The Great Wall, a recent Chinese movie starring Matt Damon, is more than an unsophisticated form of entertainment. This most expensive Chinese film production in history — with a budget of approximately $135 million — is in fact an epic tale deeply rooted in Chinese history and culture. However, it seeks to engage not only the Chinese viewer but also the Western one with a political and moral message.
The plot takes us back to the period of the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD). Two mercenaries, William and Tovar, who claim to be tradesmen, come to China in search of black powder. After being attacked by a mysterious monster, they are imprisoned by the Nameless Order, an organization that guards the Great Wall. It soon turns out that the Order protects the whole of China – and consequently the whole of humanity – from Taotie, hideous creatures which once in 60 years rise and try to overcome the Wall, killing all men they encounter.
Due to the appearance of three Europeans (William, Tovar, and Sir Ballard, who came to China 25 years prior for the same purpose as the two mercenaries) on one side, and the Nameless Order’s members on the other, The Great Wall is a tale of an encounter between two civilizations.
The Order’s most important principle is to care for other members: relations between soldiers, generals, and strategists are based on boundless trust (信任, xìnrèn) and willingness to sacrifice life in order to protect brothers and sisters in arms. The Europeans, in turn, are represented as envious, false-faced, focused on making profits and realizing their own interests. They come to China to steal black powder (depicted in the film as one of China’s many inventions) and grow rich by selling it in war-ridden Europe, ignoring the fact that this will lead to even more bloodshed. It shouldn’t be surprising why the Chinese try to hide the secret of black powder at any cost – neither out of jealousy, nor to control the trade themselves, but to limit black powder’s usage to defense against Taotie.
As far as the cultural dimension of The Great Wall is concerned, it is worth noticing that the Taotie monsters come from Chinese mythology. They symbolize greed and self-indulgence, including gluttony and corruption. In this perspective, the Order fights (metaphorically) with what actually brought Europeans to China – a relentless pursuit of profit. Therefore, it is fully understandable why the Order’s values are so emphasized – according to the movie plot, only unity, mutual trust, equality, and care for common good may face and defeat greed, egoism, and cruelty.
The movie sends the Western audience a clear message: China is a peace-loving power, the actions of which are important for the global stability. The plot reveals various military technologies in possession of the Order one by one, at right moments, as if suggesting that China is using its advantages in a responsible way. If the capital of China falls, we are told, then nothing will save the world from the danger of Taotie. Nevertheless, the image of the Chinese state is not always perfect. While the sturdy warriors of the Nameless Order are faultless, the young emperor is depicted as a coward. At this point the plot may hint at the contrast between the egalitarian organization of the Order (were men fight along the women, and the latter can lead as well) and the feudal order above them.
Throughout the story Chinese values always emerge superior in comparison to the Western ones. At one point William briefly reveals his past: he started to work in the army as a cleaner and proceeded to become a mercenary that fought “for many flags.” Thus, his motivation was always material: he first worked for food and then for money. He does not believe in trust between people. The mercenary’s attitude is clearly a shock for commander Lin, the selfless and loyal member of the Order, who concludes, “We are indeed different.”
Another Westerner, Ballard, even after 25 years of living at the Great Wall hadn’t managed to acquire Chinese values, and in a crucial moment shows his true, treacherous, nature. Tovar’s behavior is no better.
On the other hand, William does undergo a real transformation. However, it seems that even before reaching the Great Wall he had possessed some potential: he had been brave, intelligent, determined. “I fought for greed [before]” – he admits at a certain point while joining the Chinese against the suggestions of his comrades – “But this is the first war worth fighting for.” In other words, it was the Chinese who put William on the right track, making him use his skills for the right purposes. At the end of the movie, commander Lin tells William: “Leave, tell the world what you have seen.” Thus, William’s role in the story is similar to the role of the movie in our world: it is to make us realize the importance of China’s global position.
The case of the Great Wall suggests that China is on its way to build its own Hollywood and to use some of its movies to spread political messages on the international stage. It can be noted here that Dragon Blade, the 2015 Chinese movie, served a similar purpose. It used a historical canvas to tell the story of Chinese and Roman units jointly fighting against a common threat to protect the Silk Road for the good of all nations. The suggestion was clearly that the Western world should cooperate with China for the sake of global stability. Moreover, both Great Wall and Dragon Blade engaged popular Hollywood actors – Matt Damon and John Cusack respectively – to enhance the film’s popularity outside China but also to strengthen its narrative. While Cusack is not a star of Damon’s caliber, it was gossiped that Dragon Blade producers originally wanted Mel Gibson to play the role. The fact that the main protagonist in the Dragon Blade was played by Jackie Chan could have also worked for both Chinese and Western audiences.
The movie’s methods may seem straightforward but are they really different from what the Americans have been doing for decades? Across many countries, generations have been brought up watching Hollywood action movies that usually depict the United States as the sole guardian of the world. Those films have continuously fed us with the images of the Star-Spangled Banner, the White House, etc. The Great Wall serves simply as one more piece of evidence that China has already become a global force and is able to rival the strength of Washington both in terms of hard power and soft power.
Antonina Luszczykiewicz is a PhD student in the field of Cultural Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Her research interests focus on the history of Chinese-Indian relations, as well as colonial and postcolonial stereotypes and prejudices in the Asian context. She is been currently working on her Ph.D. thesis in which she analyzes the cultural dimension of the Pancha Shila idea in the Chinese-Indian relations.