Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Confucius: the Action Movie

Happy (Gregorian) New Year, all. I don’t suppose they’ll consider remaking “Alexander,” only with Liam Neeson playing Aristotle and making the whole plot revolve around him. But that’s what someone’s done in China with Confucius, starring Chow Yun Fat as Confucius:

(Thanks to my cinephile friend, Lee, for the notice. ) Comments welcome, of course…

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January 11, 2010 - Posted by | Confucius

14 Comments »

  1. I assume the white-haired guy on the cliff is Laozi. The handsome young man must be Yanhui?

    And here’s the slightly less bombastic trailer for it:

    Comment by Manyul Im | January 11, 2010 | Reply

  2. It will be interesting to see a Kongzi defined as much by his actions as by his teachings, if not moreso. (And by actions I mean “big-moment actions” [as in “big-moment ethics”] of the kind many present interpreters of the Lunyu find to be of secondary interest.) The trailer actually made me think about Mohist denunciations of his political finaglings…

    Now that those gears are turning, I wonder if the relative emphasis on “style of life” over “big-moment ethics” in current Lunyu interpretation is joined to a vision of Kongzi as basically always unsuccessful and not politically involved. The feeling I have gotten is that much secondary literature assumes a focus on the family, on immediate relations, maybe on local society, while giving less attention to Kongzi-narratives wherein Kongzi is in positions of political responsibility. Even if he only made it to “Minister of Crime”, that position involved deciding whom to punish in what way, as detailed in Xunzi.

    Comment by Stephen C. Walker | January 11, 2010 | Reply

  3. That’s an interesting idea. Are there reported practical choices of Confucius that are as interesting as the sayings?

    When Kupperman speaks of “big moment ethics,” his idea seems to be that according to “traditional moral codes,” morality is limited to certain discrete and largely negative requirements such that doing our best to be fully moral requires only very occasional “moments” of attention to the moral requirements.

    Hmm. The more power a person has, the greater her responsibility and the knottier her circumstances, so that she is likely to have to attend to a code more often than less powerful people in order to violate it no more. In that sense, the same code that amounts to a big-moment ethic for people in private life may amount to a small-moment ethic for people in public life. But public life may for the same reason be a better laboratory than private life for testing the code’s ideas.

    We do have narratives of moral choice in the Analects. At least, I’ve noticed one set, showing Confucius’ struggle between rules of purity on the one hand, and more saliently consequential concerns on the other. We see him repeatedly inclined to go for the results; but giving in to Zilu’s admonition (17.5, 17.7; cf. 6.28). What would the lesson be?

    Comment by Bill Haines | January 11, 2010 | Reply

    • Interesting question; we might try to look at the lesson in terms of “rational regret” at something of value that is lost (purity?), even though something of greater value is gained. The risk seems fairly high for the deliberator, given that, by hypothesis, she is willing to trade something relatively certain of value for some set of consequences that is likely, but not certain to follow. Something like that.

      Comment by Manyul Im | January 11, 2010 | Reply

    • Maybe you’re right: what we see here is Confucius noticing that in some circumstances complete virtue is inaccessible.

      I had assumed that in both cases Confucius decided to follow Zilu and stick with the purity, though the text itself does not say. So one thing that struck me about these passages was that they seem to show Confucius deliberating about the greatest of matters by conversing with and even seemingly deferring to another, even one whose judgment he doubts (11.22) and whom he regards as imprudent (7.11).

      Each case involves a rebel who has invited Confucius to be his minister. In 17.5, Confucius argues that he might make an Eastern Zhou. In 17.7, Confucius argues only that his own purity would be unsullied by the vice of the rebel’s rebellion (so that he wouldn’t lose any purity). In each case Confucius’ argument seems bad on its face, at least from a consequentialist point of view.

      Socrates expresses a clearer vision in the Apology, when he says that he couldn’t plausibly speak for the virtues he prized if he were a famous runaway. Unfortunately, Socrates also seems to have shared his decision procedure with David Berkowitz. (That’s what I call deference.)

      Comment by Bill Haines | January 12, 2010 | Reply

  4. What’s next? An inaction-adventure movie about Zhuangzi?

    Comment by Dave Bonta | January 11, 2010 | Reply

  5. My question about the movie is: how will they tell the story of his marriage? Did he divorce his wife or did he just leave her to go off on a jaunt with the boys?

    Comment by Sam | January 12, 2010 | Reply

  6. A little update (hat tip to Sam Crane): rumors swirl about how the Confucius movie threatens to shut down Avatar showings in China. Clash of the … something. There aren’t any market forces at work here, I think.

    Comment by Manyul Im | January 19, 2010 | Reply

  7. Interestingly enough, the NPR radio show “On Point” today featured a conversation between host Tom Ashbrook and three scholars talking about the rise of Confucianism: Tu Wei-ming, Xudong Zhang, and Minxin Pei. You can listen and see posted comments here. It was a reasonably nuanced conversation. One point of relevance to this thread is the following comment posted by a listener: “Avatar was only removed from theatres that were booked for Confucius last year. Avatar is still being shown in many theatres in 3 D and Cinemax as well as regular versions. This is basic fact checking stuff.”

