Mulan: Disney aims to win over China with second take on the legend By Yvette Tan & Heather Chen
There won’t be songs or talking dragons, and the film’s antagonist will be a Chinese sorceress, not an evil leader of the Hun army – but Mulan is making her return to the big screen.
This week Disney released a teaser trailer for the live-action remake of its 1998 classic, a story based on a legendary female warrior who disguises herself as a man to fight in place of her ailing father in China’s imperial army.
It joins a string of Disney hits from the 90s being revived for the 21st Century, including Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
The animated Mulan flopped in its birthplace when it was released more than two decades ago, but this time Disney is pulling out all stops to win China over with its version of their heroine.
Let’s get down to business
When the Disney original first aired, China was not a major market for Disney. Twenty years on, China is the second-biggest movie market in the world.
Around 70% of Hollywood studios’ revenue are now generated overseas, compared with around 30% two decades ago. And Chinese audiences today are able to add millions to box office takings.
“Chinese takings can make or break a movie,” said writer and cultural analyst Xueting Christine Ni.
And Disney knows this – which is why its spending $300m (£240m) on the film, according to one of its stars, Gong Li.
“Disney is aggressively targeting China,” Stanley Rosen, a professor in political science from the University of Southern California, told the BBC.
Recent Disney offerings, like Toy Story 4, failed to see Chinese box office success. In contrast, Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios, which split from Disney in 2016, had a huge hit among Chinese audiences with its Kung Fu Panda instalment.
For that film, says Prof Rosen, “they spent a lot of time in China, investing efforts in researching pandas and talking to experts”.
“Chinese audiences are clearly more sophisticated now so if Disney wants to win them back, they have to nail the cultural aspects of Mulan.”
That means the new movie can’t be a play-by-play of the old one.
“[The Disney original] was trying so hard to be Chinese, but in a stereotypical way – there’s lanterns, fireworks.. they even stuck a panda in there. The humour, the pacing the relationships, are either wholly American, or what America imagines China would be like,” Ms Ni told the BBC.
In one scene for example, the emperor is seen bowing to Mulan. It would be unthinkable for the emperor, who was seen as a god-like figure in China at the time, to bow to anyone.
Making it right
Casting was always going to be critical for this film.
Disney banished early fears of “whitewashing” – there were wholly unfounded rumours she was to be played by Jennifer Lawrence – by casting Chinese American actress Liu Yifei in the lead role.
It then upped the show’s star power by featuring martial arts legend Jet Li as the Chinese emperor and A-list superstar Gong Li as a villainous sorceress – huge names in China who have also made it big in Western cinema.
But casting is “simply one element of better representation and inclusivity in Disney films”, said cultural expert Rebecca-Anne Rozario, a professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
So there are other factors that Disney will have to include in order to make the film a success.
Mulan is a national heroine in ancient Chinese legend. Legends of her date back to the Northern Wei dynasty, as early as around 380AD. Think less Disney princess, more Chinese Joan-of-Arc.
So the new film script went back to the original 6th Century source material, the Ballad of Mulan, for inspiration. It was also filmed partly in China, and the female-centred story also has a female director in Niki Caro.
“[From the] tone of the [new] trailer, [it looks] much closer to the original legend than the 1998 animation and therefore closer to Hua Mulan as the Chinese know her – the brave young woman who upholds her duty to state and family,” said Ms Ni.
“I think this time round, the live action will have a much better chance of winning over Chinese audiences.”
Who is that girl I see?
The highly anticipated remake has inevitably met some criticism.
“Where is the singing?” complained one disgruntled fan on Facebook. “This isn’t the Mulan I remember if we don’t hear the songs we grew up with.”
Others mourned the absence of wise-cracking dragon Mushu.
“We know Disney is changing a lot of things and dropping many of the original characters but Mushu was hilarious,” one said.
The heroine’s lucky cricket and sassy grandmother don’t feature either. In their place is Mulan’s new and younger sister.
And some eagle-eyed people spotted historical inaccuracies in the trailer. Mulan is seen living in a tulou hut, a traditional style of roundhouse. But those are from Fujian, more than 1,000km from Henan, the northern province where Mulan was said to have originally hailed from and were built centuries after her era.
“Hua Mulan was the heroine who graced our storybooks in school. I’m happy that the trailer is setting her story up as more of a Chinese martial arts epic rather than an American cartoon.”
