The Chinese actor Wu Jing believes real men should be like Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger—guys who are tough and buff, with testosterone virtually oozing out of their pores. But when he looked around, he only saw K-pop-style “flower boys” dominating Chinese pop culture.
“Can we have some real men?” Wu recalled himself thinking in 2014. “I want to produce a film that makes men want to be real men, and makes women more fond of real men.”
Disappointed by a shortage of macho figures in Chinese cinema, Wu decided to be that man himself.
His characters had fearlessly protected the Chinese borderland from a foreign drug lord, embarked on a one-man mission to rescue Chinese nationals from unrest in Africa, and, in China’s first sci-fi epic Wandering Earth, helped save humankind from annihilation.
In the latest blockbuster The Battle at Lake Changjin, so far the world’s top grossing film of 2021, Wu’s character fought brutal battles with the U.S.-led United Nations troops in the 1950-53 Korean War. Fed on frozen potatoes but possessing extraordinary determination, strategy, and a will to sacrifice for their country, the Chinese soldiers were able to defeat the American troops, who were equipped with advanced jets, tanks, coffee, and Thanksgiving turkey.
Globally, its nearly $900 million box office revenues dwarfed those of Dune, No Time to Die, and Shang-Chi. At home, the three-hour long war epic in November surpassed Wu’s own Wolf Warrior II to become China’s highest-grossing film ever. #WuJingdefeatsWuJing trended on social media.
Out of the five top-grossing films in the history of Chinese cinema, three starred Wu. At a recent event, Jackie Chan joked that Wu’s four recent films had raked in as much revenue as the kung fu legend himself made over the past decades.
While much of China’s entertainment industry is struggling to meet the young generation’s craving for excitement while toeing the Communist Party line, Wu has found a way to do both by positioning himself as an embodiment of a China that is increasingly assertive, confident, and influential—just like how white male heroes have been portrayed in Hollywood blockbusters.
“He really captures this new nationalist sentiment,” said Xiaoning Lu, a Chinese film expert with the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “We have seen so many American superheroes, and we need a Chinese hero on the screen. We should not always wait for the white heroes to save us.”
But the colossal success of the 47-year-old and the military-action genre he spearheaded comes at the cost of what could be a more diverse Chinese cinema. As the party imposes increasingly conservative ideology to stamp out subversive voices, Wu, with his old-school masculinity and patriotism, gets to dominate a cultural space that is becoming more detached from the rest of the world.
The Chinese government has tight control over what gets shown on the country’s 80,000 movie screens. Every work needs to pass stringent censorship, while the number of foreign films is capped at 34 every year.
Politics often get in the way. Not a single South Korean movie was shown in China between 2016 and 2020, as Beijing and Seoul were having a fallout over the installation of a U.S. defense system in South Korea. Nomadland director Chloe Zhao’s Oscar win was censored on the Chinese internet following controversy over Zhao’s political stance, even though Nomadland was once approved for release.
Out of the five top-grossing films in the history of Chinese cinema, three starred Wu. Photo: Visual China Group via Getty Images
Shang-Chi, despite having an Asian cast, has yet to get a release in China, possibly due to U.S.-China tensions or lead actor Simu Liu’s previous comments on leaving China. Eternals was criticized in China for its Hiroshima scene. Having a gay superhero also makes it hard for it to pass Chinese censorship.
Wu has carved out a path in the tightly controlled film industry, not by pushing political boundaries but by creating excitement out of the party’s ideology.
“Wu Jing represents a particular muscular, nationalist vision of the party state that is acceptable to the party,” said Aynne Kokas, an expert on Chinese cinema with the University of Virginia. “It’s a sweet spot in the Chinese market that the films can be approved by regulators to a degree, but they also are appealing to audiences.”
Wu, a Beijing native, started his entertainment career as a martial arts actor in the late ‘90s, taking on TV roles similar to those played by kung fu star Jet Li. But it was not until the massive success of Wolf Warrior II that Wu established himself as a Chinese superhero.
While past patriotic films often focused on war strategies and the collective wisdom of the party leadership, Wu, counting Die Hard, Top Gun, and True Lies as inspirations, told similar stories with extravagant action scenes and Hollywood-style individual heroism.
