Rachel Lu

China’s Spielberg Calls Out Censors During Awards Ceremony

A screenshot of Feng’s emotional speech. (Via Weibo)

This article also appeared in The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.

It is ironic yet befitting. “In the past 20 years, every China director faced a great torment,” said director Feng Xiaogang, who was called China’s Spielberg by Newsweek, “and that torment is [beep].”

The censored word, as anyone reading Feng’s lips can surmise, is “censorship.”

Feng is one of Chinas’ most prolific and successful directors, producing 15 films in 18 years by his own count. Tea Leaf Nation‘s Wendy Qian recently wrote that a recent film of Feng’s, called Back to 1942, subtly critiques the Communist Party.

Feng made his remarks on April 12, when he accepted the honor of “director of year” from the China Film Directors Guild. The video of Feng’s acceptance speech has gone viral on China’s social media. One post containing the video was retweeted more than 10,000 times on Sina Weibo, China’s favorite microblogging platform.

Feng choked up with emotion before he spoke about censorship, and as soon as he did, the attendees in the ball room let out a collective “whoa,” breaking into applause. Feng continued:

A lot of times when you receive the order [from the censors], it’s so ridiculous that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, especially when you know something is good and you are forced to change it into something bad. Are Hollywood directors tormented the same way? … To get approval, I have to cut my films in a way that makes them bad. How did we all persist through it all? I think there is only one reason — that this bunch of fools like us love filmmaking — are entranced by filmmaking — too much.

While censorship of Chinese films is a well-known fact of life, it is rarely a subject of open discussion. Last year, director Lou Ye posted directives from China’s censorship body, SARFT, and gave Internet users a peek into this mysterious system.

Feng’s speech appeared to function as a cue to Internet users, many of whom responded with sympathy and support. Some echoed Feng’s words, decrying the online censorship that is a fact of life on the Chinese social web. Many exclaimed the decision to bleep out Feng’s mention of censorship was “painting the eyes on a dragon,” a figure of speech which refers to the finishing touch necessary to bring something to life. In other words, the ironic result may only have rendered Feng’s message more poignant.

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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.
  • http://www.facebook.com/metalheadpaladin Matt Cooper

    No, Mr Feng. Hollywood directors are not tormented by censors.

    But they do willingly prostitute themselves to the American military-industrial complex and engage in nationalist, interventionist myth-making in order to score the big bucks they need to make loud, idiotic summer action-blockbusters, which makes them all the more pathetic.

    • andao

      They only do it because there’s an audience for that stuff. Blame the crazy pro military Americans, not the filmmakers just trying to make a profit.

      Furthermore, look at how well “Battleship”, a nice piece of pro-US propaganda, did in China. It was crazy successful.

      • http://www.facebook.com/metalheadpaladin Matt Cooper

        My first question is, which one is the cart and which one is the horse? How do we know it isn’t Hollywood making Americans more pro-military rather than the other way around?

        My second question is, if the filmmakers are ‘just trying to make a profit’, why the hell should we be respecting them as artists? [sarcasm] I’m sure that every night Bach was writing his Brandenburg Concerto he told himself how huge it would be at the chamber box-office. [/sarcasm]

        And I’m fairly positive that, given your assumption, most American filmmakers wouldn’t give a rat’s hindparts about how ‘crazy successful’ a film is in China, given that most of the people who watch it buy pirated copies and they wouldn’t see much if any profit from the China market in any event.

        • andao

          “How do we know it isn’t Hollywood making Americans more pro-military rather than the other way around?”

          What incentive does Hollywood have to make movies that Americans don’t like but advance US military objectives? Unless the army is flat out giving cash to Hollywood (they might, I have no idea), then there’s no reason for Hollywood to waste time and money on this. They just care about making profits. The key to that is making generally mindless films that appeal to the lowest common denominator.

          “respecting them as artists”…I don’t think artists want to do anything for free, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If they’re already rich it’s one thing, but I’m pretty sure even Bach wanted to make money. We can respect them because they are good at their jobs. If actors get rich in the process, then hey, more power to them. There’s nothing wrong with making money and being good at your job. But the fact remains that if Bach had no chance to make money, he wouldn’t be writing music.

          “China market”… it seems like you have no concept of the size of the Chinese film market (#2 most revenue in the world). Millions of pirated DVDs are sold every day, but millions of Chinese people also pay to see stuff in theaters. Hollywood studios these days are bending over backwards to make plots more accessible to Chinese audiences, and not to “hurt China’s feelings” in their plot-lines. Just look at the special Chinese version of “Iron Man 3″ coming out, or how they changed the entire plot of “Red Dawn” to omit Chinese bad guys, or that wonderfully pro-Chinese propaganda film called “The Karate Kid”. Hollywood is (and will continue) to make tons of cash from Chinese cinemas, regardless of easy to find pirated DVDs. It is an extremely important market to Hollywood.

          • sw408

            Actually, the CIA has given cash to Hollywood. See Operation Mockingbird – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Mockingbird

            Think they still aren’t doing it today? If you can recall some recent Oscar-nominated and winning flicks here in the US, it should give you a pretty good idea.



            “Are Hollywood directors tormented the same way?” I don’t know Mr. Feng. I wish they would just come out and say it like you did. But they won’t, since receiving your best picture award from the hands of the First Lady isn’t exactly “torment.”

            Why are the censorship actions of the Chinese government are more transparent to those of us living in the US, than the propaganda promoted by our government?

            I’m still interested in seeing Back to 1942 – hoping I can get a copy of it in the US.

