Why Should 2009 Make a Difference?
Reflections on a Chinese Blockbuster[1]

By Xiaobing Tang

Copyright MCLC Resource Center (December 2009)

To Watch or Not to Watch?

Advertising poster for The Founding of a Republic.

Advertising poster for The Founding of a Republic.

On October 1, 2009, a brief news story about China appeared on Worldfocus.org, a website supported by American Public Television that seeks “to localize international events for an American audience–making foreign news less foreign.” It is a personal story, told by Hsin-Yin Lee, an international news editor at a Chinese newspaper in Beijing, about her handwringing over a difficult choice: Should she and her friends go to see Final Destination 4, a Hollywood horror thriller, or The Founding of a Republic [Trailer on YouTube], a Chinese blockbuster released on the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic?

Torn between what she viewed as “Hollywood sensation and Beijing propaganda,” Hsin-Yin Lee consulted a few reviews and learned that the Chinese film is “magnificent” on several accounts. The film showcases some 170 stars, including Hollywood heavies such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Zhang Ziyi, many of whom made cameo appearances for free. Production of the two-hour epic film cost less than $5 million and took only 120 days, with the cast traveling to 90 settings across China and eight directors working on various scenes. Lee observed a palpable patriotic passion stirred by the film, citing a blogger who proudly asked: “Do you think Hollywood could get so many superstars for. . . Independence Day?” She also noticed a controversy among Chinese netizens about the fact that many of the stars have acquired foreign citizenship.

As a Taiwanese, however, Hsin-Yin Lee could not bring herself to feel comfortable about a film that, all that magnificent star power notwithstanding, “commemorates the sixtieth anniversary of China’s Communist Revolution.” She would rather think that Final Destination 4 might be more “substantial” for the buck. By the time she published her story on Worldfocus, Lee and her friends were still agonizing over which movie to watch.

Brief as it is, this report echoes the deep unease and mistrust that is shared by many an English-language news story or blog about the film. Two weeks prior to its release, the Associated Press had already, in its usual imperiously disembodied voice, branded The Founding a “propaganda blockbuster” masterminded by “China’s staid cultural commissars.” The AP judgment was swiftly followed by lesser news outlets, such as Cinemaspy.com, where a story titled “Chinese Stars to Appear in Propaganda” describes the upcoming film as indicating “a tactical shift for China’s ruling party with regards to getting its message out.” Headlines like this in turn would readily stir up trigger-happy Cold Warriors patrolling the blogosphere. One blogger, without ever seeing the film, felt betrayed and bitterly denounced Jackie Chan and Jet Li for committing a grand “Hollywood hypocrisy” in collaborating in the whitewashing of “the brutal history of the People’s Republic of China.”

The twin epithets of “propaganda” and “state-funded” were prevalent enough in the initial English-language reports that the film was made to be nothing but an odious affair. (A blogger, originally from Kansas City but now living an exciting life in the Heart of Beijing, noted that “Predictably, Western media has been quick to label The Founding of a Republic ‘propaganda.'” But he urged his readers to go see it anyway, for reasons we will discuss shortly.) By classifying it as state-funded propaganda, these reports effectively condemn the film as misleading and manipulative. The label evokes a sinister specter against which Western liberal democracies define themselves, namely, the individual being brainwashed by Big Brother and reduced to an automaton. (Think The Manchurian Candidate.)

Advertising poster for The Founding of a Republic.

Advertising poster for The Founding of a Republic.

Just like the R rating dutifully meted out by the Motion Picture Association of America for public good, the label “propaganda” affixed by the Associated Press serves as a protective warning to the potential viewer: You may be moved by what you see, but you must resist the temptation and not forget who you are. Even better: Spare yourself by not watching it! Propaganda, in this case, is the shorthand for either an outright falsehood that will nonetheless seduce or confuse you, or some hidden truth that is too painful to confront. Either way, our desire to name and dismiss propaganda reveals a deep-seated fear for our susceptibility to its effect. This unease about seeing oneself challenged, about coming face to face with radical Otherness is what made Miss Lee, our Taiwanese editor working in China, agonize over choosing between “Hollywood sensation and Beijing propaganda.” She would rather believe a supernatural horror flick to be more “substantial,” because she knows that, as entertainment,Final Destination will be less demanding, more vacuous, and therefore more reassuring to her sense of the self.

What to Watch?

