The Great Wall Controversy: What Does It Mean When Matt Damon Plays A Chinese Guy?

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A few weeks ago, I saw an advertisement for an upcoming movie called “The Great Wall.” Seeing the name immediately brought me excitement. A movie about Chinese history for a Western audience? Cool! About 20 seconds into the trailer, this excitement turned to, What the actual hell is happening?? Last time I checked, Matt Damon was not remotely Asian. And although my grasp of Chinese history is slightly shaky, I did not recall there being European mercenaries in the Song Dynasty.

Immediately, I told two of my co-workers, texted or Facebook Messaged four of my friends, and sent a WeChat message to my entire family about this monstrosity of a trailer. My friends reacted much like I did, with outrage and comments like “See, this is what happens when an actor’s fame matters more to a director than their ethnicity.”

I felt a little vindicated. I wasn’t overreacting or trying hard to be offended. From every slight and miscasting, from the Charlie Chan films, through “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Ghost in the Shell,” to “The Great Wall,” Asians are told loud and clear: Your culture and history are not interesting enough. Western audiences don’t care unless there’s a white man in your stories. Constance Wu felt it, Internet commenters felt it, and my friends and I felt it.

But then, my conviction became a little less absolute. I got a response from my aunt in China on WeChat. In Mandarin, she noted, “Oh, there are two foreign actors.” No fanfare, no outrage, just an observation. My mom also messaged back: “There were already foreigners during the Tang Dynasty [which preceded the Song Dynasty].”

Not what I expected. I thought they would also be quite angry to see a story about their culture get hijacked by a white guy in a ponytail. Don’t they want actual Chinese actors to be featured in a movie about Chinese culture? Do they not realize whitewashing is a huge issue?

But this conversation with my family forced me to reevaluate my anger and consider that perhaps the issue is more complicated than I thought.

First, A Defense

I had to consider that the film isn’t completely made by white, out-of-touch Hollywood executives. At least, not exclusively. Yes, the movie was written by a bunch of non-Asian dudes, produced by a bunch of non-Asian dudes and yes, it definitely stars non-Asian dudes like Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe.

And then, upon further research, I learned that Legendary Pictures, the company putting out the movie, is owned by the Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group. It’s also directed by Zhang Yimou, arguably the most famous Chinese director of our generation, whose films such as “Raise the Red Lantern” and “House of Flying Daggers,” as well as his work with the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing, have raised global awareness and appreciation for Chinese culture and history.

Furthermore, “The Great Wall” stars a slew of Chinese actors, from industry legends such as Andy Lau to lauded newcomers like Lu Han. At the very least, their casting shows the creative team recognizes the importance of including actual famous Chinese actors to appeal to Chinese audiences, and it is exciting that these performers will get a Western spotlight soon.

Plus, I had to realize that the entertainment industry in China is different than what it is in the U.S. Chinese people don’t struggle for representation in Chinese films and televisions shows. It’s not like in Hollywood, where Chinese Americans and other minorities have to fight to get screen time.

Thus, my aunts and uncles, and many other people in China, don’t deal with the erasure of Chinese faces and stories in Chinese media. To them, adding in a difference voice might be exciting. They’ve heard stories about the Great Wall a thousand times as kids—why not add Matt Damon fighting what look like giant lizards or dragons to spice things up?

It’s also worth noting that people in China are obsessed Western pop culture. They can’t get enough of celebrities such as Kobe Bryant, Adele, David Beckham, and yes, Matt Damon. Chinese fans also gobble up shows like “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones” as voraciously as American audiences. Loving Western pop culture doesn’t mean they love their own country less, and perhaps “The Great Wall” has the exact East-meets-West vibe that will appeal to both American and Chinese audiences.

Further Complications

With these nuances in mind, I began seeing things a little differently, and with a little less steam coming out of my ears. Who am I to deny people’s free will and ability to form their own decisions? If someone’s not offended, is it douchey of me to provoke them into feeling that way?

However, I also think it’s important to examine this appreciation for Western culture more deeply, or as deeply as I can. With white people’s imperialistic habit to colonize half the world and subject millions of people to their worldview, it wouldn’t be outlandish to wonder if some people carry internalized preference for whiteness without even realizing.

For example, there are companies in China that literally hire white actors to pretend to be their employees or business partners because people think Western countries are wealthy, and by extension, so are these Chinese companies if they can hire foreigners. And as this CNN article points out, it’s not all foreign actors who are in demand—it’s white people.

So What Is The Truth?

It’s entirely possible that I’m just pontificating about a trivial issue to sound smart. But at the same time, thinking about “The Great Wall” forced me to expand my ideas and recognize the nuance in issues of representation. It also made me acknowledge the different circumstances Chinese Americans and Chinese people in China face, and that while a movie about Chinese history co-starring Matt Damon seems disrespectful and offensive to me as a Chinese American, it may actually be an honor, or at the worst, a non-issue, to Chinese people.

I need to stop expecting everyone to be so up-in-arms like I am, because my opinions don’t represent the opinions of all Asians or Asian Americans, or all Chinese people or Chinese Americans.

On the flip side, maybe it’s time some people examine their own preferences and ask, “Do I think white is more attractive? If so, why?”

And to the readers, I’m not saying this article is necessarily a call to boycott “The Great Wall” or that your new life goal should be to drag Matt Damon through the mud. Rather, this article is more of a call not just to start discussions about race or representation, but to bring existing conversations about these topics into new territories and acknowledge intricacies in the dialogue, especially in an international debate like the one taking place around this film.

So I say, whether you see the movie is up to you, and whether you have a problem with it is up to you. But ultimately, it raises more complicated questions, concerns, and discussions—and that’s where it matters.