praxis

Billy Beswick, What Still Flashes Up: Anti-Imperialist Legacies and The Battle of Lake Changjin

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Resist America, Aid Korea! 抗美援朝! Goals the grey suits of Hollywood might have inadvertently championed in 2019, when the South Korean anti-capitalist blockbuster Parasite took home four of the top prizes at the Academy Awards, including the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. Anti-capitalist blockbuster is of course a contradiction in terms, but then contradiction has been at the heart of anti-capitalist struggle since capitalism itself was struggling into existence. When the Japan-based, pro-Pyongyang Korean-language newspaper Choson Sinbo praised Parasite for revealing the true nature of class relations in the ROK following the film’s historic Oscar sweep, the laughably reductionist logics of “enemy x enemy = friend” swam clear into view.[1] Did resistance to the global economic order underpinned by US power put Parasite’s director, Bong Joon-ho, on the side of Kim Jong-un? Could we therefore argue that, in the messy interstices of our international political unconscious, the men and women of the near century-old Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were, like the citizens of the brand-new People’s Republic of China in the early 1950s, mobilised by that famous rallying cry of anti-imperialism: Resist America, Aid (North) Korea?

The obvious and correct answer –– of course not –– obscures important lessons. These have to do with the ambivalent legacies of socialism and anti-imperialism. The Korean War film The Battle at Lake Changjin, commissioned by the government to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party and released internationally last month (it was released in China on September 30th, on the eve of National Day), gives a good picture of the kinds of ideological work to which these legacies are being put in the contemporary PRC. One can pick out three distinct, though overlapping messages: 1) The revolution was waged in the past to secure peace and stability in the present. 2) China acts only in self-defense against imperialist aggression. 3) The nation demands and commands respect on the world stage. Unpacking how such messages are constructed in the film makes it possible to track alternative, occluded readings. We might thereby find, to lean heavily on the language of Walter Benjamin, some pattern in the wreckage piled at the Angel of History’s feet that can be blasted out of the past and used to orientate us towards a more just future.[2] Doing so doesn’t make the suggestion that Bong and the ladies and gentlemen of the Academy were on the side of the DPRK any less laughable, but it does change what the joke is. Ridicule gives way to the gentle irony at the foundation of any uneasy but necessary alliance –– here, an alliance with the hope embedded in historical actions that does not turn a blind eye to their (frequently violent and counterproductive) real-world effects.

Co-directed by Chen Kaige (foremost among the PRC’s so-called fifth generation of filmmakers) and Hong Kong martial arts and action film directors Tsui Hark and Dante Lam, Lake Changjin opens with a PLA company commander, Wu Qianli, returning to his native village. Played by the imperiously handsome Wu Jing, Qianli’s glorious homecoming in the wake of the nation’s liberation is tempered by the fact that he arrives at his parents’ houseboat carrying his older brother’s ashes. From these ashes, however, as the audience quickly comes to see, rise the promise of a future free from the volatile oscillations of fortune that have characterized the Wu family’s life up until now. The houseboat stands for their rootless, transitory existence, and Qianli promises that, with peace finally secured, he will build them a house on solid ground. Before construction can begin on this metonym for New China, however, he is called away to defend the nation’s borders from the encroaching threat of the United States army, which has just crossed the 38th parallel and is advancing towards the Yalu River. Cut to a meeting in Beijing, where Mao Zedong’s thoughts on the crisis are offered: “Considering only the present, I don’t want to fight this war, but for the sake of the future, for the sake of the peaceful development of the country over the next decades, over the next century, we cannot but fight.” Many more comments like this are made, which emphasize present sacrifice for the sake of the future. That future is now, and the peace to which the audience are being referred is the Pax Communistica of China’s present. (Ying Zhu pointed out in a recent talk based on research from her upcoming book, Hollywood in China: Behind the Scenes of the World’s Largest Movie Market, that less than 1% of the total profits for PRC-produced commercial films comes from overseas. The audience for the film is therefore clearly domestic, though the participation of two heavyweight Hong Kong directors indexes a desire to draw the boundaries of the “domestic” more widely.)

