The Incident

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.)

As the scholar William A. Callahan has recently noted, despite fifty years of Maoist revolution—when “anti-Communism” was often perceived as being “anti-Chinese”—and then as even China began to surprise the world with its recent economic success,

the national-humiliation narrative is [still] painstakingly reproduced in textbooks, museums, popular history books, virtual exhibits, feature films, dictionaries, journals, atlases, pictorials and commemorative stamps.

In 2001, the National People’s Congress even passed a law proclaiming an official “National Humiliation Day.” (However, so many historical dates were proposed that delegates could not agree on any one, and thus, no day was designated, although one of the leading candidates is now September 18, the day in 1931 that Japan began its invasion of Manchuria.) As if to remind the world that China was still an aggrieved party, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesmen not infrequently describe unwelcome actions by other countries—such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999—as “wounding the feelings of the Chinese people.”

It would be tempting to dismiss such language as empty rhetoric, but like so much that is said in China, such code words still tap into a reservoir of sentiment that is exemplified by such slogans as “The Chinese people cannot be bullied; the Chinese race cannot be insulted!” And so, in 2001, when a Chinese F-8 fighter jet crashed after wing-tipping an American EP-3 spy plane (causing it to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island), Chinese were again reminded of American power and its history of encroachment on their sovereignty. Apparently spontaneous demonstrations followed, along with attacks on American diplomatic missions and outpourings of indignation on the Internet—all allowed by the Party.

References to “the ‘Century of Humiliation’…both reflect and powerfully shape China’s relations with the West today,” writes Peter Gries. “By evoking the people, events, and symbols of China’s early modern encounter with the West, Chinese continually return to this unresolved trauma….”

However, “feelings of humiliation live on,” he concludes. “Neither Communism’s victory over the Nationalist Party in the Civil War, nor the declaration of ‘Liberation’ in 1949 appears to have exorcised the past.”


Having originally been scheduled for release during the spring of 2007, Dark Matter’s première was delayed by yet another shooting on an American university campus, this one at Virginia Tech. As it turned out, the film did not arrive in theaters until this spring, just as Tibetans, hoping to extract concessions from the Chinese—who were increasingly anxious that the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing not be marred by dissent because of Darfur and Burma—began their protest. As Nicholas Kristof has written in the introduction to China’s Great Leap, “The world has a new lever to try and win better behavior from China,” and, in the case of Tibet, the world used it. Soon Tibetan exiles and their foreign supporters joined in challenging the progress from country to country of the Chinese Olympic torch, which quickly came to be viewed as a symbol of the PRC rather than the Olympic Games. Repeatedly torch carriers were besieged by protesters decrying what they viewed as China’s forced occupation of Tibet.

While patriots from other countries would doubtless also have felt affronted by the sight of such a potent symbol of their nationhood under assault, the response of many Chinese to these confrontations revealed in dramatic fashion how sensitive China still was to foreign insult. What these Chinese at home and abroad chose to see on television was not oppressed Tibetans seeking a redress of grievances, but China again under siege and again being demeaned in the most public of ways.

China’s restless search for a more self-confident, less-aggrieved persona has paradoxically been made more complicated by other wounds not directly related to foreign attacks: for much of the past hundred years Chinese themselves have also been engaged in a series of assaults on their own culture and history. These frequently uncompromising self-critiques first started in the early part of the twentieth century when Chinese reformers began denouncing traditional Confucian culture, above all because it seemed to have left them so weak before the technological superiority of the West.

By the 1930s and 1940s, these attacks began to turn against the nationalists. Having begun to fashion a new identity that combined elements of both East and West, Chiang Kai-shek and his Wellesley-educated, Christian wife were criticized for, among other things, being too Westernized and closely allied to America. Then, after Chiang was defeated, Mao came to power, and the Chinese Communist Party had spent three decades attempting at great human cost, to refashion a new revolutionary Chinese identity of their own, along came Deng Xiaoping to perform yet another act of demolition, this time on Mao’s revolution itself.

The cancellations of these successive efforts at self-reinvention have left Chinese with an uncertain sense of cultural or political direction. The country has tended to swing from one experiment to another, seeking refuge in a series of large-scale, but never definitive, makeovers. It is therefore perhaps understandable that a more robust sense of cultural and political self-confidence has remained elusive. So, partly in shock, and partly in disappointment, China responded to the demonstrations against its Olympic torch with incensed outrage, rejecting any suggestion that its own actions could have contributed to, much less have ameliorated, Tibetan demands.

