Jackie Chan Said “Chinese Need To Be Controlled”, Or Did He?

Okay, the rampant Western media frenzy over Jackie Chan supposedly saying that “Chinese people still need to be controlled ” during a panel discussion at the Boao Forum in Hainan, China is…well, getting out of control. This is the kind of Western media bullshit that makes Westerners look like they’re frothing at the bits to use anything they can to paint China in a negative political light: “Oh look, even lovable kung-fu funny-man Jackie Chan has betrayed his own, selling out both himself and his kind to the evil Communist regime!” To which the Western masses reply in unison: “Gasp!”


The relevant excerpt from the Associated Press:

“I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not,” Chan said. “I’m really confused now. If you’re too free, you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic.”

Chan added: “I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”

And a Chinese report of what Jackie Chan said to foreign reporters:


He himself is now very conflicted with regards to whether freedom is better, or is not freedom is better, because if [people] are too free, it will be just like Taiwan and Hong Kong, which have become very disorderly. So, he has slowly come to feel/think that, “Chinese people still need to be regulated.”

Quick lesson in Chinese:

矛盾 = máodùn = conflicted, uncertain, has mixed feelings

You can translate Chan as being confused, but that just makes him sound stupid or getting senile. The more accurate translation taking into account the context of what he is saying would be say he is conflicted or has mixed feelings regarding whether freedom is good or bad.

太自由 = tài zìyóu = too free, in a negative sense, such as being wild, lawless

Freedom is a strong, evocative word in English. Due to the West’s own political history, it is also a noun that is almost always associated with “good.” On the other hand, “zìyóu” in Chinese is not so firmly rooted in the Forces of Good no doubt due to its own political history, whether you want to associate it with Confucianism or Maoist totalitarianism or whatever. You see, “zìyóu” is both a noun (freedom) and an adjective (free), both describing a state of being that is not inherently positive or negative, good or bad. It is how a person, or society, behaves in this state that instead determines whether this state of being can be judged as good or bad. In contrast to the West’s predisposition towards the intrinsic “good” of individualism and self-determination, the Chinese strongly consider how one’s freedom affects those around him. One man’s “freedom” therefore can become disadvantageous or undesirable to a larger social unit if that freedom negatively affects them.

Understandably, Westerners may not like this way of thinking, but failure to consider this sociological context when evaluating and then translating Chan’s comments is irresponsible. Besides, it is not as a strong judicial history weighing the interests between individuals and the larger society is absent in the West itself. Therefore, distorting or failing to contextualize Chan’s comments is inexcusable if not outright sensationalist.

被管 = bèi guǎn = to be managed, regulated, governed

To be certain, you can indeed translate “guǎn” as “control”, but there are more common translations such as those above. More importantly, there is a better Chinese word that is more commonly used for “control”, and that would be: “kòngzhì”.

被控制 = bèi kòngzhì = to be controlled

It is the translation of Chan”s “bèi guǎn” into him advocating that the Chinese people should be “controlled” that reeks of sensationalism, playing into the stereotypical Western narrative of China being a monolithic, heinous, brainwashing, police state diametrically opposed to the courageous West that represents and fights for life, liberty, and the pursuit of all that is holy.

Sure, the Western journalists and media can play dumb and argue semantics, but newspapers are written for the mainstream masses, and it is inexcusable for educated journalists and editors to be ignorant of how the word “controlled” is going to be interpreted by these masses. Like “freedom”,  “controlled” is also a very strong and evocative word in English, one that leaves very little room for alternative interpretations. “Guǎn”, however, is a very flexible word in Chinese that can mean a lot of things, many of which are far less fear-mongering than “control”, all depending on context.

So let’s look at context:


Later, Jackie Chan was pressed by reporter, his reference to Taiwan being disorderly was referring to Taiwan’s political environment being disorderly. The reporter asked again, was he referring to the case of former president Chen Shui-bian? Jackie Chan replied: “Correct!” Jackie Chan also said that Taiwan’s politics are now a little better.

If you’re Taiwanese, pan-green, or otherwise loved Chen Shui-bian, you might take issue with what Jackie Chan said there. However, you’re going to find a lot of Taiwanese, pan-blues, and other overseas Taiwanese agreeing with Chan on this, not because they’re sell-outs to China but because they genuinely did not approve of how Chen Shui-bian presided over Taiwan during his eight years. They, like Chan, are certainly entitled to their political views regarding Chen Shui-bian and Taiwanese politics, right?

Furthermore, both Taiwanese and Chinese alike are more than aware of the brawls that take place almost routinely between Taiwan’s congressmen. To some, they’re hilariously funny, but to others, they’re just one good example of why Taiwanese politics is “luàn.”

乱 = luàn = disorderly, chaotic

Any person with a passing interest in Chinese history should be aware of the Chinese people’s preoccupation with order and chaos. Unification and revolution throughout China’s much boasted 5000 years of history has almost always bore the cause of bringing order to a China plagued with chaos. As a Chinese person, however Hollywood-ified, Chan is deeply aware of this, and his comments regarding his uncertainty over more freedom or less freedom are made with reference to what balance would best serve the interests of developing China forward as a whole.

So please, for the love of God, stop trying to make his comments into some sort of high-profile betrayal of — or backtracking from — the unassailable righteousness and immutable pinnacle of human enlightenment that is “Freedom.” Doing so says more about the colored-lenses you’re wearing than it does about Chan’s personal thoughts regarding individual rights and liberties. It also says your Chinese sucks, or you’re allowing yourself to play stupid.


Context is important, and with the context we have available, the current popular spin of Chan’s comments throughout the Western media suggesting him as supporting the control, repression, or oppression of the Chinese people is questionable at best and shamelessly distorted at worst. The subsequent outrage is understandable, but also silly. You can liken Chan’s comments to the same ignorant comments made by many other audacious celebrities and thus dismiss them, or you can do a better job of not translating his Chinese comments in the most politically inflammatory way possible.