Coincidentally, P for Propaganda, a rating often generously dished out in our media coverage when it comes to state-funded Chinese films or publications, is a warning exclusively about objectionable content and substance, rather than against provocative filmmaking or depraved sensibility. (For the same reason, Michael Moore’s recent films have also been denounced as propaganda.)The Founding, for instance, merits a P rating because it is presumed to give a different version of history from what audiences in America (or Taiwan, for that matter) have accepted or assumed. Moreover, it must be a version endorsing the Chinese party-state since the government reportedly bankrolled it. In carefully pointing out every time whether a Chinese film is state-funded or independent, news stories or film reviews seek to put us in the right viewing position before the event, lest we lose sight of the clear and present indoctrination that comes with state funding or sponsorship.

This well-nigh instinctual suspicion of state power has always been an ideological cornerstone of liberal democracy, but it has hardened into a triumphalist article of faith in the post-Cold War era, a period that asserted itself in 1989 with celebration of “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Fukuyama). To this liberalist vision of a post-ideological human history, anything with government backing is an abomination and ought to be dismantled: from state-owned industry, to state-run medical care, to state-sponsored filmmaking or cultural programming. The greatest abomination to the vaunted universalization of Western liberal democracy, of course, has been China. Governed by the Communist Party, China not only did not collapse in 1989 amidst widespread protests and in accordance with liberal democratic expectations, but has emerged in recent years as a formidable economic powerhouse. Indeed, an odd mixture of disbelief and distaste is the unmistakable undertone of English-language reports, from the AP to BBC, on the “propaganda blockbuster” commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Communist state.

The report by Clifford Coonan for the London-based Independent is no exception. Reporting after a sneak preview in early September, Coonan offered some detailed information on this “stirring propaganda epic,” suggesting that it is “up alongside Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day.” He also surmised from the preview that the filmmaker was successful in delivering the effect, because the audience “cheered loudly and chuckled when their favorite actors or pop stars appeared on screen.” And by his count there are close to 200 such stars in the 140-minute movie. His overall skepticism aside, Coonan nonetheless made the following observation: “Anyone visiting China, who wonders why the face of founding father, Chairman Mao Zedong, is still on all the banknotes after the disasters of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and the vicious excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), need only watch this movie.”

No doubt there are also people within China who would like to see the portrait of Mao removed from the Gate of Heavenly Peace and who resent the fact that the RMB still carries Mao’s images. Yet it is also true that the Mao Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square attracts thousands of visitors every day it is open to the public. In many households, rural as well as urban, you still find Mao memorabilia in all shapes and forms. If you look further into Chinese everyday life, you will find scores of Mao impersonators all over the country whose job it is to satisfy public demands by entertaining various communal fairs and festivals, not unlike our own Elvis Presley. Coonan’s remark nonetheless underscores a prevailing view, among foreign visitors, that regards Mao as hardly any more than a ruthless leader directly responsible for the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This view also implies a reduction of the complex socialist movement in China to the decade of the Cultural Revolution, and of modern Chinese history (or PRC history more specifically) to a history of political repression.

History restaged: Chiang Kai-shek (Zhang Guoli) and Mao Zedong (Tang Guoqiang) in front of a portrait of Sun Yat-sen.

History restaged: Chiang Kai-shek (Zhang Guoli) and Mao Zedong (Tang Guoqiang) in front of a portrait of Sun Yat-sen.

It is not entirely clear whether Coonan was warning those visiting China against this “stirring propaganda epic” or was actually making a recommendation. But if his point was that The Founding visualizes a different understanding of recent Chinese history and presents a different relationship to Mao than that held by foreign visitors, he was certainly right. This may not be the best occasion to get into a comprehensive reflection on Mao, either as “one of history’s great revolutionary figures” (as The New York Times put it on his death in September 1976) or as the complex and evocative pop icon that his image has become. Nor am I seeking to offer a full assessment of the history of People’s Republic. What interests me is the larger contexts for Coonan’s remark.

On the topic of Mao, suffice it to say that it is a telling fact that, a short taxi ride from the official portrait of Mao overlooking Tiananmen Square, you will find the famous 798 Art District, where contemporary artistic renditions of Mao in all shapes and colors are often on prominent display. While Tiananmen Square is a monumental space that functions as the hyper-symbolic core of the Chinese political universe, the 798 Art District embodies intrepid entrepreneurism in cohort with artistic experimentation. That Chinese society is capable of maintaining these two spaces and many more, all in one sprawling metropolis, is to me a sign of its pragmatism as well as its open-mindedness.

