Numerous occupational and social stereotypes related to visual impairment are presented clearly in Chinese film. In addition, the way blind people act and are treated by others in Chinese film gives valuable information regarding perceptions, power, and social freedom of the visually impaired. Characters with visual impairment have been portrayed throughout Chinese cinematic history, and have been treated somewhat differently than other disabilities in Chinese film, including possessing special talents such as advanced hearing, second sight, and an acute sense of touch. According to Steven Riep, “Characters with visual disabilities have become more prominent in Chinese cinema” (Riep, 2015: 1). As this trend continues, one might wonder, what stereotypes or other biases are associated with blindness within the minds of the Chinese people? How do these stereotypes influence the potential and social mobility of blind people in China? what draws Chinese society to visual impairment over other impairments? What stereotypes or other biases are associated with blindness within the minds of the Chinese people? As seen from numerous examples in Chinese film which will be touched upon in this paper, those with visual disabilities that are portrayed as being talented or proficient in sensory activities that rely on other sensory functions are limited in social potential[EH1] and independence, and are treated more condescendingly by others.
In order to properly introduce visual impairment as portrayed in Chinese film, I will first give a very brief background regarding the independence and autonomy of blind people in China as well as a brief history of blindness as portrayed in Chinese film. Then I will analyze blindness as portrayed in four films: A Touch of Zen, House of Flying Daggers, Colors of the Blind, and The Silent War. This analysis will help to reveal that the special skills or talents that the blind characters in these films possess are undermined by stereotypes and do not help to improve the independence and freedom of the visually impaired characters.
People with visual impairments have existed in China for as long as there has been history[EH2] . Revealing the historical social status and biases toward those with blindness in China can help us better understand the biases and social norms that exist in Chinese film and in modern Chinese society. Throughout Chinese history, those with visual impairments have been viewed as best suited for such occupations as musicians, fortune tellers and massage therapists, among other professions. These blind musicians are mentioned in the Shijing (Book of Songs, 1000-600 BC) and other classical literature. Moreover, the Da Cidian (1985: 3308) states that most of the musicians at the time had visual impairments. Julie Kleeman explains that “guilds of blind musicians and fortune tellers, which functioned in China at least until the middle of the 20th century, claim a continuous existence back to 200 BC” (Kleeman: 31). Emma Stone also notes that a character meaning “a blind individual,” (瞽gǔ), “comprises the symbols for eye and drum. It denotes a blind individual and more specifically, a blind musician, thereby ascribing musical talent or a musical profession for those with visual impairment” (Stone: 142). From this we can see that a bias that lack of vision improveslinking blindness senses ascribed to musical talent seems to have existed since ancient times. These stereotypes and occupational norms have existed for centuries in Chinese history and continue to influence current biases.
Blind people in history have also had many other stereotypical professions other than that of musicians. They have a made living as fortune tellers, story tellers, as well as beggars[EH3] (Riep 2015: 11). This rich history surely has an influence on biases that exist today as well as the societal expectations for the occupations of those with visual impairments. Because of this, these stereotypes have made their way to Chinese films, being portrayed in period films as well as films that take place in modern day. For instance, blind characters had been, shown in more recent films such films as a fortune teller in A Touch of Zen, a dancer in House of Flying Daggers, massage therapists in Colors of the Blind and Happy Times, and a musician in The Silent War. The portrayal of these characters and their professions can further reveal a great deal about their social mobility and autonomy.
In the past century, this bias of stereotypical occupations for those with visual impairments has still existed but thetheir social situation for the visually impaired is slowly improving. After the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) took control of China in the middle of the 20th century, the party created new forms of social organization, education, and employment for the blind and disabled. The most notable proponent of such change for the disabled was Deng Pufang, Deng Xiaoping’s son, who made notable changes in the 1980’s. He was instrumental in creating disabled social organizations and in helping disabled persons obtainget into factory jobss, and creating social organizations. As part of this reform, the Chinese government has promoted massage therapy as an ideal career for those who are blind (Riep 201510: 10). However, some have argued that this has created social stratification among the blind in China; tThose that are not privileged or do not have good enough connections to get the few jobs that are considered by society to be suitable for the blind are left to beg or find other odd jobs . Children born blind often live in isolation or are orphaned, and those blind persons in the countryside have almost no access to education. During times of financial crises, disabled people are often laid off before others[EH4] (Kleeman: 33).
Though the situation for the blind in China may seem grim, there have been many recent efforts to improve their situation. The government has tried to help by offering tax and other monetary incentives for factories to hire more disabled persons. “In Beijing, training programmes in massage and piano tuning are opening up new opportunities, if stereotypical ones” (Kleeman: 33). By clinging to these occupational stereotypes, the Chinese government still is far behind in bringing disabled workers into the mainstream workforce, and still claims massage therapy as the most suitable occupation for the blind. One of the most effective means of help and hope for visually impaired people in China is greater awareness and recognition in society, such as the creation of the China Disabled Person’s Federation, government occupational programs, as well as attention given by media outlets and films. However it will take much more time and effort to get rid of China’s history of bias and prejudice against those with visual impairment.
One might wonder, as Chinese biases suggest, do blind people generally have better senses than that of normal people, or is this only social bias? Some experts, such as the Helen Keller Blind Massage Center of Beijing (HKBMC) believe that the blind do have better senses and that “Massage therapy is one of the best jobs for the blind because their sense of hearing, sense of touch, memory and psychology are much more acute” (Riep 2015: 11). Such views are also promulgated in government magazines such as the Beijing Review, which claims, “Their acute sense of touch makes them suitable for the massage therapy trade” (Kuo: 29). However, there does not seem to be any substantial scientific evidence to support this claim, and many such postulations are perhaps strongly influenced by political leaders and other biased sources. Unfortunately this paper will not discuss this philosophical and scientific debate in detail, but instead focus on the effect of these biases (, whether they are real or not), have an effect on the autonomy and independence of the visually impaired in society. Through this analysis of Chinese fictional film, we can better understand whether or not these biases that have existed for centuries serve to improve the social autonomy and self-sufficiency of the visually impaired characters that are portrayed.
