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Great Dictator

In China, Hitler is a subject of endless fascination and represents many meanings, not all of them bad.

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The cast of Hitler’s Belly. (thatsmags.com)

A Chinese Hitler, dressed like a mall cop, mopes in an underground bunker in 1945 as his empire is collapsing around him. But it’s not all bad news. “My stomach hurts, and it’s bigger. I’m pregnant!” Hitler exclaims, stroking himself mindlessly.

Hitler’s Belly, a hit play currently touring China, answers the eternal question of what the world’s most notorious dictator looks like when portrayed by an overweight Chinese man pretending to be pregnant. It mixes snippets from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, old newsreel footage, slapstick with Chinese sensibilities, and an extended fart joke. As Hitler prepares to give birth, Chaplin—also a character in the play—wanders the bunker, impersonating Hitler to his underlings. Chaplin spars with Hitler, and then everyone raps. Genocide is not mentioned.

Chaplin made his famous 1940 satire, in which he plays both a Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the blabbering dictator of Tomania, in part because of the actor’s similarity to Hitler: They each sported a distinctive mustache, they were born four days apart in April 1889, and they shared a love for Richard Wagner’s music. In his autobiography, Chaplin’s son, Charles Chaplin, recalled his father saying: “He’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.”

Meng Jinghui, the play’s shaggy-haired director, first saw The Great Dictator in 1984, he told me, and he thought it would be fascinating to watch Chaplin interact with Hitler. But he didn’t begin work on his play until he saw a glint of Hitler in his favorite leading man, Liu Xiaoye. “I was wearing a hat and put on a little mustache,” said Liu, who plays Hitler, Chaplin, and Eva Braun, often switching between characters mid-sentence. Meng recalls: “He put black on his finger and put it up here, and said hey, don’t I look like Hitler? And I said, hey, you can be Hitler.”

One of China’s best-known theater personalities, Meng has enjoyed a long string of successes adapting foreign concepts to Chinese audiences. He brought Rent to China as the story of a missing real-estate tycoon. “We don’t have bohemia, we don’t have so many drug users or gay people, and we don’t do threesomes,” he told NPR in 2009. “So, we use your structure, and we put our lives into it.” Unlike The Great Dictator, Hitler’s Belly declines to tackle questions of Judaism, focusing instead on issues relevant to a Chinese audience: corruption in the Ministry of Railways, lies from the government, and the difficulty of affording a house. Many artists prefer to satirize the present in China by criticizing the past.

“The most difficult part of the acting for me was moving between history and politics,” said Liu. To announce the birth of his son, Hitler holds a press conference. He tells the Chinese journalists in attendance that the pregnancy is a “miracle,” a loaded term because it mocks the government’s response to a recent deadly train crash—after a bullet train derailed last July, killing scores, a Railway Ministry spokesman called the rescue of one child survivor “a miracle,” invoking the ire of many. This draws a healthy laugh from the audience.

The play, which has toured Shanghai, Beijing, and will be in Guangzhou in October, has played almost exclusively to packed houses, Meng said. On the performance’s last night in Beijing in early August, the theater was filled with people in their 20s and 30s, constantly laughing and clapping at the satire and the slapstick, according to the director. Liu portrays a bumbling, melancholic side of the dictator, who shouts “Heil Myself!” whenever anyone salutes him. He does a gentle Chaplin, and his Eva Braun flashes her chest to Hitler whenever she gets excited.

In China, Hitler isn’t known for the Holocaust, but rather for achieving social stability with a very high human cost. “In general, they refer to him as very lihai, very hardcore, someone who is strong, powerful,” said Rabbi Nussin Rodin, a Chabad representative in Beijing. “You can be strong and powerful and good, and strong and powerful and bad. It’s weird. I don’t know what to say.” With China’s regime facing growing internal criticism for mishandling any number of things, from the escalating price of fuel to train safety, Hitler’s perceived image as a strong leader who was able to maintain social stability makes him an attractive figure to many.

Outside the Beijing theater, which is perched above a karaoke parlor in a wealthy part of town, college student Liu Mingyu said that he came because of the director and thought the play was funny. “There’s nothing good about him,” Liu said of the Hitler character, “except that he’s strong-willed, that’s the only advantage he’s got. But in general he’s a bad guy, I suppose.”

