Wednesday, October 29, 2003

# Posted 12:05 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA, PART 2: If you want to learn a lot about Chinese foreign policy, read this excellent essay in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. One of the co-authors is Taylor Fravel, a colleague of mine at the Olin Institute who got his doctorate from Stanford last year and just presented a paper at Olin's National Security Seminar that won more praise than any other paper presented so far this year. Taylor also happens to be an Oxford graduate. If he weren't so busy, I guess we'd have to ask him to blog.

Anyhow, this post isn't really about Chinese foreign policy. As I mentioned yesterday, I'm not in a foreign policy frame of mind at the moment. Thus, those of you who would prefer to think about substantive political matters rather than the films of Jet Li (the actual subject of this post) should go and give Taylor's article a thorough read. There are a lot of subtle points in it, so do not forget that there is often an iron fist inside the velvet glove.

Now, back to Jet Li. Last night, I saw -- for the first time -- Once Upon a Time in China, Part 2 (OUTC-2). The opening scene is one of the absolute funniest I have ever seen. It is 1895 in Southern China, and Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li) is in the midst of a railroad journey from Fushan to Canton. A practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, Wong happens to be not all familiar either with railroads or Western customs. However, his wordly aunt is familiar with both.

When the three protagonists sit down in the dining car, Wong and his apprentice stare in disbelief at the slab of meat on their plate. Wong's aunt informs him that this is a "steak". Wong and his apprentice then begin to struggle with the knife and fork they have been given. Both of them try to imitate Aunt Yee, but wind up pushing the steak around their plate rather than eating it.

Then suddenly, Foon the apprentice pushes down with his knife and fork, sending his steak hurtling toward the window. Ever the Kung Fu master, Wong catches it in his hand just before it is lost forever. Wong then haughtily admonishes Foon to eat properly, but proceeds to send his steak flying into Aunt Yee's face, from which it rebounds back onto the table.

So you're probably not laughing right now. Whether because it is intrinsically hard or because I lack the necessary talent, describing slapstick humor in prose form is not a simple matter. But don't worry. The scene is so funny that you will laugh even if you know exactly what is coming, so you haven't lost anything by reading this post.

Another reason you might not be laughing is that this sort of reverse cultural humor has finally begun to get an audience in the United States thanks to Jackie Chan. But after all the Americans-with-chopsticks humor around, this is still a very amusing alternative.

Of course, there is a lot more to OUTC-2 than just slapstick. First of all, there's kung fu. The action choreographer for the film was Yuen Woo-Ping, now famous in the West as the creative genius behind the fight scenes in all three Matrix films. (At the risk of ruffling some feathers, I'll say that the action in OUTC-2 is far better than it is in the Matrix.)

However, both the slapstick and kung fu are ultimately part of a story, and a good story at that. Coincidentally, it is a story about a foreign policy, even though I said that I wasn't going to write about foreign policy today. More importantly, it is a story about inter-cultural relationships, or what we Americans might refer to as "diversity".

While 'diversity' has become a provocative code word in the American political lexicon, OUTC-2 provides a compelling reminder of what a compelling concept diversity is when removed from its domestic political context. After all, I'm willing to guess that the overwhelming majority of readers on this site enjoy traveling abroad and learning about foreign cultures.

Yet even in such contexts, we often assume that those who think about diversity are Americans/Westerners coming into contact with other cultures. Yet as OUTC-2 demonsrates, Hong Kong can offer us a very different perspective on what it means to navigate cultural differences and cultural divides.

Above all, OUTC-2 reminds us that diversity in no way entails unquestioning acceptance of the other. The primary message of the film is that China must overcome its entrenched legacies of authoriatrian and xenophobic violence. If it can do so, it will then be in a position to both share its unique heritage with the West as well as benefit from all that the West has to offer.

Another fundamental aspect of the film's message is that there is an inextricable link between diversity and democracy. In American political discourse, advocates of diversity often find it hard to make a forceful case for the universality of democracy and human rights, since the universality of anything suggests that diversity only has value within a very narrow set of limits.

However, the message of OUTC-2 is that the benefits of diversity are only possible within a democratic political order. In Hollywood, a movie with a message as serious and sophisticated as that would dispense with all the kung fu and slapstick humor. But not in Hong Kong, where one can still be an intelligent film goer and want to enjoy a good laugh and a good fight. Now that's diversity.

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