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:
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:
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.