To a country with minimal sensitivity to racism and a fascination with national identity, the Marvel blockbuster is seen as a love letter to American values
By Eileen Guo for theoutline.com
To understand where race relations in China are right now, one needs only to look to the highest grossing Chinese film of all time, last year’s Wolf Warrior 2. Directed by its star, Wu Jing, the ultra-patriotic action blockbuster was China’s answer to the thinly veiled military propaganda of Hollywood films like Rambo or Zero Dark Thirty, grossing $854 million and becoming China’s 2018 submission for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (sadly, it wasn’t nominated). Unfortunately, it alsomirrored the American blockbuster’s tendency to lean into unflattering foreign stereotypes, portraying Africans alternatively as unscrupulous enemies or weak, faceless hordes awaiting salvation.
As it stands today, China is one of the world’s most racially homogeneous countries. Though it has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, it is dominated by one, the Han, to which 92 percent of the population (including me) belong. Its foreign presence, meanwhile, is tiny. Accordingly, China is less focused on “race” as it’s socially constructed in the west and more in a culturally-based but politically defined sense of “ethnicity.”
In China, blatant racism still very much exists. This is true towards any non-Han Chinese, but there is also specific anti-black racism, at least partially influenced by American media portrayals of both African-Americans and Africa, the continent.
It is against this backdrop that Black Panther opened in China this weekend. As a Chinese-American who has already seen — and fallen in love with — the film, I was anxious and a little curious as to how the movie, so steeped in the African-American experience, would translate to the almost completely racially homogenous country of my birth. I desperately wanted both cultures to show their best sides: that this celebration of black culture in America could be recognized as such and would resonate with Chinese audiences, and that China’s anti-foreign impulses could be overcome.
But beyond feeling personally invested in the film, China’s reception of Black Panther was important in another way. China is currently the world’s second-largest movie market and is on track to surpass America by 2020, so the nation’s reaction to the film could shape what type of movies major studios take big bets on in the future.
I watched the movie in a small, modern cinema owned by Dalian Wanda Group (which also owns America’s AMC theaters) in the southwestern city of Chengdu, a metropolis of 14.45 million people best known for its spicy dishes, giant pandas, and — more recently — as the birthplace of Chinese hip-hop. If I thought that the city’s connections to a music originating from the African-American experience would somehow make the film more relatable, I was wrong. [keep reading here]