Harry Potter and a Chinese Audience

So I traded our unwatchable, “rated R,” 65-cent copy of the latest Harry Potter movie for a different one, and here’s what it says on the back:

the acting is not really that good. Keanu Reeves is miscast in his role and a better actor could have done more with it…

Ah, China – it’s Harry Potter China-style!

I hope the Harry Potter series makes it huge in China and every kid grows up reading it (the real books, not “Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blooded Relative Prince” or any of the other fake ones).

Why? (Thanks for asking!) Partly because the ever-present sub-surface rumble of culture stress, which is an unavoidable feature of living elsewhere, predisposes me to dislike certain aspects of Chinese culture that are most contrary to my own inherited values as a Westerner, and major themes of the Harry Potter series just happen to run directly contrary to said aspects of Chinese culture. It wouldn’t bother me personally if millions of Chinese children were influenced by those particular “foreign” values.

And partly – and more importantly – because at the end of the day I still buy the notion of absolute truth, moral absolutes, personal responsibility for one’s choices, and that personal agency can play a big, perhaps bigger, role in life on this planet than fate. These are major underlying themes in Harry Potter and I don’t believe they can be completely reduced to mere cultural products. Chinese culture traditionally, and still today among young people, emphasizes the opposite.

From everything we’ve seen, heard, and read, fatalism is still typically assumed in China, and is one of a few major influences perpetuating a legacy of avoiding personal responsibility like the plague, turning excuses for ethically questionable behaviour into moral maxims, and tolerating suffering or oppression with selfish, cynical indifference (ha, this might be the culture stress talking, just fyi). The work of 林语堂 (Lín Yǔtáng), who was critical of Chinese culture but (it seems) still preferred it Western culture, explains and illustrates this for Westerners in My Country and My People and Moment in Peking.

Joanne Rowling’s underlying messages, which become explicit at certain points, are directly contrary to deterministic fate and moral relativism. She manages to emphasize the importance of families and parents while at the same time arguing that a person’s character and identity, while highly influenced by their family, is ultimately self-determined by the choices they make. Family and parents are of utmost importance; Rowling takes great pains to demonstrate the importance of good parents and family life, and illustrates the impact of fathers and mothers on the character of their adult children. But for Rowling, a person’s inherited lot in life does not determine whether they will be good or bad. Everyone has both choices within them, and it’s how one chooses that ultimately determines the kind of person one becomes. And in Harry Potter, individuals are ultimately responsible for their own personal integrity, and personal integrity is clearly more important than securing wealth, power, security, prestige, etc. for oneself or one’s family.

I’m all for tempering popular Western notions of personal agency and “free” will with healthy doses of biology and family psychology. An unbalanced emphasis on personal agency too often results in judgments lacking in compassion, and besides, biology and nurture matter. But not to the point of completely dissolving choice and will. We can make real choices, and our choices can make a real difference. Sure, things in life happen beyond our control and we aren’t all dealt the same cards at birth, but acknowledging that is a far cry from adopting a fatalistic approach to life.

For all the Harry Potter hold-outs

This is the second to last Harry Potter post, in case you’re wondering. And the next one actually has to do with China.

In 2001, after only four of the seven Harry Potter books had been released, two authors wrote “Character, Choice, and Harry Potter” (pdf file). Now that the series is concluded, we can see that they pretty much nailed some of the biggest themes. And the enthusiastic avalanche of people interpreting the series as various sorts of intentional Christian allegory/metaphor/etc. is probably still only just beginning.

Of course there’s much to say about the stories and what author Joanne Rowling might be saying and doing through the series. Those who delve into historical Christian symbolism (and Latin) note rather curious passages, and as if adding quotes from Rowling interviews to all this weren’t more than enough, she includes some more obvious, surface clues in the final book, like by quoting the Bible – twice – never mind the whole Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Stone Table/submissive substitutionary death/baddie-defeating Deeper Magic flashback-inducing climax. Although people could have and maybe should have seen it coming, having the full arc of the story in view shows the writing of (gleefully?) secular NYTimes columnists and (high-strung?) religious people to be more than a little embarrassing.

I don’t think the Harry Potter series is another one-to-one Narnian-type allegory. There are lots of juicy parallels to draw, but they mostly seem relatively superficial; Joanne Rowling seems closer to Tolkien than Lewis when it comes to how she gets her points across, but I assume no one puts her in the same literary league as Tolkien. But I also assume she isn’t necessarily attempting to do the exact same thing, in the same way, as those authors. Either way, the underlying themes of the series (family, self-sacrificial love vs. power, choices, self-determination and character, personal agency and responsibility, death, etc.) are great, especially considering the times in which she writes and in which we live. One might even call them Christian.

For those inclined to analyze Harry Potter, HogwartsProfessor.com seems like a good place to geek out.

Hallows or Horcruxes?

Wish I could find that newspaper photo we scanned of a Bible professor we know standing in line with his daughter dressed up like wizards for a Harry Potter book release party.

J.K. Rowling said:

Yes, I am [a Christian]… Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.

We just finished book 7 and pretty much loved it. It’s been said that last weekend may have been the single biggest mass reading in the history of the world. Gazillions of books sold in a matter of hours, etc., etc.

It’s easy to find stuff online where people see Christian messages in the HP series, like here (of course, there’s lots online saying Harry Potter’s the devil, too!). It will be a while before we decide what we think it’s all supposed to mean, but in the meantime Harry Potter freaks can geek-out here. Or, if you’ve read it, tell us what you think!