The Rise of China in Film

Before our trip, watched three movies that illuminate four parts aspects of the rise of China — The Warlords, Xiu Xiu The Sent-Down Girl, Summer Palace, and Shanghai Kiss.


Warlords is the story of an attempt to overthrow the Da Qing (The Great Brightness, 大清) by the quasi-Christian cult, the Taiping Tianguo (The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, 天国太平). While the Taiping failed at their genocidal war of national liberation, their hostility to the Great Qing, their emphasis on land reform, and their attempts at westernization mean they are seen as a pre-revolution progressive force by many KMT and Communist historians. Warlords tells the story of what we may call three military entrepreuners, who organize a largescale militia to defeat the Taiping rebels (and make a profit for themselves). While many of the elements fall into propaganda (no mention is made of the Ever Victorious Army led by Frederick T. Ward and Charles G. Gordon), etc.), the film is well produced.

The Taiping Rebellion was contemporary with the American Civil War, and as in that battle, the fights were an intersection of millenia of war. In an early battle scene, the Warlord army use an unarmed peasant-archer rush in an attack on an army armed with rifles and cannons; in another, trench warfare leads to starvation on both sides of a siege.


Xiu Xiu The Sent Down Girl, produced by Joan Chen and banned from China, is the story of a girl caught up in a Rustification Campaign of the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s attempt at merging the urban and population classes by pulling city students out of school to work on farms and ranches in told with much less sentimentality than is typical of films made in China. The current view of the Rustification movement is that it is a memoriable experience that led to many life-long friendships, as at this gathering that I witnessed:

rather than a murderous destruction of a generation of professionals. While much of the post-Mao government suffered during the campaign, allowing the Chinese people to realize that Mao did much more harm in every measure to China than Japan ever did is not an idea they want spreading.


Summer Palace is an odd movie. It was banned by China under the pretense of a graphic scene that would have earned the film an NC-17 rating in the United States. However, it’s also an intensely political movie, pivoting around the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.

Note I say “pivot,” not “focus.” The Tiananmen Massacre itself is a conspicuously missing. Indeed, there are no shots at all of Tiananmen, or even the city of Beijing proper, in the film. For half the movie the drama relentless builds to a showdown of the students against the army — and then suddenly it’s years later, and people are engaging in the activities of young adults in the workforce.


Shanghai Kiss, set in contemporary Los Angeles and Shanghai, is dramatically better than either its marketing literature than the previous work of its cash (LOST, Heroes) would imply.


While not quite as subtle as it wants to me, Shanghai Kiss succeeds at commenting on the alienation that comes from modern life. In other words, if The Warlords and Xiu Xiu describe the hellish life of a poor and rural China, and Summer Palace describes China during Deng’s revolution, Shanghai Kiss describes China (or at least Shanghai) as a largely developed place, with rich-country problems.