Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Alice stirs up China's past

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland launched in China last Friday, and already pirated DVDs of the blockbuster movie are on sale. So far this latest venture into 3D hasn't drawn in the same excitement seen after the release of Avatar. But it is early days yet. However, just as Avatar caused a stir amongst the Chinese, many believing there to be a strong connection to the plight of poor Chinese citizens being evicted from their homes, this latest Hollywood tale is sure to rattle a few sensitivities.

Burton's adaptation of Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland deviates significantly from the book. But it is in the last minute of the film where things become curiouser and curiouser. For some bizarre reason there are apparent references to the Opium Wars as Alice, played by Mia Wasikowska, discusses with her father's old trading partner, her intention to expand into China. The Opium Wars are one of the most embarrassing events in Chinese history, for the Chinese, and this film might also prove embarrassing. 

After her adventures in 'Underland', Alice returns to the real world where she announces she wants to "do something" with her life and sets out to discuss her plans with her father's partner. "My father told me he intended to extend his trade routes to Sumatra and Borneo," Alice says. "But I don't think he was looking far enough."

Pawing over a map, she continues, "Why not go all the way to China? It's vast, the culture is rich and we have a foothold in Hong Kong." Alice looks at her potential partner and smiles, "To be the first to trade with China. Can you imagine it?"

To the casual observer in the West, this business proposition might seem innocuous enough. However, to many Chinese, and others that have studied history, this was seemingly a thinly veiled reference to the Opium Wars. In its trade with Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Qing Dynasty would only take silver in exchange for the luxury goods, such as tea and silk. The huge accumulation of silver reserves in China frustrated governments in the West.

To rectify the imbalance, the British began exporting opium from India to China throughout the 18th century, successfully reversing the silver flow. Fearing the societal damage caused by masses of drug addicts, the Yongzheng Emperor prohibited opium sales in 1729. Despite this, British traders illicitly continued to increase the flow of opium into the Middle Kingdom.

Thus began the foreign domination of China, in which the Qing Dynasty would fight and lose two wars to the superior British military, resulting in multiple "unequal treaties," in which Britain and other foreign powers would charge the Chinese hefty reparation payments for the wars, gain access to Chinese ports and enjoy extraterritorial rights for their expats in Chinese cities. The Treaty of Nanjing which followed also ceded ownership of Hong Kong to the British Empire.

The Communist Party gained control of the Mainland in the 1940's, in part, because it was the party of resistance against foreign influence. Contemporary Chinese nationalism is also rooted in the lessons and embarrassment from the Opium Wars.

The decision by Alice at the end of the find is not so much a footnote but the culmination of her struggles in 'Underland'. It also seems to point to the fact that she might even play a significant part in the opium trade. The presence of the hookah smoking caterpillar at the end in his form as blue butterfly just might reasonably be interpreted as an ironic symbol of the coming opium trade. There are several things surprising about this. Why would Disney in particular, allow such blatant references? And how did this get past Chinese censors?

Given the recent furore over 2012 and Avatar, this film may well see many complaints from Chinese netizens in the coming days.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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