East Asian-American Transcultural Perspectives in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
No country on Earth is as enveloped in the creation and consumption of media as the United States. It is the world leader in television consumption, with the average American watching over 3 hours of television a day, not including other devices. Before the streaming era came in full force, the average television watching used to be over 4 hours daily. Naturally, much of this plays a role into American culture, and this is where on screen representation is critical for minorities in the United States. The current most watched media is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is the highest grossing film franchise in human history, with a current worldwide box office of over 25 billion dollars. So, the arrival of Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a critical moment for Asian-American representation. Specifically, Eastern Asian.
The announcement of a Chinese superhero finally getting a film in a Marvel film ensured that the two world superpowers and box office giants, the United States and China, would both be very keen on viewing the film. Thus, Marvel hired director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton and co-writer Dave Callaham, both Asian-Americans, to craft the film, to ensure it was firmly in Asian-American hands, which worked. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a very emotionally resonant film that serves as both a love letter to Asian culture, and a representation of the struggles of being Asian-American. The Eastern and Western cultures are vastly different, and children born between these worlds often face immense pressure to conform to one culture or the other, rather than be allowed to be both. In the film, the lead protagonist, Shang-Chi, is stuck in a similar situation, forced to reckon with his roots, which he tries to avoid while he lives a quiet life away from his first home. The film touches on everything it means to be in such a situation, touching on familial ties, trauma, tradition, cultural and generational clashes, and legacy, primarily in the relationship between the film’s antagonist and protagonist.
Like most superhero stories, there is a supervillain. Unfortunately for Shang-Chi, this is his own father, Xu Wenwu. The character of Wenwu is an amalgamation of two other characters found in Marvel’s original comics, The Mandarin and Fu Manchu. The latter has infamously been utilized as a prime example of orientalism and ‘Yellow Peril,” who was later absorbed by Marvel and touted as the father of Shang-Chi. Similarly, The Mandarin was born in an era of Asian xenophobia. He was conceived as the archenemy of Iron Man, a character whose origin story was escaping a Viet Cong prison in a metal suit and later becoming a hero. The Mandarin was a vicious warlord with ten mystical rings with a literal alien origin, constantly at odds with the all-American, innovative, and charming Tony Stark (Iron Man), a very “East vs. West” setup born in the Vietnam era and post Korean War and Chinese Revolution.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe first attempted to adapt The Mandarin in Iron Man 3, wherein an organization appropriates Wenwu’s militant organization (The Ten Rings) and blames them for a serious of explosions, covering their own sinister experiments. To help convince the world of this ruse, they even hire a drunk and out of work actor to masquerade as “The Mandarin,” an Osama Bin Laden-esque figure, an imposter of Wenwu. A furious Wenwu kidnaps the actor and makes him a jester for his amusement. He later muses about the false flag terrorist situation, stating “He gave his figurehead the name of a chicken dish. And it worked! America was terrified…of an orange!” With a tongue-in-cheek approach, the film mocks the in-universe and real-life origins of The Mandarin and Fu Manchu by reinventing the characters into one humanized and complex character. “The Mandarin” character has gradually evolved as American attitudes towards Asian culture has gradually improved.
In Shang-Chi, Wenwu is an ancient warlord who came across 10 mythical iron rings that granted him great power and immortality. These rings are no longer the alien finger rings as portrayed in the comics, instead, they are reminiscent of training rings used in martial arts, especially those in Hung Ga. The style of Hung Ga is a branch of Shaolin kung fu, and like all martial arts, they are not just a fighting style, they are a way of life. Hung Ga is characterized by strong stances and vigorous training, with its dual nature known to be called “soft-hard.” Wenwu’s fighting stances take after this style, as does some of his personality and many of his ideals. Wenwu uses his 10 rings to consolidate power and create his powerful Ten Rings organization, and rules with force. But when he meets his future wife, Ying Li, he begins to change his violent ways, and retires using the 10 rings and stops his conquests to raise a family. Soon, Shang-Chi and his sister, Xu Xialing, are born.
All of this is much to take in, but it serves as necessary context for how the film approaches Asian-American identity. The next step towards explaining this lies in Shang-Chi’s mother, Li, a skilled martial artist who uses Baguazhang technique. This is a branch of the Wudang quan class of martial arts, the largest class opposite of Shaolin. It involves circular and evasive footwork, and is more movement based and flexible than Hung Ga technique. When Wenwu and Li first encounter each other, they fight, as Wenwu was attempting to trespass into Li’s village, hidden in another dimension. Li is able to match Wenwu’s prowess, a first in his 1,000 year-long life, and he is enamored, leading to their marriage. This relationship between the two is representative of the Taoist idea of yin and yang, light needing dark, in order to preserve harmony, or balance.
