The puzzle of the missing Buddhist monk

Posted in Film Reviews, politics, Religion by Anuraag Sanghi on January 3, 2010

Will it be Chinese mafia next?

Will it be Chinese mafia next?

Disappearing act

In the last 5 years, the Buddhist monk has made an unnoticed disappearing act from Chinese films. The new idiom in Chinese films is ‘Jackie Chan goes to America’.

Instead of the Buddhist monk, the new element are characters from the Chinese underworld.

Organized crime was rampant in China before the communists took over in 1949, but was largely extinguished in the decades afterward by the totalitarian Maoist state. It has flourished since reforms began in the late 1970s.

Chinese police receive small salaries but enjoy almost unchecked power over the increasingly wealthy communities they oversee. As a result, bribery is common, experts say. Without protection from law enforcement, “criminal organizations would not be able to develop on such a large scale and to such a high level,” says Pu Yongjian, a professor at the business school of Chongqing University. (via Gangster Trials Highlight China’s Crime Battle – WSJ.com).

Insight information

Way back in 1978-79, Trial Run, a novel by Dick Francis was released. Trial Run is not among the best of Dick Francis’ novels – except for one thing. It was the first book (and the only, that I read) which predicted the Russian Mafia. Some 20 years, before the mainstream media came to know about the Russian Mafia. Not one writer on Russia – not John Le Carre, no Len Deighton, nor Martin Cruz Smith (Gorky Park) come close to Dick Francis in this respect.

Characters in Dick Francis novels are credible, his heroes are people you want to meet and count among your friends. His villains are believably evil.

Trial Run by Dick Francis (First book to talk about the Russian Mafia).

Trial Run by Dick Francis (First book to talk about the Russian Mafia).

In 1978, Trial Run seemed more like Cold War propaganda.

This report about crime in China is not at the same level as Trial Run, since 2009 China is far more open and accessible than 1978 Russia was. Reading Russia right in 1978, at the height of the Brezhnev era, was something in a different league altogether. In a league with a solitary membership – and Dick Francis alone carries a membership card of that league.

Coming to China

For unraveling China, I will take the aid of Chinese cinema, to which I am exposed. From distant Indian shores, which has limited exposure to Chinese-Hong Kong movies, three different phases of Chinese films are  apparent.

Till about 2000, Chinese movies usually revolved around a Brave Chinese, his ascetic Buddhist Teacher, who spoke in riddles and feudal warlords (Chinese and /or Japanese). Kung Fu was a major element in these movies.

Brave Chinese aided by Buddhist monks fight warlords

Brave Chinese aided by Buddhist monks fight warlords

A representative of that genre was the classic 36th Chamber of Shaolin, with Chia Hui Liu (Gordon Liu) as San Te.

The most famous (and my favorite) star  was Bruce Lee. His Enter The Dragon interestingly had a villain named Han. Played superbly by Shih Kien (a character actor known for his onscreen villainy, much like India’s Ajit, Prem Chopra, Amrish Puri).

Jackie Chan and Golden Harvest continued with this genre, spoofing it unconvincingly with movies like Drunken Master (about the folk hero, Wong Fei Hung) and Iron Monkey. Then came a new breed.

But before that …

One-and-a-half Chinese is what it takes

Hong Kong film industry does not get much respect because it is 1-and-a-half people. One is the giant Shaw Brothers Studios, based out of Singapore and Hong Kong – run by brothers, Run Me Shaw and Run Run Shaw, a 102 years old man, who last heard, was running the studio through his 73-year-old wife, Mona Fong.

They recently sold a part of their archived nearly 800 films collections for re-release – to “Celestial Pictures, a pan-Asian company run by William Pfeiffer, an American who has lived in Asia for 20 years.”. Celestial Pictures, a part of Kuala Lumpur-based Astro All Asia Networks Plc, part of Tatparanandam Ananda Krishnan’s Maxis /Astro /MEASAT group, under this purchase will get access to 760 films library of Shaw Brothers archives.

