Wednesday, July 13, 2016


 (This post was researched during travels in Japan and China in 2014 on an Abe Journalism Fellowship)

The war spirit of a Japanese soldier is tested during bayonet practice on innocent Chinese

Just when it seemed that the genre of anti-Japan war dramas --some 200 of which were produced in the last year and which continue to play morning, noon and night on Chinese TV--  had reached such a point of overkill that even voices in the communist party were calling to cut back on such incendiary programming, the Chinese government has ordered TV stations to increase the airing of "patriotic" product, of which anti-Japan dramas are exhibit number one. On August 15, 2014, the anniversary day of Japan's 1945 surrender, the headline of Beijing's state-run Global Times screamed, "Prime time TV to be more anti-fascist."

The new season reverberates with political anniversaries that help explain television's intemperate blast from the past. On September 3, Victory Day over Japan was celebrated by President Xi Jinping at the "Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression" with a supporting cast of thousands. September 18 recalls the Manchurian Incident which set the pretext for Japanese invasion, while September 30 is newly established as “Martyr’s Day.” October 1 is National Day and an important party congress will follow. On December 13 the Nanjing massacre will be remembered with public ceremony.

What's going on here? Is it a case of bad politics leading art, or has bad art infected politics to the point where appetites are primed for more of the usual fare? The most recent spate of war dramas were so hastily and carelessly slapped together as to be worrisome to party authorities who expressed fear history was being distorted. Then again, maybe bad dramas are better than well-crafted ones if the purpose is to bomb the airwaves with propaganda that invokes knee-jerk patriotism and incites appetite for actual action against Japan.

China has a long tradition of producing war movies for propaganda purposes; mostly didactic good-versus-evil dramas drawn from the all-too-real and all-too-brutal war against Japan, perhaps the best known of which is “Tunnel Warfare” produced in 1965 and is arguably the most-seen movie of all time, given multiple showings at a time when there were few movies to choose from.

While Chinese audiences in the past were no strangers to a periodic war-against-Japan drama, which rolled around at the cinema every two or three years, there has been no time like the current media cacophony of competing, overlapping provincial stations putting out reams of similar product all at once. 

One only has to turn on a TV in China and flip through a few channels before coming upon a "kang-ri-ju," that is to say, a "war-against-Japan" drama. In fact, it is not uncommon to find several anti-Japan dramas playing simultaneously. This overlap is in part due to the  political process by which stridently anti-Japanese product gets green-lighted for production, flooding the market with lookalike dramas, and the proliferation of satellite channels hungry for content that is agreeable to party authorities and also capable of holding audience attention between commercial breaks. The airing of lopsided and often lurid anti-Japan dramas can be found all over the dial, from educational TV and eager provincial stations as well as on big city stations and the flagship station CCTV in Beijing. Produced for the most part by independent production companies, the look-alike dramas get repeat play on different stations as well.

A common prop on the set of an anti-Japan drama is the eye-catching rising sun flag and insignia. Unlike Germany, which changed its flag after losing its war of aggression, Japan's continuous, unbroken use of the hinomaru flag makes it possible for Chinese viewers of wartime dramas to conflate the wartime enemy nation of the past with the peaceful Japan of the present. 

          "On Fire" (Qianghuo) dresses the set with the rising sun flag to identify the bad guys

In the course of a TV viewing day in China, one can view countless examples of Japanese sneakiness and perfidy, lust for power and control and arrogance. Fluttering over all of this is the obligatory hinomaru flag, planted on Chinese soil as a succinct symbol of evil. The sometimes clumsy and heavy-handed storytelling of the Chinese revenge dramas do not do much to shed light on history, but then again they are mostly served up to sell soap, that is, primarily as revenue driven entertainment. Of course getting script approval is easier if the product is a prod to extoll Communist-led China as being on the right side of history, with arch-rival Japan providing an effective foil. 

