Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Story of China, parts 5 and 6 (MayaVision International, Mandarin Film Productions, PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last evening was the final two episodes of a PBS mini-series called The Story of China, written, produced and directed by Michael Wood for something called “MayaVision International” (though the page on the show lists the production company as “Mandarin Film Productions,” which frankly makes more sense for a movie about historical China!). Wood is one of those annoying Brits who clog up most of PBS’s travel shows, but the Chinese series — the last two of its six episodes, anyway — is surprisingly good. Part five, “The Last Empire,” starts in the 17th Century, when China was conquered by the Manchus, Mongol-descended armies from the northern province of Manchuria, four centuries after the previous Mongol conquest by Genghis Khan and his Golden Hordes. Like those Mongols, these ones may have won the battle but eventually China assimilated them; the Manchus, also known as the Qing (pronounced “Ching”) Dynasty, took over the political and administrative system of China and just installed themselves at the top. They also absorbed traditional Chinese culture much the way the Romans absorbed Greek culture after they conquered what was left of Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic empire, both China’s artistic traditions and its spiritual ones — particularly the reverence for ancestors and the teachings of Confucius. The early Manchu rulers of China were three long-lived princes who seemed to have been trying to run a benevolent despotism much the way Kemal Atatürk would do in early 20th-Century Turkey; like the people running China today, they offered the Chinese a system that functioned effectively and brought relative economic prosperity as long as the Chinese didn’t dissent and politely and calmly paid the Manchu rulers the taxes they demanded. 

It’s occurred to me that the Chinese do empire considerably better than the U.S. — partly because they’ve literally been at it for millennia — mainly because when they conquered a territory, instead of running roughshod over it they let the local authorities pretty much continue to run things, and all they asked for was “suzerainty and tribute” — “suzerainty” meaning that the people accepted the Chinese as the folks generally in charge and “tribute” that they agreed to pay a pretty large sum of money to the Chinese central government. (There have been exceptions — notably the attempt by the Chinese in Tibet in the 1950’s not only to conquer but to obliterate Tibetan culture — and Wood makes an interesting contrast between the way the Manchus treated Tibet when they moved in, including offering protection to the Dalai Lama and actually building a reproduction of his palace in their capital, Beijing, and the way Mao’s Communists treated Tibet in the 1950’s.) It’s occurred to me that such a large part of the U.S. national debt is owed to the Chinese government — they and the banks they own are our single largest creditor — that some day they may simply announce that they are foreclosing and from now on they own us, but they will probably treat us like the Manchus (and the previous imperial dynasties from China’s largest ethnic group, the Han) did their dependent territories: ask us for recognition of their ultimate authority (including suppression of any political or cultural material opposing China — something that’s already started to happen, actually: the reason you haven’t seen any pro-Tibetan or anti-Chinese movies out of Hollywood since the brief spate of them two decades ago, including Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun, is that studios are too committed to getting their films shown in China to risk doing anything to alienate the Chinese authorities) and large sums of money to pay off the interest on our debt (since we’re way too much in hock to them to have any hope of paying the principal), but will otherwise pretty much leave us alone. 

Anyway, “The Last Empire” had some interesting points, though in keeping with Wood’s rather whirlwind survey (he was a triple-threat player here as director, writer and narrator) the final deterioration of the Qing court and in particular the control of the Empress Dowager aren’t even mentioned. The film does depict the last Emperor, Pu Yi, via what appears to be a clip from Bernardo Bertolucci’s marvelous film The Last Emperor (well, on a British TV budget they were hardly likely to be able or willing to duplicate a Chinese accession ceremony themselves!); he took the throne, so to speak, at age two and was deposed at age six (much the way the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, fell from the throne at age four), and it attributes the collapse of Qing China to the West, particularly the British. China’s problems with the West in general and Britain in particular, according to Wood’s portrayal, date back to the 1780’s, when the British obsession with tea led to a severe balance-of-payments problem with China. The British East India Company had already moved in and literally conquered India (a lot of people don’t know that there was a century during which India was under “Company rule” — the private British East India Company literally governed India as its corporate property before it ceded it to the British government in the mid-19th century and formed what became known as the Raj), but India alone couldn’t supply the enormous British tea market. China insisted on being paid for tea in hard currency — gold and silver — and this led to an enormous balance-of-payments problem as Britain’s trade deficit with China threatened to suck its treasury dry. The British racked their brains to come up with something, anything, they could trade with China to pay for their tea, and after organizing a huge trade show for the Qing Emperor and having him express total disinterest in all the manufactured goods and gimcracks they were offering as “not fit even for children’s toys,” the British hit on something they could produce in quantity in India and sell in China: opium. By 1841 there were so many Chinese hooked on opium (a problem also being dealt with by our failing empire!) the Qing government attempted to ban it — and the British actually fought a war with China to demand that the opium trade remain legal and that eight “treaty ports” be opened to British commerce. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese had artillery, but they mounted their guns in fixed locations and they couldn’t be maneuvered to hit the British ships that were shelling their harbors — and so the British easily defeated the Chinese, got their treaty ports and got China to repeal their anti-drug laws, and humiliated a country and a culture which attached so much importance to “face.” One response came from a man named Hong, who heard a U.S. Christian missionary speak in China, decided he was the Chinese version of Jesus, and launched a revolutionary movement that was a bizarre mixture of progressive economics (he proposed to end all private ownership of land and instead the government would own land and license it to the people) and a degree of social control rivaling Cromwell’s Puritans or the Taliban: they proposed to ban all entertainment, gambling, sex between men (just why these asshole authoritarians are always so down on Gays is beyond me, but it really does seem to come with the territory) and, of course, drug use. At their height Hong’s Taiping rebels controlled about one-fourth of China, ruling from what later became the Nationalist Chinese capital of Nanjing, and the Qing had to rely on European military aid to suppress them. Just before he was executed, one of the Taiping leaders warned the generals who were about to put him to death that they should buy the very best cannon Europeans had to offer, have Chinese craftsmen study them and learn how to duplicate them, and make thousands of them so the Chinese could have an effective defense against future European incursions. Needless to say, they didn’t bother: instead the Qing court became fair game for the various rapacious European powers, each of which staked claims on China’s east coastal regions — while the U.S. proclaimed an “Open Door” policy towards China, which basically sent a message that the U.S. wouldn’t tolerate one European country trying to colonize China directly the way the British had with India; instead, all Western countries — including, of course, the U.S. — should be free to exploit China and bully the Chinese equally. 

