Compiled and edited by Petrus Liu and Lisa Rofel
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February 2018)
Petrus Liu and Lisa Rofel
This collection of essays originates from an international workshop called “China in the Global South: The Central Role of Gender and Sexuality,” convened by Lisa Rofel (UC Santa Cruz) and Huang Yingying (Renmin University of China) and held in Beijing from September 15 to 17, 2017. It continued a conversation that began with the first workshop on the same theme, held a year ago in Santa Cruz, that brought together a group of scholars, activists, and NGO workers to reflect on the impact of China’s rise on other countries in the Global South. With the country’s national “going out” policy (中国走出去), China has become the largest South-South cooperation provider, with investment in Latin America, Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe. While China’s interactions with the Global South have been the subject of much attention and study, the issues of gender and sexuality have been largely ignored. The workshop asked experts from China, Africa, Latin America, and the US working on security, migration, environmental, economic, and social issues to collectively think about the role of gender and sexuality in China’s relationships with the Global South Collectively, the workshop brought together experts from China, Africa, Latin America, and the US who work on gender and sexuality, as well as on security, migration, environmental, economic, and social issues, to collectively think about the role of gender and sexuality in China’s relationships with the Global South.
The Beijing workshop followed the release of Wolf Warrior II (战狼II) in July 2017, which generated nearly 900 million US$ and became the top earning Chinese film in history and one of the fifty top-grossing films in the history of world cinema. Written and directed by action star Wu Jing, who also plays the lead role, Wolf Warrior II stimulated a wave of public discussions about China’s engagement with Africa. The fantasies about and representations of Africa in Wolf Warrior II seem both new and familiar, and the popularity of the film provided an occasion for a sustained intellectual analysis of how China reimagines its position in the Global South, and how it does so through a specifically gendered and sexual set of representations and images. As these transformations are not just economic but also cultural, the analysis of the film at this critical juncture feels particularly apt. The workshop participants felt that it was imperative to participate, as well as intervene, in the construction of these narratives about China’s presence in Africa. We decided therefore to begin a film criticism forum, which originated in the audience’s reactions to Cai Yiping’s paper on Wolf Warrior II at the workshop. We would like to thank Yizhou Guo for her assistance with the translations, and Kali Rubaii with logistics. We hope this forum will provide an entry point for more critical reflections on China’s presence in the Global South.
Women and Children First—Jingoism, Ambivalence,
and Crisis of Masculinity in Wolf Warrior II
Petrus Liu, Boston University
Wolf Warrior II continues the patriotic theme of Wolf Warrior (战狼, 2015), telling the story of former Chinese special forces operative, Leng Feng, who becomes entangled in the civil war of an unnamed African country. At the beginning of the film, Leng is sent to jail for severely injuring the leader of a demolition team. After his release, he travels to Africa in search of his missing fiancée, and gets caught in the crossfire between militarized rebel forces and government troops. Initially Leng is able to retreat to a Chinese battleship along with his godson, an African boy named Tundu, but at the request of the latter and the Chinese ambassador, Leng returns to the city to rescue Tundu’s mother and a Dr. Chen, who has been conducting research on a deadly disease called “Lamanla.” While the rescue mission of Tundu’s mother goes well, Dr. Chen has already been murdered by the time Leng arrives, so Leng instead takes with him Dr. Chen’s adopted African daughter, Pasha, not knowing that the little girl is actually the only survivor with the antibody to cure the diseases. A group of white mercenaries under the command of “Big Daddy” begins chasing Leng and Pasha, but with the assistance of factory-owner Zhuo and veteran He, Leng successfully wards off the attack. However, Leng discovers at this point that he has been infected by Lamanla and leaves the group. A Chinese-American doctor Rachel Smith manages to cure Leng with the antibody extracted from Pasha; once Leng recovers his strength, he returns to the besieged factory to rescue the rest of the workers from Big Daddy and leads them to safety on the Chinese battleship stationed in the harbor.
In the film’s climax, Big Daddy, the white villain in the story, tells Leng that there are only two kinds of races in the world: winners and losers. The conversation begins with Big Daddy gesturing to African war captives behind bars and asking Leng if he is willing to die for them, to which the Chinese says, he “was born for them.” Big Daddy replies: “people like you will always be inferior to people like me; get fucking used to it” (这个世界只有强者和弱者; 你们这种劣等民族永远属于弱者; 你必須習慣). At this point, Leng, who has been losing the fight, suddenly gets up on his feet, punches back, and says “that’s fucking history” (那他媽是以前), before beating his white opponent to a pulp.
Is Leng right that a new world order has arrived? Is the history of China’s humiliation and oppression at the hands of Western powers, so familiar and so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of generations of Chinese people, now definitively a remnant of a past? Is China now actually a rising imperialist power in Africa and elsewhere in the world? If Big Daddy is right to say that the world is a zero-sum game and one is either a winner or a loser, to which side does China belong? Put even more crudely, if the only way to comprehend the world is through a black/white binary paradigm, where do we locate the yellow?
Whether pure fantasy or an accurate reflection of China’s aggressive foreign policy, Wolf Warrior II clearly situates today’s China on the side of the winners. Schematically, we could divide China’s postwar history into three distinct phases: a socialist period where China withdrew (or was forced to withdraw) from many international institutions and attempted to create a self-sufficient economic alternative to Western capitalism; a post-reform phase where China “opened up” to Western investors and quickly became one of America’s largest overseas consumer markets as well as suppliers of cheap labor; and finally, the present moment where China transforms from a passive recipient of foreign investment into an active investor itself that competes with Euro-American powers for domination and opportunities in Africa. The film’s portrayal of China as a “good foreigner” that helps the Africans ward off aggression from the “bad foreigners” from Europe and America is a clear reflection of China’s new ideology about its place in the world. Within the film’s narrative parameters, the Chinese are not just honorary whites, but a new master race that has arrived to displace the whites as the new savior of an “Africa” ravaged by civil war, political chaos, starvation, and deadly diseases. While escaping from the rebels, Rachel Smith suggests that the American marines offer the safest sanctuary, at which Leng scoffs (one can imagine another “that’s fucking history” remark) and says they should go to the Chinese embassy. Throughout the film, the Chinese are presented as superior to the other factions in every single way—militarily, diplomatically, technologically, economically, and scientifically. The doctor who finds a cure for Lamanla, Dr. Chen, is Chinese, and what saves the day in the end is the diplomatic power of the Chinese flag, not brute force or machine guns. Every faction in the story, whether African or European, is eager to get on the good side of the Chinese, and those who disrespect China are swiftly crushed and punished.