More often than not, it is those visitors to China, as Coonan reminds us in his report, who could not understand or accept why Mao should still be smiling at the center of the symbolic order in that country. They are happily predisposed to see Chinese artists’ playful, or even disrespectful, images of Mao as admirable acts of defiance and subversion, and the official portrait of Mao as evidence of repression and authoritarianism. No surprise then such a response should in turn lead those less than talented artists to create ever more Mao-related works for a quick buck. Unfortunately, among those visitors with such self-gratifying black-and-white visions are sometimes journalists for Western media, such as, most recently, the New York Times reporter who found it much more expedient to relay two artists’ political provocations than to gauge their worldly or mercantile calculations, let alone to take a hard look at the artistic merit of their work.

What Mainstream?

What is remarkable is how much media attention The Founding has received abroad, first as odious but extravagant propaganda, then as an unprecedented blockbuster. For our vigilant media establishment knows better than to give free publicity to state-funded propaganda. On October 21, The Guardian reported, “A government funded, all-star propaganda film about the birth of modern China under communism has become the biggest homegrown film of all time at the Chinese box office.” The same news was relayed in The Hollywood Reporter: with an earning of over 406 million RMB to date, “it will now set its sights on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Titanic, the current and former all-time Chinese box office champions, respectively.” This trade publication of the American entertainment industry is especially interested in the unusual promotion measures enjoyed by the Chinese blockbuster, noting that no Hollywood competition was allowed during its theater release. Determined by its showbiz background, perhaps, the report did not bother bracketing the film as either propaganda or state-funded.

The continual tracking of The Founding in the news media, for whatever reason, also reminds us how little we know of mainstream Chinese filmmaking. As far as Chinese films are concerned, news agencies and cultural institutions in the West, true to our liberal democratic values, are much more interested in what is not supported by the state or, even better, what is suppressed by the state. The reasoning is not all that complicated or subtle. Since China is ____ [Fill the blank with one or all of the following, depending on your mood at the moment: (1), an authoritarian party-state; (2), a Communist dictatorship; (3), a totalitarian regime; (4), not a liberal democracy like us; (5) all of the above], it is therefore a polity without political legitimacy, which in turn stipulates what our view and coverage of that country should be.

Following this logic, whatever is funded, supported, or simply permitted by the government is suspect because it must serve the interest of an illegitimate and authoritarian state; whatever is discouraged, disallowed, or banned in China must be worthy of our sympathy and support. This logic was closely observed in the Cold War era when the West actively sought out and encouraged a dissident literature first in the East European bloc and then in China. This logic would lead to hailing, implicitly or explicitly, as heroes the two individuals who defaced the portrait of Mao during the Tiananmen protests in the spring of 1989. The same logic has subsequently expressed itself in the tireless promoting and peddling of films, novels, and artworks that are believed to be independent or are allegedly banned in China. A B rating for “Banned” or I for “Independent” becomes a prerequisite for taking seriously or marketing any cultural products from China. The moral directive issued in the ubiquitous “Banned in China” blurb is clear: Embrace this tale of human suffering, defy the censors in China, and exercise your freedom by buying a copy or renting the DVD. (Or, if you have some taste, don’t bother reading the novel or watching the movie, but make a political statement and donation with your wallet!)

Besides tugging at our moral conscience, the “Banned in China” products are charged with another important function: They tell us about the real China! They are truthful because they are forbidden in China and because they confirm what we already know about that country. We know that it is a country without absolute freedom of expression, so whatever is not tolerated in that system must speak absolute truth. Conversely, what is voiced publicly and openly in China cannot be truthful or genuine for the simple fact that it does not amount to a protest against the system. Translated into the domain of politics, such a simplistic view would regard any anti-government protests, violent or not, as inevitable and ultimately justifiable, and any pro-government opinions or activities as orchestrated and disingenuous. Blocked from this view is not only the dynamics of a continually evolving political ecology, but also the legitimacy as well as complexity of a contentious popular or mainstream culture in China.

