Ang Lee shows China the way forward

2013-02-06Asia Times

Religion, political ambition, cultural achievements and the work of a single artist are sometimes intertwined, and this seems the case with the latest movie by Ang Lee.

A 16-year-old Indian boy is lost at sea with some companions. In one version of the story, he is cast away with a Japanese sailor, a French cook, and his mother. In another version, he is with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger. In one version, life looks ugly and senseless; in another, it is beautiful and meaningful. Life of Pi is a movie about religion and about the plot of life. With religion, life makes sense; without it, it is just ugly.

Which religion then? The protagonist of the movie, Pi (as in Piscine, the French word for swimming pool, or Pi, for the Greek letter and symbol for the number 3.14) has an Indian answer to this. Pi thanks Vishnu for introducing him to Christianity and feels a bond with God in the prayers at a mosque. Pi is then Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. In this, he is very Indian despite the fact that the movie has a Chinese director, Ang Lee, or Li An, as they call him in Beijing.

Ang Lee has a gift for capturing the essence of a culture. His first three movies (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman) were deeply Taiwanese, portraying with depth and sentiment the culture of the island and the Chinese tradition confronting modernity. With Sense and Sensibility, he was truly English. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he managed to make the masterpiece of classic Chinese kung fu movies. Hulk and Brokeback Mountain were two sides of US culture, one the world of comic strips and the other a liberal, modern version of the cowboy myth. Now, with the Life of Pi, he delves into the depths of Indian culture.

Ang Lee is like no other: a transcultural director, able to immerse himself in many different mindsets and fully render them with originality and by being true to their roots. He is a model of a healthy cultural relationship in a world consisting of many cultures. He is a new phenomenon in Hollywood, his home base. America reaches out to the world not only by projecting American myths but also by using different cultural narratives.

But maybe Ang Lee can also be an inspiration in China. Here, many officials and intellectuals despise most of their local moviemakers, and rather love Li An for his depth.

The story of Li An then may also be about power and politics.

Three scenarios are possible for China in 20 years. One is that China manages to overtake the US and become the world’s number-one economy. A second possibility is that it fails to do so and spirals into a deep crisis, possibly breaking the country into many rival fiefdoms. A third is that China manages to avoid a major crisis, but also fails to overtake America while many aggressive neighboring countries compete with China for primacy in Asia.

Each scenario has multiple possibilities. There is little doubt that Beijing would prefer the first scenario, but that scenario is also the scariest for many countries in the world. It is the one that would meet with the greatest resistance for the simple reason that it is totally new, and in the past a China-dominated East Asia, including Korea and Vietnam, never cast its shadow over the whole world.

This is a political issue, but also very much a cultural one. America's present domination, as well as English colonialism before it, was and is created by culture and secondarily supported by soldiers. Hollywood movies, pop music, the international press, and world-class universities are the stuff that built the soft power of superpowers. And their works of art - Shakespeare, but also the imperialist Kipling - are voices that dominated countries like India's still appreciate. Hollywood went further, calling on talent from all over the world to build its imagery, which represented the world and not just America.

In the next 20 years, no matter which scenario occurs, will China try to impose its culture on the world, or will it do something else? The rigid political and administrative systems suggest it would be simpler to just push for more homegrown cultural production. But the experience of Li An tells a different story: China needs to hire talent from abroad and also fully understand different cultures. This is in a nutshell the secret of US success. Without this, China is unlikely to pull it through.

But there is also religion, which Life of Pi is about. Just-published research from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, "China Today: Challenges And Prospects For The New Evangelization" by Yan Kin Sheung Chiaretto, addresses some of these questions. Dr Yan explains the present Chinese social necessity for religion.

Traditional Taoism and Confucianism are not real religions, and do not satisfy the present search for a new meaning of life in China. Catholicism and Christianity could be an answer to this, argues Yan. Moreover, China may be the real, true new frontier for the Catholic Church. India, the other super-country population-wise, is extremely religious, as the Life of Pi also demonstrates.

It is hard, Yan argues, for other religions to make inroads in India, despite the presence of Christianity dating from the time of St Thomas in the 1st century AD. The Hindu religion is part of Indian identity, and with the birth of Pakistan, the massive spread of Islam, a different religion from abroad, broke the subcontinent.

China is different: traditional Taoism and Confucianism are not religions, and Buddhism, like Christianity, is a foreign religion, which didn't break the country but took a new life in China. The long-term question is why Christianity, which arrived in China shortly after Buddhism and at the same time of Islam, didn't manage to take root in China.

Yan does not offer an answer to this but discusses the Chinese attention to religious cross-cultural ties. He shows that the image of the Mexican Madonna of Guadalupe feels closer to the Chinese than the blonde, blue-eyed Madonna coming from Europe. It seems to be much about how you tell a story.  (2013-02-06 Asia Times)


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