"I Am Sorry"

The following is a translation of an opinion column by a deputy editor of Southern Metropolis Daily.  The general background of the subject title is given in The Promise in Shangri La.  In brief, there is currently a brouhaha about how the movie The Promise (directed by Chen Kaige and produced by his wife Chen Hong) had caused tremendous environmental damage to a scenic sight in Yunnan province, China.  This opinion piece is more general, as the author wonders why it is so hard for Chinese people to say a simple "I am sorry."

(Southern Metropolis Daily)  Chen Hong, Can You Say Sorry?  May 15, 2006.

I had a wish that I have been harboring around for quite a few days, but my wish is unfulfilled.  I was hoping that Chen Hong could apologize for the environmental damagesd caused by the production team of The Promise.  But apart from one after another protestation of innocence, she has not even "expressed regrets."

Could it be the case that The Promise did not cause any environmental damage to Shangri-La?  According to the preliminary investigation by the Yunnan Province Environmental Protection Department at the Celestial Pool, damages have been confirmed.  Actually, Chen Hong has never denied this point.  She only claimed that she left adequate funds with the local government to manage the clean-up, whereas the local government claimed not to have received a cent.  More recently, it has been exposed that the same production team had also damaged trees at Yuanming Garden, where other parts of the movie were filmed.  She did not deny that either.  So, in the face of all these facts, shouldn't there be a minimal "I'm sorry" before looking to assign the responsibility?

When Chen Hong said "we were completely misunderstood and unfairly blamed," I thought that there were two possible scenarios.  First, the production team of The Promise did not damage the environment or chop down ancient trees; rather they cleaned up the garbage left behind by others and planted many crabapple trees up in the mountain.  Second, the production team that filmed at Shangri-La was not for The Production; rather, it was the team for Hero (note: a movie directed by Zhang Yimou, who is considered the main rival of Chen Kaige in terms of stature and fame).  If she said "Sorry" first, then we would know that those things happened, and the ensuing discussion would be about who was responsible.  Does Chen Hong and her crew really not understand this basic linguistic logic?

Obviously not.  A while ago, New Weekly Magazine had a special feature titled "Chinese people, you must learn to apologize."  It was said that the Chinese people have never learned to apologize, and that was not because they don't know how to.  On matters that damage the feelings of the people of our nation, we are very strict in demanding foreigners apologize.  So our people are not numbed to the idea of apology.  As for Chen Hong herself, when the person who created the spoof of The Promise apologized, (see "The Bloody Case That Started From A Steamed Bun" and The Steamed Bun Lawsuit) she deemed it not to be sincere.  This shows that she knows a lot about the art of making apologies.

There is another recent example of non-apology.  Mr. Yiu Qiuyu had pronounced two Chinese sayings (乐山乐水 and 杯水车薪) respectively in their modern and ancient intonations on television.  This was rather peculiar and was therefore roundly criticized by netizens.  But this cultural celebrity who was once asked "Why aren't you sorry?" not only refused to apologize for the mistake, but played up his role as maestro to lecture the netizens.  He said that he cannot understand why he should be "bombarded."  Even if he really thought that nobody understands him, he should have said in the face of these thousands of questions: "I am sorry that my fount of knowledge has caused so much confusion among everybody else."

Anyone who has done a lot of studying would realize that the English term "Sorry" is more natural sounding than the comparable Chinese term "对不起".  That is because the Chinese people apologize less often than foreigners, especially Chinese celebrities and officials.  I will even speculate that the married couple Chen Kaige and Chen Hong, who have immigrated to the United States, used "Sorry" just as frequently in English-speaking environments.  But facing their Chinese compatriots, after making a lousy movie and destroying the environment, they cannot bring themselves to say a single "sorry."  Similarly, when a famous author wrote a lousy novel such as "Brothers" or when an airplane leaves without its more than 100 passengers, we can never hear a single "sorry."

If this Chinese-language term for "sorry" is still used, then it is often found only among the little people at the grassroots level.  Self-examinations and apologies are usually made by inferiors to their superiors, employees to employers, outsiders to locals and small reporters to big stars.  Within certain bureaucratic cultures, it would be tremendous magnanimity for the superior to even permit the inferior to say "sorry" as many people won't even get that chance; if a superior should ever say "sorry" to an inferior, the latter may be frightened to death!  In certain developed countries, people tend to focus on the contribution of this phrase for the VIP's, even presidents.  After the Zippergate affair, Clinton procrastinated for a while but eventually said "sorry" to the people of his nation.  Bush is a famously obstinate person, but after the Torturegate incident, he said "sorry" just like Clinton so that the American people can breathe a sigh of relief.

Look at the behavior of the minor figure of the soldier-singer She Dianming over the past few days.  In the Youth Singing Competition, he pointed to the British flag and said that it was the Chinese national flag, leading to an uproar.  Actually, was this more serious than wasting 300 million RMB to make a lousy movie?  Was this more serious than damaging the Jade Celestial Pool?  Just because he misidentified the flag on the show did not mean that he could not recognize the flag; even if he could not recognize the flag, it does not mean that he was really unpatriotic.  After all, among those people who have national flags sitting on their desks, there are plenty of corrupt criminals.  She Dianming offered an explanation about how nervous he was at the scene; someone even tried to help him out by eliminating the direct broadcast  of this segment, but an informer let the media know.  But he did not "protest about his innocence" or condemn the media.  He thought about it and made a series of apologies: to his military commander, to his military division, to the national audience, to his hometown elders, to his daughter.  Basically, he apologized to everyone that he could conceivably apologize to.  He also asked personally for sanctions on himself.

The original intent and function of an apology is to effect personal self-examination, to obtain the understanding by others and to maintain social harmony.  That much should be obvious.  As to how this is distorted in society in the relationship between important and unimportant persons, that should be a subject for an in-depth study.  If celebrities such as Chen Hong, Yu Qiuyu and others can say "sorry" after vexing the public, they can at least make some contribution to society even if they make lousy movies and serve as lousy judges.