    Comment by Steve Angle | January 25, 2010 | Reply

    • Here’s the link to the free podcast of the show (or, you can find it for free also on iTunes podcasts): http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast.php?id=510053

      Just click on the media file below the title and description.

      We could start a thread right here on what these scholars say, if anyone likes.

      Comment by Manyul Im | January 26, 2010 | Reply

  8. Well, it doesn’t look good for Confucius the movie or, if the backlash runs deep enough, for his repatriation — at least among the 民. See this http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/life/2010-01/29/content_9396402.htm and Sam’s nice post about the backlash here http://uselesstree.typepad.com/useless_tree/2010/01/confucius-the-moviewhere-is-the-love.html

    Comment by Manyul Im | January 29, 2010 | Reply

  9. More backlash! An opinion piece run on the China Daily web edition (I’ve highlighted in bold some of the interesting comments):

    (From http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2010-02/01/content_9409083.htm )

    Leave Confucius alone

    By Zhang Xi (chinadaily.com.cn)
    Updated: 2010-02-01 15:19

    The blockbuster Confucius has not received the expected public praise since its release earlier this month. It’s criticized as kind of boring and lacking historical truth. But I think the real reason for its no-so-good comments are Confucius and his theories, along with a movie about them, aren’t suitable for today’s China.

    However, modern China has started to worship Confucius and his Confucianism as the key element of Sinology in recent years and the movie is just another example. Experts suggested adding as many Confucianism as possible into school curriculum, and some people even opened private schools to teach children those theories. In Confucius’s birthplace, Qufu in Shandong province, the local government began to officially support the annual activity to worship Confucius from 2007. It‚s ridiculous to watch several provincial-level officials wearing suits and ties standing in line with those event-service staff who are in traditional Han costumes.

    How was the view of Confucianism worship generated in the first place? I think it’s possibly because some so-called experts believe that China is so deeply influenced by western cultures, so our nation needs one theory to get back to the roots of our civilization and prove our patriotism. However, what they don’t understand is that those theories of Confucianism can absolutely not be the prominent part of Sinology or the representative of traditional Chinese culture.

    Essentially, Confucianism was generated to serve feudalism rulers. It advocated the power-based doctrine, regulated the order of a rank society by indicating the divine right of emperors. It also orientated human’s social values and set social behaviors, which required people to be docile. Therefore, Confucianism began to be framed by subsequent rulers down the centuries to shackle people’s thoughts. From Emperor Wu in Han dynasty, China started to officially worship Confucianism alone, which caused Chinese people to follow all orders of superiors.
    While some may argue that certain ethical theories of Confucianism are good for moral standard enhancement, such as when I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers. I admit that these phrases themselves are not bad, otherwise how can they last for thousands of years and be used to fool people to follow Confucianism? They are simply prettified the power-based system based on the doctrine of a rank society. So no matter how nice these certain phrases are, they cannot cover up the core theory they serve for.

    But even though Confucianism and Confucius are still not officially labeled to represent Sinology and traditional Chinese culture, some have started to bluster about folks who don’t worship as a “symbol” of those who don’t love China. A serious accusation, isn’t it?

    Maybe because of China’s pathetic history, Chinese people are more sensitive and emotional towards issues involving patriotism. Yet certain experts may abuse their passions. For example, many people were agitated by experts to believe that the opening of a Starbucks in the Forbidden City was a kind of cultural invasion. But when a state-funded noodle restaurant opened to replace the coffee shop, its high price stopped tourists. They’d rather have a cheap meal on the street, than spend 30 yuan on a bowl of noodles in the eatery.

    Can you say these tourists aren’t patriotic? Of course not. Not all Chinese old things can be used everywhere at anytime, so does Confucianism. Leave Confucius alone. Don‚t link him and his theory worship to patriotism. Correct patriotic behavior is to embrace all favorable elements of others, rather than rest on our laurels in the name of the sage.

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 1, 2010 | Reply

  10. wow. That’s straight out of the cultural revolution or the 批林批孔 movement (except without the Lin Biao stuff). In fact, I read some Chinese Marxist articles on Confucius from the ’70s that sounded almost exactly like this–Confucius was a reactionary, serving the interests of the feudal state, etc. Old habits die hard, I guess…

    Comment by alexusmcleod | February 5, 2010 | Reply

  11. One thing strikes me from Ray Zhou’s article–he says:

    “They [the government] wanted to protect China’s home-grown film industry, so they pushed aside foreign competitors. It must have seemed the right thing to do, but today’s youth – film audiences are mostly young – seem to place an emphasis on quality rather than the origin of production.”

    This last sentence is problematic, though. I have much more experience with Indian culture than Chinese on this, but in India there seems to be an intrinsic bias AGAINST elements of purely Indian culture. In essence, for many of the youth, quality=western=Euro/American. I suspect something similar is happening in China.
    and as a snarky aside–the Chinese youth clearly don’t care too much about “quality”, because Pocahontas 3D was crap. Good visual effects, but generic and tired (and vaguely racist IMO) story.

    Comment by alexusmcleod | February 5, 2010 | Reply


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