The protests ended up highlighting a China that was not what most Chinese had hoped to see on display during the run-up to the games. Old-fashioned police controls were tightened and rhetoric that harkened back to Mao’s revolution made China look retrograde, just when it desired most to look modern. (For example, the Party Secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Zhang Jingli, was quoted in the Tibet Daily as calling the Dalai Lama “a wolf wrapped in a monk’s robe; a monster with a human face, but the heart of a beast.”) Militant attacks on China’s critics and foreign broadcasters like CNN and the BBC that reported the torch’s interrupted progress around the world soon flooded the Internet. In cities like Seoul, protesters began to be shouted down, even beaten, by Chinese counterdemonstrators.

What was surprising was that many of the most indignant counterdemonstrators were young Chinese, born during the post-Mao era. Better educated and more worldly than older Chinese, one might have expected them to have been exempt from the China-as-victim syndrome. But, perhaps because they, too, were products of the Party’s propaganda, many of them have turned out every bit as nationalistic, perhaps even more so, than their elders.* But what made these demonstrations against the torch such an affront to so many Chinese was the way in which they intruded just when they had allowed themselves to imagine that their national identity might actually metamorphose from victim to victor, thanks to the alchemy of the Olympic Games.

Instead, at this penultimate moment, as Xu Guoqi, author of the timely new book Olympic Dreams: China And Sports, 1895–2008, has noted, “Through their coverage and handling of the Beijing torch relay, the West seemed to remind the Chinese they were still not equal and they were still not good enough.”

The Olympic Games

The irony is, of course, that not for two centuries has China been more “equal.” Indeed, to visit Beijing as it approaches the 2008 Summer Olympic Games is to be dazzled by the city’s single-mindedness of purpose. Anyone arriving in China is bound to be impressed by the magnificent new Norman Foster–designed Capital Airport that opened just this February and by the new Beijing Olympic Park with its dramatic Herzog and deMeuron–designed “bird’s nest” stadium and its equally startling bubble-skinned, transparent National Swimming Center, known as the “swimming cube.” The dingy Soviet-style apartment blocks, disheveled courtyard houses, and defoliated streets that I first came to know in the 1970s Beijing during the Cultural Revolution have all but vanished. Now, one is everywhere overwhelmed by new “development,” or fazhan, a word that has attained almost sacerdotal overtones in this new China whose leaders have, indeed, sponsored an economic revolution that has transformed their country. That so many people are now able to imagine a better future has gone a long way toward explaining the durability of Communist Party rule.

Beijing has seemed bent on making the upcoming games so magnificently endowed with new facilities and so flawlessly run that they will be unforgettable. Indeed, in speaking with Chinese, it is impossible to miss the feelings of pride and patriotism that the games have generated. Almost everyone I spoke with, whether high or low, seemed to feel some identification with this dashi, or “great enterprise,” as Chinese used to refer to the efforts of Confucian dynasties to gain and hold the “mandate of heaven” that legitimized an emperor’s right to rule.

After a century and a half of famine, war, weakness, foreign occupation, and revolutionary extremism, a growing number of Chinese—overseas as well as inside China—had come to look to the Olympic Games as the long-heralded symbolic moment when their country might at last escape old stereotypes of being the hapless “poor man of Asia”; a preyed-upon “defenseless giant”; victim of a misguided Cultural Revolution; the benighted land where in 1989 the People’s Liberation Army fired on “the people.” In one grand, symbolic stroke, the Olympic aura promised to help cleanse China’s messy historical slate, overthrow its legacy of victimization and humiliation, and allow the country to spring forth on the world stage reborn—“rebranded” in contemporary parlance—as the great nation it once had been, and has yearned for so long to once more become.

When I asked Chen Shi-Zheng if in making his film he intended to draw any parallels to the present and the Games, he replied:

I’m not involved with the Olympics, but I have, of course, thought a lot about them. After years of a modern history that because of colonization and Western domination have caused a certain sense of shame, the games presented themselves as an opportunity for China to show the world its strengths and greatness.

The protagonist in my movie is the embodiment of certain Chinese characteristics, a person who is ambitious and up-and-coming, but filled with self-doubt. When he does not pass his Ph.D. orals, it creates an unbearable pain.

