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

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.

A movie poster from <em>American Dreams in China</em>.

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 dreamed 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 thirty 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 Caijingentitled “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.