On the Representation of Chinese Arts in Western Media

Recently numerous friends on social media have pointed out to me the shockingly under-informed or dubious ways in which the Chinese arts have been represented in the Western media. I have been impressed by your astuteness and I thank you for your kindness.

As a writer, translator of Chinese culture and a public speaker, I am only painfully aware of these occurrences. Over the years I have learnt to work with what is available and the state of things as they are, rather than what they should be. There had been cause for plenty of ire and indignation in the past. It is perhaps sad to say that these days, I get so excited at any representation of contemporary Chinese arts in mainstream Western media that I don’t immediately always notice the not-so-ideal elements. It’s like seeing Choi Sum in Sainsbury’s, it’s not quite the same as the Choi Sum in Guangdong, nevertheless one is very pleased to see it there. A couple of decades ago, there would have probably only been prawn crackers at the supermarket (not taken nearly as much in China as it is outside), but now, there’s Light Soy, Dark Soy, as well as several choices of Chinese vegetables not to mention other foods available. This is still far from comprehensive and sparse compared to other world foods, but it’s a definite improvement.

Over the last two decades, with the rise of pop culture and sub-cultures, and its emphasis on promoting its soft power to the world, China has a massively improved global cultural profile. A lot more people are seeing a China beyond Kungfu films and takeaway food. The world has become aware of the existence of manhua (Chinese comics) and computer games, and even discovering the existence of Chinese indie music and more recently, online literature and science fiction. I am proud to have contributed to many aspects of this process with my translations.

I am delighted to see China and Chinese culture increasing brought to the West by so many capable and excellent creators, be they of native Chinese, diaspora or Western origin, especially within the last decade. From David Der-Wei Wang’s scholarly tome “A New Literary History of Modern China” to Ben Chu’s incisive “Chinese Whispers” which desconstructs centuries of misperceptions of China. From M. H. Boroson’s magical novel “The Girl with the Ghost Eyes” exploring both 19th century San Francisco and the Chinese spirit world, to Zhang Lijia ‘s lyrial “Lotus”, boldly going where few writers have gone before, into the lives of Chinese sex workers. From much needed documentaries on the Chinese Labour Corps of WWI to the Chris Chen’s stark play on Iris Chang, writer of China’s forgotten holocaust. From films on Zhong Kui the Chinese demon slayer, to cinematic adaptations of Chinese tomb adventure net novels. Major Chinese science fiction authors have now been translated by Western publishers, while others enjoy an abundant readership via online publications such as Clarkesworld and Uncanny.

There is often new cause for anger, as the West struggles to come to terms with a China that is changing, for instance, a China that is introducing new labour laws and putting environmental measures in place. Sometimes it seems easier for Western media to forget the shameful history of their industrial pasts, ignore how trade with China has aided in the their economical and humanitarian progress, and to continue to look at China askance, treating its own social progress as an inconvenience to the rest of the world at best. For example, certain Western attitudes towards Chinese decision to no longer recycle the world’s toxic waste. However, whilst more contact can lead to contention, it can also lead towards better dialogue.

It is debatable whether bad representation is better or worse than no representation. It is better for Western children to know about Chinese door gods, even if their first encounter may be a censored and disneyfied version, “The Guardian Brothers”, released by Weinstein, which adapted the original Chinese animation “Little Door Gods”. Whilst the Bookseller article on Chinese science fiction, only really skims the surface of the phenomenon, Kehuan’s featuring by Britain’s leading trade magazine signifies that mainstream media is picking up on these works. When that spark is lit, those who are interested in finding out more, will discover whole new worlds beyond, more complex, more effervescent than what these initial pieces, vital as they are, have shown them.

These spotlights provide good opportunities for correction, re-informing and re-educating. The utterly bland representation of Marvel’s The Mandarin in Iron Man III that was devoid of all his salients, caused me to write about the power of the Mandarin in the comics as a character, and the importance of having great villains as well as heroes. The offensive recent representation of Iron Fist spurred me to compose an article on the TV series, and another on the origins on the character in comics and in Chinese culture. The misjudged article in The Guardian portraying the father of Wuxia, Jin Yong as China’s Tolkien, prompted a piece drawing far more similarities between Wuxia and Star Wars, which will hopefully open the novel up to a wider readership. My pen is my sword.

On the other hand, there are controversial works that have been heavily criticized for their take on diversity issues, such as Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, which upon closer inspection, proves otherwise and far more complex that it is made out to be, as I was able to clarify to my readers, after seeing the film myself. I would recommend always seeing a work for at first hand before making a judgement. Unfortunately, it isn’t only media in the West that sometimes misrepresents China, but also groups from within with ulterior motives. The dance group Shen Yun, appeals to the Western audiences with a form of bankable dissent, by claiming that the divine culture that they bring to the stage can’t be seen in China. One visit to the country will contradict this view.

It is great to know that, going forwards, if there is ever a poor presentation of a Mulan, a meagre Monkey King or beastly Bruce Lee, that I will not be alone in vetting these works, but there will be an army of culturally aware and savvy Western viewers and readers who will work with me, desconstructing cultural misrepresentations, opening paths and opening minds.


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