Chinese culture – or rather, Chinese culture seen through a Western veneer, or Orientalism – has long been a source of fascination, comedy and fear in Western cinema. We look back on how some of these portrayals have evolved over the past half century – and how Western film and television see China now.
Like the golliwog and the Red Indian, “Asian” characters – often played by Caucasian actors – have long been used by mainstream studios to drum up a few laughs for the audience – mainstream cinema being marketed to an audience perceived overwhelmingly to be white. While this problem undoubtedly persists today, it has become more insidious since the days of outright racism, when Asian stereotypes were openly celebrated in film. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – playing Mr Yunioshi, a Japanese landlord alternately enamoured of and furious at Audrey Hepburn’s character – is a one-dimensional character intended to draw a few laughs from the audience in all his “Japaneseness”. As well as his eccentric “Asian” mannerisms and bouts of fury, what shines through is that it’s unthinkable that a man portrayed as “Eastern” could win the affections of a Caucasian woman. As author Jen Yamato has written, “In the middle of an otherwise lovely film it [the portrayal of Mr Yunioshi] became one of the more cutting examples of institutionalized racism in Hollywood.” In 2009, the film was re-issued by Paramount Pictures with a documentary entitled “Mr Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective”, taking stock of the criticism leveled at it since the early 1990s.
Where Mr Yunioshi is an example of the laughable Asian, Fu Manchu, the hero from the popular TV series and films, epitomizes the evil criminal Chinese genius trope that was so popular in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. Like Mr Yunioshi before him, Fu Manchu was played by a Caucasian actor in yellowface, Glen Gordon and Christopher Lee. The character also spawned the famous “Fu Manchu” moustache, which the character of Pai Mei sported in Quentin Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill 2. Pai Mei, like Fu Manchu, represents yet another Asian stereotype in Western film: the mystical, mysterious Eastern sage. Another Kill Bill character, the Japanese swordmaker Hattori Hanzo, is cast in almost the same light as Master Pai Mei – a man whose very Asianness connects him to mystical powers and talents.
Portrayals of Chinese women in film
There are also tropes surrounding Chinese women in Western cinema and television: like men, they have tended to be portrayed in broad generalizations. Where Asian men have largely been portrayed as lacking in sexuality – the ascetic martial arts master, the villain, the mystic, the nerd – Eastern Asian women have often been typecast as either the dangerous “Dragon Lady”, the martial arts star au feminin, or the “Oriental siren” sex worker (remember the line “Me love you long time?” from 1980s movie Full Metal Jacket?).
In the 1920s, Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong played a series of Dragon Ladies (Ms Wong later hopped across the pond to Europe in the hope of a wider range of roles). The Chinese-American actress Lucy Liu also incarnated the Dragon Lady in both Kill Bill, as the “Queen of the Underworld” O-Ren Ishii , and in the TV series Ally McBeal as lawyer Ling Woo. On this topic, Ms Liu has stated: “I wish people wouldn't just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion. People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me.”
The animated film Kung Fu Panda also reinforces these tropes, even as it slyly pokes fun at them. All the stereotypical “Chinese” elements are present in the film: It is set in ancient China, playing into the “mysterious China” idea. The main character, Po, is a panda whose life’s dream is to be a kung fu master. The characters live in a village where life centers around a noodle shop. Dragons and fireworks are conspicuous in the film. We even have a “Dragon Lady”, the fierce “Tigress” character who is the leader of the Furious Five. As one critic said: “overall, the film trades into a facile commodification of Asian culture.”
Although the all-out, no-holds-barred racism surrounding China and the idea of anything East Asian that was prevalent in Western media in previous decades has mostly disappeared, racist portrayals still occasionally slip under the radar. In 2013, Spanish television channel Telecinco was taken to task by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for its skit on Chinese restaurants in Spain, where the punchline was the untrustworthy meat products used in the restaurant. Spain is home to approximately 100,000 Chinese immigrants; it’s striking that the Chinese community, and China in general, continues to be either conspicuously absent from mainstream media or typecast in very particular ways.
More broadly, in the USA, Asian-American actors continue to be pigeonholed. ABC’s new sitcom “Fresh off the Boat”, which will air in fall 2014, is intended as an “Asian-American family comedy”. At salon.com, Asian-American critic Kevin Wong said: “[T]he show should not exclusively and incessantly be about Asian issues. That will start to feel objectifying... Asian Americans are not fixated on their heritage to the exclusion of everything else, forever ‘trapped between two worlds.’ Instead, the show should portray well-rounded characters, with concerns and conflicts that are universal to all families.”