But high praise came from the voice of the “original” Mulan, Ming-Na Wen, who took to Twitter to praise Liu’s performance.
The full film is scheduled for release in March next year. Disney would not give us any further details on it for now, but said more information would come out as the release date approached.
There are suggestions some of the classic songs from the animated movie will crop up in some form, but that may end up being a secondary issue for Chinese Mulan fans.
As one Weibo user put it: “China’s Mulan is back.”
Why my childhood birthdays were full of red eggs Angela Hui FEB 06, 2019
When I was a child, every year, without fail, my mother would take over my classroom mid-lesson to throw me a birthday party.
Part of me was mortified with embarrassment, and part of me loved being the center of attention. She’d go all out with a homemade cake, stir-fried noodles, and fried rice from my parents’ restaurant.
There would also be a basket full of red eggs.
In Chinese culture, red dyed eggs are often presented at birthdays, weddings, and parties to celebrate one month since a baby’s birth. (One month was a significant milestone in pre-modern China, when infant mortality was high and many babies didn’t survive the first month.)
“Red eggs represent birth and new beginnings,” my mother says.
According to ancient folklore, the tradition began as an offering to the gods. It was an appeal from parents to bless their children and protect them.
“Eggs have always been auspicious to the Chinese,” says Xueting Ni, a writer and speaker on Chinese culture. “There is the popular creational myth of Pangu, in which the world began as primal mass shaped like an egg. In the early dynasties, eggs were painted and often given as a gift.”
Colored eggs are also part of Lunar New Year celebrations. In northern China, tea eggs are a popular New Year’s food because their brownish color resembles the shade of gold, and represents the promise of wealth and fortune in the new year.
In the case of birth celebrations, red is the color of choice because of its association with luck, happiness, and fertility.
“Dyeing the eggs removes their white color, which is considered unlucky in traditional Chinese culture because it signifies death,” Ni says.
I have fond memories of watching my mother carefully wrap each egg individually in red paper and boil them in water.
As they cooked, the ink would dissipate, turning the water into a crimson bath.
“People used to boil them in sumu 苏木 [sappan wood], an ingredient used in traditional Chinese medicine,” Ni says. “Nowadays, you can buy them in shops, pre-dyed and printed with lucky messages.”
Their luck, in my mother’s eyes, was versatile. She would force-feed me eggs not only on birthdays, but also days that required extra luck, such as the first day of school and big exam days.
Of course, dyed eggs are not confined to Chinese culture. In Christianity, the Easter egg is symbolic of the rebirth of Jesus Christ. The dye is said to represent the blood of Christ.
And in Greece, the Easter egg is incorporated into a game where each player tries to crack each other’s eggs. Whoever succeeds is said to have good luck for the year ahead.
The egg: a universally beloved symbol of birth and fortune. No wonder it got more likes on Instagram than Kylie Jenner.
Kevin McGeary talks to Xueting Christine Ni about Chinese deities
From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: An Essential Guide to Chinese Deities by Guangzhou-born author Xueting Christine Ni is a mystery tour of mythical figures from China’s long past. It serves as a reference book on the deities Chinese people have worshipped through the country’s long history, how they have changed and evolved, and how this relates to present-day China. I caught up with Ni Xueting to answer some questions about the book:
What drew you to the topic of Chinese deities? How are they unique compared to other cultures?
There are very few books in English on the subject that are accessible and at the same time provide sufficient depth. It tends to be either academic research or glib guides that merely skim the surface. Chinese spirituality is one of the best facets through which Western readers can understand China’s society. Its observation and practice have completely integrated with China’s social customs and everyday life, and are also very much linked to broader economic and political developments in history. Chinese gods have evolved through centuries, from multiple belief systems, some indigenous like Confucian philosophy and Daoism, others foreign, such as Buddhism and even Persian religions. Not to mention the 56 officially-recognized ethnic groups in this vast country, each with their own languages, cultures and beliefs. This process is only really possible in a climate unique to China, and is one of the reasons why Chinese spirituality is so diverse. Whilst there are many unique elements, it’s by no means alien to anyone on the outside, and I do think that letting people in on this subject is a key for better understanding.
In the book, you say “there is a wonderfully egalitarian quality to Chinese deities – who represent a meritocratic pantheon in which anyone can become a god.” You mention figures like Lü Dongbin, the Tang Dynasty scholar and poet regarded by some as a healer of the poor and a slayer of evil spirits, whose appeal lies in his fallibility. Do you find Chinese theology more fluid and more democratic than Western monotheism?