This idea directly correlates to the film’s approach to its heroes, Shang-Chi and his best friend, Katy. They struggle with their identities and who they are in very different, yet similar ways. Katy’s character arc takes a literal approach of an Asian-American person coming to terms with their lineage, whereas Shang-Chi’s character arc is attempting to find balance between his mother and father’s teachings and the person he will become. But both represent the yin and yang that it is to be a immigrant minority in the United States, specifically, Chinese American. These characters are not just Chinese or just American, they are both, they are the balance, they are the yin and the yang. Their heritage is inseparable from who they are. However, they struggle in learning to achieve balance, and the film plays with these ideas and metaphors constantly.
The film starts with Shang-Chi living in San Francisco, going by the Anglicized name “Shaun.” He works as a parking valet alongside Katy, the two of them constantly being chastised by family and friends that they aren’t living to their full potential, as they waste their time drinking in karaoke bars and joyriding the cars they are meant to watch. Ten Rings agents sent by Wenwu force Shang-Chi to undergo a long-dreaded reunion with his father. Much like actual Asian-Americans, this means a trip to the other side of the world. Katy is dragged into the affair, and it is shown that she does not speak Chinese very well, and likewise, is surprised at how different “Shaun” is once he stops the façade of blending into the American culture.
When Wenwu and Shang-Chi’s group meet in his mountain fortress, it does not feel like a superhero meeting a supervillain, it feels like a family dinner with a disagreement. Before the meal, Xu Xialing tells a nervous Katy “Just nod, don’t talk, he’ll forget you’re there. That’s how I survived.” Wenwu later asks Katy what her “Chinese name” is and explains the importance of protecting one’s name and legacy, recalling the imposter incident from Iron Man 3 as an example of Western culture misappropriating Chinese heritage. Katy is Chinese American, but doesn’t think about it too often, she has been very Westernized and integrated.
At dinner, Wenxu explains his villainous scheme, which is not entirely sinister. He hears a voice promising his greatest desire: the return of his deceased wife, killed 17 years prior (in front of Shang-Chi) as retribution for his past sins against his rivals during his violent years. The voice calls him to return to the village and open a gate, notably enticing him by saying “We’ll all be together.” What Wenwu wants is not just the return of his beloved wife, but the reunion of his entire family, whom he has alienated following a return to his violence following her death. When he sees Shang-Chi for the first time in a decade, he greets him with a gentle forehead bump and a firm hand on the shoulder, stating how proud he is his men could not kill his son.
However, he almost entirely ignores his daughter, Xu Xialing, a nod to unfortunately sexist gender roles in Chinese society (sexism is not limited to just China, of course), an idea justified and spread by the early spread of Confucianism. Wenxu is very much a traditionalist and sees Shang-Chi as his more important heir to his legacy, the eldest son, another idea seen in Confucianism. Wenwu also never trained Xu Xialing in any martial arts, despite training Shang-Chi beginning as soon as his mother was killed, and even trusting him to hunt down and kill his mother’s murderer (something Shang-Chi accomplishes, though this is what causes him not to return to his father). Wenwu’s justification for not training Xu Xialing is that she reminded him too much of his late wife. Late in the film, Shang-Chi’s aunt notes that “he looks like his mother,” highlighting Wenwu’s hypocrisy in his excuse of not training Xu Xialing for the same reason.
Wenwu is a representation of ancient and honored Chinese tradition. Wenwu represents a generational gap (thousands of years!), a cultural gap, and an ideological gap. Yet, much of what makes up Wenwu is in both of his children. There must be balance, and he is the dark that meets their mother’s light, and there are many traits about Wenwu that are admirable. He is loyal, he is pensive, he is studious, he is hardworking, he is confident, and he is ambitious. Unfortunately, it Wenwu’s ambition and overconfidence that constantly makes him too pushing or power-hungry. He alienates Shang-Chi by pushing him too much to be like himself, and he does not handle failure well. When his wife is killed, he immediately becomes obsessed with avenging her and puts his rings back on, ceasing to be the good and even peaceful father he was for a short time. When his children had run away, he narcissistically claims it is something he allowed as if it was his plan, stating “I gave you ten years to live your life.”
Many of these parental issues would hit close to home for some Asian-Americans struggling with familial ties and living up to the high expectations Eastern culture can place on an individual living up to their full potential. Likewise, both the actors for Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Wenwu (Tony Leung) have struggled with parental issues. Simu Liu was raised by his grandparents until he was five, and Tony Leung’s father left his family when he was eight. As seen with the gender roles, the other issues born out of Confucianism can still haunt Chinese family dynamics. It is something that has become imbued with the culture. A main staple of Confucianism is “filial piety,” where the age of someone in a family is the deciding factor in who serves as the head of the family, and one which means children should obey and respect their elders. As Wenwu is 1,000 years old and immortal when wielding his rings, that is a privilege he will not be surpassed in. He is not good at ceding power. Likewise, Confucianism also places importance on “face,” or, collective identity in a family. What affects one reflects on all, and this idea of the group over the individual is painfully different from Western, especially American ideas of individual autonomy and freedom.
