Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 7, 2012

Up the Yangtze; China Heavyweight

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Since I had already planned to review “China Heavyweight”, a documentary that opened yesterday at the IFC Center in NY, it made sense to pair it with a review of Yung Chang’s “Up the Yangtze”, the film that premiered in 2007 and established the director’s reputation as one the sharpest critics of Chinese “progress”. It can now be seen on Netflix streaming.

Chang is a 35-year-old Chinese-Canadian who got the idea for making “Up the Yangtze” in 2002 during a “Farewell” cruise with his parents and grandfather. It gave tourists a last look at one of the world’s iconic waterways before the Three Gorges Dam—then under construction—would plunge ancient towns and cities along the riverside under 75 meters of water. He explained to a Canadian Broadcasting interviewer:

The whole sensory experience was overwhelming. The moment you get off the bus, you’re surrounded by coolies carrying these heavy loads — tourists’ luggage. So I got this idea of making a movie about tourists on this Yangtze cruise boat — a kind of Gosford Park idea that shows the social hierarchy, the lives above and below the decks. And I realized that the people working on the boat were all from the Yangtze area, and that many of their families were affected by the dam.

“Up the Yangtze” features a teenaged boy and girl who go to work for a luxury cruise ship just like the one that the director sailed on back in 2002. The woman is Yu Shui whose parents eke out a living farming along the banks of the Yangtze. The father was once a porter (a “coolie”, a term that possibly originated from kul, the Turkish word for slave) but he lost his job when his town became deluged. Both her parents and Yu Shui understand that she has to go to work on the ship since their situation is so dire.

The man is Chen Bo Yu, who comes from a middle-class family and who has taken the job mostly to make a fast buck through tips. With his command of English and his good looks, he is just the kind of employee the cruise ship is looking for—at least on first blush. It turns out that he is also impossibly arrogant and refuses to serve the very old and the very young since they are not good tippers.

Once on board, they become “Iris” and “Jerry”, names selected to make them more familiar to the mostly English-speaking (and obese) tourists. While their training consists mainly of tips that will help ingratiate them to the trade, a ritual that all people in the tourist industry go through including me when I was their age and working for my dad in the Borscht Belt, you could not help but feel that this was not what China made a socialist revolution to become.

Yung Chang’s primary intention was to make a film about two young people of the post-Maoist generation and not make points about the Three Gorges Dam. But it is almost impossible to make such a film without recording the tragic dimensions of its impact on common people. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, we see a protest on a street in a town destined to be flooded. We see the protest from inside the gift shop of a local man who is explaining how much suffering the dam has caused to local residents. Those whose homes are being condemned receive a small percentage of what is needed to relocate. When they protest, government-backed goons come to beat them up and trash their shops and stalls. In the course of describing such injustices, the shopkeeper breaks down and starts sobbing.

I strongly recommend “Up the Yangtze” as well as a narrative film about the Three Gorges Dam titled “Still Life” that I reviewed when it came out in 2008 and that is now available as a DVD rental from Netflix.

Shot on location in the town of Fengjie, which was demolished by the state and then deluged by the Yangtze River, it is one of the most radical-minded films coming out of China to date and takes its place alongside “Blind Shaft,” a movie about coal miners. Indeed, one of the two main characters is Sanming, a coal miner who has come to Fengjie in search of a daughter he hasn’t seen in 16 years. The moment he arrives he takes a job demolishing houses.

One evening after work Sanming shares impressions with a fellow worker about the immense changes taking place around them. His comrade rebukes him by saying that he is too “nostalgic”. As irrefutable proof of this, we hear Sanming play a downloaded ring tone on his cell phone, which is an old Red Army anthem—a perfect symbol of the paradoxes of Chinese society today: in the name of Communism, a brutal forced march toward capitalist modernization proceeds apace.