The West has a long way to go in its portrayal of China or, more generally, “the East”, as anything Asian is still so often lumped together into an exotic mishmash thick with stereotypes. All too often, Western actors of Asian descent are typecast into the roles of the perpetual foreigner, the trusty sidekick, the dangerous vamp or the nerd. If it wants to stop othering Chinese culture and pigeonholing Asian American actors, Hollywood would do well to open its eyes and ears to the suggestions of the community that has experienced this othering firsthand.
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Keywords: Chinese culture in Western movies Chinese Culture China in Western cinema
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It's been almost 3 years since this article first appeared. Now that we've an orange man in WH, tinseltown is so up in arms that I belt this year's Oscars will have wall to wall coverage on progressive speech. Talk is cheap so you need to ask yourself: has Hollywood's portrayal of Chinese/Asian (the minority of minorities in the states) changed? I'll give you a hint: last year Chris Rock thinks it's funny to parade those little kids, audience too.
Feb 14, 2017 05:28 Report Abuse
This is a very narrowed view of "western media" stereotypes exist in Hollywood period. Russians Italians blacks brits aussies . This how we poke fun of ourselves.but china is successfully trying to build up soft power in Hollywood. And they want to use Hollywood ad their propaganda tool
Aug 17, 2014 04:21 Report Abuse
Congratulations to the author. You got your Social Justice Points and a pat on the head for bringing enlightenment to the evil white males, and you only needed to sacrifice facts in the process (their deaths will not be in vain). Hollywood runs on stereotypes, and it's not just limited to Asians. Europeans (and European-Americans... since we're denoting people by continent of origin, apparently) get their share of stereotypes. Using Kill Bill (mentioned in the article), the European-Ameican actor "Budd", is a stereotypical redneck. Watch any science fiction movie from the last 20-30 years. 90% of the time, the villain will be Evil White Male, often a slimy businessman (Robocop, Aliens, or Avatar), a Nazi reference (Star Wars (an older series, but still relevant)), or just evil and douchy (Biff Tannen, or the Agents in the Matrix). It's not just science fiction, but contemporary action movies, like White House Down or Die Hard also made the head villains white. There is a reason why most every movie to use World War II uses Nazis as the bad guys, since they can be shown as inhuman monsters in ways that would never be acceptable for the Japanese. Oh, and if you want to use Full Metal Jacket... take a look at who are the most sympathetic characters, and who are the least. I'll give a hint as to the color of the most evil and psychopathic characters: Not yellow (or black, or brown). The author uses examples from the 1920s, but if you look at more recent movies, you'll find far more depictions of Asian (and yellow... Asian isn't home to just one color) characters, but that would run contrary to the narrative. Better to start with a conclusion, and then try to build it up, rather than look at the evidence and then build a conclusion.
Aug 16, 2014 05:31 Report Abuse
Yeah, the west portrays the East with certain stereotypes, for sure, but it's nowhere near the disdain that was once displayed for blacks (read Golliwog wiki if you don't believe me). Most modern media portray China as a markedly different, but balanced civilization with its own merits. Sometimes I feel that's putting too much positive spin on this country, and may have contributed to me thinking it was a safe place to emigrate to. I'll just copy-paste 2 relevant chapters from my blog: HISTORY and MYTHOLOGY: China's obsession with static world views and appearances is reflected in their past, as well as the stories they tell. Anyone who's read or watched a "Journey to the West" story will see how lame it is that Sun Wukong has unrivaled, impervious superpowers. He plucks out a hair, and that transformed hair can defeat all the heavenly generals in flashy martial arts combat while he looks on mockingly. At some point, you start to wonder if there will ever be any semblance of challenge or excitement. After a while, even the exotic cultural-mythological context in which we read the stories is not enough to mask the profound dullness of the exercise. (1) He is challenged. (2) He wins without breaking a sweat. (3) He LOOKS GOOD the whole time. Yawn. Red Chamber Secrets promotes the value of static appearances from a more feminine point of view, where violence is absent, though jealousy and hatred are not. Poison seems to be a recurring element in both mythology and history in China. It doesn't have the cowardly, honourless connotations we in the West attribute to it, so Empress Huang Hou皇后 can LOOK GOOD while the target of her hatred slowly dies, embarrassingly begging for her life. The literature uses the same themes: Virtuous, unbeatable people in power. Those who irk them are weak and always lose. It's like watching episodes of the repetitive 'Allo 'Allo, but without the comedy. "Don't make powerful people unhappy. They will be cruel to you, and you cannot possibly defeat them." A charming take-home message from China's literary history. FICTION and TELEVISION: Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan and all those other kung-fu stars are definitely physically fit, strong, competent and popular actors. Their legacies will become modern mythologies, and I definitely wouldn't want to anger any of their martially trained fans out there. My criticism is on how Chinese media chooses to present these talented actors on film. The way they are presented in movies is just as predictable as all the mythological stories of ancient China: Unbeatable men of power and virtue. They LOOK GOOD by being good; better than any person in real life ever could be, so why should you even try? If you can't completely resist temptation and intimidation, fly through the sky, suck up bullets like a sponge, have an extradimensional reservoir of blood to keep you going, and fight like you're in a computer game where you can replay every move until perfect, then why should you feel confident in your personal power at all? You are a BAD-LOOKING nobody! "Don't challenge anybody in life unless you absolutely have to." Another charming take-home message from China's movie history.
