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January 13, 2012

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Outspoken prof makes waves

WHEN Gary Xu, or Xu Gang, posted his first weibo (microblog) entry in 2009, mainly to share his American experience with his far-away mother and friends in China, he never expected that one day he would stir up so much controversy.

But the 42-year-old Chinese American professor at Jiao Tong University has recently received both ferocious rebukes and ardent praise for his severe online criticism of celebrity director Zhang Yimou's latest movie "The Flowers of War" about the traumatic 1937 rape of Nanjing, the painful subject of many films.

Xu, who studies and teaches East Asian art, culture and film, asked his friends not to watch the film, which he said has "eroticized, vulgarized, Hollywoodized the Nanjing Massacre." His criticism was widely quoted by domestic and international media, and this weibo entry attracted 2,844 re-tweets and 860 comments. Many critics called him unpatriotic.

"I didn't expect simple criticism of the movie would stir up so much attack from the 'water army' (online shills) hired by the film company. But I'm also happy for strong support by everyone who has a brain," the Nanjing native and US resident told Shanghai Daily in an interview.

In response to the outspoken criticism of the filmmaking icon and his work, Xu said he had received a number of telephone calls, urging him to cease and desist, but he declined to identify the callers.

"Some people argue that maybe the subject was mistreated, but it was a great film. No. It is not a great film even in terms of pure technical issues of filmmaking. It is Zhang Yimou at his worst," said soft-spoken Xu.

Xu is associate professor of East Asian studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and director of graduate studies for its department of East Asian languages and cultures. He regularly visits China and is a visiting professor at Jiao Tong University. (His homepage is on the University of Illinois website.)

Less than a month earlier, Xu's criticism of China's education about contemporary art also created a tremendous, negative stir in art circles, one he had anticipated from conversations with his Chinese artist friends.

Xu has organized a regular contemporary art forum and has invited the "big four," the four most internationally influential and well-known Chinese artists, Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun.

"In my conversations with my artist friends about Chinese art in 20th century, it is a consensus that people's ideas of art in China are twisted because they simply equate art with beauty. And for them, there is only one standard of being beautiful. So I felt compelled to write something about it," Xu recalled in an interview with Shanghai Daily.

His entry on aesthetics and art education generated many rounds of heated discussion.

Xu is one of many Chinese figures who are daring to speak out on various issues through weibo, a network that has grown explosively in the past two years; Sina weibo alone has 250 million registered users.

Xu was among the large crowds of young Chinese who went abroad, especially to the United States, for advanced studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Instead of studying science or business, which were popular then, the son of two literary critics had always wanted to be a professor of literature.

He received a fellowship from the Ohio State University, and earned his PhD in comparative literature from Columbia University.

Public voice

Xu said he wants to be a public voice "not only in the English-speaking world, but also in a transcultural and translingual kind of way."

And he aims to achieve this by accepting as many lecture invitations as possible and joining and launching vigorous discussions on weibo.

The Chinese translation of the term "public intellectual," "gong gong zhi shi fen zhi," is a literal one, but it is frequently misused and misunderstood.

The term first gained wide recognition in 2004, when a popular magazine Nanfang People selected 50 influential figures it termed "public intellectuals," including a wide range of scientists, artists, economists, columnists and writers such as Louis Zha, most famous for his martial arts novels.

The magazine continued with its annual selection of influential people and the term became increasingly popular as public figures, intellectuals or otherwise, started speaking publicly through media, blogs and most recently weibo.

Gradually some pubic opposition arose against these self-appointed public intellectuals, especially after some made blatant factual errors in their arguments or were revealed to have misbehaved in their personal lives.

This coincided with growing public distrust toward a generalized group of experts and academics who argued, sometimes employing strange logic, in favor of certain interest groups such as local government, diary companies, real estate companies, among many others.

Chinese Internet users or netizens coined the term "yelling beasts" to refer to professors, and "bricks" for experts.

"The term 'public intellectual' has a pejorative meaning in China. Lots of people call themselves public intellectuals in China, but in fact, they don't even know the basic facts about the subjects of (which they speak)," Xu argued, calling them "pseudo-intellectuals."

"I'm sorry to be critical, but it is the truth. There is no public intellectual in China now."

Xu sees two reasons for this - high-profile, provocative figures are simply not intellectuals, while many intellectuals are either not willing to speak out or are tainted by their association with interest groups.

"A public intellectual must be independent and must be critical," Xu said.

Xu is particularly meticulous about thinking independently, and stated in one of his weibo entries that he would never write an article for any publication organized by a good friend who recently became vice chairman of the state-sponsored Chinese Writers' Association. He doesn't believe this friend could still think independently after being associated with such an official organization.

"Writers and artists can only produce great works when they think independently," he wrote in his microblog.

