Are China’s Top Directors Preparing Christianity For Mass Consumption?

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The Flowers of War (Dir: Yimou Zhang)

Back to 1942 (Dir: Xiaogeng Feng)

These two big – budget Chinese productions, released in the past year, share a lot in common: a WWII setting, the presence of Oscar winning foreign leading men (Christian Bale and Adrien Brody/Tim Robbins respectively), massive box office success (domestically at least), excellent production values, as well as the virtue of having been directed by inarguably the two most recognised and successful mainland Chinese directors: Zhang Yimou (best know outside China for ‘Hero’ and ‘House of the Flying Daggers’) and Feng Xiaogeng (‘Assembly’, ‘A world Without Thieves’).

They also feature something else in common which even the casual observer cannot help but notice: a sympathetic portrayal of Christianity and indeed even of the Church.

Why is this interesting? Well, with the rise of China soon to become the ascent of China, arguably everything about China is interesting at the moment. However, in the context of China, like other countries influenced by Communist ideologies, having had various campaigns against religion, as well as having the largest number of atheists in the world (http://www.thechapmans.nl/news/Atheist.pdf), it is perhaps not what we would expect.

Further, neither director is particularly a critic of the state and one has directed a film which arguably served as ‘Communist parable’ (Xiaogeng’s ‘A World Without Thieves’). Would it not be going out on a limb to depict religion at all? Why would directors with such great local approval (Yimou even directed the opening ceremony of the Beijing games) take such a risk if Christianity was proscribed as missionary groups like to say it is? Would it not annoy the Party Elite?

Given that it is inconceivable that religions such as Buddhism and Islam would be portrayed at all, let alone sympathetically in such big budget productions despite being, at least until recently, more firmly established in China than Christianity, it makes the central role played by that religion in these films even more difficult to understand. ‘Back to 1942’ even features Tim Robbins waxing lyrical about Christian theodicy and ‘Flowers of War’ features nothing less blatant than Chinese prostitutes being co-opted into a choir! It’s all a bit ‘on the nose’ in terms of ‘rehabilitating’ Christianity for Chinese consumption, and prompts the questions of why would these luminaries feel confident to portray Christians thus if they feared the Party and it’s notorious film censors (even Yimou had a film banned early in his career) and do Christian missionary accounts of the hardships their brethren face in China hold water? One answer is that there is nothing to be afraid of and Christianity may be enjoying a certain level of state sanction, whereas the accounts of persecutions, though perhaps true, find utility in fundraising for Chinese missions amongst western congregations.

Then there is this news that China is one of the world’s largest publishers of Bibles:

http://www.economist.com/news/china/21574529-china-has-become-one-largest-producers-bibles-world-beginning-was

It would indeed be strange if Muslims enjoyed sympathetic, even polemical portrayals in blockbuster Chinese movies and the largest Quran distribution network in the world was in China and they yet complained of ‘harsh’ restrictions against Islam. No-one would buy that story. So just how strained are Christian activities in China?

Christians, perhaps having a bit of a persecution complex from hearing all of those stories about Christians being thrown to the lions by pagans (whereas for most of history, including that of early Christianity in Europe from Constantine onward, it was the other way round), will no doubt harp on about difficulties still faced by Christians in China, and no doubt many of these are real. But when one asks for the specific restrictions one finds specifics are thin on the ground, unless one turns to impossible to verify evangelical websites trying to raise funds from Western countries, most particularly the United States. However, Christians in China, unlike Muslims or Buddhists enjoy protection and representation from China’s important trade partners such as the U.S or Europe. And they aren’t exactly immolating themselves or having razor wires inserted into unspeakable places as Amnesty International claims Muslims are (1).

I would suggest that the Chinese Party Planners, well known for their very long range thinking (a la Deng Xiopeng, who put China on it’s current road to prosperity way back in the 70’s) are giving a preferential status to Christianity to fill a possible ideological vacuum in any ‘post – Communist’ society that emerges in the New China. Christianity’s alleged secularism, especially as interpreted by the Protestant variety (‘give unto Caesar’) with it’s emphasis on salvation by faith alone (actions, dietary requirements, politics be damned) make it a far more attractive alternative to the secular faith of Communism, which is now ideologically disappearing from the ‘new’ China. The affectionate and accommodating attitude shown to Christianity by the top Chinese film-makers should perhaps be seen in this more ‘nation building’ perspective.

