This article also appears in ChinaFile, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
Are Chinese audiences growing weary of anti-Japanese propaganda? It would seem that some, at least, are growing sick of the pathetic villains, superhuman heroes and lame endings that many Chinese movies and television series about World War II, or what Chinese refer to as the War of Resistance Against Japan, have to offer.
Where’s the creativity?
On January 19, 2013, former China Central Television director Xia Jun (@夏骏) posted on microblogging platform Sina Weibo, “What’s up with China’s TV industry? Take a look around Hengdian [a major Chinese television studio] and you’ll see 40-50 casts and crews fighting [Japanese] ‘devils.’ Where’s the creativity?” Mr. Xia’s statement was reposted 10,000 times and garnered over 2,600 comments on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog platform. Most of those responding to Xia’s post seemed to share his concern.
User @浩淼冷影 remarked, “The scripts are rotten, ridiculous and hypocritical. It’s unbearable. The actors, directors, and all those who watch them with such relish…are f-ing obscene.” @月夜舞清影 wrote, “It’s just so self-indulgent. It’s base and laughable stuff!”
Some attributed the abundance and poor quality of anti-Japanese propaganda to the fact that anti-Japanese sentiment is surging in China, so audiences will watch it no matter how bad it is. In the words of user @车开车爆胎, “As long as ratings are high, who [among directors] is going to care about creativity?”
The deeper history
But according to Chinese media veteran Qin Liwen, there is more to the story than undiscerning demand from Chinese viewers: the Chinese authorities are actively promoting anti-Japanese propaganda as a “central theme” for movies and television. As a result, most mainland Chinese directors are loath to spend time and money filming other subject matter, which authorities might be more inclined to censor.
The troubled relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang, for example, is a subject prone to censorship, according to a quote attributed to director Xia Jun that circulated on Twitter in 2010. The tweet also stated that the Korean War and early days of Communist Party rule, which included disastrous events such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, were also off limits. Shows set in ancient China are kept under 20% of total content, and even contemporary dramas must tread lightly around sensitive topics like China’s wealth disparity, corruption and labor conditions. As Weibo user @卤豆腐唐 put it, “other than the [Japanese] ‘devils,’ who are we going to fight? Corrupt officials?”
In early Fall 2012, a promotional article was published online outlining how China’s screenwriters and directors had worked over the summer to turn the current “central theme” — the War of Resistance Against Japan — into a series of hit television shows, while ensuring that “historical facts” were respected along the way. According to the article, among the innovations directors had come up with in 2012 were barely literate roughneck heroes whose lack of polish is more than made up for by their patriotic fervor, as well as the addition of family drama set against the backdrop of Japanese aggression. But though the piece received over a thousand responses, many of those who voiced an opinion did not share the author’s positive take on this year’s batch of anti-Japanese propaganda.
One commenter replied, “Anti-Japanese shows are the fakest! They rape the intellects of viewers!” Another lamented the greater implications of China’s seeming obsession with demonizing Japan: “I boycott this type of show as a rule. They just make me feel ashamed. It is an ill-fated nation which portrays its modern history in this manner.”
In early fall 2012, when the censorship notes for director Jiang Wen’s 2000 film “Devils on the Doorstep” were obtained and published online by the U.S.-based China Digital Times, China watchers gained a rare peek into just how the Chinese authorities dictate and censor the content of films set during Japan’s occupation of Mainland China.The film had won the Grand Prix at 2000 Cannes Film Festival, but was subsequently banned in China.
Among the many scenes from “Devils on the Doorstep” singled out for criticism by authorities was one in which a Chinese village elder says kindly to a captured Japanese soldier and his turncoat Chinese interpreter, “In my eyes, you too are just children.” For this, the film was accused of “displaying common Chinese people as stupid and ignorant, failing to differentiate between foe and friend.” The film was also accused of aggrandizing Japanese soldiers because it portrayed them showing restraint towards Chinese villagers.
Anti-Japanese propaganda here to stay
Last Fall in Beijing, sone Chinese scholars referred to the widespread anti-Japan protests as a way to pressure Japan by citing the will of the Chinese public. But as with the protests themselves — where the government reportedly bused protestors in and equipped them with signs and bottled water — Beijing plays an active role in forming and promoting negative attitudes towards Japan.
In the current political climate, where the Chinese government has come under increasing pressure from the public to reform, Beijing’s promotion of anti-Japanese sentiment is unlikely to disappear. It was during just such a legitimacy crisis two decades ago that the Communist Party first initiated an aggressive anti-Japanese propaganda campaign to bolster support for the government following the Tiananmen Square protests. Anti-Japanese sentiment has since become a primary fixture of Chinese nationalism — a rare rallying point in China upon which the rich and poor agree. As one Weibo user exclaimed, “Even our anthem is about resisting the Japanese invasion.” Some Chinese Web users will likely continue to complain about the “unbearable” propaganda, but they had better get used to it.