The Brood: Reconnecting with a local friend here in Wuhan, I had an experience that summed up some of the contradictions in my experience; individuals are so patient and welcoming, but in aggregate, it’s hard not to notice bubbling nationalism under the surface.
This past weekend I swallowed down some neuroticism and messaged my friend Chinese “Paul” after avoiding him for a few months. Spending some time together with him I was relieved to see the dynamic had changed. I was no longer a spectacle. There was no longer an implication that I could be used to meet women, or that I was a way to gain notoriety among peers.
Instead just another friend, genuinely confused as to why I had disappeared for a few months. I’d thought of a few different answers, and even asked for advice from friends as to how to answer. I tried to keep it simple and say that I’d had some intense feelings trying to get used to China and that I needed to focus on myself for a bit. (“注意我自己，从我的经验中尝试学习”.) He responded with “哥，好深奥的感觉!”, or “Bro, that’s deep!”
While the dynamic may have changed, Paul’s pace of life had not. We spent an hour swapping songs on guitar, and he tried to teach me some basic drum beats. Afterward, at his apartment, he made me buy us 14 beers as penance for my long silence, then used a ladle to pour us two glasses of “药酒” or medicinal liquor from a large glass vat he kept in his bedroom. We gulped them down and fiddled with his new electric guitar.
At this point, it was suggested that we watch a movie. “Have you seen Wolf Warrior?”, Paul asked.
I hadn’t, but I had heard of it. Wolf Warrior, or 战狼, is a hyper-patriotic action movie series starring and directed by Wu Jing. Both films follow Wu’s character, Leng Feng, a member of the Chinese army (PLA) and specifically its special task force the Wolf Warriors.
The second film is the more notorious of the two. Leng Feng finds himself in Africa in the middle of a civil war. Yet again, he battles against evil western mercenaries, this time hired by the rebels to destabilize the country and sadistically murder anyone in their way. If you stick to appreciating the action sequences, these are great movies. We had a riot laughing at the over-the-top combat, and Paul especially enjoyed when I rooted against the American villain.
But of course, it’s never just about the action. It’s a movie that captures the emotions of a swaggering new China on the world stage. The setting, Africa, speaks to China’s growing presence there, including a military base in Djibouti. Probably not on purpose, it also highlights some blind spots about China’s relationship with the countries there. For one, the particular country the film takes in is unnamed, and is unironically and repeatedly only referred to as “Africa”.
Secondly, there’s a persistent sense of paternalism. The African characters in the film are largely underdeveloped and serve as props to the narrative. No African character seems to put up a good fight, and the main African characters, a mother and child duo, seem mostly there to praise our hero for his, well, heroism. That feels more than a little uncomfortable, especially given the racial discrimination often faced by people of sub-saharan decent in China.
As for the view on African politics, the reasons for the rebellion are never explained, making the atrocities committed by the anti-government forces seem especially senseless, which is probably the point. Really though, the true villains of the film are the western mercenaries, led by an American (of course) who ends up taking over as head of the rebellion. A not-so-subtle indictment that what westerners really want to do is destabilize other countries and put their own people in charge.
China, the film emphasizes, is different. Leng Feng is sent into the civil war not to defeat the rebels, but to rescue Chinese nationals stuck in its midst. The Chinese destroyers off the coast wait for them but do not engage. After all, as the commanding officer says, China waits for UN approval before intervening in others’ affairs. (Again, a not-so-subtle dig at the Iraq War and Syria policy.)
I’ve always been skeptical about China’s supposed neutrality and “peaceful rise”. China takes a high moral stance against intervention because of its history of being interfered with in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s telling and ironic, then, that the Chinese high-command ignores this policy when it sees casualties are too high and agree to launch missile strikes. I wonder if future Chinese thinkers will look back on this moment in the movie as an unawaredly prescient prediction of China’s future mission creep. Being the most powerful country on earth can lead to making decisions in a moral grey zone.
After a scene of particularly intense fighting with the western mercenaries, Paul told me that, before suffering a disqualifying injury, he’d wanted to join the army. I perked up. It was surprising coming from such an artsy guy. He talked my ear off and taught me the words for various pieces of military hardware. Unspoken was the fact that it was the fight against the West that reminded him of his dream of soldiering.
In fact, this 爱国情 patriotism has been a theme during my time here. Sometimes it’s loud and upfront. A local self-proclaimed party prince once cornered me at a bar and told me, drunkenly and with venom, that America “could not compete” with China. A thumbless veteran once sat down next to me at a noodle shop and began to shout “Trump can’t bully China! You can’t bully China!” with not a little hostility.
But most times, it’s more subtle than that. Early mornings the perfunctory raising of the flag is attended by young and old on the campus square. The most upbeat of the class leaders (班长) is not just a superficial party member but a committed one, carrying himself the way hopeful election campaign volunteers do. When talking about China to me, people don’t just say “China”, they say “我们的中国”, or “Our China“, as if to say “look at what we’ve built.”
As a proud American its interesting to watch another nation navigate its own relationship to self-reverence. Every nation has something to bring to the world’s table. But how to have the wisdom to know what that something is? How to discern the line between patriotism and narrow nationalism?
It plays out in everyday life. Often with both elements inhabiting one person. Paul has been a welcoming, patient and forgiving friend. But there was also a part of him that identified with Leng Feng’s swagger when facing off against caricatures of people who look like me.
One last vignette. Last semester, one of my students was too shy to give me the Christmas gift he bought: a translated copy of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. When he had returned for the spring, he gave a presentation on the US-China trade war. His English had never been so good. He made a clear, logical and passionate argument about why China would prevail. After all, he said, looking at me, “Capitalism can’t beat our Socialism.” The whole room burst into applause. Even the sweetest people have a little Leng Feng in them.