Sophie Lu

In Box Office Hit, American Dream Is Still Alive — In a Maturing China

A movie poster from “American Dreams in China.” (via Douban/fair use)

Over the last two weeks, the movie, American Dreams in China (中国合伙人) has been the number one box office hit in China, selling over 400 million tickets to date. The movie is a gritty and at times tongue-in-cheek comedy that tells the true story of three young men who met and became fast friends at China’s prestigious Peking University in the 1980s because of their common dream to go to America. Their “American Dream” takes them on divergent paths full of hardships and personal failures, but eventually the trio is reunited in Beijing, where they found one of China’s most successful English education companies.

The movie could not have been released at a more opportune time; “dream fever” is sweeping China. China’s online and offline communities have been abuzz with the catchphrase “Chinese Dream” ever since Xi Jinping made it clear the term would define his administration. Chinese media carry weekly features, editorials, and opinion pieces dissecting the finer points of the “Chinese Dream.” American Dreams in China evokes the need to address a nagging question on the minds of many Chinese: Is the Chinese Dream just the American Dream?

According to bloggers, reviewers, and even Xu Xiaoping, upon whose story the protagonist is based, the definitive answer is no: the Chinese Dream is not the American Dream, at least not any more.  

Thirty years ago, China’s youth were full of ideals and dreams. Most of China’s top political and business leaders today were part of that generation. In fact, China’s top two political figures, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, were classmates of the movie’s protagonists. In the 1980’s, many young Chinese dreamt of immigrating to America and realizing the American Dream. But just like the movie’s protagonists, many Chinese ultimately found themselves let down by it. 

In American Dreams in China, the three friends’ stories provide a glimpse into China’s early experience engaging the West, after the country began to open up in the 1980s. One of the young men obtains a visa and goes to New York, telling his friends he plans to never return. Despite being highly educated, however, he can only find work as a busboy at a diner. Impoverished, he returns to Beijing a failure. His friends’ visa applications are repeatedly denied; one loses his girlfriend after she immigrates to the U.S., while the other friend is unceremoniously dumped by his American girlfriend in China. Years later, the three friends reunite in Beijing and co-found a TOEFL training school that would become China’s largest privately owned education company. In an ironic twist of fate, after failing to achieve their own American Dreams, the three friends find success and fortune by selling the American Dream to the young Chinese who came after them.  

In a blog post entitled “Is ‘American Dreams in China’ about the Chinese Dream or the American Dream?,” well-known Beijing-based radio host Yu Kun made note of this irony. He wrote, “At the time, the three young people’s ‘American Dream’ was shattered, but by helping countless other young Chinese people realize their American Dreams, they were able to realize their own American Dream in China.”

Yu Kun specifically cites a scene from the movie that foreshadows the three young men’s disillusionment with the American dream. In this scene, the three young men are sitting in a lecture by an old professor discussing the “evils” of America’s capitalist system and Americans’ racism against the Chinese. Offended that the professor was insulting the country of their dreams, the three friends walk out of the lecture, accusing the professor of lying because he’s never been to America himself. The professor, in response, quietly shakes his head, and says: “You are still too young and naïve.” 

The message is clear: when China was “young and naïve,” it looked outward to other countries like the U.S. to learn how to develop, how to dream, and how to live. However, as China has grown over the last 30 years, it has also become wiser, and is coming to realize that the “Chinese Dream” was here at home all along.

This message resonated with ordinary moviegoers like blogger CasaCasa, who reposted one of the most memorable lines from the movie:

We all hope that there will be someone by our side who can tell us how we should live our lives. But this question is something that only we ourselves can answer, because we create our own lives. We must change ourselves in order to change others, in order to change the world, but the only thing that cannot be changed is our courage!

China is in the process of creating and pursuing its own dream, the Chinese Dream, a collective dream of “national strength,” “national rejuvenation,” and a “prosperous people.” According to an anonymous op-ed in Caijing entitled “Seven Main Differences between the Chinese and American Dreams,” the primary difference between the two dreams is that the American Dream emphasizes individualism and “new growth” while the Chinese Dream is a collective national desire to “renew” and “regain” the rightful prosperity, status, and dignity of China’s past.