          • Manny Fal

            If the CIA is handing out free money, I’m sure hollywood would take it. But you don’t need to look far to find pro-military directors, Bigelow and Michael Bay being two examples.

          • http://www.facebook.com/metalheadpaladin Matt Cooper

            I’ll keep this brief. sw408 has already done a better job of refuting your first assertion than I could, so I’ll defer to her / him.

            I personally have little to no respect for artists who see art as a business rather than a means of creative expression. Sure, they have to eat, but if that’s the primary reason they do what they do, then they’re in the wrong industry. Most artists I know – including myself, having been a visual artist – don’t do what they do for profit, but rather for the sheer love of the medium.

            Let’s put it this way. Mo Yan was attacked from every which direction from certain elements of the Western liberal intelligentsia for having received support from the CCP. Why? Fairly or not, they believed that that compromised his integrity AS AN AUTHOR. This shows that, even if they are wrong about Mo Yan, they agree with the basic principle: art is in some way less valid if you are being paid by vested interests to make it.

            As to your last point, yeah, I can concede that point. I have done research on IP law in China, however, and my impression had been that the big American film corporations were making a huge stink over piracy because it was causing them a massive loss in profits in China, to the tune of billions every year. Some of them had even threatened to stop distributing in China; this may have been just empty talk, but if it were honest it would seem to indicate that they view the China market as something they can write off.

          • andao

            re “Mockingbird”: I certainly believe that happened. And it was also 40 years ago. I don’t know why the CIA would waste money paying off Hollywood today. Like Manny Fal said above, there’s already directors who make that kind of movie and would do so for free. I blame Americans for their love of military might rather than the CIA for funding it (if they really do). Americans have a free enough media that they should know better.

            re money and artistry: If artists only wanted to be rich, they’d all be investment bankers instead. But I think it’s silly to expect artists to work for free, or somehow admire them more if they are poor. I am happy that good artists make a lot of money. It’s depressing that terrible ones also make a lot of money, but there you go.

            Re Mo Yan: I don’t like the party, but perhaps Mo Yan does, and that shouldn’t make us hate his work for it. If they want to pay him in the meantime, I guess it’s a win-win for him. Just because he’s famous doesn’t mean he needs to be a cheerleader for free speech, especially if he doesn’t believe in it. And based on his comments, it seems like he doesn’t believe in it. So if he gets money from a backer that he shares opinions with already, I don’t see how that compromises his work.

            Really, I think Hollywood is one of the most anti-war groups in America. Dozens of actors and actresses spoke out vehemently against the Iraq war. A lot of Americans are susceptible to what famous people say, so I would suggest that the pro-military movies might have their effect canceled out by all the people in Hollywood who regularly rail against a pro-military policy.

          • sw408

            hehe the CIA has no reason to pay directors?? Surely you’ve been sleeping through the “war on terrorism” for the past 10+ years. Also, as the Salon article explains, it would be very difficult to access all of the information about Bin Landen’s death “for free.” It’s not just “pro-military” they’re talking about here, it’s pro-CIA, which I don’t see anyone crying out against, since spy culture has been glorified by the media. (as the articles explain further). Nor have I heard any Hollywood actors taking a strong stand against Obama’s drone bombings or Gitmo, instead they’re giving money to his SuperPACs, so nothing’s “canceled out” in my eyes.

            I also find it problematic that you believe this “just because he’s famous doesn’t mean he needs to be a cheerleader for free speech.” Cool, great for him, but let’s look on the other side – just because Lao Xiaoao doesn’t agree with the party means he won’t be famous, won’t earn money and instead get to rot in prison?

    • bomber

      This is a straw-man. Absolutely the types of films you mentioned (Pearl Harbor?), which are subsequently consumed without hesitation by the masses. However for every example of a brainless, nationalistic orgy of jingoism there are tens of smaller films which explore the boundaries of morality, culture, satire (Team America?) and existence unmolested. Chinese directors have no such luxury.

      As long as it remains this way, Chinese cultural advancement will be chained to the ghosts of days long passed and make little impact on the global scene.

  • http://twitter.com/be_good_be_kind Be Good Be Kind

    Asian society and generally people really lack the kind of sophistication of the Western counterpart. While Hollywood makes movies to portray other people as bad, Asian people like to make other people look good. While their Western counterpart work hard to further their own narrative and self-interest, Asian people work hard to tear down their own society and pick fault and further other people narrative.

    Hollywood is a propaganda arm of the US. Never will we see a heart warming story of Iraqi family surviving war torn Iraqi or a triumphant story of Afghan in the mist of an American war.

  • Me

    You morons can’t see the difference between censorship and propaganda? Of course the US and Hollywood produce propaganda. Why wouldn’t they. Freedom of speech works for the government as well. They can produce whatever message they want. What the US government can’t do is tell an artist that their message is illegal and make them desist in their art. Michael Bay can make crap movies about US military might all he wants. It might be propaganda but it has nothing to do with censorship.
    In the US and Hollywood you can make any kind of movie you want, no matter how unpatriotic, perverted or other kinds of “dangerous.” There is very little censorship.

    In China there is actually much more of this militaristic, nationalistic bullshit propaganda, which sucks, but why shouldn’t they be able to produce it? The terrible thing about living in China is the crazy amount of censorship. Its so prevalent that everything is affected and the people have to self censor all their words, music and of course films. If you get caught producing the wrong type of art you will probably just be told to stop but there is always that threat of violence against you and your family if you really step over the line.

    You can compare China and the US all you want but when you say things like “Its the same on the US”, you are a moron.