayes & Jarvis

China is one of the greatest travel destinations in the world, and sells itself to potential tourists due to its historical landmarks and culture. A holiday to China is very different to a holiday to Europe. People are drawn to visit China because it’s so unique and mysterious and it has so much to offer. It’s very successful in trading and business but it’s also extremely successful in tourism because there are two sides of China to visit, there’s the ancient side of China- where tourists can learn all about the history and visit famous landmarks such as- The Great Wall of China, Terracotta Army, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, etc. But there is also the modern side of China- such as Shanghai and Hong Kong. Hong Kong is where the business and commercial trade takes place but there is a great deal of entertainment for tourists and particularly westerners enjoy visiting here.

When looking through travel brochures and sites, I notice a lot of similar images, places and stereotypes used. The most common image is of ‘The Great Wall of China’ which is described as ‘an unforgettable journey’, with ‘breathtaking views’ and something that ‘photos simply can’t do justice’. Another popular place for tourists to visit is the Terracotta Army in Xian, where tourists can see thousands of warrior sculptures in the tomb of Emperor Qin.  Tourists are very interested in learning about the Emperors of China and so visiting the Terracotta Army offers an insight into the history of Emperor Qin and the army. Images of the terracotta army appear in travel brochures and websites and it’s described as a ‘must-see site’. The Forbidden City in Beijing is another tourist attraction as it served for 500 years as the home of emperors and the centre for Chinese Government. It is the worlds’ largest palace complex and covers 74 hectars. The Forbidden City is mentioned frequently on websites but less so in travel brochures.

Image

Although there all these fantastic historical places for tourists to visit, there is also the modern side of China which is very different. The shanghai skyline is an extremely popular image used on travel sites and brochures. It looks modern and futuristic due to its unusual architecture and skyscrapers and is described as having ‘glitzy bars’, ‘world class hotels’ and ‘elegant restaurants’. Entertainment in Shanghai is also very popular where tourists can have a taste of the Chinese Opera and acrobatic performances.

Image

Shanghai

Another modern city in China is Hong Kong which is a very vibrant and energetic place to visit. Hong Kong is where a lot of business takes place but tourists who visit Hong Kong get the opportunity to visit Disneyland and Ocean Park, which is probably more popular with families rather than couples or groups who are more interested in learning about the Chinese history. In one of the travel brochures it is described as a ‘vibrant metropolis where East meets West and ancient meets modern’ and is also known for having exceptional dining and over 11,000 restaurants. The Aberdeen Harbour is very popular and travel sites offer special deals where you can spend the evening enjoying food and drink whilst watching the city come alive at night time, ‘ sail through the harbour and watch the world’s greatest view turn into the world’s greatest light show’. It seems like there are two very different sides to China which both offer fantastic experiences but attract different types of tourists. Although China is evolving into a more modern country it still keeps its famous historical sites. There are cities that have outstanding modern architecture and other cities that have extremely old, traditional palaces and temples and this makes it a fantastic destination for tourists to learn and enjoy China’s history and culture.

Chinese Manufacturing and International Trade

“First time visitors to the world of China manufacturing were often surprised by what they found” – Paul Midler, Poorly Made in China

As a child I remember being baffled after reading the words ‘made in China’ around the base of my pencil stopper. Where was this place? And why would an entire nation want to produce rubber pencil stoppers? Obviously, I was mistaken.

I knew little of China and its booming manufacturing industry. After all, it was not a topic at the forefront of everyone’s mind. However, recent years have shown a surge in the publishing of books concerning this topic followed by a growth in interest by Westerners.

Many companies in the West rely on China to produce their products. This is believed to be because it is a far cheaper alternative, though the rate of production provided is also a major asset. For many, the promise of cheap labour and a fast return was enough information to do business with factories in China.

Paul Midler, author of ‘Poorly Made in China’ comments on China’s abundance of factories and of just how little we still know about them. He states that “With most of these factories…it was often a mystery what went on behind their walls”. This may be true; however after asking a few friends and family what they knew about China’s manufacturing industry it was seen this topic was not common knowledge. We knew little of factory life in the Far East.

Leslie T. Chang, author of ‘Factory Girls’ offers a compelling insight into the lives of modern day factory workers in China. In addition, this creates some interesting questions regarding the country’s business relationships with the West. Through working thirteen hour shifts with two breaks in some factories, along with talking on the job being ‘forbidden’, it is no secret as to why products are manufactured so quickly in this nation. This may be good news for potential business partners; however Chang states that factory workers “talked constantly of leaving”.  In some ways this shows just how similar Chinese workers are with their European and American counterparts. Many leave jobs in order to find better wages and working conditions elsewhere.

In China, this migrant attitude towards job hopping not only concerns these basic attributes of working life. Chang states that the ordinary workers are constantly trying to improve themselves as individuals. Learning a new skill set, or learning English (it was believed to make a person more employable) are just some of the ways this was achieved. A constant desire to better oneself pushes these workers to new heights, and often to better wages.

I believe that this desire to improve as an individual is a crucial driving force behind China’s manufacturing power. As more and more workers gain better skills the quality and efficiency of manufacturing in the country will inevitably continue to flourish. This in turn will ensure that foreign business partners will be in ample supply for years to come.

It can be seen that the Western nations are benefitting greatly from their business relationships with China, but who really is gaining the most out of this partnership? In recent years the answer falls more closely towards the side of China. The Economist newspaper declared that the Chinese economy grew by 9.2% in 2011 and set a prediction of 8.2% for 2012. It seems that this rise in the economy is destined to continue as Economy Watch states, “Forecasts for 2015 predict China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to reach US$ 9,982.08 billion…” These figures are impressive and are testament to a nation on the rise. As the West continues to fuel China’s export industry the nation will begin to wield more of an influence financially over the rest of the world.

As China’s manufacturing industry becomes more dominant the country itself will follow suit. The nation is fast becoming more modern, leading it to catch up with Europe and America. If the financial figures stay true, this may happen sooner than we think.

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.