First of all, there are two strands to this question. With Lü Dongbin, you have a typical example of Daoist recruitment, putting forward the idea that you don’t have to fulfill those goals which society expects of you – i.e. become one of the small percentage of imperial exam passers – to be an immortal. On the other hand, you have real people, folk heroes, such as Guan Yu, son of a tofu seller, who became a warrior and then a god; and Lu Ban, a carpenter and inventor who became the god of crafts. These figures reached their places in the pantheon through the sheer force of popular belief. Even though they were adopted into the cannons later on, it was popular faith that brought them there. It is certainly amusing and poignant that this popularity contest, which underpins Western democratic political systems, can still be found at work in a communist country.
There is a chapter on Pan Gu, a central figure in Daoist creation myths, said by some to have separated Heaven from Earth. In it, you say “Pan Gu’s skin and hair became the grass, while his sweat and blood fell as rain and flowed as rivers, which eventually merged to form the sea.” Did you research other cultures’ foundation myths? How does this one compare?
I know a little about Norse and Greek mythology, and the idea of bodies of deities turning into parts of the human world as a world-forming process is shared by other cultures. But this was never a book on comparative religion. It’s a guide to Chinese gods as a stand-alone tradition, as part of my aim to represent Chinese culture as it is. If you talk to kids in the West, many of them will already be well acquainted with the Roman gods or Egyptian ones, because there is a lot of accessible literature on these gods, whether the classic is retold for children or written into modern fantasy fiction. I hope that one day, in people’s conversations on mythology or gods, the name of Pan Gu and Nü Wa will be flying around as casually as those of Ymir and Osiris, without anyone batting an eyelid.
Nü Wa is the mother goddess of Chinese mythology, credited with creating mankind and repairing the pillar of heaven. In your chapter on her, you mention that in depictions she normally wears very little, and that this is unusual in Chinese culture, which prefers a “willowy femininity” and to cover up the female body. Is China just going through a prudish period in its history or is this a historical norm?
I think it’s important to look into any culture without preconceptions. Traditional Chinese aesthetics has always favoured the subtle, elegant and delicate. The nude has never featured prominently in the arts. Far more skill is needed in depicting those flowing silk robes than a bit of bare skin. In modern times, when the rest of the world was undergoing the sexual revolution, China went through the Cultural Revolution. So to a large extent, there is very much a 1950s feel to what is socially acceptable in contemporary Chinese society. In some computer games, there is now a tendency toward a more sexualized view of women. So depicting deities like Nü Wa gives them some diegetic license for titillation. Personally I don’t think it detracts from her. She’s always presented as a very strong and powerful figure, and showing her as even partially nude just gives her an elemental strength.
You mention the Chang’e space probe is named after Chang’e, the moon goddess celebrated in many novels and poems. One of the key devices on the probe was Yutu, named after the mythical jade rabbit, due to its ability to endure on the moon. Is China’s leadership, a nominally atheistic organization, embracing traditional Chinese theology?
First of all, let me clarify that Chang’e is the satellite, and Yutu the lunar rover. Their naming has far more to do with associations with the moon in the Chinese psyche. China does tend to borrow from mythology when naming its new technology. But then NASA has had a whole Apollo space project. China has always looked to its past to validate its present. And naming a satellite after an ancient goddess who went to the moon gives it validity and cultural relevance. The state is also actively encouraging indigenous industries and the preservation of heritage. This is why we are seeing a revival in veneration of a lot of the older deities, like Lei Zu, Mother of Silk, and Xi Wang Mu, Supreme Goddess, who have come to symbolize native civilization and crafts.
You mention that in traditional Chinese culture the pursuit of wealth is something that goes hand-in-hand with charity, citing the peddlers who go door-to-door during Spring Festival to usher in Cai Shen, the god of wealth. Are perceptions of “traditional Chinese culture” tailored to fit the needs of the present, in this case a prosperous one in which “to get rich is glorious”?
Yes, China has definitely gone through the equivalent of the “greed is good” stage. Whilst charity in the 90s was often connected to conspicuous display of wealth, nowadays there is a definite push towards social responsibility. Charity has always been present in China, like it has been everywhere else. At present, there is a marked change towards social and environmental awareness, both on organizational and individual levels. And whilst this stands separately from the deities, some of them are being invoked as a continuation with history. It’s not just China that reinterprets its traditions to fit the needs of the present. That is what every country does. And that is one of the reasons why we read history.