Canglang, or "Blue Wolf," as it is known in English, is just one of many Chinese TV serial dramas that takes the contemporary viewer back into the thick of fighting, plotting, heroism and betrayal during the height of the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945. While "Blue Wolf" is one of the better-produced drama series that aired in early 2014, it inadvertently made a mockery of its anti-Japan posturing when it was exposed by observant netizens for having liberally "borrowed" music from a Japanese anime. It's an inadvertently appropriate intellectual theft in a way, for it speaks to the power of contemporary Japanese anime and its receptivity among Chinese youth despite palpable government antipathy towards Japan. What's more, the Japan wartime occupation period of 1937-1945 that serves as a backdrop to "Blue Wolf," had plenty of Japanese influences, including the Japanese puppet emperor Pu Yi and Japanese puppet prime minister Wang Jingwei and a Japan-dominated economy. The anachronistic, unauthorized "borrowing" of Japanese music to liven up the anti-Japan war drama is weirdly appropriate in its own way; after all a cosmopolitan centers such as occupied Shanghai there was Japanese music to be heard and was otherwise historically rich in cross-cultural mixups, misappropriations, and outright thievery.

                                                     A seduction scene in "Blue Wolf"

Overall, "Blue Wolf" is a reasonably watchable product, pleasant but unconvincing, on a par with daytime soap opera on questions of plot and believability. It's a sweeping drama that hems itself in with cloistered, fake-looking sets. While it puts forward a well-groomed and fashionably dressed cast of soldiers, guerillas, foreign officials and singsong girls, it never seems far from present day China. It ostensibly covers the period from the time of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident to the battle of Shanghai, the destruction of Nanjing and KMT flight up the Yangtse River to Wuhan and eventually Chongqing but the sweep of history gets lost in the peculiarities of the drama. Despite the epic backdrop, it's full of missed opportunities to teach history and/or entertain, and in the end it comes off as a silly little soap opera with big ideas about itself.

"Kill all, burn all, loot all" scene in "Cannon Fire"

“Heading into Cannon Fire” (Xiangzhe paohuo qianjin) which has been airing on China Educational TV1 in recent months is "educational" up to a point. Unlike the stiff, spit and scotch-tape studio dramas, where little thought is given to period decor inside the over-lit studio sets other than to dress the stage with a mish-mash of random props that are sufficiently old-looking and sufficiently out-of-fashion to serve as shorthand for a different time period, or as in one memorable case, flanked by a portrait of Emperor Hirohito and the hinomaru flag (twin marks of evil), the competently-produced drama "Cannon Fire" wisely eschews badly decorated rooms and takes the viewer into the great outdoors in a village-style setting where the presence of chickens, sheep and other farm animals imbue a sense of verisimilitude sorely lacking in other productions. The staging of Japanese soldiers on the rampage, under orders to torch and destroy, brings to mind documentary scenes from the Vietnam War, or more likely as an inspiration, Vietnam war movies, especially in the scene in which a village is brutally destroyed in order to "save it." Chickens scatter, sheep bleat, lifestock are rustled as humans hit the ground, mowed down by machine gun fire to illustrate the brutality of Japan's infamous "kill all, burn all, loot all" policy.

Enemy Troops at the Gate!" is another one of the many anti-Japan war dramas that aired in the spring of 2014 during the long diplomatic rift that followed Prime Minister Abe's Yasukuni visit and was further worsened by barely restrained clashes at sea. The story of a Chinese village under siege by Japanese troops, "Enemy Troops" introduces a motley crew of Chinese youth who would not look out of place riding skateboards in contemporary Beijing. In one nail-biting scene, the young patriots wait in ambush, exchanging boyish grins and soulful glances, guns ready in hand. The girls, hair neatly combed, lipstick carefully applied, stare intently into the distance as a Japanese military convoy approaches. The camera cuts to a bedraggled, unshaved Japanese soldier, rocking back and forth as he drives a truck, the first in a convoy, with the hinomaru flag clearly affixed to the side. Something bad is going to happen, but the production is sufficiently intent on showing how the young Chinese bind together in the face of adversity that a bad haircut would be almost as traumatic as the big explosions that follow. 

