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Dying 1000 Times a Year – ‘Japanese Devils’ and China’s War Dramas

In Anti-Japanese war dramas, “Japanese Devils” die a 1000 times a year.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese TV dramas about the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) are much discussed online topics this month. On April 7, China’s official censorship bureau spoke out against war-themed TV dramas that are “overly entertaining.”

TV dramas about the Second Sino-Japanese War (also referred to as ‘the War of Resistance against Japan’ 抗日战争) have been popular in China for years.

The Second Sino-Japanese War started in 1937, and merged into WWII in 1941. Although it has been seventy years since the war has ended, the topic is still very much alive on China’s TV screens. In 2012, seventy of China’s major 200 primetime TV shows revolved around this war (Lam 2013).

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Recently, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) announced a limit on TV dramas that sensationalize the history of war.

The critique is particularly directed at popular war dramas that are mockingly called ‘divine Anti-Japanese drama’ (抗日神剧) by Chinese netizens. These TV dramas generally depict the Japanese army as extremely weak and the Chinese protagonists as exceptionally strong.

In these series, the Chinese hero can cut a Japanese soldier in half by just using one hand. The fighting scenes are exaggerated; there is blood splattering everywhere while body parts are flying around.

These series are unacceptable, according to the SAPPRFT, because their mere goal is to entertain viewers. In doing so, they misrepresent history and disrespect the Chinese soldiers who fought to defend the nation. Examples of these TV series are The Wondrous Knight of the War of Resistance against Japan (抗日奇侠) or The Arrow in the Bow (剪在弦上) (Baidu 2015).

japaneseNotorious scene from ‘Anti-Japanese divine drama’ ‘The Wondrous Knight of the War of Resistance Against Japan’.

In response to the recent critique on China’s ‘Anti-Japanese divine drama’, various Chinese media have reported on another type of war drama: the life-like war play.

In Wuxiang, Shanxi Province, there is a theme park dedicated to the Second Sino-Japanese War (Eighth Route Army Park). This theme park harbours a group of 46 actors that perform different war plays on a daily basis. According to Sina News and China’s Lawcourt Evening Newsthe actors greatly disapprove of ‘divine drama’. Instead of distorting history, they claim to provide an accurate representation of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The article in the Lawcourt Evening News interviews Yang Lei, a 27-year-old actor that has been playing a Japanese soldier (“a Japanese devil”) for over four years in the Eighth Route Army Park.

During the weekends or holidays, the park has hundreds of visitors who come to watch the performance. When it is very busy, Yang has to ‘die’ up to four times a day. “In the past few years, I have died over a 6000 times in total,” he says. The plays take about twenty minutes per show, and are focused on the events of 1943, the year that the Chinese Eighth Route Army fought against Japanese troops in Wuxiang.

One of the shows is about a small village in Anning that is invaded and occupied by Japanese troops. When a Chinese spy steals secret information from their camp, the whole village is held for questioning. A Chinese underground Party member sacrifices his life to protect the spy’s identity. Just when the Japanese general orders to have the entire village killed, China’s Eighth Route Army storms in and wipes out all the ‘Japanese devils.’

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dramaiiScene from the play at the Eighth Route Army Park (Sina 2015).

The Eighth Route Army Park performances are different from the ‘divine drama’, say the actors. In the theme park, they imitate reality as much as possible. The ‘Japanese devils’ wear the right yellow uniforms, caps, white gloves and boots. The actors use fake blood and cap guns that create a loud sound and a puff of smoke when the trigger is pulled – everything to make the scenes look real.

“You can play whatever you like, as long as you don’t play a Japanese person.” 

It is not easy playing a Japanese devil. Throughout the years as a Japanese officer, Yang Lei has gone through four military uniforms, fifteen pairs of boots and hundred pairs of socks.

