Everybody knows about ping pong diplomacy, but we seem to have just completed a period of Canto-pop diplomacy, as Jackie Chan has recorded an “official” song for the Olympics. Canto-pop is of course the dreadful Cantonese pop music that infects every corner of the Chinese world. More generally I suppose it can be used to refer to the general pop culture of Hong Kong1 Just as Beijing used ping pong to try and create a connection with the U.S. so to the central government has embraced the commercial culture of Hong Kong as part of their attempt to create a Greater China. John Hamm discusses some of this in Paper Swordsmen which is partially about the rise of New School martial arts fiction but mainly about Jin Yong 金庸 and his work. Jin, a.k.a. Louis Cha, in addition to being the world’s best-selling author of martial arts novels is also the founder and long-time editor of Ming Pao once one of the more independent-minded papers in Hong Kong and now the center of a multi-national media empire. Zha was thus exactly the type of person Beijing would want to cultivate as they tried to re-unify the motherland. Zha was received by Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People in 1981, the first important figure from Hong Kong to be so honored. Zha would have been worth talking to just as a newspaper editor, but being an author of martial arts novelist made him even better. Although Beijing never accepted Tapei’s claims to be the “real” preservers of Chinese culture, after the Cultural Revolution a figure like Zha who had been critical of the CR and could make claims to be a preserver of Chinese culture was solid gold. As Beijing was trying to re-unify Hong Kong (and Taiwan) calling for a unified state was a non-starter, and so the ties of history and culture were needed. What is Chinese culture? Some bits of what might be called Chinese culture were not perhaps things Beijing wanted to play up, such as the Confucian concept of government by a class of incorruptible officials chosen for their skill rather than their connections. Everyone likes gong fu heroes, however, and given that so many of Cha/Jin Yong’s stories had strong anti-imperialist/ nationalist elements he was a perfect fit.
Jackie Chan is in some respects ever better for this than Louis Cha. He is, I think, about the last of the martial arts movie starts to have had real old-fashioned opera training. He is also a bit less prickly. Cha’s Ming Pao has been accused of cuddling up to Beijing a bit more than some would like, but he was also quite critical of Beijing, especially after 6/4. Chan is not critical of anything, as far as I can tell, and this sort of ties in the comic persona he takes on in most of his films.2 Bruce Lee does not work as well for Beijing’s purposes as a living symbol of Hong Kong culture. Besides being dead and thus unable to turn up for events far to many of his roles (and Jet Li’s) involved playing people who defied corrupt power-holders. The Jianghu (rivers and lakes) tradition that was at the center of martial arts fiction always had a problematic relationship with authority (That’s why so many of the stories have elements of Ming loyalism/ anti-Manchuism. That way one can defy cruel oppression and be loyal to the true rulers.) Jackie Chan has none of that (compare his Wong Feihong in Drunken Master with Jet Li’s in Once Upon a Time in China) If you want a nice, non-threatening haohan Jackie Chan is your man.