Media regulation

Pirates are not insulting, say netizens and academics

Chow Yun-fat in Pirates of the Caribbean III

Chow Yun-fat plays Sao Feng, a Chinese pirate, in the upcoming movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Looks sort of menacing, doesn't he? Is such an image insulting to the Chinese people?

On Friday, the International Herald Leader reported the results of an online survey in which 61% of respondents felt that Chow's character does not insult China, while 22% felt that it does. There are reports that SARFT shares the minority viewpoint and may not allow the film to be shown on the mainland.

Of course, you can get an online poll to say pretty much anything, and the report doesn't indicate if Chow's character was put into context: the IHL article has quotes from people on both sides, none of whom seems to realize that the heroes of Pirates of the Caribbean are themselves pirates. Apart from that, there is a certain historical perspective to the responses that's refreshing. This one is from a cell-phone dealer in Chengdu:

This is an obvious affront to the feelings of the Chinese people. You can see the arrogance of western culture in this portrayal of the Chinese as pirates, just like how China used to believe that it alone was the Celestial Empire and everyone else was a barbarian.

The IHL report actually had something broader in mind: it asked a follow-up question: "What do you think is the major reason that Chinese people are incredibly concerned about foreign films 'insulting China'?" Responses:

  • Nationalist feeling: 38.44%
  • Domestic public opinion that has been misguided: 34.27%
  • Genuine patriotic expression: 24.51%
  • Other: 2.78%

The article goes on to quote a few experts who are basically dismissive of complaints about Pirates and other "insulting" films. Here's Zhang Xiaoming, a CASS academician at the Cultural Research Center:

"Insulting China" is a complicated issue that hinges on the genre of the film, its plot, and what it wants to say. A movie, even one that is just entertainment, will be inclined in a particular way, and will certainly possess the thinking of its author. To say that it insults China merely because of a poor image or because a Chinese person plays a scoundrel is untenable.
You cannot leave behind your own opinion merely because someone wrote a script and someone financed a film. Hollywood's 007 films used to use the Soviet Union as an opponent - there are lots of examples like this - there is no need to be overly sensitive to these things, but it is reasonable for there to be critical opinions. Actors, in particular, should take care when choosing films. They shouldn't just take any role; they should use their own judgment.

When actors perform it is their own personal choice. To immediately elevate this to a nationalistic political level, and to ignore fundamental historical facts, can ultimately only result in the detrimental effects of "narrow nationalism." However, this does not mean that stars have no responsibility; the more influential a star is the more care should be taken in choosing films.

Huang Xun of the Beijing Social Psychology Institute commended the critics' concern for how China is portrayed overseas, but cautioned against tying artistic works to ideology. And cultural critic Zhu Dake summed up the protests against Chow Yun-fat's character as crude nationalism masquerading as righteous patriotic expression (another response from Southern Metropolis Daily is translated at ESWN).

None of the reports name a specific source for the notion that SARFT will take action to block the film's release on the mainland. The Administration did move last week to address previous rumors concerning criticism of the films Still Life and Lost in Beijing. Film Bureau deputy director Zhang Hongsen had been quoted criticizing Jia Zhangke for insufficient compassion for his subjects and calling Lost in Beijing insulting to the Chinese people.

In a statement posted on its website, SARFT said that the reports were misleading and took Zhang's address to a private conference entirely out of context. The statement did not provide a different context for Zhang's words, but instead closed with a paragraph about how the Administration is cooperating with the Party Central Committee to achieve new successes in the healthy development of the country's film sector.

SARFT claimed that "some papers and websites published these seriously erroneous reports without first confirming them"; Xinhua Daily, which first reported the story, has yet to issue a correction. Earlier this year, when reports circulated that GAPP deputy director Wu Shulin had called for a ban on eight problem books and their authors, the ultimate response was to deny everything. Does this mean that we should the disregard leaks from "internal meetings," or are the authorities actually responding to the storm of criticism kicked up by their words?

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There are currently 27 Comments for Pirates are not insulting, say netizens and academics.

Comments on Pirates are not insulting, say netizens and academics

Ah, the old "insulting China" canard.

If only it was only SARFT that made the logical error of confusing the specific with the general (eg. a film about two gay cowboys is NOT saying "all cowboys are gay").