Some of his colleagues are afraid to talk about their job. “I don’t know how to tell my friends and family about my role as a devil,” Liu Chuan says. His grandfather used to be in the Chinese army, and he might not be too happy about his grandson playing a Japanese soldier. The fear of telling relatives is not unreasonable, according to the article, as it has happened before that actors were removed from the theme park by their parents. “You can play whatever you like,” said the parents of one 19-year-old actor: “As long as you don’t play a Japanese person.”


dramaiiiHe has played a Japanese ‘devil soldier’ for years, and is still afraid to tell his grandfather, who served in the Chinese army (Sina 2015).  

dramaThe actors greet the applauding audience after the performance (Sina 2015). 

With all the critique concerning China’s war shows, many media sources report that this is the end for the “divine war drama.” Recent articles blame directors from Hong Kong and Taiwan for these kinds of exaggerated war plays.

The article on the Eighth Route Army Park suggests that this is a place where war is not “over-entertained.” The actors frown upon the “divine drama” because it is not about real history, but about commercial revenue. While saying so, the group of actors at the Eighth Route Army Park entertain their audiences every day. The park in Wuxiang is opened daily from 9.00 to 18.00. A single entrance costs 90 RMB (15 US dollar). Visitors can purchase an electronic ticket through text message and scan it at the entrance. The park, that opened in 2011, has not lost its appeal. While attracting more visitors, Yang Lei and his ‘devil’ colleagues can be expected to die a thousand times more.


japaneseiiiScene from ‘Anti-Japanese divine drama’.

– by Manya Koetse

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Curious about China’s “Anti-Japanese divine drama”? The video below is a compilation from The Wondrous Knight of the War of Resistance against Japan (抗日奇侠). 

 

References/Sources

Baidu. 2015. 抗日神剧. Baidu Baike http://baike.baidu.com/view/10364874.htm [15.4.15].

Lam, Oiwan. 2013. “China’s Anti-Japanese TV War Dramas Knocked for Vulgarity.” Global Voices, April 2014 http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/04/14/chinas-anti-japanese-war-films-knocked-for-vugarity/ [15.4.15].

Fawan. 2015. “红色景区里的“鬼子兵.” Fazhi Wanbao 法制晚报 [Lawcourt Evening News], April 14 http://www.fawan.com.cn/html/2015-04/14/content_547245.htm [15.4.15].

Sina. 2015. “日本兵演员:演戏追求严谨不会演抗日神剧.” April 14 http://news.sina.com.cn/s/p/2015-04-14/151731716471.shtml [15.4.15].

Sina 2015. “抗日神剧”活跃荧屏怎能只怪港台导演?” Sina News, April 11 http://ent.sina.com.cn/v/m/2015-04-11/doc-iawzuney3057210.shtml [15.4.15].

 

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[box type=”bio”] koetse.148x200About the Author: Manya Koetse is the editor of What’s on Weibo. She’s a Sinologist who splits her time between the Netherlands and China. She earned her bachelor’s degrees in Literary Studies, Japanese & China Studies and completed her MPhil in Asian Studies. Contact: manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.[/box]

 

©2014 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Society

The Concept of ‘Involution’ (Nèijuǎn) on Chinese Social Media

Nèijuǎn (involution) has become a commonly used term on Chinese social media, but what is it?

Manya Koetse

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Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited an ongoing debate about the problem of ‘involution’ in Chinese society today.

A scene from the Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited online discussions on the concept of nèijuǎn 内卷, “involution,” which was also a top buzzword in China in 2020.

A Love for Dilemma is a 2021 TV drama directed by Zhang Xiaobo (张晓波), who also worked on other hit series including Nothing But Thirty. This season’s popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma is themed around family, parenting, and China’s competitive education system.

In the series, two stepsisters compete against each other over the school results of their children. The family’s ‘grandpa’, played by famous actor Zhang Guoli (张国立), tries to create harmony around the dinner table between his daughter and stepdaughter, but the rivalry between the two and how they raise their children intensifies nevertheless.

Scene from A Love for Dilemma.

While stepsister Tian Yulan urges her little son to work hard in school and focus on his grades so that he can go to the best high school and university, sister Nan Li places more emphasis on the general development of her children and wants them to enjoy their childhood. Both mothers, however, question their own choices when facing challenges with how their children perform at school.

