When the sequel to the much-awaited Kung Fu Panda hit the theatres early this month, nobody expected it to lead to a full-fledged controversy on Chinese culture. The recent protests from many sections of Chinese society about the ‘Western depiction’ of its cultural heritage demonstrate a struggle between states to capitalize on soft power expedients like the panda, China’s national animal and kung fu, one of its most popular martial art forms. This debate around cinematic representations begs the question as to what the nature of this controversy is.
The most primitive concern is whether one should seek a deeper reading from cinematic representations or treat them merely as works of entertainment. Second, who will determine the belongingness of a cultural object and its availability for public absorption and how; do they need to be enumerated under mechanisms like Intellectual Property Rights? Third, such debates might often be advertising gimmicks to give prominence to the work itself and raise its viewership.
Several Chinese activists have dubbed the production of movies like Kung Fu Panda (both parts) as an attempt by the West to undermine China’s national treasure. Most notably, Peking University Professor Kong Qingdong, who says that Chinese symbols have been harnessed to promote American culture, told Xinhua, the state news agency, that the movie ‘is a cultural invasion’. Thereafter, the controversy has spread to numerous Chinese social networks and is garnering a robust response. This derives from the fact that this DreamWorks Animation venture has lavishly drawn upon traditional Chinese practices of meditation, fortune-telling and the concept of inner peace.
On the other hand, a huge number of Chinese citizens also believe that this debate has been blown out of proportion. They allege that the boycott called for by renowned artists is a ploy to draw attention to their own artwork on pandas. For instance, the CNN exposes how Zhao Bandi, an avant-garde artist in Beijing who castigated the movie by placing advertisements in newspapers, had previously lobbied for ostracizing Kung Fu Panda I; a proposition rejected by most Chinese. This reaction might also be instigated by fears of competition as the Chinese film industry does not have as much of an audience as Hollywood.
In a poll relay conducted by China Daily, Chinese netizens have overwhelmingly refused to buy these ultra-nationalist arguments with a 14/86 per cent divide (approximately) as on 9 June 2011, the latter supporting free expression and fair play. On the contrary many have dubbed this as an opportunity to broadcast Chinese culture through the use of best technological know-how. A blogger remarked, “Don’t use Kung Fu Panda to hype your own work…If you want to boycott American culture, you should cast out McDonald’s and KFC.” Similarly, others consider it as an opportunity for the Chinese film industry to learn from others and improve its own expertise.
However, a more neglected side of the entire debate is the way the movie is a subtle satire that juxtaposes Chinese military warfare and China’s discourse on harmony and peace. The opulent didacticism of the movie is evident in its plea for renouncing warfare, finding strength through realizing and accepting one’s own being, the significance of unity and brotherhood in the face of difficulties and the doom of self-seekers.
Perceptibly, motion pictures as cultural artefacts do reveal a considerable amount about the societies they are centred around; it will hence be futile to try and dissociate meanings and backdrops and look at the big screen as a mere tool of entertainment. While malpractice and abuse in the film industry by elements craving immediate fame and attention cannot be ruled out, it still remains the most accessible medium for the portrayal of common mores and values, thereby voicing a consensus-generation model which operates in a much larger realm than the print and audio mediums.
Though animation lends a lighter tinge to the gravity of the issues being portrayed, it still remains a powerful method of educating and indoctrinating the common masses. It is in fact more popular than the conventional motion picture industry and is hence seen as a larger threat, which is evident in the fact that there was lesser opposition from Chinese critics when forms of martial art were co-opted by Hollywood. It will also be in vain to establish what belongs where, and to what level things can be co-opted by an individual or community in the context of an increasingly globalized world. This contestation in essence reflects and attests the ascendancy of soft-power options that countries today utilize in addition to mere hard-power resources.
China, as a huge consumer market, will continue to entice the West and film entrepreneurs from other parts of the world to experiment with issues which will help them in catering to the likes and dislikes of China’s huge population and expand their audience base. It will be difficult to cooperate multilaterally in the cultural and social realms if claims of sole privileges on certain objects are voiced. Rather, it will be advisable to steer clear of jingoistic appeals and initiate collaborative endeavours in cultural fields like that of media, film-making and sports.