I paid much closer attention to the Three Gorges Dam when construction first began. As a way of follow up on Yung Chang’s documentary, I took a look at some recent news coverage and discovered that the common folk are still being screwed, even those that were compensated. The July 27 2011 Christian Science Monitor reported:

For years the Chinese government refused to acknowledge any dark side to its proudest engineering feat, the largest hydropower project in the world that is also designed to prevent the sort of catastrophic floods that have stricken millions of farmers in the Yangtze Basin for millenniums. Begun in 1994, it opened in 2008.

Two months ago, however, the State Council, China’s cabinet, recognized that the dam had caused “urgent problems … regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection, and geological disaster prevention.”

That admission marked “a very significant change in attitude in China toward more openness,” says Lars Skov Andersen, a hydrologist working on a European Union-funded project to rehabilitate the Yangtze River watershed. “The Three Gorges project was not adequately prepared, so now it has to be repaired,” he says.

That repair work, including a second round of resettlement, will likely cost $15 billion, half as much as the dam itself cost to build, Mr. Andersen estimates.

But there is little sign yet here of any government action to help the hundreds of thousands of forcibly relocated farmers struggling to make a living on the small plots of poor, mountainous land they were assigned above the 400-mile-long reservoir.

Lack of good land

Wang Xiangui, the Communist Party secretary and mayor of this village, whose 1,500 inhabitants live along the riverbank, says he heard about the State Council statement in May on TV, but that “specific practical policies have not been communicated yet. Solutions still need to be discussed.”

Mr. Wang says he expects that one-third of Xiangjiadian’s residents will be moved to a local town, since there is not enough safe land for everybody in the village to farm.

The lack of good land is a matter of bitter contention among the orange farmers who were resettled in 2002 as the reservoir’s water level rose.

“Down below, I used to harvest 20,000 pounds of oranges on my six mu [approximately one acre] of land,” recalls Xiang. “Now I have only three mu, and the land is poorer, so I cannot grow more than 5,000 pounds a year.”

By way of compensation, she says, the government gave her an ungenerous monthly stipend of $300 for her old house and will give her family a monthly stipend of $7 per person for 20 years.

As with most of the adult men in the village, her husband has left home in search of work as a migrant laborer to make up some of the family’s lost income. “People couldn’t feed themselves, so they had to go out” to find jobs, explains Xiang’s neighbor Qiao Shihu.

In addition to the human disaster, there is a looming ecological disaster that threatens China’s ability to feed itself adequately in future years, as the Guardian reported on May 11, 2012:

A statement on the government’s website read: “At the same time that the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention.”

There were few specifics but China’s cabinet, the state council, admitted several problems had not been foreseen.

“Problems emerged at various stages of project planning and construction but could not be solved immediately, and some arose because of increased demands brought on by economic and social development,” the statement said.

Since the 1.5 mile barrier was completed in 2006 the reservoir has been plagued by algae and pollution that would previously have been flushed away.

The weight of the extra water has also been blamed for tremors, landslides and erosion of slopes.

To ease these threats the government said last year many more people may have to be relocated. This week it promised to establish disaster warning systems, reinforce riverbanks, boost funding for environmental protection and improve benefits for the displaced.

This is not the first warning. Four years ago the state media quoted government experts who said: “There are many new and old hidden ecological and environmental dangers concerning the Three Gorges dam. If preventive measures are not taken the project could lead to a catastrophe.”

Last year, site engineers recommended an additional movement of hundreds of thousands of nearby residents and more investment in restoring the ecosystem.

The government has already raised its budget for water treatment plants but opponents of the dam say this is not enough. “The government built a dam but destroyed a river,” said Dai Qing, a longtime critic of the project. “No matter how much effort the government makes to ease the risks, it is infinitesimal. The state council is spending more money on the project rather than investigating fully. I cannot see a real willingness to solve the problem.”

Next to “Jerry” and “Cindy”, the most important figure in “Up the Yangtze” is the director himself who is never seen on-camera but whose voice can be heard throughout the film as he ruminates on the nature of “progress” and the loss of socialist ideals.

His latest film is much more of a cinéma vérité project, even evoking the master of the genre Frederick Wiseman. Becoming fascinated by the growing popularity of boxing in China, Yung Chang and his crew went to a town in Southern Sichuan province that had a boxing school geared to local high school students.

