By Ran Zhao 赵然
NANJING, CHINA —— In September 2020, Disney released the highly-anticipated, live-action remake of “Mulan.” The film was likewise expected to attract many Chinese moviegoers, as the younger generation had been deeply impressed with the Mulan animation released earlier in 1998. Furthermore, Chinese people often enjoy seeing foreign reinterpretations of Chinese cultural elements.
A still from Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” starring Chinese actress Liu Yifei. Photo Credit: Baidu
However, the live-action film ended up receiving lukewarm reviews in China, scoring just five out of 10 points on the video-streaming site Douban. Chinese netizens’ dissatisfaction with the film tended to center on its historical inaccuracies, awkward dialogue, and the mischaracterization of Mulan as a superheroine. Overall, it appears that the creative liberties taken by Disney’s producers did not sit well with Chinese audiences. However, the underwhelming domestic reception did not merely stem from Chinese moviegoers’ preference for, or expectations of, cultural authenticity.
Rather, there is a need to look beyond an intuitive explanation. Although Mulan is a Disney production, its reconstruction of Chinese historical figures prompted Chinese audiences to regard the film as a Chinese “cultural export”. Chinese people, in turn, tend to be more critical of cultural exports because they are seen to represent the nation’s “face” and reputation. Audiences demand films that challenge stereotypes about China and advance the globalization of Chinese culture, while remaining authentic and relatable to domestic audiences. The failure of “Mulan” to meet these high and sometimes conflicting expectations can be partly traced to existing weaknesses in China’s cultural promotion industry.
The live-action version of “Mulan” is based on Disney’s existing and upcoming productions and is not specifically tailored to Chinese audiences. In fact, the Chinese market is not usually the primary target audience when it comes to Disney’s global marketing strategy, which seeks to achieve universal appeal. In the same way, films such as “Black Panther” do not simply target African or African-American moviegoers.
Similarly, both the 1998 animated version and the live-action version of “Mulan” feature stereotypical Chinese elements that are familiar to foreigners. They include the Great Wall of China, dragons, kungfu, taichi, tulou buildings, and so on. After all, Hollywood is not obligated to help change global perceptions of China. On the contrary, Hollywood is incentivized to perpetuate these generalizations to draw non-Chinese viewers to the movies. Such is also the reason why the live-action version of “Mulan” cast world-renowned Chinese actors such as Gong Li, Donnie Yen and Jet Li, all of whom are familiar faces in foreign films. Indeed, highlighting the relatively “exotic” yet familiar elements of non-Western culture may be inevitable in Disney’s attempt to globalize its films.
Therefore, the Chinese must rely on themselves to export their culture and challenge cultural stereotypes in the process. Unfortunately, the global presence of Chinese cinema remains limited. Many films considered excellent by Chinese viewers have not been marketed effectively nor achieved mass appeal in overseas markets. From 2015 to 2019, the five best-performing Chinese movies grossed at least $508 million each in China. However, one of the films, Frant Gwo’s movie adaptation of science fiction novella “The Wandering Earth,” only grossed $587 millom in the North American box office. The mythical film “Ne Zha,” another domestic box office hit that raked in $748 million in China, recorded a mere $3.7 million in North America. These earnings amount to less than 0.9 percent and 0.5 percent of the respective films’ box office revenues within China.
Theatrical poster of “The Wandering Earth.” Photo Credit: Baidu
Indeed, attempts to export Chinese culture are met with several roadblocks. Currently, China’s mainstream cultural exports tend to be art forms that are exquisite according to Chinese standards. They include Peking Opera, the Four Books and Five Classics, as well as the Confucius Institute which promotes language-learning. Exporting these quintessential elements of Chinese culture is not only costly, but also inefficient. For one, sophisticated cultural works are inaccessible to a large segment of Chinese people themselves. It is therefore unrealistic to expect foreigners to widely embrace them. However, if China were to promote forms of entertainment popular amongst ordinary locals, some would criticize the move for showcasing “barely presentable” works. Reactions to vlogger Li Ziqi’s live-streams of rural life serve as a case in point. After Li’s videos became popular amongst overseas audiences on YouTube, several Chinese netizens remarked that Li’s work failed to adequately portray the realities of the Chinese countryside. On December 8, 2019, the issue of whether Li Ziqi’s videos “qualify” for export trended on Weibo, drawing 800 million Weibo users.
One of Li Ziqi’s videos featured her chopping bamboo in the forest to make furniture. Photo Credit: Weibo
Moreover, up until recently, tumultuous historical events had created a cultural vacuum in China. Several wars of aggression, followed by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), had destroyed many literary classics, traditional artifacts and architecture. Decades later, the Internet firewall fostered an environment that was relatively insulated from Western culture influences, which served to facilitate China’s renewed exploration and redefinition of its own unique culture. At the same time, though, the firewall constrained the development of Chinese cultural exports by preventing most locals from learning about — and transforming — how China is perceived and portrayed beyond its borders. The Chinese diaspora also lacks the political clout to change foreigners’ outdated impressions of China.
However, liberalizing the Internet is unrealistic at this stage. Governance proves challenging for a developing country like China with an enormous population of 1.4 billion. The population’s overall education level is not high, rendering many susceptible to misinformation on foreign websites. Therefore, the task of promoting China’s cultural output falls on the shoulders of the official propaganda department, which likewise wields little discursive power on mainstream foreign media.
In this regard, perhaps the internationalization of Disney cinema could serve as a model worth emulating. Similar to how Disney draws from non-Western cultures, Chinese audiences and creators should be more open towards boldly incorporating Western elements, all the while striving for a certain degree of novelty. The key is to produce cultural works that satisfy the preferences of global audiences, while also serving to challenge stereotypes surrounding China. This approach requires China to produce more cultural works that Chinese people genuinely appreciate and find interesting, instead of promoting the same, quintessential tropes drawn from official media.
Besides, instead of accusing foreigners of failing to comprehend Chinese culture when they try to incorporate Chinese elements into their productions, China should create cultural content that foreigners find accessible and attractive. This would entice foreigners to learn more about Chinese culture and, in doing so, dispel any existing stereotypes that foreigners might hold. The export of Japanese culture seemingly followed a similar process. For instance, not many individuals watched anime to learn about geisha and samurai, but many anime fans did learn to appreciate these elements of Japanese culture over time.
A geisha from the Japanese anime “Gintama.” Photo Credit: Baidu
However, since relatively few Chinese works have received global acclaim, the reality is that critical domestic attitudes towards Chinese cultural exports may only change as the number and diversity of cultural exports grow over time. As more cultural exports deviate from “authentic” Chinese culture by incorporating the cultures of various societies, Chinese audiences will grow to accept respectful forms of cultural appropriation. In other words, the more they see it, the less strange it will seem to them. But for now, perhaps we as consumers can start by viewing cultural exports with an open mind.
Zhao Ran is reporting from Nanjing, China.