DELIVERY WORKERS IN BEIJING TAKE A GROUP PHOTO BEFORE WATCHING THE BATTLE AT LAKE CHANGJIN IN OCTOBER. SOME OF THE BOX OFFICE REVENUES COME FROM ORGANIZED SCREENINGS. PHOTO: ANDREA VERDELLI/GETTY IMAGES
In Wolf Warrior II, which broke China’s box office record in 2017, the Chinese soldier played by Wu, in search of his missing fiancée in a fictitious African country, fearlessly battled Western mercenaries and rescued millions of Africans as well as Chinese business people. Wu showed off his six-pack, shared a romantic kiss with a Chinese-American doctor, and waved the Chinese national flag to deter militants from attacking his fleet.
With the audience mesmerized by China’s rise, some of them crying at this point, a picture of a Chinese passport appeared on the screen. “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China, don’t give up when you encounter dangers abroad!” says a message that appears on the passport cover. “Please remember you have a strong nation behind you!”
These films have won over a generation that grew up watching Harry Potter and Marvel films by showing them a Chinese version of Captain America that is egoistic, muscular, and always standing on the side of justice—an image that matches what many Chinese people think of today’s China.
The combination of national power and individual heroism might very well fit into Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s personal taste as well. According to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, Xi, then a provincial party chief, commented in 2006 and 2007 that he enjoyed Saving Private Ryan, and praised American films for being able to “clearly demarcate between good and evil.” Xi said some Chinese films neglected values they should promote while focusing on catering to foreigners’ interests. He criticized martial arts films, such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and films on imperial palace intrigues.
Believing it’s time for China to break free from the influence of Western powers, Xi has called for confidence in the country’s own ideology, culture, and political system. His leadership has become more assertive in territorial disputes and has successfully pressured international businesses and organizations to follow its lead—an approach later dubbed “Wolf Warrior diplomacy,” after Wu’s franchise.
“I want to produce a film that makes men want to be real men, and makes women more fond of real men.”
Scholars say that older Chinese films often used women’s sufferings to showcase China as a victim of foreign bullying, and Wu’s Wolf Warrior films kicked off an era when militaristic men are used to embody a proud, confident nation in rejuvenation.
Popular male stars in China have adopted more effeminate looks, which have been criticized as “sissy” by state media. Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images
Wu’s soldierly look and Beijing city accent makes him an ideal Captain China. He has on multiple occasions expressed his own disdain toward effeminate stars. He said Wolf Warrior was made to fill China’s lack of Stallone and Schwarzenegger equivalents. At a 2015 talk show, Wu pledged to “give them a big slap on the face” if his sons turned out to be “sissy pants.”
Fei Huang, a researcher on Chinese masculinities with the University of Westminster, said the popularity of Wu reflected the government and people’s desire to see a strong nation represented by a physically strong man.
“The mainstream culture in China prefers Wu Jing. They don’t want Chinese men to be like K-pop stars,” Huang said. “It also exacerbated the intolerance towards LGBTQ groups in China as well, because men have to fit in these heterosexual norms.”
Young people in China have sought more subversive forms of entertainment, embracing celebrities with gender neutral looks, boys’ love dramas, and feminist stand-up comedy. But as Beijing tightens its control over the cultural industries and calls for a boycott of effeminate men, nationalism in the form of macho men becomes the safest topic for Chinese filmmakers to bet on. Wu himself will star in a sequel to the recent Korean War epic and direct the third part of his Wolf Warrior franchise.
The domestic market is big enough for these films to be profitable, but their jingoistic tone would unlikely help the Communist Party fulfill its ambition to expand the international appeal of Chinese films and showcase a “trustworthy, lovable, respectable” China. Few abroad have even heard about Wu and his 2021 box office feat.
Wu’s hypermasculine, patriotic persona also has critics at home. But compared with the county’s political elites, Wu represents a more charismatic, approachable version of China in pop culture—one that people can create memes with and criticize more freely. The popular Chinese social media site Weibo has ranked Wu Jing memes, featuring him wearing a jumpsuit with the characters “China” on the front, the hottest stickers of 2021.
After the Chinese government imposed strict restrictions on the number of inbound flights to prevent imported COVID-19 cases in early 2020, Chinese nationals trapped abroad flooded the comment section of Wu’s Weibo page, calling the movie star to take them home as he promised in Wolf Warrior II.
Wu did not respond to the clamor. When the film was released in 2017, he argued it was time for Chinese men to get the same unrealistic treatment as Hollywood heroes. “Americans could keep on fighting for half an hour even as they were dying from multiple shots,” Wu said. “Americans could do that, but Chinese people couldn’t? How despicable!”
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