Zhang Yimou’s greatest disappointment yet?

What was supposed to be the high mark of US-Chinese film co-operation has ended with mild success, and that’s putting it kindly. The Hollywood Reporter suggested that the film is about to lose $75 million, suggesting that it’s not an entire box-office success.

Let me first start by praising Zhang for accomplishing what he is renowned for. The scenes leading up to battle were artistically shot, allowing us to get a sense of grandeur that was the Great Wall and the Song empire. Aerial shots allowed the viewer to gain an appreciation of the magnitude that was the Great Wall, while Zhang’s use of colored units (which ironically reminds me of the later Eight Banner System in Qing China (1643 – 1911) rather than Song China) gives the battle scenes much more vibrancy. In terms of sounds, the use of rhythmic drum beats adds to the tensions leading up to the battle scenes. Zhang thus artfully choreographs these pre-battle preparation scenes, something that he’s well-known for as the leading director of China’s fifth generation of filmmakers (for his better works, see his 2008 Summer Olympics production or his classic Hero (2000).)

The main criticism surrounding the film was the casting of Matt Damon as the “lead” role, that led many to suggest that there was a white-washing of Chinese history. While I can empathize with those that hold this view, I do not fully agree. Still, I can sympathize with that view, for as Matt Damon’s character and female had worked together to defeat the monsters that swarmed the palace, the impression that one gets at the end of the film is that Damon manages to walk away as a “hero” that saved the Song establishment. Damon, for one, plays a European trader here to seek gunpowder – my bigger question is what the European-Chinese trade situation looked like at the time the movie was set in; I suspect no European trader would have been allowed this far into Chinese lands to search for gunpowder.

Thus, where my problem with Zhang’s film would be its ahistorical nature. To put it more crudely, the true controversy surrounding Zhang’s movie is the sheer bastardization of Chinese history. Sure, Zhang pays homage to the age of Chinese innovation. His version of the Song dynasty features significant amounts of scientific progress and age of innovation that I’m sure the Song dynasty would be proud to be remembered by – it’s in this light that barely allows me to “accept” the Song Dynasty’s version of the hot-air balloon, and the trebuchet. But an in-wall firing machine? That’s stretching it, and that’s putting it kindly. As far as I know, there are historical reports to suggest that the Song Dynasty had not strictly kept up in maintaining the wall –  to even portray it as a technological wonder of its time as Zhang seems to do in his movie is simply ahistorical and unacceptable.

On the societal front, its ahistorical nature is also evident. I don’t think I’d be wrong in pointing out that the Confucian nature of Song society then would be affronted by the portrayal of women in key military roles, much less have an entire battalion of women special fighters. The design of the palace also seems to be way too bright and golden than what a standard palace of the ages would have looked like. To me, that’s almost making a mockery of Chinese society itself by playing into the hands of the Orientalists – this mysterious society that exists in some faraway land…

I’ve asked around, and in no respectable circle of friends and experts that I know, have I heard such a “legend” surrounding the Great Wall. Fundamentally, the Great Wall was built during the Qin dynasty by the first emperor of China. Much blood and sweat was used in its construction in arduous conditions, with the aim of keeping out invaders from the North. Zhang isn’t wrong in saying that the film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. Yet, in the film, the Great Wall was to keep out mythical dragon features that grow smarter. I’m not sure if this was a greater insult to the collective Chinese memory of the “atrocities” committed by Qinshihuang in its construction, or to the Mongolians/Manchurians who are supposed to be seen as “dragons”.

Even if this was supposed to be a Chinese-Hollywood collaboration, was there really a need to portray Chinese society in the way that Zhang did? Already, it seems that American society only laps up kung-fu films. Zhang may have wanted make sure that this film was a success in the cinemas, but at what cost? It seems, according to this writer, at the cost of being a messenger of Chinese history.

Response to: China has made obedience to the State a game


China has made obedience to the State a game

Just some quick reflections here about the above article – mainly to get this blog going again.

(1) China’s Communist Party has tried many tools of “social control” – this may be a loaded term in many’s eyes – the most famous of examples being the hukou system, a household registration system that controls where you can live, the danwei system which assigned social welfare benefits and limited occupational mobility – Andrew Walder’s significant piece on organized dependency written in 1983 sheds much more light on this. They’ve developed the new shequ (community) system which aims to restore some of the functions the danwei had in urban management. For a quick introduction, I’ve put a link to an excerpt of David Bray’s book here.

Where the surprise may perhaps come from is that given the overarching narrative of how, given the move towards market reform, isn’t China supposed to move towards more democratization, just like the West? Given liberal reform, many would think that democratic “consciousness” would develop and China would slowly move towards democratization. Many scholars – Kellee Tsai and Jie Chen just to name a couple – have explained why this myth has not succeeded – close political ties of the middle class to the state, repressive capabilities of the Chinese party-state etc.

