“You have nothing to fear. You have the heart of our dragon…take everything we’ve given you and make it your own.”
—Ying Li, mother of Shang-Chi
Parenthood is one of the most humiliating and awe-inspiring, painful and joyful, thrilling and debilitating experiences this world has to offer. Children, adopted or biological, bear the marks of their parents, the ones that raised them and/or the ones that bore them. Each one of us as imago dei are living icons of this reality. Our image is given to us through God the Father and our likeness—though also given—is enhanced or marred by our relationship with him or lack thereof.
Within any relationship, two persons pass on to one another their own healing or their pain. This is an all-too-common reality within filial relationships. The familiar cinematic scene of a person laying on the couch at the therapist’s office while the therapist says “Tell me about your childhood” has been used for dramatic, sometimes comedic, irony. Because the truth is that the way we parent is often a result of the way we were parented, and the way we see the world is rooted in the lenses through which we were taught to view it.
Disney movies often explore filial relationships, providing a hard look into the human psyche. The Marvel Universe (now owned by Disney) just released Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings on Disney+, and it dives into the parent-child relationship on the backdrop of some wonderful (and in my opinion, too brief) martial arts scenes.
Watch out: spoilers ahead.
Throughout much of the movie, I was unsure about how to feel about Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu. I kept asking myself if he was an antagonist or not. Of course, his unwaveringly chill demeanor (even while vanquishing armies) left me a bit unsettled, but I kept rooting for him.
Xu Wenwu presents a reality that we all share. He makes a series of choices that sets the bar for so many aspects of his life. Justice becomes revenge. Power becomes wealth and domination. There’s no understanding of gift, only grasping; there is no strength in surrender, only weakness. He becomes egomaniacal.
When Xu Wenwu meets Ying Li, Shang-Chi’s mother, he is called out of himself and into conjugal love—not a sexual connotation but a theologically conjugal self-gift. He goes beyond self, leaving his ego behind for the sake of the other.
My favorite scene was when Shang-Chi’s parents met for the first time, just outside the village of Ta Lo, which was protected by Ying Li. A fight ensued, and the cinematography was brilliant! In the midst of Xu Wenwu’s battle with Ying Li, he is confronted with something much deeper than hand-to-hand combat.
In their exchange of blows, Shang-Chi’s father’s expertise spills out from him, all clenched fists and furrowed brow. He is a great fighter, and the legendary supernatural rings give him added powers and force. But Ying Li somehow meets his every charge with greater strength and greater precision; her response is rooted in peace. Her blows are given with open hands and a demeanor that is clearly at rest. Her stoic face breaks with a smile as her opponent grapples with his own surprise at such a powerful yet peaceful and unassuming show of force.
Her peace was stronger than his anger.
Xu Wenwu realizes that his understanding of power and justice has finally met its match within the heart of someone who knows that real power is in surrender. This new reality even gives him the courage to put away his rings, thereby letting go of the very things that had all but defined him at the core of his identity for so long.
One last note about this scene. Ying Li’s method of combat includes the cosmos. She stretches out her legs, drawing lines in the sand, moves her arms and draws the wind in around her. In contrast, Xu Wenwu’s force was self-reliant, harbored very much within the power of the rings. This is a great reminder that self-creation can never be as valuable as outward participation.
Ying Li eventually lays down her life to protect her family. This loss causes Xu Wenwu’s own conversion. The selflessness that he had discovered in being a husband and a father draws him inward on himself. He becomes consumed with suffering that he doesn’t understand.
The story then unfolds into the life of Shang-Chi, the titular character utterly deficient in self-knowledge. He lacks a sense of identity in a way similar to his father, suffering the same sort of identity crisis—which happens whenever anyone places their identity and their value upon things outside of themselves, and thus becomes a non-contingency. The ten rings didn’t need Xu Wenwu, and Ying Li didn’t need him either. Non-contingencies are shaky ground to build your own identity upon.
A person is unable to learn who they are by turning in on themselves. We are meant for communion and within that communion—or, better, within self-gift—we truly discover who we are. Anything less than this mars the likeness of God that we carry and makes us vulnerable to the wiles of the enemy. Xu Wenwu’s grief for his lost wife causes him to not only turn away from love and in toward himself, but to mistake the enemy’s voice for that which he was most desperate for—his wife’s. Creativity is a result of love, and the devil is without love and without creativity. He has to mimic our weakness in order to exploit it.
Xu Wenwu finally realizes his mistakes and discovers who he is within the ultimate self-gift—laying down his life for his son. In that moment, he truly becomes a father, and Shang-Chi finally becomes a son. As Pope Benedict put it:
It is not always easy today to talk about fatherhood, especially in the Western world. . . . At times communication becomes difficult, trust is lacking and the relationship with the father figure can become problematic; moreover, in this way even imagining God as a father becomes problematic without credible models of reference. It is not easy for those who have experienced an excessively authoritarian and inflexible father or one who was indifferent and lacking in affection, or even absent, to think serenely of God and to entrust themselves to him with confidence.
There’s a great temptation to look at Xu Wenwu’s life—what little is told of it in the film—and think, “This is what he understood in his life. He did the best he could.” That sentiment, or realization, is for many a good first step toward learning the ways of mercy and forgiveness. But in a very real sense, it is simply not true.
The best that we can do is to reflect the love of the Father to one another. Anything less than that is not enough. When we fail in this way, we wound one another, and that wound can become toxic when delivered within the familial relationship. There is a way to fix this, and the remedy is not too far away—no matter your age, how estranged your relationships have been, or how deep the wounds may go.
Dying to oneself is always the answer. It is in dying that we are made to live, and every moment presents a new opportunity to find out who you are by going beyond oneself and truly willing the good of the other. Let it not be the mortality of the body that reminds us to each become a gift for one another; instead, may every passing moment remind us that now is the time to begin again.