Sadly though that logical error is commonplace, and is even committed by highly-regarded Western film critics who should know better. The New York Times review of "300" is a great example -- the reviewer apparently expects something more than comic-book history from a comic-book movie inspired by a comic book.

Jarhead was not anti-soldier. American Beauty was not anti-suburbia. Movies with Chinese villains, like the man said, are not anti-China.

But the reason why SARFT says they are is somewhat interesting: they are they guardians against "anti-China-in-film", so there's got to be anti-China-in-film out there for them to continue to be "useful", so they'll invent it even if it doesn't exist.

Kinda like the TSA and liquids on planes, really...

In the limited number of Hollywood moves I've seen with East Asians, the Asians were either absolutely evil or absolutely helpless and oppressed. The helpless oppressed ones had to be saved by a heroic white man. Unfortunately, sometimes some of the seemingly oppressed ones were inscrutable - and then they stabbed the white man in the back.

Somehow though I doubt if casting Chow Yun-fat as a pirate in a comedy about pirates is anti-Chinese. Especially since the ultimate villains appear to be the British navy.

I think that's very insulting to the British navy, and very insensitive at this particular time when the British are heroically trying to save helpless oppressed Arabs from absolutely evil Arabs and getting kidnapped by utterly evil Persian pirates.

I haven't seen the movie, but when it's finally released I will boycott it because it has hurt my feelings.

...and if the SARFT do ban it, they'll be creating more of a market for Chinese pirates. How delightful!

Seriously though, what's their quota for foreign films these days? Last I heard it was under 20 titles a year.

Oh yeah...

The entire trilogy is an insult!

I mean have you seen the movie? Johnny Depp's character is an affront to the good character of Keith Richards (Jack Sparrow is inspired by him). I also think it's very insulting to cursed pirates who metamorphosis into sea creatures... yeah, that's it. AND DON'T GET ME started on voodoo lady stereo-types! Why the black lady have to do voodoo, WTH. Racist!

Oh my god, I think I'm going cut my emo-self, I'm insulted that one of my favorite movies is insulting...

Lastly, BAN THIS MOVIE NOW! It's horrendously disgusting that there exist a movie that insult the very engine of our national economy, namely the pirates. Where would we be without pirates! NO MORE DVDs, NO MORE GAMES.

Life without pirates... Kill me now!!!

Regarding the comments by Zhang Xiaoming from CASS, while I definitely agree that one should not be overly nationalistic about a movie charactre, but I think it's no coincidence that the USSR was often portrayed as the enemy in many James Bond (and other American) movies. In a way, it's a reflection of the sentiment of the target audience. The movies have to use something that people can relate to in order to draw a bigger crowd, hence the USSR, the percieved number 1 enemy. The similar logic can be applied to cat's observation of how Asians are either evil or helpless in Hollywood movies. Such characters fit the western stereotype.

Also, I think there is a difference between self-mockery in your own film or commentaries than being mocked by someone else. How would Americans feel about foreign films that constantly portray the US as evil or that Americans are lazy fat asses? I once saw a Jet Li movie (I think it was produced in HK) about post WW2 American troops in China. It portrayed the Americans as arrogant occupiers and they got their asses kicked by Jet Li. It was totally historically inaccurate and I thought it was uncalled for.

Back in the day, all pirates off the coast of China were thought of as "Japanese."

Perhaps that is why some still find pirates offensive.

G: I once saw a Jet Li movie (I think it was produced in HK) about post WW2 American troops in China. It portrayed the Americans as arrogant occupiers and they got their asses kicked by Jet Li. It was totally historically inaccurate and I thought it was uncalled for.

Most Hong Kong movies have Caucasians cast in one of the following roles: (1) opium smuggler, (2) would-be molester of local women, (3) loser, (4) despoiler of ancient Chinese tchotske's (irreplaceable treasures to the Chinese), inexplicably fawning over Chinese high culture in terms usually understood only by inbred Chinese scholars and (5) insufferably arrogant and despicable bosses (compared to the refined and sympathetic local bosses). Fact is that potboilers need villains, and it's fun to have exotic foreigners filling that role every so often.

If you would notice in Zhang Fei's list of caucasian characters in HK movies, it does not contain "helpless and oppressed (wimps)", a common theme of male Asian characters in Hollywood-produced films (cf. comments by cat).