The specific scene that has ignited current discussions is a dialogue between the husbands of the sisters, who sit outside to talk about the education system and how it sometimes feels like everyone is in a theatre watching a show together until one person stands up from their seat. This makes it necessary for other members of the audience to also stand up, until everybody is standing.

The dialogue continues, with the two talking about how it does not stop at the people standing up. Because then there are those who will take it a step further and will stand on their seats to rise above the others. And then there are even those who will grab a ladder to stand higher than the rest. But they are still watching the same show and their situation has actually not changed at all – except for the fact that everybody is now more uncomfortable than they were before.

Many netizens found it striking how this dialogue explains how the term ‘involution’ is used in China nowadays. After the show aired, the hashtag “How to commonly explain involution” (#如何通俗解释内卷#) became a trending topic in the week of April 19, receiving 260 million views in a few days.

 
What Is ‘Involution’?
 

As explained by Jialing Xie in this top buzzword article on What’s on Weibo, involution describes the economic situation in which as the population grows, per capita wealth decreases. Since recently, this word has come to be used to represent the competitive circumstances in academic or professional settings in China where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hardworking.

The term ‘involution’ and how it is used today comes from a work by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz titled Agricultural Involution – The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963). In this work, Geertz explores the agricultural dynamics in Indonesia during the colonial period’s Cultivation System, where a radical economic dualism existed within the country: a foreign, Dutch economy and a native, Indonesian economy (p. 61-62).

Geertz describes how the Javanese faced a deepening demographic dilemma as they saw a rapidly growing population but a static economy, while the Dutch, who organized Javanese land and labor, were only growing in wealth (69-70). Agricultural involution is the “ultimately self-defeating process” that emerged in Indonesia when the ever-growing population was absorbed in high labor-intensive wet-rice cultivation without any changing patterns and without any progress (80-81).

When Geertz used the term ‘involution’ to describe the dynamics in Indonesia, he built on the work of another American anthropologist, namely Alexander Goldenweiser, who also used the term to describe “those culture patterns which, after having reached what would seem to be a definitive form, nonetheless fail either to stabilize or transform themselves into a new pattern but rather continue to develop by becoming internally more complicated” (Geertz 1963, 81).

 
The Involution Concept in the Chinese Context
 

The popular use of the Chinese translation of ‘involution’, nèijuǎn 内卷, started to receive attention in Chinese media in 2020. It is deviating from the original use of the term and is meant to explain the social dynamics of China’s growing middle class.

As suggested in the article “‘Involution’: The Anxieties of Our Time Summed Up in One Word” by Zhou Minxi (CGTN), the popularity of the term comes from “a prevalent sense of being stuck in an ever so draining rat race where everyone loses.”

China’s ever-growing middle class is now facing the question of how they and their children can remain in the middle class in a situation where everyone is continuously working harder and doing all they can to rise above the rest. Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, is quoted by Zhou:

The lower class still hopes to change their fate, but the middle and upper classes aren’t so much looking upward, and they are marked by a deep fear of falling downward. Their greater fear is perhaps losing what they already have.”

The term ‘involution’ often comes up together with criticism on China’s ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). Although Alibaba founder Jack Ma once called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” the system is a controversial topic, with many condemning how Chinese (tech) companies are exploiting their employees, who are caught in a conundrum; they might lose their sanity working such long hours, and might lose their job and future career prospects if they refuse to do so.

But the term also comes up when discussing China’s education system, where competition starts as early as kindergarten and the pressure on children to succeed in the ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam starts many years before it takes place.

This image shows the “juan” 卷 character from ‘nei juan’ (involution) changing into a person on their bike with laptop. Image via http://www.bajieyou.com/new/431e6ef39aac4a6da232671122f66ff4

This discussion also came up with a now-famous image of a student riding his bike while also working on his laptop, using every moment to study. This was then also called “Tsinghua Inversion” (清华内卷), referring to one of China’s top universities, where competition is so vicious that students must double their efforts to catch up with others.

 
‘Involution’ Discussions on Chinese Social Media
 

By mid-2020, ‘involution’ attracted the attention on Weibo when popular academic accounts started discussing the term. Recently, ‘involution’ is used so often on Chinese social media that it has already gone beyond its original context, leading to many people discussing its meaning.

