Last Saturday's edition of the Globe and Mail was an all-China extravaganza, with every section fronting a long long feature on something China (Ian Brown on fashion house Shanghai Tang and chinese style, Jan Wong on Chinese tourism in Canada, the front page in Chinese/English).
The Globe's coverage tried to capture the breathtaking and massive changes that rock China on a daily basis. This is after all a country that has gone from Soviet collectivization to late 19th-century robber-baron style capitalism in the last 20 years.
What is equally interesting is how China has changed in the western imagination. What started with Marco Polo, silk, Cathay, the exotic east images of the pre-colonial era to the "old man of Asia" and land ripe for exploitation mentality that pervaded so many Europeans in the 19th century has drastically changed. China has always been in Western minds; Henry Luce founder of Time
magazine and media mogul was born there and entranced with it.
China, and its millions of souls yet to be saved, was a favourite of American missionaries. China was exotic, it was remote but it was also a loyal ally, friend of the American people (as long as they stayed over there in Asia). The Communists changed all this in the United States and China became another part of the Communist menace.
The last 10 years have seen us in the west try to come to grips with a new China. One that in many ways resembles us (they want shopping malls, highways, flashy cars and Rolex watches too, how comforting) mingled with what remnants of racism, old stereotypes and general ignorance exist in the zeitgeist about China.
In popular culture China is entering our imaginations but it's not China per se but hyper-modern, capitalistic Hong Kong via Wong Kar Wai's
film, or John Woo's
gangster films. WKW's films have always felt familiar to me, but it's because they were set in Hong Kong, in situations that felt familiar (the regulars at a local eatery, the neighbours in an apartment complex falling in love with each other). These films while set in HK are painting pictures of a new urban China, one that is being built at a breathtaking pace. Optimistically, I could argue that watching a WKW is like watching China 20 years in the future and what you see isn't threatening at all but no different than city life in New York, Paris or any other metropolis.
But while WKW is giving us a glimpse of what China is becoming, films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
are crafting an image of Chinese history and myth. Much like the image of the Wild West was created as much by John Wayne, Bonanza
as it was by actual history. there's been a process of myth-making going on for years now among the Chinese, but not those living in the PRC. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
are recent examples but Hong Kong directors have been making films like this for decades in an attempt not just to make myth but to try to reclaim a shared history with the rest of China, a history that due to political differences has been unavailable to those living in Hong Kong, Taiwan and abroad.
What is interesting to see is how western filmmakers and artists choose to respond to China's greater role and presence in the international stage. The last time a country made such an impact on the western imagination was Japan in the 1980s, an economic powerhouse in the midst of recession.
The result in popular culture was slew of books, films (and even music) some that played with and engaged Japan and Japanese culture positively, others that resisted and mocked the Japanese often reducing them to stereotypes (strange, inscrutable, hard to understand, almost inhuman). I've seen elements of both these things in popular culture and it can go both ways with China and Chinese culture. I certainly hope the former wins out.