China documentaries (Pt. 1): blue jeans and revolutions

The arrival of my big-budget Jackie Chan Chinese propaganda history epic movie debut prompted me to brush up on some Chinese history, so I recently re-watched China: A Century of Revolution, and that’s put me on a Chinese documentary kick. So here are some brief reviews of China: A Century of Revolution, China Blue, and Declassified: Tiananmen. I’ll review Young & Restless in China, Up the Yangtze and Last Train Home in Part 2. We found all of these at our local (Canadian) public library. I’d love to hear your recommendations!

China: A Century of Revolution

China: A Century of Revolution is a 6-hour sweep of China’s 20th century history from 1911 to 1997. That’s a lot of complicated history to cover in not very much time, and perhaps this film’s greatest weakness is that it leaves a lot out. But the details it does include — the interviews — are priceless. From ancient-looking Mao-suited peasants recalling the adventure and tragedy they experienced in pre-Liberation China to former Red Guard and Tiananmen leaders, from true believers in Mao to controversial figures like Li Zhisui, watching people who have experienced the history I’ve read about tell their stories was powerful. And the people interviewed are interesting characters themselves — some funny, some heartbreaking, all memorable. It’s also packed with great archive footage. There is no way it’s not banned in China, but thanks to the largely unregulated black market for rip-off DVDs, I bought a copy at a store in a shopping centre on 紫金山路 in Tianjin for about $3. It was being sold next to the old revolutionary operas from the Cultural Revolution.

For more about China’s modern history, see our Chinese history category, which includes:

China Blue

China Blue portrays life in a denim factory for three village teenage girls who’ve migrated to the coast in search of work to support their family. It’s a surprisingly intimate and exposing look at the conditions and management of a typical (actually better-than-average) Chinese factory. I don’t know how they pulled it off, though they were apparently interrogated by the police on numerous occasions and had film confiscated. Although the film shows rather than tells, it certainly has an axe to grind — Chinese workers are blatantly abused and the fault ultimately lies not with the Chinese factory owners, but with the organizations who benefit most from the labour exploitation: the Western corporations who insist on rock-bottom prices and high-pressure deadlines, whose halfhearted auditing of their suppliers’ working conditions is really just for P.R. and legal coverage back home, not for the workers’ protection. Basically, the film draws a damning direct causal connection between exploited Chinese teenagers in sweatshops and Western corporations and consumers.

They managed to film all kinds of things, funny and dramatic, including:

  • workers wondering about the people who would wear the jeans and how incredibly big they must be;
  • an emotional confrontation between overworked, unpaid workers and the boss, co-led by an experienced 14-year-old;
  • business negotiations between a foreign customer and the factory boss, illustrating where the pressure to abuse workers past their breaking point comes from;
  • a Spring Festival village family reunion, what all migrant labourers look forward to but some can’t afford;
  • both the boss’ and workers’ first-hand opinions of the other.

While the consumer connection to Chinese labour exploitation is the biggest theme, China Blue has other significant and interesting things to show us. The girls talk a bit about (and we see throughout the film) what it means to be a girl when your family wanted a boy, and the pressure on rural migrants that causes them to tolerate the coarse, abusive conditions of the factory. The factory consumes everyone from the top management to the factory floor; even the boss looks and sounds exhausted when the shipping deadline looms on large, rush orders. The film seems to compare the various ways people try to retain their humanity in such an environment: the boss practices calligraphy in his roof-top garden, one teenage worker analogizes her migrant labourer life through kung-fu stories in her journal, another pursues romance. A Spring Festival village family reunion for one girl shows us the good side rural Chinese life, and what the workers look forward to and save for all year long (while the main protagonist can’t afford to return home for Chinese New Year because her first month’s pay was held as a “deposit”). The relationship between worker and consumer is, I think, powerfully highlighted near the end in when two of the girls discuss the risk of slipping something into a shipment of jeans.

One grain of salt worth pointing out: when reading the fine print, you’ll find that the voice-overs are not done by the workers themselves, but are based on their journals and interviews.

For more on Western consumers and Chinese factory worker abuse, see:

Declassified: Tiananmen

I stopped paying attention to History Channel productions a while back, since, to my mind, they put the “taint” in “edutainment” (as in, “taint one nor the other”). Their Tiananmen documentary from 2005 is par for the course. The narration is so hyped and over-dramatized that the blood lust is just palpable. However, I grudgingly suggest you watch it solely for the video footage, much of which you don’t see in Century of Revolution. You can see it for free on YouTube.

