Whitewashing and self-Orientalism: expectations of Zhang Yimou’s ‘The Great Wall’

As you may have seen, Zhang Yimou’s next film has been announced as a Chinese-US co-production set during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The most striking thing, however, is the casting of Matt Damon as its star. Many critics have taken this as another example of Hollywood whitewashing, which, while the specifics of Damon’s role in the film are yet to be clarified, seems extremely likely. We are becoming accustomed to this phenomenon, with examples including Scarlett Johansson’s casting as an originally Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton’s casting as a previously Tibetan character. What is different about these two productions, however, is that their directors are also western (English and American respectively). Whereas Zhang Yimou’s place as the director of The Great Wall complicates this criticism.

Zhang has long been the master of self-exoticised representations of Chinese culture that meet Western Orientalist expectations rather than portray genuine cultural symbols. Raise the Red Lantern, for example, saw the inclusion of red lanterns hung at the house of whichever concubine was chosen by the master on a given night. This has never been recorded in Chinese history. What’s more, this is just one example. Dai Qing’s article ‘Raised Eyebrows for Raise the Red Lantern’ lists numerous issues with many of the supposedly ‘cultural’ elements found within that film alone. Female sexuality, primitivism, and oppressive patriarchy feature repeatedly in Zhang’s films, aspects which have been criticised as reinforcing Western hegemonic discourse regarding supposed Eastern inferiority.

So, what significance does this new co-production have in regards to such criticisms? As aforementioned, Damon’s role is unclear; however, posters for the film appear to show him in Chinese armour among warriors. However, it should be remembered that China’s pre-19th Century was largely Sino-centric and that the Great Wall was initially constructed as a way of keeping foreign ‘barbarians’ out of what was regarded as the ‘Middle Kingdom’. In light of this, the place of an American among warriors during the Northern Song Dynasty seems unlikely at best. While only time will tell what the details of Damon’s role really are, I would put my bets on the likelihood of him somehow being the film’s hero/saviour as being rather high. If I’m right, concepts of Western superiority in cinema will only be fortified.

Zhang’s own comments on the film do not provide much hope either. He has stated that the film has “Chinese elements”, which, for a film set in China and directed by a Chinese director, does not sound like very much. He has also declared that the film is “good for the promotion of Chinese culture”. With stereotypes and Western expectations of cultural essentialism in mind, as well as the success of Zhang’s past self-Orientalising works, what is known to succeed in ‘promoting’ Chinese culture (attracting audiences, that is) is usually shrouded in post-colonial discourse.

While co-productions are likely only to flourish between what are now the two biggest film markets in the world, and which surely have the potential to be truly exciting, The Great Wall simply looks as if it will be Zhang continuing to disseminate images of a China as imagined by the west. Like so many of his films throughout the years, it appears that China will once again be portrayed in the past in all its exotic hyper-Chineseness. If my expectations of this film prove to be true then I believe that it will only serve to strengthen binarism in Western attitudes towards China and maintain China as the West’s trusty ‘Other’.





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