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‘Jiang Ziya’ and the Unbearable Lightness of Bourgeois Humanism

In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published in other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was published on Sixth Tone and is republished with the author’s permission.

‘Jiang Ziya’ and the Unbearable Lightness of Bourgeois Humanism

The real-life Jiang Ziya was a bold strategist who overthrew a tyrant. His cinematic counterpart mostly mopes — and audiences seem to like it that way.

By: Wu Changchang

Last month, Beijing Enlight Pictures premiered the second film in its traditional mythology-themed “Investiture of the Gods” cinematic universe: “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification.” And following in the footsteps of last year’s box office hit “Ne Zha,” which transformed its source story from a critique of feudalism into a family-friendly tale of childhood rebellion and acceptance, Enlight also gave the eponymous hero of “Jiang Ziya” a modern gloss.

The historical Jiang Ziya was a founding father of the Zhou dynasty (1046 B.C.-256 B.C.). One of the country’s earliest master strategists, he rose up in revolt against the brutal last despot of the Shang dynasty. Of course, these details have long since been overtaken in the popular imagination by more fantastic portrayals, and the Jiang Ziya most Chinese audiences would be familiar with is more mythic than real. In the classic Ming dynasty (1368-1644) novel “The Legend of Deification,” Jiang Ziya is depicted as a disciple of the Taoist deity Yuanshi Tianzun who leads the rebellious Zhou army to victory.

But the cinematic “Jiang Ziya” goes in a different direction, rewriting the military genius as a maudlin intellectual beset by the cliché humanist ethical problem of how to balance the needs of the individual and the people. The whole film is colored by his confusion and disillusionment, a portrait of the revolutionary politician as an emo young man.

As a scholar of cultural studies, I can’t help but be curious if the film’s production team really believes the only way to make an appealing movie these days is to “humanize” any hero — no matter how mythic, epic, or larger-than-life they are — by weighing them down with mundane concerns.

Then again, if the studiously “humanist” tone of the first two films in the “Investiture” universe are any indication, they probably do.

Zhou Xiaohong, a professor of sociology at Nanjing University, once famously observed that China’s emerging middle class puts consumption first and politics last. But while the first bit is likely true, I can’t agree with the second. Since the 1980s, China’s resurgent petit bourgeoisie have broken with the nation’s revolutionary politics in favor of a return to humanism — the centering of individuality and humanity in place of the Marxist focus on social relations. But how exactly is that apolitical? If anything, it’s the essence of bourgeois politics.

Humanism as a winning pop culture product is a relatively recent phenomenon within the People’s Republic of China. Early on, the country’s authorities took it for granted that the political positions of petit bourgeois intellectuals — distinct in this framework from those in the “middle class” — are obviously dubious and not to be trusted. Although technically grouped with the revolutionary masses, they were locked out of power and resided at the bottom of the so-called chain of contempt. In the words of Mao Zedong: “In the deepest reaches of their souls still reigns an empire of petty bourgeois intellectuals.”

As such, petit bourgeois political stances needed periodic testing and “rectification,” and the only depictions of the petty bourgeoisie compatible with socialist literature and art were those of revolutionaries who have resolved the contradictions of their identity in order to affirm their alliance with the proletariat — or the background figures needed to contrast against more heroic workers, peasants, and soldiers.

After the advent of “reform and opening-up” in the early 1980s, however, humanism became a cultural phenomenon. Following the bloody chaos of the Cultural Revolution, a new movement — in which human nature was used as a means of finding closure and rewriting history — gradually formed in Chinese literary and artistic circles, and petit bourgeois culture revived.

That trend continued into the new millennium, as the social status and financial power of China’s petit bourgeoisie grew. Once relegated to the depths of society, today they’ve reclaimed their perch atop China’s chain of contempt, acting as judges of good taste and looking down upon the backward views and lifestyles of rural China.

A promotional image for the film “Jiang Ziya,” featuring Jiang, Ne Zha, and other characters from the “Investiture of the Gods” cinematic universe in their boy band personas. From @电影姜子牙 on Weibo

A promotional image for the film “Jiang Ziya,” featuring Jiang, Ne Zha, and other characters from the “Investiture of the Gods” cinematic universe in their boy band personas. From @电影姜子牙 on Weibo

Pop culture production has shifted in response. During the so-called golden age of Chinese TV from 2005 to 2014, the petit bourgeoisie was the demographic over which all the major TV stations competed. They propelled Dragon TV to the ranks of China’s top stations, and even younger-skewing Hunan Satellite TV has sought to rebrand itself as highbrow in the hopes of courting a more affluent viewership.

The resulting cultural hegemony of humanism carries a whiff of revisionism, however — one that brooks little dissent. In the mid-1980s, scholars sought to place humanism in a broader context, inclusive of concepts like social relations and alienation. Today, such discussions are practically invisible, as humanism has been lifted to the status of universal value or absolute truth, one that automatically takes precedence over historical and national issues.

This shift is reflected throughout popular culture, from films like 2009’s Japanese soldier-centered tale of the Nanjing Massacre “City of Life and Death” to the reemergence of that great chronicler of Chinese petit bourgeoisie, Eileen Chang. Even a recent adaptation of the classic fantasy novel “Journey to the West” took pains to clarify that the white bone spirits’ violence toward humans was actually justified, as they had once been hurt by humans themselves.

