To understand where race relations in China are right now, one needs only to look to the highest grossing Chinese film of all time, last year’s Wolf Warrior 2. Directed by its star, Wu Jing, the ultra-patriotic action blockbuster was China’s answer to the thinly veiled military propaganda of Hollywood films like Rambo or Zero Dark Thirty, grossing $854 million and becoming China’s 2018 submission for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (sadly, it wasn’t nominated). Unfortunately, it also mirrored the American blockbuster’s tendency to lean into unflattering foreign stereotypes, portraying Africans alternatively as unscrupulous enemies or weak, faceless hordes awaiting salvation.
As it stands today, China is one of the world’s most racially homogeneous countries. Though it has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, it is dominated by one, the Han, to which 92 percent of the population (including me) belong. Its foreign presence, meanwhile, is tiny. Accordingly, China is less focused on “race” as it’s socially constructed in the west and more in a culturally-based but politically defined sense of “ethnicity.”
In China, blatant racism still very much exists. This is true towards any non-Han Chinese, but there is also specific anti-black racism, at least partially influenced by American media portrayals of both African-Americans and Africa, the continent.
It is against this backdrop that Black Panther opened in China this weekend. As a Chinese-American who has already seen — and fallen in love with — the film, I was anxious and a little curious as to how the movie, so steeped in the African-American experience, would translate to the almost completely racially homogenous country of my birth. I desperately wanted both cultures to show their best sides: that this celebration of black culture in America could be recognized as such and would resonate with Chinese audiences, and that China’s anti-foreign impulses could be overcome.
But beyond feeling personally invested in the film, China’s reception of Black Panther was important in another way. China is currently the world’s second-largest movie market and is on track to surpass America by 2020, so the nation’s reaction to the film could shape what type of movies major studios take big bets on in the future.
I watched the movie in a small, modern cinema owned by Dalian Wanda Group (which also owns America’s AMC theaters) in the southwestern city of Chengdu, a metropolis of 14.45 million people best known for its spicy dishes, giant pandas, and — more recently — as the birthplace of Chinese hip-hop. If I thought that the city’s connections to a music originating from the African-American experience would somehow make the film more relatable, I was wrong.
The energy — or lack thereof — in the theater was completely different from my first experience in New York City, where I felt like a small part of one emotional organism, each person’s laughter and visceral reactions influencing the whole. I sat enthralled, possessing the distinct sense that I was a witness to something historic. In Chengdu, meanwhile, the only thing that we shared, beyond being in the same physical space, was the pair of 3D glasses that each of us wore. The solidarity, and even shared reactions, were missing. The moments that elicited laughs in America — “two Grace Jones-lookin’ chicks” with spears showing up in Oakland; Shuri naming her high-tech silent boots “sneakers,” calling the white CIA agent “Colonizer,” and numerous quips and cultural touchstones that immediately registered with American audiences — were lost in translation.
Sometimes, literally. When T’Challa indignantly tells Okoye, “I never freeze!” as he’s about to head out on a mission to fetch ex-girlfriend Nakia, it’s translated to “My leg is fine!” When he re-enters Wakanda, the barren world beyond its borders giving way to the civilization within, he says, “This never gets old,” which is translated into the far blander, “It’s so beautiful.”
Each of these moments is a missed opportunity to connect with its audience. And these missed opportunities added up, leading some Chinese viewers wondering what the big fuss was about.
For college student Yang Yang, it was more than just the jokes that were lost in translation. The movie’s celebration of an unconquered African civilization failed to make any impression at all. When I asked what she thought about the movie’s portrayal of race, she said, “Black culture in the film is only a small part,” before adding, “The theme songs — the music from The Weekend and Kendrick Lamar — are all very good.”
Of course, “black culture” is not just hip-hop, but her confusion might be at least reflective of China’s limited exposure to race. China’s insensitivity when it comes to representation was also on ample display at this year’s CCTV Chinese New Year’s gala, an annual variety show organized by the state broadcaster and traditionally watched by basically every family in the country. During the four-hour long show, a short comic skit about China’s expansion in Africa made headlines for very much the wrong reasons.
The sketch was set in the savannah of an unnamed African country, with Shakira’s “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” serving as the musical backdrop. It featured mistaken identities (a common trope in the show), a narrowly averted interracial marriage due to said mistaken identities, African gratitude for Chinese saviors, people dressed as monkeys and giraffes, and a Chinese actress outfitted in full blackface and prosthetic butt. It would be an understatement to call the skit — which provoked backlash both in China and abroad — offensive, let alone problematic. Yet, as a report in the Washington Post noted, China’s Foreign Ministry remained defiant in the face of criticism of the skit, accusing outsiders of exploiting the controversy in an attempt to hinder China’s economic development in Africa.
China-based university lecturer Marcel Daniels told the Shanghai outlet Sixth Tone that he was hopeful that Black Panther could make a difference. “A lot of stereotypes in China come from a limited exposure to diversity, so assumptions are made reflexively,” he explained. “Hopefully this film sparks interest in Chinese viewers to learn more about the history, people, and cultures of those from Africa.”
But that depends on the film connecting with Chinese audiences. As of yesterday, Black Panther has made about $66.5 million in China, meeting its $60-$70 million opening weekend predictions. But beyond ticket sales, it’s not clear that Black Panther truly connects with Chinese audiences. Hollywood films are increasingly adjusting plot points, settings, and even casting to appeal (or pander, depending on whom you ask) to China’s lucrative, but hard-to-crack audiences, something that Black Panther hasn’t done at all. One audience member in my showing, for example, loudly asked why the South Korean scenes couldn’t have been set in China, which would have made it more interesting.
In my screening, at least, it resulted in its somewhat tepid reception. Yang Yang, who admitted that she prefers more serious films to the superhero genre, says that it wasn’t the plot or cast of Black Panther that kept her from enjoying the film. It was that, without the context of why the movie was made, it felt to her like a hundred other superhero flicks and big-budget Hollywood films. Visually, she said, there were scenes that reminded her of Inception and Avatar.
In fact, Yang Yang felt that, more than anything, the film espoused “the universal values of the United States.” She explained how, at the end of the film, T’Challa had gone from “saving the people of his country” to “exporting technology” to the rest of the world — “much like how the United States operates in global politics.”
What we see is ultimately a reflection of what we know. So, while American audiences see a celebration of blackness, for some Chinese moviegoers, it’s Black Panther’s American spirit that stands out.