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Such stuff as Chinese dreams are made on

Austin Williams on contrasting film treatments of a nascent superpower’s hopes and dreams

American Dreams in China by Peter Chan

Source: China Film Co.

Capital idea: a fictionalised account of a real company’s rise celebrates an instrumentalist approach to education

American Dreams in China
Directed by Peter Chan
WE Pictures, 2013

The Road to Fame
Directed by Hao Wu
Tripod Media, 2013

Those born under China’s one-child policy have grown up in a country that has gone from the Third World to the First World in their lifetimes

In November 2012, well before this month’s state visit to the US, President Xi Jinping tested out his “Chinese Dream” catchphrase in Beijing’s National Museum of China.

At the Road to Rejuvenation exhibition, which outlines China’s “century of humiliation” under British and Japanese rule, Xi emphasised that China would be a victim no longer. “The greatest Chinese dream, I believe, has been to achieve the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” he said. He added that the country intends to become “the world’s premier power by mid-century”.

Given that the Chinese film market is predicted to become the world’s largest for box-office receipts a lot sooner than that – by 2020 – it is worth taking a look at two recently released films that provide divergent insights into the ways that the Chinese Dream manifests itself in modern China.

American Dreams in China is a film by Hong Kong director Peter Chan. Chan, who learned his trade at the University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Theater, Film, and Television and worked as an assistant to director John Woo, is big box office in China. After just three days his film had grossed more than Rmb105 million (£10 million), although several bloggers suggested that it was doing well simply because there was nothing else on.

The movie is a rags-to-riches tale of three college graduates during the liberalised post-Mao era who dream of studying in the US to access a better education and secure a better future. With a wink to the audience, the film starts in a period when the US did not really want Chinese immigrants. Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao), born to a wealthy family, is the only one of the three to get immigration clearance. The others – Wang Yang (Tong Dawei), a quiet romantic, and Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming), a starry-eyed country boy – have to remain behind in Beijing.

At college in the US, Meng encounters anti-Chinese prejudice and poor wages. He returns home harbouring a certain amount of resentment but determined that, in the future, Chinese people will be better prepared for life’s opportunities.

While Meng is away, Wang and Cheng set up a makeshift school in the capital. Meng rejoins his friends, bringing acculturated American know-how to the business, and we follow the trio as they work night and day against extreme odds (offering classes in a snow-swept derelict building) to give eager students the chance of self-improvement.

Unfortunately, the story of three undergraduates’ apparent idealism in educating the nation – the theme that attracted me to the film in the first place – reveals itself to be nothing more than a tale of three rather disagreeable businessmen getting rich. For them, education is simply a handy vehicle to make their fortune.

The film is a fictionalised account of the real-life development of the New Oriental Education and Technology Group (called New Dream in the film), a private educational company established in 1993. Today it has an online network of more than 8.3 million registered users. Its founder and CEO, Yu Minhong, has an estimated net worth of $1.05 billion (£671 million).

New Oriental prepares students “for the Chinese high school or college entrance exams” and “international exams for overseas universities”, and teaches the “skills most valued by today’s employers”. It is in effect a cramming school showing how to pass the test by any means necessary: in the film, Cheng explicitly celebrates the “Chinese skill” of memorising and cheating to do so.

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