An Unhappy New Year


On 8 February 1644, the first day of the Chinese New Year, the ministers of the Emperor of Lofty Omens woke before dawn and journeyed through the streets of Beijing. At the break of day, in keeping with tradition that stretched back for centuries, they would greet their 33-year-old ruler, whom the gods had selected to reign over the entire world. Then, the assembled throng would welcome in the new year, the 4341st since China’s first, legendary kings, and entreat the gods and ancestors to bring them good fortune.

The city, however, was quiet. Many of its inhabitants had succumbed to a harsh outbreak of disease the previous year, and according to one diarist, ‘no babies had been born in the city for the previous six months.’ Not all the ministers arrived at the palace on time. Those that did found the gates jammed shut, and were only able to open them with some difficulty. Eventually, they found the Emperor of Lofty Omens, in the Hall of the Central Ultimate. He was weeping.

China was doomed. The Dynasty of Brightness, the Ming, which had ruled the world’s largest nation for centuries, had lost its hold on power. A Confucian scholar would have been scandalised at the low attendance that morning; without a full complement of ministers, how could they perform the necessary ceremonies? But not even the Emperor himself bore a grudge against the absentees, or those who arrived late, wheezing breathless apologies. No amount of prayers and ceremony would change the inevitable, and no sacrifice, however elaborate, would attract the ancestors’ attention from the afterlife.

Besides, the Emperor could not afford it. Ever since the disastrous reign of his father, the nation’s budgets had spiralled wildly out of control. Attempts to curtail imperial luxuries were not enough, fundamental cornerstones of civilization had gone to ruin. The Grand Canal to the south was falling into disrepair, and the postal system had been shut down. Smallpox had wrought havoc among the farming communities, who struggled in vain to tease crops from the earth – though few realised at the time, the middle of the 17th century gripped the world in a mini-ice age. The same weather conditions that were then freezing over the Thames in London were also bringing deadly cold to the lands north of the Great Wall.

The Emperor was fated to fall. While the Great Wall still held, a new enemy struck from within. Starved of food and decimated by disease, a distant inland province rose up in revolt. An army of disaffected soldiers and peasants, began to march on the capital city, led by the rebel Li Zicheng.


Li Zicheng, formerly one of the post-riders who delivered mail along China’s once-great roads, had been obsessed with seizing control of the Empire from his youth. Not even losing an eye in battle dimmed his ardour, as one old prophecy had predicted the Empire would fall to a man with only one eye. His previous dealings with other members of the imperial family had been less than favourable. During his campaigns, he not only killed the Emperor’s uncle the Prince of Fu, but drank his blood, mixing it into his venison broth. Li Zicheng was the leader of a horde of almost 100,000 soldiers, boiling across the country towards Beijing, gathering still greater numbers as peasants flocked to its tax-free banners.

On New Year’s Day, as the Ming Emperor sat sobbing in his palace, Li Zicheng announced his intention to found a new dynasty. The Dynasty of Brightness, he said, had fallen. Long live the Da Shun, the Dynasty of Great Obedience.

With the usurper Li Zicheng advancing ever closer to Beijing, the Emperor of Lofty Omens knew it was time for drastic measures. Drunk and disoriented, he ordered for the Ming Heir Apparent to be smuggled out of the city. He gathered the rest of his family about him and informed them that it was time to die. Some of his wives and concubines had already committed suicide, and were found hanged or poisoned in their chambers. Others had fled. There was no such option for the immediate family of the Emperor, who attacked his own children with a sword. The 15-year-old Princess Imperial held out her right arm to stay his attack, and the Emperor hacked it off. The maimed girl fled screaming through the halls, leaving a trail of blood. Her younger sisters were not so lucky, and both died where they stood, stabbed by their own father. The Emperor then went to the base of nearby hill, where he wrote a final message in his own blood, before hanging himself as Li Zicheng’s army drew closer. Later writers would claim the Emperor’s last words blamed his ministers and his own ‘small virtue’ for the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, and exhorted the rebels to spare his people from suffering. In fact, the Emperor’s bleeding finger simply traced the plaintive, spidery characters ‘Son of Heaven.’ His body lay undiscovered for three days.

Extract from Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and US.

Chinese SF

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I update the comprehensive “China” entry with details of the recent China Film Administration paper on the future of sf movies.

