Gongfu Movies: “Hero”

A few days ago, I was looking for a movie to watch; I wanted to watch a movie about China, but I’m (unfortunately) not very familiar with Chinese cinema. I had already seen “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” “Farewell my concubine,” “Raise the Red Lantern.” I wanted to watch a Gongfu film and so I found “Hero” or (英雄).  Hero first interested me because of all the awards it won, and all of the controversy it generated after its release. Hero has a lot of well choreographed sword fighting, and the director Yimou’s stylistic design shines though out. His style emphasizes the beauty and elegance in the film’s Wushu fighting style.

Hero is a “story in a story” film set during China’s warring states period. The movie opens with a man telling the Emperor of Qin Dynasty China how he killed three assassins who had previously attempted to assassinate the Emperor. These three assassins were so skilled that Emperor accuses him of lying, in an attempt to earn the emperor’s trust so that the nameless warrior could assassinate him. The nameless protagonist admits that he was lying, but that the nameless warrior has no intention of killing the emperor.

His reasoning drew controversy from many of the critics who reviewed the film. The Nameless warrior realized that the only way for peace was for all of China to be unified under one dynasty. He realized this after asking broken sword why he decided not to kill the emperor. Many argued that this interpretation prized security over liberty in a poorly veiled pro-unification propaganda piece. The critique argued that this film just followed the stereotype that “Asian values” did not include human rights. The director of the film Zhang Yimou, protested against this criticism at the Cannes Film festival, and instead stressed that the theme of the message, peace conquers all. While it’s hard to disagree that the film promotes prounification and is essentially propaganda, I think the traditional critique does leave out the peace theme that Zhang expressed at Cannes. This peace theme is very strong during the nameless protagonists’ encounter with the emperor, in which the emperor stresses that the ultimate ideal is for the perfect warrior to realize he doesn’t need his sword. The ultimate ideal is to transcend violence. Ultimately, I loved the film, and I’m going to watch it again.



Here, Emperor Qin’s guards have not yet realized the Ultimate ideal.




Globalization and the Jade Trade

Jade is ubiquitous in China. I’ve seen Jade in almost every museum gift shop (and most museums have two), in Zoo jewelry stores, in vendor stands, and small markets. Most jade one can buy in Shanghai is fake, and I’ve probably bought at least three fake pieces. Personally, I don’t care if it’s fake or real as long as I believe it’s real, but that’s only because I only buy jade in petty quantities. I’ve spent the last few days wondering where the Shanghai’s jade comes from, both the real and fake. Historically, and even today much of China’s jade production comes from Xinjiang province, specifically, the Hotan Jade mines.

Globalization has revolutionized jade production in China. Today, China receives large quantities of Jadeite from Burma. Jade production in Burma exploded after Burma’s 1994 ceasefire. This impetus spurred Chinese investment in the region. Today, Burma’s military government owns and operates Burma’s vast jade mines. Gems are Burma’s 3rd largest export and help prop up society. However, this has created vast inequality and social ills in Burma’s society. Workers do (literally) backbreaking work in poisonous conditions and earn less than a dollar a day. Burma’s military regularly abuses workers. Environmental conditions are falling apart. Water near mines is laced with heavy metals; birth defects are skyrocketing, and health care services are nonexistant.

The mines have becomes havens for heroine, meth and opium. Jade picker Aik San estimates that 75% of Jade miners in the norther Burmese city of Hpakant are addicted to Drugs. One common practice to pay drug addicted employees is to just shoot them up with more heroine. This happens to about 500,000 miners.  Nine out of Ten addicted workers have HIV. Intravenous drug use combined with a thriving sex industry has created an HIV/AIDS epidemic that is spilling into China. China’s HIV cases are highest in Yunan provence which borders Burma.


China aids map



The United states passed the “Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008” which blocks third party jade from entering the United States. China has not passed any such sanctions.  China, through both legal and smuggling channels receives a large portion of Burma’s jade. Burmese jade, commonly sold in China is essentially a blood diamond. Because rich Chinese ethically blind businessmen lavish themselves with jade,  slaves chained to an addiction are toil and bleed for essentially nothing. I’m glad I accidentally probably bought fake jade.


