On a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor Christoph Goertz, his thesis adviser; Robert A. Smith, a member of his dissertation committee; and Shan Linhua, a fellow Chinese graduate student and his rival.
Next, Lu went to the office of the chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dwight R. Nicholson, who was also on his dissertation committee, and fired three more fatal shots. Then, he walked over to Jessup Hall and demanded to see T. Anne Cleary, associate vice-president for academic affairs. When she emerged from her office, he killed her and then shot and maimed her twenty-three-year-old assistant. Finally, in an empty conference room, Lu raised the pistol to his head and killed himself.
Why a brilliant, hard-working young Chinese physicist, who had come to the US six years earlier filled with pride and hope, had come to such a bitter end is the subject of Dark Matter, a recently released feature film by Chinese-born director Chen Shi-Zheng. It stars Liu Ye as the initially idealistic and ambitious, then humiliated and enraged, protagonist (named Liu Xing in the film); Aidan Quinn as Liu’s arrogant faculty adviser (playing Christoph Goertz); and Meryl Streep as a kind, if naive, patron of the university who befriends Chinese students.
Dark Matter may appear to be simply another film about a mass shooting spree at an American campus, albeit one with a Chinese twist. When Liu Xing arrives at the University of Iowa from Beijing, he optimistically proclaims himself
so lucky to come to America, Meiguo, the Beautiful Country. May we all find a dream here!… I’m going to solve the Dark Matter problem, win the Nobel Prize, and marry a blue-eyed American girl!
But he gradually becomes persuaded that his professors are conspiring to delay his degree and deny him his rightful recognition as a scholar. His growing paranoia is only heightened when his Ph.D. orals committee refuses to sign off on his thesis until he redoes some of his computations, making it impossible for him to win the top dissertation prize he feels he deserves. By the end of the film, his acute sense of humiliation has led to a psychotic state, and in a fit of murderous rage he kills the professors he once idealized.
But what gives Dark Matter wider significance is the filmmakers’ use of the Iowa incident to explore—indirectly—some important psychological dynamics between China and the West: China’s deeply felt sense of historic injury by foreign nations, and the ways its often thwarted efforts to gain acceptance among leading world powers have exacerbated such sentiments. In the past, feelings of injury have arisen from such events as the Opium Wars and the Japanese occupation; and most recently after the Tibetan demonstrations this spring and during the run-up to this summer’s Beijing Olympic Games.
By retelling the tragic story of a Chinese graduate student attempting to complete a Ph.D. at a prestigious American university, the film suggests, obliquely, a larger parable about China’s ambivalence toward the developed world, especially the United States. Of course, the state of the psychotic killer depicted in the film is not intended to be a direct analogy to the feelings of Chinese toward the United States. But as the director, China-born Chen Shi-Zheng, explained to me recently, he does see the film’s protagonist as expressing, in extreme form, “the complexity of the modern-day relationship of Chinese to the outside world.” Liu Xing
is a paradox. He feels superior, because of the length and depth of the Chinese civilization from which he comes. However, at the same time, despite all of its extraordinary development and change, because China still lags behind America, he personalizes this reality and feels insecure.
What interests Chen is how his anti-hero’s initial willingness to revere and submit to American academic authorities becomes transformed into its opposite, so that by the end, after his dissertation is rejected, he sees them as oppressors.
And yet Chen and his co-scriptwriter Billy Shebar’s treatment of Dark Matter‘s antihero is surprisingly sympathetic. Chen was himself a Chinese graduate student in the US during the 1980s, and has since—as a well-known director of both Chinese and Western operas—become one of the artists who have been able to bridge the cultural divide between China and the West. He understands the sensitivities that linger around questions involving insult, humiliation, and loss of face to China, especially when foreign arrogance is involved. And in the film, Liu Xing’s American Ph.D. adviser is arrogance incarnate. When Liu arrives in his lab, he is smugly told, “Well, feel free to challenge me all you want. Just keep in mind, I’m always right!”
When an assistant reminds Liu’s adviser that his student has “been pulling a lot of all-nighters” doing research for him, he contemptuously replies, “Oh, come on! These kids are grateful for whatever work I give them. They come from a place where astrology is considered a science and toilets a luxury.”
Such exchanges in the film echo a kind of condescension that has historically marked many kinds of relationships between the West and China and slowly formed a kind of “dark matter” that continues to exert a powerful, if unobserved force.
The question the filmmakers seek to explore in Dark Matter is not simply the personal one but the larger question of China’s sensitivity to foreign dominance and criticism. Here the film is masterful in illuminating how any suggestion of foreign superiority, or even condescension, toward Chinese may intersect with their own sense of historical victimization and insecurity to create a volatile chemistry.