But while the film imagines and presents China as the new leader of the world, the narrative that buttresses this fantasy is simply borrowed from the older era of European colonial history. Indeed, the construction of China as the new savior of the underdeveloped world merely inherits the older narrative of “white man’s burden” and the “civilizing mission” without much creativity, including the narrative of white guilt. It is striking to see how facilely China inserts itself into the familiar European narrative and assumes a place in the history it did not create. In the words of Smith, “Man walked out of Africa 100,000 years ago, Africa is the cradle of modern civilization. Yet when the ‘evolved, civilized’ humans returned to this land, they brought along with them nothing but suffering” (十万年前人类走出非洲，非洲是现代文明的摇篮。 可是当自诩文明的人们再次来到非洲带来的却是苦难。). While this picture of Africa as developmental stasis is not new, what is striking is that Smith’s list of “civilized peoples” now includes, among others, Asian investors: “Koreans, Icelanders, Slavs, Americans, and Chinese.” Unlike the civilized nations, “Africa” in the film is presented as lacking both agency and history. The names and places in the film’s African setting are either fictitious or irrelevant or both, while the African characters are either dialogue-less extras or mere sources of comic relief. Against the image of a mighty, rising China, Africa is nothing but a foil, a perilous but lucrative land of opportunity.
Promoted by the tagline: 犯我中华者虽远必诛 (Anyone who offends China will be killed, no matter how far the target is), the film appeals to the crudest form of nationalist fantasy as China flexes its muscles to a domestic and international audience after centuries of humiliation. In case you missed the moral of the story, the film spells it out for you in the final still just before the credits. With a Chinese passport to the right, the film says, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China: If you encounter dangers overseas, do not give up easily! Please remember you have a strong nation behind you!” (中华人民共和国公民，当你在海外遭遇危险，不要放弃！请记住，在你身后，有一个强大的祖国！) Many critics have already characterized the film as a Chinese version of White Savior or as an expression of resurgent nationalism. What has not been sufficiently addressed, perhaps, is the extent to which this nationalist fantasy is sustained by and consolidated through an equally problematic regime of gender norms. In other words, while “Africa” serves as a foil for China’s discourse about its modernity, this fantasy about China’s rise is sustained and underwritten by a particular use of “women” as the foil for men. It is therefore imperative to understand this blockbuster as not just an expression of China’s anxiety about its place in the new world order, but as a renegotiation of gender and sexual norms as well.
In a media appearance, Wu Jing—the film’s director, lead actor, and script-writer—explains that his principal goal in making this movie was not to promote China’s international standing but to reform China’s culture of masculinity. Pointing out that China has not yet produced a “real man,” such as “Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone,” that the public can identify with, Wu complains that the film industry has been taken over by effeminate “pretty boys” (脸长的花样少男) from Korea and Japan. Wu states that his choice of a military theme for Wolf Warrior II was meant to “inspire men to become real men, and encourage women to go for real men” (我要拍一部要让男人看了，更想做真男人的电影，要让女人看了，就更喜欢纯爷们儿的电影). In several interviews, Wu repeatedly uses hand gestures to mock Chinese male actors he considers “sissies” and argues that due to the influence of his films, those sissies (委婉的) are now all trying to become real men 硬汉. According to Wu, Wolf Warrior II has brought about nothing short of a revolution in China’s sexual culture. Insofar as these so-called “pretty boys” 花美男 indicate the commercial influence of Korea and Japan 东洋风, Wu’s claim that he has rehabilitated Chinese notions of masculinity by giving the people a Chinese Tom Cruise or Sylvester Stallone also suggests a realignment of Chinese masculinity with its Euro-American counterpart away from China’s Asian neighbors. Wu’s view implicitly suggests that before China can assert its proper place in the family of respected, modern nations, it must first redefine its sexual culture, and in order to redefine its sexual culture, it must first re-imagine itself in some way as a continuation of Euro-American culture.
In the movie, Leng first proves his masculinity by out-drinking local Africans. If Hollywood movies tend to cast the Chinese in the traditional form of the emasculated, “racially castrated” (to use David Eng’s phrase) Asian figure, Wolf Warrior II certainly rejects that trope. But the film also capitalizes on the image of the black man as hypermasculine and hypersexual, against which the victorious Chinese man—whether in combat or chugging beers—now appears even more masculine. The most telling example of how racial and sexual categories inform and collide with each other, however, comes from the film’s use of the “women and children first” doctrine as a solution to the problem of racial segregation. Before the UN helicopter arrives, the commander orders the refugees to be divided according to their race, saying that only the Chinese should be evacuated, with management being the priority. One Chinese man protests, arguing that he and his African wife are married, and the wife should be recognized as Chinese. Leng intervenes and issues a different command: women and children should be evacuated on the helicopter, while the men—both African and Chinese—will leave on foot. His peers applaud his “women and children first” policy with smiles, and the film’s ambient music gives Leng another nod. Later, Rachel Smith refuses to leave with the helicopter, saying that her medical knowledge is needed and that here she is not a woman but a doctor, but Leng sweeps her off her feet and tosses her into the vehicle, saying “don’t make any more trouble for me” 别给我添乱. Hence we have two parallel situations that mirror each other. In the first instance, the Chinese man’s protest registers a competing definition of “Chineseness” that reveals the complexities of racial categories, whereas Smith’s protest in the second instance indicates that a person’s identity always exceeds and sometimes even contradicts social definitions of gender. But while Leng apparently opposes the racial apartheid in the rescue efforts, he dismisses Smith’s protests against gendered prescriptions and proscriptions. The call to overcome a racial divide infantilizes women (“women and children first”) while rendering children gender-less. We might remember that of the African characters Leng saves, the named ones are indeed women and children (Tundu, Tundu’s mother Nessa, and Pasha), which produces an image of Africa as feminized, infantilized, and racially subjugated in a state of permanent emergency in need of a Chinese hero. The jingoistic fantasies about China’s rise require a policing of gender, which operates through complex and subtle mechanisms. These complexities demonstrate that gender and sexual lives are not exterior to the story about China’s rise, but constitutive of it.
Toxic Masculinity with Chinese Characteristics
Zairong Xiang, Potsdam University
Watching Wolf Warrior II has to be a painful experience for anyone who has any contempt for human stupidity and its shameless display. The film is filled with spectacular killings, in the name of Good and in the name of Evil, but all within the grammar of hyper and hyper-toxic masculinity. It tells the same story about the salvation of Africa, an Africa again flattened to a horror image of war, disease, and poverty but also occasionally blessed by idyllic nature and strolling lions. Every scene reproduces exactly the same stereotypes and tropes seen in Hollywood hero movies, except now a Chinese man carries out the mission usually assigned to a white hero.
Two issues are at stake: China’s rise and Chinese masculinity in the context of that rise. The film understands China’s rise as a masculine rivalry between men: between the old savior (the white man) and the new savior (the Chinese man), China and the West. Although the story takes place in Africa, the core of the film has little to do with Africa or Africans. The romance of Third-Worldism lingers at best only in the background. Instead, it is very much a long, violent, and sensational pissing game between two alpha-males, both appropriately named: Leng Feng (literally“cold blade”), the Chinese former soldier, and Big Daddy, the white mercenary.
