A long time ago in a country far, far away, Chinese authorities managed to obtain a copy of the US’ ultimate cultural weapon, a blockbuster movie with enough special effects to wow an entire planet.
Summoned to a small theater in the southern city of Guangzhou in 1980, artist Song Feideng (宋飛等) was shown Star Wars and instructed to transform it into a traditional Chinese comic book, known as a lianhuanhua (連環畫), to promote scientific achievement.
Song was one of the first people in China to see George Lucas’ magnum opus, at a time when it was still banned — a marked contrast to the status of the series’ most recent installment in a market Hollywood increasingly sees as crucial to success.
“The objective was to take the world’s advanced science and popularize it in China,” said Song, who worked for a state-owned publisher at the time.
He replaced the movie’s X-wing fighters with Soviet rockets and jet fighters. In one illustration, Luke Skywalker wears a cosmonaut’s bulky spacesuit, while rebel leaders are dressed in Western business suits. Darth Vader appears alongside a Triceratops.
At the time, China was emerging from the isolation of the Mao Zedong (毛澤東) era and Star Wars had not been granted a release by the Chinese Communist Party, (CCP) three years after it hit Western cinemas.
The movie “was very novel, very exciting,” Song said, adding that he felt as if he had seen a “glimpse of the world.”
The project came amid a brief flowering of Chinese science fiction following Mao’s decade-long Cultural Revolution, when the arts were reduced to glorifying the CCP.
Mao’s decision to send intellectuals to work in the countryside had badly affected basic scientific research.
Song spent the period on the then poverty-stricken Hainan Island, producing propaganda slide shows.
Science fiction has had a fraught history in China.
Shortly after the 1977 US release of Star Wars, the People’s Daily attacked it as a fantasy that demonstrated how Americans’ “dissatisfaction with reality” had pushed them to “seek comfort in an illusory fairyland,” but the following year, as China began to reopen to the world, Beijing declared science fiction critical to rehabilitating the nation’s sciences, releasing a flood of almost 1,000 new titles.
A translated Star Wars script appeared in China as early as March 1979, while Song’s comic is believed to be the first illustrated standalone.
It sold briskly, he recalled.
“I could buy a TV, a stereo ... it was just unimaginable,” he said.
Hwoever, the initial hopes of the nation’s “reform and opening” quickly soured as artists began to criticize the government.
Speculative stories imagining a China without communism were not the plot lines authorities were looking for and they moved to ban science fiction again.
Song’s own works — he had moved into hard-boiled noir comics featuring private eyes, femme fatales and a keen appreciation for the female form — were criticized for “spiritual pollution.”
It was not until 1985 that Star Wars first appeared on Chinese screens, at a multicity US film festival that drew millions of viewers. By the late 1980s, it was airing on local television stations, while pirate copies circulated on video.
However, the movies never developed the broad, devoted fan base they have enjoyed elsewhere and most Chinese learned of the franchise through the prequels — much maligned in the West.
Song’s comic went viral ahead of the release of the latest installment, The Force Awakens, but a midnight premiere in Beijing this month had a mostly foreign audience.
Even so the movie raked in US$90 million in its first week, according to film data Web site China Box Office.
The world’s second-largest economy is also its second-biggest movie market and Hollywood is keen to satisfy its moviegoers, who have shown a deep appetite for Western science fiction, such as Avatar or the Transformers series.
However, Beijing has shown signs of resistance to that hunger, part of a wider pushback against the influence of “foreign culture.”
In 2011, the Chinese Administration of Radio, Film and Television issued an edict discouraging movies featuring “fantasy” and “time travel,” among other “bizarre plots.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has instructed artists to abandon “naive sensual amusement” and instead use “true-to-life images to tell people what they should affirm and praise.”
Song has split the difference — his most recent paintings of scantily-clad models incorporate CCP-friendly themes.
An illustration of a mostly naked woman, he says, symbolizes the beauty of the South China Sea. The traditional Chinese junk boat in the background, he adds, shows that the region has been Chinese since ancient times, echoing the party line on a bitter territorial dispute.
“As long as you don’t oppose the state, don’t oppose the Chinese Communist Party, there’s no problem with whatever you draw,” he said.
LIFE GOES ON: After a strict lockdown that left millions on the brink of starvation, Indians embrace work to avoid starvation and get ready for several major festivals India is on course to top the world in COVID-19 cases, but from Maharashtra’s whirring factories to Kolkata’s thronging markets, people are back at work — and eager to forget the pandemic for festival season. After a strict lockdown in March that left millions on the brink of starvation, the government and people of the world’s second-most populous country decided life must go on. Sonali Dange, for instance, has two young daughters and an elderly mother-in-law to look after. She was hospitalized this year in excruciating pain after catching the novel coronavirus. However, after the lockdown exhausted the family’s savings, the 29-year-old had
A COVID-19 outbreak among hundreds of Russian and Ukrainian fishers flown to New Zealand to bolster its struggling deep-sea fishing industry has prompted that country’s largest daily increase in infections in months, authorities said yesterday. More than 230 fishers were flown in from Moscow last week, with 18 of the crew members then testing positive for COVID-19 while in quarantine, New Zealand Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said. The Pacific nation has almost eliminated local transmission of the virus, but regularly records small numbers of new cases in returned travelers. The fishing cluster pushed the daily tally of new infections to 25,
From monitoring vital signs to filtering filthy air and even translating speech into other languages, the COVID-19-fueled boom in mask-wearing has spawned an unusual range of high-tech face coverings. As masks become the norm worldwide, tech companies and researchers are rolling out weird and wonderful models to guard against infection and cash in on a growing trend. One of the wackiest comes from Japan, where start-up Donut Robotics has created a face covering that helps users adhere to social distancing and also acts as a translator. The “C-Face” mask works by transmitting a wearer’s speech to a smartphone via an app, and allows
JAPAN Deer-edible bags invented The deer that roam Nara no longer face discomfort — or far worse — after local firms developed a safe alternative to the plastic packaging discarded by tourists that often ended up in the animals’ stomachs. Last year, several of the 1,300 deer that wander around the ancient capital’s central park were found dead after swallowing plastic bags and food wrappers. Firms collaborated to develop bags that pass safely through the animals’ complex digestive system. The bags are made with recycled pulp from milk cartons and rice bran, one of the main ingredients of the shika senbei savory