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Interpersonal Relationship in “The Pushing Hands” Essay

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Updated: Sep 11th, 2021


Interpersonal relationship is such a fragile thing that needs a complex of efforts people are to make to succeed in communication. Among all the factors that influence the way the relationships are established, culture occupies a significant position. One can realize the close interconnection between the culture where he or she lives in and interpersonal relationships he or she has, only being put under the circumstances that test his or her ability to understand the foreign culture, to adjust to it and to preserve the relationships notwithstanding the changes that a new culture might bring.

Main text

The main character of Pushing Hands, the film directed by Ang Lee, one of today’s greatest contemporary filmmakers, occurs in just the same situation. Master Chu, brilliantly played by Sihung Lung, is a retired Chinese Tai-Chi master who starts to live with his son Alex, his American daughter-in-law Martha, and their son Jeremy in Westchester, New York. An elderly Chinese man’s appearance in his son’s home causes inconvenience for the American family. Especially, it concerns Martha: she experiences much trouble with her second novel that is caused by Chu’s presence in the house.

At the beginning of the film Martha is depicted as an egoistic and even vicious woman. She seems to be absolutely satisfied with her hairdo, her eating habits; Martha’s main concern is her weight, her poor parenting skills, her disinterest in sexual relationships, etc. With all these troubles she does not have time to think about the difficulties that her guest experiences. She does not only fail to help him to adjust to the culture that is new for him, but she even worsens the situation.

The elderly man in her home evokes her constant complaint and indignation. Martial arts remain the only Master Chu’s relief in the alien environment, but this is a source of disturbance to Martha’s peaceful home. Such trifles, as Master Chu’s unawareness of the fact that tin foil cannot be put into the microwave, increase the irritation of his daughter-in-law.

The opening scene of the Pushing Hands prepares the audience for intrusion into the life of the American family. Martha is busy with her computer, whereas the elderly man does his Tai Chi exercises in the adjacent room. As they both know no language of each other, there is no dialogue between them. This mute scene symbolizes the absence of the contact between Eastern and Western culture. Later, we will observe other cultural differences, such as Martha and Jeremy’s using forks during the dinner and Mr. Chu’s using chopsticks.

The viewer cannot but admit the credibility of the conflict described. On the one hand, it is a generational conflict, so common for present day life, on the other, it is a cultural conflict that can be solved only when all parties want the reasonable way out to be found.

In this context the title of the film is very appropriate: it means the process of adaptation to culture shock that the Grand Father experienced when he moved to the United States. The thing is that Mr. Chu was a teacher of tai chi exercises, one among those who were persecuted in China during the Cultural Revolution. As a result, Mr. Chu’s family was broken up. When there is such an opportunity to reunite the family, the latter faces a lot of new problems.

The term pushing hands stands for an exercise in tai chi complex when the person achieves balance by giving up balance. People’s understanding each other remains the most important factor of the success of the exercise. Actually, it is a simple non-aggressive exercise between two people: a person shows no resistance to another one who is pushing him or her, and continues to borrow the strength until both feel that they are united and have achieved harmony. This exercise is a rather symbolic and is always done by Master Chu. It gave him power not to lose his temper under the circumstances.

We cannot but admit the techniques that the filmmaker used to render Mr. Chu’s feelings at that moment: various scenes throughout the film are shown with lighting effects and different camera angels. This was done to render the internal pain and sadness that the Grand Father suffered from. Though being rather simple, these techniques helped the creator of the film to demonstrate Mr. Chu’s grief (one should also take into account that the law budget of the film did not prevent the director from revealing his message).

Despite of the constant misunderstanding between Mr. Chu and his daughter-in-law, the elderly man demonstrates no anger or resentment. Even when his son is made by Martha send him away, he remains calm and patient. In this situation he just walks away gracefully.

This was Mr. Chu’s wisdom that helped the family to find a reasonable solution: they decided to live separately not to push each other away. As a result, the whole family felt happy: Martha accepted Master Chu (she decorated the guest room for him and invited him to be their guest), and the Grand Father achieved the balance that he sought in his exercise.

Thus, the Pushing Hands contributes much to understanding human relationships. People are different. The difference between old people and young people is drastic and will always exist. One should not try to break this law of nature, as in some cases man is really powerless to modify the world around. What a man is capable of is making an attempt to understand another.

When the problem worsens by the cultural conditions serious measures are to be taken. In the case of the characters we have discussed above a sound solution would be to try to understand each other’s culture so that the difference between their assumptions of life was less vivid.

The elderly man’s attempts to bring about peace were not successful enough to solve the problems. Should Martha and her family try to adjust to Mr. Chu’s culture, the problem would have disappeared by itself. Of course, we are not talking about sufficient understanding of alien culture, but getting the simplest notion of the Chinese culture would have been enough to lessen the contradictions within the family.

The film’s contribution is also rooted in the way it reflects the modern culture of China. Traditional Chinese values, such as taking care of parents as a natural duty, parents being reluctant to become a burden for their children, are explored by the filmmakers. The happy end of the film means that West met East and the human feelings of kinship won the power of culture.

The Pushing Hands sounds encouraging for people to understand each other. Especially it is true when it comes to immigrants; those who accept them should do their best to make the process of adjustment as easy and plain as possible, they need to understand how difficult it is for immigrants to settle in a new place and start a new life there. Not to push them away, to give them a helpful hand, much patience from the host country and immigrants will feel comfortable in their new place, consequently, no problems in interpersonal communication will appear.


Of course, the problems of interpersonal relationship do not restrict to the ones explored in the Pushing Hands. As interpersonal communication is aimed at receiving a feedback from the person one communicates with, the problems arise when this feedback is not received. We are talking about the cases when communication turns into failure because of the communicators’ unwillingness to establish appropriate relationships with one another. In such cases only the change in their attitude to the necessity of communication, as well as their sincere desire to succeed in communication will help. These are the most effective ways to resolve the conflicts that might appear in the process of communication.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Interpersonal Relationship in "The Pushing Hands"." September 11, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/interpersonal-relationship-in-the-pushing-hands/.


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