But that isn’t to deny that Chinese society is becoming more pluralistic in its demands. We’ve seen that with decentralization, more and more formal and informal groups – religion, clans, ethnic – have started to emerge at the lower levels.

(2) Xi Jinping has been trying to centralize party control, moving away from efforts of decentralization associated with the market reforms of 1978. The People’s Daily even goes as far as to suggest that the Party should “closely unite around the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core.” It is in this vein that we should view his huge drive against corruption – to ensure more power remains in the center.

(3) Western scholarship tends to highly value the democratization benefits that are associated with the development of the Internet. I’m not denying that this value doesn’t exists. We’ve seen how with the development of the Internet, the Chinese state media has been forced to more open with their reporting of the news. But when the state still holds significant control over it and censorship powers, that effect is limited.

My whole point is that, given all that, should any of this be REALLY that surprising? Again, that might seem like a loaded question. My aim isn’t to place a value judgment on the actions of the party-state either.

If anything, the only “surprise” or rather, interesting development, is how the CCP has moved to adopt technology to assist (some might prefer a more ‘loaded’ word here) governance. For instance, the CCP has sought the assistance of the private IT sector to develop big data apps to help assess the performance of its lower-level cadres. But state adoption of technology, albeit different in stated purpose, is also common in Singapore and South Korea, fellow Asian states. What would be interesting is how and whether this new “method” of governance will “work”. My whole point is that the notion of social management with the potential of social benefits and status, is nothing new in Chinese society, nor is it surprising given recent political developments in China.

Here, I quote my friend Kieran – the challenge for the CCP, then, given all of the above, is to increase transparency and trust in CCP institutions. (On a side note, his article on the use of China’s civilian economy in cyber auxiliary deserves a read.)


Part of the solution that the CCP has adopted is the co-option, implicitly or otherwise, of potential challengers and others into the system, giving them a stake in its management and survival. We need to look no further than the introduction of “red capitalists” in Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents Theory of 2002 as the continued Chinese model of governance. And until an “opposing force” gains significant mass to challenge the state authority, one can continue to assume this will be one of the main ways the Chinese party-state will continue to roll with – incorporating technology into its governance, bringing different parts of society into its fray to maintain its one fundamental truth – that the CCP should and will remain as the only political force in China.

What can recent K-Pop controversies reveal about East Asian International Relations?

There have been certain controversies that have plagued the Korean pop world recently. As Hallyu has continued to grow in popularity across the world, entertainment companies have sought to expand their market base by training non-Koreans to be part of their performance groups. As a result, they undergo even more scrutiny than usual, especially when they make a huge mistake.

Two cases come to mind – Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany and TWICE’s Tzuyu. I would argue that the public reactions and actions taken to counter are reflective of contemporary East Asian relations and histories between the parties involved.

Case 1: TWICE’s Tzuyu

The case from late 2015 would seem to be a more straightforward case to handle, so let’s start from there. Any pledges of perceived independence by major celebrities would seem to be a big issue. Huang An, the celebrity that “called” Tzuyu out for her actions, is himself an anti-Taiwanese independence musician. The repercussions of her carrying the Taiwanese flag was significant – Huawei pulled Tzuyu from its new phone commercials, Anhui TV withdrew its invitation to TWICE to appear on its show. JYP shares, the entertainment company in charge of TWICE, suffered a significant fall in value, with Tzuyu eventually being asked to apologize and to recognize the “One China” status of relations – something which the new President Tsai Ing-Wen has not herself recognized.

This is clear evidence, of course, about the new balance of power in Asia, with Chinese consumers leading the way and acting as a determining force in decision-making processes. We’ve seen several groups attempt to appeal to the Chinese market – Super Junior (Han Geng, Zhou Mi), EXO (Luhan, Lay, Kris, Tao), miss A (Fei, Jia), f(x) (Victoria) just to name a few. A separate post about Korean-Chinese relations with regards to K-pop is probably in order, but what I seek to establish here is merely the heavy consumption of KPop in the Chinese market.

Understanding the reactions above is clear: A quick history recap would tell us that as a result of the Chinese Civil War, the two states still have not technically reconciled their political differences, with the official PRC stance insisting that Taiwan is a breakaway province of the Mainland. At the same time, both major parties in Taiwan/Republic of China continue to see themselves as the legitimate government of China.

As this issue naturally revolves around the legitimacy of the government ruling in Taiwan. A recent poll conducted by the Taiwan Indicators Survey Research revealed that with regards to the statement that “one China” refers to the PRC, 81.6% of respondents opposed that concept. This result lends itself nicely to the how they view the PRC as an illegitimate representation of “one China”. This also nicely complements the election of Tsai Ing-Wen, marking a turn in the closer relations forged by Ma Ying Jeou upon his election in 2008. If anything, Tsai Ing-wen’s plummeting popularity as she tries to wean the island off overreliance on the mainland.