It got so ridiculous that after the Boxer rebellion at the turn of the last century (led, like the Taiping revolution, by a mystic who had absorbed some half-baked notions of Christianity and decided that he was the second coming of J. C. himself), the International Legation in Beijing was literally sealed off so only foreigners, not Chinese, could enter. Wood even showed a shot of the remaining “French Post Office” that was built during those years and was, as the name suggests, administered directly as a department of the French post office in France. Wood argued that it was the crippling reparations payments the Europeans demanded from the Qing government for the property destroyed by the Boxers that sank the Qing government, especially since the only way they had to raise the money was to tax the peasants even more than they’d been doing (an interesting anticipation of the reparations payments the victors in World War I extracted from the defeated Germans, which collapsed their economy and helped Adolf Hitler come to power). It didn’t mention that an additional humiliation for the Chinese was that the Europeans imposed what was called “extraterritoriality” on them — that meant that if a European committed a crime in China he or she would be tried in a court of Europeans according to the laws of his or her home country, and the Chinese would have no jurisdiction whatsoever. (The U.S. claims a similar extraterritoriality to this day when it comes to crimes committed by U.S. servicemembers stationed at overseas bases: one reason the U.S. precipitately withdrew all its military from Iraq at the end of the George W. Bush Presidency was the Iraqi government refused to extend extraterritoriality to U.S. servicemembers at the elaborate network of bases the U.S. had built there — and without the guarantee of extraterritoriality, meaning it was possible that a U.S. servicemember who committed a crime against an Iraqi might actually have to stand trial in an Iraqi court under Iraqi law, the U.S. refused to keep its servicemembers there.) 

The final episode, “The Age of Revolution,” was a whirlwind tour through the tumultuous history of China in the 20th century — the fall of the Empire in 1911, its replacement by a more or less republican government under Sun Yat-Sen until his death in 1925, the civil war that lasted in China throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, the emergence of rival warlords taking on the government of Chiang Kai-Shek and above all the rise of the Communists under Mao Zedong, son of a peasant couple from China’s northwestern province of Hunan. (One story I always got a kick out of as an illustration of the power of a dictator is that when he came to power, Mao always insisted that only Hunanese food, the spiciest of all Chinese food, be served at the state dinners — and he reportedly got a sadistic kick out of seeing people from other parts of China, unused to the hot Hunanese cuisine, try to get it down.) The show races through some of the highlights of Mao’s rise to power — the Long March that decimated the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, the cave compound Mao lived in between the Long March and his re-alliance with Chiang’s Kuomintang (“Nationalist”) Party to fight the Japanese when they invaded mainland China in 1937 (six years after they’d already conquered Manchuria, renamed it Manchukuo, and installed our old friend Pu Yi, the boy who’d been the last Qing emperor, as a puppet ruler), followed by the post-World War II civil war which the Communists won relatively easily and the extreme Communist policies Mao enforced after that, including forced collectivization of agriculture (despite how dismally that had worked in the Soviet Union), the wanton destruction of Chinese culture, the imposition of a one-child policy (actually a more nuanced idea than the total disaster Wood made it seem), and the forced relocation of intellectuals to the countryside, where they had to do manual labor because that was considered the only “really” socially worthwhile sort of work. 

The Chinese Communists practiced a lot of self-destructive policies but weren’t quite as evil as Wood depicted them, and though he doesn’t devote a lot of screen time to post-Mao China he approaches it with a sort of Cold War triumphalism we’ve become all too familiar with in American historiography: the idea that free-market capitalism is the natural order of humanity and that Communism, by attempting to abolish individualism and the Free Market, was going against the human grain and therefore could bring only misery, famine, mass starvation and political repression. The show rather petered out as it attempted to return to the multigenerational Chinese families Wood had endeavored to trace throughout his series — I’d have much rather seen a plus ça change, plus ça meme chose ending noting how much the current Chinese regime resembles its predecessors in maintaining tight controls on the country’s political and cultural life while welcoming and encouraging economic development, hoping to make the country (or at least its urban elites — Wood points out that now, as throughout Chinese history, most of its people have been peasants and rural China has barely been touched by social, economic or technological change at all) sufficiently prosperous that its people can basically be bought off and the good times will keep them from rebelling.