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An Analysis of Eastern Influence in Western Art
The American/English poet T.S. Eliot references the Upanishad in his most famous poem "The Wasteland," a work that essentially chronicles the break-up of Western civilization and looks to Eastern philosophy for a kind of crutch in the wake of the abandonment of Western philosophy. Since then, Westerners, whether in literature or in film, have continued to look to the East for inspiration and representation of virtuous or right living. Hollywood, for example, has for decades been borrowing themes and narratives from Hong Kong cinema, whether in the works of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, or the Wachowski Brothers. This paper will look at the ways Eastern philosophy has influenced the West in terms of culture -- primarily through the medium of literature and film and the avenue of spirituality.
The Spirit of the East: Karma
Karma may be defined as the cycle of cause and effect. Like samsara, which may be interpreted as continual flow, karma represents the Eastern philosophical equivalent of the Western maxim, "What goes around, comes around." Release from this continuous cycle is what is meant by moksha -- or, the attainment of nirvana (a place free of suffering, according to Buddhism). The Eastern religions and philosophies all give varying accounts of karma, samsara, moksha, and nirvana.
As Jack Sikora (2002) states, "Moksha is not equivalent to the Western term/concept of 'salvation;' however, out of convenience many writers…will employ the term 'salvation' to indicate moksha, Nirvana, or some other ultimate spiritual goal" (p. 3). The idea, here, is significant. While salvation is something that is offered primarily through the Christian God -- Eastern religion seeks a different ideal: liberation from the cycle -- freedom from samsara: in other words, moksha. Depending upon one's good or bad karma, moksha is either near at hand or still at some spiritual distance.
This concept of liberation from an earthly cycle of suffering is, of course, highlighted in Eliot's "Wasteland" through the petition for "shanti" -- the peace that passes all understanding. In other words, Eliot, the Western poet looks to an Eastern expression to effect a sense of the Western longing for peace. This same "shanti" plays a part in several examples of Western cinema which have been influenced by Asian culture: Asia's impact on Western cinema has definitely been "formative rather than marginal" as Meaghan Morris (2004) states in her action cinema analysis (p. 183). From Jean-Claude van Damme and Tom Cruise to Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill), Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Martin Scorsese (The Departed), Hollywood has certainly displayed more than a passing interest in the wuxia school -- whether that be through kung fu, gangster, or serious drama genres, as demonstrated by a recent Hong Kong crossover to an all English-speaking cast: the Wong Kar Wai-directed, Norah Jones-starring film My Blueberry Nights.
However, one piece of Eastern literature that has had a large impact on Western art is the Arabian Nights. Themes of magic and supernaturalism pervade the Nights -- and the Nights have in turn pervaded the canons and thoughts of Western literature and civilization -- not least of all to the great age of Science that ended the medieval age and introduced the modern. As Saree Makdisi (2008) states, "The Nights…added a supernatural dimension to the Enlightenment; the tales offered an avenue into modernity through its magical opposite, an alternative to European identity, and an antidote to neoclassicism" (p. 4). Since the Western world had become thoroughly dissatisfied with the ancient traditions of its culture, it is no surprise that it should look to the East to supply those forms that could hold its moral compass in some sort of check. The Nights had helped do as much (in a sense, and to a limited extent) in the East for as long as they had existed -- as Bruno Bettelheim (2010) argues: "It should be recalled that in Hindu medicine -- and the Thousand and One Nights cycle is of Indian-Persian origin -- the mentally deranged person is told a fairy story, contemplation of which will help him overcome his emotional disturbance" (p. 88). Thus, the king, who has been betrayed by womankind, requires 1001 nights of story-telling to free him from the melancholy that has warped his perspective and turned him into a slaughterer of women. The magic of the fairy tale, as Bettelheim suggests, is illustrative of the Arabic sense of what today is known as "magical realism" -- a kind of cross between the real and the (imaginary or) hyper-real -- in other words, the natural and the supernatural.
Indeed, Magical Realism has been on the rise in Western literature throughout the 20th century. Wendy Faris (2004) defines magical realism as the combination of "realism and the fantastic so that the marvelous seems to grow organically within the ordinary, blurring the distinction between them… [including] different cultural traditions… [and reflecting] the hybrid nature of much postcolonial society" (p. 1). Faris finds magical realism to exist at the crossroads of modernism and post-modernism, as a kind of fairy-tale reminder of existence that exists. Though she limits herself to the expression as viewed in novels, the study could easily be taken up in film works. "Because it reports events that it does not empirically verify" the narrative voice of magical realism is of an "uncertain origin," and considered "defocalized" (p. 3). Part of the purpose of such defocalization is to enable the reader to escape the realism of the novel's world and enter into a kind of interplay with the mysteries of the world that are not and have not been resolved by realists. Magical realism, as Faris notes, has remystified the world through its literature in the West.
Remystification has not occurred only in literature. It is also happening on the screen -- and the Hong Kong-American hybrid Kung Fu Hustle is a perfect illustration of the way Asian film is acting as a kind of platform from which Western cinema can explore the concept of magical realism and Eastern philosophy at one and the same time.
Wuxia and Film
This relationship between East and West is also described as a "flow" by East-West scholars, such as Meaghan Morris (2004). In other words, it reflects a trade-off between Eastern and Western cultures in which there is a give and take, a back-and-forth. This is illustrated in the ideas that the artistic medium of film makes visible in both Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema.
What is particular about Hong Kong cinema, as Morris says, is the fact that it "has long addressed local concerns in cosmopolitan cultural forms" (p. 184). Siu Leung Li (2001) speaks of a "traditional Chinese martial art using primary hand-to-hand combat" (p. 516) in his look at Chineseness in Hong Kong cinema. Hollywood has sometimes pandered to a kind of locally concerned storytelling by tapping the indie world, whether with documentaries like Michael Moore's Roger and Me or lower-class social dramas like Jeff Nichols' Shotgun Stories. But perhaps because of its own unique history, Hong Kong cinema has been better able to provide an outlet for Chinese artists wishing to explore their own social fabric.
Most interesting, however, is that whether it is Hollywood or Hong Kong, locally or globally addressed, the stories that unite the two and appeal to audiences are always the same in terms of values -- whether they are driven by Chineseness or Americanness. Whether these films deliver in traditional or modern modes, they are about the exercise of universal values, to which every child and adult can relate, regardless of ethnicity. They appeal to a basic good vs. evil paradigm that is as much Western as it is Eastern. Yet, the East provides the West with a new way of viewing that paradigm, at least in artistic film. To this end, Stephen Chow, curbs his trademark verbally-driven Cantonese narratives in favour of a more visual and universally-appealing narrative in his 2004-5 Kung Fu Hustle. In Hustle, Chow reveals all there is to know about the flow between Hollywood and Hong Kong. The story he tells is as basic as any redemption story can be: it is one of honor, love, duty, betrayal, and fulfillment. It spans decades in its telling and bridges worlds in its execution; but it encapsulates the most basic tenet of the kung fu genre, which is, according to Morris, that "identity is the achievement of villainy, but similarity is the aspiration of heroism" (p. 186).
Kung Fu Hustle is the fruit of Columbia's Asian sector, Hong Kong's Star Overseas and Beijing Film Studio. After the success of Shaolin Soccer, Chow was approached by Columbia with the idea of doing a hybrid. What they confected still has people trying to ring up all the different influences. As Ross Chen (2005) notes on Yum Cha! Asian Entertainment, "Chow's famed 'mo lei tau' verbal nonsense is all but nonexistent, but Kung Fu Hustle has Hong Kong Cinema goodness in spades." From the…[continue]
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