What The Karate Kid Remake Says about US-China Relations

It is said that art doesn’t simply reflect reality, but also comments on it. It doesn’t just mirror the world, but also acts on it in different ways. Given this basic premise, you can learn one way how the US depicts and responds its relationship with China by watching the 2010 movie Karate Kid. Starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan, the movie tells of a mother and her son, Dre Parker, who starts a new life in China. New in town and on his first day, Dre falls foul of a school bully, who gives a few beatings. A maintenance man, Mr. Han, teaches him kung fu and helps the boy beat his tormentor in a tournament.

1. Acknowledging the Shift

That mother and son move to China reflects, acknowledges, and responds to emergence of China as a global power, both in economic and political terms. Similarly, mother and son leave Detroit because there is “nothing for them there.” It hints of the struggling US economy. Detroit was one of the hardest hits by the economic crunch. Karate Kid is no longer just about an exotic, mystical China – as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is a reality that Americans, such as the Parkers, have to face. Karate Kid depicts and responds to that reality in several ways.

2.  US-China Competition

Some believe that China’s interests conflict with those of the United States. They see China flexing its muscles and spreading its influence at the expense of the United States’. And in Karate Kid, this  is symbolized by the confrontation between Dre and Cheng. It is interesting to note how the movie frames the conflict: Chen symbolizes China and is cast as an aggressive, domineering bully, while Dre represents the US, an innocent victim who later fights back and wins. It’s a time-honored, reassuring message in an age of declining American influence: despite tough times, Americans will still prevail.

3. US-China Cooperation

The movie, however, does not just speak of a US-China conflict. It is also points to cooperation between the two, as symbolized by Dre’s partnership and friendship with Mr. Han. This is China helping the United States. Indeed, despite tensions between both countries, they still face common issues and have a mutual understanding. So do Dre and Ming. Indeed, their relationship highlights the racial dimension of US-China cooperation. Conflict does not exclusively define both countries’ relationships with each other. Indeed, the making of the movie it itself a collaborative effort.

4. From Orientalism to Engagement

Before going to China, Dre remarks that in the country, everything is old: old parks and old people, one of whom is at least 400 years old. When his mother reviews her on Mandarin phrases, he takes it for granted. We can chalk up these scenes to a forgivable, child-like innocence, but they are also a typical, Orientalist attitude to the Other: resorting to stereotypes, indifference, ignorance, and even arrogance.

This changes as the movie progresses. Upon seeing the Olympic stadium, Dre’s mother says that not everything in China is old. He later learns that their apartment is called Beverly Hills, one of the many ways the film provides humor and reduces China’s otherness. And as the movie progresses, Dre changes his outlook. He discovers a lot about Chinese society and culture: the plays, the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day, and the Forbidden City. He learns Mandarin, (or at least gets to speak) and most especially Kung Fu and all the life lessons it offers.

Karate Kid is a tale that depicts how Americans (should) respond to China. Like Dre, they can no longer afford to be dismissive or to harbor Orientalist attitudes to the country. They have to get to know China, just like Dre does, and go out of their comfort zones to face a different reality, where many people don’t speak English and Spongebob Squarepants is in Mandarin. It is a disorienting process. “I hate it here,” Dre cries at one point. “I wanna go home.” The United States may find (some aspects of) this adjustment – or even China’s dominance discomfiting – but like Dre, it has to live and master the situation, as indeed he does.

5. Beating the Chinese at their Own Game and Restoring American Superiority

Dre becomes good enough at kung fu to beat Cheng. This is interesting; it is as though Dre, an American, is more in tune with a Chinese tradition than other Chinese themselves. Perhaps this is Americans’ way of saying they can beat (some of) the Chinese  – those who have corrupted kung fu at least – at their own game.

Like Dre, the Americans beat an aggressive, domineering China, and China (Cheng) acknowledges the fact, as Cheng himself hands Dre the trophy. It is a scene of reconciliation, mutual respect, possibly friendship, and even a return to the status quo ante. Just as Dre tops the tournament, so is United States the undisputed champion in global affairs.  China will still be around, but as friend or partner, but certainly not a master.


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