What Chinese Reactions to “Mulan” Reveal About China’s Cultural Exports 从电影《花木兰》在中国的反响,谈及中国文化输出

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.

2020年9月,迪士尼电影《花木兰》在中国大陆上映。这部备受期待的真人电影在中国吸引了许多影迷的关注,因为年轻的一代对早前在中国发行的1998年版的《花木兰》动画印象深刻。此外,国人乐于看到异国基于中国文化的艺术再造。

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A still from Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” starring Chinese actress Liu Yifei.  Photo Credit: Baidu

由中国女演员刘亦菲主演的迪斯尼真人电影《花木兰》片段  图片来源:百度

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. 

然而,这部真人电影在中国却反响平平,在视频流媒体网站“豆瓣”上仅获得5/10分。中国网民对这部电影的不满,往往集中在历史常识上的不准确、不符合中国交流方式的对话以及木兰化身超级英雄这样诡异的设定。总体来说,这是因为迪士尼制片人所采取的创作自由与中国观众的期待之间的兼容度不足。但是,《花木兰》在国内如此不受欢迎的原因不仅仅是由于中国影迷对文化常识准确性的偏向和期待。

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.

我们有必要透过现象看本质。我认为,尽管《花木兰》是一部迪士尼作品,但它是对中国人物形象的再造,这使中国观众将这部电影视为中国的“文化输出”。反过来说,中国人往往对文化输出作品更为挑剔,因为这些输出被视为一种国家“面子”和声誉的代表。具体来说,观众需要看到影视作品能够挑战西方对于中国的刻板印象并促进中国文化的全球化,但同时又能保持真实性以及与中国文化的联系性。但是,花木兰未能达到这些期望,我们可以在一定程度上归因于中国的文化促进产业现存的不足之处。

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. 

很明显,根据迪士尼现有和即将上映的作品来看,真人版《花木兰》并非是一部专门为中国观众量身定制的电影。实际上,迪士尼的全球营销策略旨在寻求全球吸引力,中国市场通常不会被优先考虑。同理,诸如《黑豹》之类的电影也不仅仅针对非洲或非裔美国人而拍摄。

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.

较早的动画版和新出的真人版《花木兰》均带有外国人所熟悉的刻板印象中的中国元素,包括中国的长城、巨龙、功夫、太极拳、土楼建筑等。然而,好莱坞并没有义务帮助改变全球观众对中国的看法。与此相反,好莱坞会积极地巩固这些概念,以吸引非中国观众来观看电影。这也是《花木兰》真人版选择巩俐、甄子丹和李连杰这些国际知名的中国演员的原因。在迪士尼试图将其电影全球化的过程中,突出非西方文化中相对“异国情调”但又为观众所熟悉的元素可能是不可避免的做法。

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.

因此,中国人必须依靠自己来输出中国文化,并在此过程中改变刻板印象。遗憾的是,中国电影在海外市场的表现并不优秀。很多国人心中的优秀电影并没有被有效地推广至海外,更没有收获大范围的成功。从2015年至2019年,五部表现最好的中国电影票房均至少达到5.08亿美元。然而,其中由郭帆改编的电影《流浪地球》在北美票房仅为587万美元;神话电影《哪吒之魔童降世》以7.48亿美元在国内刷新了票房纪录,在北美的票房也仅有370万美元。这两部电影的收益分别不到各自中国票房收入的0.9%和0.5%。

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Theatrical poster of “The Wandering Earth.”   Photo Credit: Baidu

电影《流浪的地球》的宣传海报  图片来源:百度

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. 

实际上,中国的文化输出面临着许多阻碍。目前,中国的文化输出往往以“阳春白雪”式的国粹为主,京剧、四书五经,以及促进语言学习的孔子学院。这些文化输出不仅成本高昂,而且效率较低。即使在中国,很大一部分人也无法对这些复杂的作品做到通读和深入了解。因此,期望外国人广泛接受它们是不现实的。但是,如果中国要推广在普通老百姓中流行的“下里巴人”,则有人会批评此举展示了“拿不出手”的作品。国内观众对视频博主李子柒的田园生活视频的反应,就是一个很好的例子。在李子柒的视频受到YouTube上海外观众的欢迎之后,一些中国网民表示,李的作品未能充分代表中国乡村的现实状况。2019年12月8日,一条质疑李子柒是否是“合格”的文化输出的微博上了热搜,话题度达到8亿。

One of Li Ziqi’s videos featured her chopping bamboo in the forest to make furniture.   Photo Credit: Weibo

李子柒在竹林里砍竹子,自制家具  图片来源:微博

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.

此外,一直到近代,动荡的历史事件在中国造成了文化真空。几次被侵略战争,而后是文化大革命(1966-1976年),摧毁了许多文学经典,传统手工艺品和建筑。 几十年后,互联网防火墙营造了一个相对不受西方文化影响的环境,这有助于中国重新探索、重新定义自己独特的文化。但是,与此同时,防火墙的存在阻止了大多数中国人突破国界的限制,去学习和优化如何向西方描绘中国、使西方了解中国的方法,从而限制了中国文化输出的发展。中国侨民也缺乏改变外国人对中国过时印象的政治影响力。

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.

然而,现阶段开放中国互联网墙是不现实的。作为一个拥有14亿人口的发展中国家,中国国家治理难度极大,人口的整体教育水平不高,许多人容易受到外国网站上错误信息的影响。因此,促进中国文化输出的任务落在官方宣传部门的肩上,而相关部门同样对主流外国媒体没有什么话语权。

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.

在这方面,迪士尼电影的国际化也许是个值得效仿的样本。就像迪士尼如何从非西方文化中汲取灵感一样,中国观众和创作者应该更加开放,在保持一定独特性的前提下,尝试大胆借鉴一些不为当前中国主流认知所普遍接受的西方元素。关键是制作既能满足全球观众喜好的文化作品,又能改变周遭国家对于中国的刻板印象。这就要求中国制作更多为中国人民真正欣赏的、有趣的文化作品,而不是一昧走官方宣传路线,追求“阳春白雪”等高大上作品的宣传模式。除此以外,中国应该创造出更易于外国人理解、更有吸引力的文化内容,而不仅仅是指责外国人在尝试将中国元素融入自己的作品时不理解中国文化。做到以上几点的影视作品将诱使外国人更多地了解中国文化,并以此消除外国人当前可能持有的刻板印象。日本文化的出口似乎也遵循类似的过程。通过观看动漫来了解艺伎和武士的人可能并不多,但许多动漫迷确实在看动漫的过程中学会了欣赏日本文化中的这些元素。

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A geisha from the Japanese anime “Gintama.”  Photo Credit: Baidu

日本动画《银魂》中的艺伎形象  图片来源:百度

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.

但是,由于现阶段获得全球认可的中国作品相对较少,中国国内对中国文化输出的批评态度可能只能随着时间的推移,依靠文化输出作品数量的增加和内容的多样化而改变。随着根植于“地道”中国文化、融合多元社会价值观和文化的中国文化输出产品越来越多,文化借鉴的认可度会逐渐提高。换句话说,看见得多了,也就见怪不怪了。但是就当下而言,作为消费者的我们至少可以从用开放的心态看待文化输出开始,改变现状。

Zhao Ran is reporting from Nanjing, China.

赵然报道于中国,南京。

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