Director Zhang Yimou at the Montage Beverly Hills. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
BEIJING -- One of China’s most prominent film directors, Zhang Yimou, is under investigation for fathering seven children -- a violation of the country’s strict family-planning laws.
The 61-year-old Zhang directed the opening spectacle of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and some of China’s best-known films. Zhang’s success could expose him to fines of up to $26 million, according to Chinese state media, because penalties is such cases are assessed on the basis of income.
The Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, reported Friday that Zhang has one daughter who is about 30 years old with his first wife, and three children ages 7 to 12 with his current wife, actress Chen Ting.
The newspaper said Zhang had three other children born out of wedlock.
The investigation was launched by the family-planning commission in Wuxi, a city about 80 miles west of Shanghai that is the hometown of Zhang’s second wife.
In an effort to limit population growth, China restricts most families to one child, although there are various exceptions for rural families whose first child is a girl and for ethnic minorities. People giving birth are also required to have permits, which are available only to married couples -- in effect, making out-of-wedlock births illegal.
That would subject Zhang to extra penalties because he didn’t marry his current wife until 2011, after the birth of his children.
The charges against Zhang were first raised last year by He Jun, an actress who had been fired from the cast of "The Flowers of War," Zhang’s 2011 film starring Christian Bale. On her microblog, the actress questioned why Zhang had been permitted to have so many children, when other Chinese are subject to the law.
He Yafu, an independent scholar of China’s family-planning laws, said authorities might have had no choice but to investigate.
"If the investigators find that Zhang does have this many children, they will have to punish him, or else they will lose credibility with the ordinary people who are subject to these laws,’’ said He.
Many wealthy Chinese, he added, are able to skirt the law by going overseas for the birth of their children: “If the children were born abroad, they would give them an excuse not to punish Zhang.’’
Olympic gold-medal-winning diver Tian Liang was stripped of his Communist Party membership last year for having a second child, and is reported to be under investigation as well.
The limits on family size are among the most dreaded of China’s laws and have been loosened somewhat in recent years.
Chinese seemed less upset by Zhang’s apparent womanizing than by the suggestion that he violated a law that others must respect.
"Zhang Yimou, shame on you!" wrote sex expert and sociologist Li Yinhe on Friday on the Caijing magazine website. "The more famous you are, the more responsibility you have to be a law-abiding citizen, rather than somebody who sets an example by breaking the law.’’
"If you really love children, you can adopt them like Brad Pitt,’’ she added.
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