“We Chinese carry the burden of our history with us and the question of Western humiliation is always unconsciously inside us,” Chen told me.
Thus, we feel sensitive to any kind of slight and often have a very sharp reaction to perceived unfair treatment or injustices. On an emotional level we cannot help but associate treatment in the present with past injuries, defeats, invasions, and occupations by foreigners. There is something almost in our DNA that triggers autonomic, and sometimes extreme, responses to foreign criticism or put-downs.
“Throughout the ages Chinese have had only one way of looking at foreigners,” lamented China’s most famous essayist and social critic, Lu Xun, almost seventy-five years ago. “We either look up to them as gods or down on them as wild animals.” By acting it out in an interpersonal setting, as it is in Dark Matter, Chen seems to hope that viewers will be able to see more clearly that this complicated dynamic is also subtly at work in the larger “relationship.”
As Peter Hays Gries has written in his thoughtful book China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy, like it or not, “The West is central to the construction of China’s identity today; it has become China’s alter ego.”
“A Century of Humiliation”
A particularly important element in the formation of China’s modern identity has been the legacy of the country’s “humiliation” at the hands of foreigners, beginning with China’s defeat in the Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth century and the shameful treatment of Chinese in America. The process reached an understandable high point with Japan’s successful industrialization and subsequent invasion and occupation of China during World War II, which was in many ways psychologically more devastating than Western interventions, because Japan was an Asian power that had succeeded in modernizing, while China had failed.
In the early twentieth century, a new literature, with a new historical narrative to match, arose around the idea of bainian guochi, “100 years of national humiliation.” By taking up its own victimization as a theme and making it a fundamental element in its evolving collective identity, China ensured that certain traits would express themselves again and again as it responded under stress to the outside world. Highlighting their country’s history as a victim of foreign aggression led Chinese leaders to rely on what Gries calls “the moral authority of their past suffering.” Indeed, China’s suffering at the hands of foreigners became a badge of distinction, especially during the period in the 1960s in which non-Western countries vied with one another to appear the most “oppressed” by imperialism, and thus the most incipiently revolutionary.
As a result of the insulting terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, by which the West cravenly gave Germany’s concessions in China to Japan, an expression, wuwang guochi, “Never forget our national humiliation,” became a common slogan in China. Indeed, to ignore China’s national failure came to be seen as unpatriotic. Since then, Chinese historians and ideological overseers have never ceased to mine China’s putative past sufferings “to serve the political, ideological, rhetorical, and/or emotional needs of the present,” as the historian Paul Cohen has put it.
Sun Yat-sen, for example, described China in 1924 as being “a heap of loose sand” that had “experienced several decades of economic oppression by the foreign powers” and “as a consequence is being transformed everywhere into a colony….” In his 1947 book, China’s Destiny, Chiang Kai-shek wrote:
During the past hundred years, the citizens of the entire country, suffering under the yoke of the unequal treaties which gave foreigners special “concessions” and extra-territorial status in China, were unanimous in their demand that the national humiliation be avenged, and the state be made strong.
And when the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, Mao Zedong famously declared, “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We…have stood up.”
In 1997, when Hong Kong reverted from British colonial status to Chinese sovereignty, the Communist Party returned to the theme of China as victim to help encourage greater nationalism. General Secretary Jiang Zemin pointedly reminded the world that “the occupation of Hong Kong was the epitome of the humiliation that China suffered in modern history.” Since then, much of the talk about victimization has concentrated on Japan, China’s brutal and still incompletely repentant World War II occupier.
The idea that a nation might restore itself to greatness by emphasizing, even “celebrating,” weakness may seem counterintuitive. After all, why would any leader seeking to gain global respect want to constantly remind his people and the world of his country’s former humiliation? Perhaps Chinese leaders (both Nationalist and Communist) calculated that if Chinese could become sufficiently aware, even ashamed, of their weakness, they would be goaded into rising up and reclaiming their national greatness.
In any event, since 1949, a significant part of China’s effort to create a new national identity has been based on the dream of restoring the country’s territorial integrity, which patriots viewed as having been fengua, or, “cut up like a melon,” by past foreign incursion. This dream was of reunifying China as a multiethnic state composed of Han (central Chinese), Man (Manchurians), Meng (Mongolians), Hui (Muslims), and Zang (Tibetans), as well as bringing back into the fold of “the sacred motherland” those parts of the old Chinese empire that had either been pried loose by imperialist powers or had broken away during times of weakness. (These included Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, the Spratly Island in the South China Sea, and the Diaoyutai Islands near Japan. And, of course, it also meant holding onto Tibet and Xinjiang, whose peoples have long flirted with independence.)