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Shang-Chi: Bringing Ancient Chinese Mythology to Modern Day Marvel

2021-10-19
[Photo credit: Marvel Studios/Disney]
[Photo credit: Marvel Studios/Disney]

Marvel Studios has found its new hero: Shang-Chi. A martial arts master and Ten Rings defector, the hero is forced to confront his past after being drawn into the mysteries of the Ten Rings organization led by his father, Wenwu. The movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, stacked with a host of native and western-born Chinese actors, including Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Meng’er Zhang, and Fala Chen, weaves a beautiful narrative on the importance of family in Chinese culture and how to draw on ancient strength to foster a better future. The movie is considered a worldwide triumph, earning $206.69 million (and counting) in the global box office - making it the biggest grossing movie of 2020 and 2021. While its plot is praised by critics, it’s the captivating way the production interlaces Chinese mythology, philosophy, and cultural practices into modern-day storytelling that contributes to Shang-Chi’s success.

The physical world depicted in Shang-Chi illustrates a variety of topographies native to China. From a rocky training compound to a magical village guarded by dragons, Chinese American production designer Sue Chan understands the various territories of China and creates a completely new realm that captures the authenticity of Chinese landscapes. While part of the movie takes place at Wenwu’s formidable compound, which was visually monochromatic, the final battle in the village Ta Lo paints an iridescent picture of flourishing vibrancy that distinctly diverges from the first half of the film. To construct Shang-Chi’s vast world, Chan drew from the tiny details of the colors and symbols of past Chinese empires. “We used a lot of very traditional Chinese architectural motifs. We looked at the Tang and Song dynasties for style guidance because decoratively speaking, we liked the symbolism, the styles and colors,” Chan notes. “But we used a lot from everywhere because it’s not a particular era of China and not specific to a dynasty.”

The final battle in the village Ta Lo paints an iridescent picture of flourishing vibrancy that distinctly diverges from the first half of the film [Photo Credit: Marvel Studios/Disney]

Incorporating earth, wood, metal, fire, and water, the five elements of Chinese cosmology, and using a variety of traditional Chinese compositional themes, Chan effortlessly strikes an array of moods that produce the perfect amalgam of a balanced life, a common ideology for many in both ancient and modern China. "We were very cognizant of being respectful and responsible about the way we conveyed Chinese culture because there’s so much to it. It’s about the details. If you are legitimate and honest of how you show the way people live, and that there’s a grounding in reality, you’re going to succeed," Chan acknowledged in an interview with Variety Magazine.

What many don’t know is that Morris was loosely based on a Dijiang, a faceless creature with six legs and wings featured in the 2,000-year-old Chinese classic text Classic of Mountains and Seas [Photo credit: Marvel Studios/Disney]

Creatures are omnipresent in Chinese mythology, and the same can be said for the magical village of Ta Lo in Shang-Chi. After he cautions his father against destroying Ta Lo in search of his deceased mother, Shang-Chi decides to pay the hidden community a visit to find answers and offer protection against the Ten Rings. Upon entering Ta Lo, Shang-Chi is introduced to energetic supernatural animals who are derived from Chinese mythology. The breakout star of the movie was CGI creature Morris, who helps Shang-Chi and his friends find the hidden Ta Lo village. What many don’t know is that Morris was loosely based on a dijiang, a faceless creature with six legs and wings, featured in the 2,000-year-old Chinese classic text the Classic of Mountains and Seas. In ancient Chinese mythology, a dijiang is the patron god of mountains in a perpetual state of confusion that causes pandemonium wherever it goes. Though Morris takes Shang-Chi on a wild adventure through an enchanted maze to Ta Lo and is somehow able to communicate with members of the group, the fluffy winged creature successfully assists the protagonist on his journey.

Also featured in both the Classic of Mountain and Sea and Shang-Chi is the huli jing. These nine-tailed, majestic fox-like creatures are known for their shape shifting abilities [Photo credit: Shi Lin]

The myth of the huli jing in China eventually evolved, and the fox spirits were known for being able to shapeshift into mesmerizing women. The term “huli jing” would become a colloquialism in the country for a seductress or a temptress. Though they can be either malevolent or benevolent characters, the ones in Shang-Chi appear as almost peaceful animals that coexist with the people of Ta Lo, perhaps a deliberate attempt to offer a different perspective of what was once considered a mischievous beast. While the huli jing only appears in the film for a minute, viewers from around the world immediately recognized its magnificent tails and likened it to a Pokemon.

Representing the sovereignty of emperors in Chinese philosophy, dragons are one of the twelves Chinese zodiac and represent good luck, virtue, and prosperity [Photo credit: Murphy’s Multiverse]

Of course, dragons are pervasive throughout the entire film, which are known to be the ultimate protectors in Chinese mythology and culture, revered for their power, wisdom, and nobility. Unlike the dangerous, often larger and more muscular dragons of the West that live in cavernous mountains, Chinese dragons are serpentine in nature and live at the bottom of rivers, lakes, or seas. Representing the sovereignty of emperors in Chinese philosophy, dragons are one of the twelve Chinese zodiacs and represent good luck, virtue, and prosperity. Influenced by this Chinese mythology, the Great Protector dragon in Shang-Chi defeats the most evil demon and saves Ta Lo from annihilation with its valiant, invincible power.

The majestical creatures and sweeping landscapes of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings build a modern fantasy world rich with ancient Chinese culture that allows viewers to be fully immersed in the traditions of the past while entering a world that’s completely new. By submerging audiences in Chinese culture, from the assorted environments to the mythical animals of 2,000 years ago, Shang-Chi accurately portrays the decadent history that has influenced modern-day China.

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