Talking about a revolution

New film deals with the sensitive subject of the 1911 Xinhai revolt

Talking about a revolution

Li Bingbing: stars in movie alongside Jackie Chan

Almost a century ago, on October 10, 1911, Qing dynasty soldiers and members of Sun Yat-sen’s Chinese Revolutionary Alliance rose up against the ancestors of Aisin Gioro Wei Ran, ending 278 years of rule by the once-mighty Manchu.

Today, the 50-something businessman Wei Ran (Aisin Gioro is his full family name, matching that of the former ruling dynasty) dodges questions about his royal heritage.

That’s a reflection of how the family name has faded, along with the Manchu language itself (only 100 people still speak it, reckons the South China Morning Post).

But Wei may find himself back in the spotlight soon, after the September release of a film about the overthrow of his family.

The Xinhai Revolution marks a crucial moment in republican history, culminating in the abdication of boy-emperor Pu Yi in February 1912, after almost two decades of determined, if sporadic, resistance to the Qing by Chinese nationalists.

In a world increasingly connected by telegraph, rail and ship, Qing mismanagement and corruption had become impossible to obscure. The perception that the dynasty was incapable of reform then fuelled the wider discontent that spurred Sun and his fellow republicans.

Not that Sun himself will be given top billing by the film’s promoters, who have been cautious about overdoing the red-carpet treatment.

Hence director Zhang Li told a recent news conference he doesn’t regard Sun as “the father of the nation”.

“That name only applies in Taiwan,” Zhang replied, according to 163.ent.com.

It was a wise response. Communist orthodoxy relegates Sun to a position below Mao Zedong in the political pantheon, brushing over the tensions that still simmer from China’s contentious modern history (Sun’s political successors lost the civil war in the 1940s and decamped to Taiwan).

Still, the film itself promises to be great fun, if only for the spectacle of Jackie Chan appearing in his hundredth movie but just about his first in a serious (and apparently romantic) role.

Chan crowns a cast of about 70 well-known names, and plays derring-do general Huang Xing, Sun’s fellow revolutionary.

Actress Li Bingbing plays Huang’s love interest and wife, while Taiwanese actor Winston Chao is playing Sun Yat-sen.

The Xinhai Revolution started almost by accident, after explosives assembled by the revolutionaries went off in Wuchang, or present-day Wuhan.

Army units sympathetic to Sun Yat-sen’s Chinese Revolutionary Association then rose up to avoid capture by Qing officials.

After 20 years of abortive uprisings, this one finally took hold. Insurrection spread around the country like “the single spark that can set off a prairie fire”, to use a phrase coined by Deng Xiaoping a few decades later.

Other themes from the revolution will also resonate for modern Chinese audiences, some of them a little uncomfortably for Deng’s successors. For one, the problem of corruption, which present-day leaders regularly attest as the greatest threat to Communist Party rule. Also the aspiration for reform: in 1911, the Qing were thrown out after shying away from economic or administrative change.

Scholars look back at 1911 as a watershed moment, and a time when China made a decisive break from its historical traditions. Even the calendar was torn up by the republicans, according to Daniel Kwok, writing in a paper presented to the University of Hawaii in March. Sun ordered the abolition of the lunisolar record, the 60-year cycle of days and years in use for 3,000 years – and which gave the name to the year 1911: Xinhai (辛亥).

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