Classic tale delivers the chops
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - It is a cartoon, and thus it goes directly to the souls of the people, to the underbelly of the nation, and to the hearts of girls and boys who will grow up to be Chinese citizens. It is the supreme art of seduction, reaching for the child's spirit in any of us. It can be propaganda in its best form - the kind that's so convincing that people actually pay to watch.

And therefore it can be very puzzling and tantalizing to see America manage to manufacture a masterpiece like Kung Fu Panda 2 by using all the "topoi," the classic literary models, of China's kung fu culture.

Beijing has in fact failed to produce such a smashing and
 
 
universal success while mining its own traditions. The movie about Confucius was a major flop, Zhang Yimou's films can be masterpieces but leave many people dissatisfied, and even Hollywood veteran John Woo, when he returned to China to make a mega-production about the Battle of the Red Cliff, failed to gain global acclaim.

Certainly, Kung Fu Panda 2, just released in China, was said to have "twisted Chinese culture and serves as a tool to kidnap the minds of the Chinese people," according to the official Xinhua news agency. "Children's Day should be pure. Don't turn it into a money-making day for Hollywood, and don't fool our next generation with American 'fast food'," said Zhao Bandi, an artist hoping to encourage people to boycott the "Americanized" movie, in an open letter to Chinese cinema-goers. Kong Qingdong, a well-known professor at Peking University, attacked the film because he sees the Chinese elements as "a cultural invasion".

These comments sound like sour grapes, a bitter admission of failure in the face of America's ability to turn a Chinese literary genre and aspect of Chinese culture into something so American and yet so Chinese that people in China, America, and all over the world manage to appreciate and enjoy.

In all fairness, talking sour grapes is not the exclusive preserve of certain Chinese intellectuals. Italians gripe about America's unbeaten skill at turning typical Italian products like pizza and coffee into global icons and products in places like Pizza Hut or Starbucks. Moreover, Americans produced the ultimate icon of Italy in The Godfather, a movie by an Italian-American that managed to show many mythical elements of Italian culture.

The issue for China stands as it was frequently posted in the Kung Fu Panda 2 microblog: "Why can't we produce such brilliant movies ourselves?"

It is certainly not because of the censorship of movies. Films like Kung Fu Panda are not politically sensitive and would have passed any political scrutiny with flying colors.

Perhaps it is just that it takes distance to grasp some essential elements. The best historian of modern Italy is an Englishman, Dennis Mack Smith - not an Italian. Or perhaps Chinese filmmaker Zhong Xingzuo is right when he points to the complexity of the Hollywood production system that can't be easily transported to China and should be entirely reinvented in Beijing.

In this, there is also the issue of Chinese producers having difficulties talking to both the Chinese public and the foreign public. The two audiences are clearly separated in China's public output. One can see it just by looking at the difference in news coverage on Chinese Central TV in Chinese or in English.

It is not only a matter of degree of freedom of expression (greater in English, more limited in Chinese); it is the idea (which might well be right) that Chinese people and foreigners pay attention to different things. Yet, movies like Kung Fu Panda prove that there is common ground for both audiences.

This, in terms of soft power, could also prove that China's propaganda efforts can be easily turned against Beijing. China's Confucius Institutes spread Chinese cultural values around the world, yet these values can also be turned into shells shot by other people or countries to "reverse the cultural invasion".

Then, the issue might not about abstract plans of cultural invasions or defenses but about understanding one's culture and that of other countries to improve communication and get better understood. If this is done, many other things can be achieved too.

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at fsisci@gmail.com