In the years since Mao’s death, visual impairment has been portrayed sporadically throughout Chinese film, and has played an increasingly important role. Disability was rarely seen in Maoist propaganda films before 1976, because disabled people did not fit communist ideals such as putting community over one’s personal problems, having strong and able bodies, and fitting into the roles of national heroes (Dauncey: 489). Riep explained the heroic accounts of war in the Maoist era, which focused on the hero’s triumph rather than tragedy, do not fit in with disabled bodies, so many disabilities including visual impairments during this time were not given much prominence (Riep 20085: 131). After Mao’s death, filmmakers were given greater freedom to portray disabled people on the screen and focus on their personal lives and problems instead of the nation as a whole (Dauncey: 489). As a result, blindness has been portrayed in such propaganda films as Colors of The Blind, but also in films more critical toward communism such as The Blue Kite. In addition, blindness has been portrayed in films not necessarily related to government commentary such as House of Flying Daggers, and A Touch of Zen. Blindness isThroughout these films, blindness has been portrayed differently in these films, but often these characters are seen as having special abilities and stereotypical occupations associated with visual impairment. Riep explains: “Filmmakers have depicted, engaged and critiqued both traditional and modern roles for those with visual disabilities, which include careers in fortune telling and massage therapy” (Riep 2015: 2). As blindness blindness is depicted more and more prevalently in Chinese films, many of the stereotypes and biases inherent oftoward visual impairment that are embedded in Chinese culture will likely appear just as prevalently.
These traditional and modern stereotypes for visually impaired persons include fortune telling, massage therapy, music, and other sensory, or even extra-sensory based activities. One may wonder what effect these special abilities and extra-sensory activities, whether real or perceived, have on the independence and autonomy of visually impaired people. This paper will explore how these superhuman abilities and talents serve to affect the overall social treatment and status of the visually impaired persons portrayed. In the following paragraphs, four films wille be analyzed that were chosen because they all portray characters with perceived heightened senses and abilities: A Touch of Zen, House of Flying Daggers, Colors of the Blind, and The Silent War. This analysis will determine how the special abilities or perceived heightened senses possessed by blind characters in these films affected their freedom and autonomy.
A Touch of Zen and House of Flying Daggers are interesting in the fact that the blind characters Mei and General Shi pretend to be blind, however this should not detract from the study of their perceived social freedom and independence., becauseW while Mei and Shithey pretend to be blind they are projecting their expectations of how a blind person should behave through their own actions, thus showing their own biases and stereotypes of how a blind person should act and what autonomy they have in society. In addition the characterspeople around them also treat them as they would a blind person. Going a step further, none of the actors in these films are really blind[EH5] , but rather they are projecting their ideas and the director’s ideas of how a blind person should behave. Thus these films that deal with people only pretending to be blind as well as fictional films in general are a proper reflection of stereotypes and biases that exist in the minds of the Chinese populous[EH6] .
The differing depictions of blindness in these four films have a definite effect on the overall social mobility and freedom of the blind characters in these films. In Erving Goffman’s Stigma, he stated that disabled people are subject to preliminary conceptions, which can cause people to treat them either better or worse than a normal person, almost always causing social problems (Goffman: 36). This stigma applies to visual impairment because the perception of having special talents or abilities will change the way blind persons are viewed by others. Also it effects how they feel about other people’s views of them, usually in a negative way. For instance, Ding Lihua, the main character in Colors of the Blind, who has exceptional athletic talent, seemed to be very self-sensitive about her blindness. Also in A Touch of Zen, Shi, a renegade general pretending to be a fortune teller, seemed to react anti-socially and keep to himself hidden from his enemies, shunning himself from society. This shows his own projected views of how a blind person should behave in society. Each of these four films show in differing ways how blind character’s perceived special abilities affected the blind character’s ir social mobility, as well as how treatment by others affected the visual impaired person’s autonomy.
An obiousobvious stereotype used in A Touch of Zen, [EH7] is the fact that Shi is a fortune teller[EH8] , a traditional occupational role for those with visual impairments. Because of his blindness and profession, Shi is thought to have second sight or a sixth sense that lets himthem see into the future or into the spirit world. As Riep put it, “inner vision” (内明neiming) in Chinese culture has been attributed to those with visual impairments because of portrayals in classical texts that misconstrue “special compensatory powers for those with impairments” (Riep 2015: 9). This stereotype may play a role in the way Shi is portrayed in this film; perhaps because he is blind, others around him believe that he holds “special compensatory powers” which allow him to see the future.
At the Beginning of the film, Gu, the main protagonist, is an unsuspecting painter in a small town. On his way home, his mother tells him the fortune that General Shi, the blind fortune teller, has told her: his lucky star is active this year and he should go take the civil service examination. At first, Gu seems to ignore the fortune. Because of Shi’s role as blind fortune teller and prophesying Gu’s good fortune, he “seems to underline the element of predestiny” that overlay the first ten minutes of the film (Teo: 33). Whether or not Shi has this “inner vision,” his prophecy about Gu does come true in a way; at the end of the film Gu becomes a successful strategist and is able to secure his filial obligation of producing a son. Overall it seems that Shi’s role as fortune teller seems to be fixed, and whether or not he is good at fortune telling does not seem to matter because he is blind and may have “inner vision,” and theso people around him accept him in this role. He also chooses this stereotypical role for himself, perhaps to influence those around him through his fortunes, but also to hide from his enemiesothers. It does not seem that General Shi, when acting as a blind man, has much social mobility, but is dependent on others’ belief in his fortunes to make a living, and is seemingly stuck in this profession.
In these films, the way in which characters treat themselves and others certainly affects their overall social freedom. In A Touch of Zen, Gu’s shrugging off of Shi’s fortune showed his lack of faith in the fortune being real. This could mean that Gu thought of Shi as an equal with no ability to tell the future over any other able bodied person, or it could mean that Gu thought that the fact that Shi was blind made him unfit to give life advice. In Stephen Teo’s King Hu’s A Touch of Zen[EH9] , he explains that Shi represents a “selfessselfless and asexual Wu hero.” He is a “blind follower” of Yang Lian throughout the film, and his blindness appears in his chaste relationship with Yang Lian “whom he is charged to protect,” (Teo: 148-49). Here the director could be using blindness as a metaphor to the intellectual blindness of Shi throughout the film. Also, while pretending to be blind, Shi did not interfere much with village affairs, except to tell fortunes; here perhaps he used societal norms of blind people secluding themselves to his advantage so that he could better hide from his enemies.