As the unshaven enemy soldier hurtles unsuspectingly down a bumpy dirt road, the hip guerillas use a trip wire and improvised explosive device to set off a blinding explosion that lights the night like a tactical atomic bomb. They shield their eyes in the face of the blinding fireworks, grinning with pride at bombs magnificent, unexpected power, but the bomb, big as it is, fails to finish off the enemy and the cliffhanger ending of the episode leaves viewers wondering what will happen next. The young heroes are last seen exchanging worried glances in the proximity of some very unhappy Japanese soldiers.

                                            Ambush scene in  "Enemy Troops At the Gate!"                              

The story quality and production values of kang-ri-ju vary wildly from scene to scene and drama to drama, but most of the anti-Japan narratives share certain core elements. China is good, Japan is bad. As if to drive home the obvious didacticism, Chinese extras play Japanese without great nuance, relying on cartoon-like gestures, scowls and sneers. Japanese characters routinely insult dignity of women, bully the men, exhibit stiff body language, speak in grunts and sport villainous mustaches. When Japanese characters have speaking roles, it usually suffices for a few words of Japanese to be inserted into otherwise fluent Chinese speech to signal that Japanese is being spoken. A few dramas, apparently aiming for greater linguistic verisimilitude, have full-blown Japanese dialogue, voiced fluently, though not flawlessly, by Chinese actors. 

                                           Chinese actors ham it up playing Japanese

Overall, the narrative line of the wartime dramas tends to follow the contours of a David and Goliath struggle in which the dignified but poorly-equipped Chinese absorb unprovoked abuse and cruel blows, and then dazed, but not done in, rise to resist and fight back. After a see-sawing struggle, the "good guys" eventually win, miraculously, and usually at the last minute, overcoming the superior firepower and rich material resources of the devilish invaders through a use of guerilla cunning, kung-fu fighting and party-civilian cooperation. The rise of China's communist party and its historical correctness is a de rigueur element of the genre, the silver lining of the very dark war that ravished China and wreaked havoc on the civilian populace from 1937-1945.

Given China's ironclad claim as a victim nation, it is not surprising that Chinese television producers should now and then stage a war drama, and when doing so, it's not unreasonable that the story line might be hard on Japan. A certain degree of outrage and indignation is understandable, maybe even cathartic, since the dramatic replay of terrible historic incidents is bound to be tied up with emotional empathy and identification with wronged ancestors. But when the market is flooded with cheap, derivative, copycat dramas flowing like an endless stream into the viewer's living room, there is a temptation to wonder when enough is enough. It's not as if they are educational or even make a serious effort to get the history right, it's not that they are transformational and aspire to elucidate universal truths and reveal that there is nothing glorious about war because war is killing and war is hell. 

Nor is there a serious attempt to show the reserves of decency and humanity of both sides of the struggle. Instead they take the course of least resistance, each step along the way. First by courting the censors by doing only pre-approved topics, then by courting commercial tastes by devilish detours away from history and into the steamy back alleys of supernaturalism and sexual intrigue. There's entertainment value of course, but given the top-down state-directed nature of media content, one has to wonder about the political intent, and the political effect of a tired, over-done government-framed topic that goes for the gutter just to hold audience attention.

People in China have a problematic relationship with Japan to begin, with, which raises tot question if the production and consumption of such dramas makes things worse. Perhaps not. While it is clear that Japan is being used in a narrative that builds solidarity in the face of a common enemy, most of the stories are about the intrigues among the rich cast of Chinese characters, and the cardboard cutout Japanese serve more as dramatic foils than believable and meaningful characters in their own right.  In this sense, kang-ri-ju are more about China getting its act together, through solidarity building and white-hot nationalism and at the end of the day not very much about Japan.

Retelling bitter old tales, inventing new stories based on old ones and recalling past humiliations with the hindsight that China eventually comes out on top is a way to dramatize China's rise.  The productions are not without traces of a poisoned nationalism and xenophobia, and therein lurks a problem. Once unleashed, the mischievous genie of racial prejudice is hard to contain, as can be seen in widespread adoption of the wartime term "guizi" used to refer to Japanese.  