The international context that the film foregrounds ensures a neat division between disturbers and keepers of the peace. This allows for what Wang Hui would call a “depoliticized” picture of the revolution,[3] one in which the role of the CCP in radically transforming the basic structures of society is underplayed in favor of a view of the Party as guarantor of stability for a historically beleaguered people. Throughout the film, as characters met their grisly fates in the mountains of North Korea, Gong Li’s voice rang in my mind. Her character’s refrain to her husband in Zhang Yimou’s To Live seemed apposite to these soldiers and their loved ones: “I just want to live a peaceful life with you.” But what keeps the couple in Zhang’s film from a peaceful life is not imperialist aggression, it is the utopic experiments of the new regime, causing oscillations in fortune as severe as those from which the nation’s liberation promises to free the Wu family. While To Liveis hardly sympathetic to the revolution –– it ends with a sigh of relief as the nation leaves behind the Maoist past for the ostensible stability of the reform era –– its negative portrayal puts the radicalness of the communist experiment center stage.

Lake Changjin makes only one fleeting reference to land reform, when it is reported that a soldier decided to enlist in the army out of gratitude to the new regime for the land apportioned to his parents. But even this moment places revolution in the past, so that any sense that there is something for which to struggle domestically is completely sublated into a battle for metaphysical sovereignty, untethered from materialist concerns about what, precisely, makes sovereignty worth fighting for in the first place. The Civil War in this telling becomes merely a war to unify the country, not a battle between alternative conceptions of how a just society should be organized. Anti-imperialism is presented therefore not as resistance to the highest stage of capitalism, but as a defense of territorial integrity for its own sake. When an intelligence report mentions General MacArthur visiting Taiwan, and the US Seventh Fleet occupying the Taiwan Strait, there is no mention of the KMT. Eliding the fact that the PLA fought a bloody Civil War not merely to unify the country, but to resist the nation’s incorporation into an unjust economic system, Lake Changjin is able to portray the War to Resist America and Aid Korea as a showdown between white US and Han-Chinese troops. No Koreans appear in the film, and so aiding fellow socialist nation builders drops out of the picture. Resistance becomes all. The way this works is worth pausing over, for it points not only to the priorities of the film but the psychoanalytic logics that underlined PRC history from the very beginning.

When the leaders of the CCP decided that they would not grant minority nationality areas the status of republics within a broader federation –– as the Soviet Union had done –– the reason provided was the need to resist imperialist aggression. As Zhou Enlai’s stated on 7th September 1949:

We advocate national self-rule, but we must prevent imperialists utilizing the nationality question to drive a wedge in the unification of China. For instance, the British imperialist conspiracy in southern Xinjiang and Tibet, and the US imperialist conspiracy on the islands of Taiwan and Hainan.[4]

Concurrent with China’s entry into the Korean War in October 1950, the PLA crossed the Jinsha River and entered Chamdo, in Eastern Tibet.[5] That the PRC was waging a war of anti-imperialist defense at the same time as it was annexing an arguably de facto sovereign nation could, in unsympathetic hands, be used to paint the entire project of liberation as nothing more than a veneer overlaying a Nietzschean will to power. But as the Zhou Enlai quote above makes clear, the same principle of resistance underlay China’s decision to cross both the Yalu and Jinsha Rivers.

This is not meant as an excuse, rather it is an attempt to draw attention to the way resistance works doubly as a motivator for justice and injustice alike. Jacqueline Rose writes that while “in political vocabularies, resistance is the passage to freedom, for psychoanalysis it is repetition, blockage, blind obeisance to crushing internal constraint.”[6] Resistance is not a cover, but a blinker, obscuring the truth of one’s actions from view. What commentators frequently refer to as the “Orwellian” language used to describe the takeover of Tibet –– “peaceful liberation” –– is not unique to the CCP, as the official name for the War on Terror –– “Operation Enduring Freedom” –– makes clear. Both examples point to the way resistance can make imperialist activity possible. The line where self-defense tips over into aggression is murky, and language works to soothe the psyche of a nation that has overstepped the mark.