Alternatively, it’s just a narrative choice in these films and means nothing.

But  if anyone doubts the possibility of the Chinese authorities co-opting of Christianity on pragmatic grounds, recall Deng Xiaoping’s response when asked about differing economic models: ‘Who cares if it’s a black cat or a white cat, as long as it catches mice?’ (paraphrase)

No doubt large numbers of people are converting to Christianity in China, largely due to the liberalisation of access for missionary groups and the romanticised notions with which Christianity is often related to ‘Western’ Civilization in Asian countries in general, but this freedom does not seem to extend to other religions. Nor do those other religions have powerful E.U and U.S contingents lobbying for them.

It will be interesting to see if Christians in China use their apparent preferred status to help other groups, for example Muslims, to gain more freedoms. If the near complete absence of support from Christians locally and globally in the matters of the French Hijaab ban, Italian and Spanish mosque building restriction, Swiss minaret ban etc. are anything to go by, don’t hold your breath. From the Mongol invasions (where Christian princes and converts egged on the Baghdad genocide) (2) to the Holocaust, Christian organisations don’t have a great record of upholding the rights of other religious communities.

(1) Amnesty International, ‘Gross Violations Of Human Rights’ p.44

(2) ‘The Christian powers both of the East and the West looked to the Mongols to assist them in their wars against the Musalmans. It was Hayton, the Christian king of Armenia, who was mainly instrumental in persuading Mangu Khan to despatch the expedition that sacked Baghdad under the leadership of Hulagu, the favour of whose Christian wife led him to show much favour to the Christians’ Arnold, ‘The Preaching Of Islam’ p.221.

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11 thoughts on “Are China’s Top Directors Preparing Christianity For Mass Consumption?

  1. Controversial and not meant to attack the Chinese government but rather the possible Christian missionary myth of Christianity being ‘limited’ in it’s propagation in China: rather, there are signs that it is being promoted in a way that would be inconceivable for more ‘indigenous’ systems such as Confucianism, Buddhism and even Islam, so well established until recently that some twelve million Muslims were though to have died in the Gansu (a province of China) rebellion alone in the mid-1800’s.

    Despite a huge missionary effort, as well as the benefits to Christian missionaries of the ceding of Hong Kong, Opium War etc, Christianity failed to gain any headway in China, as it failed throughout all of east Asia with the exception of Korea. However, according to Christian missionary groups, things have changed recently, for the better, with more conversions. Yet they still complain of restrictions and persecutions.

    I say that the first part is right (increasing conversions) and the second part is wrong and it is actually the converse: Christianity is the preferred option of the authorities (if religion must be allowed) as shown by the boldness of the above auteurs.

    I’d love to here what others thought of this guys piece though!

  2. It is frustrating as Christians are really active in Africa and now it seems China is open to them whilst us Muslims are lagging behind in funding and organized efforts.

    • Many thanks, and very true, but my point is they benefit from the patronage of powerful US and European interests as well as it seems Chinese elites and lax regulation compared to other religious groups. I really don’t think funding is the problem so much: It is the lack of political access and cultural sympathy for Islam. Christianity also benefits from the ‘glamour’ of being associated with Europe/US in East Asia (as indeed it is) as it did during the colonial era.

      Many Middle Eastern governments do have strong economic ties with China and they could demand liberalisation, but they prefer not to. Also, they are more concerned with opening mosques and publishing books in the West. As for Africa, anyone can see that they are much more lax in their attitude to dawah and even relief compared to how they behave towards the West or even countries like Pakistan, where according to Western sources, close to 500 madrassas have been opened (with Saudi money) in one province alone.

