Stereotypes of Chinese figures in Pop Culture

Popular culture

Jiali Zhang

With the popularity of “made in China”,China has became the world of factory. Chinese characters were gradually emerging into American popular culture, and especially in movies. However, with a limited understanding on this oriental country, which has a 5000-year history full of mysteries, the Chinese images have been strongly stereotyped in pop culture. This essay will provide a respectively analyze on Chinese figures, which are often been heroized, demonized and ignored in American pop culture. I feel it is worth noticing those misunderstanding; because in today’s society, media can create a huge influence to public attitudes. People may much more easier to receive information, concepts and news from the media (Chen, 2006). The reason why I pick up movies as my research objects is because movies have been one of the powerful tools to spread information in today’s society (Shah, 2006). The one-sided description of Chinese figure would cause U.S. audiences having a limited understanding on Chinese culture. Also it may bring psychological harm to those Chinese who are staying in American.

The way of presenting Chinese character in pop culture is not out of nothing. In fact, it has very deeply historical reasons. In the past century, Chinese, as outsiders, were writing their struggling history in American society. Nowadays, the new establishment and development of Chinese government is attracting more and more attention from other countries. However when Chinese characters finally got a slight expression in media, the figures of them were formed into extremely ends. The Chinese figures are often portrayed as Kung Fu masters,villains or nobody.

First of all Chinese were often misrepresented as Kung Fu masters in pop culture. When talking about Chinese Kung Fu fashion among Americans, “Bruce Lee” may come to peoples’ mind immediately. He has become one of the most influential symbols in American popular culture. Lee not only made a great contribution to show the Chinese-American self-confident, but also brought up a global wave of Chinese Fung Fu (Richer, 2011). Since then, the element of Kung Fu became a new darling of Hollywood movies, which was frequently broadcasted on big screens. More and more Chinese Kung Fu actors were recognized in popular culture, such as Jacky Chen, Jet Li, etc. In those movies Chinese figures usually play as the roles of heroes. For example in the movie Rush hour 3, the detective Lee (Jacky Chen) climbed up a building without any post–production and associate-equipment, he also fight on the top of the Eifel Tower without any protection; and he finally destroyed the international gang called “Triad” with his partner James Carter (Chris Tucker ornaments). In the movie The Tuxedo, Chinese driver Jimmy became a super agent and fight against the dark forces by using his magic power. Moreover, the cartoon movies also start to involve the Kung Fu elements as well. The most famous one was Kung Fu Panda, which was made by DreamWorks Studio, one of the biggest American movie producers. From these movies, Chinese figures have been given the image to American audients that Chinese people have extraordinary skills be the hero with legends, and with the mythologized “Kung Fu”(keith,2013).

Such a high intensive exposure makes Chinese people as synonymous as Kung Fu masters to American. I still remember when I first introduced myself to the classmate, one of my native friends said that “Oh, you are Chinese, you must know Kung Fu, do you guys practice Kung Fu everyday?” That is a total a misunderstanding. The truth is that not every Chinese know play Kung Fu; on the contrary, only a small group people may know it. Kung Fu is a traditional fighting skill, people who want to learn it needs to accept the special training. They not only need to have physical strength and stamina, but also need to have a deep understanding on Chinese philosophy Enlarging the Kung Fu element too much may cause people in other countries have a misconception on Chinese culture. Even for “Kung Fu” itself it is not only about fighting and wining, it has more cultural understandings behind of that. The real purpose for practicing Kung Fu is about self-development and healthy feeling the harmony connection between self and universe, and even more, feeling the philosophy and the principle of the eternal truth. When they fighting for something it is a protection for faith, justice and love. This is also what Chinese culture looking for (Zhong, 2011).

Secondly, Chinese characters in American pop culture are often covered by the evil mask. Most of them are supporting roles and only have a few lines. The common point of those movies is: Chinese are villains. The images of Chinese males are mostly portrayed as the gang members; while the female characters are often presented as killers, prostitutes or witches…(Chen, 2006). For example, in the series of Lethal Weapon, the detectives Roger and Martin works together to duel with a powerful boss who is a Kung Fu master from the mysterious China. In movie of Tomb Raider 6, Chinese actor Simon Yam plays a leader of big gang. The Joy Luck Club is an old film, which is talking about Chinese women. However, the Chinese men still didn’t get rid of the negative representation; they were portrayed as a metamorphosis that often persecuted Chinese women. Last but not the least, In Pirates of the Caribbean 3 Chinese movie star Chow Yun- Fat played a role of Asian pirate captain and give American audiences a very vicious impression.

These kinds of negative representation will subconsciously give the public a bad impression on Chinese. In addition, these may reduce the reputation of Chinese people intentionally. This may also will result in hostility to China and cause a certain racial discrimination.

