218: What Does Spiritual Heroism Mean in the Daily Friction of Chinese Culture?

he world’s next superpower is in the midst of a spiritual revolution.
    I’m not talking here about individual movements like Falun Gong. I’m talking about China as an emerging powerhouse in our global community where leaders have ruthlessly pulled the cultural rug out from under their own people so many times that it is incredibly difficult to sort out one’s values.
    This should concern all of us, because in the absence of cohesive spiritual values, the temptation is toward a reflexive nationalism. Or perhaps pressures build until there is a powder keg of unresolved anger that occasionally explodes as it did recently among parents of children killed by corrupt and shoddy construction of school buildings. Stunning news photographs showed normally mild-mannered middle-aged parents towering angrily over local “bosses,” some of whom were reduced to groveling in the streets.
    But don’t take my word for it about all of this spiritual change — see for yourself.
    As ReadTheSpirit Editor, I’ve taken a special interest in Asia in recent years, reporting from several Asian countries on short-term journeys with the East-West Center.
    Today, we’re recommending two terrific films that are deeply engaging to watch because both show the spiritual heroism of young Chinese men and women — grappling with the deeper meaning of everyday life in a culture where so many pillars seem to be crumbling.


    One chaotic issue facing Chinese families today is quite literally the demolition of traditional neighborhoods in urban areas. These maze-like patterns of traditional homes surrounding communal courtyards are vanishing to make way for high-density housing. The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Jordan recently reported on this issue — which is remarkably similar to the challenges facing poor people in American neighborhoods slated for up-scale developments.
    In China, however, there still are deep wounds from the Cultural Revolution that turned entire families topsy-turvy. This was the turbulent era in the final years of Mao’s life when family and friends were pushed to denounce each other and many of China’s brightest and best were tortured and exiled into the countryside to perform manual labor. As families have tried to reassemble themselves in the decades since that violence, however, even traditional ideas about “home” are vanishing.

    I know from reporting in Asia myself that, in the absence of other deeper religious practices, the basic commitment to family remains a tap root of spiritual values. But even this tap root winds up severed in these waves of cultural and social change.
    That’s the context of “Sunflower,” a bittersweet drama that runs just over two hours. It’s a gorgeously photographed and deeply engaging story starting with the drama of a plucky little boy who has been running wild in the streets of his traditional maze-like neighborhood — until his stern father suddenly reappears. The boy doesn’t realize that his father, once a great artist, has had his dreams dashed by a long exile in the Cultural Revolution. He can’t understand why his father’s love for him is expressed in an obsessive desire for the little boy to develop his artistic talents.
    The first half of the film is this kind of compelling, wonderfully written family drama. Then, director Zhang Yang suddenly jumps forward so that we see this boy as a young man — falling in love with a beautiful Chinese ice skater. If your heart isn’t made of stone, you’ll quickly soften to this part of the story, again beautifully photographed — as we see the young skater through the eyes of this budding artist.
    The film’s final scenes take us even further into the saga of this scarred, yet spiritually resilient family. I won’t spoil the end, but you’ll find yourself — just as I am doing here — urging friends to see “Sunflower.”


    If you’re interested in China, pick up these two films as a set and organize a mini-film festival. Sue Williams’ amazing documentary, “Young and Restless in  China,” will  feel as though you’ve stepped right from the family’s story in “Sunflower” into a broader circle of the young artist’s friends.
    You’re switching from drama to documentary, of course –- but the narrative trajectory flows honestly and earnestly from the issues raised by Zhang Yang in “Sunflower” to those uncovered by Sue Williams’ reporting on the lives of young men and women spiritually adrift in China’s new world.
    I’m using the term “spiritually” broadly in this case, but it really is the unifying theme that runs throughout these young lives. They’re all searching for some ultimate sense of meaning in a country that seems to be on the verge of overheating as the world’s biggest economic engine.
    As a journalist, I’m hugely impressed with Sue Williams’ many years of commitment to exploring China and producing a long series of top-notch documentaries. If you’ve seen her earlier overviews of Chinese history, this new film opens with a breath-taking freshness -– like jumping on the back of one of the motorcycles in the film and racing through the streets of China.

    Without years of immersion in China, I can’t imagine how it would be possible to produce such a film with intimate access to the lives of young adults. I was especially touched by the life of Wei Zhanyan, who may appear to us as perhaps a college student pursuing a degree when we first glimpse her walking through the streets. In reality, she’s virtually a slave in China — an impoverished migrant worker who was forced to leave school at an early age to support her family. Eventually, she was forced into complete exile from her family to take a job assembling cell-phone headsets.

    Somehow, Williams is able to follow her back to her tiny room (photo at left), a sort of makeshift shelter, where Wei Zhanyan curls up and writes in her diary about life’s difficult challenges. She feels that she is carrying her entire family on her shoulders, she says. She misses them very much -– and yet she’s caught in a vice-grip of work and poverty. She says, “I don’t dare have any ideas or ideals.”
   We watch tensions with her family unfold over several years through an agonizing decision over whether to accept an arranged marriage back in her home village. I won’t spoil the film by telling you what happens.
    Some young Chinese rebel a little more openly like the rapper we meet with the word “reckless” tattooed in Chinese on his neck. He’s a motorcyclist. He says without a hint of awareness at the strange leap he is making: “Hip hop empowered me because I can identify with black people in America.”
   Just as fascinating as these more personal stories are Williams’ stories of spiritual conflict in more public spheres. We meet a young doctor who can’t hope to treat all the patients who line up outside his hospital each day. And we meet young entrepreneurs who have had a taste of global culture and have serious doubts about forces within Chinese society.
   One young business owner talks movingly about dealing with the temptation toward paying bribes to get work done. The problem is not business, he says, “It’s about my moral standards. Every day I have to make a choice how far I want to go.” He pauses thoughtfully and admits to a deeper concern — that one day bribery will seem normal to him. He says, “The thing I’m really afraid of down the road is — I will no longer have this struggle everyday.”
    Williams is such a good documentarian that we meet each of these “young and restless” men and women on their own terms without condescension or ironic twists forced upon the material by the filmmaker.
    The openness in these stories will touch your heart even as it stirs your mind to a greater understanding of life in our world’s emerging superpower.


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