The final chapter of the book is on Chairman Mao. Can Maoism be described as a “political religion”?
My concern is not with the political philosophy of Maoism, but Mao Zedong as an individual, a personality, the phenomenon of him being treated like a deity by the Chinese, and the historical and cultural reasons behind this phenomenon. Mao was an exceptionally charismatic leader during an era where there was a faith vacuum. A lot of Mao’s teachings tried to make the people of China give up their beliefs in external unseen agencies and believe in themselves and the state, but those who weren’t ready to found themselves attracted to the new image of power.
You end by stating that the court of heaven is “yet to be fully staffed.” Will the next generation of Chinese gods be athletes, actors, musicians, etc.? Or will there perhaps be a Xi Jinping cult of personality?
Of course it will be actors, singers and film stars. There will be some leaders, and perhaps even some businessman. Jack Ma, in his head, is already halfway there! I can well imagine a statue of Ip Man outside a temple. And there’s already at least one statue of Bruce Lee.
Though often portrayed in Western media as a monolithic, atheistic monoculture, China has one of the most complex histories of religion and spirituality among the world’s civilizations. Understanding the histories, myths, and enduring spiritual and pop-cultural appeal of China’s long list of deities is essential to understanding the country as it exists today, says Xueting Christine Ni, who has a book on the subject out on Friday (June 1).
Ni, also somewhat of an authority on Chinese pop culture (she wrote about ghosts and ghouls for us around Halloween), has put together a “shortlist” of 60 beings — gods and goddesses, along with “spirits, immortals, heroes, elementals, sages, guardians and so forth” — showing the connective tissue of deep-seated spirituality connecting figures From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao, as the book’s title has it, to Chinese society and culture.
Ahead of the book’s release, RADII caught up with Ni for a dive into China’s complex canon of mytho-historical legends, and to hear why she thinks getting a handle on them can help anyone hoping to understand the country’s role in the world today.
RADII: Let’s start off with a basic question: what does “deity” mean in the Chinese tradition? Your book covers a wide range of what people in the West might call gods or goddesses, immortals, folk heroes… How is this type of being in Chinese myth or history different from the Western conception of gods, such as the Greek pantheon, or other contemporary polytheistic traditions, such as Hinduism?
Xueting Christine Ni: The Chinese concept of gods fundamentally differs from a lot of Western cultures. It’s a big mix of traditional-type all-powerful spirits, embodiments of virtues, all the way down to real-life heroes who get referred to as gods in a similar way as the canonizing of saints. Very often, officially anointed deities don’t even live within just one canon, or religion. They have entirely separate lives in popular religion and folklore.
You see, China has been seen in the West as this great monoculture. That’s not entirely the West’s fault, because China has always tried to present this great united front to the outside world, but actually it’s a whole network of different peoples, and faiths — with there being maybe three big ones — which have not only coexisted for centuries, but intertwined with and enhanced each other.
China has been seen in the West as this great monoculture — that’s not entirely the West’s fault, because China has always tried to present this great united front to the outside world, but actually it’s a whole network of different peoples and faiths
Buddhism, which was not even from China to begin with, has developed unique branches there, with distinct Chinese god identities. Confucianism is treated like a religion, but it’s more of a way of governance, a code of behavior, than a belief, whilst Daoism, which is the largest of China’s natural belief systems, is all about the state of existence itself. That’s all on top of the complex collection of folk religion, which takes whatever it wants, wherever, and weaves it all together, spawning new gods when new troubles or technologies emerge.
To complicate things even further, the boundaries between these four morph and merge. Part of why I wrote this book was to help my readers start to make sense of China’s chaotic spiritual life. I think understanding how these belief systems have vied, compromised and settled is a very important insight into the Chinese Psyche as a whole.
Part of why I wrote this book was to help my readers start to make sense of China’s chaotic spiritual life
One of the beings you feature in the book, perhaps the best known in the West, is Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy and compassion. This is a female deity that is also worshipped as the male bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara in Indian Buddhist traditions. What do you think is particularly “Chinese” about Guan Yin, the way this deity is depicted or worshipped in China vs India (or elsewhere in Southeast/East Asia, where the same god is worshipped under different names)?