Some suggest that China as the new global power desperately needs a new narrative, especially one that includes a Hollywood style hero. The film’s huge domestic success is therefore attributed to this new and indeed unusual figure of the Chinese “lone wolf.” He acts on his own, despite the “strong fatherland” that the film pretends to pay tribute to. The fatherland is ridden with social injustice at home and almost naively adhering to the UN law abroad, which impedes its army from entering the war zone to save its countrymen. The almost naïve individual heroism “with Chinese characteristics” therefore seems severely lacking in imagination. “Big Daddy” and his white-supremacist worldview still dictate the logic of the senses throughout the film. This is in fact nothing new. As the historian Huang Kewu points out: the “ideal masculinity” in Chinese history has changed dramatically from the “weak scholar” to the “muscular fit” with the advent of the Western modern/colonial and capitalist/pharmaceutical forces in modern China. This (literally) muscle-flexing Chinese hero wholeheartedly accepts and embodies this colonial imposition. His rivalry with the white villain changes the component but not the logic of the game. Is this what we want to see of a rising China? Another US-style militarism and neo-colonial imperialism will only lead the planet to total devastation, which the film ironically, through its highly stereotypical portrayal of “Africa,” accurately captures.
What saves the film from being another typical colonial narrative of salvation is perhaps the premise of Leng’s mission: he is set out not to save Africa (which is the motivation of most white heroes) but to save his Chinese compatriots. Yet, the iconography of the flag-bearing warriors moving through a war-torn African village screaming “I am Chinese” toward the end of the film is at best a euphoric moment of nationalism. What remains hopeful amidst the sanguinary apocalypse in an increasingly masculinized and militarized international politics of our era, is the figure of the humanitarian doctor Rachel Smith. Leng takes her guns and says: “your role is to save people, not to kill people.” It is not a coincidence that this character is Chinese-American. Does the filmmaker (who also plays the “cold blade”) find in her a hope to bridge these two world powers, in a way that is beyond the phallocracy of the gun?
The Said and Unsaid of the New Worlding of China-Africa-U.S. Relations
Lisa Rofel, University of California, Santa Cruz
Popular culture is most successful when it opens up contradictions it does not try to resolve. Such is the case with the recent wildly popular Chinese film, Wolf Warrior II. This film has many common tropes of Chinese films: the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is dedicated to saving the downtrodden and to building an invincible nation; Third World friendships lead to just resolutions; and Chinese women are strong, just not as strong as men. But there is a twist: these tropes are played out not in China but in a nameless African country, against nameless African terrorists, who have a nameless cause—or, one could just as easily conclude, no real cause. And the lone hero is not part of a collective PLA military unit but someone kicked out for fighting too hard for social justice. The opening scene sets these themes in motion: a broad expanse of (nameless) water that a large Chinese ship sails through, recalling the theme of River Elegy (河殇): China will never be great (again) until it goes out over the sea, rather than staying “stuck” on land.
One of the main contradictions in the film is China’s relationship with this nameless African country. Are they third world allies, which implies a relationship of equivalence? Or is China superior in a hierarchy among nations of the Global South? Are Africans friends of China, or are they primitives who need to be managed? (It seems both). Since the government of this country appears to be totally incompetent (the typical trope of the failed African state), who exactly stands in as China’s African allies? The rebels seem to respect their relationship with “the Chinese.” But then they also kill them.
A related contradiction is that between nationalism and universalism. The film is an obvious paean to China’s national virtues, but the stance of the factory owner—he wants to save only the Chinese—is rejected by the three men who have had training in the PLA. They represent universal social justice: we must save the Africans—from themselves. And yet these PLA-trained men also represent China’s power. They will protect Chinese citizens at all costs. Hence, the last sentence of the film printed on the screen and, tellingly, the only sentence not translated into English: “Citizens of the PRC: Remember, if you face danger while abroad, don’t give up. You have a great country behind you.” This militarized nationalism also seems to resolve the potential tensions and differences among Chinese people in Africa. When African terrorists come shooting, “we” are all in this together. (Nothing like a putative enemy to draw out nationalist fervor).
And then there is gender. The main female lead is a tough woman, a fearless doctor who is willing to sacrifice her life for others. But she is repeatedly saved by the lone hero. Women can be strong, but they cannot have super human strength, as can men. The super hero is a lone fighter who minds his own business, but gets pulled into the good fight for—what? Social Justice, or just safety?
Much of the film’s larger context is left vague: the so-called rise of China. China’s presence in Africa is actually predicated on the search for energy and natural resources. But the reasons for China’s presence in this nameless African country are elided in the film. Much of the film’s action takes place in a Chinese-owned factory. But what that factory produces is left unclear. And the relations with the African workers in that factory are never addressed.
One thing that is not unclear: China’s replacement of the US presence in Africa. This overcoming is shown first in the revelation that the African terrorists are backed by US mercenaries and then the defeat of those terrorists. Thus, a set of oppositions is established: the US foments terrorism, China resolves it; the US flees at the first sight of danger, abandoning its citizens, while China saves not only its citizens but the “good” Africans. Americans fight dirty, while Chinese fight honorably. China honors U.N. mandates, while the US ignores them. In the final mano-a-mano between the lone American mercenary and the lone Chinese hero (spoiler: the latter wins), the Chinese hero says to his opponent: “You are fucking history.” Nothing could be clearer.
But other questions are left out of the picture entirely: why is the Chinese military stationed in and around African waters? More importantly, why is the story of national heroism on an international scale told through a militarized lens? Such a portrayal naturalizes the turn to military solutions. And what are the African terrorists fighting for? In another era, we would have called them rebels or revolutionaries, indicating a struggle for socialist democracy. Ironically, the Chinese Communist Party used to be portrayed by the West as fomenting inexplicable violence.
Finally, this film leaves unresolved the contradiction between the ideology of third world solidarity—an ideology from China’s socialist past still invoked by the Chinese government—and the current exploitation of Africa’s land, resources, and people. How will this contradiction proceed not only in popular culture but in real life?
China’s Emerging Global Gender Assemblages
María Amelia Viteri, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuado
China’s strategic use of the “friendship narrative” as an euphemism for colonization (where others will call it foreign affairs) goes a long way in the film. This narrative emphasizes partnership over poverty aid, in an attempt to differentiate itself from the western development narratives that place poverty as an obstacle to development, as something in need of overcoming.
The “friendship narrative” of “equal benefit” and bilateral agreements across the world lies in providing a China hero narrative that in turn reinforces Africa’s stereotypes as an impoverished and chaotic land, lacking rule of law, covered with diseases.
Although the “friendship narrative” allows for a very heteronormative masculine cliché, I will not entirely discard a queering of Rambo. Shared heteronormative codes rely on Rambo’s and Leng Feng’s personas to be attractive to attractive women. Rachel Smith, despite being a prominent doctor in the film and a brave one given the war-immersed context, is not even allowed to drive, nor take care of patients after a gun confrontation with Big Daddy and his group. Big Daddy’s minions are prominently portrayed as white, and we can see them as US “gringos,” an “other” that nevertheless retains its whiteness. Jasbir Puar’s concept of “assemblage” allows us to go beyond a “complicity-versus-resistance” binary, in which categories of race, gender, and sexuality “are not simply attributes of subjects but events, actions, and encounters between bodies.”
