Surprisingly Chinese — cultures and clichés in ‘The Wandering Earth’

To see someone compete in an unlikely contest is always exciting, and science fiction blockbuster movies turn anything non-American into an underdog. That’s why the near-destruction of our planet in The Wandering Earth, China’s first large-scale space flick (a foregone hit for the Lunar New Year season) is a thrilling saga not only about another near-apocalypse of humankind but the re-rise of China itself.

Do you remember Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? The world was impressed, and settled on it as a reliable source of understanding Chinese traditional values, like filial duty, modesty, talking slowly and (apparently) traversing on rooftops as opposed to pavements. It took me three years in China to realise, mainly thanks to my local friends, how alien that film is in the natural habitat of kung-fu fighters and fox fairies.

Image: mxdwn.com

Though The Wandering Earth is doubtlessly an indigenous production, I am still amused by international reviews seeing fortune cookies in every Chinese narrative. I also admit that stereotypical first impressions are permissible as long as they contribute to deeper understanding later. But as we understand how bias works in the brain, we also realise that first impressions tend to stick if undisturbed by further observations. Fortune cookies are not really Chinese, you see. Therefore, I would like to share a few thoughts, especially for those who will experience a third-kind encounter with The Wandering Earth but not with China itself.

I must start somewhere, so I will start with a recent review by The Verge: “Gwo’s film is full of images and moments that will be familiar to American audiences, and it has an equally familiar preoccupation with the importance of family connections, and the nobility of sacrifice. But it also puts a strong focus on global collective action, on the need for international cooperation, and for the will of the group over the will of the individual.” Frankly, I understand exactly where the author comes from: any cinema outside of China, the rising superpower challenging America’s economic, political and cultural hegemony.

An ‘alternative world order’ from the Orient is a narrative as coherent as any well-crafted story designed for fast digestion. Our head is full of them. If you doubt it, close your eyes and visualise the first thing that pops to mind when you say the word ‘Africa’. I could make many visual guesses, but I am almost sure ‘penguins’ is not among them. Your first impression of Africa is something that represents the mainstream, makes that great continent sound interesting and reassures your existing notions of the place in question. In a way, it is true. But in another way it is false, and requires urgent attention, otherwise you might get into trouble in Africa, with Africans or in any relevant situation.

African penguins

Take these penguins. They live in Africa. They are not your ‘typical African’ beasts like the Big Five, which is exactly why they need our attention, says the awareness campaign from whom I stole this adorable image. People who know this appreciate Africa for the diverse place it is, as opposed to the Africa with nothing but elephants, lions and Cavendish banana, the image that you see at tourist agencies and in Mission Impossible 9 with the convertible Land Rover chase (my suggestion).

Depending on the intensity of your social media usage, you may remember that this article started off about The Wandering Earth, which is a glimpse into the behavioural equivalent of African penguins versus elephants. Yes, collectivism and cooperation is an Asian thing, but expecting it everything Asian is like looking for elephant trails at the Mombasa airport. And yes, there is American-style heroism in Chinese films like this one, but thinking it was directly adopted from Hollywood is no more accurate than wondering how those tiny penguins swim all the way from Antarctica, only to vacation in Namibia.

Hopefully, you read this before you watch the movie. If you do, notice the roles that all nationalities play in the saga. “International cooperation” there is none, apart from a few scenes like the author’s favourite where a hundred vehicles turn around on the hero’s command. (A common scene in Shanghai at rush hour, minus a hero.) Apart from that, The French reluctantly yield to the hero, The Americans hang their head in defeat, The Filipinos run away, The Indians cluelessly scratch their (turbaned) heads, The Russian drinks vodka and dies, The Japanese shoot themselves (featured), The Foreigner (they call him that) panics, and even most of The Chinese helplessly huddle together while a select few of The Chinese defy orders, disregard odds, save everybody and then die. (They must die, this is not Hollywood.)

Image: rottentomatoes.com

This makes a cool movie, but not about a bondage of nations. Neither is there too much consensus and cooperation between the Chinese characters themselves. The main hero defies his father, who in turn defies his, while technicians and armed forces fight each other for limited resources and debate who is in charge, often burning up vital bridges in defiance and all of them to their own demise. Comrades and civilians are left behind or sacrificed a bit too casually even for American standards, and quite recklessly if we judge their actions by strict collectivist norms. Positive heroes repeatedly declare themselves a genius (predictable for some Western Presidents, not so much for traditional Asian leaders) and settle their scores through verbal assault.

These are not the collectivist, harmonious, dutiful Confucian droids you are looking for. They are the African penguins. Let me explain how they got there. Fans of historical cinema (and nobody else) remember that until the 1930s, Chinese films did address the conflicts of traditional values in a modern age, the way Vittorio de Sica did in one place and Charlie Chaplin in another. But then, China replaced its leadership, and the new bosses reset the clock. Imported ideals included class struggle, risk-taking and the survival of the fittest — non-Confucian beliefs to the highest degree. In art, humility and patience, the quintessence of Chinese traditions, became signs of backwardness to be replaced by revolutionary spirit.

But if you ever worked under a new CEO, you know that new cultures spread like a PowerPoint slide containing Five Core Values: gradually, from the top down, in proportion with the benefit of buying into the new ideology. That is exactly how the new culture made its way into Chinese society in past decades, resulting in a bold, determined urban elite in charge of a traditional-minded mainstream still unsure whether to join the the risky game. And that is what you see in The Wandering Earth, because guess which side makes movies. The Verge is right, but in a topsy-turvy way: the blockbusting heroism is more Chinese than you would think, while cooperation and consensus takes the back seat, and not just in space-China.

The distinction matters because China is tackling global issues, in movies as well as in real life, and we must understand its intentions. Having lived in China and coached international executives here for 17 years, I have seen too many people forcing their simplistic notions on what they saw, and acting on their misconceptions. Starting from stereotypical assumptions like ‘The Chinese are indirect communicators’, they wondered what the hidden message could be behind: “Give me 20 percent discount or there is no deal”. They met someone claiming to be the undisputed boss, and suspected that somehow, this must be about harmonious cooperation.

They have to look deeper and, so must movie-goers, because on one count, I very much agree with The Verge and other review writers: The Wandering Earth is indeed a great opportunity to get a rare glimpse into the psyche of modern China. It is not Chinatown or Chinese Culture for Dummies: it is the China you are increasingly likely to encounter, second- or third-kind, in all its often misunderstood complexity.

Gábor Holch is a Shanghai-based writer and intercultural leadership consultant. Follow or contact him on Medium.

Gabor is a cross-cultural teamwork & leadership development consultant, coach, author and speaker who has served 100+ clients in in 25+ countries.