SINOGRAPH Ang Lee shows China the way
forward By Francesco Sisci
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist
for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org