Throughout the film, Shi is constantly attacked and ambushed by his enemies. However, he continues to use his blind guise as a tool to evade his foes as well as lure them into a false sense of security. When Ouyang recognizes the blind fortune teller as General Shi, he kicks him in the back and General Shi [EH10] falls bloodied to the ground. He is however saved by Gu and his mother who bring him to the steps of the haunted mansion. This act by Ouyang could be showing his lack of compassion toward the blind person that he suspects to be an outlaw, but could also be seen as showing equality to him by not giving him special treatment because of his disability. One other interpretation could be that Ouyang is taking advantage of General Shi because he assumes that because Shi is blind he cannot fight back. In addition, during a scene in which an army of men come to fight Shi and Yang at the haunted mansion, Shi treats of himself in a patronizing way by using his blind facade to lure in new enemies, which shows his inherent belief that others perceive the blind to be weak and easy to overcome. Using this trap, he easily defeats his foes. Here, Shi’s the reclusiveness, ridicule, and perception of weakness of the blind Shi shows that interactions with others[EH11] and one’s self in A Touch of Zen weakened Shi’s overall autonomy and social freedom as a blind man.
In House of Flying Daggers, the blind character Mei is a dagger thrower by profession, with advanced abilities in hearing, touch, and martial arts. These abilities are shown at the beginning dance scene when she is able to tell which drums had been hit just by hearing. Also, after being escorted away by the renegade soldier Jin, she is able to tell Jin’s personality traits from just touching his body, showing her masterful sense of touch. In addition, her ability to dodge blows and attack her enemies throughout the film proved her advanced hearing and perceptive talents. One could argue that in these scenes she is simply using her eyes to see the villains, but often she is not looking at her enemies, acting as a true blind person would, and instead using a superior sense of hearing to locate her enemies. Because of these talents, her enemies fell before her. Despite Jin’s belief that she is blind, he respects her as a masterful knife thrower that can hold her own in a fight. Another interesting part of this film is that when Mei reveals her identity, she says that the real blind girl does not know martial arts; perhaps showing that being blind prevented her from learning martial arts. However, we are shown a scene where Leo, a dagger thrower disguised as a soldier, throws extremely accurate knives blindfolded, showing the way in which the warriors of the House of Flying Daggers train. Removing sight as a prerequisite for proficiently practicing knife throwing seems to conflict against the fact that the real blind girl could not practice martial arts. The fact that the unnamed real blind girl[EH12] for some reason cannot become proficient in martial arts seems to be strangely contradictory with the stereotype that lack of sight enhances ones other senses. In this light, it seems that despite efforts to show the advanced abilities of Mei as a blind martial artist, she is still overshadowed by stereotypes and biases that undermine this message.
In House of Flying Daggers, Mei is first and foremost taken advantage of sexually by Jin in the court; this perhaps shows a lack of respect that Jin had for the blind people and a belief he could take advantage of her because she could not see. Leo, a fellow soldier of Jin, also takes pleasure in fighting a blind girl for sport, patronizing her abilities while at the same time having a tough time beating her. After he rescues her, Jin feels inclined to lead Mei by the hand, even though she had shown earlier in the film by her riding alone on a horse that she does not need his help. This shows Jin’s inherent perception that she cannot get around on her own like a normal person. Her letting him do this also shows her own willingness to give up freedom of mobility. Overall the exploitative and [EH13] patronizing behavior toward Mei by others seems to have lowered her social freedom and independence.
In Colors of the Blind, Ding Lihua is depicted as a full time athlete. She is shown to have special athletic talent in an early scene in which her brother rides a bike in front of her ringing a bell and she chases after it. This may be indicative of her greater willpower or drive than that of an average person. Because of this, she is admired by her coach and others. However, this talent is not a typical stereotypical talent such as fortune telling or super hearing; most Chinese people would probably not think of a blind girl as being proficient at running. In this case, Lihua’s talent is not simply a bias or perceived ability, but an actual ability that is not necessarily related to her blindness.
Lihua’s superior athletic skills propel her to the Chinese Special Olympics where she wins athe gold medal. Despite these achievements and success in this area of her life, at the end of the film she is not shown to continue her passion in athletics, such as becoming an athletic trainer herself, but rather in the end she decides to abandon this skill and follow stereotypical societal expectations by joining a massage therapy school. Ding Lihua, despite advanced physical determination and ability, seemingly abandons her life as an athlete to become a massage therapist, showing that she is overcome and undermined by societal stereotypes of blind professions, unable to pursue her other passions [EH14] and talents.
Ding Lihua’s treatment by others seems to undermine her overall abilities and talents, ultimately lowering her social freedom. Lihua is treated somewhat patronizingly by her brother who rides a bicycle and rings a bell for her to follow, which inadvertently reveals her remarkable athletic talent to her coach.and sister, who wish that she would get married and stop being a burden to their household. The coach also takes advantage of her blindness by making her run farther and longer without telling her what time it was. Despite obvious affection between the two and romantic advances on the part of Lihua, the coach does want to pursue a relationship with her presumably because of her blindness. The coach’s girlfriend Yu Su also seems to think that blind people are unfit to compete, as seen when she first appears on the track and comments that the athletes are working too hard. In addition, Yu Su also asks Ding Lihua to tell her future, based on the stereotype that blind people are good at fortune telling. Lihua responded to this request by stating that blind people are stereotyped as doing “begging, singing, and fortune telling.” According to Riep, this “ambivalent view of disability runs the risk of reinforcing stereotypes and reducing both Yu Su and Lihua to caricatures of the naïve, insensitive tormentor and her victim,” (Riep 2015: 26). In this light, it can be seen that Yu Su is putting down Lihua socially, assuming that she fits into a certain role. Also, Lihua’s family constantly tried to match her with a blind musician, another stereotypical occupation for the blind, as if she was only socially suitable to marry another disabled person. These stereotypes that others place upon her and that she places upon herself seem to completely overshadow Ding Lihua’s extraordinary talents and potential. W; whatever social potential and opportunities that may have come because of Lihua’sher advanced physical abilities , they seem to be restricted and overshadowed by her visual disabilityimpairment and other’s biases regarding it.
