I could see my breath huffing out in tendrils of fog. A cold night in a wet city that reminds one of this fact every time stepping into a building and not having glasses fog up from central heating. It would not be cold for long, though. I had decided to spend the evening in the movie theater.
“The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug” came out this weekend in China, and though my breaths were cold, I thought of them as clouds of fire as I got my ticket on a miraculous student discount and squeezed in with the full house of Chinese viewers. I had somewhat selfish reasons for going. I love Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice, and was very much excited to hear it as piles of gold shivered around and The Beast flapped its wings. I had read The Hobbit as a child. But I already knew that the story had been warped to make it into a 9-hour epic. So I thought instead about things that only the cinema could provide: warmth on a cold night, fight scenes that lasted more than Tolkien’s typical two-page side note, Cumberbatch’s voice, musical scores. I had brought a chocolate bar with to really savor the night. I don’t go to the cinema often. It’s a treat.
The theater was packed. I was on the edge next to a Chinese couple, and the entire room buzzed with Chinese and audience members trying on the 3D glasses and speculating about the dragon. Of course, I was thinking about the dragon, too, though for other reasons.
And then I suddenly thought: Will they cheer when the dragon is eventually slain?
To be honest, I didn’t know.
In the world of fantasy that I had known growing up, the answer is decidedly yes. A dragon represents greed, and provides a physical enemy to remind us of it. A dragon burns down villages, and slithers around like a snake (which will always be a foe to me) and then flies around to find more livestock to steal and innocents to torch. I think of Beowulf, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and of course the loads of legends that they all come from.
Somehow, I had never thought of China until I was in that theater, putting on the funny 3D glasses and trying to calculate how long the movie-makers were going to make us wait until the dragon in question appeared.
Chinese people are proud of dragons, because they are a central and powerful figure in Chinese mythology. The dragon is a symbol of luck. I cannot count how many Chinese proverbs include dragons, or the pride parents have in finding names including the dragon symbol. There’s a good article Chinese dragon vs Western dragon that talks about this difference, and how it has been mistranslated between cultures. Think about it: what looks to us like a fearsome dragon baring its teeth on a Chinese poster could just be a symbol for prosperity and luck. Whereas I think of an old friend in Decorah, Iowa, who had a sign on his door reading “Here, there be dragons!” and a warning to be careful.
There in the theater, with my chocolate bar tucked into my purse, Chinese audience members yelping and gasping when giant spiders jumped out on screen, all of us laughing when fat Bombur waddled into battle, and then groaning when the dialogue felt long–we were all at a crucial moment. A moment when the Dragon would appear and our cultures would come face to face in a way that only the cinema allows them to. Everything had Chinese subtitles, which meant that sometimes the crowd reacted at a different pace than me. Sometimes I laughed at a joke they didn’t think was funny, whereas they laughed at random acts of violence that I thought were strange.
And we were all wondering the same thing: When will the dragon arrive?
We were all there, under the Lonely Mountain, tensed to see what the dragon would do. And I think this sensation, this anticipation is akin to what the world feels in regards to China, still. What will happen when the dragon fully emerges from the mountain? What will the dragon do? How big is the dragon, actually?
I was caught up in the magic of the screen, and so forgot about these questions. Watching stories unfold in a group simplifies it somehow. We were all pleased to see how big the dragon was and gasped and trembled and rooted for Bilbo caught under the mountain with a mammoth beast. I shivered when the dragon delivered the last line, and we all braced ourselves for more surprises. There was no divide amid the reactions. This dragon was Scary and Evil, simple as that.
But what about when it was slain?
Alas, the movie never got that far. Perhaps by the time it does, I will already know.