Why Ninjas Don’t Visit Your Dreams No More

There is little doubt that the propagation of “cultural power” has something to do with the accumulation of “economic power”.
There are, however, some types of “economic power” that are inherently more “cultural”; some national industries that project cultural power/imperialism better. Technology and fashion for instance. Thus “economic power” is best replaced with the notion of “economic influence” when one embarks down this thematic path.
When a country transforms economically in a way that impacts other countries, they get taken “seriously” and their forms of representation become more worthy of imitation and appropriation.
That is why you can actually track the rise and decline of the “Ninja” genre in Hollywood with the rise and decline of Japan’s economic influence.
You might counter by asking why “kung fu”, as a cinematic fixture, also appears to have emerged in the 70s, at the onset of China’s opening up, but peaked in the mid-90s, aligning with the waning of the appeal of the likes of Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Bolo Yeung etc, even as China’s climb continues on an even steeper trajectory. But you would be wrong.
Kung fu did not peak and crash. It became appropriated, mainstreamed and enfolded in the same way that burger, pizza, blazers, sunglasses and nail extensions have become. Every fight choreography in every action flick embodies kung fu moves today. That is in fact the height of cultural diffusion. And the fact that you don’t even notice kung fu anymore is actually proof of one successful Chinese cultural globalisation project.
Note however that “economic influence” rather than “economic power” is the driving force here. Contrary to some formulations, cultural imperialists don’t have to do all the heavy lifting to diffuse their forms and symbols themselves.
As Gramsci so brilliantly framed it: very often those at the receiving end of imperialism do the PULLING that makes imperialism thrive. Good imperialism therefore requires “induced consent”.
Thus it is not China’s expanding GDP that will drive more projects like kung fu into our global consciousness. It is its ability to attain excellence in certain industries, particular orientations of its economic diaspora, its willingness to trade identity for influence, and the direction of its investments in “show off innovations” that inspires beyond making money.

Leave a Reply