In an interesting, if historically debatable, article written in response to the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, Wang Hui points to depoliticization as foundational to the growing strength of identity movements that challenge the PRC’s territorial claims. He cites the importance of land reform in Tibet, which he acknowledged was implemented “violently” and “from the top down”, for cementing the legitimacy of the regime among the peasant population.[7] How seriously the Tibetan peasantry could be said to have accepted CCP rule is the moot point here (statistics are obviously hard to come by, but those refugees that have made their way over the border into India since the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 are not all one-time aristocrats). What is undeniable is that any sense that the liberation of Tibet was geared to some larger vision of justice has been jettisoned for a focus on Tibet’s metaphysical status as a part of China. Such a depoliticized approach to the nationality question was there right from the very beginning; Zhou Enlai says in the above quoted speech that Hainan, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang “were always within Chinese territory.”[8] But this position once comingled with a sense that the PRC as a state formation would bring about freedom, equality, and democracy for all those under its jurisdiction. These words are still plastered on walls all over the China mainland. Thinking of them as mere Orwellian ruses is to deny them of their power. Lies enjoin no responsibility on their speakers. The same is not true for promises unkept.

Dai Jinhua writes eloquently of the communist legacy as a promise:

the significance of Marxism for social practice is that it promises a form of future justice…Only this can give meaning to past and present victims. For me, this includes the victims and sacrifices of twentieth-century communist movements.[9]

There is something strikingly Benjaminian about this commitment to redeeming the past through present day political action. And this is something that Lake Changjin itself aims to do, in the final moments of the film, when US troops are shown saluting a battalion of dead Chinese snipers, frozen into their positions and covered over with a thin layer of snow. Imperialist regard for the indominable will of the Chinese people seems, in the last analysis, to have been what the war was fought to win. The film thereby suggests that redemption of this past sacrifice requires one to continue to insist on China’s strength, and demand respect for it. This can be linked with depoliticization, and specifically with what Nancy Fraser has analyzed as the general postsocialist shift away from demands for material redistribution and towards demands for recognition.[10] Recognition was always a part of the PRC’s enterprise (hence Mao’s description of the nation’s founding as the moment when its supine and humiliated citizens finally stood up), but to cast the entire communist project as a demand only for the recognition of a particular ethno-national group is no way to do justice to either its martyrs or its victims. 

Pointing to the way Parasite’s anti-capitalist sentiments pull it and its viewers into an alliance with the PRC’s struggle against imperialism in the Korean War is therefore more than a joke. It highlights the fact that a legacy of the war, besides that which underpins ethno-nationalist demands for respect and territorial integrity, remains alive. The hope for a more just future, one which imagines a world built on needs and priorities besides those of capital, still flashes up.  Another example of this is Tibetan director Pema Tseden’s 2015 film Tharlo, which opens with the titular character, a Tibetan herder, reciting the words to Mao’s “Serve the People.” It ends with him setting himself aflame as he comes to see that this is a promise that the state has no interest in keeping. Yet the film is far from hopeless. The Maoist reference throngs silently throughout the film, including in its closing moments. Tharlo’s tragedy is a photographic negative of the possibility that the promise might one day be fulfilled, that the past might still be redeemed.

Billy Beswick is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, where his research is focussed on the relationship between national imaginaries and minority ethnic self-representation in film, art and literature from the PRC and Taiwan.

Notes

[1] “Pro-North Korea daily praises Oscar-winning ‘Parasite’ for ‘exposing’ South Korea’s reality,” Reuters, February 21, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-awards-oscar-parasite-northkorea-idUKKBN20F1CU.

[2] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (London: The Bodley Head, 2015), 245-255.

[3] See Wang Hui, The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (London and New York: Verso, 2009).

[4] Zhou Enlai 周恩來, “Several Questions Relating to the People’s Political Consultative Conference” 關於人民政協的幾個問題. In A Selection of Documents Relating to the Nationality Question: July 1921 –– September 1949民族問題文獻匯編: 一九二一 · 七 –––– 一九四九 · 九, edited by the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party 中共中央統戰部, 1265-1267  (Beijing: Zhonggong zhongyang dangxiao chubanshe, 1991), 1267.

[5] That is, the eastern part of the present day Tibetan Autonomous Region; Chamdo is in the west of the historical Tibetan region of Kham.

[6] Jacqueline Rose, The Last Resistance (London: Verso, 2017), 21.

[7] Wang Hui 汪暉, “The Taiwan Question in the Great Historical Upheaval of Contemporary China” 當代中國歷史巨變中的台灣問題, Culture and Society 人文與社會, 2015 (http://wen.org.cn/modules/article/view.article.php?4172/c8).

[8] Zhou, “Several Questions”, 1267.

[9] Dai Jinhua, After the Post-Cold War: The Future of Chinese History, edited by Lisa Rofel (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018), 21.

[10] Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition (New York and London: Routledge, 1997), 2.

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