At first glance, Martin Luther King and China don’t appear to belong together in the same sentence. For myself – as a student of Asia, civil rights and international human rights – the combination makes perfect sense. And if you look more closely, it should become obvious to you as well.
As America awaits the August 28 opening of the King National Memorial in Washington, D.C., this is a perfect time to reflect on the leader’s accomplishments, legacy, and commitment to justice, equality and nonviolent social change. As we continue to run the risk of turning the man into a two-dimensional cutout stereotype, it is important to remember that the “dreamer” was far more – a staunch antiwar activist who called for a radical revolution of American values.
A new documentary from award-winning journalist and filmmaker Kevin McKiernantakes a look an effort to bring Dr. King’s message to China. The film, Bringing King to China, examines efforts by his daughter, Cáitrín – who studied and taught in Beijing under a Fulbright after attending Stanford – to introduce a play about Dr. King to a Chinese audience. The play, called Passages of Martin Luther King, was written byClayborne Carson, a leading King scholar and Cáitrín’s teacher at Stanford. Carson based his play on King’s speeches and letters, even love letters from King to his wife.
From the beginning, the film almost begs us to ask the question: What can a twenty-something white woman teach the Chinese about the preeminent African-American civil rights leader? The answer is, apparently a great deal. China, now an emerging superpower and the world’s second largest economy after the U.S., was already open to Dr. King’s words. Video footage of lynchings and the police brutality of the Jim Crow South showed China what black people were up against. And following King’s assassination, Mao Tse Tung gave a speech in Tiananmen Square praising the fallen leader. Some Chinese have tried to compare the two men, however problematic, given Mao’s support of violence, and the ruthlessness of the Cultural Revolution.
Today, the communist-turned-hyper-capitalist nation is beating the U.S. at its own game of making money, and may someday eclipse its trading partner and debtor. And yet, while the official line in China is that racism doesn’t exist there, the persecution of Muslim Uighurs, Tibetans and other minority groups tells a different story. And the popularity of Darlie or “Black Man Toothpaste,” formerly known as Darkie, suggests a little education about black folks wouldn’t hurt. Then there’s the issue of freedom of speech and political repression in China.
Surprisingly, the play, which was performed by the National Theater Company ofChina, emerged unscathed from the Chinese government’s censors. But that doesn’t mean that the participants in the play did not self-censor, or at least second guess themselves and question whether their production would succeed and pass muster. The production marked the first time that a Chinese and African-American cast performed together in China. A Chinese man even played the role of King. And the theater company traveled to the U.S. to visit the National Civil Rights Museum inMemphis, and learn more about the man and the movement they would so ambitiously undertake to portray.
Bringing King to China is really several stories in one. Aside from chronicling the process of adapting Carson’s work for a Chinese audience, the documentary is about bridging cultures. Americans and Chinese need to talk, figure things out and understand each other, much the way that the U.S. and Japan began a similar dialogue decades earlier. As the film points out, each culture has its own interpretation of reality. For example, while Americans might have viewed the 1989 image of a Chinese protestor walking in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square as the ultimate form of protest, a Chinese interpretation of that scene may have been one of government self-restraint. The film is also about the complexity of the civil rights movement, and the presence alongside King of important figures such as Stokely Carmichael, who preferred a more militant “black power” approach as an alternative to nonviolent civil disobedience.
But the documentary also tells the story of a father-daughter relationship, as well as the horrors of war. Kevin McKiernan was on assignment in war-torn Iraq in 2006 when Cáitrín mistakenly received news that her father had been killed by a suicide bomber in Northern Iraq. This happened at a time when China began to questionAmerica’s presence in the Arab nation. The film’s focus on Cáitrín’s traumatic wartime experience is appropriate for a documentary about Martin Luther King, a pacifist who spoke out against the deadly and atrocious U.S. war in Vietnam.
Four years in the making, Bringing King to China does a laudable job of shedding a new light on the man by introducing him to a new audience. And in the process, it reveals glimmers of hope for the future, even as it exposes the shortcomings ofChina and the U.S., and the progress that has yet to be made in both countries.
A Chinese crew member in the film suggested that King is needed back in America. I thought that was a profound statement, perhaps the most poignant throughout the documentary, for its truth and clarity. Without question, King’s work is undone in the states, and for proof of that one need only look at the protracted nature of King’s three evils of racism, militarism and economic exploitation. This country’s lingering wars, its coldhearted Tea Party austerity policies, its economic inequality and entrenched corporate power mean that the U.S. has not fully learned the lessons left by the man we will soon memorialize on the National Mall – with a statue designed by a Chinese sculptor, no less. At the same time, King is needed in China, in Palestine and Israel, and in other places around the world.