The road to new beginnings
Updated: 2012-08-10 07:56
By Edoardo Gagliardi (China Daily)
The Beginning of the Great Revival brings to life a story that the younger generation may not be familiar with. Provided to China Daily
National history is a serious subject. How then does one explain the troubled history of modern China to the younger generation? This, I imagine, is one of the main questions director Han Sanping must have asked himself while planning 建党伟业 (Jiàndǎng Wěiyè).
The same goes for its 2009 precursor, the star-studded blockbuster (大片 dàpiān) Founding of a Republic (建国大业 Jiànguó Dàyè). Though translated as The Beginning of the Great Revival, the latest title literally means "the great undertaking (wěiyè 伟业) of the Communist Party (建党 jiàndǎng)".
It is an apt title; the film, which was directed by Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin, focuses on the founding of the Communist Party of China, which in 2011 celebrated its 90th anniversary. It was in July of 1921 that 13 delegates, including Mao Zedong, secretly gathered on a boat not far from Shanghai, and declared the founding of the Communist Party of China (中国共产党 zhōngguó gòngchǎndǎng).
But this movie does more than just recount the history of the CPC; it also recreates the atmosphere of a time when China was a weak, divided country and a perpetual battlefield.
The storyline traces the major factors that led to the events of 1921, including an account of the complicated and tumultuous political background, ranging from the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, to the death of the general and self-proclaimed emperor, Yuan Shikai. It also includes major events, that should be familiar to both Chinese and foreigners, like World War I and the May Fourth Movement in 1919 (五四运动 Wǔsì Yùngdòng).
The film also presents a dense array of "minor" historical characters, who played a role in evolving the idea of a modern China.
In contrast to these rigorous efforts at historical completeness, other crucial events, like the Xinhai Revolution and the destitution of the last emperor, Pu Yi (溥仪), are reduced to utter simplicity through the voice of the protagonists.
It is the young Mao Zedong who in simple words explains to his army fellows what's happening in the country.
Fellow: What is "republic"?
Zhànyǒu: Shá shì "gònghé"?
战友: 啥是共和 ?
Mao Zedong: (...) means that the big matters of the country are decided by everyone.
Máo Zédōng: ..., jiùshì guójiā dàshì dàjiā shāngliang zhe lái de yìsi.
Fellow: Ah, I understand. So there's no emperor anymore, and we all decide.
Zhànyǒu: A, míngbai le. Jiùshì huángdì méi le, wǒmen dàjiā shuōlesuàn la.
One of the movie's weaknesses is that it does not give a deep account of the social and cultural context, with regards not only to the lives of the "common people" (老百姓 lǎobǎixìng), but to the big cultural changes that were happening at that time. Among these were movements for a new culture, and for language reform that would abandon the "classic written language" (文言文 wényánwén) in favour of the vernacular baihua (白话) which is at the base of today's Mandarin.
The main promoters of this cultural movement were Chen Duxiu - who was director of the influential magazine New Youth (Xīn Qīngnían 新青年) before becoming the first secretary of the Chinese Communist Party - and Hu Shi, a progressive intellectual and professor at Peking University.
Though the film does not explore these movements in depth, Hu does make minor reference to them in a scene staged in the Peking University Library. He addresses a crowd of young students:
Hu Shi: Culture must be renewed because time moves forward. Some think that the classic written language is elegant and simple, and that the vernacular is a vulgar prose that cannot become literature. We say that the imperial examination system harmed the country. The problem is in the stylized, bureaucratic writing that is called bagu essays. No matter how good someone is at writing bagu essays, he is not capable of doing business as long as he knows nothing about the new sciences. He is a useless exam machine. Our nation needs practical people, who can get things done and make the country stronger.
Hú Shì: Wénhuà zǒng gāi géxīn de, yīnwèi shíjiān zài qián xíng, yǒu rén jiǎng wényánwén wènyǎ gǔpǔ, ér báihùawén cūbǐ bùwén. Wǒmen shūo kējǔ wùguó, wù zài bāgǔ wényán. Bāgǔwén zuò de zài hǎo, bù tōng xīnxué biàn bù kān shíwù, bú huì zuòshì zhǐ huì kǎoshì. Wǒmen de guójiā xū shíwù réncái, jiǎotàshídì qiángjiàn guólì.
胡适: 文化总该革新的，因为时间在前行，有人讲文言文文雅古朴, 而白话文粗鄙不文.我们说科举误国，误在八股文言.八股文做得再好， 不通新学便不堪实务，不会做事，只会考试. 我们的国家需实务人才， 脚踏实地，强健国力.
Student: But we think that the classic written language is more succinct than the vernacular. This is a fact.
Xuéshēng: Wǒmen rènwéi wényánwén bǐ báihuàwén gēng jiǎnjié. Zhè shì shìshí.
Hu Shi: Please give me an example.
Húshì: Qǐng jǔlì.
Student: Doesn't it seem that the meaning implied in the chengyu idiom "being helpless in doing something" is much more clear than in vernacular prose?
Xuéshēng: Jiù hǎoxiàng "wúnéngwéilì" zhè jù chéngyǔ suǒ biǎodá de hányì búshì bǐ báihuà jiǎnjié ma?
Hu Shi: The saying "being helpless in doing something" is four characters. In the vernacular, it's only three: "cannot be done".
Hú Shì: "Wúnéngwéilì" shì sì gè zì, gǎi yòng báihuà wén sān gè zì zúgoù: gànbuliǎo.
As the prequel to The Founding of a Republic, Great Revival completes the epic narrative of the PRC's founding for contemporary China. It brings to life an origin story that the younger generation, especially those born in the 1980s and 1990s (the so-called 80后 bālínghoù and 90后 jiùlínghoù), may not be familiar with. The two movies are therefore complementary, and the voiceover at the very end of the film reminds us how, what has become modern China, began with the founding of the Communist Party:
The founding of the Communist Party in China was a watershed event.
Courtesy of The World of Chinese, www.theworldofchinese.com
The World of Chinese
(China Daily 08/10/2012 page19)