Whether or not the glut of dramas on the market do justice to the historic facts of the Japan's well-documented invasion, occupation and war that followed is another matter. It's not the gory depiction of violence that spoils the show, nor even the frequent sex scenes, as sex and violence are part of all war, and the Sino-Japan war was truly horrific on both counts by any reckoning. But the weak plotting and ham-fisted acting can make even well-executed battle scenes look like an exercise in gratuitous violence, and the cloying, coquettish starlets who seduce or get raped by the enemy make a mockery of the serious power imbalances and violence of rape.   

Not that making a drama about a complex war is ever easy. Unlike the hard-to-grasp reality of the real horror of a real war with all its deadly nuances and innate contradictions, a watchable drama needs a clear narrative arc, preferably an uplifting one. What this means in terms of Chinese TV dramas set in the war period is that the Japanese onslaught against China needs to be followed by a sharp comeuppance at the end of the program to sate audience desire for revenge, all the more so because history didn't provide much opportunity to even the scores at the time. As such, many of the dramas take liberties with the known record and follow the crowd-pleasing narrative line of provoke-and-revenge fantasies.

Revenge flicks are standard entertainment fare in Hollywood, and US nationalism rears its arrogant head often enough on the television screen, but China's amateurish anti-Japan dramas risk failing as both entertainment and propaganda to the extent they lack subtlety and nuance. Blame the script on the boss of the producer's boss. The Communist Party must come out on top as surely as the good guys must win in a bad Disney film. 

Fearless derring-do and fantastic feats of heroism are sketched out on screen, but they are subordinate to the unspoken hero of the piece, the CCP. Heroic resistance sometimes goes underground, sometimes goes aboveground, but the Chinese viewer, having been brought up on patriotic drama of one form or another, knows, even when it is not explicitly spelled out, that the guiding light is the Communist Party of China. So it's not really about Japan's many wrongs, it's about the righteous path of China's own leadership.

When surfing channels, the genre dramas can be recognized at a glance due to period props, stock locations and an abundance of men in uniform wearing caps and baggy trousers. During battle scenes it is sometimes hard to tell one side from the other, especially if they break formation or conventions of the dress code. The dramas are peopled with complex casts that include spies, guerillas, and communist underground operatives dressed as civilians. At times this makes harder to know who is who, though the grumpy men with mustaches are almost never communists and the good-looking, clean-shaven, courageous and athletic men are almost certainly the good guys.

Over one hundred anti-Japan films and about 70 drama series were churned out in 2013, according to a Reuters report that estimates the Japan war genre to hold as much as 70% of China's TV drama market. More of the same continues to be churned out on a large, assembly-line basis. Cheap formulaic films that are explosive, exploitative variations of the time-tested, government-approved anti-Japan theme are the hallmark of ambitious new studios, where business bets on sure winners. At the gargantuan Hengdian Studios in Zhejiang Province, the economy of scale makes it not only possible, but economically expedient to "kill" hundreds of Japanese in a day's work. 

The sheer volume of such schlock being dumped on the market raises the question of how over-doing it might influence popular reception. Does the anti-Japan overload play a role in sharpening negative prejudices about Japan? Or has thoughtless over-production made the genre a mockery of itself, rendering it impotent as a prod to love China and hate Japan? 

The fact that nearly all parts are played by Chinese and speak Chinese nicely drives home the point that Japanese and Chinese share superficial physical similarities as well as the profound cultural links of a long, shared history. As if to compensate for possible confusion, the Chinese extras and bit actors used to portray the Japanese villains sport mustaches and more often than not, a permanent scowl, making it plain who the bad guys are. And if its still not clear which truck or plane or HQ belongs to which side, look for the hinomaru flag.

The hinomaru flag, a ubiquitous prop in anti-Japan dramas, offers a problematic continuity between wartime Japan and the Japan of the present day. It's just a piece of cloth but it is a powerful symbol and dramatic prop that links daytime drama with evening news. An animus against Japan in matters of both fact and fiction, news and drama, has become a staple of the Chinese media diet, and the hinomaru is always there, like a bull's eye announcing the presence of evil. 