At the grassroots level, though, the Chinese Dream is more than just a collective dream for national greatness. The grassroots Chinese Dream represents each Chinese individual’s ambition to realize his or her full potential. As Xu Xiaoping, one of the movie’s contributing authors and a co-founder of New Oriental, the real-life education company upon which the movie is based, writes in a special op-ed for East Money entitled “The Story of ‘American Dreams in China’ and my Chinese Dream:”

All of [Chinese] society should nurture children’s interests…ignite their passions, regardless of whether or not they are useful or can produce value …  if this became a trend in our society, then…our young people wouldn’t need to go to the United States…We are here to maximize each individual’s potential to realize their dreams; each individual being able to realize his or her own dreams is the true meaning of [Xi Jinping] and my ‘Chinese Dream.’

The Chinese people believe that even if their approach is imperfect and the results deficient, they will still pursue their dreams the Chinese way. Increasingly, as individual Chinese define and pursue their own dreams, they will become larger and more complex — much like China’s role in the world.

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Sophie Lu

Sophie Lu is a Fulbright Fellow researching marine environmental governance in China. She is an avid observer and blogger on racial, social, and cultural changes occurring in the rapidly changing landscape of modern China. You can also follow her blogs at Chinglish Diaries and China Personified.
  • THU_Alumni

    CHINA’s dream is to be successful (e.g. rich/prosperous) and powerful so that China can retake its rightful place in history.

    CHINESE dream sounds like CHINA’s dream at the individual level. (e.g. to be successful and respected in society as a person)

    In conclusion: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0430308/

  • Wendy

    I really liked this film and the English title is very accurate! Though I think the Dream to learn English from private 民办 education facilities are mostly dreamt by the urban middle-class. I have also recently watched propaganda film “The Next 11 Days “《冰雪11天》 which present another verison of the Chinese Dream–the millions of people who want to travel home for Chinese New Year 2008 for and the police who facilitate them through the snow blizzard-induced crisis. The hopes and fears of the migrant laborers travelling home are also documented in other independent documentaries like Last Train Home. But the artistic treatment of the train lights shining on passengers who waited in the station day and night in the Next 11 Days also stand out.

  • Alec

    Nice to see an article about this film in English-language media. Personally I wasn’t a big fan of this film though. Technically I think it’s made very well, but it’s very nationalistic and panders to the CCP and the masses (which is fair enough I suppose for a commercial film).

    Especially the film’s latter half focuses on the rise of China, and there is a clear message that Chinese people are inherently cleverer, more moral and generally better than stupid Americans who are only economically at the top due to their aggressiveness and luck. There’s also a very odd message in the film about racism in the USA, which seems quite irrelevant to the plot of the film and just another way for the film to push home the message that Chinese people are a better people than Americans.

    On another note, I don’t think the film is based on a true story, it’s more inspired by many true stories. Am I wrong?

    • Kirk

      i think you got much of the movie wrong as every mainland Chinese would easily recognize it is almost entirely based on the true story of New Oriental School (go check them out on Google pls). Lots of the stories and lines in the movie comes directly from the three founders (one of them Xu Xiaoping who rote a book, upon which the movie is largely based)… the racism part you get it totally wrong as all Chinese people know about these ridiculous stories Chinese propaganda made against the US (usually taught in a “politics” classes as shown in the movie), and today seen as nothing more than jokes and cliches. The scene was meant to be funny and it even included a sarcastic nudge toward the previous Chinese president Jiang (“too young too naive” part), which is an inner joke among Chinese netizens. As such, it will be a challenging movie for non-mainland Chinese to grab as lots of the messages are reversed and coated with mainland inner joke and humor, to me it teases realities in China much more than the US (more an external factor)…

      • Alec

        Thanks for your response, Kirk. After leaving this response, I heard from someone else that it was based on New Oriental as well. You’re right, that’s something not a lot of non-Chinese would know.

        As for racism. I wasn’t referring to the university class scene, I was actually referring to the scenes in the meeting and the end ‘twist’ where the main character reveals all the racist treatment he was subject to when he was in the US. I find this a little farfetched and, as I said, irrelevant to the story. It seemed like just a snide swipe at the US.

        • http://www.theatlantic.com/wendy-qian/ Wendy

          more critiques of the film’s nationalism can be found here–

          锵锵三人行 从《中国合伙人》看中国人的“强国梦”

          • Alec

            Thanks for the link! I’ll watch it later. :)

          • Alec

            Great link, thanks. Really enjoyed listening to their thoughts on the film, even though they didn’t talk much about racism in the film. I think 梁文道 hit the nail on the head though, when he said Chinese film audiences really enjoy seeing Americans in awe of China (想看美国人服了中国), which explains a lot of the nationalism in the film. Thanks again for the link.

          • Ben

            Great link, really enjoyed their opinions on this film.