Case 2: Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany

The more recent controversy involved a senior K-Pop group member, Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany. On late August 14 or August 15 itself (it is unclear), she was caught on social media platforms Instagram and Snapchat posting designs (emoticons and filters) with the Japanese flag. On Snapchat in particular, Tiffany used the filter that included the words “TOKYO” filled with the colors and designs from the flag during the Imperial Japan era.

The date in question, August 15, is significant as it is one of the key national holidays in Korea – Gwangbokcheol (광복절), or loosely translated to Festival/Day of Restoration of Light – is Liberation Day, a day that celebrates Korea’s liberation from the Japanese Empire at the end of World War II.


Image retrieved from: http://www.inquisitr.com/3420823/tiffany-under-fire-for-japanese-flag-sns-post-on-koreas-national-liberation-day-netizens-want-girls-generation-k-pop-idol-off-unnies-slam-dunk/

She has since been removed from her variety show “Sisters’ Slam Dunk” and from SM Entertainment’s overseas holiday to Hawaii. While some netizens have expressed surprise at the “harsh” treatment of one of the company’s most senior stars. I would, instead, point to the need to understand general Korean-Japan relations and histories to better understand the outrage in Korean society.

Studies conducted by Pew Research may be able to shed some light on relations.

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Surveys taken from Pew Research

Surveys conducted in 2014 and 2015 reveal similar results about how the Koreans viewed Japan, with just about 22 – 25% having a favorable view of them. A separate survey about how they view their leadership is equally if not more extensively revealing. Abe, had, in 2014, taken the suggestion of an advisory panel to reinterpret the use of military force in the Japanese constitution. Abe has had a reputation of being hawkish, an inconvenient image given the history between the two countries. The fact that he is ranked even poorer than Kim Jong Un among South Koreans reveals the extreme dislike that Koreans have towards him. Howard Hensel’s book on Just War reflects Korean ambivalence towards the existing state of Article 9 – an expansion of military capabilities surely would worsen the situation. I won’t belabor the point, but SCMP has run a good article explaining why – his comments of making Japan “normal” again runs contrary to the image of what Koreans remember about the last time Japan had a potent military force.

If we were to dig back even further, then it is clear what the significance of August 15 was. Allow me to quote from a thesis which I managed to find online that I think aptly describes the situation.

“The experience of breaking free and being liberated from occupational rule, and the experience of creating a new nation for the people allowed people to rewrite their own colonial memories and recollections in a very new fashion.”

Quoted from: http://sociology.snu.ac.kr/eng/thesis/jks_4.pdf

The significance of independence lays in how the Koreans were finally able to identify themselves as a nation, breaking from the tradition of identification by class status that their traditional Confucian culture would have dictated.  Shin Chae-ho, widely regarded as Korea’s first historian, was a real nationalist that fundamentally changed the writing of Korean history. Over and above the nationalistic significance of his writing about the Tangun and Toksa Sillon, he shifted the paradigm of Korean history from one that is “lacking”, one that is “passive” and stagnant, as the Japanese would describe it (Henry H. Em, Minjok as a Construct).

It is no surprise that the representative work of Kim Saryang, Tenma, reflects this negativity in Korean history. Koreans were effectively referred to as yobo, a subordinate class despite Japnese claims of noble intent. Many have accurately argued that the period of Japanese colonization falls into this “negative” history that the Koreans possessed (Namhee Lee, Minjung); it is thus no coincidence, I think, that the darkness of the past histories, colonization period included, is finally ended by a “restoration of light”. And it is in this vein that we must view overall Japanese-Korean relations – that the colonial period had been harsh on the Koreans. Outstanding issues over the status of Zainichi, particularly on Hashima Island , as well as the lack of recognition on the status of comfort women, continue to plague the strained relations between the two nations. In light of the past historical relations, and how colonization has been remembered, the Korean people’s response to Tiffany’s incident is not that surprising.

What does this all mean?

To simply say that historical animosities is the cause of this simplifies the matter. Rather, it is essential to see this as a case of national identity and one that is harder to manage. If used merely as an instrument, then East Asian conflicts may have a path towards reconciliation.

Train to Busan – A National Film

The “Train to Busan” was a blockbuster success, with close to 10 million teenagers viewing it in the cinemas. For what it’s worth, it’s also a very good reflection of some values that are key to Korean society. And you expect it to be so, as it was an out-of-competition screening at the Cannes Film Festival. I aim to try to understand the film as an expression of “national” values, as the director himself had attempted to Koreanize the zombie concept itself.

“It is a genre very familiar in the West but not so much in Korea. I wondered how it would turn out if I brought the zombie concept and made it in a Korean style,” said director Yeon Sang-ho of “Train to Busan” during a press conference held Tuesday in Seoul.

Taken from: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/culture/2016/06/141_207648.html

SPOILER ALERT. For those who have not watched the movie, the post below contains information about the movie that may ruin your experience. Continue reading Train to Busan – A National Film