So, like Liu Xing’s Ph.D. orals, the games had come to be anticipated as the cathartic act in a long agonizing historical drama in which China would finally fulfill its almost mythic destiny: its quest for fuqiang, “wealth and power.” Like Dark Matter’s antihero, who imagines himself arriving triumphantly back in China heaped with prizes and his American Ph.D. to fall into the welcoming embrace of proud parents and country, many Chinese dared hope that China, resplendent with Olympic medals and with new respect, would come closer to attaining their long-denied dream of greatness.

It was into this atmosphere of hopeful expectation that the Tibetan protests intruded. “Chinese felt: This is our time!” Chen Shi-Zheng told me.

And then, along come the Tibetan demonstrations, which made them feel as if they were again being thwarted, as if what they finally rightfully deserved was going to be denied.

Given the lens of disappointment through which many Chinese saw the Tibetan uprising, it was hardly surprising that indigenous protesters, the exile Tibetan movement, and even the Dalai Lama himself quickly came to be viewed as traitors, creatures of foreign forces conspiring to snatch China’s prize—its new world status—from its grasp, much as the protagonist in Dark Matter had come to view his Chinese rival as having betrayed his Chineseness by selling out to foreign masters, their American professors, and denying him his rightful prize.

What may be confusing to outsiders trying to make sense of all this is that despite China’s stunning accomplishments, few Chinese of my acquaintance, at least, have yet allowed themselves to be psychologically convinced by China’s success, to embrace a new national belief in China’s establishment as a leading nation. To do this, I suppose, they would have to fully believe that they already are, in fact, successful and powerful; that the world has already begun to look on their country with a growing sense of wonder, even envy; and that the past is, in fact, the past.

As Xu Guoqi suggests in Olympic Dreams, Olympic medals may not be the answer to what ails. “China,” he writes,

has been obsessed with winning gold metals in major international competitions to demonstrate China’s new status as an economic and political powerhouse….

Although China’s pursuit of Olympic gold medals clearly coincides with the nation’s journey toward internationalization and achieving new status in the world, the state-driven championship mentality still reflects a combination of Chinese can-do confidence and the country’s lingering inferiority complex. A nation that obsesses over gold medals is not a self-assured nation.

Xu goes on to caution that

Beijing has used its so-called gold medal strategy to demonstrate China’s rise in power and wealth, but the political system that the Communist Party has tried to legitimize through sports and other means cannot produce a healthy and strong nation when its citizens have been forced to give up their independence and even personal dignity.

When it comes to accepting outside criticisms related to sensitive topics such as the Olympic Games, Tibet, Darfur, and Burma, Chinese leaders undeniably are thin-skinned. Their defensive reactions suggest that their memories of historical weakness and humiliation still burn with intensity. And while honest criticisms should not be muted just because Chinese leaders find them grating, as we foreigners interact with China, we should become more mindful that much dark matter generated by this history still floats around our common universe.

In reacting to contemporary events, we tend to forget, perhaps because we are so ahistorical ourselves, just how deeply implicated we actually were in how China came to experience and view the modern world. After all, we are all inescapably part of our own histories. But, in the case of China and the West—and Japan must be included here—we are also inescapably part of each others’ histories. This long historical relationship has created a still rather unyielding psychological tension that is ever present as each country interacts with the other. And so, despite the fact that China has recently gotten closer than ever to creating conditions that will allow it to escape from our unequal past, it is important to understand that its leaders and people are still susceptible to older ways of responding to the world around them.

While we often imagine ourselves to have escaped the confines of that history—or that history somehow ended—it would be naive to forget that we remain part of the equation. Whether we choose to recognize it or not, America can still have a powerful psychological gravitational pull on China, which grows as much out of history as out of current foreign policy.

A film like Dark Matter helps us see the complexity of this relationship more clearly, because it is able to probe the psychological recesses of our complex relationships far more deeply than any kind of policy analysis.

If there is one certainty in all of this uncertainty, it is that, because there exists no more important bi-lateral relationship in the world today than that between the US and China, it is crucial for us to understand as much as we can about its almost infinite complexity. Chen Shi-Zheng’s absorbing film helps us see into the complex and sometimes dark well-springs of feeling between East and West that, because of their deep historical origins, are still able to intrude in myriad destructive ways into our collective present.

—July 15, 2008