Zhang San and Li Si’s Excellent Adventure

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:30 am

China Hush reports that the Chinese film and TV industries have been ordered to stop making time-travel dramas, on the grounds that “The producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.”

I find this convenient if wrong-headed. Convenient because while Americans may talk about what what our history means to us it is hard to pin down what historical orthodoxy is. China makes it easy. Wrong-headed because the Chinese government is very big on encouraging young Chinese to identify with “5,000 Years of Chinese History.” Getting people to do that is actually hard, and time travel might help.

David Lowenthal talks about time travel stories in The Past is a Foreign Country. Modern science fiction stories are only the tip of the iceberg, as there are countless stories of a knock on the head, a strange dream or a pact with the devil sending people to the past. Although lots of these stories are about about how you can use your amazing knowledge to make money gambling, or fix the present or whatever, many of them deal with how disconcerting and foreign the past is. In some stories you can’t talk to people, they may kill you for being a heretic, or you might starve to death. In any case, you will almost certainly want to go home. I have not watched any of these TV dramas, but all of them seem to open with the past being frightening and dangerous, but with the hero eventually finding their feet and, of course, true love. This would seem to be good from a Chinese nationalist perspective, since all these people are traveling to a past that is supposed to be ‘theirs.’ If Americans want to go a long way into the past we visit King Arthur’s court, which is obviously in a foreign country, and thus if we don’t identify with it and have to kill everyone to liberate them, that’s o.k. Chinese kids should -like- visiting Ancient China Land, and apparently they do.

Needless to say there are some serious problems. The past is really different from the present in ways that are being ignored in these stories. Sex and lust were probably the same things in the Qin Dynasty as now, but love? I doubt many people are learning much about the past as it is understood by historians from these shows. On the other hand, the official line seems to be that history is a nationalistic catechism to be memorized, respected, and bored by. That’s even worse. The article also reports that there is to be a ban on productions of the Four Classic Novels. Again, the problem is apparently a lack of respect for the treasures of Chinese culture, and you can see the point. If you let the current generation of Chinese youth get their hands on these stories they might portray the Monkey King as some sort of  turbulent troublemaker or Li Gui as a drunken hoodlum. Heck they might even imply that Baoyu was gay! Far better to stick these stories in boring classrooms and museums than to risk what might happen to them in the present.


Via Jeremiah Jenne


Chalmers Johnson remembered

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:11 am

His wife on his life and career.


Assassination and uprisings

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:32 am

On April 8th, 1911  five days before the scheduled Canton revolt an independent radical from Singapore assassinated the Manchu governor of Canton, Fu Qi. This threw the not-very organized revolutionaries into disarray, and headed the Canton revolt towards yet another failure.

By 1911 the revolutionary forces in China had been trying and failing to overthrow the Qing since at least 1895.  In later histories this string of failed revolts can sometimes seem like they are rising to a crescendo, but at the time things did not seem so clear cut. This led to any number of debates on method, one of which was over the value of assassinations in fomenting revolution. Influenced by Anarchists and Russian Narodniks and assorted Japanese radicals, various Chinese began a fascination with direct action. Part of this was based on the idea the a person like the knight-errant of old could rectify the world with a single stab, or, as one radical newspaper put it. (taking advantage of the ease in putting ‘ism’ on words in Chinese)

“Republicanism, Revolution-ism, Blood-Sacrifice-ism, Assassination-ism, none of these can be undertaken without knight-errant-ism ” ”共和主义,革命主义,流血主义,暗杀主义,非有游侠主义 不能担负之“ 1

While some revolutionaries like Huang Xing and Sun Yat-sen were trying to broaden the revolution, bringing in more people, more groups and more money, the assassins seemed attracted to the fact that a single person was all that was needed. Probably the best example was Wu Yue, who was killed in 1905 when a bomb he was going to throw at the five commissioners the Qing were sending overseas to examine Western methods exploded prematurely.  Wu Yue felt that the Chinese people had become so weakened by Manchu rule that only the shock of assassinations could arouse their spirit 伸民气, and the sacrifice of revolutionary lives would be needed to establish a new nation.2

Wu is perhaps best classified as an assassin, rather than an Anarchist. Although clearly influenced by Russian ideas other Anarchists dismissed him for his anti-Manchu racism, which they saw as counter to their internationalist ideas.3 He was certainly no reformer, nor does he seem to have had very clear ideas about -how- assassinations were going to lead to his ultimate goal of a constitutional government. He claimed that a stage of assassination had to proceed a stage of revolution, which would in turn lead to constitutional government, but it was not clear how this was supposed to happen.

Wu’s attempt did get a lot of attention, however, as it was the biggest thing anyone had tried yet, and right in the heart of Beijing. Traditionally those convicted of particularly heinous crimes were dismembered through lingchi 凌遲 and their bodies displayed. This penalty had officially been abolished earlier in 1905 as part of the modernization of Chinese judicial practice, and had last been imposed in 1904 on a mass murderer. Public execution in this extreme form was the ultimate expression of the state’s (and heaven’s) disapproval.  Wu Yue’s body was photographed and the photographs pretty widely distributed, perhaps as a final, modernized version of this punishment. (I have put the picture beneath the fold.) Perhaps Wu Yue would even have been pleased by this. His assassination attempt had failed, but the state had anointed him the most dangerous of revolutionaries. If nothing else he could not be lumped in with the milquetoast reformers he was so contemptuous of.

Needless to say, it was hard to build a revolutionary movement out of bomb-throwers like Wu Yue and fundraisers like Sun Yat-sen.



  1. 朱育和, 辛亥革命史 人民出版社, 2001 p.247 []
  2. 朱育和, 辛亥革命史,  人民出版社, 2001 p.251, Rankin Early Chinese Revolutionaries p. 107 []
  3. Dirlik Anarchism and the Chinese Revolution p.94 []

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