"Kung Fu Panda's" inside joke

Even a copy of a masterwork is worthy of the proper respect.

Published June 9, 2008 2:44PM (EDT)

"Kung Fu Panda's" dominance of the box office this past weekend probably can't be attributed to a massive ticket-buying spree by devotees of classical Chinese painting, but if any such connoisseurs did catch the flick, I bet they found themselves plesantly surprised.

The animators of this very good-looking film have a lot of fun with classical Chinese landscapes and other familiar tropes of traditional Chinese art. But one scene jumps out. Po, the panda with unlikely martial arts aspirations, has made it inside a temple storing a variety of legendary weapons and other hallowed items suffused with kung fu lore. Po, the kind of geek who memorizes every possible piece of minutiae about his chosen obsession, shudders with delight as he rushes from one object to another.

Finally, he comes to a painting depicting an ancient exploit by kung fu heroes. He exclaims: "I've only seen paintings of this painting!"

My kids laughed, as did most of the theater, just because the line sounds funny all by itself, without any context other than that delivered by Jack Black's voice. But taken in the context of classical Chinese painting, it's an even better inside joke. For many centuries of Chinese industry, the great paintings of the past were faithfully copied by the great painters of each successive age. The earliest versions of many of these classics have been lost to the ravages of time -- we know them only through their reproductions.

Yet those reproductions are not regarded as mere copies, but as masterworks in their own right. Indeed, there is even a theory that the supposed Chinese lack of respect for copyright can be connected to the classical Chinese reverence for copying. "I've only seen paintings of these paintings" is a joke written by someone who knows what they're joking about, and it is not the only such gem in "Kung Fu Panda."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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