I do agree in Hollywood there are not many non-stereotypical roles for Asian Americans. I however do not understand why people are offended with this particular movie. Have you guys seen this movie? It's suppose to be over the top and fun. It's not serious.

Don't be offended man, chill...

I'll hold off on judgment until I see it. Only way I'd be offended is if it were crazy racist, I strongly doubt that.

The Holleywood seems to have a preference to portray Asian people as too deferential, too coward, and too sly. If you don't believe, take a look at the "Crash", which won the Holleywood prize last year.

This is due, I believe, to the images the emigrants cast on the Americans' mind. Or you can put it as the embedded preference toward Asian people, just like they do to the black people.

Cat, you need to de-limit the number of hollywood films you see before you go around generalising like that. Yes, Asians are under-represented but to say that all Asians are presented - either evil, helpless or oppressed - in the way you suggest is just, well, inaccurate. We could start with mr ,iyage and go from there.

Wasn't that Mr Miyagi? I did think of the "good at kung fu and karate" Asians. I'm not sure if that's a stereotype or not since nowadays even Ancient Greeks and aliens are good at kung fu. Anyway, I thought it spoiled my argument so I left it out.

Would that be SP's Zhang Fei?! Welcome to party!

"it does not contain "helpless and oppressed (wimps)""
Mainland chinese TV shows do contain cowardly white people leaning over in their chairs to lower themselves in front of the Chinese Boss (always a man) while talking in a dutiful and acquiescing way.

As for this newest movie, leave it to SARFT to get upset over the idea that Chinese pirates were just as violent and crazy as the rest of the world's pirates.

So what's insulting about this? Suggesting that there were pirates who were Chinese? or that the Chinese pirates were evil and not dutiful Chinese citizens. How dare they. I never was the best history student, but I recall hearing that Chinese pirates were some of the most brutal in Asia.

I've never met anyone, from The USA or otherwise, who has said "It wasn't until I watched Pirates of the Carribean that I found out Chinese people were all pirates" or "It wasn't until I watched Crash that I realized Chinese people are all cowardly/sly"

And who is bringing black people into this? Let's not talk about how black people are treated in China. Atleast in the USA, no matter how poorly they are betrayed in film, atleast they are portrayed as Human. There are no black people in Chinese cinema, and the general populace treat them as animals. There is racism in the USA, no doubt. I've seen it first hand, but it is increasingly rare to find someone who truly believes black people are not Human, and that is a great thing. I was surprised by the racism I found in China because it absolutely dwarfs anything in the USA.

Every race and people are defined by stereotypes in China. And archtypical figures from some wives tale from the Dark Ages take the place of personal experience. White people, Black People, Japanese, Spanish, Thai, Phillipino ... no one escapes.

cat. mr miyage was a mentor without parallel. he was a kind, honorable and wise man. a role model for us all. trust you to try and turn that into something negative.

Wait a minute... You have met some very ignorant Chinese people. A lot of Chinese people are ignorant about race because China is very homogenous. I hope this gets better, I do really. A lot of them just do not know any better, they're hicks.

The people I've meet in China are very cool with Blacks. I know there are stereotypes but they do not think Blacks as animals... That is just wrong and ignorant.

Next time when I go back I will try to change people's perspectives. One thing I cannot stand is ignorance and bigotry.

James are you talking to me?

Please re-read my first post again. I was not "bringing black people into this."

I was making fun of SARFT, because of the perceived insult to Chinese people due to Chinese pirates. That is to say, what I meant was this: It's like some American censoring agency made a press release saying "Look, the black lady she does voodoo, omg, it's making fun of black voodoo ladies, because black ladies does voodoo", harharhar, you are suppose to be laughing at the idiocy of SARFT...If you look above that, I also mentioned the insult to Keith Richard's character! Keith Richard's character!!! KEITH RICHARD FROM THE ROLLING STONES!!! Johnny Depp based his character partially on Keith Richards. Perhaps a little Hunter S. in there too :P

Please re-read my post, I was making fun of SARFT.

Sorry if my stupid joke wasn't funny.,

On the subject of racism in America: believe me when I say it's there, maybe not overt racism but still racism. Do we live in the same America? The America where people self segregate, institutional oppression, subliminal racism... All these things exists in America.

Everything is relative man. China's got major problems but if you look close enough at America it's got major rips and holes too.

