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Interesting Times (I): Confucius on SARFT

Yesterday afternoon, word got out that the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) — the wild and crazy guys responsible for approving foreign films for screening in China, issuing shooting permits and then distribution permits for Chinese movies, and spoiling everyone’s fun once things get too popular — was dropping the axe on Avatar, which has broken box office records in China. All 2D screenings of Avatar will be pulled from theaters starting Saturday, though 3D and IMAX screenings will be unaffected.

A number of Western media outlets — including many that should really know better — have speculated that the decision was motivated by “fears of unrest,” pointing to a few people online who have compared the plight of the furries in Avatar to that of Chinese being forcibly evicted from their homes. This is unlikely, if only because SARFT is just not all that clued-in: they approved District 9 last year even though it was obviously all about Kashgar, and it looks like the remaining installments of the Harry Potter series will continue to be screened in China, despite their scathing critique of the national gaokao college entrance examinations.
The real reason for the move is plain old petty protectionism, pure and simple:  Confucius, which stars Chow Yun-fat as the eponymous sage, opens on Friday, and the China Film Group wants to make sure that it does at least respectable business over the Chinese New Year holiday, despite the lackluster reviews it got at advance screenings.

This is kind of a dick move, but it’s not really a new one — SARFT has been doing this for at least 5,000 years. It is, in fact, such an ancient tradition that Confucius himself offered some commentary on similar occurrences:

(This could be the first in an ongoing series, HWCM — How Would Confucius be Misquoted/Mistranslated? Most quotations are from Chapter IV of the Analects, 里仁 – “Dwelling in Ren” - which E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks deem in The Original Analects — recommended reading, by the way — to be most likely the original sayings of Confucius. Translations and mistranslations, deliberate and accidental, are all my own.)

Regarding fears that Avatar could overshadow Confucius:
“…I do not worry that I will be unappreciated; rather I seek to be worthy of appreciation.”

Regarding the China Film Group and SARFT’s motives in yanking Avatar:
The Master said: “The superior man focuses on what is right; the petty man focuses on small gains.”

Regarding the ideal state of SARFT and the China Film Group’s consciences:
The Master said: “Wealth and status are what all men desire, but if a man cannot attain them by acting in accordance with his principles, he should not hold them.”

Regarding this kind of robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul:
子曰:孰謂微生高直?或乞醃焉,乞諸鄰而與之。 (V.24)
The Master said: “Who would call Weisheng Gao upright? Someone once begged some vinegar of him, and he went and begged it of his neighbor to give it to him.”

Regarding the possible source of this poor judgement:
子曰:人之過也,各於其黨. (IV.7)

Of course, there are later passages in the Analects that might cast things in a different light. In Chapter IX, which the Brookses note “…documents contemporary economic and material progress, and the parallel growth of the government bureaucracy,” we find Confucius displaying a slightly more market-oriented approach.

Zigong said: I have a beautiful jade. Should I wrap it up and store it away, or should I seek a good price and sell it?”
The Master said: “Sell it! Sell it! I am just waiting for a buyer.”

Zigong, of course, is comparing his unemployed teacher’s virtue to the jade. His question — and Confucius’ response, which might as well be translated “Sell me! Sell me!” — is shocking in the context of Confucius’ earlier sayings, suggesting as it does that virtue is simply another commodity that can be bought or sold. I’ve got no particular interest in Avatar — or in Confucius, for that matter — but it looks here like SARFT and the China Film Group could be accused of doing the same.  Not very Confucian of them.

…Especially since the director cut out the scenes where Confucius fights off dudes with his walking stick! Confucius was always fighting off dudes with his walking stick. Believe.


  1. If you have made a movie starring Chow Yun-Fat that does not include a scene where he is fighting off dudes with a stick, you have completely missed the point of Chow Yun-Fat.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 11:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Stephen N wrote:

    >pointing to a few people online who have compared the plight of the furries in Avatar to that of Chinese being forcibly evicted from their homes.
    There was a massive Avatar review on the front page of the 7th of January 南方周末 culture section with the headline “史上最牛钉子户 VS “史上最惨强拆队“. And I seem to remember seeing the forced eviction comparison in at least a couple of other publications. I suppose that might just show how influential internet memes are on the media.
    Anyway, i’m sure you’re right about making way for Confucius being the most important factor.

    Also, I share your admiration for the work of the Brooks – have you checked out their website ( They seem to be quite eccentric and right on the edge of responsible scholarship. That’s why I like them.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 2:06 am | Permalink
  3. Yeah, I read the Warring States Project website every now and then, and always find something new there to spend an afternoon on. Lots of great articles there.

    Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  4. Sam wrote:

    Great post!

    Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Permalink
  5. yongsik wrote:

    District 9 is really more about Apartheid.. no? And Harry Potter related to gaokao.. kind of a stretch.

    You are right about cultural protectionism though. It’s the same reason World of Warcraft was shut down on trumped up charges. This kind of thing is pretty much normal in China, but Westerners find it so incredible they have to look for other explanations besides protectionism.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 3:58 am | Permalink
  6. Yongsik,

    I think Brendan’s reference to the gaokao and to Kashgar were made with tongue planted firmly in cheek, though I could be wrong.

    Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  7. Frank H wrote:

    Glad you’re back; had a great laugh!

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  8. Bill Dan wrote:

    I recall when foreign (including Japanese) cartoons were yanked from TV here, except for Sponge Bob, and were all replaced with Chinese cartoons. It was the only way to get people to watch Chinese made animations.

    Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  9. Richard Sharpe wrote:


    “This is unlikely, if only because SARFT is just not all that clued-in: they approved District 9 last year even though it was obviously all about Kashgar,”

    How can there be so many views about District 9?

    Are you the two of you talking about different films? Was there a different release for China perhaps? Perhaps everyone simply feels free to make shit up about movies.

    (Yeah, I noticed the suggestion about tongue in cheek, but if the English I grew up learning is something like the language he employs, then it seems unlikely. The fragment I quoted above, and the follow-on comments about the 高考, were offered as evidence of how clueless the Chinese at SARFT are in detecting criticism of China, although perhaps with respect to the 高考 they simply don’t care.)

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  10. Wynci wrote:

    Interesting quote. But with the last one: “子貢曰:有美玉於斯,韞併而藏諸,求善買而沽諸?子曰:沽之哉,沽之哉!我待買者也。” I’d think what Confucius is trying to say, is that rather than putting a beautiful piece of jade away, it is better to sell it to someone who understands its worth. Just like he himself, is looking for an employer who recognises his value.

    Monday, February 1, 2010 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

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