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Charles Custer

Charles Custer Chinese Culture Blog


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Journalists or Spies?

Saturday March 29, 2014

China's Xinhua wire service is an interesting organization. It's ostensibly a news organization, but it is a formal part of the Chinese government and it produces domestic and international reporting that is classified and only available to the nation's leadership. This has led some to suggest that foreign countries should consider it an intelligence organization.

While there are journalists doing great work at Xinhua, and I don't think any of them are actively spying in the sense of breaking into government buildings and stealing documents, it's hard to argue that a service which provides classified reporting on a foreign country to China's government is wholly a journalistic entity. With Xinhua expanding globally, this is likely to become a more high-profile issue as the service gains greater influence and presence outside China.

Loud Noises

Saturday March 29, 2014

When people think of Confucius outside of China, they tend to think of the quiet philosopher. But his direct descendant, Kong Qingdong, is known as one of the mainland's biggest loudmouths, and he's been involved in more than a few controversies.

His most recent one is also one of his most embarrassing. During Michelle Obama's recent trip to China, Kong spread a story about the American first lady being "stumped" by a Chinese student's question at a speech. It was a telling symbol of America's failures and its out-of-touch leaders...except that it wasn't true. Numerous people in attendance at the speech in question came forward to say that Kong had completely fabricated the incident. Whoops!

Crouching Zhang, Hidden Ziyi

Tuesday March 25, 2014

I've had a hankering to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon again since I wrote my profile of Ang Lee, and when I finally got around to it the other day I was reminded of a star I hadn't yet written about: Zhang Ziyi.

When she first broke onto the scene, a lot of discussion about Zhang centered around her physical appearance. While there's no denying that she's very pretty, I think a study of her film career shows that she's much more than just a pretty face. She's worked on everything from historical dramas to modern romances, bounced between Chinese and Hollywood productions, and managed to get starring roles in the films of almost all of China's greatest directors in the process. Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-wai, Chen Kaige, Ang Lee, Lou Ye, and Feng Xiaogang have all cast Zhang Ziyi in their films, and her career is nowhere near over. While she has a ways to go before she can claim the lifetime accomplishments of someone like Gong Li or Ge You, I'd say that Zhang Ziyi is well on her way.

The Generalissimo

Tuesday March 25, 2014

Since I've been thinking a lot about the Civil War lately, it's difficult to avoid thinking about Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang was, at least in most of the accounts I have read, the primary driving force behind the war in the early days, as he was unwilling to let the fledgeling CCP develop unhindered or get too intermingled with the KMT government. Whether he was right or wrong isn't my place to say, but given that his own generals had to kidnap him at one point to force him into making a treaty with the Communist forces, one suspects he may have been on the extreme end of popular opinion at the time.

After losing the Civil War, of course, Chiang fled to Taiwan and ruled there for several decades as president. But personally, when I think of him, I think of his encirclement and anti-Communist campaigns in the '20s and '30s. I wonder if China could have avoided some pain and suffering if he had left the CCP alone, or if perhaps somehow that would have made things worse.

War, Part 2!

Tuesday March 25, 2014

Another reflection on China's Civil War: despite the fact that most people know little about it, it was one of the bloodiest wars in history. Over the course of the entire conflict, an estimated 8 million people were killed by the fighting. Of course, that number still pales in comparison to the sixty million killed during World War II (many of whom were also Chinese), but it was far bloodier than (for example) the American Civil War, in terms of casualty counts.

Of course, because Japan's invasion of China meant that two wars were sometimes being fought in the country at once, it's difficult to know for sure how many people were killed in the Civil War. What is sure is that the number is terrifyingly high, and that the bloodshed lasted for a generation, making it one of history's greatest tragedies.


Tuesday March 25, 2014

Although it was one of the most important conflicts of the 20th century, China's civil war isn't particularly well-understood or widely studied outside of the middle kingdom. Many people don't know that before, during, and after World War II, China was tearing itself apart.

But to me, where studying the civil war really gets interesting is all of the what ifs. What if Chiang Kai-shek had not been so violently anti-Communist? What if the United Front had worked? What if the CCP had been allowed to remain in the Jiangxi soviet instead of driven out on the long march? Would China as we know it even exist today? It's hard to say for sure, but there are obviously numerous points during the prolonged conflict where things could easily have gone another way. It's interesting to think about.

Thoughts on Aftershock

Tuesday March 25, 2014

Feng Xiaogang's Aftershock is a somewhat controversial film, at least in some circles. Although the film performed well at the box office, some critics accused it of playing up the drama unnecessarily, and other filmgoers felt mislead that Feng's big movie about the Tangshan earthquake wasn't really about the Tangshan earthquake.

Perhaps I've just been desensitized to the extremes of Chinese drama, but while I can understand these complaints, I found the film to be pretty good personally. Feng does get a bit heavy-handed with the drama at times, and the Sophie's Choice plot construction might not really be necessary but it's still a moving film that drives home Feng's point: disasters like this can affect people even decades after they've happened.

Jiang Wen's Bullets

Tuesday March 25, 2014

There are a lot of fantastic Chinese film directors working today, but after seeing Let the Bullets Fly and Devils at the Doorstep, my favorite may be Jiang Wen. His unique blend of action, comedy, and deep political satire makes for the kind of films you can enjoy with a bucket of popcorn but which also stand up to repeated viewings.

And there's good news for fans of Jiang's work, as next winter will bring us another film that comes straight out of his brain: Gone with the Bullets. Jiang's own star power will probably be enough to ensure it does well at the box office, but I suspect this one will be another critical hit for Jiang as well. Here's hoping!

China's Most Famous Actress

Tuesday February 25, 2014

I'm not sure if Gong Li really is China's most famous actress, but if it isn't her, who is? I've written about a lot of successful directors and actors recently, but Gong Li has a record of success that probably outshines all of them. She appears in virtually all of Zhang Yimou's best films, she has worked with Chen Kaige and Wong Kar-wai on some of their greatest films, and she's even made a few critically-acclaimed appearances in Hollywood. If there's a silver-screen star with a better record than that, I'd love to know who.

Interestingly, this year will see Gong Li reunited with Zhang Yimou for another film, this one titled Coming Home. Their last reunionwasn't all that great, but their early work together was so spectacular that it's hard not to get excited anytime they're both connected to the same project. But can it live up to the hype? We'll just have to wait and see.

Taiwan's Greatest Director?

Tuesday February 25, 2014

It's probably obvious by now that I'm on a bit of a Chinese film kick this month, but I may be cheating a little bit with my latest profile, which is on Taiwanese director Ang Lee.

I don't want to get into whether or not Taiwan counts as part of China, but as far as film goes, there's no doubt that the mainland would love to have Ang Lee's ouvre considered part of its canon. He may be a Hollywood director now, but Ang has been behind some of the best, most critically successful, and highest-earning Chinese-language films of all time. You've probably already seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but if you want to see Ang Lee's take on much more intimate family scenes, give Eat Drink Man Woman a shot.

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