An American “Journey to the West”: What Chinese audiences think of when they see Hollywood films

Hollywood’s answer to Yanxi Palace.
Hollywood’s answer to Yanxi Palace.
Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures
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References are standard fare in film criticism. Action films can be described as “Tarantino-esque,” while rom-coms might have a “Nora Ephron vibe.” Yet the equation subtly shifts when it comes to American discussions of Chinese film: a Chinese modifier added to a Western film or actor results in a reference that American audiences can understand.

The trope has been around for decades. A 1973 Philadelphia Enquirer review (paywall), for example, dubbed Bruce Lee—arguably the world’s most famous martial arts star—“the Adam West of Kung Fu.” In recent years, as China’s film industry grows ever more influential, references such as “the Chinese Rambo,” “the Chinese Independence Day,” and “a Chinese Indiana Jones” (paywall) have been used to describe some of the biggest hits at the Chinese box office.

This sort of regional frame of reference is a convenient shorthand for lending perspective to Western audiences, but it can also reinforce implicit bias. Calling a film “China’s answer to Armageddon” is a rhetorical sleight of hand, suggesting a derivative reliance on Hollywood. An interesting thought experiment for challenging this myopia is to do the reverse, and see how Chinese-language critics turn to their own canon when engaging with Western cinema.

Take The Favourite, which just nabbed the best actress Oscar for Olivia Coleman’s portrayal of Britain’s Queen Anne. According to numerous takes in the Hong Kong press (links in Chinese), the film is “a Western The Story of Yanxi Palace.” While you may not be familiar with the reference, there are hundreds of millions of people who are. The Story of Yanxi Palace, which spans an addictive 70 episodes, was incredibly popular not just in mainland China where it was produced, but across Asia—it was the most Googled TV show of 2018 and was streamed more than 15 billion times.

The series takes place during the rule of the Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty, who reigned during the 18th century. The action focuses on Wei Yingluo (played by Wu Jinyan), who enters the court as a lowly embroiderer but gradually works her way up the palace ranks by building her influence. Her conflict with empress Hoifa-Nara (played by Hong Kong actress Charmaine Sheh)—an older woman with better access to the emperor—is one of the prime points of comparison between Yanxi Palace and The Favourite. The latter also focuses on two women vying for influence over a monarch, but in the latter the protagonists are the Baroness Masham (Emma Stone) and the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz).

Viral TV series are but one reference point for Chinese audiences. Classical literature is another well of inspiration, especially when contextualizing Western fantasy and superhero films. While Hollywood adapts many movies from best-selling novels and comic books, in terms of longevity and cultural impact, these sources pale in comparison to the Chinese epic novel Journey to the West.

The saga follows Buddhist monk Xuanzang as he seeks to obtain Buddhist sutras so that he may bring them back to China. He is aided by a group of disciples, the most notable of whom is Sun Wukong, popularly known as the Monkey King. The journey is filled with monsters and magic aplenty, making the novel an exciting read for adults and children alike.

Although the novel was published in the 1500s, its popularity endures until today. Journey to the West has been adapted numerous times for the big screen in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and has inspired works in other cultures such as the AMC series Into the Badlands and Japanese anime classic Dragon Ball. It’s little surprise, then, that when Chinese-language critics watch Western films centered around a fantastic quest, Journey to the West often springs to mind, garnering mentions in reviews of everything from The Hobbit to Aquaman (links in Chinese).

It’s another classic Chinese novel, however, that is arguably the most comprehensively used point of reference in Chinese story-telling: The Dream of the Red Chamber. Set in the Qing dynasty during a period roughly contemporaneous with Yanxi Palace, the novel focuses on the Jias, a Beijing family of minor nobility in terminal decline. While the sprawling tale dips into the trials and tribulations of well over a hundred characters, at the center is the complex relationship between Jia Baoyu and his two female cousins, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai.

The sheer scope of Red Chamber sets it up as a multi-faceted archetype for narratives focusing on everything from wealth to gender dynamics, karma to love triangles. In that vein, the gradual disintegration of the Flytes in Brideshead Revisited can seems like a Western equivalent of the faded glory of the Jias (link in Chinese), while King James VIII’s status among a host of interested women in historical adaptation The Other Boleyn Girl resonates with Jia Baoyu’s lopsided web of relationships (link in Chinese).

It’s also worth remembering that frames of reference change. Globalization is challenging the line between foreign and domestic fare. Netflix is producing original films in Taiwan like Dear Ex, while also buying distribution rights to Chinese blockbusters like The Wandering Earth. This coincides with heightened interest among American audiences into other non-English titles like Japan’s Terrace House franchise and Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Roma. Meanwhile, China is finding new ways to tap into Tinseltown, with tech giants like Alibaba, for example, investing in Hollywood productions (paywall) including Oscar best picture winner Green Book.

A diversifying American media diet will hopefully overturn notions of Asian cinema as derivative and exotic. More cross-border productions will also challenge how we discuss cinema in narrow, nationalistic terms. All of which is to say: In 10 years time, calling a film a “Chinese X” or “Western Y” will be even more useless than it is now.