Thirdly, according to my research, Chinese characters in pop culture are mostly represented as co-stars. In another word, they are nobodies; sometimes they even do not have any speech. Most of them are immigrants, which are presented as laundress, housekeepers or waiter/waitress. They usually have very low social class and speak with accents. They were divorced from the mainstream of American society. For example, In the Desperate Housewives Mei is an illegal immigrant form China who suffered in China and almost be sold by her uncle. As a result, She has to smuggle into the United States in order to seek a protection. She stays in Gaby’s home and become a housemaid. In the first season ep.4, she was described as a person who is using sock to clean the house. Moreover, in the ep.14, Gaby said that Mei would realize what was the real democracy and freedom in US, which she may not really have in China, back to her hometown. Mei is only one extraordinary example, which could not represent the overall Chinese situation, but it will probably give out a misunderstanding on Chinese society’s situations to U.S. audiences.

The Chinese image in the movies may act as the decorative elements. For example In the Pursuit of Happyness, a Chinese old lady appeared 1or 2 minutes. She has been given the information that she is selfish, greed, and don’t understand any English in such a short period of time. Some of Chinese characters may heighten the main characters or narrative. For example in the beginning of Once upon a time in America, the director gave a shot of China town, with Chinese passers in the screen who are famished and numb. The long braid behind the man is very old fashion and particular striking. This kind of description made a contrast to the rest of piece with the senses in modern city surroundings. Also, in the Batman 3, there was a Chinese father who was afraid to go into the flames and save his children. His cowardice foils the braveness and justice of American spirit.

According to Chen, “After more than two decades of serving as welcome source of cheap labor and earning a reputation for industry, honestly and a peaceful disposition, the Chinese had become the object of scorn” (Chen, 2006). Chinese characters often play supporting roles and sometimes they may act as the ridiculous elements in the popular culture. Many artifacts may intentionally misunderstand Chinese and Chinese culture with characteristics as the selfish, wretched, funny roles in many movies. This kind of situation may marginalize Chinese in American society. It certainly reflects the exclusion of foreign culture in Untied States.

Under the influence of globalization, development of technology and diversified cultural exchanges, simplifying, unifying a foreign culture may increase efficiency to study them (Chen, 2006). However, the incomplete descriptions of Chinese may intensify the social and cultural differences. With the popularity of the Internet and communication technologies, disseminating the stereotyped images of the Chinese will have a huge impact. Because of the real scene and the nearly perfect props, the stereotypical figures of the Chinese in movies are giving a sense of real to American audiences. The impression of Chinese has been changed from Qing- style long braid and foot binding to Chinese food and Chinese Kung Fu, the Chinese figures have been modeled as backward, humble and mysterious in pop culture. Popular culture brings the image of Chinese into the global arena. This not only make people have a misunderstanding of the reality of Chinese images;it may also cause those misunderstanding figure become the fixed impression and not easy to be changed in the real world. According to the article “ How Do Movies Affect Society?” that “Movies portray reality yet reality portrays movies” (Yuan, 2012). In another word, movies and reality are interacting to each other. As a result, the incomplete description of Chinese in movies may give the wrong self-perception to some Chinese in the United Stated.

Movies are the time-limited artifacts. As a result, the audience should notice that the descriptions within the time frame maybe incomplete. Some screenwriters may exaggerate some parts of details in order to create the dramatic conflicts and attack the commercial interests. To the audiences, we would better to use tolerant attitudes to admire other countries’ culture from different perspectives, in order to have a comprehensive understanding on foreign culture.


Chen, Y. (2006). Stereotypical images of Chinese characters in Hollywood films,


Yuan, L. (2012). How Do Movies Affect Society?

Shah, V. (2011). The Role of Film in Society

Richer, J. (2011). The President and the Dragon: The Rise of Bruce Lee in the

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The Tuxedo [Motion picture on DVD]. (2002). USA: American Broadcasting Company.

Keith, Z. (2013). Hollywood Asian Stereotypes.

Lethal Weapon [Motion picture on DVD]. (2000). USA: Warner Home Video.

CCTV Science and Technology Channel. Wudang Taiji. (2011). Episode8.

Kung Fu Panda [Motion picture on DVD]. (2008). USA: Paramount Home Entertainment.

The Joy Luck Club [Motion picture on DVD]. (2002). USA: Buena Vista Home


Desperate Housewives. (2004). First season, ep.4 and ep.14

The Pursuit of Happyness [Motion picture on DVD]. (2007). USA: Sony Picture Home


Once upon a time in America [Motion picture on DVD]. (2003). USA: Warner Home




One thought on “Stereotypes of Chinese figures in Pop Culture

  1. Hi Jiali,
    Your essay really made me think. Which is great! I never really knew much about Kung Fu so learning more was really great. You looked at a whole lot of works, but did a great job of it since I didn’t get confused once. All in all I highly enjoyed your work and think you did a great job!

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