“Politically, this could be seen as the statement of a case for sf as a worthy contributor to modern Chinese society, pre-empting a backlash like that of 1983; practically, it risks adding little to the genre in China except an additional level of management.”

Martial Arts

Clements explains how, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), government censorship and oppression was so invasive that it’s difficult to distinguish historical fact from fiction. “Add to that the damage done to the record by the hundred years of upheavals after the Opium Wars, and then the damage done again in the Cultural Revolution, and there are vast swathes of Chinese martial arts history that were only really curated and maintained by, say, the Hong Kong movie industry,” he adds.

Over at National Geographic, Dominic Bliss interviews me about the history of the martial arts.

Skiptrace (2016)

In press junkets for his previous film Chinese Zodiac, much was made of Jackie Chan’s “retirement” from action films, somewhat to the actor’s chagrin. The 62-year-old Chan was obliged to run damage control on his own career, pleading that he was certainly going to make more films, but that his advancing years made him less likely to perform his own stunts or do anything mental. But you’d be forgiven for thinking it was business as usual in Skiptrace, in which Chan can be seen fighting his way through a Russian factory, leaping from a collapsing Hong Kong slum, and dangling from a man’s trousers on a perilous ravine zipline. It’s only when you look closer that you see the occasional stuntman substitution, or that Chan’s co-star Johnny Knoxville, a man famous for shooting himself out of a cannon or eating a goat’s testicles on many a Jackass, is volunteering to take some of the harder knocks.

As Chan’s foil Connor Watts, Knoxville initially seems to be appearing in two different movies, on the run from the Russian mob, and framed for murder by a Macao casino syndicate. Benny (Chan) is the weary Hong Kong cop sent to bring in the fugitive Watts, unaware that he is carrying a cellphone that would solve Benny’s decade-long quest to unmask the criminal kingpin known as the Matador. For reasons not entirely clear (if they can cross the border, they can surely get on a plane), the impecunious pair is obliged to travel by land from Irkutsk to Hong Kong, with a travelogue narrative that focuses almost entirely on either end of the 5000-kilometre journey, ignoring most of the central Chinese locations they would have had to cross in favour of the ethnic hinterlands of Inner Mongolia and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Chan and Knoxville traverse a bunch of picturesque settings – a lantern festival, cormorant fishing on the Yangtze, the mountains of Guilin, entire mountainsides of rice terraces – all as a backdrop to the formulaic knockabout action that has made Chan a global superstar. Critics in America have been quick to site this film in Chan’s late period in Hollywood, alongside other foreign buddy franchises like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. But Finnish director Renny Harlin has managed a remarkable evocation of the mood of Chan’s Cantonese movies of the early-1990s, such as Cityhunter and Police Story 3, when he was working with Wong Jing and Stanley Tong. Harlin’s film (or more aptly, its script) also inherits many of the flaws of that era – underwritten female characters, plotting that takes itself about as seriously as the clowning action sequences, and a condescending attitude towards anyone who isn’t ethnic-majority Han Chinese. The characters plough through local colour like tourists on a speedboat, inadvertently asserting privileged disdain, even as they document diversity. One wonders what the reaction would have been if he had made a similar road movie traversing the United States, and how various local communities would have reacted. Hahaha, the Navajo are all drunken brawlers; heeheehee, the Sioux are toothless swindlers; hohoho, those Negros sure love a good sing-song!

Parts of the film seem to have been flung together against the clock, including a couple of moments in which the actors shrug off sudden drizzle, and a closing act in which two scenes appear to  have been included out of order. Jokes about Chan’s inability to swim might seem tasteless in the light of the death by drowning mid-production of cinematographer Chan Kwok-hung. A recurring jump-cut motif propels the narrative along by discarding large chunks of exposition and development, but also papering thinly over plot holes. At least two key elements of the story – justice for the murderer Victor Wong (Winston Chau), and Knoxville’s shotgun marriage – are revealed as self-resolving problems for which the actions of the characters are entirely redundant. But this, too, is a faithful evocation of the breakneck pace of pre-Handover Hong Kong action films; Harlin’s movie is a note-perfect pastiche of Chan’s 1990s heyday, opening with a manga-in-motion series of comics cutaways, introducing the cast in a pop-art style. Fun veritably seeps out through all this movie’s cracks, from an opening sequence in which Chan initiates an attack on a bad guys’ hide-out, armed only with a bra and negligee, to a sequence in which Fan Bingbing tries and largely fails to conceal how much she is enjoying a fight scene in which she takes out her attackers with a taser and a fish tank.