Let’s take a related news story in The New York Times as another example. On September 25, its online global edition carried a report on “Indie Filmmakers: China’s New Guerillas.” The report begins with Zhao Dayong, an independent filmmaker, whose documentary Ghost Town was the sole Chinese entry at the New York Film Festival that had just opened. What makes Zhao Dayong’s documentary particularly noteworthy, explains the reporter, is that “his project was apparently illegal” in China. Documenting life in a remote rural village in southwestern China over a period of six years became an illegal project because the filmmaker brushed aside all government regulations and shunned the official review process. As a result, there was no permit to release or distribute the final work, and only a few thousand viewers, in the filmmaker’s own estimation, ever saw his film in China.

Challenging the established system may be the nature or trademark of independent filmmaking anywhere, but the New York Timesreporter is quick to paint the issue here as a struggle between artistic freedom and government censorship. “The Chinese government has decreed that all films must be approved by government censors before being distributed and screened, including in overseas film festivals.” The reporter is more than ready to sympathize with the filmmaker for his defiance against the government, even though it is evident that “China’s nascent yet highly dynamic crop of independent filmmakers [. . .] pursue their art in apparent violation of the law.” Yet a few more paragraphs into the news story, we are told that “there are now at least four major independent film festivals around the country [i.e. China] and at least two theaters, both small, dedicated to showing Chinese independent films.”

What the New York Times report did not bother to mention is the fact Ghost Town was publicly screened at the Yunnan Multicultural Visual Festival (Yunfest) in China in August 2008. (Or could it be that the filmmaker divulged only selective information for a more coherent and gratifying self-image?) Moreover, Sinoreel.com, a popular film website based in Guangzhou, had recommended Ghost Town in February 2008 and had, in 2007, reported that Zhao Dayong won a jury prize at the Fourth Chinese Documentary Exchange Week with his first work Street LifeThe New York Times obviously had no interest in such details. Nor did it feel compelled to find out how, when the government is supposed to censor everything, there could be four specialized festivals for independent films in China. It was beyond the reporter’s scope to ask how Ghost Town would be received if it were publicly released in cinemas or on television, or who its imagined or anticipated audience might be. (“The most accomplished filmmakers have found their largest audiences overseas,” we are told, “especially at international film festivals.”)

A pat answer to such questions came from Richard Pena, program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which produces the New York Film Festival. “There’s been an extraordinary explosion of young filmmakers–quite a few of them are quite talented–who are dedicated to record and tell the real story of what’s going on in China,” Mr. Pena is quoted in the story. “That story is really more fascinating than the story that the regime wanted to be told.”

Once again, to this international film festival organizer, the real story about China is to be found in presumably unsanctioned underground documentaries. Their story must be real because their “ground-level views” exude an “unvarnished authenticity” not seen in “mainstream, government-sanctioned films.” If we replace the term “government-sanctioned” with “commercial” in the description here, we may see that organizers like Richard Pena are absorbed in the familiar structural and genre-specific tension between an American independent film and a Hollywood production. How would an independent film set itself apart otherwise?

Yet when projected cross-culturally and over a geopolitical landscape, Mr. Pena’s assumption of native authenticity may be more blinding than revealing. It betrays a naive eagerness, when it comes to images of a different social reality, to equate aesthetics and rhetoric with politics and historical reality. To regard an independent documentary as a more real, more truthful representation, I would suggest, is to insist on a skewed view and not seeing contemporary China in its vibrant and expansive complexity.

The fact is that independent filmmaking is a robust artistic practice and thriving cottage industry in contemporary China. It attracts many talented young artists who seem to be bent on repeating the enviable success that some contemporary visual artists achieved in the 1990s. In March 2009, Shelly Kraicer, a programmer of the Vancouver International Film Festival and expert on Chinese cinema, expressed his excitement about the young indie filmmakers: “There’s much important, risky, creative work going on in Chinese cinema. However, that work is concentrated in the margins, way outside the system, in independent, low budget DV documentaries, shorts, and features that China’s younger filmmakers are fervently at work on.” Kraicer made the observation after attending the Third Annual Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) in November 2008. The BIFF is supported in part through the Film Fund of Li Xianting, the art critic known as the Godfather of contemporary art in China, and a locally owned art center in Songzhuang, which is itself an artist colony east of downtown Beijing.[2]

True to the spirit of defiance in independent filmmaking, Fanhall Films, a publicly registered support organization that is also based in Songzhuang and boasts a membership close to a quarter million, named in October a list of documentaries as its tribute to the 60th anniversary of the PRC. Provocatively advertised as “Sixty Years of Unsanctioned Memories of the People’s Republic,” these fifteen films focus, according to a news release, on two central themes: forgotten or suppressed history, and marginal, dispossessed social groups. The political thrust of publicizing such a list for the occasion is self-evident. So is the marketing calculation in labeling the documentaries as offering “unsanctioned” memories. It is far from obvious, if we look into the films (most of them made since 2005, with the two earliest titles dating to 1995), what was unsanctioned, who withheld the sanctioning, or whether “unsanctioned” actually means something like “not popularly embraced, not nationally broadcast, or not officially endorsed.”

