Saturday, 15 January 2011

ABC ways: Looking back to surge forward



The ABC for China – Ang Lee, Bruce Lee and Confucius – can help explain its rise today.

LAST Tuesday, the Chinese government unveiled a statue of Confucius at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

This was the first stage of a refurbished China National Museum adjacent to the square. However, the implications of placing a statue of the iconic sage at an iconic location run deeper.

In the Maoist era, Confucians were derided and oppressed. Mao had narrowly linked Confucianism with China’s feudal past and its excesses, underestimating the philosophy’s enduring popularity.

That began to change after Mao’s demise and the end of his disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Today’s Dengist China has “rediscovered” Confucius as the main icon of a proud and progressive culture with universal appeal.

Confucius stressed piety, ethics, order, tolerance, education and societal welfare. He also championed harmony, which is useful for a China hoping that major world powers would accommodate its rise, and forgiveness, which helps to improve relations with past imperial powers that had wronged China.

American political philosopher Daniel Bell, based at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, finds that growing materialism has also prompted China’s leaders to emphasise values in society. He says China’s present focus on “harmony” also opposes Maoist ideas of violent revolution.

Even after 2,500 years, Confucius’ teachings continue to resonate for many Chinese. More importantly, they are not seen to contradict Com­munist Party doctrine but instead help to promote social order and political stability while the party itself loses its ideological edge.

China’s embrace of Taiwanese-born film director Ang Lee, now a naturalised US citizen, is also indicative of Beijing’s trajectory. Since the mainland has always claimed the island as its province, Lee’s roots were never a problem for Beijing, even after his parents had fled Mao’s forces on the mainland.

Following Lee’s critical acclaim worldwide, his brush with the former DPP government of Taiwan found more fans on the mainland despite some uncertain receptions from Beijing itself. When the independence-inclined DPP sought to supplant “Chinese” with “Taiwanese” identity, Lee refused to be manipulated and insisted he was proud to be Chinese.

An official mainland newspaper reportedly dubbed Lee “the pride of the Chinese people”. Beijing then invited him to be an artistic director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

China’s belated embrace of martial arts icon Bruce Lee is similar, amounting to a national homecoming for a star in popular culture that an older Communist Party could never stomach. But like Ang Lee, Bruce Lee had achieved international success, even Western renown, by championing Chinese culture.

Bruce Lee’s life was even more of a morality tale for a modern China rising from its humiliating experience of foreign imperial powers. Although US-born, he grew up in Hong Kong and returned to the US as a teen to seek his fortune.

Lee had believed in America as the land of opportunity for all. Instead he came away disappointed, encountering racial discrimination from a prospective mother-in-law to prospective Hollywood producers.
He then went back to Hong Kong for his career. Success came with his first martial arts title The Big Boss, then with the second, Fists of Fury (1972), his most popular film among Chinese audiences.

The story dramatises the international status of the Chinese in history. It is also adapted from the passing of Chinwoo Athletic Association founder Huo Yuanjia, albeit brought forward some three decades to the 1930s to highlight the oppression China suffered under Imperial Japan.

Bruce Lee’s character Chen Zhen would later feature in no less than 11 remakes and sequels in film and television. The 1994 Jet Li remake Fist of Legend sees a more textured treatment of oppression, racial prejudice and the Japanese, suggesting a more nuanced attitude in today’s China.

However, China’s acclaim of Lee had to be posthumous. In the early 1970s, prospective reformer Deng Xiaoping and his family were still being hounded by Maoist Red Guards.

Today, a 19m-high statue of Bruce Lee stands near a Bruce Lee Museum in Shunde, Guangdong Province. Both are part of a park named Bruce Lee Paradise.

An even larger, eight-legged (in different kicking positions) statue of Lee stands at 30m in nearby Foshan, his ancestral hometown. It is scheduled to go on a world tour this year.

Although Confucius’ statue stands at “only” 9.5m including its base, its location is critical. Tiananmen Square is not only a popular meeting point and tourist destination, it was the site of the 1976 “Tiananmen Incident” in which an assembly of mourners were deemed a challenge to the state.

In 1989, the Tiananmen Square uprising rose against corruption and other evils, then turned into a mass critique of the state. Some Falun Gong members would also use the square to demonstrate or canvass for support.
Confucius’ statue is placed centrally, which makes Mao’s 6m portrait on one side detract from a harmonious symmetry. That could be resolved by either placing another portrait, perhaps Deng’s, on the other side, or relocating Mao’s portrait to a storage area.

The Soviet Union had long ago done away with Stalin’s renown along with his purges. It later collapsed from a weak economy and the absence of popular icons to rally the people, which is quite unlike today’s China.

Ang Lee, Bruce Lee and Confucius may together spell a new form of Chinese nationalism. If so, it is a soft nationalism directed largely inwards for national cohesion.

Beijing might have found it wiser to govern through the heart of people’s sense of belonging than with naked force. But it should also beware of how cultural pride can sometimes grow uncontrollably and spill quickly into extremist racial sentiment.

1 comment:

  1. China changes as the world changes. Can you change as China changes?