We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

From Fu Manchu to Kung Fu Panda

Images of China in American Film

Naomi Greene

Publication Year: 2014

Throughout the twentieth century, American filmmakers have embraced cinematic representations of China. Beginning with D.W. Griffith’s silent classic Broken Blossoms (1919) and ending with the computer-animated Kung Fu Panda (2008), this book explores China’s changing role in the American imagination. Taking viewers into zones that frequently resist logical expression or more orthodox historical investigation, the films suggest the welter of intense and conflicting impulses that have surrounded China. They make clear that China has often served as the very embodiment of “otherness”—a kind of yardstick or cloudy mirror of America itself. It is a mirror that reflects not only how Americans see the racial “other” but also a larger landscape of racial, sexual, and political perceptions that touch on the ways in which the nation envisions itself and its role in the world.

In the United States, the exceptional emotional charge that imbues images of China has tended to swing violently from positive to negative and back again: China has been loved and—as is generally the case today—feared. Using film to trace these dramatic fluctuations, author Naomi Greene relates them to the larger arc of historical and political change. Suggesting that filmic images both reflect and fuel broader social and cultural impulses, she argues that they reveal a constant tension or dialectic between the “self” and the “other.” Significantly, with the important exception of films made by Chinese or Chinese American directors, the Chinese other is almost invariably portrayed in terms of the American self. Placed in a broader context, this ethnocentrism is related both to an ever-present sense of American exceptionalism and to a Manichean world view that perceives other countries as friends or enemies.

Greene analyzes a series of influential films, including classics like Shanghai Express (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), The Good Earth (1936), and Shanghai Gesture (1941); important cold war films such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and The Sand Pebbles (1966); and a range of contemporary films, including Chan is Missing (1982), The Wedding Banquet (1993), Kundun (1997), Mulan (1998), and Shanghai Noon (2000). Her consideration makes clear that while many stereotypes and racist images of the past have been largely banished from the screen, the political, cultural, and social impulses they embodied are still alive and well.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

pdf iconDownload PDF (716.1 KB)
pp. i-vi


pdf iconDownload PDF (538.1 KB)
pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

pdf iconDownload PDF (541.8 KB)
pp. ix-x

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (541.0 KB)
pp. xi-xii

It is safe to say that without one person in particular— my late friend Frank Kretschmer— this book would never have been written. Had Frank not insisted that I visit him in Beijing— where he taught English for many years— I would never have become interested in China much less in American perceptions of China. Before that visit, in fact, my gaze had been firmly fixed on Europe— first...

read more

Chapter 1 The Pendulum Swings . . . and Swings Again

pdf iconDownload PDF (634.9 KB)
pp. 1-16

This book is about the representations of China found in American films, Or, more precisely, about the images and myths regarding China found in such films. It is based on two underlying premises. First, that film both reflects and fuels widespread, and often deeply rooted, perceptions and attitudes. In a book about the interactions of film and history, French historian Marc Ferro argues that cinema...

read more

Chapter 2 East Meets West: Cultural Collisions and Marks of Difference

pdf iconDownload PDF (978.1 KB)
pp. 17-49

Looking back at early films, it is difficult to say which particular mark of difference was most important in defining Chinese otherness. Was it religion (as the missionary outlook had it) or sexuality (as Hollywood melodramas seem to suggest)? In any case, for many years it was the rare film that did not remind viewers of the absolute contrast between Christians and heathens or ...

read more

Chapter 3 Questions of Otherness: From Opium Pipes to Apple Pie

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.2 MB)
pp. 50-94

The shift of the pendulum governing images of China has often come with astonishing speed. Still, nowhere does it take place more rapidly than in a late silent film, Mr. Wu (1927), directed by William Nigh. Like Shadows, Mr. Wu stars Lon Chaney: once again, the “man of a thousand faces” appears in yellowface. This time, Chaney assumes two roles: he plays both the ancient patriarch...

read more

Chapter 4 The Cold War in Three Acts

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.1 MB)
pp. 95-150

“When we saturate ourselves in old films,” writes Nora Sayre in a book about films of the cold war, “we can employ them as hidden memories of a decade— directly or indirectly, they summon up the nightmares and daydreams that drifted through segments of our society.”1 In this chapter I will explore several films— notably...

read more

Chapter 5 The World Splits in Two

pdf iconDownload PDF (885.8 KB)
pp. 151-180

In terms of twentieth-century screen representations of China, films of the cold war era act as a kind of historical fulcrum. Looking back, they endow ancient stereo types like that of Fu Manchu with a new— and sometimes not-so- new— guise. Looking forward, in their Manichean view of the world they set the stage for the spate of intensely negative cinematic images of China found in several...

read more

Chapter 6 Challenges and Continuities

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.0 MB)
pp. 181-213

Looking back, Scorsese’s refusal to represent traditional Chinese villains in Kundun— or even to depict Chinese atrocities in a conventional realistic manner— seems prescient: by the late 1990s figures like the draconian judge of Red Corner and the cruel and arrogant generals of Seven Years in Tibet had a distinctly anachronistic cast. True, from time to time, one sensed the weight of earlier...

read more

Afterword: The Darkening Mirror

pdf iconDownload PDF (568.6 KB)
pp. 214-218

The triumph of the American cultural narrative seen in films like Mulan and Kung Fu Panda is, of course, a global or quasi-global phenomenon. China’s culture is by no means the only one in the landscape of contemporary film that has been hollowed out, reduced to “banality” (to use Todd Gitlin’s term). Yet its virtual erasure in these works inevitably has a political resonance....


pdf iconDownload PDF (677.3 KB)
pp. 219-244


pdf iconDownload PDF (602.2 KB)
pp. 245-256


pdf iconDownload PDF (738.5 KB)
pp. 257-264

About the Author, Production Notes, Back Cover

pdf iconDownload PDF (427.4 KB)
pp. 265-269

E-ISBN-13: 9780824838379
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824838355

Publication Year: 2014