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This is a jade time piece at a museum in Shanghai. The picture is fuzzy both because of bad camera work, and to represent my new disillusionment with jade.







Chinese Traditional Medicine affects the Environment

Chinese Traditional Medicine poses a substantial  risk to China’s local ecosystems and biodiversity. China’s growing middle class has growing Chinese Traditional medical desires and this creates a catalyst for poaching local unique wildlife.  Western medicine has similar problems; many of the raw ingredients in Western medicine come from ecologically rich areas like rain forests. Organism habitat loss caused by increased medicine production is a problem in both China and the rest of the World. Chinese customers are creating large demand for West African Rhino tusks, because many Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners claim that it can lead to increased fertility and sexual productivity. This claim stands blatantly false. Rhino tusk is made out of keratin the same material as finger nail, and (for probably the vast majority of people) chewing one’s fingernail doesn’t make one sex crazed (although I do wonder what Freud would say about it). In TCM Rhino horn has been used to treat fevers and convulsions, typhoid, rheumatism, gout, headaches and hallucinations, vomiting and food poisoning, Anyways, Chinese buyers are fueling Rhino deaths in Africa (Globalization!). In South Africa in 2000 less than 100 rhinos died to poaching, in 2013 1000 rhinos died. That being said, there are a myriad of other factors that could have contributed to a spike in Rhino deaths, such as better poaching techniques and demand in other regions.  In China, the sea bladder of the Totoaba (a protected animal) can go for over 10,000 USD. Chinese chefs use the bladder in soups. The Vaquita marina, the world’s smallest often gets caught in the process as bycatch. As a result there are only about 100 Vaquita left in the wild.

Fundamentally, the problem is both the size and desires of China’s massive population. As more people rise out of poverty, and as more people rise from the middle class to the upper class these people are going to be more capable of financing their demands for TCM. Even though medications are cheaper in China in America it is still necessary to ensure that these medications do not come off the backs (or tusks) of endangered animals. China must update its medical system if it wishes to help its people rise comfortably out of poverty. Quacks who peddle lies about false medicine should be prosecuted  both to protect people and to protect China’s natural beauty. Natural environments exploitation should only be allowed to create medications that actually work.


On the way to Chengdu’s Panda sanctuary we watched as workers tore into a mountain.



Falun Gong and Qigong

Today, I asked a Chinese friend what she thought of the Falun Gong. I expected something resembling the CCP party line, or apathy, but instead she attacked the CCP’s stance towards the Falun Gong. She said that while she thought the vast majority of Falun Gong’s spiritual practices were hogwash she thought the CCP cracked down hard on the Falun Gong because of political competition. She claimed that although initially Falun Gong began as a religious organization it later grew into a powerful political organization that threatened the CCP. She went on to quote some Falun gong (maybe true?) propaganda that the CCP kidnaps and organ harvests Falun Gong members, and that the Bo Xilai case uncovered a massive organ harvesting organization. When I went to DC I heard Falun Gong protesters outside of the white house saying the same thing. I had already knew that the CCP had listed Falun Gong as a heterodoxy religion, but this seemed absurd. While it’s easy for me to believe that Falun Gong members are tortured, unwilling organ harvesting seems so unwilling evil to me, I desperately wish it isn’t true. I highly doubt that polling data exists that could elucidate how common her views are among young politically interested Chinese, but I think her views might be more common among non Falun gong practicing youth than a cursory view of Chinese society would suggest.

Xinhua, the voice of the CCP described the Falun Gong as “opposed to the Communist Party of China and the central government, preaches idealism, theism and feudal superstition.” and the destruction of the Falun gong was necessary in order to preserve the “vanguard role and purity” of the Communist Party. I understand the political and some of the cultural reasoning behind dismantling the Falun Gong. I understand that the turbulent Taiping rebellion rocked China to the foundation, and I understand the CCP’s discomfort with religion (feudal superstition). I do not understand why the CCP so vehemently despises the Falun Gong specifically especially when Falun Gong feels so benign.

