The American soldier roars down a crowded Chinese street in his Jeep, knocking an elderly woman to the ground. He jumps out and tosses some money in the old lady's direction. "Here you go, granny, but you shouldn't have been in the street anyway," he barks — before being beaten up by a group of enraged Chinese patriots.
The scene, in a script for a Chinese TV series, wasn't exactly subtle, and American actor Jonathan Kos-Read wasn't impressed. Fluent in Mandarin, he has made his name playing Westerners in Chinese films and television shows for the past 14 years. "I turned that role down," he said.
For many Chinese people, Kos-Read, 41, is a familiar face, even if he is unknown in the West. He has acted in about 100 films and TV programs, playing everything from a bisexual Italian fashion designer to a gun-slinging, tobacco-chewing cowboy.
Typically, Kos-Read is offered four or five stock roles. They provide a window into China's evolving attitudes toward the West, revealing a complex mix of national pride, fascination with life in the United States and Europe, and insecurity about the West.
There is a role that Kos-Read calls "the wrong guy," the Western man who falls in love and pursues a Chinese woman. She is torn between him and a Chinese suitor, but in the end, she always makes "the right choice." That, of course, is not him.
Another role is "the fool," a character who comes to China but is disdainful of the local culture. Eventually, as he learns more about China, the foreigner changes his mind.
"Chinese people don't necessarily need to approve of America, but they need America to approve of them," he said.
China's film industry, which was shut down during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s, is now flourishing, and China boasts the third-largest movie industry in the world. Its soap operas attract massive television audiences. But state censorship continues to be heavy, with controversial political issues studiously avoided.
Kos-Read is rarely asked to play villains from the United States these days. Quite simply, the Japanese are overwhelmingly the bad guys in modern Chinese entertainment media as the two nations lock horns over disputed maritime territories.
And while the Communist government once churned out reams of anti-American propaganda, the U.S. relationship with China is today much more complex and nuanced.
Beyond politics, the portrayal of Americans and Europeans on TV and in the cinema reflects the diverse, multilayered attitudes in China toward the West. When it opened to the outside world more than three decades ago, its people found much to admire in the West's economic and technological progress. But a recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that while three-quarters of Chinese people admire the United States for its technological and scientific advances, less than half have a favorable view of American people.
But lately Kos-Read has been playing a new kind of character — "the real person, a character who is a person before he is a foreigner." After decades in which Americans were imperialist running dogs and then symbols of a wealthy but still not entirely trusted superpower, now they can sometimes be plain old people.
That may be due in part to growing familiarity with Westerners. With the increase in Westerners moving to China, many scriptwriters have a foreign buddy or two, he said.
A native of the Los Angeles area, Kos-Read studied film and acting at New York University before switching his major to molecular biology. A desire for adventure, "to live the life of a movie character," brought him to China in 1997 with very little Chinese. He eventually mastered the language.