Absolutely, Guan Yin was among the first deities I selected when I was making my shortlist for this book — yes, 60 deities in Chinese religion is a shortlist. The reason why my US publishers wanted to have her name in the title, and retain that peculiar “Kuan Yin” variation of spelling in the text, is precisely because she has such a phenomenal following under that name in the States, but actually, she’s well known all through the West.
Guan Yin is in fact the Chinese translation of Avalokiteśvara, a shortened form of Guan Shi Yin, meaning “hearer of the world’s cries.” However, the Guan Yin we think of today is very different from her origins. Introduced into China around the time of the Three Kingdoms [220-280 CE], she’s developed a separate Chinese identity over several hundreds of years, as a sort of ambassador between the Chinese people and Amida Buddha.
One immediate clue is in the fact we refer to the deity as a “she” and a goddess. Bodhisattvas are meant to be asexual, but early Chinese versions were mainly male to begin with, and then became female during the Tang Dynasty [618–907 CE], which corresponded to an increase of female Buddhists, and legends surrounding women in the nobility taking on the faith, such as story of the death and resurrection of the devout Princess Miao Yin.
One theme that you follow closely is how Chinese deities are being used today in a variety of popular media, such as TV, movies, and video games. Can you share one or two examples of this phenomenon that you’ve found the most interesting?
Chinese deities have never really been far from the popular imagination, and if any of your readers are gamers, they will have heard about the Monkey King and Guan Yu, even if they are otherwise unfamiliar with China. The stories of these two are so engaging that each generation can find their own take on them. One I found quite interesting is an adaptation of He Xian Gu, Celestial Healer and one of the Eight Immortals, who we see appearing as the Chinese zombie Lei Lei in Capcom’s classic ’90s arcade game Darkstalkers. This is a representation that has taken only a hint of her herbalist origins, and married it to the popularity of Chinese jiangshi [僵尸; zombie] films at the time, by putting her in a revamped, sexy version of a Qing Dynasty official’s uniform.
Another interesting one is Zhong Kui, China’s most famous demon slayer. As a demon slayer who is a ghost himself, the deity’s remarkable origins really lend themselves to versatile reinterpretations. Hong Kong cinema channelled the deity’s corrective and exorcist power into that of a modern day cop, killed on duty and revived, unleashed to the world in a sort of half-Robocop, half-Frankenstein being that has to find his killers and help his wife deliver the baby.
Recently, the Light Chaser Animation studio has produced a reinterpretation of the Men Shen, or door gods, released in the West as The Guardian Brothers and voiced by a Hollywood cast. The film portrays the gods as unemployed celestials fighting to retain their role as gods in a world that’s losing its belief in them. It’s a charming story, though I don’t think this fate is anything for the door gods to worry about in China.
How did some of these same figures circulate in the ancient equivalent of pop culture? Did you find any interesting cases of deities permeating song, dance, poetry, etc in earlier dynasties?
I have chosen to write about deities that had, and still have, major significance to people. A lot of my research on the origins and history of these gods led me to classics of mythology, such as the Classic of Mountains and Seas, Gan Bao’s In Search of the Supernatural, and historical texts such as Huai Nan Zi and Sima Qian’s Historical Records. However, a considerable amount of information on the evolution of the deities would inevitably come from poetry, theatre, and popular fiction, because those are the mediums through which veneration for the deities would manifest, if they are popular.
For instance, we know that many great Tang poets were inspired by Lu Yu, the Tea Sage, because they wrote about him in their poetry. Various legends of White Snake and Yuan Dynasty plays show us how the characteristics and appearance of Shou Xing, the god of longevity, have developed in the popular consciousness. The Hei Bai Wu Chang, minor gods in the Daoist canon, achieved their status in Chinese pop culture by being transformed into badass hunters of stray souls in urban legends. Part of their story would be told in the pages of works such as Li Qingchen’s Zui Cha Guai Shi, or Strange Tales of Drunken Reverie. In fact, there’s a whole tradition in China of the Chuanqi genre, a gathering of tales of the strange that have proved very useful when looking at deities who’ve risen out of folklore.
The Hei Bai Wu Chang, minor gods in the Daoist canon, achieved their status in Chinese pop culture by being transformed into badass hunters of stray souls in urban legends
You note in the intro to your book that China’s three major spiritual and philosophical traditions — Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism — overlap in many ways, but that Confucianism, which is more of a belief system guiding civil and social life than a “religion” as traditionally defined, is less concerned with the creation of gods. That said, what Confucian figures do you feature in the book?
