Remember “Eat, Pray, Love”? A heroine distressed by metropolitan life finally finds inner-peace and true love in India and Bali.
Contemporary Chinese chick flicks follow similar plotlines. But instead of escaping to Asia, as do the heroines of so many Hollywood movies, Chinese filmmakers tend to use Western countries as their idyllic Shangri-Las, contrasted against the noisy and stressful cities of modern-day China.
In “Finding Mr. Right” — China’s romantic comedy box office champion in 2013 — Seattle is set as the paradise alternative to Beijing. In the story a Beijing girl gets pregnant by a married man and travels to Seattle to give birth — it’s illegal in modern-day China to have a baby out of wedlock.
Beijing is portrayed as a den of debauchery, while Seattle stands for traditional family values. As the heroine says to an American immigration officer in the movie, “I have seen too many American movies. So my idea of a family is a dad, mom, two very lovely babies, and a big dog.”
The director and screenwriter of “Finding Mr. Right," Xue Xiaolu, released another film in May this year. The “Book of Love” is a story of two people who live in Macau and Los Angeles, respectively. They develop a friendship when letters they send to 84 Charing Cross Road in London are rerouted to the other person by a benevolent matchmaker who lives at the address. Los Angeles is depicted in the film as a peaceful, homey, while London is a romantic European capital.
Western actors also feature prominently in modern Chinese movies, often portrayed as the epitome of virtue and ethics. In Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War,” Christian Bale plays an American mortician who saves a group of Chinese schoolgirls from the clutches of the Japanese army during the Nanjing Massacre.
“Back to 1942,” directed by Feng Xiaogang, similarly features a foreign savior. The movie takes places during the 1942 famine that wracked the central Chinese province of Henan. In the movie, Chiang Kai-shek — the nationalist leader of China at the time — does nothing to help the plight of the province and is even ready to surrender it to the Japanese forces until an American working for TIME magazine, Theodore H. White, writes a report detailing the situation. The backlash from the negative publicity forces the nationalist government to change their policies.
A still frame shows Christian Bale posing as a priest in ‘The Flowers of War.’ VCG
The famous 20th-century literary historian, Edward Said, described “orientalism” as exaggerated perceptions of Asian cultures. These cultures are often portrayed by Western media as far-removed exotic paradises or hells. This is interesting, considering that recent Chinese cinema has likewise been aggrandizing its depictions of the West.
This particular representation in China of the West did not appear until recent years. In 1994, “A Native of Beijing in New York,” one of China’s most popular television series in the 1990s, depicted New York and the United States as a “half heaven, half hell.” It is shown to be a battlefield — a casino where a person can win everything, or lose it all. In the Chinese mindset at the time, this was the epitome of capitalism.
However, that was also just another stage in the ever-changing Chinese narrative of the West. In the 1980s, following the Cultural Revolution, the West was positively espoused as individualistic and liberal by many Chinese intellectuals and artists. The New Culture Movement, which was birthed in the 1910s and 1920s out of a dissatisfaction with Chinese traditional values, upheld the Western standards of democracy and science. Many influential figures at the time, such as Sun Yat-Sen, looked to the West when deciding how to structure modern China — the monarchy had been overthrown in 1911.
“The West” has long been a tool that the Chinese use to symbolize something that China is lacking or desperately needs to look to in different historical periods. This is why the depictions of the West are so dynamic, even contradictory at times.
To some extent, this phenomenon can be attributed to the economic and international dominance of many Western countries in modern history. China, like many developing countries, respected and often worshipped the Western world.
However, the tradition of China looking favorably west actually has its roots much earlier. Over 1,000 years ago, “the West” referred to India — the birthplace of Buddhism. At that time, the West was regarded as a holy land where one could seek Buddhist scriptures, as detailed in the Chinese classic novel, “A Journey to the West.”
Positive images of foreign lands may have been further bolstered by Confucianism. Serving as the most influential ideology in China over the last 2,000 years, Confucianism stresses people to respect and learn from one another.
The West has been incarnated in many forms — Buddhism, science, individualism — and has always remained a retreat from the problems afflicting Chinese society. It is a place for taking refuge, removing burdens, purifying minds, and finding true love. Its current manifestations reflect the demands an anxious population who have been seared by rapid economic and social transformations in the past several decades.
(Header image: A still frame from ‘Finding Mr. Right’ that shows the heroine arriving in the United States. VCG)