Aug 15, 2014 11:56 Report Abuse
"Most modern media portray China as a markedly different, but balanced civilization with its own merits." Chinese business interests spend vasts amount of money in western media outlets to encourage investor spending and to build confidence. No surprise there, media is a joke nobody does just straight news anymore.
Aug 17, 2014 00:32 Report Abuse
Interesting. How about how foreigners are depicted in Chinese cinema/TV? http://www.npr.org/2011/02/13/133494531/chinas-go-to-typical-american-guy Kos-Read admits that about 40 percent of his jobs call for one particular role. "I'm the American; I'm this rich guy who's arrogant. And I come to China arrogantly, and I fall in love with an oriental beauty, and I pursue her for however long – 10, 12, 20 episodes. But in the end she makes the right choice and sticks with her Chinese boyfriend," he says. BTW has anyone ever heard of this guy? He claims he's super famous with the local...
Aug 15, 2014 11:04 Report Abuse
But it's only racist when white people do it. When yellow people do it, then it's alright. Hell, I've seen a high school play where Han children dressed up as Westerners (always referred to as "foreigners") for the purpose of ridiculing Westerners. Of course, no one at the school, the entirely Han school, thought there was anything wrong with this.
Aug 15, 2014 23:04 Report Abuse
Could be wumao, or simply Social Justice Warriors, thinking they're showing how enlightened they are, how they "get it", and are educating the masses by smack talking the West. That's not to say Western countries don't have a lot to answer for, but these articles are pretty one sided, and tend to play loose with the facts. Stereotypes of yellow folks wasn't cool, and racism was pretty rampant (and yes, still happens). It was shitty how Bruce Lee was treated. However, the US has done a lot to recognize this, address the problem, and rectify it... China likes to pretend there is no problem. In American universities, you can take classes that address how East Asians are depicted in American movies. In Chinese universities, they don't address how China views Westerners (or Chinese minorities, for that matter). When it comes to movie representation, there's a whole lot more diversity in the US, with Chinese movies being pretty monochrome by comparison, aside from an occasional Westerner filling some stereotypical role as "The foreigner", or in the case of Christian Bale in Flowers Of War, a lecherous, cowardly, greedy, drunk (hitting all the racial stereotype classics).
Aug 16, 2014 12:37 Report Abuse
Interesting article. I think the opinion given on Full Metal Jacket is unfair. You need to juxtapose the walk-on sex worker character with the female Vietnamese freedom fighter that clashes with the protagonists towards the conclusion of the film. Hollywood uses racial stereotypes as plot devices rather than characters, either falling into exoticism or tokenism when it does so. Arabs are portrayed as devilishly fiendish terrorists or aloof and opulent oil barons. South Americans are usually members of the drug cartel and Russians are dangerous gangsters. African Americans often appear in a role that is known as the "magic negro". Look at black roles in films such as Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance. Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile. Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty and in a host of other roles (Dark Knight Rises, The Shawshank Redemption, et al). Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus in The Matrix. These characters are only their to serve as a plot device to the main white character. They usually have innately homespun wisdom or some kind of magical, mystical power. Spike Lee referred to this stereotyped character as the "Super-duper magic negro." Hollywood is lazy, racist and stupid. Go read a book.
Aug 14, 2014 11:20 Report Abuse
And yellow males... and white females, and yellow females, and black males, and black females and... well, you get the idea. It's part of human culture. You want to hear racism tossed casually around, stroll down any street in Najing and see how long until you get complaints about "foreigners", or kids pointing and shouting racial slurs at Westerners.
Aug 15, 2014 23:02 Report Abuse
The presence of the internet and the large number of seasoned expats (ie rookies excluded) in China are weakening these portrayals. You have to be really cloistered and naive to believe stuffs like "chinese are all kung fu masters" (merely watched a few of Bruce Lee's movies and the likes). The onus of getting a comprehensive reality check rests upon the person.
Aug 14, 2014 00:12 Report Abuse
You know, if I want to watch Asian Actors in deep meaningful roles, I just watch a movie from Japan, Korea, or even the utterly What the Hell that is Ong Bok...Expecting the western world to 'do' China 'well' is silly. And Kung Fu Panda is like a parody of Kung Fu Films, so like all parody it must make fun of the original.
Aug 13, 2014 11:06 Report Abuse