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10 neat Chinese culture references in Shang-Chi

Pow! Crash! Bang! Martial arts fans have not had so much fun since watching Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon in 1973. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may not be perfect to the purist, but the team behind it spent A LOT of time studying Chinese culture, and it shows. Here are ten things that people brought up in Hong Kong or Mainland China, or students of the Middle Kingdom from anywhere, will appreciate about the latest hit movie from the Marvel universe. (Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it, there are no major plot spoilers.)

1) A key scene where the father character enters an idyllic, bamboo-lined forest grove to meet a mysterious woman with magical powers is a scene straight from classic Chinese literature, reminiscent of the Pu Songling short stories of the 1700s. These tales set the scene for many modern Chinese movies with a supernatural fantasy feel to them.

A beautiful glade, a mysterious, superhuman woman: a classic Pu Songling scene

2) Among the magical creatures roaming the forest, we see giant Chinese guardian lions which my daughter said were “like the lions you get outside the doors of banks”, sometimes known as Shishi: very different from lions you’ll see at the zoo.

3) A Chinese-American writer was one of many people who humiliated themselves by posting on Twitter that she’d seen “a Pokemon” in the movie. She was referring to the nine-tailed fox in one scene, not realizing that it was a classic beast from Chinese mythology long before it became an anime staple.

The nine-tailed fox in the movie is a classic Chinese literature beast, not an anime character.
The headless winged creature known as “Morris” in the film is a Chinese mythological creature called a hundun or a dijiang.

4) The village of Ta Lo, built by a river, and with a mountain behind, is reminiscent of a location chosen by a feng shui master. A meandering source of water is positive (a straight rushing river is negative, taking too much energy away). And well positioned mountains are seen as protective.

Ta Lo is an archetype of the perfect rural hamlet.

5) The way the scenes burst into sudden, furious martial arts battles reminds us of classic movie making from Bruce Lee’s 1970s movies to the best of the Jackie Chan movies — and the new film pays plenty of homage to both. And the way the fighters defy the laws of physics, running up walls and spinning in the air – well, that’s classic Cantonese moviemaking of the 1980s.

Katy (played by Akwafina) is shocked as Shaun (Simu Liu) fights off bad guys.

6) As for the actual moves the fighters make, it’s interesting to note that the father figure favors a Chinese boxing style, while Shang-Chi’s mother and aunt incorporate delicate, elegant poses from Tai Chi into their fighting style, with careful balance and stretched fingers.

Fala Chen plays the mother character with elegance and detachment

7) There’s a lot for Asian immigrants to recognize and find pleasurably relatable. In an early scene of family life in a Chinese-American immigrant household in San Francisco, visitors remove their shoes before entering the apartment. Breakfast is jook (rice soup). Grandma talks about burning paper goods to send them to the afterlife. In the background are a rice cooker and a hot water dispenser. The characters’ favorite after-work hobby is karaoke. Asians find themselves nodding at the references, pleased to see eastern conventions in a Hollywood blockbuster.

“Hotel California” and “A Whole New World” are among the songs they pick.

8) The characters from the east speak English and Chinese; but San Francisco native Katy (below left), representing Chinese-Americans, is regretful that her Chinese language skills are poor. That’s very realistic. A character from Macau tells her not to worry, adding “I speak ABC” without explaining further. This is an in-joke among Chinese folk with an international leaning, standing for “American-born Chinese”.

The Katy character neatly bridges the Chinese fantasy world with the gritty reality of the life of people in the Chinese diaspora.

9) The weapons are also from Chinese culture – the hook sword, throwing knives, and a sort of dagger-on-a-rope.

Even the plastic toy version of Xialing comes with her blade-on-a-rope.

10) Whereas bad guys traditionally dress in black in Western movies, the Death Dealer in this movie is a silent creature with a white face – whiteness being the Chinese funeral color. His mask comes from Chinese opera.

And on a level of Chinese philosophy? The focus on family aspect is key here. “You are the product of all who came before you,” is one of the themes of the story. You take your DNA, good and bad, and focus on growing the good bit.

The movie is a hit in Hong Kong, as it is around the world (biggest moneymaker of 2021 so far), although it hasn’t received a licence for mainland China at the time of writing.

Recommended? Sure. In some ways it’s a typical Hollywood blockbuster, with all the negativity that implies to some people, but that also indicates that it’s high-energy, intelligent, funny and good-natured. For a bit of escapist fun, it’s an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. And get an enjoyable hit of eastern culture.

Link: Oscar-winner turns his eye on Hong Kong: movie-maker’s search for complex truths

Link: Local movie-maker hopes to bridge east-west divide

Link: Shang-Chi movie is now 2021’s biggest hit so far

All images copyright Marvel/ Walt Disney

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