5 Life Lessons from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to take into 2022 and beyond

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was one of my favourite movies of 2021. Starring Canada’s very own Simu Liu as the titular character, this is the first Hollywood superhero movie with an Asian lead, and a predominantly Asian cast and creative team.

As an Asian growing up in Canada, there were not many Asian role models, especially when the only prominent Asians in Hollywood during my childhood were just Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. On top of that, as an Asian male I was told I was undesirable, faced a lot of rejection, and was labelled with damaging stereotypes throughout the years. Many Asians share these experiences of not fitting the “western convention”.

While watching the film, I felt for the first time that I didn’t need to conform to a label or stereotype that was forced upon me. I was excited an Asian man could be the main hero of a story, rather than be passive, be a villain, or be a punchline. Seeing Simu Liu as Shang-Chi fighting evil and taking charge as a leader was refreshing and empowering for me as an Asian male.

Here are some of the life lessons I learned from the movie and its cast.

 

1. We have the power to create our own future. 

Early in his career, back when he was still working as a stock image model, Simu Liu took a risk by speaking up and asking for Asian representation after seeing the lack of Asian superheroes in films. This drove him to also tweet on July 17, 2014: “Hey @Marvel, great job with Cpt America and Thor. Now how about an Asian American hero?” Even though he only meant to tweet this response as a joke, Marvel Studios eventually announced years later that they would create a Shang-Chi movie, with Simu ultimately landing the leading role himself.

Despite the long wait and pandemic conditions, Shang-Chi performed well at the box office with plans for a sequel. Simu’s capacity to influence the development of the Shang-Chi story exemplifies growing Asian representation in western contexts. My hope is that young Asian leaders will also take the initiative to contribute to more inclusive communities and representation.                

 

2. Find your purpose in life.

At the beginning of the movie, both Shang-Chi and Katy run away from their responsibilities by working as valets. Katy is reckless and irresponsible, going for joyrides in luxury cars she doesn’t own. Their friends Soo and John, and even Katy’s family, criticize the pair for not living up to their potential. Later, she learns focus, discipline, and the importance of community through archery training, which allows her to help Shang-Chi and the Great Protector defeat the Dweller-in-Darkness.

Like Katy, we come to life when we find our purpose in life, by demonstrating maturity and open-mindedness, pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones to embrace the unknown.  

 

3. Don’t let others’ limitations keep you down.

After the death of their mother, Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing is left alone while her brother is trained in martial arts by their father. Instead of being discouraged, she takes matters into her own hands and watches the males train, studying their movements on her own, eventually surpassing her brother.

Xialing’s determination teaches us to break free of the limitations others impose on us, set our own goals, work hard to surpass expectations, and take pride in our own accomplishments.  

 

4. Prioritize mental health.

While training in Ta Lo, Shang-Chi struggles with anxieties and pressures. We see these stressors manifest through his closed stance, which is readily defeated by his aunt Ying Nan’s more free-flowing approach. She points out the flaw in Shang-Chi’s fighting style and shows him how to release his turmoil, tremendously improving his hand-to-hand combat ability and capacity to protect his community and his loved ones.

In the real world, the pressure of duties and responsibilities can prompt us to adopt a self-protective, close-minded posture for the sake of our own mental health – something that is not often prioritized in Asian cultures, leading to gaps in ways Asians cope and resolve mental distress. The film reminds us that we are more productive and effective when we cultivate open-mindedness, curiosity, and adaptive capacity. 

 

5. We determine our own identity.

Throughout most of the movie, Shang-Chi feels stuck between two worlds: the one he left in Asia and the one he escapes to in America. Like many Asians who grow up in a Western context, Shang-Chi and Katy, while coming from very different upbringings, both struggle with their identities because they don’t fully fit with either Asian or Western worlds, just like many Asians who grow up in a Western environment.

But eventually, they develop identities that honor their diverse backgrounds and allow them to operate from their unique strengths. The film reminds us that identity is both culturally informed and fluid. We can decide to be healthy, whole people with agency, who recognize and celebrate our cultural heritage even as we collectively determine the formative cultural forces around us and within us.