If the heroic war movie is no longer so ubiquitous on British TV, in mainland China the War of Resistance against Japan and the early strivings of the Communist Party remain perennial, unavoidable themes of big-budget TV series.
The “Anti-Japanese oratorio” (kangri shenju 看日神剧, subject of an interesting article on Chinese Free Wiki—shenju literally meaning “holy drama”) is a satirical internet term for wartime dramas that incorporate tropes from imperial culture such as martial arts, romance, and miracle tales. Instances from the wiki entry include using a rifle to shoot down a plane, tearing the enemy in half with one’s bare hands, and kicking away incoming grenades. Such tropes recall the supposed invulnerability of the righteous—as in the 1900 Boxer uprising, another popular topic in Chinese film. An early instance of the genre was the 1989 movie Rennai mochao 人奶魔巢 (watch here). CCP ideologues have criticised such dramas as vulgar.
Recently on Twitter Yang Han relayed a short scene from WeChat, showing the divine intervention of Thunder Lord and Lightning Mother (leigong dianmu 雷公电母) from the clouds on behalf of the heroic Communist troops—a deus ex machina device, we might say. But Yang’s comment “I don’t know how this anti-Japanese drama passed the political censors? Communist Party members are clearly atheists” was premature. It transpires to be an ingenious spoof, * part of a mini-genre, with clips such as this.
And in this one it’s none other than the Buddha who intervenes—rebuking the Japanese for their barbarity as they sought to create a Buddhist empire. Indeed, villagers prayed to their temple gods for protection from the Japanese, as in north Shanxi; there too, household Daoist Li Qing recalled:
Our ritual business didn’t suffer during the occupation—the troops, themselves devout, even made donations when they came across us doing Thanking the Earth rituals!
Similarly, in Gaoluo south of Beijing,
Japanese troops entered the village on 3rd moon 15th just as the ritual association was leading the annual ritual for the goddess Houtu in the ritual tent. But the invaders merely entered the tent respectfully and kowtowed before the ritual paintings (my Plucking the Winds, p.92).
What Party ideologues oppose in those spoof clips is not the vulgarisation of religion but the offence to wartime Communist heroes. Still, the regime’s relation with religion has never been simple. When pressure from central ideology has allowed, grassroots cadres have long showed a certain laissez-faire. Despite periodic campaigns, ritual life persisted through the 1950s (see e.g. my work on Gaoluo, the Li family Daoists, and under Local ritual).
Left, Houtu painting, N. Qiaotou, Hebei; right, detail of pantheon, Wutai county, Shanxi.
And stories of divine intervention during times of war are common in the local folk cultures where the PLA recruited its cannon-fodder. In Hebei we heard accounts of how the female deity Houtu rescued a Chinese brigade during the Korean War; and in a Shanxi village, spirit mediums showed us a handsome ritual pantheon featuring a deified PLA soldier. Indeed, if those online clips came from real movies, they might speak to audiences who have heard such tales from their grandparents. Temples often have images venerating Mao and other national leaders (e.g. in Gansu).
But more often, religious groups mobilised to resist the social disruption of CCP campaigns. Throughout the high tide of Maoism in the 1950s and 60s, local sects rose up “under the cloak of religion” (as Party propaganda has it) in protest against coercive collectivisation, seeking divine protection just as they had done during the Japanese occupation. In Tibet too, as the Cultural Revolution caused extreme social and psychological breakdown, a divinely-inspired revolt against the Party broke out in Nyemo, with warrior-heroes again rashly claiming immunity from bullets. In Tibet since the 1980s’ reforms, the monasteries have been a focus for resistance to Chinese policies (see e.g. Eat the Buddha). And scholars have noted the irony of the atheist CCP claiming authority over the reincarnation of high Lamas.
Whether or not it’s reflected in Chinese media, the religious fabric is an enduring theme of social life (see e.g. C.K. Yang, Adam Yuet Chau, and Ian Johnson).
* After all, no-one would believe you if you told them Boris Johnson was a real politician.