Donnie Yen meditates on violence

Esquire, October 2008

The cover of the October issue of Esquire features Donnie Yen as Saint Sebastian by way of Muhammad Ali.

Yen (甄子丹), a Hong Kong action star and fight choreographer currently on-screen in the supernatural love story Painted Skin, is known for his explosive fight scenes and the mix of martial arts forms he employs in them. The Esquire cover feature examines his on-screen violence against the backdrop of a serious social issue: the effects of violent films on the youth. In what the magazine describes as a coup, it obtained a letter written in Yen's own hand urging young people to take the road of peace (see below).

Editor-in-chief Dou Jiangming, who replaces Wang Feng with this issue, comments on the feature in a meandering column addressing youth, violence, and revenge that quotes Martin Luther King, Jr., poet Bai Hua, and the Shiji:

In a small hotel in Shanghai, Donnie Yen grew silent as he faced our photographer's camera.

We needled him over and over with one question: Your movies (SPL, Flash Point) are chock full of fights and bloody violence, so how do you face the real-life issue of young people who are impulsive and violent?

It was coercion to stick arrows into his body, to put him in a Gandhi t-shirt. We wanted to force the biggest martial arts star in China today to utter the word "repentance."

However, I know that there are deeper reasons behind violence in society. Assigning blame to cultural products with a violent aesthetic has echoes of the sort of restrictions on speech that the world has abandoned, and as literary criticism is defeated and impotent.

But we have not yet learned how to face violence.

The feature itself follows a personal and professional bio of Yen with a Q&A in which he discusses topics ranging from his upbringing to why wushu won't be an Olympic sport. Yen makes a distinction between purely skill-based martial arts like boxing, and Chinese wushu, which is tied up with cultural issues and divided into sects, each adding its own aura of mystery.

The cover shot is a conscious homage to the famous April 1968 Esquire cover featuring a martyred Muhammad Ali (named the third greatest magazine cover of the last 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Editors). Peter Pen, the feature's editor, describes the shoot in a short note:

The day before doing the cover shoot, I spent an entire evening chatting with Donnie Yen at the Shanghai Sofitel. He had come to Shanghai from Hong Kong expressly for the purpose of doing the Esquire shoot. The fatigue of the journey did not seem to have affected his spirits. When he had heard our plan for the shoot, he said, "I never imagined that a mainland magazine would be so creative. It's been a long time since I've done such an interesting magazine shoot. Most magazines have me stand in a studio and tell me to pose this way or that. I'm tired of them." I said, "The theme of this shoot is 'The Lessons of Violence.' Do you have anything to say about violence?" He said, "The world around us sees new violent objects and incidents every day, but this question really deserves some thought." His tone was gentle and sincere, and possibly even a little gallant.

The morning of the shoot, he arrived to the studio even earlier than the crew, saying that he wanted be in the best condition for the shoot. During styling, nonstop talking alternated with moments where he pondered the questions put to him by the interviewer beside him. At times lighthearted and at times serious, he crafted a melody from the chords of the interviewer's questions. His face peered out of the make-up mirror for lengthy periods as he ruminated over questions. Indeed, for him, violence is a subject fraught with internal contractions. His masterful martial arts put to bold use in violent movies has won him cheers and box office rewards, yet he protests to the mirror, "the audience can decide not to watch."

Preparing the arrow-pierced image for the cover, he noticed immediately that it was to some degree a recreation of the April 1968 Esquire cover featuring boxer Muhammad Ali. Ali had encountered all manner of injustice in the US for his opposition to the war. On some level, a connection exists between someone who made a living through violence standing up to oppose violence as a solution to problems, and an violent movie actor coming forward to advocate a spirit of non-violence; they could even be metaphors for each other. He waited patiently as the prop master stuck each arrow onto the front and back of his body, and then in the instant the bulb flashed, he was like a statue, his entire body imbued with tenderness, and a tinge of the heroic flitting about his eyes.

