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From Fu Manchu to Kung Fu Panda

From Fu Manchu to Kung Fu Panda: Images of China in American Film

Naomi Greene
Copyright Date: 2014
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    From Fu Manchu to Kung Fu Panda
    Book Description:

    Throughout the twentieth century, American filmmakers have embraced cinematic representations of China. Beginning with D.W. Griffith's silent classicBroken Blossoms(1919) and ending with the computer-animatedKung Fu Panda(2008), this book explores China's changing role in the American imagination. Taking viewers into zones that frequently resist logical expression or more orthodox historical investigation, the films suggest the welter of intense and conflicting impulses that have surrounded China. They make clear that China has often served as the very embodiment of "otherness"-a kind of yardstick or cloudy mirror of America itself. It is a mirror that reflects not only how Americans see the racial "other" but also a larger landscape of racial, sexual, and political perceptions that touch on the ways in which the nation envisions itself and its role in the world.In the United States, the exceptional emotional charge that imbues images of China has tended to swing violently from positive to negative and back again: China has been loved and-as is generally the case today-feared. Using film to trace these dramatic fluctuations, author Naomi Greene relates them to the larger arc of historical and political change. Suggesting that filmic images both reflect and fuel broader social and cultural impulses, she argues that they reveal a constant tension or dialectic between the "self" and the "other." Significantly, with the important exception of films made by Chinese or Chinese American directors, the Chinese other is almost invariably portrayed in terms of the American self. Placed in a broader context, this ethnocentrism is related both to an ever-present sense of American exceptionalism and to a Manichean world view that perceives other countries as friends or enemies.Greene analyzes a series of influential films, including classics likeShanghai Express(1932),The Bitter Tea of General Yen(1933),The Good Earth(1936), andShanghai Gesture(1941); important cold war films such asThe Manchurian Candidate(1962) andThe Sand Pebbles(1966); and a range of contemporary films, includingChan is Missing(1982),The Wedding Banquet(1993),Kundun(1997),Mulan(1998), andShanghai Noon(2000). Her consideration makes clear that while many stereotypes and racist images of the past have been largely banished from the screen, the political, cultural, and social impulses they embodied are still alive and well.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3837-9
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. CHAPTER 1 The Pendulum Swings … and Swings Again
    (pp. 1-16)

    This book is about the representations of China found in American films, Or, more precisely, about the images and myths regarding China found in such films. It is based on two underlying premises. First, that film both reflects and fuels widespread, and often deeply rooted, perceptions and attitudes. In a book about the interactions of film and history, French historian Marc Ferro argues that cinema is both a “source” and an “agent” of history. A film is a “source” in that it reveals not only the physical and social realities of the past but also the attitudes and beliefs of...

  6. CHAPTER 2 East Meets West: Cultural Collisions and Marks of Difference
    (pp. 17-49)

    Looking back at early films, it is difficult to say which particular mark of difference was most important in defining Chinese otherness. Was it religion (as the missionary outlook had it) or sexuality (as Hollywood melodramas seem to suggest)? In any case, for many years it was the rare film that did not remind viewers of the absolute contrast between Christians and heathens or envelope Chinese sexuality in a miasma of taboos and unease. Indeed, it is precisely the complicated amalgam of these two critical marks of difference—and the taboos and ambiguities that swirl around them—that I will...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Questions of Otherness: From Opium Pipes to Apple Pie
    (pp. 50-94)

    The shift of the pendulum governing images of China has often come with astonishing speed. Still, nowhere does it take place more rapidly than in a late silent film,Mr. Wu(1927), directed by William Nigh. LikeShadows, Mr. Wustars Lon Chaney: once again, the “man of a thousand faces” appears in yellowface. This time, Chaney assumes two roles: he plays both the ancient patriarch of the House of Wu as well as the patriarch’s grandson. In a kind of prologue, he first appears as the ancient patriarch. Compassionate and cultured, he is the very symbol of China seen...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Cold War in Three Acts
    (pp. 95-150)

    “When we saturate ourselves in old films,” writes Nora Sayre in a book about films of the cold war, “we can employ them as hidden memories of a decade—directly or indirectly, they summon up the nightmares and day-dreams that drifted through segments of our society.”¹ In this chapter I will explore several films—notablyThe Manchurian Candidate, 55 Days at Peking, andThe Sand Pebbles—that suggest the shapes taken by China in the cinematic “dreams” and, especially, the “nightmares” of this era. Marked by the heightened passions and often surreal logic of dreams, these works make it clear...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The World Splits in Two
    (pp. 151-180)

    In terms of twentieth-century screen representations of China, films of the cold war era act as a kind of historical fulcrum. Looking back, they endow ancient stereotypes like that of Fu Manchu with a new—and sometimes not-so-new—guise. Looking forward, in their Manichean view of the world they set the stage for the spate of intensely negative cinematic images of China found in several films of the 1990s. I am thinking of works such asLittle Buddha(Bernardo Bertolucci, 1994),Red Corner, Seven Years in Tibet(Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1997), and especially of the film that is explored at some...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Challenges and Continuities
    (pp. 181-213)

    Looking back, Scorsese’s refusal to represent traditional Chinese villains inKundun—or even to depict Chinese atrocities in a conventional realistic manner—seems prescient: by the late 1990s figures like the draconian judge ofRed Cornerand the cruel and arrogant generals ofSeven Years in Tibethad a distinctly anachronistic cast. True, from time to time, one sensed the weight of earlier stereo types: Kenneth Chan points out that the dominatrix teacher played by Lucy Liu inCharlie’s Angels(McG, 2000) has a whiff of the Chinese dragon lady about her and that the evil pirate played by Chow...

  11. Afterword: The Darkening Mirror
    (pp. 214-218)

    The triumph of the American cultural narrative seen in films likeMulanandKung Fu Pandais, of course, a global or quasi-global phenomenon. China’s culture is by no means the only one in the landscape of contemporary film that has been hollowed out, reduced to “banality” (to use Todd Gitlin’s term). Yet its virtual erasure in these works inevitably has a political resonance. For in the end, of course, Chinaisdifferent. Long granted a special place in the American imagination, it is now shrouded in fear and perceived as America’s most formidable rival. What better way, after all,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 219-244)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-256)
  14. Index
    (pp. 257-264)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 265-269)