Wen, Yen and Zen: Chinese Influences on Rogue One
Tread carefully, young Padawans: the following contains SPOILERS for Rogue One: A Star Wars story, so read no further if you’ve yet to see the movie. You have been warned!
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story brought some much-appreciated diversity to the world of Star Wars, including gifting us the characters of Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, played by well-known Chinese actors Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen. Baze and Chirrut are “Guardians of the Whills”, protectors of the Temple of Kyber which is ransacked by Imperials after they occupy Jedha. Before the Temple’s occupation, the Guardians of the Whills crafted lightbows and sought to teach others about the ways of The Force; something we see Chirrut doing when we first encounter him in Rogue One. Donnie Yen explained some of Chirrut’s relationship with The Force in the following interview with NME:
The fact that Chirrut is “such a strong believer that he inspires others”, as Yen describes above, is to me, one of the most interesting aspects of Rogue One. Rogue One shows us a rather different side to The Force than we are used to seeing in previous Star Wars films, where we see its impact on non-Jedis who nonetheless believe in its power, through the character of Chirrut. Baze is also an interesting character in the sense that he has seemingly lost his faith in The Force—additionally pertinent when viewed in conjunction with Chirrut’s claim that “Baze Malbus was once the most devoted guardian of us all.” Whilst we don’t have much information on quite how he lost his faith (there’s a middle-grade novel coming out this year which might go some way to an explanation), it seems likely that it has something to do with the fall of the Temple of Kyber, and the homelessness and destruction which resulted from it.
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There is also something to be said for Chirrut’s sense of spirituality, which appears to be at least somewhat inspired by the Chinese practice of Zen. Whilst no expert on the practice, one of its most well-known and well-documented aspects is an appreciation for a sense of nothingness, and journalist Tim Lott also explains that “emphasis on the present moment is perhaps zen’s most distinctive characteristic”. We see both of these expressed throughout Rogue One, albeit in a limited way as the time we spend with both Chirrut and Baze is less than we spend with, say, Jyn or Krennic.
Firstly, Zen’s “sense of nothingness” is seen in both Chirrut and Baze, in different ways. Chirrut’s “sense of nothingness” seems to come from his devotion to The Force, in which there is nothing but The Force. Of course, this is somewhat contradictory, as the existence of The Force connotes the existence of something, but if we take this sense of nothingness to apply only to the physical world, then Chirrut’s focus on only the spiritual and ‘unseen’ can still be viewed as being inspired by zen practices. Baze, on the other hand, being the warrior to Chirrut’s monk, seems instead to view this “sense of nothingness” in more of a nihilistic manner, hardened after the ransacking of the Temple, he seems to find it hard to believe in anything that doesn’t involve protecting Chirrut.
Furthermore, there’s the concept of an emphasis on the present moment: both Chirrut and Baze are seemingly very focused on each present moment within Rogue One, taking every opportunity they can to seize the moment and do all they must to save the rest of the Rogue One crew. We see this, for example, when the pair leave the ship on Eadu to assist the Rebels (well, Chirrut leaves and then poor Baze has to follow) when they could have simply stayed on the ship.
This sense of devotion to the present moment is a heart-breaking concept when thought of in context of their eventual deaths: their sacrifice is based around them knowing that their deaths are what must happen in the present moment, if Jyn is to transmit the plans. They are not thinking about the consequences of this (though Chirrut is certainly praying that The Force will guide him to the afterlife, in his final moments) but rather, they are thinking of themselves as both simultaneously consequential and inconsequential: a concept that seems tied to some of the practices of Zen.
The Chinese and Zen influences on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story help to develop and enrich the world of Star Wars by adding a sense of spirituality and dedication through the characters of Baze and Chirrut, and I hope that we will continue to see further non-Western influences as the world of Star Wars expands and develops in the coming years. Personally, I’d love to see some prequel comics starring the pair, in a series which would explore their time at the Temple of Kyber, but the novel coming out this year may already be ahead of me in that regard.