In The Silent War, He Bing is the assistant to a music professor, and has proficient ability in tuning pianos. Here, the age old Chinese stereotype that blind people are more proficient in musical abilities is shown clearly. Once his secret talent is discovered, he is chosen to find all of the KMT’s (Kuomintang’s) secret Morse code radio channels because of his superhuman hearing. Also bBecause of his ability and achievements, many people at the bureau applaud him and he is treated as a hero. However, he is still treated with special care by his boss Xuening, who always follows him closely and makes sure there is someone to watch out for him and give him care. She also does not seem to be content with his blindness, especially at the middle of the film when she offers him a surgery to recover his sight. After the successful recovery of his sight his work suddenly slackens and he commits a few errors in his transcription of Morse code, inadvertently causing Xuening’s death. After this he cannot forgive himself and gouges out his eyes. Once blind again, he is immediately able to improve his work and find new radio channels. This shows that blindness seems to be a key to his success at the bureau, and only true blindness, not simply concentration or closing one’s eyes, can empower He Bing to his superhuman abilities. The abilities and achievements that are caused by his blindness serve to elevate his status at the bureau, but this is undermined by stereotypes related to his blindness and the fact that he always being watched over.
He Bing’s treatment by others seems to undermine his special talent and in the end bring down his social freedom. He is treated most condescendingly by his mother; she calls him an “ugly blind person” (丑瞎子chǒu xiāzi) several times, but also compliments his hearing. He also treats himself as inferior when he tells his wife that he wants to be cured of his blindness and doesn’t want his wife to have married a blind person. Moreover, after a time in which he tries to romantically seek after his boss Xuening, she rejects his advances and tries to introduce him to other women. In the same scene, he thanks Xuening, his boss, for being so caring of a blind person, seeming to indicate that caring for a blind person had been toilsome and hard. He is treated somewhat equally by most everyone in the film, sometimes better than a normal person after becoming the hero that finds all of the secret radio stations. Despite his success, he is still treated as somewhat of a burden by others and is always under constant watch and care, even though it is clear that his advanced senses will keep him perfectly safe alone[B15] , and could do perfectly fine if given more autonomy and freedom. Overall it seems that his advanced hearing and accomplishments do not overcome his patronizing and condescending treatment by others, lowering his social freedom.
Despite the short term accomplishments and social praise that come as a result of the talents and abilities that the visually impaired characters in these films possess, they all seemed to be undermined by stereotypes and biases that serve to cause their overall autonomy and social independenceolence to be lowered. This trend is also seen in other cultures such as Japan. For instance, in Jay Kiester’s review of The Last Biwa Singer: A Blind Musician in History, Imagination and Performance by Hugh de Ferranti, he describes Yamashika, a famous blind Japanese musician who became famous in the biwa singing tradition, and was known as “the last biwa singer.” The work explores Yamashika’s portrayal in the media and his overall experiences singing, preparing, and making a living as a biwa singer. “In this account we learn of the real hardship endured by blind musicians, including discrimination and exploitation against the blind, who have always been treated as outsiders[B16] [EH17] ” (Kiester: 208). We can see similar biases in all four films. For instance in A Touch of Zen, despite Shi’s perceived abilities to see the future he is not largely accepted in society and lives a life of seclusion. Also, in House of Flying Daggers, despite Mei’s incredible martial arts and hearing ability, she is still treated patronizingly and put under constant care, undermining the accomplishments of her masterful martial arts and limiting her social freedom. In Colors of the Blind, Ding Lihua decided to abandon her athletic skill and talent to conform to societal norms of massage therapy, showing her social restrictions in the face of overarching stereotypes. Finally in The Silent War, He Bing, despite his super human hearing, is left in the constant care of others, and never allowed the autonomy and freedom that an able-bodied person might enjoy. The depictions in these films seem to prove, although somewhat indirectly, that those with visual impairments are still on some levels “strange and even shameful figures on the margins of local society” (Kiester: 209), despite the above average talents and abilities they possess.
In conclusion, it seems that the perceived special talents and abilities portrayed by the visually impaired characters in these films did not have a positive effect on their social power and independence. As discussed earlier in this paper, biases and stereotypes of those with visual impairments go deep into Chinese history and culture. These biases also appeared in various forms in A Touch of Zen, House of Flying Daggers, Colors of the Blind, and The Silent War; Those with visual disabilities were often portrayed as being talented or proficient in sensory activities other than sight, and this bias actually limited and undermined their social independence and potential.
Further study should focus on and shed light on whether or not perceived talents such as second sight or more acute sense of touch or hearing are real or only a figment of the Chinese culture. In addition, perhaps other films and literature can shed new light on whether or notthis subject, to see if these biases are gradually disappearing with newer films and in the coming generations. Further study of new films that depict visual impairment will do much to improve the understanding of contemporary biases and stereotypes toward those with visual impairments. Furthermore,In addition greater effortmore should be madedone to raise awareness about the current situation and socially limiting stereotypes regarding those with visual impairments in China. As Julie Kleeman said, “It will take time to extinguish the traditions of prejudice and discrimination, but as Confucius once said, ‘It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop’” (Kleeman: 33). Surely the future of the visually impaired will depend largely on society’s increasingly unbiased view of the potential of those with disabilities[EH18] [EH19] .
The Blue Kite. Dir. Tian Zhuangzhuang. Perf. Lu Liping, Pu Quanxin, Chen Xiaoman, Li
Xuejian, Guo Baochang. Kino International, 1993.
Colors of the Blind. Dir. Chen Guoxing. Perf. Hong Tao, Bing He, Kai Jiang. Tianjin Film
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Happy Times. Dir. Zhang Yimou. Perf. Zhao Benshan, Dong Jie. Sony Pictures Classics, 2001.
House of Flying Daggers. Dir. Zhang Yimou. Perf. Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro.
Sony Pictures Classics, 2004.
Keister, Jay. “Review of de Ferranti, Hugh. The Last Biwa Singer: A Blind Musician in History,
Imagination and Performance.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 42 (2010): 207-09.
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Special Message Hospital." Beijing Review 34.35 (1991): 27-29.