Underlying all these works is a fear of collective violence. They emphasize individual freedom above all else and defend the right of their heroes to retreat from political and public life. Put another way, they advocate the right to remain ambivalent: to not commit to a stance or a collective cause. Any arguments calling this logic into question — such as pointing out that the historical Jiang Ziya went to war to overthrow a tyrant — are denounced as “anti-humanistic”.

Idyllic farmsteads, niche subcultures, consumption — these are the cultural fixations of contemporary China’s petit bourgeoisie, and fixtures of the cultural products they withdraw into.

In part, that’s because they give the petit bourgeoisie ample opportunity to showcase their elegant taste and lofty disposition. This summer, for example, petit bourgeois viewers of iQiyi reality show “The Big Band” briefly made the gritty musical act Wu Tiao Ren pop culture icons. A rock-and-roll group, Wu Tiao Ren seem tailor-made to bourgeois affectation: They sing in the dialect of Shanwei City and have the down-to-earth aura of kids from a small town, but their lead singer still finds ways to read Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his spare time.

In turn, the band’s petit bourgeois fans use the group to show off their own cultural sophistication by dissecting and discussing their songs on online forums. Or as one commenter put it in a review of their song “The Globe”: “(It) projects magnificent imagery onto such a small scene as a way of seeking meaning in this world. It uses the scene as a means of invoking a state somewhere between transcendence and madness.”

For all their talk of humanism, China’s petit bourgeoisie view the world and examine the human condition from a position they consider superior to most of humanity. In the process, they scour folk tales and songs alike of their revolutionary connotations, replacing what they take out with their own values. The anti-Confucian iconoclast Ne Zha becomes a bratty son, the warlord Jiang Ziya a mopey man of letters, and I can’t help but ask: Just who exactly is being anti-humanistic here?

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: A promotional image for the film “Jiang Ziya.” From Douban)

Citations, References And Other Reading

  1. Featured Photo Courtesy of https://www.wellgousa.com/sites/default/files/styles/hero_image/public/2020-01/812×1200-v1.jpg?itok=PTJ82POp
  2. http://www.sixthtone.com
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiang_Ziya

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

Books: Great State: China and the World By Timothy Brook

It approaches impossible to be a humanist without eventually trying to reach an understanding of the politics of China. Enter just about any conversation about secularism and sooner or later someone is going to mention the human rights record of the Chinese government over the last 80 to 100 years. Here’s a book that may be a good place to move toward an understanding of China’s immense history.

Great State: China and The World was published in 2019/2020 by one of Canada’s leading scholarly experts on China. It is a collection of thirteen historical vignettes written to support its author’s thesis that China is, and has very nearly always been, a “Great State”.

Timothy Brook is a professor at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver). A native of Toronto and graduate of the University of Toronto, Brook moved from Toronto to become principal of St. John’s College at UBC in 2004, where he was named to the Republic of China Chair. Brook previously held positions at the University of Alberta, Stanford University, and the University of Oxford, where he was Shaw Professor of Chinese from 2007 to 2009.

Book Marks reviews of Great State: China and the World by ...

At a little over 400-pages, the entire book is well-worth reading; however humanistfreedoms.com found particular interest in ….Chapter 8: The Missionary and His Convert, a chapter providing some interesting insights into how China’s political leadership has approached religious influences in the country. The chapter is set in the early 1600’s and reviews political events stemming from the arrival of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in China. Brook demonstrates that some leading Chinese political forces felt that “...these foreigners were not official envoys from their rulers. There were protocols for receiving tribute envoys, but these men had entered China without having received such clearance. That they were in China to speak of matters of Heaven – which could be construed as infringing on the divine authority of the emperor – only made the illegality of their status that much more offensive.” (pg. 203)

It is not uncommon for Western people to view China as having been cut-off from the world (i.e. Europe) for must of its existence. Brook attempts to dispel this view as a myth. But he also reinforces, in this chapter and others, the deep concern Chinese political leaders have had regarding foreign influence in their country’s affairs. The lesson seems to be that foreign influence that is cut-off is very different from foreign influence that is limited and controlled.

Another valuable chapter to the humanist student is Chapter 10- The Lama and the Prince, dealing with the Dalai Lama and China’s occupation of Tibet – what Brook describes as China’s act to “reimpose its active sovereignty over the territories of the old Great State.

Despite being reasonably attentive readers, we found it difficult to locate where Brook differentiates a “Great State” from an “Empire”. Clearly in certain parts of Western culture, the words empire and imperialism carry a great deal of baggage. The words bring up notions of militarily-strong foreign control and influence of local populations.

In the book’s introduction, Brook argues that Great State is an “Inner Asian concept. It is not a term that Chinese today will recognize, let alone accept, but it has hugely shaped Chinese Political thinking since the time of Khubalai Khan. Before the 1270s China was a dynastic state in which one family monopolized power at the center because, so the theory went, Heaven had given that family an exclusive mandate to rule.. What changed with the coming of the Mongols was the deeper conviction that this mandate entailed the right to extend the authority of that one family out across the entire world, incorporating all existing politics and rulers into a system in which military power is paramount. This was the Great State, and this is what China became.

The book is well-worth the time spent.

Citations, References And Other Reading

  1. Featured Photo Courtesy of https://thetyee.ca/Culture/2020/03/25/China-Pandemics-UBC-Expert/
  2. https://www.harpercollins.com/blogs/authors/timothy-brook
  3. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2019/09/myth-chinas-great-state
  4. https://history.ubc.ca/profile/tim-brook/

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.