Chinese culture is finding greater acceptance in the West with its movies, literature, design and art transcending borders.
When the unabashedly loveable Po returned to star in the movie Kung Fu Panda 3 this January, he proved once again that charming the toughest critics can come as easily as a bumbling ball of fur. The film has so far grossed $140 million at the box office globally, elevating the animated trilogy’s total earnings to over half a billion dollars.
The colorful spectacle of pandas, martial arts and valiant heroes is, of course, far from the reality in China today, but the version of a Chinese fantasy world in which the Kung Fu Panda movies live has proved very appealing to audiences both in China and globally. Even so, the inspiration and execution are almost all non-China.
“The story, the soul of [Kung Fu Panda] is all Hollywood,” says Yi Han, a film and television series director based in Beijing.“They’ve merely added Chinese cultural elements on the surface.”
So why hasn’t China produced something similar?
“Our method of storytelling isn’t at the same level yet,” Yi Han says. According to Yi, screenwriters, directors and producers on the mainland still face immense challenges, including content restrictions and a preference for commercial potential over quality that attracts viewers but ultimately limits the depth and breadth of Chinese television and motion pictures.
As one of the more influential components of the so-called “soft power” push, China’s film industry reflects the overall weak cultural impact of the whole. Even as economic ties multiply between China and the outside world, the flow of cultural exchange remains imbalanced. Chinese works, traditional or modern, consistently struggle to find the same acceptance abroad as Western works enjoy on the mainland.
This September, in what some see as evidence of the overseas potential of Chinese culture, the San Francisco Opera House will host the world premier of an opera based on Dream of the Red Chamber, one of China’s four literary classics. Yet the production was initiated and is funded by the Chinese Heritage Foundation based in Minnesota, lacks direct ties to the Mainland and targets California’s Chinese population rather than a wider audience.
“China’s main markets are still in Asia and in the diasporas of places like the US, Canada and Australia,” says Michael Keane, professor of Chinese Media and Cultural Studies at Curtin University in Australia.
The Middle Kingdom’s limited influence overseas is ironically viewed by some as a by-product of its official efforts to become a ‘great cultural power’, pursued since 2007. According to Sinologist David Shambaugh, the Chinese government spends roughly $10 billion per year on “external propaganda,” which pays for Confucius Institutes around the globe, Xinhua news agency and China Central Television (CCTV), and showy international events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The skeptics, at least, tend to be unswayed.
“Confucius Institutes have a government brand association,” says Keane. “China has achieved a cultural presence globally through its government-supported initiative, but it has not achieved a reputation as an innovative or creative nation, which is what many aspire to.”
Successes Past and Present
Still, while China today is praised for its creativity, it has exported a number of well-received artistic ventures over the past century.
In the 1930s, Peking opera legend Mei Lanfang toured the world, befriending celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and filling theaters from Moscow to New York. Twenty years later, Hong Kong’s Bruce Lee lit up the big screens, leaving a legacy of martial arts films that left a lasting impression on the West. Xi’an-born director Zhang Yimou, too, has won numerous international awards for his critically acclaimed pictures Red Sorghum (1987) and Hero (2002).
More recently, the breadth of Chinese artistic success abroad has expanded, with interest settling on modern, outspoken works. In 2012, author Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his politically charged novels and short stories. A state writer, Mo enjoyed unique resources and artistic direction early on within the People’s Liberation Army.
Other industries, too, are starting to exhibit evidence of Chinese aesthetics. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s exhibition ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’, which explored Chinese influence on Western fashion, attracted a record 670,000 visitors last summer. On the high-fashion runways, China-born designers like Masha Ma, Uma Wang, Xander Zhou and Haizhen Wang are helping reshape the way Chinese fashion is seen around the world.
There are also signs that the Chinese Ministry of Culture is interested in expanding China’s repertoire overseas. Alison Friedman, founder of Ping Pong Productions—the only foreign-run company in China organizing tours by Chinese acts in North America and Europe—says that in 2012 a Chinese cultural minster sponsored rock ‘n’ roll bands from Beijing to perform at a German music festival to prove China had rock stars too.
“I definitely see an increasing effort and desire from members of the Chinese government to show a ‘contemporary’ image of China on the world stage,” she says.“You’re starting to see certain individuals in key positions recognize that need and interest, and make efforts to act on it.”
Hurdles on the Mainland
Even so, the scene at home is still encumbered by pursuit of profit, content restrictions and structural deficiencies. China’s 30-year sprint towards economic prosperity has left a muddled, materialistic society in its wake, which many blame for stifling artistic development.
“There’s a mentality problem these days, people will write anything if they can squeeze a quick profit,” says Wang Xiangming, a theater director at the Chinese Air Force Political Department Repertory Theater in Beijing. “So there’s a huge gap between the quality of Chinese and foreign plays…. Why would the West invite us to perform? It would be pointless.”
And the risk aversion in terms of politics and profit favors tried-and-tested formats, with guaranteed viewers, over artistic innovation.
“If a screenwriter or director has a script that’s not commercial, no one will even read it, much less invest in it,” laments Yi, who recently won a Gold Remi Award for his film The Rising Star Kindergarten at the 2016 Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival. “Only a film that promises box office success will be shown in theaters… but China’s commercial films are all garbage.”
Profitability isn’t the only reason for cookie-cutter productions—the censorship regime must be reckoned with.
“Chinese films suffer from government intervention and a lack of genre diversity and this impacts the confidence of writers, investors and producers,” says Keane.
Films must be passed by regulators, and there is little room to change a script after approval by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT). Then there are various systemic deficiencies, including a lack of infrastructure and mature channels for artists to find support.
“China is in the transition process from a planned to a market economy,” says Friedman. “Before, all arts troupes and venues were government-run. Now that many arts organizations are privatizing, they still lack sufficient producers, managers and arts administrators—the management talent infrastructure that is needed to bring these artists abroad.”
Even in Asia, China’s reach is limited. Japan and Korea sometimes borrow ancient Chinese legends and mythology, but rarely import the Mainland’s finished products.
China, on the other hand, frequently takes from its more developed neighbors. In March, Tencent bought the rights to more than 300 Japanese anime franchises, and K-pop stars and Korean flicks huge popularity, with TV series like My Love from the Star and The Heirs garnering tens of millions of views per month.
All Eyes on the Emerald City
Money remains at the heart of China’s soft power push abroad, whether it be government expenditures on publicity or tycoons buying film studios abroad.
The Dalian Wanda Group, China’s largest commercial property company led by billionaire Wang Jianlin, has made massive investments into Hollywood including Legendary Entertainment, AMC Theatres and Carmike Cinemas and there is probably more to come. At home, the group has invested $8.2 billion in the construction of the nation’s largest movie park in the northern city of Qingdao, scheduled to be completed in 2017.
“China is becoming the new Hollywood,” veteran film producer James Schamus, who produced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, said at a press conference in Beijing in April.
While China has the financial resources, and is learning from the influx of creative personnel from Hong Kong and cooperation with international studios, it is still far from fulfilling its creative potential.
“What we need is time—not money,” concludes Yi Han. “It’s going to be a long process towards change.”