‘Jiang Ziya’ and the Unbearable Lightness of Bourgeois Humanism
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.
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.”
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)