Romance (and politics) in China

Two young lovers stand side by side on a mountaintop, watching the sun rise from the valley below. Morning mist floats through the forests around them. Moved by the beauty of the moment, the two proclaim in unison: "I love my motherland. I love the morning of my motherland."

The young man and woman are practicing lines from an English lesson. The setting is Lu Shan, a famous mountain retreat in south central China. It all takes place in a recent Chinese movie which reflects some of the very basic changes taking place in post-Mao China.

"Romance on Lu Shan" might seem simple and somewhat saccharine fare for an American audience. But for moviegoers in the People's Republic it marks a dramatic departure from the recent past.

On one level, the film is merely a contemporary Chinese soap opera of the kind which is seen regularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Girl meets boy and good old-fashioned romance takes care of the rest. Watching the movie, one might begin to wonder if China has abandoned politics in favor of Western-style entertainment.

On second look, politics is still very much in evidence. The girl is an overseas Chinese from the United States, you see. And the boy, who is caring for his convalescing mother, is the son of a high-ranking Chinese official. To complicate the situation further, the couple learn that their fathers, once the best of friends, parted as enemies during China's Civil War.Hism father chose the victorious Communists but hersm went with Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalists.

Thus the dilemma facing the youngsters is whether love can conquer the bitter memories of the past. Will their parents be able to sweep these old emotions aside and give their children permission to marry?

Love wins out in the end, but so does politics -- post-Mao politics. The joyful couple receives their parents' blessing. And the audience receives the clear-cut message that China needs all of its sons and daughters to return to help build a modern nation. (Lest anyone miss the point, the two lovers are both aspiring architects.) Overseas Chinese, like all foreigners, were treated with suspicion during the paranoia of the Cultural Revolution, which was brought to a halt in 1976. Since then Chinese from abroad have been welcomed for their money and expertise.

Overseas Chinese may be attracted by the movie's appeal to their patriotism. But they may feel somewhat uncomfortable about being stereotyped as rich, slick, and outspoken. In a country where conspicuous consumption is hardly the norm, the young Chinese-American woman changes her stylish Western clothes in every single scene. After they have long since fallen in love, the two find themselves alone by a beautiful lake. Nothing happens. Finally a young woman rolls over on her back and gazes longingly at the sky. In a line which is bound to become famous throughout China, she says to her boyfriend, "Don't you ever take any initiative?"

"Romance on Lu Shan" is lightyears beyond the heavy-handed revolutionary model operas served up during the 10-year cultural drought. Today's message is far less shrill and the didacticism subtler.

China's antismoking campaign and the movement to learn English receive light-hearted endorsement in the film. Movies are enormously popular in China, and future foreign tourists should not be surprised to hear students practicing the English phrases, "I love my motherland. I love the morning of my motherland."

The film is for the overseas Chinese market but it is also directed at China's youth. It says, look to the future and look to yourselves if you want to solve China's problems. Be more open-minded about the past and about foreigners. Romance has its place, but remember, so too do es politics. Culture still serves the state.

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