What I find interesting in the otherwise tedious numb-nuttery of SARFT bans and edits it what it reveals about how propaganda is constructed here. My guess is they look for portrayals or plot devices in foreign productions to be serving some end because that's what such a portrayal or plot would be doing in a state-sanctioned production here. (This is not to deny possible unconcious stereotypes, subtexts or prejudices in Western films, just that there's far more sophisticated discussions of that happening already).

Jim's comment perhaps isn't too off the mark. Consider the recent brouhaha over 300 in Iran, where some believed that the movie was more or less officially produced by the Bush Administration.

That said I think the most relevant comment I've seen so far is: has anyone actually seen the movie in question? I don't think it's coincidental that the IHT is asking a random cell phone dealer what he thinks of a movie he hasn't seen. Pretty humorous actually.

Mike, it was certainly not my intention to slander Mr Miyagi, who was indeed a very nice man. I apologize for any offense I may have caused.

Our brief conversation is starting to remind of one night when I was buying cat food. The woman at the till asked me if I had a cat.

"No," I said. "I'm going to eat it myself."
"Oh," she said.

And to this day, I still don't know if she thought that was a perfectly normal thing for foreigners to do, since foreigners are strange; or if she was just playing along.

It's an odd coincidence that Sexy Beijing's Lost in Translation should cause a stir at the LSE just at this time. I was wondering last night what Japanese people thought of the movie of the same name. A writer in the Guardian thought it was incredibly racist: link

There was even a campaign website dedicated to stopping the movie winning any Oscars: link

That surprised me because I had thought it was about an alcoholic going through a mid-life crisis who arrives in Tokyo knowing nothing about Japan and leaves a few days later knowing very little more. Since he has no desire to be there in the first place and no particular interest in finding out about the people and their culture, it's hardly surprising that his view of the Japanese never moves beyond a two-dimensional cliche. And if this piece is to be believed, a lot of Japanese people seemed to like the movie: link

So were they wrong? And is Danwei a den of cultural imperialists? And is anyone at SARFT really thinking of banning Pirates of the Caribbean, or is this just a slightly risky marketing ploy?

I saw "300" and I think it revolved around an emiment threat to western civ when it was in its infancy and the movie revolves only around one battle that became a protracted war in which Persia did reach an abandoned Athens and burned it to the ground.

I would think that the threat being "Persia" ie Iran is only a coincidence. You could twist Iran's response around to say that its sensitivity shows that it feels that a new Persian empire is right around the corner. It is also a coincidence of Iran's making that yesterday Iran started its 3000 centrifuges.

cat wrote: "Anyway, I thought it spoiled my argument so I left it out."

Ah! The First Rule of Internet Debates!

Glad to see you got the memo, cat... :)

God bless Hollywood.

treat it as one damn movie to entertain people
just sit back, relax and enjoy the film...


Hollywood sucks. I'll rather watch an anonymous Japanese/Korean Horror movie than any of the hollywood production.

The thing about 300 was that a small group of white men use there intelligence to defend their state against an evil empire that is ruled by a black man. This empire controls all of asia. In the movie, xerxes uses all the forces he can to try to get past the "300", one by one he sends (not in order):

1. indians on elephants
2. asians with slanty-eyed masks that cover their gross faces.
3. blacks from africa.
4. arabs that are basically barbaric.

Further, xerxes' goal in the film is to control everything, and have people bow down and worship him. That's all he wants. He is a perverted freak, has a harem, and has uncontrollable fits of anger throughout the film.

in contrast, the spartans, the "300" are all friendly, joke around with each other, and, in general, look normal. there is an ugly, disformed hunchback who is a spartan--but he becomes a traitor.

The portrayal of good-looking white people as being actually good, moral people that fight for justice and against the tyranny and perversion of ugly indians, asians, blacks and arabs is unarguably racist.

The fact that the ugly hunchback becomes a traitor is interesting in that the makers of the movie tie together three things as inseparable:

1. not-white
2. ugly
3. evil

In the film, you cannot be one of these things without being the other two.

Yes, this was just supposed to be a fun movie based on a fun comic. It isn't supposed to a be serious work of art.

Still, I think that it is appropriate to criticize the movie of the latent racism underlying its entire content.

If a kids TV show had a game with black kids vs. white kids, would one be wrong to complain about it? of course not, even though it is only a kids show, criticizing these types of things are wholly appropriate and purposeful.

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