Shang-Chi and the Porous Self
When Tenet was released last year in COVID-plagued theaters, it was hyped as the film that might save the moviegoing industry. Whatever its merits, its underwhelming box office didn’t match the hype. What Tenet failed to do, though, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may have accomplished. Unlike Marvel’s Black Widow earlier this summer, Shang-Chi didn’t have streaming revenues to fall back on, so its overperfomance against expectations gives studios hope that the purely theatrical experience may have some staying power.
While this blockbuster success may be due in part to a thin slate of options over the past summer, it hasn’t been hurt by the sheer quality of the movie. Shang-Chi currently sits at a 92% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes (with an even higher audience score). The film not only introduces Marvel’s first Asian superhero lead, it features an engaging cast, witty dialogue, and plenty of action (including martial arts of the kind not hitherto seen in the MCU).
As Christ and Pop Culture’s K. B. Hoyle has noted, Shang-Chi works at being a distinctively Chinese-style movie, not just in its fight scenes, but in its conceptual framework. “Shang-Chi’s actualization into an MCU superhero,” she observes, “gives us a hero who comes from a culture that is more we-focused than me-focused.” Building on this, I would like to suggest that a further way we can understand the journey of Shang-Chi (and Katy, the female lead) is provided by philosopher Charles Taylor: a movement away from the modern “buffered” self toward a recognition of the enchanted “porous” self.
In some ways, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does follow the traditional hero’s journey script. Our protagonist, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) has been living for years in San Francisco simply as “Shaun,” a lifestyle he adopts to escape the legacy of his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). Wenwu controls the ten rings, mysterious objects that grant him immortality and powerful magic. After millennia of lonely conquest, Wenwu had at last married Ying Li (Fala Chen), a guardian of the mythical land Ta Lo. Their union produces two children, Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who Shang-Chi abandons when fleeing his father. The movie itself follows Shang-Chi and his friend Katy (Awkwafina) as they are pulled into Wenwu’s orbit and, finally, must defend Ta Lo (and the world) from a monster that Wenwu may release.
In one sense, then, the MCU’s iteration of Shang-Chi does describe a familiar narrative arc. He is the reluctant hero, one who must overcome his doubts, prove his worth, and obtain the magical boon to use against the forces of evil. And to be sure, this does entail some self-development on the part of Shang-Chi (and Katy too). But what is particularly noteworthy in this movie is the nature of the self being developed.
In his landmark philosophical text A Secular Age, Charles Taylor identifies a distinction between the medieval pre-secular concept of the “porous self,” as distinct from the modern secular “buffered self.” These emerge logically from Taylor’s broad categories of the pre-modern secular “enchanted” world and our modern “disenchanted” world. According to this way of thinking, the West once saw the world as an enchanted place in which whole hosts of beings, spirits, and forces overlapped and coexisted with humanity; these were an accepted part of the world rather than distinct supernatural or even natural phenomena (even those categories are anachronistic). Our secular disenchanted age regards our own individual selves as radically distinct entities, autonomously analyzing the world around us. Pre-secular people were embedded within this enchanted world, and the boundaries between their “self” and their (natural, supernatural, or spiritual) “environment” were less sharply defined—that is, porous. As the Western conception of the self grew increasingly atomized, moderns developed the buffered conception of the self—each person conceiving of his or her self as distinct (often radically) from everything and everyone else.
Taylor isn’t automatically praising pre-secularism over secularism. Life lived with the porous self incurred definite hazards to the average medieval person: “the porous self is vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of this kind of fear” (38). But the tradeoff for the buffered self is a life amputated somewhat from its surrounding matrix. And once accomplished, this buffering is difficult, if not impossible, to undo. The buffered self may be aware of the notion of the porous self, but the reverse cannot be true; by Taylor’s standards, porous selves cannot even fully conceptualize a more individualized form of selfhood.
As Alan Jacobs has noted, the rise of speculative genres such as fantasy may be read as a modern attempt to have our cake and eat it too—to enjoy the thrills of an enchanted world, but at a safe and buffered distance, free from the terrors that an actual porous self entailed. “What we now call ‘fantasy,’” Jacobs observes, “is something closer to ‘realism’ in the pagan world, which is populated by many powers capable of acting upon ‘porous’ human selves.” Insofar as fantasy happily exploits its audience’s imaginative desires by displaying wonders which its own practitioners might personally believe to be impossible in “real life,” it appears to be doing precisely what Jacobs is asserting. But in the same piece, he at times nods to practitioners like MacDonald, Lewis, and Tolkien, who write fantasy (or faerie) stories as Christians with a belief that the perilous, numinous world of enchantment is real, even if it doesn’t look exactly the way it does in their fictions. And in his coda to the piece, Jacobs (invoking W. H. Auden) at last acknowledges this distinction: “We may choose to believe that we can buffer ourselves, protect ourselves against unknown powers. But that’s a kind of wager: if the powers are real, our disbelief won’t deter them.”
