From Jia Zhangke’s film “A Touch of Sin”
“I’m trying to create a panorama view of our society. Lately, the occurrence of acts of violence continues to increase. In those acts we see their social background and roots that require us to confront. The lingering air of tension and grumpiness spreads over us like a pall.” The renowned Chinese director Jia Zhangke explained why he made his celebrated 2013 film “A Touch of Sin”.
The film recreates four true stories in recent Chinese memory: a hotel housekeeper who stabbed two bureaucrats to death when the latter tried to sexually assault her; a gunman who openly killed and robbed a dozen of people in downtown areas of major Chinese cities; a villager who slaughtered fourteen village elites with a shotgun; and a Foxconn worker who committed suicide by jumping off the dormitory building.
The director presents the cases as allegories of the China we live in: poverty, social injustice and the deprivation of dignity turn ordinary Chinese into anti-heroes of our time. In a beautifully written article by Jia himself, he referred to the ancient story of the “Mid-night flee of Lin Chong” (an episode in the classic novel “The Water Margin”), where Lin, a well-to-do military officer, was set up by his enemy, got his family ruined, forced to escape into the mountains, and returned as a rebellion leader. Jia considers it “the story of all of us.” He built it into the film, in a scene before the bloodbath in the poor village.
The well-off town of Wenzhou in late August knew no anti-heroes or rebellion leaders. The “Mr. Hot Pot” restaurant was buzzing with customers enjoying their lunch when a young waiter poured a basin of boiling water on the head of a female customer. The woman, a mother of a 7-month-old, was severely burned. Surveillance video showed the waiter struggled to hit the woman again even while he was being clasped by his colleagues and the relatives of the victim. He was only 17 years old.
Later, local media found out that the cause of the young man’s irrepressible wrath was the customer’s “disrespectful reference to his mom”, which was basically a standard curse in the Chinese language (“tamade”) when someone felt irritated. His irresponsiveness to the customer’s repeated requests annoyed her, who sent out an open complaint on Weibo and then scolded him with strong language. “I grew up in a single-parent family and haven’t seen my mom for years. She could have cursed me. But I couldn’t stand she cursing my mom.” He told the journalist.
Like many visually stunning acts of violence that are captured by modern audio-visual devices, the video immediately became a hot topic on the Chinese internet. Reactions to the event bespeak two diverging worlds: a world that tries to relate to the wounds of the abject perpetrator of violence and the other that rejects any “rationalization” of violence whatsoever. The former constitutes the emotional foundation on which Jia Zhangke builds his artistic realm of violent anti-heroes, while the second, fed up with the daily display of brutality, demands unwavering law and order. That divergence would probably define how the country makes sense of similar incidents in the years to come.
Voices sympathetic to the 17 year-old waiter were clearly audible in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Many such voices hover around the theme of rich vs. poor, the privileged vs. the disadvantaged. In those interpretations, it was the arrogance of the customer that “provoked” the act of vengeance. One commentator, who clearly self-identified with the privileged, even cautioned that people should “never have any disputes with those at the bottom of our society. They have nothing to lose and will chop you up if you threaten their dignity.”
Such reactions sickened a few observers who branded what they saw as the blame-the-victim mindset. Their views represent a major push-back against a sentiment that in the past has dominated the society’s reaction to violence wielded by marginalized groups as a weapon. (An iconic case is the 2008 Yang Jia case where Yang raided a police station and killed 6 policemen.) “Don’t lead the discussion to class hostility anymore!” A famous CCTV news anchor was visibly annoyed by the above narrative. Some commentators completely rejected the idea that the young man was the “disadvantaged” in the encounter with the victim.
In some way, the push-back stands for a progress in the evolution of online discussions about the everyday violence around us. To be clear, much of it was originally induced by a notable tendency in previous cases where a victim’s own moral failings were used to rationalize the atrocity, a recent example being the applause to the brutal beating of a pregnant woman who had a record of repeated burglary. A widely read post on Zhihu.com summarizes such a pattern as “trying to find sin in a victim, while trying to find virtue in a criminal,” and sees an analogy in the accusation of sexual assault victims for “dressing seductively”. So in a sense, the insistence on the isolation of an act of violence from the victim’s own moral conditions represents a progress towards more rationality in the ethical codes of this country, and could serve as the public opinion basis for more progressive legal protections for victims of violence.
But the no-rationalization sentiment can also transform into a general “hardening of hearts” that completely refuses to acknowledge the plight of the aggressor, particularly those coming from lower social classes, in the belief that any such acknowledgement would constitute a justification of the act itself. It was already notable in the aftermath of the horrific bus arson case in Xiamen two years ago, an act that killed 47 people including the arsonist himself. When details of the arsonist’s miseries prior to the suicidal attack (unemployed, mistreated by bureaucrats, years of ignored petitions) touched off a wave of public compassion, official media declared such sentiments as an indulgence of violence and an insult on the dignity of law. The stance met with resistance from commentators who saw the pursuit of “root causes”, which were often tied to the abuse of power and social injustice, as a legitimate cause and not equivalent to defending the cruel act itself. In return, they criticized their harsh critics for being eager to divert attention from the injustice behind the case. “We are all on the same bus. If one man feels despair, all of us are unsafe,” said one well-circulated post that resonated strongly on Weibo at that time.
In the everyday violence that fills our smartphone screens, the sensitive artist sees ancient tales of rebellion; the analytical intellectual sees problematic patterns of thinking, while the curious observer of contemporary China sees a moral compass under the influence of shifting magnetic fields. With this compass, the nation will have to navigate its own sea of misery and find a way out of it.
P.S. Just while I was writing this blog, a man stabbed and injured four judges inside a Hubei province courtroom, for what he considered unjust ruling. The man was having a labor dispute with a company and was suing the latter for reimbursement of his work. The incident touched off widespread panic and anger among fellow judges all across the country. And that sentiment also spread to other professional circles such as doctors and nurses, who are also often subject to such violence. In an article by previous Caijing journalist and now criminal defense lawyer Xu Qianchuan, he expressed frustration over what he sees as “uncivilized” reactions to the incident:”In a civilized society, good social and cultural systems will rein in the beast of violence. Whenever it pokes its head out of the cage, the whole society condemns and scares it back. But in an uncivilized society, violence is accepted or even encouraged… Aggressors become heroes and even spokespersons of certain values. This is a horrible kind of society that we should try our best to avoid.”