For more about Tiananmen, see:

If you were only going to watch one of these, I’d recommend Century of Revolution if you’re into history, and China Blue if you’re into social justice and contemporary global issues.

Power to the Laobaixing! Or at least a chance to vent…

A friend biked by a pr0test in Tianjin the other day and decided to stop and ask what it was all about. He got an earful:

There’s Propaganda. . .and Then There’s Propaganda
“I tried to reassure them that no, things like this certainly do happen in America, much more frequently than they think, but as always when I try to create an ‘it’s us against them’ cross-cultural pax-romana, they just nodded for a few seconds and continued loudly espousing the same viewpoint they’d had before I said anything.

“The guy with the cart piled with boxes said, ‘America’s great! You’ve got Christians, and you can believe what you want!’ (I’m not sure precisely what he was going for, but that’s what he said.)”

Meet Zhu Laoshi — A Blessed Life

The Chinese editor at the magazine keeps complaining about the Regular Zhou‘s I’ve been choosing to profile, which include a bike repairman, a sidewalk barber, a parking attendant, a fried noodle vendor and a student. They don’t like the photos of my apparently-not-dressed-well-enough neighbours either. These aren’t the kind of people the boss/censor/overly-sensitive locals (not sure who, exactly) wants shown between the advertisements in a free monthly expat magazine in Tianjin. I’m supposed to find yuppies (“小资“, formerly called “petty bourgeoisie“), or at least wealthy “success” stories. Instead for May’s issue I found this guy, who, it turns out, had a bunch of sensitive stuff to say that normally wouldn’t get published in this city.

I self-censored a lot out before submitting the final draft, but even still none of the people involved on my end had much hope that the magazine would actually print it. In the past the censors have been extremely strict about anything related to Christianity in China — as if they have orders to publicly pretend it isn’t here. Below is what they eventually printed, except for a couple of things:

  1. Although they left most of the Christian content in, a couple lines were removed. I added them back in in red below. There were some other odd (to me) editing decisions that seemed to characterize parts of his story in unnecessary ways, but I’ve left most of those alone.
  2. I’ve altered the spelling on potentially sensitive words just to avoid triggering any automatic word filters or whatever. I know that’s paranoid, but since censorship enforcement is inconsistent and this is just a personal blog, I’d rather not unduly tempt fate.
  3. I replaced their title with my original title (they substituted “Ask and you shall receive”, which I though was lame).

At the end I’ve also included the text and (bad) translation of the Chinese summary that they added, which contains some interesting vocab. Without further ado, here’s May’s Regular Zhou.

A Blessed Life

…one young Tianjin professional discovers something more powerful than fate and more valuable than success

Maybe you’ve seen the aerial photos of Chinese job fairs, the only events whose sprawling, densely-packed crowds could possibly rival those of a Spring Festival train station. China’s alarmingly over-saturated job market is especially tough on males, who first need to establish financial self-sufficiency for themselves and their parents and buy an apartment in the inflated housing market before they’ll be considered marriageable.

Employers benefit from the claustrophobic rat-race; millions of college graduates struggle to find their feet in spite of it. This is one young Tianjiner’s success story, though it’s not merely about transitioning between college and career in modern day Tianjin. This particular Tianjiner, whose Chinese name could be translated as “cultivate hope”, is passionately convinced of something he’s discovered along the way – there’s much more to life than salaries, promotions and apartments.

Sink or Swim
Zhū Lǎoshī (朱老师 / ‘Teacher Zhu’), as he’s known to students and coworkers, was born twenty-five years ago near Long Rainbow Park in Nánkāi (南开). He grew up in the Dàgǎng oil fields (大港油田) before studying teaching Chinese as a foreign language at the Tianjin Foreign Languages University. After four relaxed college years, the pressure was on.

“After graduating I found a part-time job teaching Chinese to foreigners at a private language center,” he says. “I worked there for one and half years. It was hard at first. I was a new teacher with no experience and in class I didn’t teach that well. But the students were really patient and encouraging and my coworkers helped me prepare lessons. They gave me lots of help and basically taught me how to teach.

“At the time my parents still lived in Dàgǎng but my job was in Héxī (河西). My part-time income wasn’t enough to rent an apartment, but my bosses provided a free place to stay for two months. Eventually I rented a small two-bedroom with five roommates. Every weekend I’d go home to Dàgǎng and my mom would make enough food for the whole week plus some to share with my friends.

