Kung Fu Yoga, a 2017 Chinese-Indian movie directed by Stanley Tong, serves as a perfect example of how historical and cultural mottos might be used to promote political and economic cooperation in the 21st century. The film could be perceived as a medium for Chinese and Indian soft power, the kung fu version of Indiana Jones. While it might be seriously doubted whether the film gets even close to the quality of Steven Spielberg’s hits, it certainly aims to promote a positive image of Chinese-Indian relations, as well as a positive image of both India and China.
The movie’s biggest star is undoubtedly Jackie Chan – he plays the role of the greatest Chinese archeologist with a hardly original name: Jack. Jack teams up with beautiful Ashmita (who introduces herself as a researcher from India, but later turns out to be an Indian princess) in order to read an ancient map and find a lost treasure. The team — made up of Jack’s assistants, Xiaoguang and Nuomin, treasure hunter Jones, as well as Ashmita’s sister Kyra — finds a Himalayan cave in which a royal army of the Magadha kingdom got trapped by an avalanche hundreds of years ago. While most of the team fights with Randall, a descendant of a rebel leader who unlawfully claims a right to the treasure, Jones steals a huge diamond and tries to sell it at an auction in Dubai. As a result of a long chain of events (which includes a car race with an angry, computer-generated lion in a jeep and Jackie Chan’s signature action comedy scenes), the Chinese-Indian team moves to the Indian state of Rajasthan to get the diamond back and search for the treasure. Eventually, they all find out that the ancient treasure is not made of gold (or at least not only gold) – it is the ancients’ wisdom, which, as stressed by Jack and Ashmita, might make the lives of common people better.
One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is what the Indian and Chinese protagonists say and do to each other. First and foremost, both sides have great respect toward the other’s culture and have a deep interest in it. When they reach the secret temple and find a golden statue of Shiva, everyone, including the Chinese, pays respect with hands pressed together. While Nuomin displays some impressive yoga positions, Jack demonstrates wide knowledge of ancient Indian astronomy. Moreover, he compares the practice of upavasa (Hindu religious fast) to Chinese fasting habits. Kung fu and yoga form a pair not only in the movie title but in the plot. While the kung fu-based fighting skills are obviously necessary for the heroes to face the villains, yoga is shown as essential to holding one’s breath and therefore swimming through ice-cold water. In another scene, when the Chinese hero says “Namaste,” the Indian heroine Kyra answers “Ni hao.” Additionally, some bonds between Chinese and Indians are made when it comes to private relationships. It is quite clear that there was supposed to be some chemistry between Jack and Ashmita, as well as between Jones and Kyra; however, these relationships seem not only numb, but somehow prudish.
However, some Chinese-Indian ties in the film can be traced not only on personal, but also on historical level. Both countries are depicted as great ancient civilizations – India is represented by the kingdom of Magadha, and China by the Tang dynasty. Moreover, ancient Chinese-Indian relations are personified by Buddhist monks Xuanzang and Bodhidharma, as well as a Chinese ambassador sent to India in the seventh century, Wang Xuance. It must be observed, however, that the story of Wang Xuance, who had to flee to Tibet after being attacked by a rebel army, can be found only in Chinese documents and is not confirmed by any Indian sources. Regardless of whether it ever really happened or not, Wang’s battle surely did not resemble any sort of computer game with horses jumping on elephants’ backs, as it is presented in the movie’s introduction.
Needless to say, no historical or current Sino-Indian antagonism is ever mentioned. Just like a holy man, the movie pretends to levitate in a blissful state of eternal friendship between civilizations, high above the ground reality of present Beijing-New Delhi tensions. These, let us remember, include a long, disputed border; the issue of Indians sheltering Tibetans and the Chinese helping Pakistan; the race for supremacy in the Indian Ocean; the struggle for influence in Nepal; and many other aspects.