      Mind you, if Muslim people from China study abroad and begin importing Wahhabi Islam into China as has happened in most other countries, it could lead to further restrictions on Islam and an even bigger image problem as it has done in places like Pakistan.

      • Well said, to be frankly honest, this “salafi” Islam is just damaging the ummah, it is very repulsive, and creates havok where it goes. Hamza Yusuf once mentioned that in many of these madrassas, they are taught to avoid logic, such methodology will make these muslims unable to handle a world of skeptics and religious adversaries. Furthermore, anthropomorphism amongst other ultra literalism just pushes people away from Islam, these saudi’s are the one with money, and it’s there “Islam” that they are propagating.

  3. This person speaks the truth.

    Especially the anthropomorphism. Atheists and even most Christians have not got a hold of this yet, when they do there will be serious problems for Muslims, especially as most of the people running their mouth are Wahhabis and will be only too happy to say ‘Yeah, we do believe in jism, So what!’. And anthropomorphism can be used to lead one to doubt the existence of God or to believe in it through blind faith alone: you also mention about Muslims also being ‘disarmed’ of Kalam and Mantiq (logic) etc by the Wahhabis, who essentially ban these important areas of Islam and indeed this will leave Muslims defenceless to deal with the sceptics of today (or of the past).

    They risk turning Islam into the ‘you have to take it on faith alone’ religion that Christianity has retreated into. This is the level of survival of the Deen I believe they are willing to accept.

    The Salafi ‘dawah’ movement may yet backfire very badly indeed…

  4. Absolutely brother, thankfully we have people like you taking Jihad of the keyboard for the sake of truth. You wrote an article before discussing a trend that the deobandies had saying non “islamic” clothing is biddah/haram/kufar, this sort of idiocy is just making it harder to do dawah, I wish people like Shabbir Ali were funded so a generation of excellent apologists like him were made, or a generation of Abdul hakims, instead all we are getting is a generation who know how to say biddah/haram/kufar ad infinitum.

  5. And IERA just got 800,000 pounds a year in personal donations alone…so perhaps we shouldn’t hold our breath for a great leap forward…

    • You asked about those ‘Zakhariya Academy guys’ and hanafifiqh.org. I could not find the fiqh site, but I watched their video about ‘Salafi, Sufi and Bidat’ and thought it was garbage of the bog standard Deobandi type. The number of hits it had made me depressed.

      The speaker was a nice guy, but the fact of the matter is he lived up to the exact stereotype of Deobandis, i./e Wahhabi ‘Lite’: the way he made out the ‘Salafis’ to be the defenders of ‘Quran and Sunnah’ and said that Sufis were to be toleratred for ‘spiritual’ reasons turned my stomach, and I feel these types of people are worse than Salafists as they ease people in gently whereas with Salfists at last it’s often ‘what you see is what you get’.

      I was educated by Deobandis for many years and they have not changed their game at all (except after 9-11 they stopped telling their congregations to leave the UK for Afghanistan, as they used to do in my day I’m afraid).

      Osama Bin Laden addressed (via recording) in year 2000 the massive gathering at Deoband university of around 500,000 people. Another speaker was Mullah Omar (again, by recorded address). This was after OBL had claimed responsibility for the Kenyan embassy bombing etc. and Omar had banned women’s education. That’s all you need to know about them in my opinion.

      I am not saying this is all there is to them, but they are part of the problem, not the solution. Also, the above account is a bit different from the image they have of the millions of pounds they accumulate to open ‘girls Islamic schools’ in the UK.

      The South African Deobandis, like Ebrahim Desai, DO criticise Salafists openly on aqeedah (though his fiqh is similar to theirs, as evidenced by him being a ‘Hanafi’ who insists on niqaab). SA Deobandis have also produced works such as ‘Albani unveiled’ so they probably do not deserve to be tarnished by the same brush. But as far as the UK goes, my introduction to Abd Al Wahhab came from the Deobandis praise of him. Strangely, it seems that Kitaab – Ut – Tawheed is a foundational text of the Tabligh movement as well. Bizarre.

      As someone said, a half insane person is more dangerous than a completely insane one…

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