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The Silent War. Dir. Alan Mak and Felix Chong. Perf. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhou Xun, Mavis
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Raise the Red Lantern Review
Raise the Red Lantern was a wonderful film that let us take a deeper look into classical and traditional Chinese culture. The film exemplified many principles of Chinese culture, such as the principles of the wife's loyalty to the husband, guanxi, ganqing, face, patriarchal order, marriage, the social hierarchy of China, and fertility. Apart from these, there were also many more enlightening aspects of Chinese culture shown throughout the film. This film let us understand, in context, the many different aspects of Chinese society that we have already discussed in class.
A principle that appeared extensively throughout the film was that of a wife's loyalty to the husband. There were four wives in the movie, and all of them had to live according to their husband’s house rules and at their husband's whim. They had to follow all of his customs, no matter how silly. Like we learned in class, the husband was supposed to treat the wife roughly, but not so rough that the village people would see and gossip about it. He had almost complete power over them, while they only had the power of persuasion in begging the husband for things they wanted. They were all jealous of each other and were trying to get their husband’s sympathies so that they could bare sons for him. They were subject to his punishment and ridicule, even to death in the case of the third wife. Throughout this movie, we could see that in Chinese society the wives were loyal to the husband’s family.
This movie also touched on another key principle of Chinese culture: the roles of guanxi and ganqing. At the beginning of the movie, the fourth wife didn't know anyone, and no one knew her. Because of this, the other wives were initially cold to her, and she was in turn cold to them. However, in time, she got to know the third and second wife better and become better friends. She and the third wife, because of their relationship and friendship playing mahjong, were able to make a friendship and fight against the second wife’s evil tactics. However, many relationships between the fourth wife and others remained cold and not much guanxi or ganqing was attained. Her best friend, the third wife, was ultimately killed, which affected the fourth wife very much because she had such a good guanxi with her. The third wife’s death eventually led her to go mad. From this film, we can see that guanxi and ganqing played a big role in ancient Chinese society.
Face, or mianzi, was an integral part of ancient Chinese society. When it was found that the fourth wife had faked being pregnant, her lanterns were turned out and she was left to shame. However, at this time she didn't lose all her face; she tried to keep her pride and face by usurping her power over her maid-servant, exposing her secret lanterns in her room. Then, her servant was left with no face at all, and went into a deep depression, eventually dying because of it. Also, the third wife lost ultimate face when she committed adultery, and had to be put secretly to death. When the husband burned the fourth wife's flute, he also lost some face, but tried to regain his face and make up for his mistakes by buying her even more flutes. From this film, we can see clearly that face or mianzi was an important part of ancient Chinese society.
The patriarchal order of China was also clearly shown throughout the film. All the wives were forced to leave their families forever to join their husband. They had to obey all of their husband’s family’s rules, no matter how difficult, and had no say in the matter. Also, emphasis was placed on their bearing of sons, so that they could help to prolong the husband’s family line, because his line could only continue on through his sons. The women seemed to have little power in the family, and were ultimately up to the mercy of the husband, for instance when he could sleep with them, if they got a massage, or when they received the lanterns. Power was given more and more to them as they got more red lanterns. But if they broke rules, lanterns were taken away and they were given shame, and ultimately death in the case of the third wife. This film showed us that the patriarchal order was a huge part of Chinese society.
Traditional marriage in China was also portrayed very well in film. All the wives were chosen by matchmakers to random men. The women were then supposed to be put in parade and carried into the husband’s house. But in the film, the fourth wife rejected her train and walked by herself to her new home in an act of defiance against the traditional system. Because of this, she defied the orthodoxy and thus was given bad luck. She had never seen her husband, and was more of an object of desire for him that an actual person; she was expected to sleep with him without ever seeing him before. She also would not see her family very often again, perhaps never. In the final scene of the movie, we can see that the fifth wife faithfully fulfilled the rite of Chinese traditional marriage by being carried in the traditional marriage train parade and wearing the veil all the way to the house. This kind of traditional marriage shown in the film was very similar to the class discussion we had about traditional Chinese marriage.
The social hierarchy of China was also exemplified in the film. At first, the fourth wife wanted to do away with the traditional social systems; she didn’t want to have any social hierarchy and she even helped a girl wash clothes, but overtime she was swept into it. She treated her servant girl terribly and exercised her power over her, taking advantage of the higher social position that she was given. She was rude and curt to her many times, exercising her power over her, even though they were girls of the same age. The servant girl was jealous of the fourth wife, but couldn't do anything to change her social status and had to endure her mocking. Then, when her secret lanterns were exposed, because of her lower social status she was forced to humiliation. The social status of the wives was also determined if they could bare sons and how often they slept with the husband. The older wives, because they had more wisdom and experience, also had more power and were looked up to in the social order of the family. The social hierarchy of China as discussed in class was shown clearly throughout this movie.
The concept of fertility was also shown throughout this film. In class, we learned that red was a sign of fertility for females. I think that is why the lanterns were red, the husband brought in red lanterns every time he slept with his wives so that the chances of conception would then be increased. Also the desire to bare sons was a big part of the fertility of China; sons were preferred because they could continue the family line. Fertility was a big deal for Chinese people and they did many things to increase it. This film expressed the many beliefs held by the Chinese about fertility and child bearing.
The principles of the wife's loyalty to the husband, marriage, the patriarchal order, guanxi, face, and fertility were all shown in the film. Also through the film we could see that traditional Chinese society was based upon strict rules and belief systems. In this film, we were able to see the many important aspects of Chinese society, as well as differences in our own culture. Even though movie told a rather sad story, it still showed many important facets of traditional Chinese society.
Intertextuality in Beijing Bicycle
Intertextuality is a concept that occurs in many mediums of art, especially film. Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle employed intertextuality in order to pay homage to two movies in particular, Rickshaw Boy and Bicycle Thieves. These two earlier films are both similar in story, themes, and movie structures to those present in Beijing Bicycle, however they also have some key differences. In this paper I will prove that director Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle was more of an homage to Bicycle Thieves than it was to Rickshaw Boy in terms of both narrative and structural features.
