"White people cannot go into other countries and save it."
Dear Mr. Zhang,
Don’t get me wrong, I know where you’re coming from. You made a beautiful piece of art with your movie The Great Wall. You told a story that is unique and original and diverse, one that would bring together the peoples of many nations. You made a movie that would cross the globe and spread Chinese culture, entertainment, and media to the English speaking world. It’s a beautiful vision. I applaud you. I think it’s a great idea.
But there are also nuances to art, because art affects society. Society reverberates around art, especially entertainment, which is accessible to the masses far more readily than paintings or poetry. And, I think that while your vision will resonate positively in many parts of the world, it is missing pieces, pieces of unintended consequences that dramatically cripple it from its full potential.
Dear Mr. Zhang, by choosing to cast Matt Damon in The Great Wall, you are perpetuating a long trend of white people being inserted into traditional Chinese narratives in the West.
You are perpetuating the trend of erasing Asian people from the movie screen. And I know your refutation. You have cast Chinese actors, you have created something buzzworthy in China, but by using Matt Damon to appeal to the English-speaking and Western world, you are appealing to the exact myth that has plagued the West since colonial times. White people cannot go into other countries and ‘save it.’ And yet your movie implies it so.
If the intent of this movie was to bring people together, then why would you ignore Chinese Americans, or other people of the Chinese diaspora, who are at the very heart of this divide that you intend to overcome? Don’t you know that there is a whole gulf of us between these two extremes, a whole gulf of us that so desperately want to be heard, want our stories to be told, and are the people most directly affected by your movie? When non-Asian people watch this movie, I worry that the myth of the white savior is being reinforced, that my heritage is being diminished, that part of who I am is being erased. When non-Asian people watch this movie, I worry that they are simplifying my culture to the little fractions that colonialism left them, while ignoring the many intricacies of modern China, Chinese America, and the Chinese diaspora worldwide.
This movie would have resonated much further had you been more nuanced about its casting. Because while people of the Chinese diaspora are most affected by your movie, we are also the ones who are most ready and able to spread Chinese culture and entertainment.
We are the ambassadors of Chinese culture abroad, and we are deeply hurt by this movie.
I feel like you’ve forgotten that.
My parents have watched many dramas over the years. I’ve watched with them, and when I tell my friends about these dramas and movies, the fascinating lessons they share, the beautiful costumes they use, that is where the true learning happens. Because when you have someone deeply and authentically invested in both the culture of their nation and the culture of their heritage, they can offer a more complete and wholesome overview of the media which leads to far deeper learning and appreciation than any movie with a white actor set in China ever would. The Great Wall will not compel people to watch Lang Ya Bang, follow Andy Lau, or whatever else you hope to accomplish through it, not nearly as much as you hope. On the other hand, my deepest and most sincere recommendations might just do that.
I’m thinking about what might have happened had you cast a Chinese American actor instead. How Chinese Americans would rave about it abroad, and how we would convince all of our friends to see this movie, how much we would celebrate it. I think you underestimate the power of that.
Because we diaspora Chinese are very lonely in a way. Our nations view us as foreigners while our own motherland laughs at us for being dumb.
Nobody truly embraces us.
But through entertainment we pretend that we are just Chinese, enjoying the stories of our homeland. We learn our language. We speak to our grandparents over the phone, and to our parents at home, trying to impress them with the phrases we’ve picked up from dramas.
Chinese media means a lot to us. It’s our way of keeping touch, it’s our way of understanding the richness of our culture, and in turn we can mean a lot to Chinese media. We’re the ones who speak for China abroad.
And now our voices are angry.
I want you to know that I’m upset for a reason, but I do see your side as well. I hope your art is as beautiful as you envisioned it. Yet I also hope that you see some of the unintended consequences of what you have done.
All the best,