Wolf Warrior II surreptitiously, but vividly, illustrates a structural global inequality narrative where a young and attractive Chinese guy saves the day, using the negative and commonplace associations with Africa as the foundation for an idealized image of the “good colonizer.” Not only is the idea that “China and Africa are friends” problematic, as revealed by the Chinese diplomat who stops a bloody encounter by making this statement as if part of a grand historical (and global) truth, but also because it hides a leitmotif. The film uses nationalistic elements where the Chinese flag could readily be replaced with the US flag as in films such as Life is Beautiful where the US not only saves holocaust victims, but saves the world. In imagining a reverse use of stereotypes as marked in different body types, the film not only places China’s global colonizing agenda as external but justifies its declaration for “People’s War on Terror” that has justified internal colonization such as the displacement of Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority group that has faced an aggressive surveillance policy ranging from legislating their appearance to their choice of music and anything deemed “Muslim.” This surveillance strategy reinforces the US grand narrative of “war on terror” in the context of the stark economic inequality that exists in the US and in China. This is one among many contradictions the film brings to the forefront.
Wolf Warrior II: “China’s Great Restoration”
Aisha Chioma Udochi, Harvard University/Dao Fei Consultants
Behind Wolf Warrior II’s parochial portrayal of Africa and gunfire-inundated plot lies a gem that contains insight into Chinese cultural politics and makes the two-hour-and-six-minute film worth sitting through. That is, it is a window into the political psyche around what “the great restoration of the Chinese nation” may look like. Having passed through the mandated channels of ministries like the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), Wolf Warrior II offers detailed insight into a national image that is congruent with present-day Party lines and pleasing to China’s top leadership.
The film provides the “Chinese imagination” with a fantastic and heroic picture of the Middle Kingdom reclaiming its rightful place at the center of the world order. Set in Africa, a continent that has long been under the Western sphere of influence, Leng Feng, the chief protagonist and emblem of China, challenges American hegemony, embodied by his arch-nemesis, Big Daddy, and emerges victorious.
The film makes no allusions to shattering the asymmetrical power structures that normalize the underdevelopment of African societies. In fact, the cinematic structure of the movie is evidence that China’s “rejuvenation” (复兴) is primarily about supplanting White supremacy and not saving the Global South from it. The appropriation of the White Savior narrative corroborates this observation. From the outset, Wolf Warrior II reproduces culturally violent tropes transplanted from Western classics, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the most obvious being its setting in a disease-ridden, war-ravaged, and helpless unnamed African country.
There is also the prominent motif of “us and them.” Whether when African civilians are discouraged from seeking refuge at the Chinese embassy, or when Leng Feng’s black “adopted” son is almost prevented from boarding a Chinese naval rescue vessel, or when the factory owner initially opts to evacuate only his Chinese employees, the message is clear. China intends to continue the tradition of delineating the world along racial and national identity lines. The major difference in a Pax Sinica is that now Chinese people can expect to be beneficiaries of racial discrimination.
However, the moment that best encapsulates China’s obsession with building a “rich country and strong army” (富国强兵) that eclipses those of the Anglo-Saxon variety is in the final battle scene between Leng Feng and Big Daddy. What ultimately moves Leng Feng to rage, which appears to be necessary to defeat the villain, is a single provocation uttered by the American mercenary: “People like you will always be inferior to people like me.” This is a crude and almost comedic moment when social Darwinistic politics between a diminishing power and a previously-humiliated one finally collide.
At its core, Wolf Warrior II is ultimately a story about power that tugs on the nationalistic heartstrings of its domestic audience to legitimize China’s rise as positive, humane, and beneficial for the world. The question that lingers for the outsider is whether China’s “peaceful rise” is contingent on continued decline in the Global South. Wolf Warrior II gives the onlooker pause to believe that China’s quest for “wealth and power” (富强) through overseas infrastructure investments and experience-based military training, may indeed be predicated on the chaos and dysfunction of the nations it claims to help. Through this lens the movie paints a picture in which the realization of the “China Dream” is a rather frightening reality punctuated by proxy wars and the systematic exploitation of non-Han Mandarin speaking peoples.
Interestingly, fundamental conflict of interest was a defining characteristic of America’s empire building at the turn of the twentieth century. In the Spanish-American war, the United States’ fight against Spain was justified as a noble crusade against a corrupt imperial power that trampled on basic human rights. In 1898, the war ended with Spanish defeat and America’s acquisition of formal and informal colonies stretching from Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean to Guam, Hawaii, and the Philippines in the Pacific.
This victory engendered new notions of American pride, prospects, and power that in places like the Philippines manifested themselves in egregiously oppressive ways. In domestic debates, some in the US worried their country would become the monster it sought to destroy. But with the subsequent completion of the Panama Canal in 1915—an internationally-recognized herculean feat of strength over nature and man—Americans began believing it their moral obligation to uplift backward (non-White English speaking) societies on the basis of economic progressivism and cultural superiority.
From the view of imperial history, it is not too hard to see the parallels between last century’s America and today’s People’s Republic of China. China’s maritime provocations in the East and South China Sea alongside the rolling out of the Belt and Road Initiative only strengthen its association to its American competitor. In this context, Wolf Warrior II should prod nations of the Global South to contend with the fact that the prospects for enjoying greater degrees of agency under Chinese world leadership are anemic at best. It is more reasonable to expect and thus prepare for the persistence of economic disenfranchisement and systematic racism that have been part and parcel of the imperial enterprises of the past.
Despite how unappealing and unjust this reality may be, the Global South is nonetheless a witting historical actor that can either choose to reinforce China’s “Wolf Warrior narrative” or question it. Citizens of the Global South ought to keep in mind that while being on the margins of the world can have dire consequences, being incorporated into a Sinosphere also has serious implications that demand utmost scrutiny and perhaps resistance.
New Superheroes Have Arrived: Made in China, for Domestic Consumption Only
Yiping Cai, DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era)
(Translated by Yizhou Guo and Petrus Liu)
Wolf Warrior II, the highest-grossing film in the history of Chinese cinema, provides a freshly-baked Chinese “superhero”—Leng Feng, a former member of China’s special-ops team. Before Wolf Warrior, the last time we saw a Chinese superhero on screen was probably Jet Li’s portrayal of the monk in Shaolin Temple in the 1980s. Riding the wave of new economic reforms, that movie brought, for the first time, a PRC-made form of kung-fu to a global audience. Like Jet Li’s character, Leng Feng is also a Chinese-made superhero, but the novelty is that his battlefield is now on foreign soil. Brave, skillful, and morally uncompromising, Leng Feng serves his homeland by rescuing his overseas countrymen in trouble. But those he helps are not limited to Chinese nationals; he rescues civilians of all nationalities. It would make sense for an international superhero like Leng to appeal to a global audience just like the ones Hollywood has created. But in reality, Wolf Warrior II has only enjoyed success only at the domestic box-office; in the rest of the world, it remains obscure. What explains the asymmetrical consumption patterns here?