Many narrative and story structures used in Beijing Bicycle paid homage to those used in Rickshaw Boy, but the films were still very different. Perhaps the clearest indicator of homage used in Beijing Bicycle was at the beginning when the boss said to the row of new employees, “You are the new generation of Camel Xiangzi.” In this piece of dialogue, the movie directly mentions the main character of Camel Xiangzi, pointing out the similarity between him and the express delivery boys, having to memorize the streets of Beijing. These films both dealt with two young men from the country that used a form of self-propelled transportation for their living. However, Beijing Bicycle centers the story on two young boys and their struggle for ownership of the bicycle, while Rickshaw Boy focuses Xiangzi’s struggle to obtain his rickshaw and the challenges he faces. Xiangzi, Jian, and Gui were subject to a spiral downward in their lives. Despite their initial health and vigor, both Xiangzi and Jian started smoking midway through both films, however at the end Gui walks off with his mangled bicycle, manifesting that his will and moral courage to succeed is slightly greater than his destined fate, whereas in Rickshaw Boy Xiangzi degrades to giving up his most important morals and becomes a victim of fate. Beijing Bicycle borrowed many similar themes from Rickshaw Boy, however key differences still exist.
The structural features in Beijing Bicycle also showed some similarity to Rickshaw Boy. In both movies, colors were downplayed, and people often wore plain clothes; the express delivery boys had to wear brown uniforms and the Xiangzi only wore a grey tunic, revealing that they were both interchangeable workers. Also, in Beijing Bicycle, low angle shots used on the streets at the beginning of the film were helped to express his mobility and power. Similar shots were used in Rickshaw Boy, for instance when Mr. Cao offered Xiangzi money for his new rickshaw he was shown in low angles, showing his power and hope for the future. It seemed that more studio sets were used in Rickshaw Boy, while in Beijing Bicycle more emphasis was placed on shooting on location showing the reality of the times. The music in Rickshaw Boy was often dramatic and used for emotional emphasis; this is especially clear when Xiangzi witnessed the dead corpse of the prostitute girl; contrastingly in Beijing Bicycle there were many scenes with silence and non-diagetic music was not emphasized. Overall, both of these films seemed to have quite a few similarities in their structural features, but there were major differences in design and music.
The narrative structures used in Bicycle Thieves were very similar to those used in Beijing Bicycle. The Beijing Bicycle story was very dynamic because we saw both Jian and Gui’s lives in their struggle for the bicycle. In Bicycle Thieves, we were shown Ricci and his struggle with the thief over the bicycle, but we never saw into the thief’s life and saw his motivations. Beijing Bicycle tells a much more intricate story because we get to see the bicycle from both Jian and Gui’s perspective, and we are left to decide who we want to have the bicycle. In the story, the director introduces Gui as having the bike first, as well as being more honest. We see Jian portrayed as being somewhat mistreated by his father and using money that should have been his to pay for the bike, but because of deceit and the fact that he received the bicycle second, it seems that the director is trying to persuade the audience to sympathize more with Gui. Bicycle Thieves did not have very many melodramatic elements, because at the end there was no resolution, only a sad ending where the father still has no bicycle. The acting was also very realistic and not overdone. Beijing Bicycle also had very few elements of melodrama because there seems to be an anti-resolution of the express delivery boy getting back his bicycle after the fight, even though it is somewhat mangled, but Jian is left with nothing. Also Jian seems to be the antagonist, although he is not entirely evil and we get to see the struggles that he has in life. Overall, both films were mostly anti-melodramatic. In Stephen Prince’s book Speaking in Images, Wang Xiaoshuai said one thing he tried to convey in Beijing Bicycle was: “I think that no matter where people are from, whether the city or the countryside, they are equal before fate” (Berry 176). This quote reveals that Wang Xiaoshuai was trying to convey that all people are subject to fate, a theme that we also saw in Bicycle Thieves; no matter how Ricci worked, he was ultimately subject to fate and left with no bicycle and crying on the street. Both Jian and Gui were also victim to similar fates, but it seems that at least Jian had a choice in his fate; he chose to steal money from his father which led to negative consequences in his life. Even though there are some slight differences, these two films were very similar in their narrative structure.
In terms of music and editing, Beijing Bicycle showed great similarity to Bicycle Thieves. In both movies we are shown scenes where Ricci, Jian, and Gui ride their bikes through the streets in low angle shots with upbeat music. However in both movies there are also many long pauses with no music, only ambient sound, showing the realistic setting. In Beijing Bicycle, we are shown a bicycle montage, foregrounding the idea of the bicycle. Foregrounding the idea of the bicycle is not done by montage in Bicycle Thieves, but rather the bicycle is the center of the action; Ricci pawned his sheets in order to pay for it, brought it with him everywhere, and seemed paranoid in safeguarding it from theft. Overall there was much more editing and many more shots in Beijing Bicycle than in Thieves. Bicycle Thieves minimized editing; it was slower and more like real life and true to the neorealist genre. However, Beijing Bicycle used shorter edited shots to give a faster pace. The musical elements seemed to be similar in both films, while there was much more editing in Beijing Bicycle, although both movies show similar messages.
In terms of cinematography and mise en scène Beijing Bicycle also showed a lot of similarity to Bicycle Thieves, and both films created realistic settings with their film structures. Both films were shot outdoors in the sunshine and had brighter contrast schemes throughout, giving a realistic view of life, not hiding anything. In addition, both movies also used very realistic sets. In Bicycle Thieves the sets were gritty and honest, characteristic of Italian neo-realist films, and it was shot on location; in Beijing Bicycle also seemed to be filmed on location without any alteration of real places. Both films also seemed create realism in acting; Beijing Bicycle used unpopular actors that seemed like they were from the country; this is especially shown in the opening scene when the boys stutter in their interviews. In Bicycle Thieves, the same thing was done; the actors were all relatively unknown and naturally fit the roles. This type of acting enhanced the realism and emotion in both films. Going along with realism, there were deep focus shots used in each film; in Beijing Bicycle we are shown a deep focus shot with the hallway of bikes at Jiang’s house. Deep focus shots were also used in Bicycle Thieves to show inside and outside and the streets behind, showing a more real and complete world. Overall, the structural features in Beijing Bicycle were strikingly similar to Bicycle Thieves; both films sought to create a true and unmolested setting.
These three films were all very similar, and the later film Beijing Bicycle certainly expressed homage to both of the former films. They all had similar stories of a boy needing a form of transportation to so his job, then getting in stolen. However, Rickshaw Boy seemed to have fewer similarities in terms of narrative and structure with Beijing Bicycle. Overall, it seems that narrative and structural elements in Beijing Bicycle seemed be influenced much more by Bicycle Thieves than Rickshaw Boy in terms of intertextuality.