Bruce Lee in 'Enter The Dragon'

Bruce Lee in 'Enter The Dragon'

The remaining half of the Chinese one-and-a-half film industry is Raymond Chow, an ex-assistant to Run Run Shaw. An ex-VOA staffer, Raymond Chow was taken as publicist, at Shaw Brothers.

Shaw and Chow sparred over a re-make of ‘One Armed Swordsman’. The Golden Harvest version was called, “Zatoichi Meets The One-Armed Swordsman”. Raymond Chow has sold his studio to a mainland-based operation, Chengtian Entertainment Group – covering film distribution, production, investment and talent management. The new company has been renamed as Orange Sky Golden Harvest Group.

The second coming

The next phase in the Chinese film industry was the more ‘modern’ themes. The first indication was the un-funny spoofs of Jacky Chan – with more of antics and contortions, than Kung Fu or any of the classical Chinese themes. In one fight sequence, Jackie Chan in The Young Master, exclaims, “You have cut-off Buddha’s head”.

Other films from this genre include The Young Master, Drunken Master, Project A, Police Story, etc. Unremarkable films that received a tepid response. All that these films did was turn off audiences from Kung Fu theme – which in hindsight, seemed to be the objective. And made Jackie Chan into a visible Chinese ‘star’.

With low rentals, these films were run and re-run in India, giving Jackie Chan much-needed visibility.

The Third Wave

The Third Wave of the modern Chinese films are now getting positively ominous. Ranging from Jet Li in Kiss of the Dragon, (Jet Li takes on the French mafia) or Chow Yun-Fat in The Corrupter (exposing police-underworld nexus and corruption in the USA), or Jackie Chan in Rush Hour series or the Chinese Ric Young in The Transporter, Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4. All have two elements in common.

One is the pervasive Chinese underworld. Across Europe, in the USA. In drugs, fake currency, in smuggling boat people, the Chinese are there – everywhere. Many of these movies have Chinese stars, directed by Chinese directors or even partly funded by Chinese studios .

The second is the absence of the Buddhist monk.

Why worry

This would actually seem like a benign glossing and glamorizing of the Chinese film idiom and look. Harmless entertainment, you may say. This trend is reflected in Korea with a TV series, ‘My Wife Is a Gangster’ with heroine Shu Qi as the gangster. But there is more to this China-gangster- underworld theme.

'Big Ears' Du Yuesheng, Photo: thegeneralissimo.net

'Big Ears' Du Yuesheng, Photo: thegeneralissimo.net

Both Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek were close to the Green Gang. Some China specialists allege that both were, in fact, Green Gang members.

The Kuomintang (supported by Chinese underworld, The Green Gang, The Red Gang and The Blue Gang) was pitted against the Mao Ze Dong’s Communist Party – and both were armed and supported by Western powers. Russia deputed Borodin, who mentored Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Ze-Dong in the ways of Communism.

Major opium trading companies like Jardine Matheson, David Sasoon & Company and sundry traders set up The Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation for facilitating this misery. The Chinese Opium problem was finally solved by several draconian measures during Communist rule.

In many respects the prohibition on opium in China had similar results to prohibition on alcohol in the United States. In both countries prohibition encouraged the growth of vast, illicit traffic that provided the economic basis for development of organized crime in major cities and helped define the ways in which criminal organizations interacted with the world of politics. (from The Shanghai Green Gang: politics and organized crime, 1919-1937 By Brian G. Martin, page 44).

Much like zamindars were given ‘franchises’ in India to extort from the peasantry, colonial powers working on ‘concessions’, in China subverted local institutions into channels for funneling drugs into Chinese blood stream.

Virtually, every line of unskilled labour came to be ruled by native-place barons with gang connections – beggar chiefs, brothel madams, night soil hegemons, wharf contractors, and factory foremen. Immigrants from the villages in search of work quickly discovered that employment opportunities in the city were dependent upon criminal ties. (from Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor, By Elizabeth J. Perry, page 50).