Let’s first talk about the film’s popularity in the domestic market. The success of Wolf Warrior II confirms the old saying: the success of a cultural commodity depends on the repetition and reinforcement of stereotypes, and it must cater to the audience’s expectations and imagination. In this context, Wolf Warrior II satisfies its audience on multiple levels.
First of all, behind the familiar but aloof “superhero” Leng Feng stands the image of a powerful rising China. We see this image in the scene where Leng crosses the war zone with the Chinese national flag held high, in the evacuation arranged by the Chinese embassy, in the formation of the Chinese battleships, in the Chinese factories in Africa, in the trust that the local people place in the Chinese and their friendships, and in the superfluous image at the very end of the movie that shows a Chinese passport with the words “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China: Do not give up when you are in danger overseas! Remember that there is a strong motherland behind you!” All of these details stoke the Chinese audience’s sense of pride, security, comfort, and even superiority in their ability to save the lives of other nationals. No wonder so many Chinese people came out to see this movie and considered it money well spent. Its high ratings on film review websites show the audience’s satisfaction.
Second, the film successfully satisfies the audience’s stereotypes in gender, race, colonialism, and international relations. All the Chinese in the film are male, special operatives, investors, factory workers, vendors, and military men and diplomats who come to rescue the Chinese. Africa in the film is war-ridden, impoverished, chaotic, and primitive. Surely this Africa is not suitable for Chinese women. Who are the Africans in the film then? We have a kid who calls the Chinese superhero “godfather,” a mother and factory workers who are rescued by the Chinese, an incompetent government, and savage rebels. And, of course, in a film that stages international conflicts, there have to be Americans. The only American other than Big Daddy to appear in the film is the female protagonist, a Chinese-American doctor named Rachel Smith. To be fair, this American woman’s values and actions are all quite positive, except that she has to rely on the Chinese hero’s protection. The film mentions the allegedly-mighty US Marines, and the answering machine at the US embassy contains the message that “the embassy has been closed.” The film presents an interesting reflection of complicated US-China relations. It appears that the heroine cannot do without the protection of the hero, but they also have to cooperate with each other in order to succeed. When the hero becomes infected by a deadly disease, it is the heroine who saves him. As for other white people in the film, they are either racists or the unscrupulous thugs after money and profit. Interestingly, there is one brave female soldier among the savage rebels. Does this imply that the only possible outcomes for women who seek equality with men are either becoming canon fodder or returning to safety under the protection of men?
For the majority of the film’s Chinese audience, Africa is not a continent they will travel to in their lifetime. The film’s box-office success indicates that its representations of China and Africa, and China’s place in the world, are fully satisfactory. These images perfectly match the stereotypes about the nation, gender, race, the history of colonization, and geopolitics they have received in their education and from the mainstream media.
After watching Wolf Warrior II, Chinese movie-goers should not forget to ask one question: Why did Leng come to Africa in the first place? Why is this former special-ops soldier, who once enjoyed the unconditional trust of government officials and military commanders, also an ex-con just released from prison? Why did he go to jail? After a two hour-long action-packed movie, the opening plot, which shows a violent side of Leng when he attacks the leader of a demolition team, is long been forgotten. However, after walking out of the cinema, the kind of social conflict that lands Leng in jail is still part of the reality that Chinese people have to face in daily life. When that happens, where is the “superhero” who can save them? Traditional Chinese culture has its own version of superheroes—namely, the wuxia martial heroes and heroines. They often live in a troubled time and devote themselves to the eradication of evil and to the protection of the innocent. The world of wuxia no longer exists. And I am afraid that the contemporary superhero, even if only on the screen, can only arise overseas.
“Thank you, Godfather:” Love and Rejuvenation, Mercenaries and Biomedicine Forge
Africa and China into One Family in Wolf Warrior II
Paul Amar, University of California, Barbara
Wolf Warrior II, written, directed and starring Chinese action star Wu Jing, was released in July 2017. It went on to earn nearly US$ 900 million, making it the top earning Chinese film in history and one of the fifty top-grossing films in the history of world cinema. The film triggered a wave of public discussion and engagement in China and beyond. In part, public interest was stimulated by Beijing’s efforts to spotlight the film and its patriotic themes. Also, Wu Jing deserves due credit for generating an explosively emotional fabric of themes and relationships that tap into the fantasies, anxieties, and ambivalences that China experiences today. Wolf Warrior II addresses real issues and constructs vividly new fantasies as China assertively assumes a visible presence in the world, particularly in Africa. It adapts or reinvents China’s notions of race, culture, militarism, and intimacy in an era dubbed by President Xi Jiping as the time of “rejuvenation.”
In offering interpretations of this important film, I will follow in the spirit of Frederic Jameson’s notion of “reification and utopia in mass culture” (1979/1990), of Jennifer Robertson’s work on the ambivalences and “excessive semiosis” of Takarazuka culture in Japan, and of Constance Penley’s work on queer and feminist “slash” readings of popular culture. As these scholars have done, I focus on ambivalences and sites of moral-political tension within the film, rather than the explicitly ideological elements. And I’ll underline moments of intense emotionality that periodically overwhelm the time-flow of the narrative. My hypothesis is that any film like this one that is so hugely popular must be creating spaces for a variety of pleasures, interpretations, and sociabilities. And these responses exceed the intentions of the author or any attempts by the state to capture its meaning. The kind of reading I am offering also recognizes that audience members can read deeply into marginal or stereotyped characters, even in ways that go against the narrative grain. Such readings can also impart extra humanity to infantilized or racialized secondary characters, such as the queer reading tradition of interpreting the witches in Disney fairy tales as the most fabulous heroes.
My focal points are two: first, the tension between the creation of alternative gendered and racial notions of family and the stabilization of a anti-sexual notion of moral respectability; and second, the exploration of questions of militarism, Western legitimacy, and Chinese capitalism in the plotlines that concern invading mercenaries and thugs and the hailing of uniformed military forces.
Africa’s Intimacies and China’s New Model Family
Wolf Warrior II opens with a fast-paced action sequence that seems to establish a quite predictable, American-style racial logic. The camera gazes down from the heavens as we witness a fleet of small, swift, sleek powerboats flying across the surface of the ocean, swarming around a lumbering, gigantic Chinese container ship. The first words we hear are a mumbled “nabii Mohammad” [“for the prophet Mohammad” in Swahili]. The first person the movie presents is the figure of a black Somali pirate raising his AK-47 and aiming at the deck of the ship. Again, following the racist conventions of US action movies, the first person to get shot and die in the film, seconds later, is a black crewman hit by the pirate’s bullet. A white officer dashes off in panic shouting, “Where is the UN convoy?”
Subsequently, Leng Feng (the hero, played by the director Wu Jing) explodes into the frame and, with no hesitation, arcs over the side of the vessel in a graceful swan dive. He plunges into the currents and drags the pirates off their boats. He defeats multiple bad guys in an outrageously improbable but exciting underwater martial-arts struggle.
