From “centripetal” to “centrifugal” trauma: history and representation
in modern China

by Li Zeng

A History of Pain: Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film by Michael Berry (New York: Columbia University Press. 2008), 432 pp, $45.

Starting with shocking images of Lingchi, a pre-modern state-sanctioned form of torture, A History of Pain: Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film immediately makes it clear that this book will not be light reading. Focusing on five historical traumatic events, plus a Coda that discusses the 1997 Hong Kong handover, Michael Berry gives an extensive survey of literary and visual representations of modern Chinese atrocities. Each of the five chapters focuses on one specific event: the 1930 Musha Incident, the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, the 2/28 Incident (1947), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and the June Fourth Event in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The book illustrates how literature and film (re)imagine and (re)construct history, and how a reconstructed history has been shaped by the struggle among different ideologies and political agendas across historical phases.

The five events are examined in chronological order and, more significantly, in terms of the nature of trauma. Appropriating Bakhtin’s terms, Berry divides trauma into “centripetal” (or “official”) trauma and “centrifugal” (or “unofficial”) trauma.

“The centripetal force of trauma begins on the outside and converges in the center, resulting in new ‘official’ or ‘national’ discourses, whereas the centrifugal force originates from this new ‘national center’ and extends outward, unleashing a multitude of destabilizing ‘unofficial’ narratives—a true heteroglossia—that stretch, challenge, and destroy national boundaries.” (7)

The first three chapters, on the Musha Incident, the Nanjing Massacre, and the 2/28 Incident, are discusses in Part I, Centripetal Trauma, while the other two chapters, addressing the Cultural Revolution and the June Fourth Event, are in Part II, Centrifugal Trauma. The structure of the book emphasizes the shift from foreign-inflicted trauma to state-imposed trauma, and from “national” discourses to counter-discourses.

This categorization to some degree simplifies historical representations and downplays conflicts and contentions. For instance, literary and cinematic approaches to the 2/28 Incident can be “official” or “national” discourses as well as destabilizing “unofficial” narratives depending on whether the nationalist party is regarded as a foreign power or an internal force and on the point of view from which the history is reconstructed. Nevertheless, the structure is a strong feature of the book as the five chapters are connected by the common themes of nation, trauma, and history, rather than standing simply as independent units. The structure distinguishes Berry’s approach from other books on Chinese trauma literature and cinema, such as Yomi Braester’s Witness Against History: Literature, Film, and Public Discourse in Twentieth-Century China and Ban Wang’s Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, and History in Modern China.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

The book is ambitious in its range, covering literature and films produced between the 1930s and the present. Its significance also lies in the diversity and scope of the texts it reviews, including works from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese Diaspora and Western artists. Thus the book provides both a comprehensive survey and multiple perspectives to illustrate the conflicting ways that history is reconstructed and renegotiated.

Chapter One examines representations of the 1930 Musha Incident in literature, film, television, and photography, spanning several decades. The incident refers to the Atayal tribe’s attack on Japanese occupants in Musha, Taiwan on October 27, 1930. The Japanese responded with a massive campaign to hunt down and suppress the uprising, and the surviving Atayal were interred in detention centers. On April 24, 1931, the pro-Japanese Toda sub-tribe attacked the detention centers and killed 216 detainees, 101 of whom were decapitated. While the Toda tribe’s betrayal is largely left out of history writing, the Atayal tribe’s uprising—the indigenous people’s resistance—has been incorporated into national history and reconfigured within the context of Taiwanese nationalism.