   Bonzai! Bonzai! Bonzai!
Popular reception of China's anti-Japan drama boom, though hard to gauge, appears uneven at best. The kang-ri-ju genre is subject to regular mockery by savvy netizens on social networks. Informal interviews conducted with Chinese students on Beijing campuses revealed that many young people are curious about Japan and many are fond of Japan's "dongman" tradition (manga and anime) as well as Tokyo-style design, food and fashion. Japanese food is popular and Japan is more popular than ever as a tourist destination, which suggests that the anti-Japan genre is hopelessly out of touch and missing the mark, at least in younger demographics. 

For better or worse young people in China say they are not interested in raking over the coals of contested history but instead forward-looking to the future. "So boring!" was the most common response I heard when asking about the Anti-Japan dramas on Chinese college campuses in the past few months, and to my surprise, some students claimed they didn't watch TV at all.  Instead they sate their media hunger on the internet, claiming that TV drama and TV news is mainly watched by "old people."

In 2013, China's state-run mainstream media itself began a push-back, presumably because some high official somewhere was not amused by the degradation of the genre. There was enough of a groundswell against the sex, violence and exploitative excesses of the genre that even China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, which encouraged and enabled the production of the faulty product in the first place, felt compelled to join the critical bandwagon, accusing some of the dramas of "distorting history."

In a pattern reminiscent of the dynamics behind the periodic anti-Japan demonstrations that convulse city streets only to vanish as fast as a flash mob, the authorities gave a wink, if not a green-light for the public to run with an intemperate and borderline toxic topic, but then got worried about things getting out of control, or moving in a direction not anticipated, and started to rein things in again.

"Blue Wolf" includes  the KMT in the anti-Japan struggle
In the daytime serial dramas, there is hardly a whit of ambiguity about who is good and who is bad and which of the two clashing civilizations is civilized and which is not. The fundamental asymmetry inherent in invading another person's country accounts for much of that imbalance. But why resurrect a pointedly humiliating past, even though everyone knows Japan eventually lost the war once the US joined the fray? Why so many similar-themed dramas set seven decades in the past, and why now?

One political development that might help explain the inexplicable glut of dramas set during the war against Japan period is not about Japan at all, but rather about courting the ruling party on Taiwan. There is a desire, perhaps even a need, given the short shrift the KMT has gotten in CCP circles for the last half century, to diplomatically rewrite pan-Chinese history in a way that gives fellow Chinese in the KMT their due as "zhanyou" or fellow fighters in the good fight against Japan.

Ever since the day the KMT turned against the CCP and left wing of the KMT in Shanghai massacre of 1927, Mao and his followers have demonized the KMT on a level comparable with party line antipathy directed at Japan, perhaps even more so, given the bitter internecine angst of the cut-from-the-same-cloth KMT-CCP struggle. Trying to overcome this negative legacy, contemporary war dramas have begun to embrace the historic contributions of the KMT, (when they weren't busy eradicating communists) in a kind of mutual admiration loop, that pits Chinese of all stripes against Japan, public enemy number one. 