Will this film unfold as a nakedly ideological tale of demonized blacks/Muslims getting kicked around by a Chinese hero protecting global commercial routes? Ugh. Fortunately, as the movie races forward, the tracing of relations and struggles between Africans and Chinese becomes much more dynamic and stirring, although riddled with problematics and tensions.
The relationship between China and Africa, as the drama opens up, is mapped as a series of loving non-biological family dynamics. Leng has “adopted” an African boy, a street vendor named Tundu whose African mother, Nessa, is a valued worker in a Chinese toy factory that has been seized by mercenaries. Tundu calls Leng “my godfather.” (Although his mother later clarifies that Leng is just “a family friend.”) The boy serves as a bit of comic relief, with Leng scolding him for selling pirated porn DVDs in the market. Tundu’s entry allows Leng the character and Wu the director to strongly disidentify China with the stereotype of pirated goods and commercial practices, and to assert China as a legitimate protector of morality (against porn and for fatherhood).
In this dimension, Tundu’s role infantilizes Africa. Does the “rejuvenation” doctrine require infantilization of Africa, one wonders? But Tundu’s character, who seems about 13 years old, also claims agency and generates ambivalences. Tundu introduces Leng to more vernacular and less-respectable realms of homosocial drinking and partying (but thus also re-stereotyping hypersexual African masculinity). And as Leng and Tundu flee from red kerchief-wearing guerrilla insurgents, the camera lingers on the tenderness the two guys, godson and godfather, holding hands as they flee, signal to each other, and dive for safety together. Tundu refuses the protection of Leng and China by screaming “I refuse to go on the Chinese ship.” It is Tundu’s insistence that he won’t leave his mother, Nessa, that pushes Leng to “man up.” Instead of fleeing back to China, Leng heads into the heart of the country to rescue Nessa. Although the film grants Leng multiple motivations for embarking on his rescue mission (to avenge his soldier girlfriend’s murder by mercenaries, and to liberate “Dr. Chen,” who represents the medical-humanitarian ethic), it is the affective imperative to respond to the moral hailing and, well, “love” of African characters that provide the emotionally galvanizing drivers for the plot. Herein lies the power and problematics of the imagination of a new, hybrid African-Chinese “world family” as the new, post-white node for a humanitarian capitalist world system.
“Africa” in this film is represented as a single entity, again picking up on the worst traditions of US-style filmic ignorance, an intentionally, if recklessly, composite location. But the film does explore in provocative ways some of the most difficult dilemmas facing the contemporary African continent. An armed insurgency is making fast advances, and the red kerchiefs worn around the necks of the guerrillas imply that this is a leftist uprising, maybe even Maoist. Moreover, multiple African-identified characters have speaking roles and are firmly established as comprising Leng’s para-family in the film. These individuals have Swahili names and speak English, implying an origin in Kenya or Tanzania. Yet the TV news broadcasts in French that report on the insurgency suggest the action is taking place in the Congo. And the combination of mercenaries, epidemic, and insurgency resonates with West Africa (Liberia or Sierra Leone). In the first scenes where this insurgency make its appearance, several (black) young women soldiers appear on camera, with punk haircuts and AK-47s, terrifying but cool. Late in the film, after the insurgents are freed from their dependence on the murderous and lecherous (white, Western) mercenaries, the Chinese convoy led by Leng is welcomed into the insurgent camp with cheering and a spectacle of unity.
Structuring the urgency of the film’s plot is the “Lamanla virus” emergency. This virus is “spread by human contact . . . and can kill in 4 hours or 5 years.” Standing in for both Ebola and HIV, the (fictional) Lamanla virus epidemic underlines the moral panic framing “human contact” and “human security” in Africa. International characters intervene in the epidemiology sector, justifying their otherwise commercial interests or maybe exacerbating conflicts that fueled the spread of the epidemic. Leng makes a point of entering quarantine zones and touching and embracing those affected by the epidemic. Eventually, he contracts the Lamanla virus himself. His illness underlines the film’s commitment to boundary-crossing intimacies and underlines the vulnerability of the Wolf Warrior’s body, while also restaging both the paternalism of humanitarian biomedicine as well as its dependence on women and African bodies and protagonists.
In the context of the response to the Lamanla epidemic, Wolf Warrior II stages another fascinating (and troubling) twinning of the Leng/Tundu relationship. This takes the form of a pairing between Dr. Rachel Smith and Pasha. Pasha is a young girl about Tundu’s age who has been “adopted” by Dr. Smith. The doctor’s father was white and her mother Chinese. Dr. Smith takes charge when Dr. Cheng, the lead Chinese scientist in charge of responding to the epidemic, is killed by mercenaries.
It turns out that Dr. Smith had saved Pasha, who was dying of Lamanla. Pasha’s body had served as a laboratory for testing a new vaccine. Displacing the ethical issues of human experimentation, the film hints that Pasha’s knowledge of natural medicine and “traditional African” healing contributed to the discovery of this vaccine, implying that Pasha willingly submitted herself for experimentation.
Pasha and Dr. Smith administer the vaccine (that Pasha’s body had tested) to Leng, curing him immediately. Then young Pasha teaches Leng how to make poison arrows from tree sap that he uses to reinvade the occupied factory and launch the final attack on the mercenaries. Again we have an infantilizing partnership between Western-Chinese biomedicine and African bodies, perhaps involving unethical forms of human experimentation. But in this fantasy, the combination of forms of knowledge and the violation or blurring of boundaries between races and epistemologies—and even the violation of ethical boundaries—is celebrated as the redemption of a new kind of quasi-familial affinity.
Leng’s heroic masculinity, his bodily integrity and emotional fragility, is sustained by the efforts and non-military intelligence of this woman and girl, godmother/goddaughter pairing. Dr. Smith and Pasha also provide moral hailing that drives the plot to its conclusion. As the mercenaries advance, the Chinese military officers first separate the Chinese factory managers (representing capital) from the others. The businessmen will be rescued and the black factory workers will be abandoned. Pasha, from the scaffolding above, cries out “Why?” This motivates Leng to insist that the Chinese businessmen, some of whom have married African women, be treated together with their workers as “one family.” Later in a similar moment of crisis, Dr. Smith proclaims “Shame on you! Shame on all of you!” Again, Leng is pushed by such moral hailing to betray the parochial interests of the Chinese soldiers or businessmen and to stand up for a higher ideal, embodied by this quasi-family. Of course, this utopian dimension of the film blurs the exploitative relationships between capital and labor and underlines the “excessive semiosis” of the film’s commitment to envisioning alternative family.
