The Significance of British Film in the Chinese Imagination

British knowledge of Chinese culture is dire. Chinese soft power is almost non-existent. China has given the world neither Rock and Roll, Coca Cola or Hollywood, however, it is through a shared appreciation of Western culture that Britain has a lot more in common with the Chinese collective imagination then one might imagine. Figures since 2010 demonstrate that films written by British authors, films set in Britain and films by British directors were consistently popular in China. Despite British liberalism being consistently antagonized by Chinese authoritarianism, it is likely the citizens in both countries derive energy from the dreams and visions demonstrated through British cinema. This level of cultural liberalism was completely banned in Stalinist Russia where Stalin used film to strengthen his cult of personality, removing Trotsky from Eisenstein’s 1928 film October and banning some 37 films between 1935 and 1936. Therefore, the shared experience of film should be utilised to create a common language between Britain and China to achieve future realities on a wide range of eventualities frum environmental sustainability to nuclear warfare.

Christopher Nolan seems to be the most significant director in China. In 2010 Inception was the 3rd biggest film. In 2012, the Dark Knight Rises was the 7th biggest film. In 2014, Inception was the 4th biggest film in China. In 2020, Interstellar re-released as the 24th biggest film and Inception re-released as the 47th biggest film. Collectively Nolan films made approximately 264 million dollars at the Box Office, promoting themes on law and order through Dark Knight Rises, Western Intelligence through Inception and climate disaster through Interstellar.

Like Britain, China hold a mutual infatuation with the worlds created by JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling. In 2010 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One was the 7th biggest film. In 2011, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two was the 3rd biggest film. In 2013, the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was the 20th biggest film. In 2014 the Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was the 17th biggest film. In 2020 the rerelease of Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone was the 19th biggest film. These alternative realities envisioned by JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling are arguably the two most popular in the modern collective British imagination. Growing up in Britain one was either experiencing the world through one of these authors. My entire imagination of the natural landscape got monopolized through the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. In light of vicious conflict over Chinese investigations into Coronavirus, the genocide of the Uighur population and the repression of Hong Kong protestors, most recently in regard to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre it seems weird that Britain can explore similar imaginative landscapes.

Visions of Britain are not confined towards the world of Dragons, Hobbits, Witches and Wizards. The Chinese seemingly show an infatuation with more quotidian and prosaic English films. In 2017, Torquay’s very own Agatha Christie had a Box Office hit with Murder on the Orient Express being the 56th biggest film in China and Paddington 2 was the 62nd biggest film. In 2018 the 62nd biggest film was Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and the 63rd biggest film was Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English Strikes Again. Collectively these peculiarly British films made $115 million at the Chinese Box Office, emphasising the collective Chinese delight at stories that one associates with Chocolate Box Villages in May time Somerset.

Without yet mentioning James Bond, Skyfall and Spectre making approximately $ 143 million dollars through the Chinese box office, it is clear that the powerful images of Britain found in film are shared by all the Chinese people that have enjoyed these same cultural artefacts. It is said Thomas Paine learnt the Bible off by heart to effectively communicate ideas and stories with the masses. Whether in co-operation over climate or conversation over the pandemic, British film should create the foundation for effective communication with the Chinese, because, if we are able to collectively imagine the stories, characters and images in Nolan, Tolkien, Rowling, Christie, Potter, Rowan Atkinson and Paddington, then we might have a good chance at moving to a language and world we all like to imagine.