Giving face to the long-scorned Kuomintang troops would have been an anathema in the Mao years, but now accords with an official shift in communist party political line. The new thinking is a magnanimous gesture of the party, born out political calculation, buttressed by historical research and backed by a contemporary eagerness to find common ground with Taiwan. The revisionism that casts the KMT in somewhat neutral terms; not all bad, and sometimes good, gives producers that rare dramatic quality, characters with nuance, that would be lacking if it were just a battle of "good" (CCP-led China) against "evil" (Imperial Japan). The characters in the middle leave some room for backsliding and backstabbing which helps spice up otherwise predictable plot lines.  
The CCP has had the upper hand for over half a century now and there is not much reason to fear the KMT anymore. What's more, given China's keen appreciation of the fact that even a truculent KMT, with its stubborn dedication to the idea of a unitary China is to be preferred over an amicable DPP intent on finalizing the de facto split from China or any other pro-independence party, it prevails prevails upon the CCP to court the KMT in the hopes of finessing some kind of grand unification.
Add to the political expediency of making nice with KMT stalwarts on Taiwan, while simultaneously reminding Taiwanese with no particular gripe with Japan that Japan should be regarded as the common foe of all true Chinese, and you get a shift in party line that attempts to woe Taiwan back into the fold by reminding compatriots divided by the Taiwan Straits that they were once united in opposition to Japan's war of invasion.
It doesn't hurt the party's flip-flop on the question of KMT "patriotism" that there's growing support for the view, backed by historical documentation but also through the media commentary and informal folkways that Chinese of all stripes should be recognized for their contributions in combatting Japan's ruthless mainland invasion. To include decent KMT characters in the script of an anti-Japan war drama kills two birds with one stone; it reaches across the Straits to broaden the demonization of Japan while signaling a coming to terms with the KMT-dominated Taiwan. In this sense, the recent boom of wartime resistance dramas that give a meaningful role to the KMT is of service to China's long-term goal of wooing Taiwan back into the fold of the motherland.
Producing dramas in China remains an imperfect art, the art of the possible, and Chinese production companies have learned to navigate the course of least resistance by submitting proposals that can get past the censors and make money. Television producers with no particular animus to Japan have learned that Anti-Japan films are easy to get green-lighted for production and can be profitable from constant television replay in China's vast network of national and provincial TV stations. While there's little evidence that the masses crave yet more of this tired, cliche-ridden genre, the generous airtime allocated by state-run TV for "safe" patriotic product helps the hacks find a market nonetheless.

Despite the glut of over-bearing, overly-bombastic propagandistic dramas, it is not a given that such dramas serve the ostensible purpose of making viewers more patriotic, or even more anti-Japan. Are there not viewers repulsed by the ham-fisted dramatic manipulation and blatant propaganda and have come to see the entire blinkered enterprise as a negative for the party?  Or perhaps even that is taken the whole enterprise too seriously. 

The genre has gotten so hackneyed in the past two or three years that it transcends history, not just because it plays loose with facts but because it doesn't care about facts, or even the laws of physics. It's a highly stylized revenge fantasy, a frivolous attempt to right historic wrongs by exploding history rather than an attempt to get the history right. In this sense, it's just a lark, an idle daydream, a shoot-'em-up video game, a kungfu combat pitting cowboys against Indians, bereft of historical context and lacking a coherent message.

Bad battle scenes and bad bed scenes entertain some viewers as surely as they bore or repulse others. Like other forms of mindless propaganda, the true measure of the genre's impact is unlikely to be found in the quality of the product on the market, or even in the distorted content, but instead in the subconscious effect of constant repetition. 

Unlike mythical history genres based on Three Kingdoms lore, or the mischievous exploits of the Monkey King, the make-believe anti-Japan dramas deal with a real country that China continues to confront in real time. Unlike legendary episodes drawn from China's ancient feudal history, the anti-Japan fantasy fare is set during a time period that is fading but still on the verge of human memory, a contentious period that has been heavily documented in newspapers, books and documentary film. To use contested chapters of recent history as a setting for revenge fantasies, if only to amuse, still amounts to a kind of background drumbeat for the evening news programs that frequently have an anti-Japan message as well.

A mix of state-encouragement and commercial opportunism has resulted in the commodification, ossification and corruption of the wartime period. Increasingly, the result is a lowest common denominator product line packed with fun-looking kung-fu kicks and punches, heroic heroes, comely seductresses, and dazzling pyrotechnics fueled by bloody revenge fantasies. The bad guys, played by Chinese hamming it up, are mostly cardboard cutout cliches  -comical mustachioed comic book villains- who grunt, bow and snarl through every scene until they lose. 

The result is an odd television hybrid, a cocktail of knee-jerk nationalism, over-the-top special effects and hasty, makeshift production values all laced by a petulant political mood. The dramas are supposed to vilify Japan, but that of course depends on the audience taking them seriously, and the dramas do not demand to be taken seriously or pretend to be educational in content. They can hardly stand at all, and few of them could they very well withstand a close viewing.

