Kung Fu Fighting

Why didn't China make Kung Fu Panda?

When the first Kung Fu Panda was released in China, it caused an existential crisis. Chinese audiences marveled at how well Western filmmakers had understood Chinese culture, but deep down they all wondered the same thing: Why hadn’t this movie been made in China?

In an thoughtful op-ed in China Daily, Chinese director Lu Chuan (Kekexili: Mountain PatrolCity of Life and Death) wrote:

Producers of the movie were sincere to the Chinese culture. Besides borrowing a number of sequences from classic Kung Fu movies in China, the animated comedy had grasped the essence of our culture.

All this suggests that the producers had a thorough understanding of our philosophy about life, including its logic and manifestation.

He pondered, “I cannot help wondering when China will be able to produce a movie of this caliber.”

Indeed, the film made such an impact that it was even the topic of a panel at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee, one of the “Two Meetings” where high-level cadres discuss national issues. There, China National Peking Opera Company president Wu Jiang asked, “The film’s protagonist is China’s national treasure and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn’t we make such a film?”

Anyone who has spent time around Chinese people know that the Chinese are intensely proud and often times possessive of their culture. My colleague Fenwick Smith has touched on the dismissive attitude foreigners sometimes face when they try to talk about Chinese culture, but even the most ardent protectors of China’s legacy had to admit, Kung Fu Panda was a great film.

So it’s no surprise that the sequel’s release has reignited old debates about Chinese culture and the Chinese film industry. A Global Times op-ed wrote of Kung Fu Panda 2:

However, the public may still consider the film beyond its visual entertainment and enjoyable plot. It is after all an American success that benefits from Chinese cultural elements and sells terribly well in China, which inevitably leads to wondering why Chinese cannot do the same.

Such a question is due to an explicit disappointment in the Chinese film industry’s productivity and quality.

For some, the franchise’s success in the country from which it draws its inspiration is cause for introspection and begs the question of whether or not China’s strict system of censorship and top-down control of culture and media benefits the very culture and media it purports to promote. It’s what the Washington Post called “a lack of imagination that comes as a result of tight government controls over the film industry and hypersensitivity over how China is portrayed to the outside world.” In his op-ed, Lu Chuan recounts the story of his ill-fated attempt to create an animated film for the Beijing Olympics:

In 2006, I took a job to produce an animation movie for the Olympic Games. During that year, I kept receiving directions and orders from related parties on how the movie should be like. An important part of the instructions was that the animation should promote Chinese culture. We were given very specific rules on how to promote it. And some were not flexible about “promoting the Olympic spirit”, “promoting Chinese culture” or “rich in Chinese elements”.

Under such pressure, my co-workers and I really felt stifled. The fun and joy from doing something interesting left us, together with our imagination and creativity. The planned animation was never produced.

If a camel is a horse designed by committee, then the Fuwa are mascots designed by clueless apparatchiks. The dromedary quality of Chinese cultural products doesn’t stop there: government-produced blockbusters, such as Founding of a Republic or Beginning of the Great Revival (which currently enjoys a 1.9/10 on the blocked IMDB), outdo even Hollywood in terms of throwing stars at a roll of celluloid and seeing what sticks. But that’s what you get when you task people with no artistic talent but plenty of cheap political ideology with protecting your country’s culture.

However, not everyone is looking inward for answers as to why great films about Chinese culture are not made in China. For these individuals, introspection is too painful, or simply beyond their cognitive ability—these people choose instead to externalize the problem.

"Block American cultural invasion, are you in?" Zhao Bandi and his stuffed pandas.

Meet Zhao Bandi, an avant-garde artist who sued the filmmakers for an apology when the first film came out and was accused of trying to advance his own career by disparaging the film. If I may be allowed several ad hominem attacks, Zhao’s “art,” as far as I can tell, is centered around pandas and consists mainly of poorly Photoshopped pictures that are, I can only imagine, meant to be funny. Apparently he also carries a stuffed panda with him wherever he goes because that’s not creepy.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, Mr. Zhao hasn’t acquired a life or a sense of irony since the first film. In his view, boycotting Kung Fu Panda goes deeper than the fact that people prefer an animated panda to his ridiculous line of panda couture—we are in the midst of “a battle against the invasion of American culture.” He has encouraged theater managers to not show the film in order to “save children from watching a movie that fools Chinese people by twisting Chinese culture.”