That Fanhall Films was not too worried about facing sanctions for its action, however, seems fairly clear, and the ramifications of this simple fact we still need to fully absorb and appreciate. It should also be clear to us that these documentaries alone would not present a full, or even useful picture of the sixty-year history of the PRC. Put differently, without also keeping in sight the popular and the mainstream, we will not be able to see the indies in the right light. It is this necessary backdrop of contemporary Chinese culture and society that is often absent or blocked in our viewing of Chinese independent films and documentaries in America.

Whose Legitimacy?

The making of the film The Founding of a Republic as well as its extraordinary box office success in 2009 underscores the convergence of the popular and the mainstream in contemporary Chinese culture. This robust mass culture, ever more integrated into the entertainment industry (especially TV programming), is not the subject of the many independent films that we are told we must see, but it reaches and entertains the general public, and generates its own star power. Many of the over 170 plus stars that appear in The Founding, for instance, are not necessarily known for appearing in movies, but instead are comedians, pop singers, TV personalities, and even film directors. In other words, this film presents the closest thing to a literacy test in mass culture. (This was indeed how Elaine Chow, an American living in Shanghai, felt about the film: “guess we’ve got to review our Chinese actor/actress trivia!”) This however may not be a trivial matter. The test bespeaks a vast and maturing entertainment industry that may borrow some Hollywood forms and management styles, but apparently has its own stories to tell.

Huang Jianxin on the set of The Founding

Huang Jianxin on the set of The Founding

To Han Sanping, one of the two main directors of The Founding, there was never any question that a central objective is always to compete with Hollywood. As CEO of the China Film Group Corp, Han Sanping directly controls the largest film studio and its subsidiaries in the country and is known as the top tycoon. Described by the Southern Weekend as harboring a deep “Mao era complex,” by which is meant as much an emotional attachment to a past political legacy as a readiness to acknowledge the relevance of the Mao era to the present, he nevertheless is very clear about the commodity nature of a film and vows to learn from Hollywood in order to keep the Chinese market from being colonized by it. He saw the making of The Founding as both a necessity and an experiment. In a candid interview with the Southern Weekend magazine before the film was released, Han remarked that “mainstream ideology always needs publicity. What we try to do is to blend mainstream ideology and commercial methods.” He believed that The Founding could become a model for films with a central theme promoted by government agencies. At the time he was cautious about its success, setting his goal at a box office return of 100 million.

The bulk of the film was co-directed by Huang Jianxin, whose films include the critically-acclaimed Black Cannon Incident (1986) but who is more recently known as a producer of blockbusters. Huang Jianxin, too, was keen to seek a breakthrough in the making of mainstream films (or “films with a central theme”). Bent on making “a real film instead of a propaganda flick,” he employed a variety of film techniques and tried to enliven historical figures with credible and humanizing details. “It is impossible to make a propaganda film to win your viewers today,” he was quoted in a China Daily news story about the film.[3] In another interview, he explains that in spite of some documentary-style features, the film should not be viewed as a documentary. “What it focuses on representing is the spirit of the Chinese and their historical responsibilities during that period of the past.”

Derek Elley, writing a review for Variety, credits Huang for “a cannily assembled, smoothly made chunk of political filmmaking.” He notes that the fast-forward format of datelined scenes and characters introduced via captions is “leavened by a fair amount of light comedy and actors who go beyond merely spouting historical background and political standpoints.” His conclusion: “Pic isn’t likely to get Western distribution anytime soon, but on several levels is worthy of attention.”

For his appreciation of competent craftsmanship, Elley’s review stands out among the few that actually discuss the film itself. A common approach is to look for hidden and subversive messages, to decode the film as implicit political commentary. Underlying this reductionist approach is a deep-seated disbelief that anyone should find the history of the PRC uplifting or worth commemorating, or there is anything tangible to what Huang Jianxin views as Chinese aspirations and visions of history. The “Heart of Beijing” blogger from Kansas City, for instance, could not help but see scenes in a certain skeptic light, and he urged his readers to go and enjoy some “brutally ironic” moments: “What I believe–what I want to believe–is the filmmakers understood how ironic these scenes really are.”

