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.