Hmm… “twisting Chinese culture”… Without giving away too much, there’s a part in Kung Fu Panda 2 where a megalomaniacal tyrant orders all the metal from a village to be taken and melted to make weaponry. Surely this is a perversion of Chinese culture and no such instance of this has taken place in recent Chinese history, and certainly not between the years of 1958 and 1961.

But this is just one guy, one creepy, untalented, misguided, pathetic artist manque, right? (Sorry, these ad hominem attacks are hard to stop once you start.) If only. Perhaps even more depressing than Zhao himself, are his allies. Global Times reports,

Zhao’s campaign team includes Kong Qingdong, a professor from Peking University, and Sun Lijun, Beijing Film Academy animation school dean. They jointly issued a letter that called for children to explore nature instead of watching Kung Fu Panda 2.

Great idea professors, but unless this so-called nature is in IMAX 3D, I don’t think the kids are going to go for it. Sun has characterized American films as “powerful cultural invasion,” while Kong for his part said, “Rushing to see a Hollywood movie with twisted Chinese culture is the behavior of brainwashed morons whose money is being robbed as well.”

Speaking of brainwashed morons, who wants to bet Professor Kong goes to see Beginning of the Great Revival and loves it? And bravo, Professor Sun, for boycotting the very art form you are supposed to be teaching. Surely your students could learn from a film that has broken box office records for animated films in your country? But I guess you’re too busy trying to advance a myopic, nationalistic agenda based on nothing but your own ignorance about art and life to care. It’s a wonder why Chinese students want to study abroad when they have such paragons of pedagogy like yourself at the most prestigious film school in China. (Last one, I swear.)

An opinion piece on china.org.cn called the claims of cultural invasion “dubious,” and said “It’s not wise to boycott the film.” Another piece on the Global Times website characterized the backlash as “a reflection of lack of confidence.” It went on:

If we aren’t able to produce as elegant a piece of animation as a Hollywood studio, shouldn’t we tolerantly accept and appreciate this?

Nowadays, many cities in China are endeavoring to build animation communities, but it is a pity that there are still no Chinese animation brands or characters that are famous worldwide.

Imagination and creativity are the core factors for the development of cartoon industry, but Chinese animation is just simply copying and imitating others.

So, the imported first-rate cartoon products including Kung Fu Panda 2 should be taken as a mirror to reflect our deficiencies.

Boycotting competitors is useless. What we need is to learn from them and improve ourselves.

You know you’ve hit rock bottom when Global Times tells you that you’re too nationalistic. For the first time, I agree completely with them. This backlash is fueled by fear, fear that your culture is weak enough to be twisted, stolen, or destroyed by someone else; by anger, sublimated from a disappointment in yourself or your country; by sheer stupidity, to view a movie by filmmakers who have repeatedly expressed their reverence for Chinese culture as a threat; and by selfishness, in particular the desire to hoard and claim culture for your own ends.

Culture is meant to be shared. After all, trade was how Chinese culture spread and rose to preeminence in the first place. In that sense, Kung Fu Panda has done more to spread and promote Chinese culture internationally than all of the recent government-produced films combined. It is sad to see people railing against distortions of their culture when they don’t really understand it themselves. Some cultures thrive and others wane, but as long as we treasure our past, culture never really dies. By treating Chinese culture like an endangered species, as something that must be protected at all costs, these individuals create a self-fulfilling prophecy—they weaken China’s greatest legacy until they themselves become the only hope for its survival.

Of course China can make movies as powerful and culturally rich as Kung Fu Panda. It will take money, and time, and dedication, but the most important factor is the courage to come to terms with yourself, your country, and your culture. But as long as people in power promote a narrow-minded and pusillanimous world view, it will not be a mystery why Kung Fu Panda and its sequel were not, as so many other things are, made in China.