I write about a few notable thinkers who created new branches based on their schools of thought, such as the Neo-Confucians Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, who created Xin Xue, or Cultivation of the Heart. But few Confucian thinkers came close to achieving the god-like status of Confucius himself, whose veneration started off as an ancestral cult after his death, and which over a couple of centuries became nationwide in all schools, by imperial decree.
The Chinese are a civilization that have always placed great emphasis on scholarly excellence in whatever field. They have incredible reverence for wisdom and learning, so in a way it’s perfectly natural for the sages among them — not just Confucius, but the Tea sage Lu Yu, and Mei Ge, who are credited with inventing cloth dying — to be worshipped like gods, and to have the word sheng [圣; sage] in their titles.
On the same note, you mention Mao Zedong in the book’s title. In what ways do you think he has been mythologized or deified?
Mao Zedong was a combination of many things. He was a very charismatic person, a great scholar, exceptionally adept at his use of language, and, of course, he was photogenic and very paintable. His Analects — aka the little red book — is a much better read than a dry party manifesto. All of these attributes made him very easy to venerate. If you add to the mix a nation with a spiritual void, just pulled out of prolonged, severe trauma by this very savior, a country full of fired-up hormonal teenage red guards, it’s the perfect recipe for godlike worship. Mao still has a considerable following in China today, which can be seen in how his image is presented in contemporary iconography.
If you add to the mix a nation with a spiritual void, just pulled out of prolonged, severe trauma by this very savior, a country full of fired-up hormonal teenage red guards, it’s the perfect recipe for godlike worship
I think the way that a lot of fans around the world venerate the stars of music, movies and sports, with their personal iconography of posters and pin badges, raise these celebrities to a super-human, god-like status. So this kind of worship of real people is certainly not something relevant only to China.
Early in the book you mention the Cultural Revolution, a period during which much of China’s religious infrastructure was systematically destroyed. You say that religion, or the innate desire to create and worship deities, never went away. How did people maintain faith or belief during such a tumultuous period of China’s history?
The Chinese are a passionate and emotional people who’ve been through a lot. They are always looking to entrust their hopes and fears in some external, higher spirit. I don’t think you can stop people from having faith, only perhaps change its focus. Around Mao’s time, the majority of people were very invested in the idea of the new China, formed after Communist victory in the Civil War. It’s something that really comes through in the kind of fervent optimism that pervades film and art during the 1950s. That peace and seeming prosperity lasted for about a decade. Then there’s the cult of Mao, which, as we have seen from history, proves that faith can cause destruction as well as hope and creativity.
Now that China is relatively more open, and more prosperous, do you think belief has taken a new form in the country? Is there an increased focus on some gods — of wealth, for example — over others in this era?
There definitely has been a resurgence of spirituality in this more open and prosperous China. I’m noticing several strands. With a need to reconnect with roots and heritage, and with China’s new-found confidence in its place in the world and therefore in its own culture, there is definitely an increased veneration of deities that represent indigenous Chinese civilization, such as creator gods Nüwa and Pangu, and Huangdi, the legendary founder of Chinese civilization.The traditional staples — such as Fu Lu Shou, the gods of happiness, Wen Chang, god of scholarly success, and as you say, Cai Shen, the god of wealth — are all still doing very well, understandably.
In terms of forms of worship, that has become a lot more commercial, in the sense that imagery of these deities is being used in branding and advertising. There is also a lot of corporate involvement, with companies paying collective tribute, and even holding events on feast days. Another new area of veneration is one that has developed with the flourishing of China’s MMORPGs [massively multiplayer online role-playing games]. Currently, domestic video games enjoy huge popularity, and online communities are ever-growing. Older deities such as the gods of the elements, with their alternative beast forms, have become beloved avatars and supporting guides for China’s gaming youth.
Finally, the protectors, which make up a big section of my book, have always enjoyed a lot of veneration. China is changing at an astonishingly fast pace, and people are feeling the need to seek help from guardian spirits. There are many protector gods of various kinds to choose from in the Chinese pantheon.
China is changing at an astonishingly fast pace, and people are feeling the need to seek help from guardian spirits
What does one stand to gain in their understanding of today’s China by reading your book?
First of all, I hope they will enjoy the book. For anyone seeking to understand alternative religions and Chinese spirituality, I hope to have provided them with an accessible and open-minded introduction that also conveys the depth of the subject, and points them in directions they could investigate, should their interests take them.