“If the powers are real.” The cynical viewer of MCU films may contend that the only “power” they acknowledge is that of the Almighty Dollar. Jacobs discusses at length the extent to which our technopolitan society exploits its media and screen advancements to play on nostalgia for a more fantastic realm. Yet at least some Marvel films appear to proceed from a conviction that the powers are real. As I have elsewhere noted, this is the case with Doctor Strange, in which the eponymous hero must abandon his materialism to enter a very porous cosmos. That film’s director, Scott Derrickson, is a Christian whose previous horror films are marked by their well-researched depictions of, among other things, demon possession (one of the examples Taylor himself proffers as representative of the porous self).
Like Derrickson, Shang-Chi’s director, Destin Daniel Cretton, comes from a Christian background. This doesn’t make him porous or pre-secular on Taylor’s terms, of course, but it might make him more receptive to employing fantasy not just for cinematic effect but also as a way of re-enchanting a buffered audience. For the sake of argument, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The world of Shang-Chi is certainly an enchanted one. This comes as little surprise to Shang-Chi himself, as he grew up with some awareness of it. Yet he moved to America precisely to avoid this life (to buffer himself, if you will), and his friend Katy has known nothing else. When they are drawn into Wenwu’s world, they find themselves careening ineluctably toward a world fraught with supernatural dangers.
Most notably, though (and perhaps unlike some other fantasy storylines), this world is populated with characters who are porous, at least in a manner of speaking. This may be the case of Wenwu, who has used the ten rings to live for millennia and to wield immense supernatural power. His identity also seems bonded to the horrific Dweller-in-Darkness. On the other end, Shang-Chi’s mother, Ying Li, is an even more porous figure. She is portrayed as a guardian and a personification of the magical realm Ta Lo, first appearing in a green costume that reflects the pristine natural beauty of her environment. When she leaves Ta Lo to join Wenwu, her sister Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) remains behind and continues to care for the realm. Ta Lo’s fortunes are themselves connected to the Great Protector, a benevolent dragon who lives in a lake there. The Great Protector is connected not only to Ta Lo but specifically to Ying Li: designers used actress Fala Chen’s eyes as their model for the dragon’s.
These in turn all connect back to the hero. The Great Protector revives Shang-Chi, establishing a connection to him and (implicitly) back to his mother. Shang-Chi’s aunt Ying Nan makes these connections even more explicitly, telling him near the end, “You are a product of all who came before you. . . . You are your mother, and whether you like it or not, you are also your father.” This phrasing seems quite tactical. Ying Nan doesn’t tell Shang-Chi that he is like his parents, nor that they have influenced him; she actually equates them. Perhaps there is some degree of poetic hyperbole for dramatic effect here, but I think that more is intended. I believe the film is gesturing toward an alternate understanding of selfhood.
That is, if Shang-Chi must embrace a porous selfhood in encountering a very real enchanted world, he must also (which is even more difficult for him) embrace a porousness in relation to his family. He is not an autonomous, buffered self (as the American “Shaun” might try to be); he contains within himself the qualities of his ancestors. In some ways, this represents an Asian, non-Western understanding of identity; yet that type of identity would also—at least to a degree—have been familiar among men and women in the pre-secular West. In this regard, Katy may have a slight edge on him; for all her distinctive Americanness, she is shown to have a closer relationship to her own Chinese extended family. Perhaps this is one reason she is able to roll so quickly with the crazy adventures into which she and Shang-Chi are thrust.
There is a limit to what one can expect from such blockbusters, of course. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follows the Marvel formula in its essence, and its characters, however Chinese, still behave in ways that are recognizable to the average Western moviegoing audience. Critics can hardly expect to find the level of experimentation or subversion one might see in a low-budget indie film. Still, in its own way, Shang-Chi challenges some presuppositions about contemporary understandings of selfhood and, in the process, may provide a fruitful way for Christians to return to a less atomistic, autonomous sense of the self, to remind us that we are not (nor were we ever meant to be) our own.