Fringe is one of my favourite television shows right now. It does require that one willfully suspend much of what one knows about science but for much of the time do can do so at least until the episode in question is over. The other night, however, while rewatching an episode from the second season (Episode 217, Olivia in the Lab With a Revolver) one particular line of dialogue stood out to me. Walter Bishop is engaged in doing one his favourites things: dissecting a corpse. Are you familiar with the Chinese notion of Ch\’i? he asks Agent Dunham. After back and forth repartee with his son he goes on to further explain how this relates the current corpse on the table, The Chinese believe that all living creatures contain an energy, or Ch\’i, and, that with proper training, a simple touch can affect their Ch\’i..
Just think about what the writers of the show have to presume/think/know about the audiences of the show in order for that statement to \’work\’ for even a short period of time. It requires that the Chinese be seen as a monolithic \”other.\” Walter does not say \”many Chinese\” or \”most Chinese\” he says the Chinese. As if each and every person in the People\’s Republic (of whom there are more than 1.3 billion) believes the same things. Even if we have never met someone from the PRC personally, even if we believe that, unlike almost every other culture we know of, all Chinese within a particular subculture will believe exactly the same things in the same ways–a little research demonstrates that there are subcultures/groups in the PRC who would be unlikely to believe in Ch\’i. Consider, a) the PRC of officially atheist, b) that at least 1% of the population is Muslim (1% of 1.3 billion is a lot of people), c) that at least 2% of the population is Christian (again, 2% of 1.3 billion is a lot of people), d) that although some of the Muslims and Christians in the PRC may cling to some aspects of earlier Chinese beliefs some significant percentage of them are willing to risk death in order to adhere to their new belief systems.
Consider what it says about the intended audience of Fringe (and other popular television shows) that characters can make comments about the Chinese without the writers/producers/showrunners fearing a massive backlash against the ignorant and prejudiced statements being spewed by characters we are supposed to find sympathetic and loveable.