As a fundamental part of what I consider to be my parental duties, I've been broadening my son's already healthy exposure to kung fu movies over the past few months. And I'm repeatedly struck by how many insights they offer into the formative folklore that animates modern-day China. Like Westerns for America, they are heavy in caricatures and historic inaccuracies. But they also reflect, at times crudely and at others quite elegantly, Chinese culture's self-image and its view of the "other."
So as much as I found last week's bilateral summit between Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao dramatically overblown -- both are coming off lousy years, and neither exercises as much influence over policy outcomes as the media coverage suggests -- I thought the calm after the storm would be a good time to offer up what I think of as the Kung Fu Film Version of China's Rise.
First up is the Bruce Lee classic, "Fists of Fury," which, for anyone unfamiliar with China's colonial past, gives a good idea of the degree to which the humiliations of the foreign concession period remain present in the modern collective imagination. In the film, the Japanese function as the hated occupier/oppressor in concession-period Shanghai. But the nature of the concession arrangement was such that it left plenty of resentment to go around. Unlike other countries, which experienced the oppression and humiliation of colonial occupation at the hands of one Western colonial power, China was partially partitioned among them all. What's more, its history of being occupied predates Western colonialism, with classics like "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" already dealing with the Manchu occupation. Many Americans don't realize that China's insistence on sovereignty and the ability to defend it -- i.e., its current military modernization program -- is driven not just by a desire to avoid accountability on its human rights record, but also by a centuries-long chip on its shoulder.