China: Aftershock – history or political allegory?

While the 2008 Sichuan earthquake has become a taboo in mainstream media because of the bean dregs school building construction scandal and the arrest of citizen investigator Tan Zhouren, the Tangshan Earthquake has been put on big screen on July 22, six days before the 34th anniversary of the biggest disaster in China. The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Tangshan in Hebei Province at 3:42am on July 28, 1976, claiming more than 242,000 lives and rendering 164,000 people disabled.

The movie, Aftershock, is a state-sponsored productions directed by Feng Xiaogang, who is famous in satirical comedies. It has been praised as an epic and it's box office will reach 500 million yuan smashing the local cinema record.

The story line of the movie is about a mother's difficult choice between saving her son and her daughter during the earthquake. She chooses her son and her daughter manages to survive, after 32 years, when the daughter becomes a mother, she finally comes to realize her mother difficulties and forgive her.

It is generally agreed that the film is well-made and very touching. However, there are many embedded commercial advertisements and some netizens take it a capitalization of human suffering. Micro-blogger Ye san's message has been widely quoted:


In a nutshell, the Tang shan earthquake movie is: be prepared to cry. Haven't you cried yet? How come? Please buy Jian Nanchuan (a Chinese wine). How can you not cry? You are the only one not crying! Cry now! Please buy China Insurance. You, cry quickly! You must cry! How dare you not cry! Please buy BMW. Haven't you cried?


Tianya writer 吾非羊 compares the tear shedding effect of the movie with the funeral ceremony in rural China:


我国的这种丧礼习惯很容易将悲伤化为快乐,丧事变为喜庆,死了人变成大喜事儿。最近,冯小刚先生新作《唐山大地震》上映,笔者也有幸观摩了一遍。在黑乎乎的影院里,大伙涕泪声声。…冯导 的影片,在讲的故事,很容易让我想起小时候江苏农村大出丧的那种悲伤化为快乐,丧事变为喜庆,死了人变成大喜事儿的神奇感觉。

Eventually everyone were exhausted from crying and the family would express thanks to relatives, friends, neighbors and monks, etc with huge banquet. The ceremony reached its climax and people recovered their spirit from the crying funeral…

The funeral custom can transform sadness into happiness, funeral into ceremony. Someone's death becomes a great happiness. I had the opportunity to view Feng's new movie “Tang Shan Earthquake” recently. The dark cinema was filled with people's sobbing sound… Feng's story reminded me of the funeral in rural Jiangxu, a catharsis that transforms tragedy into happiness, funeral into ceremony…

History or political allegory?

Granite Studio quoted James Palmer's comments who pointed out that the movie is very ahistorical:

As a historian of the Tangshan Earthquake, I was a little disappointed; it was like going to see Titanic and watching the boat sink in the first half hour.

It is probably through the ahistorical approach, a political allegory between family and nation is made possible. Seanpatrick:

唐山大地震,微觀家,宏觀國!~~~馮導進步了, 這部是政治意味相當濃烈的電影,暗藏了對國家未來良好發展的願景

In the Aftershock, on the micro level it is the family, on the marco level it is the State! Director Feng is making progress, it is a politically charged movie with a vision on the nation's progress.

Earlier this year, a documentary on Tang Shan earthquake, Buried, has won the Chinese documentary film festival. The director Wang Libo's claim that “truth cannot be buried” has been quoted widely online and turned into a critical footnote of Feng's Aftershock. You can find some of the clips at youtube:

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