I Get It. Now Get Me.

Foreigners just don't understand.


For many years I have griped at being patronized by Chinese colleagues, classmates and even friends with that age-old dismissal of my observations about their country or culture.

“You’re a foreigner. You don’t get it.”

When I hear this I begin to feel like the residents of South Park, who, when beset by the tanned and toned buffoons of Jersey Shore, take up arms rather than be fobbed off with explanations of irrational or unhinged behavior as “a Jersey thing.”

I am not claiming any particular qualification or expertise when it comes to China. Despite devoting seven years of my life to fairly intensive study of the language, literature, theater and cinema I still acknowledge my failings to acquire robust insight. I gave up on improving my spoken Chinese after being shot down by too many bilingual foreigners and Chinese alike, and have stuck to a working knowledge ever since. I stopped reading Chinese novels when I stopped being able to locate works by my few favorite writers. I abandoned domestically-produced theater after one too many badly-acted, overproduced “issues” plays that stepped around actual issues, and as for cinema, if you ask me, China ceased to be of interest since it developed a domestic box office.

But movies remain a passion, and I’ve always been an optimistic sort, refusing to close my eyes and ears completely, willing to take in a Chinese movie on a recommendation from a friend. Enter Let the Bullets Fly by the acclaimed filmmaker Jiang Wen, whose output I enjoyed while in college—particularly Devils on the Doorstep and In the Heat of the Sun, which I believe to be China’s most visually luscious film to date. Anyway, a colleague of mine arrived one morning at work raving about how subtly and ingeniously Bullets got its claws into the quagmire of Chinese politics, insisting it was Jiang Wen’s “masterpiece” and would “redefine Chinese cinema.”

Then the disclaimer: “I don’t think you’d be able to understand the political messages. After all, it’s about revolution, and pain, and suffering. It’s very Chinese.”

Right, because only the Chinese have experienced revolution, pain and suffering and the Blitzkreig was just Europeans horsing around. It’s not that my colleague was some hard-bitten veteran of the Long March either—he was a sheltered, spoiled single child. His parents and grandparents had enjoyed relative prosperity right through the Great Leap Forward, side-stepped the Cultural Revolution, and were now making a fortune through government connections in Sichuan. He was no more qualified to talk about the agonies of war and societal chaos than I was. However, I chose not to take the bait, after all I had not seen the movie, and perhaps it was indeed as inscrutable as he claimed. When he started to rave about its “imagination” and its “visual dynamism” that was “revolutionary in itself,” however, I began to feel antsy—we were told similar things about Tron: Legacy.

Regardless, I dutifully tracked down a pirated DVD copy and last night myself and my partner settled down, cushions aplump, and prepared to be blown away.

Let the Bullets Fly is many things. It’s convincingly acted, well produced, and elaborately staged. It makes the best use of star power possible, sinking most of its budget into names rather than production value. It has a healthy dose of humor, is indisputably Chinese in both focus and feeling, and doesn’t attempt to exploit pretty faces for box office gold.

However, it is the most overt, conservative, and unrepentant love letter to Chairman Mao I have ever sat through, and that includes Founding of a Republic.

Zhang Mazi (Jiang Wen, naturally), master criminal, along with his gang derails a train carrying the soon-to-be Governor Shi (Ge You, doing his Ge You thing) and his soon-to-be-pointlessly-killed-off trophy wife (an excellent and underused Carina Lau) to the poverty-stricken Goose Town. Zhang decides to be governor with Shi as his flunky; the wife is seduced by Zhang (but she initiates it, of course, because a true hero never coerces women into sex); and the gang enter into a turf war with the inexplicably rich local warlord Huang Silang (Chow Yun-fat). Zhang comes over all Robin Hood and distributes money to the poor before encouraging them to overthrow Huang by beheading the latter’s body double in the market square to convince the lumpen masses a new era has dawned. But Huang survives long enough to have a cozy chat on his looted lawn furniture with Zhang before getting inexplicably blown up seconds later in his castle turret. Zhang’s gang, now wealthy, ride the gravy train to Shanghai while Zhang trots off into the sunset, the hero incarnate, pleased at a job well done.

See the clever symbolism here? Zhang Mazi is, like, Mao. And there’s his Communist Party. And there’s Sun Yat-sen, and Chiang Kai-shek, and all our favorites! Mao wins and Chiang gets blown up and the CCP go off to get rich while Mao remains as incorruptible and noble as ever. Even though he blew up a train and killed a bunch of people, half of them innocent, but shush.

For a foreigner not to get the symbolism of this movie, they would have to have no knowledge whatsoever of China’s history in the last century. They would also have to never have heard of Robin Hood, which, as I’m a British man, isn’t likely. There’s no great mystery, as my colleague seems to think there is, why this film was not banned by the official censors. It tells one of the many narratives that the CCP have spun to justify their stranglehold on power. Chiang Kai-shek was pure, lecherous evil (even the name Huang Silang sounds close to Lustful Dead Wolf), outsmarted and outgunned by Mao Zedong, a resourceful military hero with no ulterior motives. The Red Army were simple, determined folk of unquestionable loyalty while the Nationalist troops were either imbeciles (portrayed by a scholar-lackey of Huang’s), psychopaths (a warrior-lackey of Huang’s) or perverts (former rent boy Chen Kun, who puts in a good turn as a torturer). The Chinese people (Goose Town’s population) are the most roundly insulted—brainless, craven idiots to a man, emphasized by Jiang’s frankly racist use of Shanxi, Henan or Dongbei accents for all the townspeople—ripping on China’s traditional dumbasses.