Curiously, Wenwu does echo with the comic book Mandarin’s roots of representing “East vs. West,” but rather than face the white and strictly all-American Iron Man, he faces his own son, who is also Chinese. And this conflict with his father forces Shang-Chi to come to terms with the turmoil within himself and his identity. He is indeed his father’s son, but he is also his mother’s son. After the trip to his father’s home, he eventually goes to his mother’s mystical village, named Ta-Lo. It serves as a spiritual spot of self-awareness and coming to terms with balance of the yin and yang, as Shang-Chi learns his mother’s Baguazhang forms from his aunt, and even Katy learns she has a place despite having never considered herself part of the culture. The metaphorically aimless Katy is presented with a bow, and told “If you aim at nothing, you will hit nothing,” hinting at her low life ambitions. This is the positive side of Western values helping bring some discipline and structure to the carefree Katy. As Shang-Chi keeps training, he learns that his father and mother’s techniques are not opposing, but complimentary, and he will need a balance of both in order to defeat Wenwu.
Wenwu is stubborn after being on top for 1,000 years and refuses to listen that his wife is truly gone and that the door that he hears her voice from in her village is not holding her, but instead is holding back a soul-draining beast. When rebuffed by Shang-Chi from attempting to open the door, Wenwu spitefully throws his wife’s murder in his son’s face, saying “You were there when they came for her. And you did nothing. You stood at the window and watched her die.” Wenwu then successfully manages to open it despite being defeated by Shang-Chi in a fight, and the monster emerges, threatening to kill everyone, starting with Shang-Chi. Instead, Wenwu takes the blow without hesitation, and gives his rings to his son, calmly accepting his fate as he dies, even showing pride. For for Wenwu’s performance, Tony Leung stated that when approaching Wenwu, he noticed that “He has always loved his kids, he just has no idea how.” This is a perfect summary of the character, representative of the clash between the human instinct of loving a child and traditional cultural values and ideas that are held within Chinese society, where any break from tradition affects the “face” of a family and can impact them negatively. But it is here that Wenwu realizes he has been impacting his family negatively.
For many immigrants, children of immigrants, or children of any Asian heritage, this film is representative of the huge dilemma in the United States of fitting in, and likewise, the dilemma in China (or many Asian countries) of conforming. The individual or the group, the American identity or the Asian identity. They can be ostracized for being “too Western” in the East and can be the target of prejudice for being “too Eastern” in the West. The struggle for many Asian Americans is finding that balance, having the opposing sides of themselves find harmony and work together. To be balanced in two such drastically different cultures is the true superpower, in a sense. Shang-Chi is a person who ran away from his family because of his internal conflict and hid away in the United States pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Neither of these ways of life were sustainable, but it was when he confronted his culture and likewise unabashedly embraced it, he was able to overcome his all-powerful father and more importantly, achieve closure When Shang-Chi returns to San Francisco, his other home, he openly talks about his adventures and exploitations as a superhero, and finds a new purpose and no longer questions what he will do with his life. He also does not lose his carefree American side, and still has fun with Katy and gets drunk for karaoke despite his new great power, great responsibility superhero lifestyle.
Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a film that took huge steps in evolving Asian-American representation by allowing Asian-Americans to craft their story themselves, taking white American-made ideas of their culture and instead humanizing them and making them more genuine. Shang-Chi’s decision to have about a quarter of the film spoken in Chinese dialect, the accurate Asian imagery and ideologies, and the nearly-all Asian cast are massive steps for blockbuster films. In cinema, Asian and Pacific Islanders make up less than 6% of speaking roles, which includes minor roles. On top of that, violent hate crimes against Asians in the United States rose by 73%, following increased xenophobia due to the Chinese origin of COVID-19.
Films like Shang-Chi are critical in a country that produces and worships television and films, where perceptions of outside cultures can be challenging with two massive oceans on either side and only two bordering nations. The transcultural approach the film takes in being understandable by Western audiences without compromising or bastardizing Eastern culture is in of itself a perfect balance of yin and yang. While not everyone may relate to having a 1,000-year-old father with 10 mythical rings or being a kung-fu master, anybody can relate to finding their purpose, and Asian-Americans can relate to how challenging that can be when their definition or execution of that purpose might vary greatly in two vastly different cultures.
PS: My friend made this animated cartoon, underlined here in this link, based on a “Pretty Much It” podcast talking about how to pronounce “Shang-Chi.” It rules, and you need to watch it.
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