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 YÇ”táng), 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.

6 thoughts on “Harry Potter and a Chinese Audience”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Our influences and predispositions do influence us in a certain way. Sometimes to the point where we cannot understand anothers perspective without hard core study and a willingness to listen. In my opinion this is where love comes in. If we love a person with a different perspective we gain the opportunity to hear those “other” different ideas and possibly change and create change in others.

    Personal integrity is a very important trait in my life, the first of those personal integrity principles is love. I hope to grow in that every day.


  2. I love Harry Potter books soooo much though I’m Chinese!
    I only have the Chinese verson books and I’ve finished the previous 6 books.

    Take care,
    Tim Anderson

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