Some foreigners might not get the finer points, like the use of local accents, nods to Jiang’s early work, or quips based on Buddhist sutras. Most of the humor went over my head, apart from the sight gags and a few bon mots, but to say a foreigner won’t understand this Zucker-worthy farce is like telling a Chinese person, “Oh, sure Avatar’s great. But you’ll only be appreciating it on a very basic level. After all, it’s an American film. Americans know about colonialism and oppression. It’s in their history.” Avatar’s box office success in China would indicate that, if the film’s message is impenetrable to the average Chinese, they’re certainly trying hard to understand it.

I appreciate having gaps in my knowledge filled by a willing friend, especially when I ask for help. My partner is wonderful in this regard—while he sometimes assumes my ignorance in certain things, particularly Chinese history, most of the time he simply illuminates something I’ve failed to grasp without my having to ask. Throughout Bullets he was by my side, clarifying lines I’d not quite grasped (there were no English subtitles). But there’s a big difference between sharing knowledge and patronizing someone you know to be at least relatively knowledgeable about your culture. This affliction blights almost all young Chinese who have based their worldview on the curriculum they were exposed to in school, who are happy to toe the CCTV line on internationalism, which is that Chinese have little to learn about the outside world that isn’t directly related to science or technology. They’ve got European and American culture down pat because they’ve read Jane Eyre and eat at KFC.

Humility is an important and increasingly rare commodity in competitive China. Selfishness is its natural replacement, and a self-centered worldview engendered by years of social conditioning easily convinces people who aren’t exposed to alternative ways of thinking that their perspective is always the right one, and that nobody’s as well-informed as they are. Americans, British, hell, everyone suffers in some way from this prejudiced view that outsiders will “not get us,” simply because they’re outsiders. This basically writes off our fellow human beings as unable to constructively analyze their surroundings, to perceive and to develop opinions about what they see and hear in unfamiliar settings. Americans and Chinese are particular offenders in this area, as they are arguably the most comprehensively nationalized people on earth due to their relative distance from their neighbors, with Russians a close second.

In my homeland of Britain, we would consider it rude to presume ignorance—far better to embark on a discussion and wait for them to say something. I avoid cricket, rugby league, and pantomime for this very reason. But I still take my partner along to enjoy all three, and, while cricket has yet to grow on him, he has learned a lot both through my patchy knowledge and what he has observed himself. We expect people to ask if they need something explained, rather than explaining it preemptively. I’ve heard tell of Chinese men, on dates with Western girls who’ve lived in China for years, actually reciting reams of ancient poetry without warning, to “educate” their prospective conquests. If a girl wants poetry written by someone else a thousand years ago read out loud, I’m sure she’ll ask.

I was especially offended by my colleague assuming I wouldn’t comprehend Bullets partly because it is such an obvious film, but also because he knows that I have spent three years living in China, asking questions of him and others, reading news stories, and continuing sporadic research. And, even if I hadn’t, he might have given me the benefit of the doubt that I had at least a nodding acquaintance with its politics, seeing as how I help him edit a political news magazine. The supreme irony was he actually felt he was being helpful, as I’m sure my elderly in-laws do when they ask me if I know who Mao Zedong is, or explain that China has 5,000 years of history.

Lecturing does not educate. Learning is not something you impose on others, though that hasn’t stopped millions of Chinese teachers from trying. Knowledge and awareness must be sought out and developed, nurtured through reading and digestion of a variety of sources. Reciting platitudes like a masticating cow only serves self-importance and narrow-mindedness. I don’t want Chinese people to defer to my knowledge of their culture, I would simply like them to offer insight when I ask, or show an interest, rather than switch into educator mode the minute they spot my skin tone. I am delighted when Chinese friends ask me questions about my own culture, but, aside from my partner, this rarely happens. Because, in China, when you graduate, you know it all. That’s why bookstores are closing here, why iPads are used solely for Angry Birds, and why nobody’s heard of the Kindle. People feel what they need to do with what they learned in school is to recite it for eternity, ignoring the fact that knowledge is organic and ever-changing. I was taught to understand by asking questions, not by absorbing everything people told me like some kind of cerebral sponge. Here is where Chinese education fails and why my colleague, through no fault of his own, patronized me to a degree I felt was so intolerable I’ve sat for two hours to write about it. I am reminded of a remark made by Scotch crofters who were to be evicted to make way for a steel plant in Ayrshire. “We understand you, but you don’t understand us.” This is what I think whenever a Chinese person decides to inform me of a piece of trivia so well-repeated in China that it’s practically a national slogan.

Another quotation, this time from a Chinese source—the former Chinese ambassador to France, Wu Jianmin:

明代郑和七下西洋后的海禁、清朝康乾盛世后遭受100多年列强欺凌以及新中国成立后的大跃进和文革,都是错误地认识世界的结果.

“The curtailment of Admiral Zheng He’s voyages of discovery in the Ming Dynasty, the decline of the Qing Dynasty and subsequent carving-up of China by foreign powers, the catastrophic Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were all consequences of China misunderstanding the rest of the world.”

Internationalism is a two-way street, China. If you want a melting pot, you need to melt a bit.

Editor’s Note: This article has been translated into Chinese and reprinted here. We were not consulted or notified and do not have any connections with the website or the translator. Nonetheless we are flattered and give our thanks to the translator for his hard work.