The most extended exercise of this kind of political reading, which is wearily similar to how literary and artistic works were interpreted in 1950s-1970s China, was undertaken in Time magazine. “The slickly produced (though ponderously paced) state-backed film,” we are told, is more than “routine propaganda.” “What’s striking is how the film exposes–intentionally, we would assume–some of the thinking of the Chinese leadership today.” This reading certainly takes the film seriously, but it is a case of conducting serious intelligence analysis. And the reviewer has ample justification: “Political rulers everywhere rewrite and use history for their ends.

But as China looms ever larger in the global consciousness, anything we can glean about its leadership is especially valuable.” More specifically, “because the CCP now gains its legitimacy almost solely from the material wealth it has created and is communist only in name, it has to recast the past to justify the present.” In the end, however, the reviewer ends up with a bag of mixed messages and seems confused about who is sending which message to whom.

The Time review itself is based on two assessments about contemporary China that have been prevalent among Western analysts as well as public media. One may be called the (lack of) civil society assessment, which regards Chinese society as no more than the Chinese Communist Party. The other assessment centers on (the lack of) legitimacy, asserting that after 1989 the Chinese government lost its political legitimacy and has ever since relied on escalating nationalism and economic growth as compensation for its ironfisted authoritarian rule. (Subscribers to this second assessment acknowledge that there was a legitimacy to be lost, but are apparently too myopic to explain when or how that legitimacy was obtained in the first place.)

These twin assessments have spawned predictions from “the coming collapse of China” to a “fragile superpower,” and are constantly reproduced in the standard image of China as a mindless economic juggernaut. Based on liberal democratic values, such assessments fuel our search for any and all signs of unrest and discontent; they convince us that the underground and the suppressed tells us about the real China, and that a film like The Founding is both state-funded propaganda and revealing intelligence.

It is high time that we reassessed these assessments. For that purpose, The Founding may be a good starting point, and my reflections here are meant to facilitate such a start. As a cultural event more than one particular contemporary revision of history, the film offers us a case study through which we may begin to fathom the historically determined and emotionally charged relationship between the Chinese public, its national consciousness, its collective memory and political imagination. The film also reminds us that the mainstream narrative in China sees 1949 as a far more momentous turning point in the nation’s modern history than 1989 or, for that matter, 1979 when the Reform Era officially began.

How we view the film will in the end reflect what we wish to see. The phenomenally successful film demands that we view it from many angles. It is a far more challenging and yet more useful project to regard the film as an instance of a vibrant and creative cultural system, to see in it the legitimacy and complexity of a political ecology, and through it to understand the emotions, memories, and longings that help articulate a national psyche and self-image. It is of critical importance that we approach Chinese cultural expressions and products in their terms rather than our own. For this reason, we ought to have a good sense of the relational difference between the mainstream and the marginal, the systemic and the sensational, the constituent and the provocative, the publicly expressed and the politically sensitive in our effort to piece together the many aspects of contemporary China. We also need to understand that such tensions and oppositions exist there just as they do in America or any other living society. The bottom line is that we gain a better perspective when we dispense with the corrective lenses that continue to crop China into the age-old image of an abnormal, senseless, and threatening Other.

Coda: Let’s Make a Difference

That contemporary China is a vital part of the global economy and yet remains distinct in its socio-political system is a familiar refrain. Not until recently did we see a serious interest in pondering the unsettling difference and challenge that China presents. Strolling through Tiananmen Square on the eve of the October 1 National Day, Orville Schell, a veteran China expert, found himself contemplating a paradox or perhaps a Hegelian ruse of history. Not so long ago, Schell recalled, an “end-of-history” euphoria emboldened “many latter-day American political missionaries to proselytize for democracy as well as capitalism–to urge China’s leaders to abandon state controls not only over their economy, but over their political system as well.” Yet in 2009, “China is veritably humming with energy, money, plans, leadership, and forward motion, while the West seems paralyzed.” Schell has nothing but disdain for those “market fundamentalists,” but is not quite ready to denounce those political evangelists as democracy fundamentalists yet. “It is intellectually and politically unsettling,” he wrote, “to realize that, if the West cannot quickly straighten out its systems of government, only politically un-reformed states like China will be able to make the decisions that a nation needs to survive in today’s high-speed, high-tech, increasingly globalized world.”

