“Confucius” and “Avatar” at the Chinese Multiplex





Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at UC Irvine and the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, which will be published in April by Oxford University Press.

The contrasts between the two movies fighting for box office supremacy in China are obvious.  “Avatar,” which is winning the battle , is a Hollywood-made film set in the future,  while “Confucius” is a homegrown biopic set in the past.  Only “Avatar” is showing in 3D and up for Academy Awards.  Only “Confucius” has government backing.  And so on.  Yet, they have something notable in common: each is linked to the high profile return to prominence and acclaim of someone who, not long ago, was being criticized and seemed washed up.

The comeback kid of “Avatar” is director James Cameron.  After he boasted that he was “king of the world” at the 1998 Oscars, he was derided as egomaniacal.  And by 2007, the notion that “nothing in [Cameron’s] future career is likely to match the scale and success of his film of the 1912 Titanic disaster” (as a BBC report put it ) had become conventional wisdom.  He’s now, of course, proved the naysayers wrong.  “Avatar” shows he’s still got the Midas touch that made “Titanic” profitable and the knack for using special effects in novel ways that generated buzz for his “Terminator” films.

In the case of “Confucius,” the comeback kid isn’t the movie’s director, but the philosopher who lived some twenty-five hundred years ago that Chow Yun-fat plays on screen.  Confucius (551-479BCE) is back in the spotlight in China after a period—actually, several periods—when his glory days seemed behind him.

You may think the sage has always been revered in and thought of a symbol for the Chinese nation, but this isn’t so.  His stock rose and fell several times before 1900, and he’s had even more striking reversals of fortune since then.

He was, for example, criticized sharply during the New Culture Movement (1915-1923). The writer Lu Xun and other leading Chinese intellectuals of the day claimed that a Confucian reverence for tradition and emphasis on hierarchies that placed the old above the young, men above women had no place in the “New China” created by the 1911 Revolution, which had transformed the country from a monarchy into a republic.

The philosopher’s star rose when Chiang Kai-shek took power in 1927.  This Nationalist leader asserted that Confucian family values were the perfect bedrock on which to transform the Republic of China into a thoroughly modern country.

Confucius was out of favor again after Mao Zedong led the Communists to victory in 1949.  A New Culture Movement veteran, Mao denounced Confucius as a despicably “feudal” figure.

After Mao’s death in 1976 came a period when Confucius was neither celebrated nor reviled, merely ignored.  Living in China in the mid-1980s, I sometimes went months without hearing his name or seeing his image.

Compared to James Cameron’s sudden return to the spotlight, Confucius’s latest comeback has occurred in slow motion.  It began in the 1990s, as temples devoted to him were refurbished and books praising him started appearing.  Only in the last few years has it really picked up steam.

This is because Hu Jintao, like Chiang Kai-shek, is an authoritarian modernizer who insists that a Confucian emphasis on “harmony” can aid development and further a revolutionary mission.  Under his watch, the Communist Party has even begun opening “Confucius Institutes” around the world, with the stated goal of fostering greater awareness of China’s enduring values.

No consideration of the two films would be complete without a consideration of their politics.  In the U.S., “Avatar” has been embraced by some on the left and derided by some on the right as a critique of American military adventurism.  In China, some bloggers have argued that its plot brings to mind struggles between rapacious Chinese developers and homeowners bravely resisting relocation.  Still others see it as a different kind of political allegory—or insist it’s best treated as an apolitical fantasy.

I haven’t seen “Confucius” yet, so I’m not sure whether its plot lends itself it to equally varied interpretations.  But the current veneration of Confucius does.

The official line is that the celebration of Confucius is simply a return to the natural state of affairs in a country that for “millennia” has embraced the sage and all he stands for.  But here are two other ways to see it:

It can be read as part of a rebranding effort.  A makeover of the image of the country (and the Party) that is helping persuade many overseas Chinese that they can identify with and invest in today’s People’s Republic 2.0, even if they hated Mao.

Or it can be read as part of the same phenomenon that’s fueling a resurgence of other ideas and figures linked to the past.  I have in mind everything from the increasing interest in Buddhism to the revival of folk healing practices, from the intense fascination, in some quarters, with “Old Shanghai” circa 1930, to nostalgia, in other quarters, for Mao .

It can be profoundly disorienting to live in a booming country like the PRC, which is surging headlong into uncharted terrain, changing so fast that, as I stressed last week in a review essay on recent books about China that I wrote for Time magazine, road maps often seem obsolete as soon as they’re printed.  In such a setting, it is easy to understand why symbols tied to the past—and sometimes any past will do—can be very appealing.


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