by Patrick Huang


ALTHOUGH VAGUELY high-sounding, the word “personification” is pervasive among scholars, indicating a process to transform non-beings into beings. It is a discursive strategy—or stratagem—whose purpose is to present audiences with a more sentimentally-charged ambience. “Personification” is also put to good use more in politics, noticeably by the elite for advantage of intensifying a sense of nationalism among audience-citizens. This is ubiquitous through every single political arena; a dictatorial regime as in mainland China has no exception. Mainland China is a proper case study, for I note that there is a high yet persistent exploitation of “personification”-ridden texts that we can observe in media.

In mainland China, the Central Propaganda Department is responsible for propaganda work. Propaganda is utilized on both national and international levels. The purpose of this is to build a strong nation through discursive propaganda.

Implicitly, nations are non-beings. It is the government who transfigures them into beings by means of romanticizing narratives. The Chinese government, as observed, is largely emphasizing a Han-centric history. Any lesson baleful to the Han nation-building project is to be mandatorily barred from national education, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.

The “history” presented is selective and, of course, subjective. What is interesting, many a time the government attempts to formulate a protagonist or protagonists as a means to represent the party by disseminating propaganda-based stories. Lei Feng was an example. But more telling of present ideological imperatives may be recent depictions of Sun Yat-Sen in media.

The Chinese government, specifically under the presidency of Xi Jinping, views Sun Yat-Sen in a decidedly positive manner. Sun Yat-Sen, as Father of the Republic, is seen as the leader of 1911 Revolution,  which toppled the Qing Dynasty, establishing Republican China which is presumably the first republican state in Asia. This is a point of pride for China.

However, I also speculate that Xi Jinxing favors Sun because of his nationalist policy. Before the collapse of the Qing empire, the territory of what largely became the borders of China was ruled by the Qing, whose ethnicity was Manchu. Their culture and language are distinctive from Han’s. Subsequent to 1911, Sun was temporarily in office and propagated a Chinese nationalism which aimed to assemble all ethnicities in China to psychologically form a unified and strong China. Sun’s view is in tune with Xi Jinping’s attempt to do so in the present.

1911_posterFilm poster for 1911

More important yet is the public perception of Sun which remains affirmative for all Chinese: Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, Mainlanders and Overseas Chinese. Sun is a historical protagonist who is seen with prominent respect from Chinese, inclusive of overseas Chinese and diasporic Chinese. We can examine the film 1911 (2011) as a case in point for this depiction of Sun.

1911 is largely propaganda-oriented, recounting the history of founding of the Republic. At the beginning of the 20th century, Sun Yat-Sen, with close comrade Huang Xing, attempts to topple Qing Dynasty. Several efforts fail. Until the end of 1910, Sun solicits overseas backing from the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance.The revolution will happen in the number of provinces. In Guangzhou the attempt fails. Instead, the Qing Dynasty becomes aware it is being assailed. Several attempts at revolution are made. Sun travels to various countries influencing banks not to give loans to the Qing regime, whereas on the other side Xing is acting as the army general. Soon, troops are forced to move further down the Yangtze River, consolidating power in the process of doing soon. But with battleships sailing along the Yangtze, there is a good news proclaiming that a number of provinces have already declared independence. This leads to the ultimate victory of the revolution.

In the film, the character of Sun Yat-Sen is personified to be a man of intellectual qualities whose forte is to collaborate with international affiliates, showing prowess of wisdom. Several historians, nevertheless, argue that it was not Sun who made this revolution successful, rather that Yuan Shikai who was then responsible for organizing armed forces. And Shikai did not even consult Sun Yat-Sen at all; thus there are those who argue it was Shikai who deserves to be credited as hero of the 1911 Revolution. But Yuan Shikai plays so little a role in this film. Rather positive attributes are attributed only to Sun.

The image of Sun Yat-Sen cultivated is thus meant to build a well-fortified sense of China-loyalism among all Chinese. The deployment of Sun Yat-Sen, in this light, is to serve as the personification of an ideal for today’s China—the internationally-oriented revolutionary founding father of a country whose gaze is increasingly set on the international world.