“We are forced to work overtime and are unable to resist, and yet it seems that everyone is doing it out of free will,” one Weibo user says, with another person adding: “The abnormal state of inversion has already become our normal state.”

A popular legal blogger (@皇城根下刀笔吏) on Weibo writes:

It is an internal bottomless vicious cycle of competition. For example, everyone used to work eight hours per day, five days per week. Then one company comes up where people work twelve hours per day, six days per week. Then this company will have major competitive strength in the market economy. But the outcome is that other companies are also compelled to do the same in order to compete. As time goes by, all companies will shift to a twelve-hour workday, six days a week, and job applicants entering the market can’t find any eight-hour workday positions for five days a week anymore. So, if another company wants to beat its competitors, it will have to introduce a seven-day workweek. And then other companies will need to follow in order to make a living. That is involution.”

By now, there are various images and memes that have come to represent the meaning of ‘involution’ in present-day China, such as one cram school sign saying: “If you come we will train your kids, if you don’t come, we will train the competitors of your kids.”

“The society’s resources are in short supply and to obtain the limited supplies, people are all madly practicing their skills to obtain them – regardless if they need them or not,” another Weibo user says.

Most comments relating to the discussion of ‘involution’ on Chinese social media express a sense of fatigue with an ongoing rat-race in the education and employment market.

On the interest-based social networking platform Douban, there are even some support groups for people who feel stuck in ‘involution’ and are looking for a way out. The “Center for Victims of Involution” (内卷受害者收容中心) group has over 3000 members, with smaller groups such as “Let’s Escape Involution Together” (我们一起逃离内卷) having a few dozen participants.

The generation that is mostly affected by this sense of socioeconomic stagnation is the post-90 generation. In 2020, a record high of 8.74 million university graduates entered the job market, but their chances of finding a job that suits their education and personal expectations are slim; many industries are recruiting fewer people than before in an employment market that was already competitive before the COVID19 pandemic. It leaves them facing a troubling Catch 22 situation: they will be stressed and pressured if they do not find that top job, but when they do, they are often also stressed and pressured.

It is a recurring topic on social media. Five years ago, a song by the Rainbow Chamber Singers (彩虹室内合唱团) titled “The Sofa Is So Far” immediately became a hit in China. Many young Chinese recognized themselves in the hardworking and tired people described in the lyrics, which started with: “My body feels empty / I am dog-tired / I don’t want work overtime.”

How to get away from the involution rat race is also a much-discussed topic on Weibo, where the hashtag page “How can young people resist involution” (#年轻人如何反内卷#) has received over 280 million views.

Some suggest the answer to ending the vicious cycle is to find a way to get rich fast, others suggest that not getting married and staying child-free is also a way to alleviate the pressure to participate in this zero-sum game.

Tech blogger Sensai (@森赛), who has over 2 million followers on Weibo, advises young people to find their true interest and to invest in it before the age of 30. Doing something that sparks joy, such as learning a new language or working on art, might start as a hobby but could turn into a valuable side business later, Sensai says.

For some, however, that goal seems unattainable. “I am already working 15 hours a day, how could I ever do that?!”

“This is just bringing us into a whole other level of involution,” others write.

In order to watch A Love for Dilemma (小舍得), the show that started so many of these discussions this month, you can go over to iQiyi or YouTube.

By Manya Koetse

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zhou Minxi. 2020. “‘Involution’: The anxieties of our time summed up in one word.” CGTN, Dec 4 https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-04/-Involution-The-anxieties-of-our-time-summed-up-in-one-word-VWNlDOVdjW/index.html [20.4.2021].

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Movie “Sister” Stirs Discussions on Traditional Family Values in China

The movie ‘Sister’ has sparked online discussions on whether or not personal values should be prioritized over traditional family values.

Manya Koetse

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Mainlaind Chinese drama My Sister (我的姐姐, also known as ‘Sister‘) was just released in theatres and is sparking online discussions on family relations and the role of women in China.

