THE NUMBERS: Box-office revenue leaders in China, 2014* –
|Transformers: Age of Extinction||301.0 million|
|The Monkey King||$167.8 million|
|X-Men: Days of Future Past||$116.5 million|
|Captain America: The Winter Soldier||$115.6 million|
*Data from “Box Office Mojo,” affiliated to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Jan.-June 2014.
WHAT THEY MEAN:
Han Yu, Tang dynasty literary man and patron of cultural nationalism, protests a Buddhist ceremony at the Palace (819 A.D.) as a foreign threat to Chinese culture:
The Buddha was of foreign origin. His language differed from Chinese speech; his clothes were of a different cut. Let us suppose him to be living today, and arriving at the capital as an emissary of his country. Your Majesty would receive him courteously. But only one interview in the audience chamber, one banquet in his honor, one gift of clothing, and he would be escorted under guard to the border that he might not mislead the masses.
Han ungenerously terms the observance “nothing more than a theatrical amusement,” but fears its effects nonetheless, as “the people are foolish and ignorant, and are easily deceived and with difficulty enlightened.” A millennium on, People’s Liberation Army Col. Gong Fanbin feels a similar emotion, but for actual theatrical amusements: Col. Gong fears that Hollywood movies are “changing the thinking and values of the [Chinese] nation’s youth,” are thus an ‘unconventional security threat’ to Chinese culture, and ought to be a national-security priority for the Chinese government.
To start with a particular case: Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened in China on April 4th. Its $39.2 million in Chinese box-office accounted for over half of the film’s $75 million total “international” opening weekend revenue, and for context, nearly 40 percent of the $96 million it earned in its first U.S. weekend. For the year through June, Winter Soldier ranks fourth in Chinese box-office; Transformers is first, the Buddhist-classic/action-flick Monkey King second (a Hong Kong production drawn from the 15th-century novel, and an illustration of how badly Han Yu’s criticism of Buddhism as non-Chinese flopped), and an X-Men installment third.
Now the overall context: According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), China returned $3.6 billion in box-office revenue for 2013 – double the $1.7 billion in 2010, and 10 percent of the $35.9 billion in total international revenue – and became the first country to top $3 billion. Thirteen of China’s top 20 movies so far in 2014 are American-produced, compared to 10 in 2008. A couple of reasons for this surge:
More opportunity: Since 2000, China’s urban population has grown by 300 million, and per capita income (by the World Bank’s count) has risen from $950 to $6,800. So more people live near theaters, and they have more money to spend.
Fewer barriers: Second, more chances to see specifically foreign films. The 1980s revival of Chinese cinema came with a series of protectionist measures: “blackouts” of foreign films, competitive release scheduling, censorship, and a national ‘quota’ of no more than 10 foreign films shown in any single year. China’s WTO membership agreement in 2001 raised this quota from 10 films to 20. In 2012, a successful American WTO case raised it again to 34 films, with an understanding that the additional films would be formatted for IMAX and 3D. (IMAX opened in China in 2007, and now counts 159 theaters there, out of 873 worldwide; 239 more are scheduled to open in ‘Greater China’ by 2021.) The IMAX concentration may give advantage to high-CGI action and sci-fi films, as opposed to more traditional and slower-paced romances, comedies, and dramas; China’s four highest-grossing movies this year are all IMAX-formatted.
Back now to Winter Soldier. What is the emotional appeal of the American superhero to Chinese youth? “Douban,” a review site for film buffs in China, features some unsurprising comments – handsome lead actor, explosions – but also (via Foreign Policy) an observation on the appeal of the film’s corrupt-enemy-within theme and the complex nature of patriotism:
“[The new villain] is the very country he loves and protects….To love one’s country isn’t the same as loving one’s government: This is the main draw of Captain America.”
Col. Gong may well be right to believe foreign films – even CGI-heavy blockbusters – can change thinking and values. However, like Han Yu in retrospect, he looks to be in a minority in believing these changes are bad. A 2008 poll done by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, found 14 percent of Chinese viewing the influence of American popular culture as ‘very positive’ and 57 percent as mainly positive. A modest 19 percent thought the influence ‘mainly negative,’ and only 4 percent shared the Col.’s ‘very negative’ view.
Then & now–
Then & now–
Han Yu vs. Buddhism, 819: http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/hanyu.html
… the Lotus Sutra: http://www.amazon.com/The-Lotus-Sutra-Burton-Watson/dp/0231081618
… and Monkey King: http://themonkeykingmovie.com/site/
Gong Fanbin vs. Hollywood, 2014: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1404926/cultural-threats-among-five-focuses-new-national-security-panel-colonel
… U.S. journal Foreign Policy looks at Winter Soldier and the Chinese movie-goer: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/04/11/captain_america_captain_china
… and Captain America: The Winter Soldier: http://marvel.com/captainamerica
Chinese box-office figures for the top 89 movies released Jan.-June 2014: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/intl/china/yearly/
The MPAA (2011) on global revenues and the Chinese film-buff: http://www.boxoffice.com/latest-news/2012-03-22-mpaa-global-box-office-climb-continues-in-2011
Box-office by country for Winter Soldier, with China accounting for about 28 percent of receipts outside the U.S.: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=marvel14b.htm
And a list of the 159 IMAX theaters in China: https://www.imax.com/countries/CN/
Policies & attitudes –
The White House reports the US-China film agreement, 2012: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/02/17/united-states-achieves-breakthrough-movies-dispute-china
The Committee of 100 (a Chinese-American Association) surveys perceptions in the U.S. and China, 2012: http://www.survey.committee100.org/2012/EN/C100_2012Survey.pdf
And the Chicago Council’s 2008 poll, with views on American popular culture in five Asian countries at pp. 14-15. Quick summary: Japan 83 percent good, China 70 percent, South Korea 64 percent, Vietnam 60 percent, Indonesia the outlier, with a disgruntled 27 percent: http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/Files/Studies_Publications/POS/POS2008/Soft_Power_in_Asia.aspx
SPECIAL NOTE: Research and drafting for this Fact by Pam Levy, summer research associate for the GlobalWorks Foundation. Ms. Levy is a senior at George Washington University.