There are several easter eggs for certain sectors of the audience. I failed to spot the Finnish flag that Harlin habitually hides in his films, but did note the snarling cameo for wrestling star Eve Torres Garcia, and the oh-so-meta moment when Knoxville, obliged to sing his way past an honour guard of tribal girls, chooses to belt out “Please Understand My Heart”, a Jackie Chan hit from 1991. The gangsters in pursuit, on the other hand, mumble their way through a half-hearted rendition of “You Are My Little Apple”, the novelty hit of 2014. And in an utterly bizarre musical interlude, Chan whips up a bunch of Mongols into a rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”.

Meanwhile, in an odd moment of political cheekiness, Chan’s character expresses his desire to retire and run an alpaca farm, noting that these animals are a symbol of freedom. That they may be, but they are also a notorious icon of Chinese internet dissidence, striking an oddly right-on note for a man who has spent the last decade in alliance and cooperation with the authorities.

Strangest of all, despite a worldwide release in dozens of countries, Skiptrace has yet to appear on UK movie schedules, nor at time of writing has it been submitted to the BBFC. Harlin’s status as a local boy saw his film released in Finland last weekend, where I sat amid an audience of usually stoic Finns, laughing their tits off at was surely their first-ever Jackie Chan film. You can see this movie in the United States, in Holland, in Singapore… but it seems strangely absent from UK schedules. Is a distributor saving it for the Christmas feel-good rush, or has its kitchen-sink assembly of kicks in the goolies, an Adele sing-along, on-screen horse-poo  and white-water rafting on inflatable pig-skins failed to include anything that will interest a British audience? Something for everybody, even the Finns… but not the British…?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy, which is also a road trip about two bickering buddies, forced to cross China undercover. This article originally appeared on the Funimation UK site in 2016, but has since been deleted.

To The Distant Observer

The cameraman is in my living room. The director is in Brighton or somewhere like that, skyping in on a laptop perched on top of a stack of books so that we have the same eyeline. COVID-19 doesn’t prevent the recording of my appearance on Channel Five’s forthcoming history of the last thousand years in China, to be broadcast in the autumn.

Qiu Jin

Executed on this day in history: Qiu Jin.

She read forbidden pamphlets, printed by the revolutionary overseas Chinese organizations in distant Japan, and she wrote The Song of the Precious Sword, in which she accused China of being in a coma. China, she wrote needed to wake up and remember its great past. It needed to listen to the tolling of the bell signified by the “white devils” who occupied Beijing. It needed people like her to risk their lives, pick up swords, shining brighter than jewels “in the light of the sun and moon.”

There! There it was, a sun-moon reference to the lost Ming dynasty – a clarion call to rebels. And if that were not clear enough, the song included a call for suicidal resistance, recalling the infamous assassination attempt on the man who would become the First Emperor.

Don’t you recall Jing Ke’s visit to the court of Qin? / When the map was unrolled, the dagger appeared! / Although he failed to stab him there in the palace / He still managed to rob the evil tyrant of his soul!

Qiu Jin sometimes liked to use a pen-name meaning the Woman Warrior of Mirror Lake, likening herself to a wandering heroine from a fantasy novel. Her writings obsess constantly over swords, using terminology lifted from heroic romances. She idolized the Song dynasty hero Yue Fei, writing at least two songs of her own to the tune of his The River All in Red:

My body will not allow me / To mingle with the men / But my heart is far braver / Than that of a man.

It was in Beijing that Qiu Jin stopped wearing make-up and started attending protests in men’s clothes. Arguing with her wastrel, abusive husband, who wanted to take a concubine for himself, she walked out on him and their two children. “I have pawned my hairpins and my rings,” she wrote, “to travel across the ocean.”

