Envious of Confidence? (Chinese Identity and Narcissism in Kung Fu Cinema)


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This essay is my understanding and reaction to chapter ‘Narcissus and the Little Dragon’ in Stephen Teo’s book Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (1997) .

Stephen Teo introduces Bruce Lee as a figure of Chinese national pride in cinematic universe. His journey through racial prejudice in the USA where Lee was born, and his identification with Chinese culture define, according to Teo, his view on East values and dreams represented in the characters that Bruce Lee portrays, as well as his particular way of creating and showing the depth of Chinese martial art in films.

Further, Teo continues to explain the understanding of a different form of nationalism; one that seems to be in contrast with our current view on its meaning. Taken from the terminology of China, we recognise two aspects of Chinese culture. ‘According to Confucian orthodoxy, tianxia designated a civilisational value,’ says Teo, and continues to express clearly that Chinese nationalism ‘focuses on the moral and cultural aspects of Chinese civilisation, on tianxia,’ (Teo, 1997, p. 111) and not the guo which represents the political power.

The nationalism practised by the Chinese immigrants was therefore solely based on their desire to connect with their motherland, and to keep the traditions. This form of national pride wasn’t attached to any political system. It was based solely on the philosophies ‘relating to the achievement of the people’s general well-being’ (Teo, 1997, p. 111) combined with modern economic advances to support China’s place among successful countries in the world.

Bruce Lee’s success comes from the use of this atypical and apolitical cultural patriotism in his films. It was the kung fu films in particular that invited the audience to deeply connect with the historic traditions of China, and invited them to follow Lee’s example of a strong Chinese man capable of fighting off prejudice and racism. But even in Hong Kong, Lee was regarded as a stranger, visitor, as Teo points out in Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition (Teo, 2009, p. 75).

Another interesting aspect of Lee’s film is his own narcissism that drew the attention of the Western audience. As the author observes, ‘To the West, Lee is a narcissistic hero who makes Asian culture more accessible. To the East, he is a nationalistic hero who has internationalised some aspects of Asian culture.’ (Teo, 1997, p. 113-114) The historical context and one’s relation to the Chinese traditions cause the differences in understanding and acceptance of his films. Lee was a true fighter and this is what the Chinese viewer could relate to, having had the knowledge of achievability of such physical attributes and agility as Lee possessed. He was not an imaginary hero with the support of special effects, but a real man who trained rigorously to achieve his martial art skills.

Sadly, I am missing any further definition of narcissism. Teo doesn’t describe it as a negative feature, but often in our contemporary understanding of the word, it is interpreted as unhealthy selfishness and an admiration towards one’s own appearance and skills with craving for admiration. Bruce Lee, who grew up in the US, was a target of racism, which certainly fed into his longing for recognition in the Western world. But perhaps if anyone was criticising such behaviour, we should first and foremost take a look at our own natural view of self. Do we tend to abandon the liking of ourselves or are we forced to do so early in life? What if we replaced narcissism with the word confidence? Is it wrong for Bruce Lee to exhibit confidence in his ideas and skills?

Whether it’s through Lee’s take on nationalism or his expression of self-confidence, he perhaps succeeded in giving the Chinese audience living abroad something of a hope for better treatment and a way of proving themselves among others. Otherwise he wouldn’t be known and celebrated still many years after his passing.


image source: https://66.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m7dh263BHg1qk6nfxo1_1280.jpg


Stephen Teo: Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. 1997.

Stephen Teo: Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. 2009.


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