The final dimension of “alternative kinship” that drives the action sequences in this film is the eroticized bromance between Leng and his foil, Brother (Zuo) Yifan. Yifan is a beautiful young male soldier. He is a selfish, “spoiled rich kid” who represents the vanity of the new middle classes in China and their narrow view of Africa. Fan is partnered with a Chinese commando officer who demonstrates more explicit racist and stereotyping views, saying “I love Africa, its animals, its landscapes, its spicy food, and its sexy women.” Yifan serves more frequently as “damsel in distress” than does Dr. Smith; Leng has to repeatedly rescue him, for example when he is mounted, almost sexually, by the muscled Russian mercenary, or when he is pinned down by the exploding munitions of Big Daddy, the American soldier of fortune. The camera lingers on Fan’s handsome face as he gazes with gratitude into Leng’s eyes. This connection occasionally arrests the narrative flow and opens the door for homoerotic “slash” reading of the film’s last act. But on the surface, the “brother” narrative repositions Leng in the role of big brother, educating the spoiled, innocent, world-ignorant Chinese soldier. Thus Leng brings back “home” his godfather role in protecting and morally edifying his African godson.
Mercenaries and Thugs
The pleasures and dilemmas of Wolf Warrior II, as discussed above, may derive in part from intensively emotional renderings of new forms of family. Infantilization, moralization, and bromance are staged on the terrain of epidemic and conflict in “Africa.” I imagine that these moments of affective spectacle were at least as important as the battle scenes to the audiences watching the film. But one cannot ignore the action drivers in a film like this! Most of the fight scenes and action sequences are driven by a plot line that exposes the agency of sinister mercenaries and thugs in a way that both critiques and celebrates certain forms of militarization and rogue privatism.
At the start of the film, just after the Somali pirate action sequence, the movie’s “second opening” takes us to a scene of a working-class family’s home in China being demolished to clear way for a real estate project. The developer is protected a group of plainclothes (Chinese) thugs who are terrorizing the residents while the police look. By coincidence, Leng and a group of formally uniformed military officers (from the People’s Liberation Army) are on-site to deliver the remains of a soldier to his mother, who happens to be one of the sobbing residents being evicted. Leng sympathizes with the weeping mother, and lashes out. He beats the hired thug and defends the community against the developer and the police. For this act, he is court-martialed and dismissed from the military; but as he is sent away, a uniformed army general squeezes his shoulder approvingly and smiles. The officer tells Leng that he has done well and must continue to bear this greater sense of duty. This surprising opening sequence positions the film as subtly critical of the alliance among Chinese development capital, thugs, and the police. And the film implies that the military secretly supports resistance to them and a sense of honor and solidarity. The “jingoism” and patriotism that many have noticed in this film is split by some interesting internal tensions.
When Leng and the film travel to Africa, the critique of thugs shifts into a full-scale crusade against foreign mercenaries. Parallel to the case of the thug’s attack on the working-class Chinese community, we see mercenaries “going rogue” as they work for (and then against) an armed “red kerchief” insurgency. In the first phase of the struggle, the insurgents remind the white mercenaries to not kill the Chinese, since they need to maintain the support of the Chinese investors and businessmen in Africa. But the plot accelerates rapidly after Big Daddy shoots General Aotu, the insurgent leader, and thus leads a coup that takes over the insurgency by force.
In this way, the film explores the privatization of military forces in Africa and the proliferation of conflict there. The film exposes the brutal, “rogue” character that Western intervention increasingly takes on in the continent. The collective formed by the white mercenaries thus stands as the perverse “other” of the alternative intimacies that bond the Chinese and Africans.
The mercenary forces resemble real-world private military corporations (PMC) like Executive Outcomes, Sandline, or Blackwater. These PMCs have spread throughout Africa, particularly infesting West Africa and the Sahara. They were founded by Americans, South Africans, and British entrepreneurs to provide support to diamond miners, investors, or post-colonial leaders threatened by militants. In reality, as in this film, these mercenary groups have often evolved into self-interested entities that “go rogue” and pursue their own interests above and beyond the state or anti-state groups that contract them.
In the film, the mercenaries include Americans, Russians, and South-Africans. One of the three lead mercenaries is a blond woman who wears a Palestinian or Arab keffiya, the symbolically important black-and white scarf. Big Daddy also wears a keffiya. The keffiya, in my reading, conveys several meanings. It implies these mercenaries have gutted and stolen the symbols of anti-colonial resistance, and, in particular, that sub-Saharan Africa has been flooded by the mercenary spillover from Western intervention in Libya and the central Sahara, where the keffiya is also worn.
The mercenaries’ use of drones in several attack scenes is also a highly appropriate and timely reference. The surveillance and targeting of African and Chinese civilians by the mercenary drones defines these fighters as a sinister and illegitimate fighting forces with no qualms about inflicting “collateral damage.” They treat civilian prisoners “Guantanamo”-style, putting black bags over their heads and forcing them to their knees. As we learned in October 2017 during the foiling of an American military operation in the country of Niger, the US is creating a huge drone-only base in West Africa that will spread surveillance and targeting over Africa in a counterterror and counterinsurgency campaign with terrifying implications for human rights and the laws of war.
The Wolf Warrior’s victory over the mercenaries culminates in the brutal, skull-crushing defeat of Big Daddy. This represents the triumph of the “rejuvenation” agenda for establishing a humanitarianism modeled on a new kind of Chinese-African family and an emboldened Chinese military prevailing over the West’s ultra-violence, mercenarism, privateering, and drones.
But this victory, in the vision of Wolf Warrior II’s director and star, also implies a critique of thuggishness, myopia, and, gently, of class privilege and developers’ greed in China. Still, the Chinese military, the navy and the PLA, stands as the model for honor and duty. These institutions are redeemed and emotionally rejuvenated through medical, humanitarian, and moral experiments. And the public is wooed and enthralled by the loving intimacies and new family ties engendered in the fantasy lands and quarantine zones of “Africa.”
New China in New Times
Chih-ming Wang, Academia Sinica
In China, military films have been a key component in the construction of state ideology. From Fighting North and South (1952), the first film produced in the new China to describe the communist military triumph in the Chinese civil war, to Assembly (2007; dir. Feng Xiaogang), which reflects on the meanings of sacrifice, to the recent film The Founding of an Army (2017), which features young stars to pump fresh air into the old revolutionary narrative, films featuring the People’s Liberation Army have aimed to promote both patriotism and collectivism as the foundation of new China. More recently, they have tried to steer a safe course between politics and box office success.
Besides appearing to be more individualist than collectivist, Wolf Warrior II is no different from these films in its embrace of patriotism and commercial interest, but its attempt to produce a Chinese Rambo to take on a rescue operation in unknown corners of Africa sets it apart from its cinematic siblings and expresses a cultural imaginary of China’s rise through the banal reassertion of masculinity. However, rather than seeing the film as a direct commentary on the rise of China, it is also important to note how the film has scripted its meanings through the signifying network of popular culture and historical memory. That is to say, the film’s imagination of China’s rise—as both a fact and an aspiration—cannot be properly understood without reference to the masculinity offered by Hollywood films and Korean TV dramas, the long standing ideological pedagogy of the state, and the deep memory of China’s rise as a collectivist endeavor led by the Communist Party. My focus here is on how Wolf Warrior II “makes sense.”