The author Lu Xun, then a young medical student in Japan, witnessed her brandishing a knife before a crowd of Chinese ex-pats and telling them they could stab her with it if she bowed to the Manchus. Qiu Jin published several short-lived magazines and polemic articles in Japan, working towards a theory of revolution that argued that China’s men had failed, and that the country could only become strong again through the education and liberation of its women. Alluding to the medieval feminism of Empress Wu, she wrote that women in ancient times were fully the equals of men. Referring to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, then a hit in translation among Chinese literati, she compared the status of women in China to that of Negro slaves in America.

Women, she said, had to stand up, and that involved unbinding their feet from centuries of oppression. “These… shoes,” she wrote, “condemn us to inaction. This must change!”

In Japan, Qiu Jin began work on an epic poem, Stones of the Jingwei Bird, a reference to a drowned princess, reincarnated as a bird, who drops pebbles one by one into the sea in a vain attempt to fill it. A powerful, on-the-nose allegory of China, it was set in a fantasy realm, whose ancient Yellow kings had once been great men, but whose descendants were increasingly somnolent and distracted, and whose modern successors were in a state of permanent slumber. Their ministers were befuddled and myopic, prepared to bow to the throne even when a foreigner sat on it, looking only to their own self-interest, and pointing at “primitive books” that justified “keeping women in fetters and ensure that they remained stupid.”

Foot-binding, she wrote, was merely the most obvious, painful, pointless hobbling of women in Chinese society, and Chinese society could not see that by holding back its womenfolk – from education and liberation – it was holding back its own ability to resist foreign oppression. And in her fictional allegory, the Queen Mother of the West, ancient Daoist deity, sent a divine squadron of “golden lads and jade maidens” to study in Japan and return to China to save it from itself.

She returned to China, travelling third-class, dressed as a man and wearing a sword for protection. She was fulsome in her praise for Japan, which had proven the power of modernization by winning the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Back among her friends in Shanghai and Shaoxing, she encouraged them to get drunk and perform sword-dances. In 1907, she accepted the post of principal of the Datong School for Girls, where her students would sing lyrics like her Lament for China:

So why do we find it impossible to surpass these white men?

It is because we are locked in a prison of darkness…

Qiu Jin blamed white men for China’s troubles, but she also blamed men in general for ruining women’s potential. In particular, she blamed the Manchus – the symbol of her rebel organization was the character Han, asserting a desire for return of Chinese rule to the Chinese.

From A Brief History of China, by Jonathan Clements.

The Chinese Cinema Book

“Several years ago, I was approached by a well-known film company with a Chinese subsidiary that was in the market for animation feature scripts. They needed a feature project that would allow them to spend some of the capital that was effectively trapped in China, and for that, they needed a script with global appeal but a Chinese subject.

“It could have been the opportunity of a lifetime for me, and I had plenty of ideas, but every single one of them was defeated by the spectre of what the censor might say – that intractable hydra that refuses to allow dissent, superstition, discussion of half of the things that make China remotely interesting.

“I wanted to retell Aladdin in its ‘original’ Xinjiang setting. I wanted to make an ethnically-accurate Mulan, suffused with Xianbei weirdness. I wanted to tell stories of the Taiping religious fanatics, or the pirate king who stood up to the Manchus. But every idea came with potential triggers – too tribal, too controversial, too likely to be shut down for ‘historical nihilism’, that catch-all Party category for any historian who dares to question current assumptions. Those same censors later turned around and waved through Pixar’s Coco because ghosts are okay after all if they have hearts, or something. Eventually, I gave up even trying.”

Over at All the Anime, I reminisce about what might have been, while reviewing Bloomsbury’s new Chinese Cinema Book.

Templed Out

In Buddhist Tourism in Asia, editors Courtney Bruntz and Brooke Schedneck assemble a team of contributors determined to address the turning of temples in Japan, Cambodia, Thailand and beyond into sites that somehow entertain tour buses full of fair-weather Buddhists, people who are just there for a selfie, and the truly devout.

For tourists from both inside and outside China, far too many trips are joyless trudges around identical precincts, accompanied by sullen ruminations about where they are going next, what’s for lunch, or how soon they can duck out and go for karaoke. The sense of being “templed out” is a common malaise. On occasions when I have shown visitors around China or Japan, I have always taken care to make sure that we are never approaching a redline beyond which wherever we are is “just another temple.” Even with those clients for whom a visit is little more than box to tick on a grim series of compulsory sites, I try to limit the number of locations, and to make sure that they mean something for the visitor. Otherwise, why are they there?