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The CCP’s massive intelligence network has been used to find Falun Gong protesters.

Self cultivation forms the center of Falun Gong’s (also known as Falun Dafa) religion. Practitioners self cultivate through “exercises, meditation, and moral living,” in practice this involves a lot of Qigong. Qigong is a set of exercises that practitioners claim removes imbalances and impurities in the body. Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance (or in Chinese, Zhen 真 Shan 善 Ren 忍) are the three key traits that Falun gong stresses. The CCP argued that  ‘truth, compassion and tolerance’ principle preached by [Falun Gong] has nothing in common with the socialist ethical and cultural progress we are striving to achieve.” Falun Gong practitioners also believe in the influence of Karma in daily events. Falun Gong practitioners also realize that life is full of burdensome attachments and that looking inward, self awareness, and meditation helps free yourself of attachments.

Falun Gong doesn’t sound like a philosophy I would practice, but it, like any philosophy doesn’t deserve imprisonment, death, or potentially organ harvesting.


Nobody should have their rights circumscribed due to their religion or philosophy.


Willy Wo-Lap Lam, “China’s sect suppression carries a high price”. CNN, 9 February 2001

Gayle M.B. Hanson, China Shaken by Mass Meditation – meditation movement Falun Gong, Insight on the News, 23 August 1999

A scientific approach to traditional Chinese Medicine

Chinese Traditional medicine lacks an experimental foundation, and it’s outlook on the human body directly contradicts Western medicine’s outlook. However, on our riverboat cruise through Chongqing we met a Doctor who practiced both Traditional Chinese (中医) and also Western Medicine (西药). On the face of it, these two practices contradict, and so I wanted to do additional research that tried to find experimental justifications for traditional Chinese treatments. 

Traditional Chinese medicine incorporates acupuncture, tai chi, and various herbal cures in order to solve Humoric imbalances. Imbalances between Yin and Yang, Qi, and a myriad of other humors can lead to health problems.  Traditional Chinese mythology posits that the body contains Qi, or energy. Every one has Qi, and everyone’s Qi is connected to everything including the environment. This is why, many TCM practitioners also believe that Feng Shui, the art of placement, can manipulate Qi placement to produce auspicious fortune and health. A Feng Shui TCM expert could recommend changing the outlay of your house in order to improve your health.

According the this philosophy, Qi flows through the human body through meridians. Disharmony between Yin and Yang can also create physical illness. 


Bad Feng Shui can generate Shar Qi which can lead health problems.

Western mythology had similar notions of body energy as Élan vital, but that belief is so last century. To put it lightly, most western medical practitioners don’t take stock in  Qi flow. In 1997 the US NIH stated that TCM concepts like that  Qi “are difficult to reconcile with contemporary biomedical information.”

However, just because the logic and spirituality behind the philosophies don’t ring true doesn’t mean the treatments aren’t effective. Currently, there is a paucity of  scientific research on the effectiveness of Traditional Chinese medicine. Many scientists credit most of the treatments successes on the placebo effect.

TCM has a large variety of treatment methods, and therefore it is simplistic to treat TCM as a single entity. Many people oversimplify the vast complexity of treatment options in an attempt to deride all of Chinese medicine. Some treatment methods show higher effective rates than others; for example many experiments laud Taijiquan effectiveness at improving life quality. Research by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) found that Taijiquan helped people suffering from Parkensons manage their instability, help relieve joint pain in people suffering from Fibromilagia, and help ”promote quality of life” in people suffering from heart failure. Slow aerobic exercise especially among the elderly can help improve life quality.  Other treatment methods in TCM have not enjoyed the same experimental success. Acupuncture, for example, has shown statistically insignificant improvement in quality of life.


Physical activity of any kind, including Taijiquan, or the dance shown here is a great way to improve your health.