Last but not least, the movie ends with a Bollywoodish dance sequence. The scene, interestingly, involves the protagonists and the main antagonist happily dancing side-by-side but this may either indicate the antagonist’s final change of heart or that the dance sequence is a dessert, and not part of the plot. At any rate, it is worth noting that Slumdog Millionaire also ended with a similar scene. It may be assumed that in this way both Kung Fu Yoga and Slumdog Millionaire paid their respect to Bollywood and tried to engage with the Indian audience through that medium.
Despite the film’s continuous effort to nurture Sino-Indian friendship, both countries are actually presented in a very stereotypical way. Yet, as the movie is more a Chinese than an Indian production, this conclusion applies more to the depiction of India. The country, as mentioned above, is represented by beautiful women, yoga, a glorious ancient past and deep spirituality. Some of the first scenes that we witness after our pack of heroes arrives in India include a snake-charmer, a levitating holy man and the act of the Great Indian Rope Trick. One could not think of bigger clichés in the depiction of India.
Despite the bonhomie, one cannot help but notice that China is shown as being superior to India in at least one aspect: technology. It is the Chinese archeological techniques that first attracted the Indian researchers in the movie to Beijing. The Indians are also fascinated with the fish-drone that the Chinese team possesses and when the latter begins ice drilling with a powerful machine, the Chinese hero says “Technology rules” while the Indian heroine exclaims “That’s unbelievable!” In one of the final – and unintentionally hilarious – scenes the team discovers an ancient mechanism that is set into motion by sunlight. Yet the Chinese hero, once again uttering the word “technology,” uses a simple lamp to illuminate the scene and set the mechanism going (the fact that the light of the sun is much more powerful, of wider range, and warmer than a lamp somehow escaped the imagination of the script writers). Here, one could note, the Chinese are not really deploying a more advanced device but simply emerge as more cunning in dealing with simple mechanisms. The subtle – or actually not very subtle – message of the movie is that while both India and China are wise and ancient civilizations, China has a technological edge and that this is something that India could learn from China.
This conclusion leads us to the film’s underlying political message. When the Indian protagonist first meets the Chinese team and offers them cooperation, the not-so-subtle sentence we hear on screen is: “This would also be in line with One Belt, One Road.”
Yes, the film simply makes no qualms about it: it was also made to promote the idea of the Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative (informally also called the New Silk Road, and now formally called the Belt and Road Initiative). The moviemakers decided not to limit themselves to simply focusing on Sino-Indian friendship and decided (or were asked) to spread the idea of a larger project of connecting many countries. While India would make an obvious inclusion in the (rather vague) plan of the Belt and Road Initiative, New Delhi has pointedly opted out of participating in any meaningful sense. Still, Kung Fu Yoga and other sources strongly suggest that any kind of cooperation between China and virtually any country (well, maybe excluding the United States) can now be termed as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative in Beijing’s rhetoric.
In reality, New Delhi boycotted and rather strongly opposed the recent Belt and Road Forum in Beijing and a section of Indian media describes the whole Chinese initiative as “imperialism.” Such incidents can, in a way, serve as an explanation as to why some people in China assumed that mending Sino-Indian ties and spreading the message of One Belt, One Road in India is a need of the hour and this is how a movie like Kung Fu Yoga was made. It remains doubtful, however, whether such a tool will be successful.
Similar – overt or covert – references to the Belt and Road or China’s role in the international order are also to be found in some other recent movies. As we recently wrote, The Dragon Blade spreads the message of the need for cooperation between the West and China (through the story of ancient Roman and Chinese heroes) while Great Wall convinces the audience that China is indispensable to global security. One hears of similar attempts to promote the Belt and Road and inter-country friendship through movies in the context of Sino-Polish relations. It is quite possible that the grand Chinese diplomatic project will be even more promoted through films in the coming years.
Antonina Łuszczykiewicz 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 currently works on her Ph.D. thesis in which she analyzes the cultural dimension of the Pancha Shila idea in the Chinese-Indian relations.
Krzysztof Iwanek is the chair of the Asia Research Centre at the National Defence University at Warsaw and a South Asia expert with the Poland-Asia Research Centre.