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Aftershock and the legacy of the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake

Feng Xiaogang’s new movie 唐山大地震 (Aftershock) is setting all-kinds of domestic box office records this week.  I haven’t seen it yet, but good friend and fellow China blogger Modern Lei Feng has reviewed the movie.  He said:

When I first heard about the movie, I thought this was Feng’s way of capitalizing off the Sichuan earthquake.  Going into the movie, I had low expectations, and when it started and the credits included a minute of producers and executive producers,  I sat back and prepared for a movie along the lines of “Founding of the Republic”, where everyone in the Chinese movie industry was falling over themselves to play a role in the CCP’s love letter in film to itself.  If not that, it would be an overly contrived attempt to cram history into a movie lacking a story like Summer Palace.  Spoiler alerts below (not that there’s a lot that can be spoiled), so if you want it all to be fresh, wait until you’ve watched the movie before reading on.

This is not like either of those, it is definitely a movie with a story to tell and while the earthquake’s “aftershocks” loom large throughout the movie, the actual event is over after the first 30 minutes.  That 30 minutes is incredibly moving though.  I’m convinced the Red Cross should have a 30 minute informercial every year where they just show the first 25 minutes of the movie, its bound to bring in more than they’ve ever taken in before.  It gets pretty graphic with parts of buildings constantly falling and crushing people and while it feels like the quake scene goes on for a long time, it probably is over in a few minutes.

As movies — and especially domestically produced ‘blockbusters’ — go, Aftershock sounds like a winner.  Though…anything has GOT to be better than Founding of the Republic, and by “anything” I am including having a rabid iguana shoved into your intestinal cavity and your rectum sewn shut.

But nobody comes here for my taste in movies, so what about the historical aspects of the film? In The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report, Shen Hong criticized the movie, writing that while moving and heartwarming, the film generally glossed over the social and political context for the tragedy and overlooked key factors in the disaster, such as officials ignoring earthquake warnings in the weeks leading up to the quake and the slow recovery due to the Chinese government’s decision to turn down foreign aid in the aftermath.

Shen quotes blogger and commentator Shi Shusui:

“Without the particular historical background, ‘Aftershock’ is undoubtedly a wonderful movie of moral education… Regrettably, history is history. It can’t be wiped out or eliminated,” wrote Shi Shusi, one of China’s leading current-affairs commentators and bloggers.

“It seems it would go against an artist’s conscience to keep evading or even whitewashing previous tragedies without undergoing any deep self-reflection or genuine repentance,” Shi added.

But is that really the point of historical dramas? Does it always need to be about the suffering?

On his blog, Bruce Hume translated an excerpt from an interview with the adapter of the screenplay, Su Xiaowei who, Humes reminds us, also moonlights on the Film Review Board at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).

“Besides [changes to] the structure of the story, the movie also “performed major surgery” on the theme; the basic tone of the story was altered from one of darkness and pain, to one of warmth and hope [in the film]. The novelist Zhang Ling intended to convey that even after the disaster was over, the ravaged land gradually flattened and structures rebuilt, the blood from the wounds scratched open by the earthquake in the souls of children continued to ooze silently long thereafter”

Later she adds:

Film is a mass medium that speaks to greater numbers of viewers, and it’s not like a book that represents a more ‘personalized’ account. After all, a film should offer a sense of warmth and consolation.

I felt like I needed an expert opinion and so I turned to James Palmer.  James is the author of The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia and is currently working on a new book about the Tangshan earthquake.  Last week, in his secret identity as mild-mannered op-ed editor for The Global Times English edition, James had this to say about the new movie:

When I went to see Aftershock, I was expecting it to match its Chinese title, The Great Tangshan Earthquake. As it turned out, the 1976 earthquake, which killed at least a quarter of a million people, was over in the first 15 minutes, which then turned into a family drama spanning the next 30 years.

As a historian of the Tangshan Earthquake, I was a little disappointed; it was like going to see Titanic and watching the boat sink in the first half hour.

I asked James if he would comment on the Wall Street Journal blog post, and expand his thoughts about the historicity of Feng Xiaogang’s movie.  This is his reply:

The earthquake prediction stuff is bollocks, and pseudoscience for the most part.  It comes up sometimes in conversations with Tangshanese, but all the seismologists I spoke to, Chinese and foreign, were scathing about it. Nobody can predict earthquakes reliably; China had a lucky experience with the Haicheng earthquake, where it was successfully predicted (and an evacuation took place) because of a series of foreshocks, and there were general predictions of a a possible earthquake in the Hebei belt, but it’s a far cry from that to calling a time, date, and scale, never mind what would have been required – closing down one of the foremost industrial cities in China and evacuating 1.6 million people.

Qinglong County, a couple of hundred miles away in the mountains, did carry out an evacuation based on local signs and judgements, and had no casualties – but, based on conducting interviews with locals, they seem to have also quite significantly exagerated the scale of their evacuation and the threat posed afterwards; I spoke to local village and militia heads who had heard nothing of a prediction or evacuation, and Qinglong is a long, long way from the epicenter, so even villages that didn’t evacuate (most of them) suffered no fatalities.

What the movie didn’t show was that the PLA efforts were concentrated almost entirely in the centre of Tangshan, so that people living on the outskirts didn’t see any form of relief for a week, and most of the surrounding countryside – where the fatality rate was also very high and the damage devastating – saw no sign of gov’t relief at all.

It’s always tough to do history as movie.  The demands of entertainment strain against the weight of what actually (or what we think might actually) have happened. But it sounds like Aftershock is worth seeing, even if some of the details are a little amiss. Besides, I could use a good cry.

Posted by on August 2, 2010.

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Categories: Chinese History, Guest Posts

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About Jottings from the Granite Studio

Jeremiah Jenne grew up in Atkinson, NH and is the Executive Director of The Hutong, Beijing’s premier cultural exchange center. In his spare time, Jeremiah runs the Chinese history site Jottings from the Granite Studio.   He has written for the China Beat, the online edition of the Atlantic Monthly, and The Economist. He has also contributed essays to two […]more →