Berry, M. (2005). Wang Xiaoshuai: Banned in China. 173-79. New York: Columbia University
To Live Review
To Live was a wonderful movie which exemplified many aspects of Chinese culture. It also portrayed many themes about life and perseverance that we can all learn from as well. Many of the examples of Chinese culture appeared in the film, such as burial ritual, the wife's loyalty to the husband, Guanxi, Ganqing, patriarchal order, and the social hierarchy of China. Also, the themes of redemption, as well as repentance, family ties, and perseverance were prevalent throughout the film. In this paper, I will discuss these themes and concepts from the film and how they help us to better understand the Chinese culture and mindset.
In the film, we saw a few examples of Chinese burial ritual. When the grandfather died, they erected the carved stone with his name, representing his spirit. Also when the son died they had a funeral which included the ritual of burning money, food, and paper objects, so that the son could adjust better in the afterlife. They also set out dumplings, his favorite food, so that he could eat them in the afterlife. His death was especially sad because he was their only son; he was meant to carry on his patriarchal family line that would otherwise stop with his father. Also the mom played her role well during the funeral ritual by being the principle mourner and crying more than anyone. This film showed us a unique and personal perspective on Chinese funeral rites that can sometimes seem strange to foreigners.
Another concept thatthat showed up in the film was the loyalty of Chinese wives to their husband’s family, as well as Chinese marriage ritual. Even though the wife hated what her husband was doing by gambling, she stuck with him. Then, even after leaving him for a short time, she came back to her husband and his mother because of the loyalty she had for the traditional Chinese family system. Also in the restaurant, she had to endure her husbands’ scolding and direct commands and not speak back, even though her husband was being foolish and was going to ruin the family; it exemplified the male dominant role that existed in traditional China. Then, when the daughter was married, there was a traditional matchmaker that set up the couple for the parents. Although the wedding lacked many traditional elements because of the great leap forward, the couple still wore the color red and there was a big procession for them. Also, the daughter cried and was sad because she was leaving her family to stay with her husband. Throughout the film, we could see the loyalty of wives to their husbands under the traditional Chinese social system.
Some other concepts that appeared in the film was the concepts of guanxi and ganqing. An example, of this was when the husband went back to the man to whom he had lost the house; the man, because of their past relationship and for feeling bad for gaining the house, gave him back a box of puppets. With this box of puppets the husband was then able to earn money. Also we saw guanxi take effect during the war when the three men stayed together and helped each other because of the prior relationship they had by being from the same village. Yet another example of this was when the district leader killed the son; because of his prior guanxi with the parents, the district leader felt bad and vowed to repay them, all the way to the end of his life. From watching the movie, it is easy to understand that guanxi and ganqing are integral parts of Chinese society.
The film also showed us examples of the patriarchal order of Chinese society. The husband lived with his father in the same house at the beginning in of the film; his wife had moved away from her husband's family. Although she kind of went against this system when she left her husband, she did come back after her son was born, because her son belonged to his father. Also when the daughter was married, she left her parents to be with her husband, because she became a part of his parent’s lineage. We can see from this movie that the patriarchal family system was a prevalent part of Chinese society.
We also saw the many different social rankings and roles in Chinese society represented in the film. The men seemed to be above women in all cases. Because if his wealth, at first the husband was looked well upon. But later he was looked down upon because his social status had changed. The man who had won the bets was not friends with him like before; they couldn't even joke with each other. Also the husband was very humble and used formal words with him because he was of a higher social class. The elderly were treated with respect as well throughout the film. The traditional Chinese social system seems to convey that age and wealth heighten one’s social ranking.
In the film we could see a constant theme of redemption throughout. At the beginning, the husband had a terrible gambling problem and lost everything, including his wife for a while. But he spent the rest of the film trying to redeem himself; he quit gambling and tried to live an honest life. Because of this, his wife came back to him and he was able to get his family back. He also tried to redeem himself by working as a puppeteer and making some money back and also when he joined the army which helped his status and position in society. Also the wife had some redemption when she came back to her husband, because she wanted to have a happy quiet peaceful life. She also tried to work for the family to bring them out of poverty. Another example of redemption was when the man who killed their son tried desperately to make up for what he had done by offering the family gifts and money, until finally they forgave him. This film gives us hope that no matter what happens in life, we can, with time, make things better.
In To Live, the theme of family togetherness was also a major theme in the movie. The film went beyond simply stating the man and his wife should be together because that of the way the society was set up, but we could see that the husband and wife truly love each other, are happy together, and want to stay together. We first saw this when the wife left the husband and how sad he was; he didn't want to be with any other woman. Also, the son still took care of his mother in their poverty. The wife also came back because she knew they had to be a family, and she wanted a happy family life. Also when the husband went out to war, all he could think of was his family, if they were oaky, and how happy he was with them. Then, when the daughter was married, she still came back and visited them often, even though she was part of her husband’s family. This film helped us see that despite the government and social issues that people faced, families were still the most important part of society in China.
Overall, this film exemplified and showed many themes of its own. We were able to see into the Chinese human heart through the themes of family ties, redemption, repentance, and perseverance in the film. Also we were able to apply the concepts we learned in class by identifying them in the film, with concepts of Chinese burial ritual, the subservient wife, patriarchal order, guanxi, and social hierarchy. To Live truly taught us about life and what living in Chinese society was like during the early twentieth century.
The Road Home Review
The Road Home was a heartwarming movie. Throughout the film, the concepts of guanxi, burial ritual, social hierarchy of china, roles and relationships, gift giving, traditional family roles, and the urbanization of China. These concepts gave us a greater understanding of China, both traditionally and in modern times.
We could see in this movie that guanxi was a huge part of Chinese culture. We saw this the most with the young girl trying to charm the young teacher. Because they had no guanxi, she couldn't just walk to up to him and flirt with him. She had to wait for the perfect time to sneer up on him and make it seem like their meeting was just a strange coincidence. One day she finally walked past him and dropped a basket, and from then on was able to start a Guanxi with him. Once e initial Guanxi was made, sphe was then able to approach him more often, like remind him that he was supposed to eat at her house, and inviting him over to eat again. The teacher then tried to reciprocate this Guanxi by giving her a hairpin. Throughout this movie, we can see that Guanxi plays a key role in the relationships of Chinese people.
