Chinese Church Voices

Thoughts on a Current Chinese Film

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

Zhang Kai is a prominent Chinese human rights lawyer who has defended Christians and previously was detained by the Chinese authorities. His social media account attracted thousands of followers until it was recently shut down.

This article by Zhang Kai recently surfaced on another social media account before being quickly censored. Zhang reviews the new movie The Island and uses the review as a thinly veiled critique of the current Chinese political climate.

Lawyer Zhang Kai // A Good Drama Can’t Beat a Good Ship

Movie, The Island

The movie opens with a group of people left on a deserted island, where they come to believe the outside world no longer exists. This island is where the subsequent drama unfolds.

The movie interweaves several comedic characters within the plot, but actually raises a serious and ancient question about life: if there is no “world on the other side,” how then ought we to live?

Wang Baoqiang’s character “Xiao Wang” gives us the first proposed way of life: don’t ask what life is for—life itself is the objective. The people who adhere to this way of life will endure any sort of humiliation for a full stomach. The moment he sees a roasting fish, this kind of “lecturer of hungriness” will forsake all dignity and morals.

“Manager Zhang,” another character in the movie, gives us a second way of life: satisfy people’s requirements for food and shelter, but without justice. Manager Zhang lives in plush accommodation, setting up rules for buying and selling without obeying them himself; he relies on force to maintain his rule. In the midst of the other rulers, his way at first delights the people, but Manager Zhang is quickly brought into question.

Huang Bo’s character “Ma Jin” proposes a third way of life: he casts a beautiful vision for the island’s inhabitants to live by—a life of working hard together, full of hopes and dreams, towards a revival of the island people—and of course, love is also involved.

This way of life sounds good; it brings peace from the island’s wars and gives the islanders a wider vision; people dance excitedly in the streets. This bright spark suddenly appearing in the midst of the darkness bestows Ma Jin with countless haloes.

Yet, if a spiritual order is lacking we are living in a dark place, just as the book of Job says: “The land of gloom like thick darkness, like deep shadow without any order, where light is as thick as darkness.” (Job 10:22)

But Ma Jin’s haloes will certainly be lost; no matter how much brightness goes forth, a matching amount of lies are doomed to be manufactured.

And while people are crazily making their idols, they are in the final estimation not building a new home, but attempting to create a utopia.

The solitary island is our world writ large. We all live on this globe, each of us playing out the same island story.

The three ways of life can all be found in their original forms in ancient texts. If, in the movie, the ship had not appeared to connect the island with the rest of the world, Ma Jin’s way could have succeeded: no worries about food or clothing, no wars, a heart full of hopes and dreams, a new home for mankind . . .

However, when the ship appears, Ma Jin is revealed in the blinking of an eye as a charlatan; his followers, the “Little Revivalists” turn into conspirators.

The only thing they can do is to continue conning people with their vision of perfection; only if they can complete this drama can they feel their existence has worth. The ice cream has melted—now everyone can see that the “ice cream” was really just a lump of dung.

The three ways of life portrayed in the film satisfy three aspects of human existence: food, justice, and hope.

However, once these three aspects are satisfied, people still have no way to live the kind of life they wanted.

Xiao Wang, Manager Zhang, and Ma Jin all eventually succumb to mediocrity and an exhaustion of their strength. They are incapable of supplying anything and end in defeat.

All these defeats tell us that all the roads which say human beings can save themselves are finally shown to be the road to death. They cannot touch the deepest longing in the human soul: to return home.

No matter what basic hopes are fulfilled in life, in front of the great hope of returning home they become like a mirage of a mirage, one kind of hope standing in for another kind of hope. In the final instance, people can only spiral endlessly into violence, warfare, and lies.

On the surface, Ma Jin’s way seems the most reliable. However, the hopes people invent for themselves are the ones which most easily turn into lies.

When Xiao Wang first sets eyes on the ship, he yells, “A boat! A boat!” The people who have already forgotten the existence of the outside world are immediately convinced: Xiao Wang is crazy. Subsequently, Xiao Wang is struck down to the ground.

Honest Ma Jin and the Revivalists also see the ship. But they are already clutching on too tightly to their authority and the power of their own words—they mustn’t let the “ice cream” melt or else they will have nothing.

The conspirators plot betrayal and slaughter.

The political con artist continues to manipulate the people’s enthusiasm.

Subsequently, they tell everyone in a loud voice: there is no ship and there is no outside world.

After this everything they do is shoring up lies, blockading news, and trying to make people forget about returning home.

Human history contains many “Ma Jins” and many “Revivalists.” Starting out as honest people with dreams in their hearts, they loudly tell people, “Work hard together, and the future world will be yet more perfect.”

But despite their noble beginnings they are frequently reduced to conspirators and political conmen.

Why should they fear knowing of a ship connecting them with the other side when all they do all day is spin lies into truth, and in the midst of happy songs and jokes make people forget the world on the opposite shore and live for the moment?

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Those who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.” [Translation note: this is a William Penn quotation, not something Thomas Jefferson ever said]

Truly he was saying this: if people won’t believe in the ship coming from the other shore, then on this shore we will live in the midst of tyranny and lies.

If there is no awe for God, “tyrants” can just as well be a group of people ruling by democracy as a single person ruling by dictatorship.

In the bounded world of mankind, if there is no eternal hope it doesn’t matter what method we choose to live by—all are full of emptiness and weakness, and in the final estimation only the path to slavery.

Only if there is a ship that can take us home can we truly find a way to freedom and eternity.

Augustine once said, “We cannot make heaven on earth; our only true home is the future one in heaven.”

The gospel says there is such a ship that can take you home.

No matter how we flourish on earth, there is no way to cut off our longing to return home. If we forget there is a ship that can take us home, all our earthly flourishing is just building a Tower of Babel.

In human history there really is such a person as “Xiao Wang,” who cries out as soon as he sees the ship from the other shore.

Just like in the movie, all the people around him thought he was crazy, and locked him up.

His name? The apostle Paul.

The world on the other shore really has sent a ship to take us home.

The ship broadcast this message: The kingdom of heaven is near, repent!

A great turning point in human society really did occur when this “ship” appeared.

The movie uses the repentance of Ma Jin to execute a plot twist. Ma Jin is not willing to become a conspirator or a political conman, and experiences a complete and sudden change of heart. He tells everyone the ship is real.

This, finally, is the pinnacle of human life. The ice cream not only hasn’t melted, it is transformed, like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.

The historical Roman Empire initially thought it could flourish limitlessly, but in the end it did not have the strength to contend against the call of the world on the other shore.

After Christianity had been persecuted for three hundred years, a Roman emperor also had a complete and sudden change of heart. In 313 AD, the emperor in Constantinople set up the Amnesty of Milan, letting Christians practice their religion freely; the pinnacle of his life.

“Getting on the ship and going home” is our greatest human desire.

In human history, there have been countless examples of lies and tyranny being used to snuff out this desire. However, the good news of the gospel really does have enormous vitality and penetrative force.

Two thousand years later, it is still going strong.

In human history there have been countless times that have proved that people who try to obstruct this good news are only like praying mantises trying to stop chariots. People who enthusiastically try to replace the good news with something else not only lose their opportunity to get on the ship, even their enthusiasm will soon be swallowed up into a great nothingness.

May God bless China.

Lawyer Zhang Kai. September 11, 2018.

Original Article: 张凯律师 || 好戏不如好船 by Zhang Kai