After the hit movie Hi, Mom (你好,李焕英) received praise earlier this year for focusing on the role of mothers within Chinese families, this film zooms in on the role of older sisters.

My Sister, directed by Yin Ruoxin (殷若昕), revolves around the story of An Ran, an 18-year-old daughter who is unexpectedly facing the major responsibility for her 6-year-old brother after the tragic loss of their parents. While trying to find her own path in life, she suddenly has to step into the role of caregiver for her younger sibling. But does she want to take on this role?

Actress Zhang Zifeng (张子枫) is playing the main lead in this movie, which touches upon the issue of dealing with traditional family values and personal dreams and ambitions. Sister reveals the difficulties women face within the traditional Chinese-style family structure and the sacrifices they make for their parents, their children, siblings, and their husbands; and how the roles and tasks that are expected of them also clash with their own ideas about happiness and fulfillment.

For An Ran, the relationship with her little brother is troublesome. As a young girl, she had to pretend to be disabled in order to allow her parents to have a second child, preferably a son (under the One Child Policy, families with children with disabilities were allowed to have more children). Now, as a young adult, she once again has to sacrifice her own individual freedom in order to let her brother thrive.

The renowned Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe (李银河) dedicated a lengthy post to the movie on her Weibo account, where she called the film “fascinating” and “thought-provoking.”

Li suggests that multiple social issues play a role in this film. First, there is the conflict between individual-oriented values and traditional family-oriented ethics. While traditional Chinese ideas about family require An Ran to put her brother first and move personal self-fulfillment to the backseat, An Ran is a young woman who grew up in a rapidly modernizing China where women are more empowered and independent. Why should she sacrifice her personal education and career in order to devote herself to raising her brother?

Another social topic that plays a major role in this film is the deep-seated cultural preference for sons over daughters. An Ran literally had to make herself weaker in order for her brother to be brought into this world – and in doing so limiting the possibilities for her future career, – with these patriarchal practices prioritizing the thriving of sons over the happiness of daughters. An Ran’s anger and resistance show that traditional ideas about male superiority clash with modern-day Chinese society, where profound changes within gender relations are already taking place.

“Sisters do not dislike their little brothers,” one Weibo commenter wrote: “What they dislike is the hidden meaning behind their brother.”

Another female blogger responded: “Within my family, from my grandpa’s generation up to myself, it is actually the women who discriminate against women. I think these are deeply rooted ideas that can’t be changed. Look at my second elder aunt; she had seven children, all girls, and only four were left. The others were given away. However, my grandfather has always been good to me, and has never made me feel any less than the boys. Yet my grandma and my mother sometimes make me doubt about my life.”

Under the hashtag “How to Evaluate the Movie My Sister” (#如何评价电影我的姐姐#), which attracted 150 million views on Weibo, many ask the question of what they would do if they were An Ran. Would you take care of your little brother? Or would you leave his care up to other family members and choose your own path in life?

“If it were me, I’d raise my brother. Although it’s actually the parents’ problem, the little brother is innocent.”

“If it were me, I wouldn’t raise him,” another commenter writes: “Although the little brother is innocent, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my life for him. And it might be a better choice to leave him with other family members than with me.”

These discussions also triggered the hashtag “Should Personal Values Be More Important Than Family Values?” (#个人价值必须高于家庭价值吗#). One top commenter raised the issue of ‘what if this was about a little sister instead of about a little brother,’ again provoking the idea that existing gender roles and the preference over sons play a major part in these discussions.

“These traditions no longer suit this era of a developing society. Let me ask you this question: would the little brother also take care of his sister once she grows old?”

“Personal values should always have priority. If you are not happy yourself, how could you ever take care of your family?”

“I have the perception that the family-oriented concept is deep-rooted. Although there consistently are new values and personal-oriented viewpoints, when it comes to real problems, most people will still be family-oriented.”

One commenter wrote: “What are ‘values’? What is the family in modern-day society? What does it mean to prioritize something? If we don’t first clarify this, the discussion becomes meaningless.”

Meanwhile, all the online discussions on Sister have boosted the film. By now, the movie has already become a box office hit and defeated the American Godzilla vs. Kong.

By Manya Koetse

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