Another concept which also appeared in the film was the traditional burial ritual of China. Even though no one in the town had practiced the full burial rituals for a few decades, the old mother was determined to have a traditional burial for her husband. She played her role well by being the key mourner and person that was most sad about the death. She also knew more about the traditional rites than the men. Everyone in the town agreed because the teacher was well respected and had a high social status among the people. His funeral rite included the young men of the village carrying his casket back home, though the cold winter, so that the father's spirit would not forget the way home. Thei was important for the liminal phase of a spirit leaving its body. If the sprit was unfamiliar with its surroundings, it might become evil and full of bad chi. But because the people of the village were careful in helping the teacher get accustomed to the afterlife, they alive intend the problem of him being angry or haunting them. From this film we can clearly see the importance of burial ritual in the minds of Chinese people.
Social hierarchy of china was shown clearly in the film. The people in the village all did not know how to read or write, so they were on a lower level on the social totem pole than the teacher was. When the teacher tried to go get water so he could see the girl, he was forbidden by another man in the village. Because he was a learned man, he was above doing manual labour like the rest of the men in the village. The other people in the village also respected him because of his knowledge and the fact that he could teach their children how to read and write. Also, when the young man came to eat at the young woman's house, the grandma could sense that the girl was trying to flirt with the young man. The grandma did not approve of this, because she knew that the teacher was in a much higher social class than them, and that people from different social classes shouldn't usually get married. Even though the couple seemd to defy social norms, this film still gave us a special look on the social hierarchy of traditional China.
The concept of relationships changing depending on our societal role was also shown in the film. I think that the best example of this was of the young girl, contrasted in the two different times. As a young girl, she obeyed her grandma, but was carefree otherwise. She often mingled with the other single girls in the village to gossip about the men in the village. Also, she would pine away in the forests, trying to find the teacher or waiting for him to come back. Then, when her role changed to a mother and wife, her relationships with others changed. Now she was stubborn and told the other people in the village what to do, such as carry the father back home. Also she insisted in making a a new red cloth for her husband. With the transformation of the young girl, we can see that in Chinese culture depending on your role in society, you also have different relationships with others.
Another concept that we discussed in class that was also portrayed in the film was that of gift giving. We saw this most with the exchanges between the young teacher and young girl. When the young girl made food for the workers that were making the school, she hoped that the teacher would take it, because he gift carried her essence on it. By aorta king of her food, he would then somehow be able to make a connection with her. Also, the young teacher gave the girl a hairpin. This hairpin represented their guanxi and strengthened their bond. When she lost the hairpin, she was devastated because it represented their relationship and his essence, so when she lost it she essentially lost him. Also, when she was a girl and for his funeral she made a fine red piece of cloth for her husband. She made it as fine as she could, because it represented the good feelings that she had for him and their relationship. This movie clearly showed how gift giving was an important part of Chinese relationships and culture.
In this film, the traditional Chinese family roles that we discussed in class were also shown in this movie. At the bringing of the movie, we could see that all the young men in the village were chosen to build the school, while the young women were chosen to make food for the men. These separate roles show how men and women had different tasks in society. Also, when the teacher came to visit the young girl made the food for him and for her elderly mother. She also was the one who went to get water every day. This shows that women in ancient Chinese society were often put to housework, while men did manual labour, or in the case of the teacher men could do more specialised jobs such as be a teacher. We also could, see that men could be repairmen, like of porcelain bowls. This movie truly gave us an in-depth view of traditional family roles in china.
From the reading, we also learned about the modern urbanisation of China, which was also shown in the film. At the beginning of the film, we could see that the village was full of older people. This is because most of the young people in the village had gone to the cities to work, where there was more opportunities to make money. Also, because of the one child policy, the teacher and his wife could only have one son. This was probably true for the rest of the village as well, meaning that there were many old people in the village but few young people to take care of them. We could also see that because technology such as cars, many of the ancient tradition as such as the ritual fl carrying a body back home were forgotten, in favour of just driving the body Ina car. This film truly gave us a unique perspective on the recent urbanisation of modern china.
This film, The Road Home, gave us a unique perspective on traditional and postmodern China. Besides being an entertaining love story, this film also showed us many aspects of Chinese culture, many of which we discussed already in class, such as guanxi, burial ritual, social hierarchy of china, roles and relationships, gift giving, traditional family roles, and the urbanisation of China. Seeing these concepts in context in this film truly gave us a deeper and more complete understanding of Chinese culture.
Confucius, a Concise Biography was a great film that showed me more into the life and teachings of a great man. I thought that many of Confucius’ ideas resembled western thought and philosophy. Also, he seemed a radical and visionary for his day. Despite the situation in China now, he is still the biggest influence on the Chinese people and culture ever.
I thought many of his ideas and teachings resembled the teachings of Jesus. Some of his teachings that resembled the Savior were his advice to love everyone, and get to know everyone. Another teaching was that we should treat others as we would want to be treated. These are eternal principles that, if a dynasty was built on, would last a long time. I also liked his emphasis on the family and learning from and respecting your elders. Confucius, it seems, was truly an inspired man.
His life also resembled western philosophers such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. I wonder if there are more Chinese philosophers like him that aren't as famous; it would seem there should be more Chinese philosophers than just one. Maybe he is just the most famous, and so the only one that we ever hear about. Maybe I will research more into other Chinese philosophers to see what kind of contributions they made to Chinese culture.
Confucius seemed like sort of a radical in society in the way he did things. His teachings were in contrast to the greedy and brutal system of government in place at the time. He seemed very different than other Chinese philosophers and government officials. I wonder how was he so well accepted and promoted through time; the film talks about his students writing down his words, but does not address how he later came to influence China in such a huge way and become so famous.
It also seemed that there were a lot of Anti-communist overtones in the film. Mao Zedong was pointed out as one who did not like Confucius ideas. China was a recluse to the world until recently; apparently recently the government has just allowed Confucius temples to open? Confucius is still an influence today no matter what the government does; it seems his teachings are inseparably ingrained into Chinese thought and philosophy.
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