Some Chinese sympathy toward Hitler is fueled by a persistent—and false—rumor claiming that when Hitler was an impoverished young student in Vienna, he was taken in by a Chinese family named Zhang. “Looking at Hitler From a Different Angle,” an article published last month on the website of the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, reported that during Hitler’s youth, a Chinese family gave him “Oriental style selfless help,” and that because of this he had a “warm and close feeling toward China.” Many Chinese believe that Hitler had secretly supported China during World War II, despite Germany’s alignment with China’s wartime oppressor, Japan. Hitler is well-known in China; rural residents especially don’t necessarily see him as a sign of evil. Olivia Kraef, a Beijing-based sinologist from Germany, related a story of a recent trip in China, where someone wanted to drink a toast to Hitler with her. “That was the first thing he came up with when he met me,” she said. “Hitler, soccer.”

Bizarrely, support for Hitler does not in any way suggest disdain for Jews. On the contrary: Chinese people on the whole are very approving of Judaism and Jewish culture, seeing Jews as experts in both moneymaking and child rearing, with a long history and a strong tradition of education. And, unsurprisingly in a country where Mao’s all-seeing portrait still hangs from Tiananmen Square, Chinese tend to shy away from comparisons between their homegrown contender for the title of history’s greatest butcher. “I don’t think there can be any comparison between Hitler and Mao,” said Meng. “Mao’s biggest spirit was to serve the people; Mao loved the people. That’s the biggest difference.”

Isaac Stone Fish is a Beijing-based reporter for Newsweek and the Daily Beast.

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Not Michael says:

Wow. If they think Hitler loved the Chinese (or Asian) people, then they really know nothing about the man and his worldview. They might want to read Mein Kampf for starters.

I think it’s important that Chaplin was wildly popular in 1930s-40s China. He traveled there earlier in his career to great success. I believe there’s a plaque by the door to the room in which he stayed in a well known Shanghai hotel.

Kathryn Hanley says:

I took the author’s last paragraph to be an allusion to at least two things. First, the relative success of China (albeit at great cost to any counter-cultural dissidence and human life) at indoctrinating its people in a system of governance that transcends cultural and ethnic differences. Second, the tremendous diversity of culture and ethnicity that make up China. Differences, for instance, I have been told in the language make the several dialect continuums within Chinese far more different from one another even to native speakers (not only to outsiders) than the dialects of British English and American English are to one another for native speakers.

shushan says:

figures those that admire mao admire hitler

Bill Pearlman says:

Truman should have let Macarthur nuke them back in 1950

Victor says:

The gap between mainland Chinese and western sensibilities continues to appall me. In many ways, it is much deeper than the divide between the West and the Islamic world or between the West and India.

Of course, the many huge changes China has been through in the last 100 years and the hyper-rapid rate at which the country is developing means that many Chinese are not just strangers to us but strangers to themselves.

Considerable respect is due to a nation which has survived so many catastrophes and proceeded to lift many millions out of dire poverty. But this thought does little to dampen my concern.

Those misinformed, in denial of truth and reality, are invaluable temples for evil and its ever changing face and smooth tongue. I’m sure it’s funny and entertaining but so was performing in black face and demonizing people out of bigotry until calamity befell them that filled audience. Sleeping giants are exactly that – asleep! G-d delay the day the giant awakening.

With some years’ experience of life in China, what can I make of Fish’s complicated article, which is certainly all over the place? For sure the essay does not speak clearly about Chinese attitudes towards one or more of Jews, Judaism, the Jewish People and Israel. Really exceptional attitudes towards one or more of the above are normally found only in Christian and Muslim countries which carry the freight of two millennia of peculiar attitudes to Jews, Judaism and the Jewish People. China has perhaps 20 million or so Christians. Truth be told nobody really knows how many Christians there are in China, where there are probably more Muslims than Christians. However, we should be thankful that neither Christianity nor Islam has ever had much impact on the fundamental worldview of most of the 1,400,000,000 Chinese. Good news is that at heart the average Chinese is not likely to have strong fixed attitudes towards Jews, who (mirabile dictu) are basically viewed as just another stripe of foreigner. Beyond that, it may be true that there may be some common Chinese belief that Jews are both clever and good at business. However, such a stance should never be confused with the frequently negative notions that still tend to prevail in many Christian and Muslim countries. Truth is China is not just another country, but also an enirely different civilization. Namely, China is a civilization that essentially has been largely unmoved by Christianity and Islam. This means that China has also been largely unmoved by the chronic anti-Semitism that is intimately connected with both Christianity and Islam, e.g, the explicit anti-Jewish passages in both the Gospels and the Koran. Jews, Judaism, the Jewish People and Israel certainly have a long list of enemies. We should be really happy to know that the long list of enemies includes neither China nor the generality of Chinese People.

