‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’: A tokenist portrait of Chinese culture
Joyce Fu | Thursday, September 9, 2021
Warning: This review contains spoilers for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
Admittedly, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was better than I expected. From comedic moments — mainly the faceless, winged, four legged Morris, a hundun — to beautifully choreographed fight sequences — the grace and balance of Tai Chi coming together with the traditional, forceful martial arts of Jackie Chan and Jet Li in a character that chooses the kind of hero he wants to be — the first superhero film with an Asian majority cast does not make any overt blunders.
And yet, I would be cautious about lauding “Shang-Chi” as a win for diversity. Because even as we’re seeing an increased number of POC on our screens, it’s important to remember diversity isn’t just color. Real diversity is cultural diversity, it’s ideological diversity, not the same American ideas repurposed in colorful packaging; that’s tokenism.
This is where “Shang-Chi” falls short. At the end of the day, “Shang-Chi” exploits a foreign culture in order to increase exposure for the hegemonic Chinese American culture. In grappling with the standard immigrant conflict — identity — it utilizes and perpetuates centuries-old stereotypes about Chinese people and culture, at times leaning dangerously into savior-interventionist ideology.
Starting with the commentary on sexism woven throughout the entire storyline, it’s taken as granted that Xialing (Shang-Chi’s sister) has been overlooked by her traditionally-minded father, Wenwu, her entire life. In the context of the underlying thematic conflict of the friction between ancient tradition and modernity, the implication appears to be that Chinese culture is traditionally sexist. And while that wouldn’t necessarily be untrue in regards to Chinese culture, or any other culture for that matter, the tendency of this stereotype is to assume that Chinese culture is defined by its sexism, whereas we in the West are not. In particular, it is the stereotypical attribution of sexism to a specific culture that contrasts with other Marvel productions such as “Black Widow,” which broadly references the global tendency to overlook girls, or even “Black Panther,” which chooses the route of empowerment rather than critique.
And perhaps the creators are aware of this on some level, as the commentary on ancient cultures appears to change — though again, without any explanation why — with Ying Nan of Ta-Lo (an equally ancient culture) offering her perspective: “We train as equals … you’ve been in the shadows long enough.” Regardless, the lack of commitment in either direction ends up making Xialing’s character feel flat, created for the purpose of representing empowerment, capable of doing everything Shang-Chi does, just not as well. Unlike Shuri, the head of technology in Wakanda, Xialing is nicheless.
Essentially, Chinese culture is characterized (through the two factions of Shang-Chi’s parents) as either irrational and dangerous (Wenwu’s Ten Rings) or exotic and protectionist (Ying Li’s Ta-Lo). It took the Shang-Chi Gang (Shang-Chi, Katy, Xialing) with their western influence (even Xialing’s co-worker in Macau “speak[s] ABC,” in his own words) to drive Ta-Lo — who apparently just abandoned Shang-Chi and Xialing after their mother died — to utilize their wasted potential and work together against Wenwu. Even disregarding the distasteful your-father-is-your-greatest-enemy cliché often applied to Chinese characters in western lore, the implication, clearly, is that the Chinese people are inherently lacking — incapable in some way — asking for intervention. Western superheroes work for the good of humanity (ex. every Marvel movie ever), but those in the Far East? They’re either power hungry like Wenwu, or ambivalent like Ta-Lo about the evil being done until it’s at their doorstep.
From beating children (ex. Ten Rings Shaolin-style training), to unexplained connections to what appear to be Russian hitmen (ex. Razor Fist), to being a lawless and unethical place (ex. tricked into signing contracts, surfing the dark web, illegal fighting rings, gangs coming after you, etc.), Shang-Chi’s search across China for his identity manages to touch upon just about every stereotype that exists in contemporary western culture.
Therefore, while Shang-Chi does render the Asian American experience with sensitivity and complexity, such as touching upon the ideas of cultural ownership, language barriers and belonging, it does not do justice to the culture it is set in nor the culture whose motifs it uses. And so, Shang-Chi is better, but it cannot be enough. Perhaps this is just film major idealism, or perhaps it’s my upbringing at the intersection of cultures, but no international blockbuster is ever just a movie. They are trend setters, they are mediums for cultural exchange and they shape our subconscious perceptions — for some, our only glimpse — of foreign countries more than even we ourselves are aware of.
Title: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
If you liked: “Black Widow,” “Spider-Man: Far From Home”