Xu appreciates some public figures who are frequently engaged in discussions, but said with regret that "they are simply not intellectuals."

He cited the example of Yao Chen, a famous actress who re-tweets and discusses a lot of public affairs on her weibo page, the country's most-visited Sina weibo account (nearly 16 million followers) until a few weeks ago. Xu also closely follows Chen Danqing, a famous painter who has become increasingly engaged with critics and discusses cultural matters.

As for intellectuals, Xu has found Chinese academics in general not up to the mark.

Three years ago, Xu became a visiting scholar at prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where he was required to give lectures and organize international events at the school every summer for three months. In the process, he became acquainted with many Chinese professors and scholars from all over the country.

"It appears to me that they don't spend any time on reading, writing, thinking or teaching. They are busy all the time attending all kinds of social functions, without actually spending any time honing their skills in a deep and historical way," Xu said.

For the past seven years, Xu also has been taking selected US undergraduates to Shanghai every winter for his popular course "Globalization in China," and he is familiar with the education systems and students in both China and the United States.

Xu expressed sadness that while Chinese students are brilliant young people just like American students, "Chinese professors are not up to their level."

"As far as the education institution is concerned, China is 100 years behind American education even though universities are now rich in resources."

"In the States, the universities are run by professors, not by administrators or bureaucrats," he said.

"In China, professors are not respected, except for the handful few who have made it into the so-called academy of science."

A fresh and candid voice

Chinese American Professor Gary Xu holds strong, sometimes controversial views about Chinese film and contemporary art, expressing himself in books, articles, a blog and microblog. Here are some of his opinions:

"'The Flowers of War' is vulgarized"

I like some of Zhang Yimou's early movies such as "No One Less" and "To Live," but not "The Flowers of War," which is an eroticized, vulgarized and Hollwoodized rendering of the Nanjing Massacre.

Zhang has to respond to his financial support, so he's compromised and he's at his worst, especially due to his obsession with giant scenes. All these have to do with his directing of the Olympics ceremony and setting up stages all over China. His shows in Lijiang (Yunnan Province) and in Hangzhou ( Zhejiang Province) are destroying the environment and turning reality literally into fake reality.

"The Chinese film industry now faces two problems"

Films about, from, and in China are not simply Chinese films. They are always part of the global spectacle about China.

The Chinese film industry now faces two problems, financialization and Hollywoodization.

There is a change of style toward the Hollywood style, which is quick in pace with more shots, but the movement is fragmented and the characterization does not exist anymore. Characters are flat from the very beginning to end because there is no opportunity to develop characters. In great classics like "Seven Samurai," each one of the seven has a distinctive character and they are all so memorable. Now, characters are faceless and only recognizable through faces of stars.

America has both Hollywood motif and independent productions, but China is getting Hollywoodized and lacks the latter.

Film is also getting Hollywoodized in financial support, which is now infiltrated by mutual funds and the finance world is gaining increased control of filmmaking.

And they only go to the big names, so the current trend is killing all the young creative Chinese filmmakers, who have no financial backing, or when they do, they are ordered around to make their films in certain ways to satisfy the demand.

"Jia Zhangke is not meant for a wide audience"

Jia Zhangke is world-class, but he is not meant for a wide audience. It would be great to have someone who is a combination of Zhang and Jia. Even 10 of these directors would really push the Chinese film industry forward.

"Anything by Jiang Wen is great"

Anything by Jiang Wen is great, especially "Gui Zi Lai Le" or "Devils on the Doorstep." It is incredible. He knows the intricacies of film technology and the emotional bursts, not much different from Kurosawa's (director of "Seven Samurai") films. Jiang is idiosyncratic about himself, his acting and his directing, which gives his film a distinctive style. It is stylish, well-made, well-performed and meaningful. And he's funny.

"Chinese contemporary art is most vibrant"

Chinese contemporary art is the most vibrant national art of the entire world, more vibrant than American contemporary art. The sheer number is increasing, young people are getting in and they are struggling again. Three years ago, anyone could sell any work, but many are struggling again, which is a good sign. When they struggle, they become good. Great art comes from frustration, discontent and anger.

Chinese people don't get proper training in appreciating art, especially contemporary art, the abstract and non-realistic art. Many great Chinese contemporary art works are becoming iconized, so people want to know what makes them interesting, and that is where we come in to tell them what makes it great art.

Art education is catching up in many ways, particularly gaining attention in the media, but not in school education. The college entrance exam still dominates, so critical thinking, articulating or art appreciation are not valued. Reform is imminent and art education should be at the center of this reform.

Education in the art academies is uneven. These places are excellent, outstanding in training techniques of working with art, but extremely weak in education of critical thinking and art history.


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