On my fourth day in China I went shopping. But first, I went back to my hotel room and had a shower. Twenty-six hours on a train had left me with that not-so-fresh feeling.
Shortly after I got out of the shower, I had a situation. I won’t go into too much detail about what the situation was; I’ll simply say that it required a plunger and leave you to fill in the blanks. When I called the front desk for assistance, I encountered a very predictable problem. No one, not even the best English speaker at the desk, knew what a plunger was. As an ESL instructor, I understood the problem right away. When students learn about tools, they learn words like hammer, nails, screwdriver, and saw. No one ever talks about plungers unless they need one.
“Bathroom,” I tried to explain. “In toilet. Water no go down. I need a plunger.” This went on for a while before they finally sent a maintenance person who, despite my warnings, just had to see the problem in order to understand it. It was good for a laugh once we got everything working again. It reminded me of my parents’ trip to New York City. On their first night there, my dad also had a situation that required a plunger. To this day he likes to brag about how “that Yankee toilet just wasn’t built for a Southern man‘s sh*t!”
Putting that behind me (no pun intended), I went down to the concierge desk and signed up for a tour of the Great Wall the following day. Then, I asked where I could find the nearest movie theater.
Whenever I visit a new place, I always try to see a movie. Even if I don’t understand a word of what’s being said, I always find it interesting to see what movies are like in different places. The way they look. Their themes. The acting styles. You can learn a lot about a culture by watching movies.
The movie I saw in China was called The Taking of Tiger Mountain (3-D). I’d seen a lot of advertisements for it in Beijing and Dandong, so I figured I should give it a shot. And I’ll be honest, after seeing the tigers at the Beijing Zoo I was kind of hoping there would be a lot of tigers in the movie. Even if it was just a movie about tigers, I would have been okay. Sadly, it wasn’t about tigers. But there were English subtitles, so that kind of made up for it.
In the opening scenes, a young man was on his way to visit his grandmother (or maybe his mom) for some kind of important holiday celebration. From there, the movie went back in time to the Chinese Civil War when two rival militia groups were fighting for control of Tiger Mountain. There were a lot of stock characters – the handsome hero, the clumsy fat guy, the little boy you think is bad because he steals things but in the end it turns out he’s just hungry and alone and separated from his mom, the ugly villain with a trained animal that does his murderous bidding, etc. – but it was so action-packed and humorous that I was willing to overlook all that and just have fun with it.
It wasn’t until I’d been watching for about 45 minutes that I realized the “good guys” in this movie were the PLA (the communist People’s Liberation Army who would turn their guns against student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square just a few decades later). This probably shouldn’t have come as any big surprise in China, but it really put an interesting spin on the rest of the movie. The PLA fighters, I soon realized, were handsome and virtuous, selflessly fighting the slave masters and reuniting mothers with their lost children. The opposing army, on the other hand, was made up of stupid ugly people, who spent all day killing and kidnapping women and children. In the end, the leader of this army dies a well-deserved death by falling off of the mountain. The movie then returns to the present day where the young man reaches his grandmother’s (mom’s) house and has a big feast with the spirits of all the brave PLA soldiers who fought to take Tiger Mountain. I didn’t know it when the movie started, but by the end it was undeniable: Wow. I just watched a propaganda film.
Propaganda, of course, is a word with a bad reputation. When most of us hear something described as “propaganda” we have a tendency to think it must automatically be (a) deceptive and (b) loaded with bad intentions. I think that’s understandable, mainly because propaganda, even when it’s harmless, is a strange thing. By definition, it seeks to make people do, think, or want things they probably wouldn’t do, think, or want on their own. And I’m not just talking about political propaganda here. I’m talking about advertising, social movements, churches, and schools too. For example, this is propaganda:
It’s everywhere, and personally I find it very interesting. I love Pop Art and television commercials. If I’m driving down the street in Biloxi or New Orleans and see the Nation of Islam selling newspapers, I buy one. My obsession with Soviet, Nazi, and North Korean propaganda is well-documented. I have books filled with WWII posters from around the world, not to mention a whole collection of newsletters and pamphlets from Communist groups, UFO cults, neo-Nazi organizations, Act Up (a radical gay rights group), Westboro Baptist Church, hippie communes, the Church of Scientology, etc. I’m not interested in these people’s ideas; I’m interested in how their ideas are spread.
The groups I just mentioned are all pretty extreme, though. What I found interesting about The Taking of Tiger Mountain is how subtle the political message was. It wasn’t a movie that pelted you in the face with Communist ideology. It was an action movie where the good guys happened to be communists. By the end, you were cheering for them, even if you had no idea what they stood for or what kind of system they would establish once they were running the show. The same thing happens in a lot of American movies.
For the most recent example, think back just a few months ago to the controversy surrounding American Sniper. The protagonist, Chris Kyle, is depicted as a very decent, if troubled soldier. He’s a good friend, a loyal husband, a playful father, and later a supportive caretaker of wounded soldiers. He kills bad guys with deadly accuracy, and they all deserve it. And yet, the movie spends virtually no time at all asking what made Kyle’s job necessary in the first place (i.e. the people Kyle is killing wouldn’t be in Iraq if the US hadn’t invaded). Some friends and I went and saw it together, and when one of them asked me what I thought afterwards, my first comment was, “Do you know what would protect our military men and women even better than Chris Kyle? Not being in Iraq.” Whether you agree with me or not, it should go without saying that American Sniper fits the definition of a propaganda film.
For an even more explicit example, think back to good ole Rocky IV, wherein Rocky Balboa ends the Cold War by knocking out a deaf-mute Russian killing machine. You could do an entire Ph.D. dissertation on all the logical inconsistencies in this movie, but just admit it: when you’re flipping channels and Rocky IV is on, you watch it. I know, because I do the same thing. Next time it’s on, notice how many times the ringside announcers refer to Rocky’s opponent as “the Russian” or “the Soviet” instead of using his name. This is how political propaganda works, my friends. He’s not Ivan Drago. He’s one of them.
Sorry for the tangent there, dear readers. Sometimes when I’m interested in something, I just can’t stop myself. My point in mentioning all of this is that my fourth day in China, though somewhat uneventful, was very intellectually satisfying. It gave me a lot to think about.
Walking to the shopping district after the movie, I spotted a statue of Elvis outside a restaurant.
A few buildings down, I noticed a couple of places that reminded me of Korea.
But far and away my best discovery was that I could charge the hotel buffet to my room and have it deducted from the security deposit I paid when I first arrived. This established, I helped myself to shark strips, Peking duck, a number of soups and salads, sauteed vegetables, some dessert, and a criminal amount of Coke. It was a good day.