by Dean Wallraff

Independence Day


On this July fourth weekend I went to see Chen Kaige's new film, Temptress Moon. It is a difficult and somewhat unpleasant movie, a sort of Chinese Cries and Whispers, full of opium and corrupted love, but it is also a beautifully crafted product of one of China's top directors and two of China's top stars, and it is sad to see it relegated to a second-string theatre so quickly after its release. There were only a handful of spectators.
     The film would be mobbed in China, but it was banned there. I can't understand why. It's hard to see it as a political allegory, and the action takes place in the years following the abdication of the last emperor, well before the rise of the current dynasty in 1949. I'll bet the Chinese leaders screened it in Zhong Nan Hai, their White House hive in Beijing, and that they prefer this sort of fare to the pablum produced for their Central TV. I hope they take some satisfaction from this fine, mature art, the first from China to have found international acclaim since the revolution.
     This week also saw the British turn Hong Kong back to the Chinese, and I can't help seeing the parallel with our own liberation from the same Commonwealth. Hong Kong was a British colony, just like parts of the United States. Around the middle of the last century, the British wanted to keep on selling opium, which they grew in India, to the Chinese, millions of whom were addicted, in exchange for silver. The Chinese government objected and fought the British, were defeated and forced to cede Hong Kong. It's the usual story of greed and corruption, of the economic interests of large companies and powerful imperial nations taking precedence over fellow-feeling and sympathy for the ordinary man, especially the ordinary man of a different race and nationality. The actions of the British East India Company, though much milder in the Americas, were one of the causes of our own revolution.
     The Mainland Chinese refer to the civil-war victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 as "liberation." I have heard this many times, and have never heard it spoken with any sense of irony or ambivalence, or any acknowledgement that the word is used in a propagandistic or manipulative way. Liberation from what? From Chiang Kai Shek and his Guo Ming Dang party that fled to Taiwan? From the foreign powers, such as the U.S., that influenced the Guo Ming Dang? It was really the U.S. that liberated China by winning the war with Japan, and forcing them to abandon their territorial conquests in China. Otherwise, China would have been a Japanese vassal state.
     What would China be like today had the Guo Ming Dang won the civil war, if Chiang had "liberated" China instead of Mao? Probably more capitalistic and more internationally involved - further advanced along the path that China is now following. Perhaps China needed to make herself master of her own house, to segregate herself internationally in order to decide her own fate, but the price was high. The tragedies brought about by the Communist leadership, including the Cultural Revolution and the terrible famine of the Great Leap Forward, were as terrible as those of the period preceding "liberation."
     Asian governments such as that of Singapore, tell us that we shouldn't judge them by our own, Western, standards and values. But, in the absence of democracy, how do we, or they, know that their governments or policies enjoy the support of their people? It's hard to imagine a Chinese opinion poll -- the uniformed PSB man showing up at an apartment in Wuhan asking the occupants if they approve of the policies of Jian Zemin. On the contrary, the Chinese government has gone to a great deal of trouble to suppress these feedback paths.
     The traditional Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven no longer works, because of the advantages that modern communications and military technology gives to a totalitarian government. My own conclusion, based on admittedly incomplete and anecdotal evidence, is that the average Chinese would prefer to keep the current government rather than going through the upheaval that would be needed to change governments. If this is true, it's a mandate of sorts, that should be respected.
     One way to judge the success of a society is by the quantity and quality of the cultural heritage it leaves for posterity. Judged this way, the first three decades of this century, in which Temptress Moon takes place, were more successful than any time subsequent Chinese era. (The same thing could probably be said of the United States, as well.) There was a tremendous interest among the more modern elements in China at the time in adapting foreign culture to work there. There were experiments in literature and the arts, and a thriving film industry in Shanghai. New political and educational ideas were tried out. The movie doesn't glorify this age; it depicts a decadent, corrupt society, a lot like that shown in Shanghai Triad. This is the Chinese politically correct view of that time.

Copyright © 2000 - 2008 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.