Schell is not alone in finding the reality of contemporary China unsettling. Writing to reflect on the long and difficult transition in post-Communist Eastern Europe, Slavoj Zizek understands why China has posed such a challenge to ideologues: “capitalism has always seemed inextricably linked to democracy, and faced with the explosion of capitalism in the People’s Republic, many analysts still assume that political democracy will inevitably assert itself.” Zizek goes on to ask, “But what if this strain of authoritarian capitalism proves itself to be more efficient, more profitable, than our liberal capitalism? What if democracy is no longer the necessary and natural accompaniment of economic development, but its impediment?” These are not easy questions because to answer them, even hypothetically, we will have to rethink a host of assumptions, beliefs, and historical lessons.

Nor is Schell alone in seeing China as a formidable competitor. Watching the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, David Brooks, a conservative columnist of the New York Times, believed he saw a grand demonstration of the achievements and attractions of a “collectivist society.” It was an event that invites a “new global conversation” between individualist societies (or rather liberal democracies such as America) and collectivist societies. “The rise of China isn’t only an economic event,” Brooks observes. “It’s a cultural one. The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream. It’s certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.”

Over a year later, Thomas Friedman, Brooks’s liberal colleague at the New York Times, compares China’s one-party autocracy favorably with America’s “one-party democracy,” by which he means a Democrat-controlled Congress and White House. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”

Such sweeping comparisons of China with America or the West in general serve specific purpose and arguments and may not be airtight observations, but they indicate a new recognition. These opinion makers recognize a meaningful difference that helps them explain the present situation and probably future developments. If indeed China’s perceived rise also means a global cultural dialogue if not a competition, as is asserted by Brooks, it will make sense for us to find out how that dialogue may be conducted. The Founding of a Republic may not have all the answers, but its conception and popularity provides a compelling case for us to take contemporary Chinese mass culture seriously and on its own terms.


[1]Xiaobing Tang teaches modern Chinese literature and culture at the Universiy of Michigan. An earlier version of this paper was presented at “The Nines: Brinks, Cusps, and Perceptions of Possibility–From 1789 to 2009” conference, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, December 3-5, 2009. The author would like to thank the participants in the conference for their comments and suggestions.

[2]. A few weeks after The New York Times story about indie filmmakers as China’s new guerrillas, Shelly Kraicer expressed concern about how Chinese “indie conventions” are becoming formulaic. His article appeared on dGenerate films.com, the website of a non-theatrical distributor of contemporary independent films from China. Kraicer begins by describing a recurring dream that he had in China while watching self-declared independent films that were presented to him:

The daydream, or perhaps it’s a fantasy, is this. There exists, down some dusty grey hutong alleyway of Beijing, a Chinese Indie Director’s Discount Emporium. You want to make a film? Step right in and assemble your movie at bargain prices. The shelving on the left is stocked with cast members: long-haired village boys, out of school, drifting aimlessly. At the back is a set of grainy, dusty, brown-grey village-scapes, ready to be populated by said drifters. To the right, useful equipment. Some tripods, but with a restriction: they must be set up at least 50 metres from the subjects being filmed. Right beside is a very long long shelf, holding 3 minute, 10 minute, even 20 minute-long takes, offered for a steal at family-sized package prices.

This vivid, if absurd, dream goes on, and Kraicer knows that it tells more about international film programmers like himself than the aspiring filmmakers. With programmers hunting for such “East Asian art film attributes” that are offered at wholesale price at the imaginary hutong indie shop, Kraicer asks, “Who can blame a young director from China, who, with little or no chance of gaining any return on his or her investment within his own country, tries to design a film to suit those foreigners who pay the bills, fund post production, and just might offer an overseas distribution deal?” He goes on to caution that “it’s too easy to choose more of what you already know, and it’s too easy to train audiences (I should say, to educate audiences) to expect a certain kind of film experience from a certain brand of national cinema.” Fortunately, Kraicer believes the Chinese indie brand is still going strong, and the ready-made items available in the imaginary discount indie shop are being put to good use.

[3]. In a report about the film published in telegraph.co.uk, Peter Foster also mentioned that Huang Jianxin had suggested that it would not be fair to dismiss The Founding as propaganda.