“Working at the language center really gave me a lot of help. I made a lot of friends, I learned how to teach and work, and gained experience. Yet, while I was happy to begin with, during the third semester things got really difficult. With my lack of experience I was still only part-time and wasn’t making much money. I hated the idea of leaving because my students and coworkers were really great. But I couldn’t see my future there; that last semester was pretty painful. It was sad, but I stopped working there in February 2009.”

An Open Door
“I considered starting my own small business, but within one month of leaving the language center, one of my friends who works at a private school in town mentioned they were looking for a Chinese teacher. At first I wasn’t that interested, but when I found out there were Christians working at this school I became really interested. I’d heard the Gospe! for the first time over a year before and I’d continued studying the B!ble. I wasn’t a Christian then, but I’d started to believe. I believed there was a God and I’d had some really moving experiences, so I really hoped I could have some Christian coworkers. I started preparing my application the very next day. I also started thinking a lot about how I’d come to believe in God.

“The interview went really well. On April 12 I moved out of my crowded apartment and moved my parents out of the oil fields into an apartment in Héxī where we live together. Two days later I received the call from the school and started working part-time on the 16th. I was extremely happy.”

Deep Impressions
“When I’d just started at my new job I saw the students’ art work and heard their songs – they were beautiful. They did science experiments and studied happily – they all had happy smiling faces. They were all really obedient, so different from the 90’s kids at my Chinese school. I could see it’s because this school provides a good environment. The school also held fun relationship-building activities for the teachers, students and parents. I really wanted to work there full-time.

“At the end of April I heard that two of my former students were having complications with their pregnancy. I was worried, but they’d returned to Canada to have the baby and I was in Tianjin. I wasn’t married, I couldn’t really understand, so I thought: All I can do is pray.

“I asked my coworkers to pray for them, too. At that time I’d just started working there; none of these coworkers knew who I was yet and they definitely didn’t know who my former students were. But when they heard about the situation, they wrote down their names and the details and promised to pray for them. Other coworkers prayed right away with me right there. I was deeply moved.

“I also discovered that many of my Western coworkers had adopted Chinese children. My coworkers aren’t really rich, so I don’t think it’s the same as rich people adopting kids. Adopting kids gives them lots of stress, but that doesn’t stop them. They do things the way God does; their love comes from God. Those kids were pitiful, no parents, but because they were adopted they have parents and brothers and sisters and an education. Their fate has been changed. I deeply respect these coworkers. They’re like this because they have God’s love.

An Altered Destiny
“My students gave my supervisors positive feedback about my classes, and this really gave me hope that I’d be able to work full-time. The next semester I prayed about it a lot. Friends also prayed with me. Soon became a full-time teacher.

“I’ve worked there for almost a full year now. I really love this place and this job. It’s a good environment; they really care about people and give you lots of support. Sometimes coworkers ask me, “How are you?” I always tell them “Excellent!” because that’s really how I feel. Now that I have steady work that covers my rent, my family can live together and I don’t need to worry about them.”

It’s no surprise that some of Zhū Lǎoshī’s favourite B!ble verses are in Psalm 23, about how God is like a good shepherd who provides His sheep with everything they need.

“I was bapt!zed on Christmas Eve 2009. I’m so thankful I have new life. Now everyday in the evening I pray together with Chinese a friend. This makes me closer and closer to God, and He refreshes me and gives me peace. I share the Gospe! with my parents and I hope they will believe, and stay in good health. I think God led me to this school. I want to continue working here for a long, long time.”


Seeking a Life Buoy
Zhu Laoshi comes from Dagang, Tianjin, and in the few years since graduating has held consecutive Chinese teaching jobs. From being part of the “ant tribe” at first, to nowadays being able to bring his parents to live together in the city, Zhu Laoshi has untiringly studied and worked hard. Now he’s been bapt!zed and become a Christian, and this made his heart change to become softer, and uses even more love and care to treat the people around him. After a year of great effort, Zhu Laoshi finally became a full-time teacher. He has gratitude in his heart for his new life. Every day he will devoutly pray, thanking God for bringing him to this school, and also hopes that he can always continue in this kind of job.

[You can read about China’s “ant tribe” (蚁族) here, here, here, here, or here.]

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