Sage rage

A new movie about China’s foremost philosopher has stirred controversy

Sage rage

Scholars and critics wonder if Chow Yun-Fat is the right actor to play Confucius

The introduction to the Penguin edition of the Analects of Confucius opens with a frank admission: “Despite his immense importance in the Chinese tradition, little that is certain is known about Confucius.”

That does not bode well for a cinematographer who is keen to make a blockbuster biopic about arguably the single most influential Chinese person to ever live. With Confucius as such a contentious and complex subject, it should come as no surprise that the script has taken two years to complete and been through 25 drafts.

The two hour movie, which is to be shot in Hebei province, started filming last week. The director, Hu Mei is known for her historical television dramas, such as the Yongzheng Dynasty, and is now satisfied the script offers a convincing reproduction of the Chinese philosopher’s life.

However, Hu is stirring the critics’ ire already: the biggest controversy so far being her decision to cast Hong Kong action star, Chow Yun-Fat in the lead role. The veteran actor became famous for playing assassins and gamblers, neither being very Confucian, to put it mildly. The director counters that “anyone cast to play Confucius will be controversial” but adds that Chow has played more contemplative, scholar-like figures in films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Children of Huang Shi. She also feels he has the right “temperament” for the role.

Chow himself was unhappy with early versions of the script and originally turned the part down. But as Hu told the Shanghai Evening Post, when Chow saw the final draft, he was “touched and wept”, so he signed up.

Which brings us back to that problem of the sage’s actual biography. Confucius was reckoned to be born in either 552 BC or 551 BC to an unknown mother, and was supposedly a descendant of a noble family from the state of Sung. Academics even argue whether he was or wasn’t the prime minister of Lu. More conclusively, he died in 479 BC, just as China was entering the Warring States Period.

Biographical details of his life come from the Records of the Grand Historian, but that was finished in the first century BC – long after Confucius died. As renowned Chinese historian, Professor DC Lau comments: “By then so much legend had gathered round the figure of the sage that little credence can be given to any of the events in it not independently confirmed by earlier sources. This being the case we can consider reliable only what we can glean from the Analects of Confucius itself.”

But even the Analects – which record his conversations – are far from perfect. As historian Frances Wood points out: “It was certainly written after his death, with the latest passages added in about 250 BC.”

The greater part of Confucius life was spent wandering between China’s then numerous states, offering his advice to feudal lords. But as Professor Lau notes: “It is not possible to determine how long Confucius stayed in each state as what little evidence there is tends to be conflicting.” He finally returned to the state of Lu, where he became a teacher in 484 BC, and died shortly afterwards.

Aside from the rather patchy historical record, Hu’s Confucius movie has also encountered difficulties in its depiction of the great man. Chow will play a character very different to the semi-glacial, cross-legged intellectual of conventional wisdom. “Confucius was not a bookworm, only able to preach and read,” Hu says. “Instead he was a living and humorous person. My Confucius certainly cannot do Shaolin boxing, but he could drive a chariot, was good at archery and once conducted a war – all of which has grounds in historical documents.”

Woods, on the other hand, writes that the Confucius that emerges from the Analects was “a somewhat obsessional character, unable to sit comfortably if a mat wasn’t straight and refusing to talk at meals.”

In recent years the trend for movie biopics has blossomed. Oliver Stone even chronicled the life of a sitting American president in W. But, for educated Chinese, Confucius occupies a position that is hard to describe and for which there is no direct comparison in the West. He is like a spiritual version of Shakespeare: a sort of embodiment of the nation’s identity. It is for this reason that the Chinese education centres which are currenty sprouting up around the world are called Confucius Institutes.

Perhaps the great Confucian contribution to Chinese society was to emphasise the centrality of family and filial piety (“Give your father and mother no other cause for anxiety than illness”).

His ideas of government are also of interest. He had a limited respect for the intellect of the common people. However, he thought the ideal ‘moral’ ruler should ensure the welfare of the common folk, with a strong emphasis on meeting their material needs, and their security.

Said Confucius: “Guide them with edicts, keep them in line with punishments and the common people will stay out of trouble.” The idea may be 2,500 years old but it probably still has a familiar sound to most Chinese today.

The problem for Hu, and Chow Yun-Fat, is how to capture all of this in a two hour sitting.

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