Parallels
2:48 pm
Fri July 5, 2013

Gatsby-Like Extravagance And Wealth ... In Communist China

Originally published on Tue July 9, 2013 9:37 am

The Baz Luhrmann remake of The Great Gatsby hasn't opened in China yet, but the story's themes — extravagant wealth, naked ambition and corruption — have been in full force here for years.

Recently, a Shanghai publisher screened the 1974 version of the film, starring Robert Redford, to promote a new, bilingual translation of the novel. The gathering's barely hidden subtext was just how much the excesses of America in the Roaring '20s mirror those in China today.

One of the shared similarities Chinese noticed was rampant adultery among the moneyed classes. In one scene, Tom, a wealthy businessman played by Bruce Dern, gets into a fight at a party with his working-class mistress, who wants him to leave his wife, Daisy. The mistress, played by Karen Black, hollers Daisy's name over and over until Tom smacks her in the face, bloodying her nose.

"Tom, he's rich. He can do whatever he wants and buy whatever he wants," said Lily Zhu, who attended the screening, held at a Shanghai art museum. Zhu, who recently graduated from an American university with a degree in economics, said she sees Tom's reckless indulgence in many wealthy Chinese men today.

"When they get very, very rich, they may have several wives," Zhu continued, "and they don't care about their families and don't care about how their children grow up."

Parties, Fancy Cars, Girls

Another scene from the film captures the heedless extravagance of the era. Men in white tie and tails and women in flapper dresses leap into Gatsby's giant fountain and continue dancing as though there is no tomorrow.

The F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, published in 1925, was prescient. Four years later, the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression. After decades of staggering growth, many in China wonder if their economy is also headed for a crash.

When Rosemary Gong read the description of people dancing in a fountain, it reminded her of the well-publicized social life of her country's superrich.

"We have a new upper class in China who kind of live a life like Gatsby's," said Gong, who works as a management consultant in Beijing. "The parties. The fancy cars. The girls."

Gong, who has read the novel twice, compared Gatsby's parties at his Long Island mansion to a recent extravagant one on the island of Hainan, China's Hawaii. Participants posted photos of Ferraris, Maseratis and scantily clad women on yachts.

There were "a lot of girls wearing bikinis on the boats, and [drinking] those Cosmopolitan cocktails," Gong recalled. "The scandal told there was a lot of under-the-table ... prostitution."

Flaunting money is not uncommon in many advanced economies, but ordinary people in China still don't very earn much. In addition, such in-your-face opulence is harder to square in a nation where the ruling party insists — against all evidence — it's still communist. Online criticism of the Hainan party was scathing.

"I think that is the most similar thing ever in China related to the Gatsby parties," said Gong. "Most people ... they kind of hate it, I think. This is just China's reality: Rich people get way much richer than normal people."

The Indifference Of The Elite

So, just how well does Fitzgerald's novel nail modern China? So much so that everyone I talked to asked to use their English names so they'd be harder to identify, including Jim Zhang, who works in the aviation business.

"It's kind of sensitive," Zhang said, appearing a bit nervous after the screening.

He also asked that I not use the name of his employer.

One thing that struck Zhang is how consumed the rich people in the movie were with showing off their wealth and how blind they were to the struggles of most everyone else.

"They are kind of indifferent to the life of people in other classes," he said. "I think that's a similar story in China at this point."

After the screening, the audience of about 100 discussed the movie. One of the moderators, Tang Weijie, who teaches literature at Tongji University here, ducked questions about the obvious parallels between Gatsby's era and 21st century China.

"It's hard to say," said Tang, "because in socialist China, our constitution doesn't recognize that we have classes, right? Because we have eradicated classes, correct?"

Tang was being completely ironic.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The recent movie remake of "The Great Gatsby" has yet to open in China. But the story's themes - wealth, ambition, corruption - ought to be very familiar to audiences there. Recently, a Shanghai publisher screened the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby" with Robert Redford to promote a new translation of the novel. And NPR's Frank Langfitt was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GREAT GATSBY (1974)")

ROBERT REDFORD: (as Jay Gatsby) How do you do, old sport? I'm Gatsby.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: We think of "Gatsby" as a quintessentially American story. But when Chinese people read the novel or watch the movie, they recognize a lot about their own society today. Take this scene. Tom Buchannan, a wealthy businessman played by Bruce Dern, gets into a fight at a party with his mistress who wants him to leave his wife, Daisy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GREAT GATSBY (1974)")

KAREN BLACK: (as Myrtle Wilson) Daisy.

BRUCE DERN: (as Tom Buchanan) Stop.

BLACK: (as Myrtle Wilson) I can say whatever I want to. Daisy, Daisy, Daisy.

LILY ZHU: The husband, Tom, I mean, he is rich and he can do whatever he want and buy whatever he wants.

LANGFITT: Lily Zhu recently graduated from an American university with a degree in economics. She's now hunting for a job here in Shanghai. Zhu says she sees Tom's reckless indulgence in many wealthy Chinese men.

ZHU: People here in China, when they got very, very rich, they may have several wives or something and didn't care about families. They didn't care about how their children grow up to be. I just can see the similarities between these two.

LANGFITT: Another scene in "The Great Gatsby" captures American excess in the roaring '20s. Men in white tie and tails and women in flapper dresses leap into Gatsby's giant fountain. They continue dancing as though there's no tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GREAT GATSBY (1974)")

ROSEMARY GONG: My name is Rosemary Gong.

LANGFITT: Gong works as a management consultant in Beijing. When she read that scene, it reminded her of the well-publicized social life of her country's super rich.

ROSEMARIE GONG: There's a new upper class in China who kind of live a life like Gatsby's, you know, the parties, the fancy cars, the girls.

LANGFITT: Gong has read "The Great Gatsby" twice. She compared Gatsby's parties at his Long Island mansion to a recent extravagant one on Hainan Island, China's Hawaii. People posted photos of Ferraris, Maseratis and scantily clad women on yachts.

GONG: A lot of girls wearing bikinis on the boats and with those cosmopolitan cocktails. The scandal told that there were a lot of under-the-table, I don't know, prostitution.

LANGFITT: Flaunting money isn't uncommon in many advanced economies. But ordinary people here still don't very earn much. And it's harder to square in a nation where the ruling party insists - against all evidence - it's still communist. Online criticism of the Hainan party was scathing.

GONG: I think that is the most similar thing ever in China related to the Gatsby parties. Most people respond - they kind of hate it, I think. This is just China's reality: Rich people get way much richer than normal people.

LANGFITT: So just how well does F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel nail 21st century China? So much so that everyone I talked to asked to use their English names so they'd be harder to identify. That includes Jim Zhang, who works in the aviation business.

JIM ZHANG: Well, it's kind of sensitive. Also, please hide my company's name.

LANGFITT: I'm not going to use your company's name.

ZHANG: OK.

LANGFITT: Just the wealthy in the film are consumed by their own materialism and don't see much else.

ZHANG: They are kind of indifferent.

LANGFITT: Indifferent to whom?

ZHANG: The life of other - of the people, you know, other classes. I think that's kind of a similar story in China at this point.

LANGFITT: After the screening, the audience of about a hundred discussed the movie. One of the moderators, Tang Weijie, who teaches literature at Tongji University here, ducked questions about the obvious parallels. It's hard to say, Tang said. Because in socialist China, he continued, we've eradicated classes, correct? Tang was being ironic. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.