What do you think?

April 23, 2009 Update:

Elliott pointed me over to The Useless Tree where Sam Crane has, with all due respect, lost the plot. How? He’s written an entire post associating Chan’s use of the word “guan” with what he believes to be the most obvious contemporary political use of the word: 城管, “chengguan”. What’s “chengguan”, you ask? Those infamous low-end government ruffians employees in China tasked with enforcing a variety of city ordinances and most notorious for often violently bullying illegal street vendors and snack cart entrepreneurs.

The embarrassment of him having made such a mental connection is only eclipsed by him taking that thought of his seriously enough to share it with the world.

Sam, I don’t know you personally, and I’m sure you’re a great guy, but…are you fracking serious?

Does anyone need me to explain?

April 27, 2009 Update:

Roland Soong of EastSouthWestNorth has a great post (What did Jackie Chan say?) on this issue. Unsatisfied with the transcriptions available, he did his own. Soong writes:

For a detailed discussion of the subtleties in the Chinese word guan, I refer you to CN Reviews. Personally, I have no idea what Jackie Chan means when it comes to the Chinese “needing regulation” or “needing to be controlled.”  If you want to elevate what he said to a racist characterization of the Chinese people as being natural-born obedient slaves or advocacy for authoritarianism, that is your right and privilege.

If you’re not functional in the Chinese language, the next best thing is a good translation by someone who is. Please go ahead and take a look at Soong’s transcription and consider his comments. I believe the record reaffirms my criticism of many Western media reports, English bloggers, and English commenters that weighed in on this incident…especially those commenters who huaghtily declared they fully understood Chan’s “context” and it coud only support their conclusions about Chan being a racist advocate of state oppression.

As I said, please take off your colored lenses and stop interpreting Chan by first projecting your own political framework onto him. You can dislike him for other reasons, but willfully sensationalizing his comments is poor form.

May 4, 2009 Update:

Will Moss, the infamous Imagethief, has posted an email he received from Nick Mackie, the Newsweek journalist who actually asked Jackie Chan the question that led to the above-mentioned comments. The main takeaway is that the Jackie Chan was indeed responding to a question specific to the film industry though Jackie Chan broadened it to society in general.  This, Mackie explains, may have been influenced by something a fellow panelist (Andre Morgan, an American film producer) said immediately after Mackie asked his question. Mackie’s personal opinion is that Chan definitely believes mainland China needs “firm control by firm leadership” and Chan regrets his remarks.

Imagethief also provides a link to Mackie’s Newsweek piece covering the Boao Forum, and specifically the messages by China Premier Wen and, of course, Jackie Chan. It is worth reading as I think it walked an interesting but cautious line with interpreting Chan’s comments:

The 55-year-old kung fu action man’s  moment was an unscripted one. Chan — who happens to be Vice Chairman of the China Film Association –  staunchly defended the need for Beijing to carefully regulate artistic and cultural expression. He was responding to a journalist’s question on film-making restrictions, but Chan broadened his answer to embrace society in general.

For those of you seething over the emphasis I added above, Mackie includes the AP translated quote verbatim in the final paragraph.

Mackie wrote a good piece, and a far better one than what the AP offered, perhaps pre-emptively covering a number of bases that proved to be contentious amongst many of those responding to this bit of news. For example, him aserting that Chan’s comments were unscripted help put to rest the suggestion some have tried making that Chan’s comments were orchestrated by the Chinese government, as part of a larger, more nefarious propaganda scheme. Mackie also provides the context I criticized the AP for excluding. This includes the explanatory context with regards to Chan’s comment about Taiwan:

Chan quickly explained away the Taiwan reference as an off-the-cuff remark. “I mean politics, it’s a bit better now,” he remarked. The implication being that President Ma Ying jeou’s leadership of the island is an improvement compared to the days when his predecessor Chen Shui-bian held office. (Chen’s party espoused independence for Taiwan – which Chinese leaders consider a maverick province that must ultimately be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary – and his tenure marked a number of tense crises between Taipei and Beijing.

It also includes context relevant to Chan’s comments with regards to mainland Chinese:

While his publicly stated views on liberalism and artistic controls may not square with many in Hollywood, Chan is certainly at one with much of China’s new middle class — people like the local bank manager or  export sales executive who represent the country’s more assertive and even nationalistic younger generation.

For Chinese climbing up the economic ladder – typically earning more than US$ 1500 per month — greater freedom of expression, or Western-style democracy, don’t feature on their list of top priorities. For them, political upheaval could sabotage or encumber their economic endeavors. Despite the economic downturn, many still trust that the ruling communist party will continue to deliver the goods in terms of rising living standards. And if that means some restrictions on creative expression, many Chinese would say it is legitimate and cite the destructive impact of pornography and graphic violence.

Chan’s comments are not unusual, therefore, in the context of Chinese society — though they’d raise eyebrows among Western movie stars who are traditionally thought to embrace liberal politics.

Again, emphasis mine.

Mackie also deftly pays homage to the possibility that Chan’s just kissing butt because his recent movie was banned in China:

Here’s another ironic twist: what Chan didn’t mention is the fact that a recent film of his was not released on the mainland, apparently due to its excessive violence.

As I said, altogether a much better report than what the AP offered. In fact, it actually reports on the controversy (as more befitting the ideals of journalism) with the aim of informing the readers instead of simply contributing to it with sensationalism pandering to readers’ socialized predispositions.

Spread the word:
  • Digg
  • Mixx
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Haohao
  • del.icio.us
  • Technorati
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Netvibes
  • Print
  • email
  • RSS
  • Twitter