Blood of the martyrs

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:58 pm

The Chinese student group asked me to come out and talk at their showing of Jackie Chan’s 1911. As it was competing with the Stillers game attendance was not great, but we did have a nice chat afterwards.

The movie was… less than ideal. It was a nice time, however, to think about drama and history. How to make a movie about 1911? This was an interesting topic for me in part because my adviser was a consultant for the PBS series China in Revolution1 They were given 7 seconds to sum up the 1911 Revolution. Film and history don’t always play nice together. I’m not always a history snob. If you warp history and make a good film  out of it I’m fine with that. This one did not work either way however. Part of the problem was that Jackie Chan is apparently continuing his campaign to become a Chinese icon acceptable to Beijing. He’s great for that in some respects. Being from HK and having trained in a Beijing Opera school he has the connections to both China’s 5000 years of history and Greater China. Unfortunately his skills as an actor rotate around his Gongfu and the fact that he has the chops to do comedy. As Huang Xing he does not do any comedy,and he is too old to do much Gongfu. There is a hint of a romance in here, but it does not save the film.

O.K. so if they are not going to make a good film that abandons history, what about one that follows it? 1911 is a good story, yes? For obvious reasons they have to abandon some of the narratives of the Revolution. Although the actual revolution was intensely anti-Manchu, the Manchus are no longer evil exploiters of the Chinese people. Now they are one of the 56 nationalities that make up the Chinese people, and so Manchu Evil is not a possible bad guy. Pu Yi is presented as a brat, which deals with the problem of making a little kid manipulated by his elders a source of pity. The villain here is Yuan Shikai. This is not a big surprise, and he is the best character in the film. I really liked the scene where he is dismissed from his post serving the Qing (because he is already betraying them), tosses away his staff and does a little dance. Is he dancing because he is a Han finally free from the Manchu yoke? Because he is an opportunist finally free to act on his own? You could build a nice movie around him, especially if, unlike this movie, you acknowledge his history as a reformer.

If Yuan is the bad guy, who is the good guy? Sun Yat-sen, as always, is wooden. His inspiring leadership or clever plans will not make a revolution, although his fundraising powers are praised. Huang Xing, Chan’s character, is a loyal servant rather than a revolutionary rival, as he actually was. The movie  does acknowledge the current interpretation of the revolution. While the Wuhan uprising may have started things, it was the provincial assemblies declaring for the Revolution that really made it happen. Provincial assemblies passing motions do not make for  great drama, They represent this by a scene where people launch rafts with the names of the different provinces. Not much better, unfortunately.

So what did make the revolution? Sacrifice. The movie opens with Qiu Jin embracing death for China and her children, and it ends with the child of one of the (dead) revolutionaries grasping a letter from his father. There is a lot of blood, and a lot of suffering, and while the suffering is not linked to anything, there is a lot of it. It is the blood of the martyrs that led to the new China and then in an odd little finale, to the Communist revolution. It is is some respects a very faithful movie. Homer Lea is in here, for no good reason, as is Wang Jing-wei (downplayed, for some reason) but it did not really work for me either as a film or as history.





  1. which is really good []


Bruce Willis and Harvard Yenching

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 11:57 pm

I dropped by Harvard-Yenching library this afternoon to pick up some books requested from the depository and look up a few more from my todo list. I noted down book locations to find on the shelves in three different columns on a scrap piece of paper:

1) English language books with library of congress numbers
2) Japanese books with library of congress numbers
3) Japanese books with a special Harvard-Yenching lookup number in the format of J xxxx[.xx] xxxx format.

Soon enough, I had a pile of books I just have to look at stacked about half a meter tall. Having brought my camera with me and not wanting to wait in line for the PDF scanners downstairs I snapped some photos of the few relevant pages from most of the books, using someone’s study carrel as my temporary workstation. The H-Y library is fantastic and filled with wonders, but the little tables that pass for carrels in those narrow book aisles offer only cramped working quarters.

It was Friday night and after dinner I decided to go see a bad action movie to unwind: the new movie “Red” with Bruce Willis. It was pretty bad, and there was hardly anyone in the theater. In fact, it was so bad I started checking my email while the movie was still going and debating on walking out.1

Suddenly, retired CIA agent Bruce Willis was in Chinatown, investigating the death of a Chinese-American New York Times writer who left behind a mysterious postcard with only a single number on the back.

Was it a phone number? No.
Was it a book in a library? Perhaps, but wait…it doesn’t look like a library of congress call number.

Suddenly Bruce hits on the solution! Obviously the number doesn’t look like an LOC call number because it is from the Harvard-Yenching classification system and refers to an Asian book!2

In order to provide the obligatory movie proof that “all spies are super polyglots” Bruce Willis then made his entry for the “2010 Worst Chinese spoken by a Hollywood Actor” award. I can’t remember what he said (was it, “I live in Wuhan?” Anyone catch it? This year I think he might actually beat Shia LaBeouf’s Chinese in the “Wall Street” movie sequel.)

Together with his completely useless kidnapped sidekick, a former weed dealer who left California to work in a pensions department in Kansas City, the protagonists made their way to the library to look up the mysterious book. Though the Harvard-Yenching classification is used by some other libraries, I assumed they made the drive up from NYC to Boston and was dazzled by the huge bright library they ended up in. The massive multi-floor monstrosity in which they found the Chinese book they were looking for with its supposed Harvard-Yenching classification call number was certainly a big contrast to the humble and cozy H-Y library. Was anyone else who has suffered through the movie been able to identify what library it is?

  1. Please don’t do this when at the movies if anyone is nearby who can see the bright glow of your smartphone…it is very annoying []
  2. I don’t remember the number looking anything like an H-Y number but, trust me, this is not a movie you want waste time on picking out inaccuracies. []

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