The final setting of the photo shoot was in a run-down hotel in one of Shanghai's alleyways. It had only two floors, and the corners of the room were filled with white paint chips. It was an unassuming corner of the neon-lit Bund, yet it was also a place that could easily gestate and give birth to violent situations. In the intervals between shots, he would peer through the window to the street outside, the expression on his face a melancholy that I had never found in his films. When the photographer pressed the shutter button, this melancholy settled out to some extent, and I believe that this is the most valuable part of this series of photographs.

Also worthy of note is the fact that Donnie Yen hand-wrote a letter for this issue of Esquire in which he recorded his thoughts on violence and violent movies that he has found during several decades in the movie business. Prior to this, no media outlet had ever such an opportunity to hear him speak from his heart.

That letter was reprinted at the start of the feature:

A letter to a young person who met a violent end

by Donnie Yen / Esquire

dear friend:

Your departure fills me with deep sadness and remorse. As someone with a true love of Chinese kung fu, I am acutely aware that violence can mislead people to savage and desperate actions, and how fascination with violence has led untold numbers of young people to pay a heavy price, or even lose their lives. But some situations have no need for a violent resolution; kindness and humanity is altogether possible. In many cases, the use of violence will not only fail to solve a problem, it will make it even worse. And once it is used, there is no taking it back. Violence begets more violence rather than bringing justice.

Donnie's handwritten letter

The highest level of Chinese martial arts is harmony among all things. It stresses both inward and outward cultivation and possesses a wealth of meaning and profound implications. It is the power of spirit and of faith. Violence belongs to a novice's misunderstanding of martial arts and advocates a competition of reckless force; there is no way for it to ascend to a contest on a spiritual level. The true way to solve a problem is through an attitude of tolerance, patience, magnanimity, and humility, and above all by using a spirit of harmony to resolve discord.

Looking through the pages of human history, we see far too many people who have shed their blood or lost their lives due to war and aggression. They believed in violent martial arts and hoped to use its great power to win victory over others, thereby achieving vainglory and satiation. But ultimately they discovered that this is a fearsome snare permeated with all of our greed, desire, bigotry, and inhumanity, a glittering enticement that pulls humanity into an inescapable pit. Many are those who have succumbed to it through violence.

Chinese martial arts have a long history, so we should understand all the more what real power truly is, and what our stance should be when trouble nears.

Using this opportunity given me by Esquire, I hope that your friends, those young, violent movie lovers, will take this bitter lesson to heart, and will find better fortune along their road in the future.

Donnie Yen

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There are currently 5 Comments for Donnie Yen meditates on violence.

Comments on Donnie Yen meditates on violence

I've posted some comments at Frog in a Well Japan on Yukio Mishima and St. Sebastian.

[Link here. --JM]

It's nice article and all, but you sure this wasn't posted last year???

Swear it's the same cover with Donnie Yen full of arrows, and swear I've read that letter...

We're all stuck in a time loop.

Kids today are more influenced by first person shooting games than movies..

fortunately Chinese kids don't have access to guns

Dude, I disagree that violent video games or movies will affect most of the population that much. Most people are pretty stable; most can tell the difference between fantasy versus reality. You always going to have those "wildcards." Even then, there are many other factors that you can blame whatever on. How about blaming the parents. Or the society that don't treat these people right. Hell, blame all the f***ed pharmas they pumped into kids these days. (BLAME THE NWO DAMNIT before you blame video games! hehehehehe) Video games are just an easy scapegoat, often used to avoid the underlying real problems.

BTW, most gamers are not kids...

I dont like when people ask stupid questions about what you think about violence to a action movie star!!
Why should Donnie bother, isnt it obvious what he would answer??
Violence was worse in times when movies wasnt there, look at the old gladiatorgames when they fought to the death or the old warlords like Hitler!!
Violence has always been there and will aleays be and if you ask why the answer is: Humans are retarded!!
End of descussion.

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