“Let the bullets fly for a while”: an allegory from China

By Mei Zhan

Let me begin with a fiction.  Let the Bullets Fly, a Chinese “action comedy,” was wildly popular upon its release in 2010.  Witty, gory, at times bawdy, and determinedly absurd, the plot centered around the confrontation between Zhang Mazi, a fictitious Chinese Robin Hood impersonating a county governor (whom, upon being captured by Zhang, impersonated the governor’s secretary in order to survive) and his nemesis Master Huang, a mobster boss who turned out to have a body double.  The opening scenes of the film featured what appeared to be a steam-engine train, only to reveal a few seconds later that the train was pulled along the rail tracks by horses and the white steam arose from an impossibly large hotpot around which the governor and his entourage were dining and singing.  Zhang and his bandits took aim and fired several shots.  As the train continued roaring on, one bandit asked, “Did we miss?” Zhang calmly replied, “Let the bullets fly for a while”.  Neither horse nor train was hit.  But the train soon stopped as the horse reins came undone.

Although unable to pin down the historical and allegorical references in the film, many Chinese viewers understand it to be a political satire.  They marvel at the fact that it not only circumvented government censorship, but also generated a slew of catchphrases widely used in everyday discourse. “Let the bullets fly for a while” in particular has acquired an effervescent afterlife on Chinese social media, which is saturated with sensational news of all natures and scales: natural and human-made disasters, political scandals, abuse of police power, medical malpractice and violence against doctors and nurses, illegal trade and consumption of wild life, celebrity extramarital affairs, and so forth.  These dramatic events often unfold through multiple rounds of disguises, revelations, and revisions.

Over the years, online and offline reactions to these events have noticeably shifted from instant outpourings of emotions and quick calls to action (the massive wave of donation and voluntarism in the wake of the Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008 is a case in point), to “let the bullets fly for a while.”  This does not mean waiting passively for “fact” or “truth” to become distilled out of emotions and biases. Facts, after all, are often increasingly elusive as bullets fly—even becoming unspeakable when social media postings mysteriously disappear and when sensitive words and phrases become unsearchable on search engines.  Yet erasure (or government sanctioned “alternative facts” for that matter) is not the end of truth.  Those who are politically savvy know how to read between the lines, and how to read distortion, silence and erasure: there is no other way.  Letting the bullets fly, then, simply means giving the entanglement of stakes, sentiments, nuances, actors, narratives, voices, and competing meanings a chance to come to the fore.

What I speak of here is not so much a Chinese perspective on truth as it is a story of persistence through entanglements—which goes up against the phenomenon of “post-truth” and “post-truth politics”.  In the wake of Brexit and the U.S. presidential election, the Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its 2016 international Word of the Year, describing it in dichotomous terms as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  There is no doubt that the political and epistemic challenges we face today are overwhelming and disorienting, and the stakes could not be higher.

This means, to begin, we cannot simply fall back on the Cartesian bifurcation of objectivity and truth on the one hand, and emotion, belief, and fabrication on the other.  Feminist anthropologists and STS scholars in particular have long argued against the limits and pitfalls of the Cartesian worldview: the Great Divides, once in place, forbid us from reading critically cross naturalized social, political and epistemological domains and prevent us from forging productive alliances and critical interventions in the production of power and knowledge.  (See, for examples, Bruno Latour’s call to retie the Gordian Knot of the social, the narrated and the natural in We Have Never Been Modern [1], and Sylvia Yanagisako and Carol Delaney’s argument that we must read across epistemological and social boundaries to investigate the workings of power [2]).  Pitching fact against fiction misses the insights from the last few decades of STS studies that facts alone are never strong enough to stand on their own. Pitching rationality against emotion misses the insidious calculation that goes into the production of “alternative facts.”  At issue here is not truth versus post-truth, but rather a struggle over the terms upon which truths are established. Let the bullets fly for a while.

Mei Zhan is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Other-Worldly: making Chinese medicine through transnational frames (Duke University Press, 2009).

[1] Bruno Latour. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern.  Translated by Catherine Porter.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[2] Sylvia Yanagisako and Carol Delaney, editors.  1995.  Naturalizing Power: essays in feminist cultural analysis.  New York: Routledge.