Inevitably, there are elements of farce, particularly in accounts of Buddhist tourism in the People’s Republic of China, where the state is professedly atheist, but still supports immense religious pilgrimages in the name of cultural and historical tourism. This leads to bizarre contradictions like Niushou Mountain outside Nanjing (pictured above), a lavish cathedral-like space to rival La Sagrada Familia, knocked up in recent times to house a piece of Buddha’s skull. It’s a breath-taking multi-level sacred space, staffed by “guides” in monks’ robes determined to tell everybody that precisely zero religion is going on, because that would be superstition in the eyes of the Party. It is emphatically not a temple; it is apparently a “cultural tourism zone.” All the chanting, processions and ceremonies you see are hence mere theatre, although whether it is to appease the gods or the Party, your guess is as good as mine.

The powers that be in China want to encourage their own tourists to spend more money locally, and are particularly keen on sacred mountains. After noting that the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China drew three million visitors in 2012, some bright spark wondered if China shouldn’t create a fifth sacred mountain in order to increase the revenue. As Justin Ritzinger notes in his chapter, “Marketing Maitreya,” Buddhism doesn’t have a Vatican that can rule on such notions – instead, in the ultimate test of propaganda, the authorities have to make one up and hope that the public fall for it.

Ritzinger recounts his visits to the two top-runners in the competition to be the hot new new holy hill, one in Zhejiang and the other in Guizhou, and the strong-arming of visitors into making “donations” that are purportedly devotional, but actually compulsory. They don’t care if you are a secret believer or a committed Marxist, they just want a “voluntary” gift of £100. Smartly, Ritzinger relates the whole affair to the work of Pierre Bourdieu – there are “three kinds of capital” in play here, social, economic and cultural.

Courtney Bruntz offers a more optimistic account of modern monasteries, suggesting that a faction within the Buddhist world is playing the propagandists at their own game, taking to digital media like ducks to water, offering online enlightenment and a prolonged, subtle crusade against irreligiosity.

Brian J Nicholls takes things even further, questioning whether there is anything really wrong in the first place with the commodification of religious experience, bearing in mind that the selling of indulgences and, for want of a better word, lucky gonks, has been commonplace for thousands of years. “Running a vegetarian restaurant or a tea-shop is not something so radically new,” he observes, drawing an important distinction between marketing to devotees (xiangke) versus cash-ins for the tourists (youke), and noting, like Ritzinger, that even in the forking over of donations, the capital we are talking about is not necessarily merely money. Nicholls even quips that being able to tolerate the occasional tour bus should be an exercise for monks in comprehending the doctrines of non-attachment and impermanence. Maybe somewhere among the myriad Chinese hells there is a Hell of Trying to Stop People from Taking Photographs of the Mummified Abbot and a Hell of Running the Ice Cream Concession Near the Holy Fountain.

Nicholls points to the Shaolin Temple as the most extreme example of commodified tourism, although speaking as a commodified tourist, for me it was also the best value for money, where a single day was really not enough time to see everything it had to offer. Shaolin is an important site in the history of Zen Buddhism, but also in the history of the martial arts, and I paid for an expensive but deeply rewarding private tour, taking in the temple’s role in Tang history, Chinese medicine, and the spread of kung fu.

If I might lean for a moment, like many of the book’s contributors, on Bourdieu myself, I might even suggest that the main issue at hand is not capital at all, but “distinction”. If you’re the kind of idiot who travels for three hours through the Chinese countryside to see a famous temple, and then jumps for joy because there are hawkers selling plastic machine guns in the courtyard and a cosplay stall that will let you dress up as an emperor, then I don’t much care if you think your ticket was over-priced. In fact, I rather wish that it were a little bit more expensive, enough to discourage such numpties from showing up in the first place.

Which brings us back to the central tensions manifest in many a chapter in this book, that nobody has a casting vote on precisely what the temples are for, and for a certain class of trader (like the man who sells plastic machine guns in the courtyard), the ideal visitor is a fractious seven-year-old, bored out of his mind after a long coach trip, and demanding immediate parental appeasement.

Spider-Man mask now; enlightenment later.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Buddhist Tourism in Asia is out now from the University of Hawaii Press.