Wrapper of packet of opium, as sold in licensed opium shops of Singapore. Each packet contains enough opium for about six smokes.  |  Source - THE OPIUM MONOPOLY  By ELLEN N. LA MOTTE; Published January, 1920.  |

Wrapper of packet of opium, as sold in licensed opium shops of Singapore. Each packet contains enough opium for about six smokes. | Source - THE OPIUM MONOPOLY By ELLEN N. LA MOTTE; Published January, 1920. |

The Green Gang (the Qing Bang) was particularly powerful in Shanghai, its leader Du Yuesheng, was a member of the Chinese Triad and a general in the army of Chiang Kai-Shek.

The Red Gang (hong bang) was the other major group that operated in China – sharing the spoils of the opium trade.

To many Chinese, the capture of the opium trade from the ‘foreign devils’ by the native Chinese may have seemed a whole sight better. These ‘gangs’ were patronized by the

poor, underemployed and marginal elements from southeast China found security through membership in secret societies (banghui, huidang) they brought to Shanghai with them. Such associations were organized along lines of regional, ethnic and linguistic identity and were often coterminus with native place bang which recruited and deployed workers. Secret society networks from south were associated with Red Gang (hong men, hong bang) or Triad-type lodges. In Shanghai they would meet with a Northern Green Gang (qing bang) type of secret brotherhood. (from Native place, city, and nation: regional networks and identities in Shanghai … By Bryna Goodman, page 67).

Much before this, in 1853, “the Small Sword Society, (Xiaodaohui), a Triad offshoot, rebelled against the local Qing authorities and seized control of Chinese Shanghai which it held until February 1855.” So, Chinese warlords-underworld-secret societies seamlessly co-exist – and were present at every cusp of upheavals in Chinese society.

What is it this time?

The question

Is this ‘evolution’ of Chinese entertainment-sensibility, an accident or a co-incidence?

More worrying would be, if it were an artificial-synthetic-external influence. As long as Shaw Brothers were looking at the bottom-line, making money, enjoying the glamour and catering to popular Chinese tastes, things were simpler.

Shaw movies usually take anywhere from 35 days to three months to shoot and cost about $300,000. They are never filmed with a sound track. Instead, they are dubbed later in English, Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish−even in their native tongue, Chinese. Run Run personally looks at all rushes. “Two reels and it’s no good, OUT!” he exclaimed. “We’re here to make money.” (from Time magazine Show Business: The Empire of Run Run Shaw, Monday, Jun. 28, 1976).

But things have changed now. Some indicator of this change can be gauged from a report in The Standard, by Timothy Kwai on Monday, December 21st, 2009.

Golden Harvest was one of the first to move into China’s film sector with the signing of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement in 2005. This allowed Hong Kong-owned film studios to enter the huge mainland market.

China for decades has capped the total number of imported foreign movies to twenty for any year. “Attempts to import more Indian films into China have been repeatedly scuttled by Chinese authorities. After much lobbying, India’s former foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon succeeded, when he was India’s ambassador in Beijing, in getting Chinese approval to import at least four Indian movies per year into China.

Like an earlier post in Quicktake pointed out earlier, the Chinese Communist Government would be afraid of Buddhist monks – and would actually encourage Confucianism. Like the Japanese are trying to revive Shintoism for slightly different reasons. Is this direction a part of that plot – a change in the wind direction?

These gangster films are bad omen. For Chinese – and the rest of us!

All that these films did was turn off audiences from Kung Fu theme – which in hindsight, seemed to be the objective. And made Jackie Chan into a visible Chinese ‘star’.

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. ramkumaran said, on January 4, 2010 at 1:35 am

    nice article, there is a similar parallel wrt indian cinema especially southern (tamil,telugu) cinemas, previiously most of the cinemas were taken based on devotion, about various puranas ,history and saints later this thing faded and lot of social films came in the 80s there were some devotional films and in 90s one or two came up rarely and now in the last decade it is almost nil

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: