Bettina Wilhelm, the granddaughter of Richard Wilhelm (the man needs no introduction for any Westerner who has dabbled with the I Ching) directed a poignant, artistic, and sentimental documentary on the man who was her grandfather and who is credited with introducing the West to the I Ching. I selected the foregoing three adjectives with great care. The documentary through and through was poignant, artistic, and sentimental.
I admit not knowing much about the man prior to watching this documentary and walked away with great admiration for his pioneering spirit and independent mind. I admire his compassion and the contribution to and what seems to be genuine concern and respect for the welfare of the Chinese people while he was in China. I appreciate that he did not go there to baptize people and preach, but rather, simply practiced the teachings of Christianity with the hope that his actions would speak louder than words, which they did. The film is an incredible tribute to Richard Wilhelm and provides a great deal of historic context for the China he was living in and experiencing.
What made both Hubby and me uncomfortable, however, was the narrative arc of the documentary: white people shit on other culture and deem them heathens, abuse, torment, and treat them worse than dogs, and then lone white hero comes in, defies his own race, comes to admire the “simple” beauty of the “heathens” and, oh, saves them all. Statues are then built in his honor in said foreign land.
Don’t get me wrong it was not intentional and not for a second do I think that arc was intended by the director, but it is almost inevitable. I should even note that when Hubby was setting up the DVD for me, we had some technical difficulties, and while he was working on it, he skipped through sections of it while I wasn’t there. He told me he did so and I asked, “So what is your first impression of the documentary?” Said Hubby deadpan: “White people destroy China. One white guy doesn’t join in the destruction, however, and for not destroying someone else’s land and culture, he is venerated as a hero.”
At one point while Bettina Wilhelm is narrating via voiceover, she says, and I am most definitely paraphrasing here but watch the film in the entirety and you’ll see she really does say this: good thing Wilhelm translated the I Ching for Westerners, otherwise the precious text would have been lost for good. Again, I don’t think there was any intentional presumption of superiority but it comes across that way. I mean, I’m sorry, if Richard Wilhelm didn’t translate the I Ching, there would be no I Ching at all right now? Seriously? Is that because the Chinese people are so incompetent and, well, “heathen” that there wasn’t any way they could have preserved their own art and cultural artifacts without the help of a white man?
Not to mention the title of the documentary seems to imply equal treatment of Richard Wilhelm, the man and I Ching, the text and practice. Yet the documentary most certainly focused heavily on Richard Wilhelm, the man, which is fine and a fine job was done at that, but the treatment of I Ching was cursory at best. If you’re even a beginner practitioner at the I Ching, then this film does not tell you anything you don’t already know about the I Ching.
I admit I am taking the documentary out of its context, however. The film is targeted at Westerners (and presumably white ones at that) with no familiarity of the I Ching, in which case it was a great film and succeeded at its purpose. As an Asian American, I would have appreciated more conscious humility. Richard Wilhelm didn’t “save the I Ching,” people. He did a remarkable job of translating an archaic text for European and North American consumption and the man himself possessed a benevolent soul, differentiating him from other Europeans occupying China at the time, and his affinity with the Chinese people is poignant. But when will the West move past the glorification of a Westerner just because he does not destroy another’s land and does not openly regard other races as heathen? That is what you are supposed to do: respect other people, be compassionate and kind, and do no harm. When did that become heroic?
To be fair, the director provided a hard, impartial, and at times difficult to watch depiction of the horrors that did go on and the mistreatment of the Chinese at the hands of Europeans (and later, the Japanese). She did not gloss over those darker hours of East West relations and I appreciate that. The film was also gently critical of the Christian proselytizing of the Chinese natives, which–hey–is better than what normally happens in these types of documentaries. Truly, I do believe much credit is due to Richard Wilhelm for learning Chinese and also for learning the I Ching, absorbing Chinese culture, rather than arriving with the mission to convert them all to conform with Western ideology.
I thoroughly enjoyed the documentary and making it was important work. Bettina Wilhelm herself makes appearances throughout the film and she exudes an incredible, beautiful, soft aura that gives me the impression that I would like her immensely if I ever meet her.
Read more about the documentary here: http://www.wisdom-of-changes-i-ching-the-movie.com/.
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My parents assimilated into American society when they immigrated here. We speak English at home, my mother often cooked American cuisine for dinner, they integrated with the upstate New York folk, went to church, and socialized with their coworkers or our neighbors. Hubby’s parents, who I refer to as “China-Chinese,” meaning they’re very much still anchored in Chinese culture and ways, who only mingle among Chinese, only speak Chinese, and only eat Chinese food, are starkly different from my parents. They’re recluse and don’t much trust anyone who isn’t Chinese. They’re not even all that enthusiastic about the Taiwanese. (FYI I’m Taiwanese.)
After watching the documentary, Hubby remarked to me, “Now, can you fault the old Chinese like my parents for being recluse and not really trusting foreigners [non-Chinese]? Every time they’ve ever encountered foreigners, the foreigners have tried to wreak havoc on them. Can you blame them for staying to themselves?”
Hubby raised a darn good point. See, my parents grew up in a developed, wealthy, democratic Taiwan and didn’t much in the way “eat bitterness” (cliché Chinese saying), whereas Hubby’s parents lived in Cultural Revolution Communist China and what’s worse, his father lived in an area of rural China that was ravaged by famine. Several of his siblings died of hunger. I don’t think anyone in my family has ever died of hunger before. The documentary mentions the “carving up” of China (and its resources and wealth) among the Western nations during the height of imperialism and after they had taken everything they wanted to take, they left behind a plighted land, a country overpopulated as it was fighting amongst each other for what scraps the Westerners left behind. If you can understand that, then you can understand why the mainland Chinese are the way they are today.
In a way, the film “Wisdom” made me confront the China that my husband’s family grew up in. It left me with a more enriched understanding of why they are the way they are. When your parents’ parents lived through the era that Richard Wilhelm was in China and raise your parents with certain distrust of Westerners, it is no wonder your family would be reluctant to assimilate.
Photo Source: “Wisdom of Changes” official website, Triluna Films