I have written about how every single deity featured in the book has evolved through time, and their place in contemporary society. China’s spirituality is intimately connected with the land, the mindset, the society, and the daily lives of its people, and therefore inseparable from its culture. I hope that those interested in China will be able to make more sense of its complex cultures through my book.
China is a civilization with a fundamentally different outlook, set of aesthetics, and ways of thinking than the West. Creatures that symbolize evil in Western culture, such as bats and spiders, are auspicious in Chinese culture. And the Western idea of the purity of white clothing is reversed, as it’s a funereal color in China. I hope that anyone working with China in any way will find this book useful as a guide to understanding the country and its people.
As a writer based in the UK with a long history of covering Chinese myth, have you noticed a shift in the average English person’s perception of China or Chinese culture? What do you think are the major misunderstandings about Chinese culture that still persist in the West?
I think the average Western person used to be afraid of China because it felt alien to them, but now, with China wielding immense economic power, they’re terrified. A lot of that comes out in some quite ingrained racism, labelling every bit of macro-governance as human rights abuse, and seeing every product stamped with “Made in China” as a soulless copy-cat product, or shoddy goods churned out cheap enough to run everybody else out of jobs.
China isn’t a dragon that’s going eat their countries, and whilst that monoculture view of China does make it look like a large, scary economic powerhouse, China is no longer the same country it was 20 years ago. Every day we are seeing a little more progress, towards a more secure, balanced, greener society in the making. The first laws protecting the environment, charities, the disabled, and LGBT groups have all been passed in the last decade or so. With so many innovations on individual and commercial levels, in all kinds of designs, technology, and sciences, China is also developing the breathing space to explore its social responsibility, alongside its spirituality. What is needed at this point, from everybody, is a great deal more understanding.
From Kuan Yin to Chairman Mao: The Essential Guide to Chinese Deities is out on June 1 in the US, available in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. It can be pre-ordered now for a July release outside the US, and will also be available in select bookstores in the US and UK.
Discover the latest leap in Chinese animation, ‘Big Fish & Begonia’. In this special advanced screening, guest speaker Xueting Ni discusses Chinese animation and mythology.
“It is a world within our world, unseen by any human. On the day Chun turns sixteen, she is transformed into a dolphin to explore the human world. Through adventure and sacrifice, love grows. This is a groundbreaking move in Chinese animation.”
Join Goldsmiths Confucius Institute in this special advanced screening of the Chinese animated movie ‘Big Fish & Begonia’, ahead of it’s official UK launch in April. As part of Gold on Film, this special screening will invite an expert on Chinese animation and mythology Xueting Ni, who will talk about Chinese animation (donghua) and how it differs from the more well-known Japanese animation (anime). She will also discuss the mythos behind the movie, and how it relates to Chinese culture and superstitions. There will also be a special short animation screening, making this advances screening one to not be missed.
About Xueting Ni:
Xueting (or Christine) Ni is a writer, translator and speaker on Chinese traditional and pop culture. Her translation work has ranged from comics, poetry, essays, film, fantasy and science fiction. Born In Guangzhou, Christine moved to the UK in 1993, and expresses her love for Britain and China equally. Her aim is to show the West that there is more to Chinese culture than kung fu and Monkey (though she thinks both ARE pretty cool). Xueting began giving talks on Chinese culture at Amecon 2008, where she unveiled the western premier of the animated feature “Stormriders:Clash of Evils”. She has spoken on tea culture, Chinese animation, CN punk, classical literature, Chinese food, film and science fiction at festivals around the UK. She is currently writing a book on Chinese spirituality and preparing further samples of Chinese science fiction.
PRD PEOPLE: TRANSLATOR AND POP CULTURE EXPERT CHRISTINE NI
Christine Ni is a writer, translator and speaker on Chinese traditional and pop culture. Born in Guangzhou, she moved to London in 1993 when she was 11 years old. Now she lives between the two worlds and describes Chinese culture as “both very different and very similar to your own.”
Since 2008, she has been giving talks on Chinese tea culture, animation, punk music, classical literature and cuisine at festivals around the UK. She is currently working on a collection ofmanhua, a form of Chinese comic book.
Her blog “Snow Pavilion” (a literal translation of her Chinese name) covers developments in Chinese arts and sets out her intent of creating understanding between China and the West.
