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Warriors of Qiugang

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Warriors of Qiugang

Judith Shapiro reviews Warriors of Qiugang, directed by Ruby Yang (2010, 39 minutes)

An expanding body of excellent documentary films on Chinese environmental issues should be included in courses on China and global environmental issues. To name just a few (in order of release date) , these include Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005; click here for AEMS review), a sly, slightly off-color documentary contrasting the careless wastefulness of drunken New Orleans revelers with the repressive lives of the sweatshop girls who manufacture plastic beads ; Manufactured Landscapes (2006), a haunting if slow-moving film that forces the consumer/viewer to confront the detritus of global production; Waking the Green Tiger (2011), a fascinating documentary that interweaves civil society anti-dam activism and Mao-era footage; and Beijing Besieged by Waste (2011; click here for AEMS review), a moving portrait of the lives of subsistence-level garbage pickers. I have used all of these with success in the classroom; among them, Warriors of Qiugang, the documentary here reviewed, is one of the most conducive to classroom use because it is short (39 minutes) and readily available for free at Yale Environment 360 (, which co-produced the film.

Directed by Ruby Yang and written by Thomas Lennon, Warriors of Qiugang tells a compelling story of pollution and its impact on ‘ordinary’ Chinese farmers and their lives, and provides a great basis for classroom conversations about civil society, Chinese politics and culture, and environmental justice. It covers a great deal of ground with a fairly light touch, bringing the viewer into an Anhui province village in the township of Bengbu, where three factories have manufactured fertilizers and pesticides since 2004, occupying a third of the area of the village, and contaminating the water and air to such an extent that fish die, school children cannot breathe, and people die of cancer at a high rate. (The Baojia waterway feeds directly into the Huai River, one of China’s most notoriously polluted waters.) The film focuses primarily on the fifty-nine-year-old farmer Zhang Gongli, who is propelled into a leadership role mostly because, as a middle school graduate, he is more literate than the other villagers and can write a petition to township authorities. With the encouragement of the civil society group Green Anhui, whose obviously educated urban young volunteers allow the filmmakers to follow them into the village, the villagers organize themselves to protest to township leaders. This they do despite harassment and pressure from factory leaders and even death threats against Farmer Zhang. In a village of 1,876, more than 1,800 affix their names and thumbprints to a letter asking the government to do something about the air and water pollution. Meanwhile, forty local fifth graders’ essays about the pollution in their village achieve national media attention, helping to spotlight the village’s plight. The authorities’ and factory owners’ predictable promises and delaying tactics lead to escalations and street demonstrations, especially after external NGOs furnish specific information about the toxicity of the chemicals in the water. Eventually, Farmer Zhang, together with one of the Green Anhui activists, goes to Beijing to participate in an environment and civil society conference. There he receives inspiration from others in the same situation and the viewer briefly meets some of China’s famous environmental activists, including Huo Daishan and Yu Xiaogang (Ma Jun, another well-known activist, is glimpsed in the background). The Anhui farmers’ struggle, which the filmmakers follow over a period of three years from 2007 to 2010, concludes when Beijing environmental authorities bring sufficient pressure on local officials to close the factories, which simply move a few miles away to an industrial park. At the close of the film, the abandoned factory with its toxic wastes remains in the village, and one woman who is shown warmly thanking the activists dies, we are told in a text-over, of cancer. This suggests that despite the villagers’ optimism about their vegetables and peaches, the pollution will have long term repercussions. The film ends with a question about whether hundreds of similar protests will break out all over the country; today, just a few years later, such protests are common, and many of them involve far more people and greater levels of confrontation.

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edited by cgao on 4/9/2015