Hershl says:

China is a different world. It will never reflect our sentiments or understanding.

Sorry.

A Chinese acquaintance of mine who lost family members in the Cultural Revolution told me that she will never allow any foreigner to criticize anything Chinese including the butcher, Mao.

What they want more than anything else, she shared, is stability, not freedom.

And that is just the way it is.

Thieves, liars, occupiers of Xingiang and Tibet, rapists of the world, the Chinese are only emulating us.

They like Jews because they know nothing about us except their stereotypes ( we are rich and smart).

Have a nice day.

China can eliminate Germany anytime anyday..They don’t need to be afraid of that little mustache man…haha
It’s good to make fun of them.

Alyson says:

on september 1th the israelis are throwing “end party” to israel!!!

seriously!!! it’s on the israeli channel 10. you can watch it on their website!!

the jewish people are the first people to celebrate the end of a country!!!

make sure you tune in!

Bill Pearlman says:

I reiterate, Truman should have given MacArthur the green light to nuke them back in 1950.

Gregor Brand says:

Mao killed many more Chinese people than Hitler Germans (and Jews). Meng Jinghui seems to be rather ignorant about historical facts. Probably a result of a one-sided education in a communist country.

Interesting article.

I recall a tv history show showing a Polish WW2 recreation unit playing as Nazi Guards at one of Hitler’s bunkers for tourists to pose with them and take pictures. Most tourists were laughing and playing along. One young woman in a Chinese croup of tourists was asked what she thought of actors pretending to be Nazi soldiers. She thought about the question and said if people dressed up as WW2 Japanese soldiers in China, they would be killed by the public; and that is likely not an exaggeration.

Funny how ‘Meng’ doesn’t compare Hitler and Mao…. Mao’s policies murdered/ killed perhaps as many Chinese victims, as ALL the victims killed in WW2. Mao was the grand-daddy monster of all human-beasts.

To further add, this article mentions some Chinese not understanding the beast Hitler was. Why are their simple minded people here commenting as if;
1] Westerners know about Asian genocidal maniac leaders.
2] A significant number of Westerners do not worship Hitler; ie, neo nazis and supremacists.
3] no famous Western entertainers dressed up and mocked Hitler and Nazis- including Chaplin and Mel Brooks.

Chinese Hilter says:

Adolf Hilter is the greatest man in the entire human History. You can see that the recest turmoils of world economy are all caused by greedy Jew! If Hilter don’t kill Jew during War World II, can you imagine what will be the world today?

It’s not that strange if you consider that Western history books tend to gloss over the atrocities committed by the Japanese toward their neighboring nations during the 1940’s. Within the past month I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Massacre Memorial in Nanjing, China and the Independence Hall in Cheonan, South Korea. They’re very eye-opening.

It’s not that strange if you consider that Western history books tend to gloss over the atrocities committed by the Japanese toward their neighboring nations during the 1940’s. Within the past month I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Massacre Memorial in Nanjing, China and the Independence Hall in Cheonan, South Korea. They’re very eye-opening.

biggest joke says:

“In China, Hitler isn’t known for the Holocaust, but rather for achieving social stability with a very high human cost.”

Are you kidding me??? I am a Chinese and this is the biggest joke I’ve ever heard. This is how certain western media imagine how Chinese must be thinking, based on their twisted and biased image of China.

This is the logic of this kind of articles:

1. some weird people did some weird things
2. these people are Chinese
3. therefore, in CHINA, people are weird!!!!
4. In fact, all Chinese are weird!!!

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Great Dictator

In China, Hitler is a subject of endless fascination and represents many meanings, not all of them bad.

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