Promoting Chinese culture
Having studied English at Queen Mary’s University London and classical Chinese literature as a post-graduate at Beijing’s Central University of Nationalities, Ni would habitually attend pop culture conventions, usually around music or animation. At these conventions, she seldom saw her own culture being represented.
“I would hear a talk about Osamu Tezuka, godfather of Japanese manga, with absolutely no mention that he found so much inspiration from Wan Laiming,” Ni told The Nanfang. Wan Laiming (1900-1997) was the director of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. He was one of the most important pioneers of animation of the 20th century but is barely known in the West.
“There are a lot of bad new stories about China and on the whole we’re not so good at promoting the good things that are happening, or even understanding what the good things are,” Ni added. With support from her friends, she decided to devote her free time to promoting little known areas of contemporary Chinese culture, such as its punk music scene. “My Peking Into Punk Talk is always very well attended and I’m currently working with a film maker on a documentary on China’s underground music.”
“Yes, as China becomes more successful, the West will become increasingly less dismissive. I think the desire to understand China, not just to fear it, will grow.”
Attachment to the PRD
As well as it being the place of her birth, Ni cites two main reasons why the PRD is an interesting place. “Firstly, it is the area that the West first encountered and secondly, it is relatively free from government control,” she told The Nanfang.
Although the first reason explains why Cantonese culture has informed how the West views China, Ni thinks that internally, it is not quite recognised how distinct Cantonese culture is. “Whilst northern Han culture is seen as the main high culture, and the Miao, Zhuang and Yi are held up to show our internal ethnic diversity, I think Cantonese culture sort of gets lost in the middle.”
Ni talks with fondness about her time in Guangzhou. When asked what her favourite location in the city is, she couldn’t decide between the Yuexiu park district and the area around Haizhu Square.
Her best memories of growing up in Guangzhou include the flower market (which is going on right now), and meandering through the streets of the old city. The worst memory? “One Spring Festival when leaving Guangzhou, we decided to take the ferry back to Hong Kong. I was detained at length by the borders guards who took away my passport. Whilst everything was in order, but they simply couldn’t believe that somebody who had “made it out” would still want to travel by boat.”
Living between two worlds
Although those border officials described emigrating as “making it out,” she is far from finished with China. “I feel both foreign and at home everywhere. It’s quite upsetting how England is becoming more xenophobic,” she said, citing the “pointed looks” she gets from employees of the UK Border Agency. A YouGov poll a year ago found that only 11 percent of Britons agreed that immigration had been good for the country compared to 67 percent who viewed it as bad.
Supporting herself with a day job in publishing, she gives her time to projects that may otherwise not find support or funding. To her, the most likely art form to have crossover appeal is film. “There’s a reason why Run Run Shaw was given a CBE,” she says.
China also has cultural industries with latent potential. “The Chinese have yet to really take pride in their computer game and animation industries, even though in the West, that is increasingly where the money is,” according to Ni.
But as for publishing, the English Lit graduate thinks there is still a long way to go in Western publishers dealing with Chinese books. “Whilst there are some great Chinese authors, Western publishers tend to only pick very worthy titles.” If you’d like to learn what Chinese fiction and poetry was published in English during 2013, see here.
Another problem is finding translators who are up to the job. “There are very few translators who’ve got a good enough grasp of both cultures to really convey the author’s meaning. Some of the best fiction coming out of China still seems as unpalatable to Western distributors as thousand year old eggs or snake wine,” Ni told The Nanfang.
But who knows, maybe some day there will be enough Christine Nis in the world for there to be a genuine movement.
Chinese dragon boats raced through the Royal Docks as colourful flags and rhythmic drumming heralded competing crews for the Dragon Boat Festival.
Xueting Ni (right) and her assistant at the London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival 2013
Second only to the Chinese New Year in the Chinese festival calendar, the event marks the beginning of the rainy season and the summer solstice when farmers traditionally began to sow their seeds.
According to legend, the first Dragon Boat Festival took place in southern China over 2500 years ago around the same time as the First Olympic Games in Greece. Today dragon boat racing is one of the most popular water sports not just in China but around the globe.
Now in its 18th year, yesterday’s London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, organised by The London Chinatown Lions Club, coincided with similar events across the world.
Around 40 vessels, each around 30 foot long and with 16 rowers and a drummer on board, raced through the water. The winning team was called the Expendables.
Kung-fu demonstrations and lion dance were also part of the event.