If it continues unabated, the boom in programming that exploits divisive history and gratuitously stages the annihilation of Japanese all day long on hundreds of millions of TV screens around China may well bear negative consequences. If any of the urgent, simmering issues that pit Japan against China at land, sea, or in the air should explode into hot conflict at a time when the mass audience is being inundated with anti-Japan themed drama, the propagandistic and prejudiced qualities of the genre, as ridiculous as they are in times of peace, may take on a more sinister aspect.

China’s massive anti-corruption crackdown has led to the disgrace of the influential security czar Zhou Yangkang who is credited with permitting, perhaps even actively encouraging, anti-Japan street protests and stridently anti-Japan media reports. If the demise of Zhou’s powerful faction serves to reduce the influence of the outspokenly anti-Japanese Jiang Zemin, there may well be an opportunity to reset Sino-Japanese relations. Diplomatic opportunities are apt to arise with the diminishment of the clique most responsible for playing the Japan card to foment nationalism.

Report on Japan military armament on CCTV's international Mandarin channel
The influence of current events upon television programming has already been observed in the sudden upswing in production and selling of coveted time slots to stridently anti-Japanese dramas, but is there any evidence the dramas themselves are having an influence on current events? Perhaps there are traces of this, inasmuch as some members of the public take the risks inherent in demonstrating to demand that the government take an uncompromising position on Japan. Is the latest anti-Japan push in the media top-down state diktat, populism bubbling from the ground up, or perhaps one egging on the other in a  complex interaction of the two? It's hardly transformational TV viewing, more like banal daytime entertainment, as silly and stylized as cowboy and Indian productions from Hollywood's racially prejudiced past. Indeed online commentary suggests that anti-Japan product has become a joke for the cognoscenti, and with young people watching less TV and relying more on the Internet for news and entertainment, it's not clear the campaign has been successful at all in altering public opinion.

Where it has been arguably successful, despite obvious signs of production overkill, is in the economic realm. Even mediocre dramas keep production wheels turning, even boring shows help TV producers keep their jobs. Not unlike the dilemma faced by Japan's film industry a few decades back when it turned to pornography to keep directors, editors, camera operators and sound recorders in business, the salacious genre of exposing Japan's war crimes keeps production teams busy, and will continue to keep them busy until better work comes along. As with pornography, it doesn't seek to educate or edify. As with pornography, it relies on exaggerated exploits and action, with an emphasis on the visual for the purpose of titillation. Just as reasonable people argue about whether or not pornography influences real-world behavior, there is divided opinion on whether the CCP's propaganda war against Japan is having any serious real world effect.

It's just art, of course, and even bad art is supposed to be harmless by definition. But what happens when the evening news picks up on and amplifies the anti-Japan meme in its coverage of current events, whether it be tensions over disputed islets, controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine or the continued denial and humiliations heaped on comfort women? To go from an anti-Japan drama to an anti-Japan news report is not without political effect.

For what it's worth, China's communist party has just ordered up extra servings of "patriotic drama" as it readies for National Day on October 1, 2014 and the big party congress that will soon follow. 

Hinomaru insignia in TV report on a near miss between Chinese and Japanese planes

A small sample of anti-Japan dramas broadcast on Chinese TV during the high tensions over governmental visits to the Yasukuni Shrine visits and aggressive air and sea patrols near the Diaoyu/Senkaku islets in the spring of 2014.

