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The book, the film and the art that created the biggest headlines in China in 2021

China can't get enough of the US, Eight-Nation Alliance, and Lady Dior. Here's a look back at events that inspired controversy in 2021.

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From ‘Western aesthetics’ to ‘revisionist histories’, Chinese politics and society in 2021 — just like in recent years — opposed certain ideas and portrayals. There is always another book on a ‘sensitive’ topic like the Eight-Nation Alliance or a movie featuring the United States that will create fresh controversy in China. We look back at the movies, the books and the art that inspired strong emotions, and of course, controversy.

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Chinese blockbuster films

The Korean War of the 1950s is a theme on which a dozen TV series and movies are made every year in China. Memorialising past wars stimulates nationalistic sentiment among Chinese. But nothing compares to the latest Chinese Communist Party-sponsored blockbuster The Battle at Lake Changjin that set out to press the nerve of nationalism. The film, which recently won the Golden Deer at Changchun Film Festival, is a re-telling of the battle that is also remembered by the name Battle of Chosin Reservoir, after the Japanese name for Lake Changjin in North Korea.

The budget for The Battle at Lake Changjin was a whopping $200 million, making it China’s most expensive movie to date. The film is also the second-highest box-office grossing sensation in the history of Chinese cinema. The movie did a business of $905 million to date, making it the best performing blockbuster in China for 2021.

The timing of The Battle at Lake Changjin’s release is no coincidence, as the movie targets a country that swings back and forth from being China’s love affair to being its arch-enemy – the US. Geopolitics is not taken as lightly by Chinese people as it might be in America.

The movie is in the tradition of recent Communist Party cinema, omitting the difficulties of Chinese soldiers who fought against US forces. The portrayal of the Chinese soldiers as cold and battle-hardened warriors, who defeated the US forces with their sheer bravery, is a Communist Party pastiche that people have gobbled up like dumplings. Government-approved propaganda movies have a history in China, but the new ballooned budgets and special effects try to create visually appealing narratives like The Battle at Lake Changjin.

No one expected the movie to tell us how Mao sent over 300,000 soldiers on a suicidal mission, but there was some hope of sobriety. What we got instead was on expected lines — flaky nationalism. The film casually glosses over the fact that 180,000 Chinese soldiers were killed in the Korean War.

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Liu Qikun’s ‘drug book’

Not just films, writing books in Chinese has become increasingly tricky as well. Stories deviating from the official line are often targeted. The recent title Eight-Nation Alliance is a Righteous Army by Beijing-born Liu Qikun was pulled from bookstores in Hong Kong. However, bookstores said that the book actually sold out quickly after it was criticised by pro-Chinese media. The book was published in Chinese by Taiwan-based China Times Publishing.

This is not Liu’s first such reception. He emigrated to Canada in the 1980s and wrote novels that were critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its control over society. In this book, he wrote that the war waged by the Eight-Nation Alliance was for a just cause to prevent a humanitarian crisis. The battle was waged to protect the rights of the foreigners and missionaries in China who were suppressed by the Qing empire.

Chinese state media classified Liu’s book as a “drug book”, a term used for a banned book that doesn’t align with Communist Party’s thinking. The Global Times in Chinese alleged that the book violates Hong Kong’s new National Security Law. “Under the banner of revisionist history, the book exaggerated the killings by the ‘Boxers’ and the Manchu Qing government’s toleration of the ‘Boxers’… The book ignored the fact that countless villages and towns were reduced to ruins and a large number of people were slaughtered in China,” wrote Ye Lan, the Global Times correspondent in Hong Kong.

In June 1900, the Boxer rebels (those part of the local militia who knew martial arts — referred to as ‘Chinese boxing’) and the Chinese imperial troops attacked the foreign diplomats of multiple nations in the legations as they sought to push out the European presence in China.

The Eight-Nation Alliance comprising Britain, Russia, France, Japan, Germany, the United States, Italy, and Austria-Hungary counterattacked the Boxer rebels and the Chinese imperial troops, culminating in multiple battles and the final siege of Peking (now Beijing). The conflict between the two parties came to an end with the signing of the Box Protocol in 1901.

As expected, Liu’s book generated controversy since the official narrative of the CCP paints the Eight-Nation Alliance as an aggressor against China.

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Western standards of Asian beauty

China’s nationalism is at odds with even Chinese audiences who have come to love luxury brands. But they are also sensitive to their notion of aesthetics and beauty, as illustrated by their critique of a recent photograph.

Christian Dior, the luxury brand, found itself in a controversy after state media attacked a famous fashion photographer named Chen Man. An image of a woman holding a Dior bag was criticised for its aesthetics pandering to ‘Western standards of Asian beauty’.

The picture, part of the Lady Dior exhibition in the Shanghai art centre, was taken down after drawing attacks from Chinese state media. Beijing Daily criticised the work by describing the image as having “spooky eyes, gloomy face, and a Qing Dynasty-style nail armour”.

The image is an impression by the photographer that can be liked or disliked, but the kind of backlash the exhibition elicited tells you that the Chinese want their brands to ascribe to their brand of nationalism.

“Chen’s overly-staged visual style speaks to an older aesthetic, which is now out of fashion among today’s youth — and speaks to a decline of the global importance of the West’s racist status quo,” said Jing Daily, a website focused on the business of luxury in China.

China is ending 2021 with the return of Covid-19 restrictions in Xi’an and the rising cases, but we know for sure that just like this year, 2022 will be buzzing with controversies.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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