Kung Fu Panda: Movie Reflection on Chinese Culture and Philosophy
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China has been constantly on the spotlight since it has opened its doors to modernity as highlighted during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Much to the amazement of the world, China not only opened up to the economy but had allowed the world to take a glimpse of its ancient past, present development, and future undertakings through various documentaries and movies that showcase China or had been inspired by Chinese culture—be it ancient or contemporary. One of the movies that have traced its setting on a depiction of China's ancient past is the American animation Kung Fu Panda.
Kung Fu Panda is an animated film released in 2008. It starred the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Randall Duk Jim and David Cross. The movie was directed by Mark Osborne and John Wayne Stevenson and produced by Melissa Cobb for DreamWorks Animation and Paramount Pictures.
The movie revolves around Po, a Panda who dreamed of becoming a kung fu warrior. However, being one remained to be a dream, after all he was just a commoner—they were noodle folks. Until one day, a prophecy was foretold by Master Oogway that Tai Lung, a former student and protégé of Master Shifu, turned evil will return. To defend the valley, Master Shifu has set up a tournament for Oogway to have an opportunity to decide who would be the dragon master.
Upon hearing about the tournament, Po was excited to see the spectacle but was held back again by his father who demanded that he sells noodle. When Po finally made it to the gates of the temple in the mountain, the doors were shut. But he was so eager to be able to see the Furious Five, he light a chair loaded with fire crackers. When Master Oogway was about to choose the dragon warrior, Po fell in front of him and to much of everyone's surprise and Shifu's disappointment, was chosen to be the dragon warrior.
Po, with no prior kung fu training, endured the training with so much positivism and eagerness that he even mistook Shifu trying to get rid of him as a lesson to train harder. The Furious Five was also disappointed but Po wins them over, except for Tigress, with his good humor, friendly personality, comical sense, and culinary skills. Master Oogway also sensed Po's demoralized spirit but has given him words of encouragement that kept Po's determination aflame.
Upon finding the wisdom behind the empty dragon scroll, with the help of his father, Po was able to fight and defeat Tai Lung. The whole valley, including his father, the Furious Five and Master Shifu was impressed and was very proud of Po.
Ancient Chinese Culture
The animation, unlike the others that preceded it only relies heavily on the comic genius of the story plot. However, Kung Fu Panda has depth to it by making sure that kung fu is portrayed to with respect to the arts while at the same time taking into consideration the ancient Chinese culture and the philosophy behind some of the scenes and events.
In ancient China, martial arts warriors are the elite defense of a village. They are the equivalent of the knights of Europe but instead of relying on weapons, their fighting styles and techniques are based more on the use of the body and mind through martial arts—Kung Fu. Also, temples are situated on top of the mountains for security reasons. The mountain gives a better view of any threat to the village located at the valley. This way, there is enough time for the village to prepare in case there is an invasion. Though there are some modern concepts that are injected—i.e. souvenirs and action figures, the physical location itself, with the presentation of the architecture is an interpretation of the traditional Chinese houses—made of paper, wood, and bricks with high gates and thick brick walls.
One of the cultural aspects highlighted in the film is the way Chinese people value family. Po always dreamed of becoming more than what his father wants him to be—a noodle folk but he kept his dreams to himself because he did not want to crush the expectations of his father or to disappoint him. His love for his father has kept him unhappy for the longest time yet he did not want to hurt his feeling nor disappoint him. Another Chinese culture here is the virtue of continuing the family legacy through inheriting the family enterprise.
One of the representations of Chinese material culture that was highlighted is acupuncture. Acupuncture is the medicinal practice of using needles to prick the nerve points of the person to alleviate certain health concerns. In the case of Tai Lung, heavy duty acupuncture needles were inserted in his body to keep him immobilized while for Po, acupuncture was used to alleviate bodily discomfort brought about by his 'extensive' training.
Acupuncture is still widely used today in modern China and even throughout the globe. Though there is still no concrete scientific study in relation to the efficacy of acupuncture, it has already taken roots to the western world as people starts to seek alternative medicine and a more holistic approach to well-being that Chinese medicine is offering not only in terms of acupuncture but with the use of medicinal plants and herbs as well.
Another Chinese tradition that was highlighted is the aspect of Chinese philosophy that could be seen throughout the various proverbial expressions exchanged between Master Oogway and Master Shifu and from Po's father as well. This concept of shared wisdom from a master to student and parents to children show how Chinese have given importance to adage as factual basis of things that connotes understanding above the commonality of life.
Concept of Master and Student
In China, respect is of vital importance especially between master-student relationship not just in the aspect of kung fu but in all apprenticeship status. Unlike in typical western set up wherein the student could openly challenge or question the teacher, China's philosophy is more on submission. To be able to truly learn, a student must always respect the master. Respect involves listening and following orders without question. Students do not openly criticize the master's will and follow every order even if they still do not understand or are confused by the meaning.
This type of respect was emphasized between Shifu and Oogway. Shifu was the student and though his love for Tai Lang transcends that of a student, his obedience to Oogway as his master comes before any personal biases. He did not question nor contests Oogway decision not to make Tai Lang the dragon warrior. This is a stark contrast to the behavior of Tai Lang. When he disobeyed his master, he has filled his heart with hatred and anger. He did not understand the virtue of accepting his destiny because he has already misconstrued expectation that he was to be the dragon warrior.
Another aspect of China's cultural philosophy was the belief in prophecies. Prophecies are taken into so much consideration not just as a reality but as a warning. It is seen not as something to be feared or accepted but something that should be prepared for. It serves as a warning to the people to help them to be better prepared of what is to come.
Though Kung Fu Panda was packaged in a comical animation for children and young at hearts, it was able to present a glimpse of Chinese culture in an entertaining manner.