On the surface, Wolf Warrior II is a sequel film that continues the theme of the PLA’s efforts in safeguarding China’s sovereignty—except that this time, the borders of Chinese sovereignty has been extended to the African continent. Yet, in terms of its subject matter and casting, the film plays a patriotic tune, first in contradistinction to the Korean TV drama Descendants of the Sun (2016), which features a romantic plot in a UN peace-keeping campaign in Africa, and then as a continuation with the anti-corruption Chinese TV drama called In the Name of the People (2016). Both TV dramas are immensely popular among Chinese viewers and they provided recognizable scripts and characters that viewers could easily associate and identify with to make sense of the hyper-masculine and banal narrative of Wolf Warrior II. In a way, the hyper-masculine hero Leng Feng in Wolf Warrior II is created precisely as an opposition to—and as a critique of—the soft masculinity of Song Joong-Ki in Descendants of the Sun whose metrosexual look has gained him the label of “flowery beautiful man.” The film mocks such soft masculinity by presenting a “flowery” character, Zuo Yifan, a rich young man who owns an African factory and tons of guns but needs to be rescued by Leng—the real hero with muscles—multiple times. It is clear that a figure like Zuo can only fold himself into the collective, and Leng is anything but that. The Chinese American doctor Rachel is another clear reference to Descendants of the Sun for she resembles in profession and disposition the character played by Song Hye-Kyo—beautiful, courageous, but always too simple and naïve. Through these resemblances, Wolf Warrior II not only sets up a recognizable script for the viewers, but moreover issues a critique of the UN peace-keeping campaign and humanitarian aid: If the UN peace-keeping corps is ineffective, and the US has retreated from the scene, then China will show you how to do things right—by befriending Africans, fighting American mercenaries, and saving its citizens from danger. In contrast to the early evacuation of the US Embassy and the failed rescue attempt of the UN, Leng’s lone-wolf operation is more effective and valiant, and it is justified by Leng’s anti-imperialist and anti-racist sentiments. However, Leng’s unilateral act is no different from the cold-blooded though warm-hearted Rambo, except that while Rambo is deserted by the US Marines, Leng is supported by the Chinese state.
This is why two supporting characters matter: the factory’s security captain, He Jianguo (played by Wu Gang), and the commander-in-chief of the rescue mission, Zhang Zhiyong (played by Ding Haifeng). The actors who play these two characters had leading roles in In the Name of the People: Wu Gang was party secretary of a city, and Ding was the chief of police; both were loyal communist cadres working for the interest of the people. Intentional or not, this casting of these actors in Wolf Warrior II facilitated an ideological translation: that is, the two characters representing the Communist Party are with the people, from the people, and for the people; they will do what they can to help the people survive and thrive. In other words, as much as the rescue mission appears to be a lone-wolf action, the state—in both literal and metaphorical senses—is never far away from the people. Even though the people, for various reasons, may have opted for another nationality, the Chinese state will stand behind those who hold its passport. That is why the PRC flag and passport feature prominently in the film; as symbols of the Party State, they lead and protect the people. In this sense, Leng is not just a lone-wolf, and he has never strayed away from the pack.
The most passionate scene in the film is perhaps the moment when Leng stands in front of the tank and ultimately wins the struggle against the mercenaries. Again the director may have created this scene for the sake of sensation, but the “tank man” scene does invoke, perhaps unintentionally, another “tank man” from the last century: on June 5, 1989, an unidentified, unarmed man standing firmly before a column of tanks to stop them from entering Tiananmen Square to shoot the demonstrators. It is widely considered one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. Leng in Wolf Warrior II adopts that valiant stance, but the film resignifies it as a masculine confrontation with western imperialism. As if from the ashes of history, western mercenaries reappear before the Chinese, but this time, instead of being beaten to the ground, Leng, the singular and ultimate Chinese, stands tall in triumph, kicking the mercenaries out of Africa and, most important of all, saving Chinese lives.
The subtle interchange of tank men, or rather the displacement of the “tank man” by Leng, is a successful transfiguration of history, allowing the State to rise above the individual and to refigure the rise of Chinese people as the rise of the Chinese state. Anti-imperialism replaces anti-authoritarianism. By destroying the tanks, Leng dissolves the memory of the “tank man” as a missing page of history or yet another form of anti-Chinese propaganda from the West. By offering a savior, Wolf Warrior II makes Leng a symbol of state support—a masculinist, paternal subject gaining legitimacy as an imperial contender. In this sense, Leng is arguably the Chinese body of the new era: he is neither articulate nor romantic, but he is loyal and passionate; he is neither a suave spy nor a vengeful warrior, but he is without a doubt a disciplined soldier. He can face the tank without fear of death, because he is not alone—the State works in his shadow.
From the analysis above, it should be obvious that a rising China is at the center of Wolf Warrior II’s heroic narrative. This China faces two challenges: the threat from the West and the demands of the international order. The entire series of Wolf Warrior is built on the credo that “China will not tolerate humiliation from anyone,” a credo that represents the State’s commitment to the Chinese people and its history. The demands of the international order appear in the form of China’s self-discipline: not to rise as a hegemon and to stick to the “principle of co-existence” that defined China’s relationship with India, Indonesia, and other neighboring countries in 1950s. But the self-discipline shows cracks in the movie. As the rescue operation shows, when Chinese citizens’ lives are at stake, the PLA will intervene—with or without the approval of the international community. Even if the PLA does not easily side with any country in Africa, as the film shows, it will not be subjected to others and may initiate preemptive strikes if necessary. At the same time, what supports China’s move is not merely humanitarian concerns, but also the friendship with Africa that China has forged over the years of Cold War isolation. Third Worldism as a united front is both the essence and pretext of China’s unilateralism, as long as it is fighting against the West. This is perhaps also the “Chinese characteristics” of Wolf Warrior II: China can throw its weight around Africa not merely because of its economic power but also because it has Third World solidarity at heart. The restructuring of the international order, in this sense, depends on Third Worldism as a point of departure, and that is why China will be different from the West. But this is precisely the point where Wolf Warrior II has failed to score: whether in terms of its representations of Africa and Africans, or its imagination of a different world order, Wolf Warrior II has not done better than Hollywood.
Thus, as we review this film at the cusp of the new times ushered in by the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the appearance of Wolf Warrior II and the scope of its imagination may not be an accident. But the problem is: whether we can trust Leng and China to save the day as his adopted African son Tundu does? That is the challenge Leng and China have on their shoulders now.
 See, for example, Lily Kuo, https://qz.com/1052857/chinas-wolf-warrior-2-in-war-ravaged-africa-gives-the-white-savior-complex-a-whole-new-meaning/; Simon Abrams, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/wolf-warrior-2-2017
 David Eng, Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).
 Byler, Darren. Uyghur Migrant Life in the City During the “People’s War”. Youth Circulations (Oct. 30, 2017).
 Julie Greene, The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal (Penguin, 2010), 6.
 Ibid, 5.
 Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Social Text no. 1 (Winter 1979): 130-148; Jennifer Robertson, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Constance Penley, ed., NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America (London: Verso: 1997).