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Painted Veil

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“Painted Veil” is a novel written by Somerset Maugham, and the intriguing title was taken from the sonnet by Shelly. The movie came out in 2006 with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton starring. There are many ideas and problems raised by this wonderful piece of art but still the majority of most impressive scenes are shut in China. The problems of the cultural theory of the 19th century, as well as imperialistic viewpoint on the colonies make this movie really interesting to watch for those who are interested in the cultural theory revolution. Apart from the love story of an intelligent scientist and a beautiful but shallow lady, the attention of the spectator is caught by the poverty and troubles of China in the 19th century. 

The cultural theory was developed by nineteenth-century anthropologists, and at that time, culture was frequently used as a synonym for civilization. The main argument given was that different human societies of the world stay at different levels of development and civilization growth. The theories of evolution were generally centralized and described the humankind as one whole subject of sociocultural investigation. In fact, this theory was one of the branches inside Darwinian Theory on the matter of human evolution (Bentley et al 109-132). The difference between today’s prospective on the culture is that contemporary scientists make attempts to define culture as a more complex phenomenon that cannot be bounded by one entity (Feinman 1-12).

The movie “Painted Veil” demonstrates that the American government made attempts to “raise the level” of civilization in China. The governors sent a bacteriologist to help out those dying and helpless Chinese peasants to resist the epidemical Cholera. Dr. Fane comes to the villagers and asks them to close down the water supply system used for centuries in order to eliminate the influence of Cholera bacteria. However, the measure that looks quite noble at first glance evoked great anger on the behalf of Chinese people. The proposed actions disregarded the ancient traditions of Chinese farmers cultivated for centuries. The understanding on both sides wasn’t possible as Chinese couldn’t comprehend why it is so important to shut down the familiar water supply system while Americans tries to forward their ideas without understanding Chinese culture. What seemed insignificant to the American side turned out to be crucial for Chinese farmers. Angry Chinese people would rather die and attack their saviors – just like the boy trying to reach and kill Kitty – than bury their family members in a way that contradicted their entire system of values. It was wrong to assume that Chinese farmers represent an “underdeveloped” civilization.

The idea of colonial imperialism is also tied to the culture theory of that time. Chinese colony is thought of as a mere supplier of the raw materials. According to the movie, the Americans didn’t bother about the poverty and low medical or educational support until the deaths became widespread and threatened the profits of the USA. The culture of Chinese people, their values, beliefs and traditions were absolutely disregarded as the Americans just wanted them to become healthy again and export raw materials just as they did it before.

Finally, Dr. Fane starts to realize how different measures may seem helpful and disastrous for both sides, so he finds a compromise improving the existing water supply system. According to the cultural theory that was accepted at that time, the Americans were trying to improve the civilization level of the Chinese people basing upon their own values and beliefs but it didn’t bring efficient results.

Another good example of colonial imperialistic approach of the US is in the scene with the orphan children at the monastery who are brought up to become “little Catholics”.  These dead attempts finally ended with the death of Walter, one of the main characters who tried so hard to resolve the epidemic issues caused by the water supplies. The society of Chinese was not taken as an individual but merely as a weak part of the world’s culture.

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