“Blue Wolf” (Canglang) Sichuan TV

Black Fox” (Heihu) Beijing Youth TV

“Heading into cannon fire” (Xiangzhe paohuo qianjin) China Educational TV1  

“Enemy troops coming!” (Binglincunxia) BTV Scitech 

“Club the Dogs” (Dagougun) Hebei TV

“Purple Sun” (Ziri) Hebei TV

Legendary Hero” (Chuanqi yingxiong) Chongqing TV

Martyr on the March  (Zhuangshi chuchuan) Zhejiang TV 

Codename: Mulan” (Daihaohuamulan)

“On Fire” (Qianghuo) Guizhou TV

Daohoupi  (Daohoupi) Tianjin TV

“Dihou Hero” (Dihouyingxiong) Sichuan TV 


(first posted on August 31, 2014)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


from HBO's "Tiananmen Square" script by Ed Hume

HBO Blinks

As a participant in the events described in "Tiananmen Moon" I was just one of a million people caught up in the midst of a peaceful uprising, a solitary observer and tentative foreign partisan in a multitude teeming with unsung heroism and perseverance, unbridled hope and pride. For over a month the mass mood was cooperative, spirited and generous; it was orderly and peaceful right up until the cataclysmic end. When I left China after the crackdown, I felt myself a refugee of Tiananmen, heartbroken by the horror of tanks rumbling onto the people’s Square, sickened at the sight of gun-toting soldiers opening fire on disbelieving citizens.

After exiting Beijing in June 1989 with a BBC television crew, carrying a contraband cargo of video tapes of the crackdown, I settled for a while in Hong Kong, where I wrote the basic narrative at the core of this book, and worked on two documentaries about what I like to call Beijing Spring, firstly the "The Rape of Liberty" (not my title) for BBC Panorama and later "Tragedy at Tiananmen" (not my title either) produced by Ted Koppel for ABC News.

Hollywood CEOs and stars, activists, and eager young actors interested in that thing called Tiananmen. 

Japan’s NHK News acquired my video footage and photos and HBO bought the film rights to my story based on my journal and notes. Shortly after moving to Japan, which appealed to me as a place where the excesses of both communist China and capitalist America were kept at bay by a unique and ancient culture, I was flown to Hollywood, picked up in a limo and taken to Chateau Marmont where I was treated royally, mixing with

It was exciting to talk to people like musician Tan Dun, whom I met at Ai Weiwei’s home in New York, to discuss a score for the film, and to reminisce with student activists Wu’er Kaixi, Shen Tong, and others who had already escaped. When HBO publicized their intent to do a film about Tiananmen, a number of Chinese film personalities including Joan Chen, Luo Yan, Yang Fengliang and Zhang Yimou got in touch about the project.

Ed Hume, a scriptwriter from Massachusetts whose apocalyptic film "The Day After" tackled nuclear issues with dramatic flair, wrote up my story for HBO based on the timeline of my journal and interviews. The script "
Tiananmen Square" was earnestly wrought but it did not entirely feel like my story to me, in part because of standard artistic liberties, such as putting my character next to the man standing in front of the tank. In fact, I saw many men and women standing in front of armed personnel carriers and tanks, but not the iconic shot. 

More generally, I was felt frustrated by the negative narrative arc flaunted by the US mainstream media –an obsession with death and destruction on a single day in June rather than the uplifting beauty of the movement as it blossomed in May. The tragic turn of events has been amply reported, but less so the bright and transformative spirit that reigned supreme until the tanks came rolling in.

In those pre-CGI days, to do a film about Tiananmen Square presented daunting logistical obstacles. The handful of East Asian locations that possessed the resources to construct a film-set Beijing were reluctant to offend the real Beijing, even arch-rival Taiwan. And HBO had marketing concerns as well; I got a memo saying Tiananmen Square had “too many
Chinese people in it.”

The film treatment of the "controversial" interview at the center of "Gate of Heavenly Peace"

The success of Joy Luck Club a few years later put to rest HBO's ridiculous assumption about casting, but in 1991 the imagined difficulty of making a story with a mostly Chinese cast was the excuse that HBO resorted to, unwilling to admit larger political concerns. 

After two years of script revisions, HBO decided to green light a film project called "Stalin" starring Robert Duvall and an all-Caucasian cast of American and British talent instead of Tiananmen Square with its teeming millions of Chinese. My consolation prize from the producers at HBO was to spend a few days on the set of "Stalin" as it was filmed in Moscow in the autumn of 1991.

High tide of people power in 1989

Low tide of people power 25 years later 


The book is based on my first hand observations of events at Tiananmen Square in 1989