Stab in my back: TV Serials and Communist EthicsWritten by Julen Madariaga on November 13th, 2009
I have realized lately that, due to a certain unbalance in my training methods, my Chinese reading skills might be running ahead of my speech, and I have been forced to take severe corrective measures. At the risk of turning this into an SM blog, I am going to speak today of the terrible penance I imposed on myself to make up for that error. Brace yourself: I watched a whole 22+ hours communist TV serial on CCTV, all in a single week and pausing to understand every word and chengyu.
It is the latest super production of the “Red Army against Capitalists” kind, called 冷箭, or “Stab in the back”. The first chapter was launched the day of the 60th Anniversary, on CCTV 1 prime time, proving that it was born to be big. Even if it didn’t live up to expectations (it was switched later to CCTV 8 nights), I am guessing that more people have watched this than the “Foundation of the Republic” film that so excited Western minds. Admittedly, there is little buzz on the internet about 冷箭, but that is just because the target audience is a different (and much larger) group than the internet community. My own investigations with taxi drivers indicate that it had a very strong following, at least in the first weeks.
For all those who complained about political propaganda in the “Foundation of the Republic” (or in Independence Day, for that matter), those are just amateur efforts next to this “Stab in the Back”. Because the Stab is not concerned with distorting facts, but with edifying and providing a complete moral system for the people. And like most of these widely watched Chinese TV serials, it still follows loyally in the spirit of the first moralizing plays organized by the 1930s partisans in Shaanxi.
A Little Critique
Regarding artistic merit, I will just briefly say that, although this looks like one of the highest budget “Red Army” serials to date, an improvement in quality does not follow. The main problem is the visible incompetence of its producers and actors almost without exception. Knowing that Chinese are very well capable of doing good films when they are given some freedom, I can only suppose this is the result of dead imaginations bureaucratically selected and nurtured by CCTV mummy-cadres.
In this case the main story is about — surprise- a Long March towards the West, where the Captain discovers that there is a Capitalist enemy spy infiltrated in the team. In fact not only one, but two, and three, and more are found in every chapter, until by the end of the serial the largest part of the brigade are actually undercover agents. This gives the poor captain played by borderline Huang Zhizhong countless occasions to run his fits of histrionic paranoia, apparently a main selling point. One can’t help wondering why all those spies don’t just get together to kill their clownish captain, rename their brigade with the KMT star, and get on with their counter-revolutionary business.
I don’t know if you have experienced this before when watching a film, but it is one of those instances when deplorable script and performance manage to kill the suspension of disbelief right from the first sequence. Then, suddenly, you find yourself watching a bunch of adult people walking around in funny clothes and uttering pointless nonsense. The result is embarrassing.
I have never been much of a TV watcher, but I do understand that TV films are substandard anywhere in the World, and nonsensical plots or braindead dialogs are by no means exclusive of China. Even the fixation with the deeds of the Red Army marching West is not necessarily more ridiculous than, say, the fixation with illiterate cow herders during the golden age of Westerns. But there is something in these Chinese serials that makes them unique beyond the obvious propaganda and quality issues, and that is the complete set of values that they embody for the edification of the masses.
Edifying the Masses: A Communist Catechism
This is the first time, (and most surely the last) that I watch a complete Chinese propaganda serial, but I believe that the effort is not wasted. Because only getting inside these long works one can appreciate that deeper level that flows underneath, the construction of a public moral system that is very much akin to Religious Instruction.
Here are a few of the points I noted while watching the Stab, for the benefit of those who want to understand these works without throwing 22+ hours of their life down the drain:
- Love: The scenes of love are tacky to nauseate an armored brigade, with perhaps the best example in this scene in minute 40 chapter 4, when the captain “falls in love”. In general, love among the communists is virtuous and innocent, and always secondary to the interests of the organization. There is not the slightest romantic indulgence, no concessions to passion other than for the party. When the communist lover is told that her beloved is a Capitalist spy, she abandons him on the spot, and volunteers to kill him if necessary.
- Sex: Of course, this puritanism does not stop the young lieutenant from having proper sex (under the sheets) starting chapter 25, in a clear effort by the authors to attract more audience. “乱搞男女关系!” (disorderly do man-woman relations!!) chastely exclaims the captain when he gets the news through a disgustingly virtuous informer. But worry not, the ethical purity is safeguarded. These two sinners have betrayed the higher cause, and they receive their deserved punishment without further delay: death at the hands of some brigands.
- Violence: We have seen enough of the likes of Eastwood in Alcatraz to have some expectations about the frightful fate of new prison inmates (especially if they are male!). I don’t know to what extent this violence is consistent with reality, but what I am pretty sure is that prison wardens do not tell off the inmates screaming “don’t be naughty”, and major disputes in the common cells are not settled through pillow fights. This is exactly how things are done in 冷箭, making the whole experience for the high level KMT prisoners like a children’s Summer Camp. This is one of the most puzzling parts of the communist ethics, and the most difficult to grasp in a movement that was imposed largely through violent revolution. It seems to come from a belief in molding mentalities through peaceful labour, but, as we will see below, it has little to do with the Christian notion of “turning your other cheek”.
- Class virtue: Virtue is presented as a characteristic of the proletarian class, and salvation must necessarily follow. Like the ancient Christians looking for consolation in the Bible before they were thrown to the lions, so the Chinese Laobaixing today seem to find solace in these serials, while they wait for the next corrupt CCP cadre to come and tear their homes to serve a rich developer. The notion of a Final Judgment that accompanies this kind of teaching is represented through the iconic verses of the Internationale, sung at several points in the serial, with the main theme conspicuously inspired in the melody of the first verse.
- Forgiveness and Revenge: There is an appalling scene of revenge (ch 31 38:00) when the main spies are apprehended, that completely shocked me after 20 hours of mellow bloodless harmony. The righteous blows of the officers are completely devoid of mercy, enjoying the raw pleasure of revenge. In my observation of the Chinese, this represents very well the paradox of their ethical system: Chinese are by nature far more tolerant than any Western people, but –perhaps as a necessary consequence – once a certain level of crime is attained, this sets off a mechanism of ruthless punishment where the object ceases to be seen as human. This is perhaps the most important difference with Christian influenced ethics, where our less tolerant natures were softened by the love doctrines of the New Testament. The whole discussion of death penalty in China vs. Europe is an interesting modern development of this difference in outlooks.
There are many ideas here worth commenting further, perhaps one of the most interesting would be to see how this communist system of ethics is working (or failing) to keep the always delicate balance between 道德 (virtue) and Deng Xiaoping’s 致富 (getting rich).
Clearly, Chinese are not the only ones to introduce ethics into their TV serials. Popular Western serials have long been educating us with teachings as varied as respect for minorities, tolerance of homosexuality, patriotism or democracy. But crucially, while the Western system of moral instruction has evolved with the times and deals with problems facing today’s society, the Chinese system has remained stuck in the 1930s, with the characteristic rigidity of Religious ethics. As a consequence, there is a growing, insurmountable gap in China between the ideas preached and the real needs of the ordinary citizens. This may be having the catastrophic effect of eliminating all ethics from mainland Chinese life.
When we speak of problems like perceived racism, corruption, lack of respect for the public goods or environment, how much of these are related to a lack of a realistic, up-to-date moral support, or to the hijacking of ethics to serve the single interests of the CCP power elite?
I would like to say more about this, but unfortunately this post has got out of control already, and I know nobody reads past the first 1000 words. Write your ideas below about any particular point and if we get some interesting discussion going on we can try to expand the subject in a new post.