Caught in their net

Why does Zhang Ziyi spark indignation among the nation’s netizens?

An image: likely to infuriate those netizens: Zhang hugs an Austrian actor

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity” was the famous remark attributed to Brendan Behan, the Irish poet and playwright. He was actually referring to his own drunken antics and the headlines they invariably grabbed.

Not everyone would concur with the Irishman’s logic, and Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi is probably one of them. Despite her rise to international stardom, Zhang cannot seem to avoid offending large numbers of her countrymen – and especially the nation’s vocal internet community.

Take, for example, the reaction to her recent performance in a Hollywood movie. As the Global Times put it her “sexually explicit performance and kneeling to foreigners in The Horsemen has provoked many Chinese and generated fierce online reactions. Some netizens even accused her of disgracing China.” Indeed, for a nation still overtly sensitive to humiliation at the hands of foreign powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Zhang’s kneeling to a foreigner was viewed badly; as was her ravishment in the movie by a Western male. How could she have accepted such a demeaning role, argued her critics.

Worse, the controversy over The Horsemen followed the publication of paparazzi photos which featured Zhang sunbathing semi-naked on a private beach in St Barts. The long-lens shot likewise occasioned appalled blogger reaction. The common theme amidst the online spittle was that Zhang was a “shameless woman”.

So is Sophie’s Revenge a strategic move on her part to freshen her image and win over Chinese fans? The movie – due out in August – is Zhang’s first foray into comedy and represents a deliberate departure for the actress – who is better known for kung-fu blockbusters and serious historical dramas.

Her role as Sophie gives her the chance to play a lighthearted, endearing character – a carefree illustrator fighting to win her ex-boyfriend back from a movie star.

And Zhang has gone out of her way to be the anti-diva. When asked what it was like to work with a superstar like Zhang, her co-stars had nothing but praise. Zhang often invited them to her dressing room, where she served up snacks, they said. When one of the co-stars had difficulty understanding the international crew, Zhang even volunteered to interpret, says the China Daily.

But if Zhang thought her co-stars’ insights would stem the flow of bad press, she might have to think again. Another star in Sophie’s Revenge – mainland actress Fan Bing Bing – let slip a tip Zhang gave her on learning English – she should date a laowei (or ‘foreigner’ in Chinese).

The ever-vigilant netizens were quick to decry such unpatriotic advice, forcing Zhang to deny that she had ever offered it.

Meanwhile the Global Times has come to Zhang’s defence. In an article entitled ‘Over-criticising Zhang Ziyi’ the newspaper stated: “Such narrow-minded nationalist sentiments demonstrate some Chinese citizens’ anxiety and lack of self-confidence.” For good measure it added that her netizen critics were mostly “irrational”.


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