Except for the climax of the film, which shows the coach of the school returning to the ring for a last shot at a highly regarded amateur prize, there is very little boxing as such going on. Mostly what we see are two young men going through rigorous training, including some drills that seem to be as much about weeding out the ambivalent as they are about developing skills.

Despite the lack of matches as such, there is something compelling about watching the amateur fighters going through the paces, reminding me in fact of Frederick Wiseman’s 2010 documentary “Boxing Gym”.

While the film is not so nearly as political as “Up the Yangtze”, there is an implicit context given the introduction to the film that establishes Mao Zedong’s decision to ban boxing after taking power, viewing it as “too Western” and “brutal”. The fact that it has made a revival is an implicit commentary on Chinese society.

The two featured amateur boxers in the film have backgrounds similar to “Iris” in “Up the Yangtze”. Just as she saw the cruise ship as an escape from poverty, so do the boxers, especially the one who wants to become a professional. When we see them back on their parents’ meager farms, we understand that poverty drives the sport in China just as it has in the USA.

While Yung Chang allows the film to speak for itself in good cinéma vérité fashion, we understand that this aspect of life in contemporary China troubles him. But what gives the film complexity and a deeper interest is his love of the sport (he was a big fan of boxing and Kung Fu films growing up). He saw the sport as a way of testing one’s “respect, honor, and perseverance” and as such laudable.

In some ways, it is regrettable that the film was constrained by cinéma vérité conventions since I think it would have been an even better film if the director has provided some background on boxing in China in the pre-Mao epoch. A brief history of boxing in China in the press notes gives you an idea of how important boxing has been in China’s past:


“Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself makes you fearless.”
—Lao Tzu

Although Western styles of boxing didn’t arrive in China until the 20th century, forms of Chinese-style boxing date back 3700 years to the Late Shang Dynasty, when aristocrats used martial arts for military training. Chinese martial arts, known in Mandarin as Wushu and in the West as Kung Fu, encompass a number of training and fighting styles developed over centuries. Some forms gather inspiration from various Chinese philosophies, myths and legends. Some styles focus on the internal, and the harnessing of the life force called chi or qi. And others concentrate on the external, and the improvement of strength and fitness. Each fighting style offers a different approach to the common problems of self-defense, health, and self-development—from a Chinese perspective.

In 1900, a group of rebels called the Righteous and Harmonious Fists rose up against foreign occupiers and Christian missionaries in China. This is known in the West as the Boxer Rebellion because of the martial arts and calisthenics practiced by the rebels. Rhetorically, they encouraged the use of the term Kuoshu, meaning “the arts of the nation,” rather than the colloquial term Kung Fu (or Gongfu), in an effort to associate Chinese martial arts with national pride rather than individual accomplishment.

Modern day “Western boxing,” was first introduced in the late 1920s in the port cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou, where foreign sailors were pitted against local fighters. During this time, the influential book The Technique of Western Boxing was translated into Chinese. In the ’30s, some sports academies introduced boxing classes into their major curricula and fostered a number of Chinese boxing talents. But in 1953, a boxer died at a big competition in Tianjin, a city near Beijing. Sports authorities were unnerved, so in 1959, as China organized its first National Games, it dropped boxing from the lineup. Mao thought boxing was too “American” and too violent. The political atmosphere was increasingly dismissive of Western imports. Fan Hong, a scholar who specializes in China’s athletic history states that, “people believed that boxing was very brutal, very ruthless, and those were said to be the characteristics of capitalism.” So it was banned.


  1. It’s really a shame that Mao was hostile to boxing, especially in light of what Cuba has been able to accomplish.

    Comment by Robert — July 9, 2012 @ 7:12 pm

  2. Both “Up the Yangtze” and “Still Life” are amazing films. “Still Life” will probably be remembered as one of the great cinematic achievements of this generation of filmmakers. I watched about half of it again the other day on DVD, and was just awestruck.

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 11, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: