Why Chinese Movies Turn the American Dream Into a Nightmare

The American Dream appears quite often in Chinese movies—usually not in the best light.

By , 27 Jan 17 00:01 GMT
A promotional image from American Dreams in China.

China might be an economic heavyweight, but America is still the world’s soft power hegemon. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chinese movies. While you’d be hard-pressed to find an American blockbuster featuring Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”, you can find plenty of Chinese movies that touch upon the “American Dream”. These depictions must simultaneously play to America’s continued appeal amongst target audiences whilst touting China’s superiority — a delicate tightrope walk that hints at contemporary China’s conflicted views of the US.

Romances are probably the best genre to see this phenomenon at play. While America has romantic comedies, China has coming-of-age tragi-romances. These usually follow some friends from high school into adulthood and, as the name would suggest, offer more tears than laughter. One source of those tears? The American Dream.

In My Old Classmate, the New York subway is pretty miserable.

Take for example the tragi-romances My Old Classmate, So Young, and Beijing, New York. All those films follow a very similar template. First, a guy and a girl meet in high school and love begins to bloom. Then, at least one of them ends up pursuing academic or career aspirations in America — causing the couple to drift apart. Later, they somehow reunite, only to tearfully realize that the tides of reality, time, and American nightmares have mercilessly drowned their lost young love. Whether it’s through abusive bosses, poverty, or heartbreak, the America in these tragi-romances is part of the problem, not the solution.

Such tragi-romances are heavily targeted towards China’s millennials, especially the post-90s cohort. This generation was the first to pursue educational and economic opportunities in the US en masse. If you look at the increasingly innovative attempts of US colleges to attract Chinese students, popularity of books like Harvard Girl Liu Yiting, and massive growth in TOEFL prep in China, tragi-romances are simply a logical next step in extracting more money from Chinese millennials. After all, what’s more appealing than a movie inspired by the stories of people just like you, people who are aspiring for a slice of the American Dream?

Alas, all Chinese movies must be approved by the government, and maybe that’s why these tragi-romances are so tragic. Think of the implications if all Chinese blockbusters showed their characters moving to the US and then living happily ever after. Who’d want to stay in China? Xi Jinping might’ve sent his own daughter to Harvard but, if the American Dream becomes too appealing, it would undermine the legitimacy of his counter-narrative: the Chinese Dream.

A poster for American Dreams in China featuring a $100 dollar bill backdrop.

What is the Chinese Dream? There’s been plenty published about it since Xi Jinping coined the phrase in 2013, but the definition is still vague (though to be fair, the American Dream’s might be too). Whatever it is, the Chinese Dream seems to include economic prosperity, hard work, and “national revitalization”, which you might argue are the themes of American Dreams in China, a 2013 blockbuster that’s been described as China’s version of the Social Network. Inspired by the real-life New Oriental Education and its billionaire founder, the movie tells the story of a group of three friends who strike it rich starting a company teaching English to students aspiring for an American education.

Despite its title and its in-story company’s purpose, American Dreams in China offers a more aggressive version of the tragi-romances’ vision of the American Dream as a lie. One of the movie’s characters goes to study in America but receives nothing except humiliation; meanwhile, his friends are raking in the RMB as entrepreneurs back home. It’s only after he returns and reconciles with his newly successful friends that, together, they go back to America with their riches and tell it to “fuck off” and start respecting China.

Thus, while tragi-romances depict the sad consequences of pursuing the American Dream, American Dreams in China tries offering a positive picture of what staying in China actually looks like. However, it’s still not exactly clear in the movie how the Chinese Dream is different from the American Dream, other than simply not being American. American Dreams in China‘s title unintentionally illuminates this conflict. By becoming entrepreneurs, undergoing an IPO, and purchasing sleek penthouse apartments, maybe its characters are still pursuing American Dreams, just in China.

China desires to be a strong and prosperous nation. It’s certainly prosperous, but much of that wealth goes towards trappings of American soft power like Ivy League degrees and Southern California real estate. Thus, for many Chinese (including top party officials), American values still define “success” — which undermines China’s ability to truly be “strong”. A true superpower cannot operate within another country’s success criteria; it must create and advance its own.

Will that be the “Chinese Dream”? Maybe, as long as it’s a dream that stands on its own and not purely as opposition to an American one. Such a vision hasn’t materialized yet, but — just as Hollywood broadcasts the American Dream — expect it in Chinese theaters.

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