Berry argues that both nationalist and communist rhetoric have highlighted the “Chineseness” the Musha Incident. Chen Chieh-jen’s digital manipulation of a historic photo of the incident is a typical visual example of the Chinese intrusion into the indigenous history.  Chen reworks the photograph, which shows 101 decapitated heads displayed along the ground with a crowd of hunters sitting in the background, by inserting a partly dismembered Han Chinese (Chen Chieh-jen himself) in the center. Berry makes a strong argument that this textual intervention introduces a visceral notion of physical suffering absent from the original photo, and is

“an allegorical performance of the ways Chinese discourse has intruded into indigenous discourse, in some cases making itself the central object of violence.” (82)

Berry emphasizes the shift in discourse on national identity that is reflected in representation of the Musha Incident. Taiwanese writers and artists have used the Incident in their works to strengthen the Taiwan-centric historical positioning of the event and articulate a distinctly Taiwanese historical experience as opposed to the nostalgic “Chinese” historical vision in government-sponsored Mandarin films. Examples of these films include He Jiming’s Bloodshed on the Green Mountains (1957) and Hong Xinde’s Disturbance in Musha (1965). Berry observes that more recent Taiwanese rewriting of the Musha Incident has been affected by the change in political leadership from the “pro-mainland” Nationalist party to the “pro-independence” Democratic Progressive Party. Berry illustrates his point by describing a television miniseries based on Deng Xiangyang’s book Dana Sakura: The True Musha Incident and the Story of Hanaoka Hatsuko (2006), and an album, Seediq Bale (2005), by the Taiwan progressive heavy metal band ChthoniC. While criticizing the simplification of the incident in Taiwanese popular culture, Berry affirms that with these popular cultural representations

“a new set of Taiwan-centric historical narratives to support the new political line, a new Taiwanese historical subjectivity that could stand separate from the Mainland Chinese master narratives of cultural unity began to emerge.” (94)

Chapter Two is a survey of literary and cinematic works dealing with the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, in which invading Japanese troops slaughtered the residents of Nanijing. This chapter focuses on form and style and explores the relationship between history and representation. Berry compares three films, Massacre in Nanjing (Luo Guanqun, 1987), Black Sun: The Nanjing Massacre (T. F. Mou, 1995), and Don’t Cry, Nanking (Wu Ziniu, 1995), and extols Wu’s film for its depth, complexity, and characterization. Nevertheless, Berry faults the three films for failing to develop beyond the discourse of “evidence” and historical authenticity. The line between fact and fiction is not always absolute and the assumption that the primary function of a history film is to preserve a “true past” undermines the film’s creative and reflective scope. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the Nanjing Massacre films and their reception in the political context of Japan’s denial of the massacre.  Burdened by the responsibility to prove “it did happen,” these films are examples of how political and social contexts shape historical discourses.

In his survey of literary works, Berry focuses on Ah Long’s  Nanjing (1939) and Ye Zhaoyan’s Nanjing 1937: A Love Story (1996). In addition to experimenting with narrative structure, Ah Long’s novel takes a humanistic approach, suggesting that “the true enemy is not the Japanese but rather the enemy within.”(149) Similarly, Nanjing 1937: A Love Story portrays Chinese-Chinese violence during the Nanjing Massacre, which Berry views as a “footnote to a century of violent political movements, state insurrections, purges, and atrocities at the hands of their own people.”(166) Berry argues that both novels achieve critical depth by subverting the simplistic binary narrative, but his evaluation is based on the criterion of even-handed portrayal, which is problematic in its failure to acknowledge the political perspective of anti-colonial discourses. Discussing The Battle of Algiers, Mike Wayne argues that rather than being “impartial,” Third Cinema “would want to point the finger.”[2]  In the case of the Nanjing Massacre, an atrocity imposed by a colonial power, “pointing the finger” at the colonizer may empower rather than weaken the anti-colonial text. Berry’s emphasis on Chinese against Chinese violence throughout his book to a certain degree limits the book’s critical engagement with theories of Third World cinema and literature.  

Chapter Three examines literary and cinematic representation of the 2/28 Incident, the local Taiwanese uprising against the Nationalist Party’s discriminatory rule on February 28, 1947. The uprising was shortly suppressed by the military. Berry illustrates how the cultural sentiment for defining and redefining Taiwanese identity has impacted the reconstruction of the 2/28 Incident in literature and film. While early works, such as Wu Zhuoliu’s The Fig Tree (1967) and Li Qiao’s Record of Taimu Mountain (1984), emphasize the victimization of Taiwanese people and the cultural resistance against the Nationalist Party’s control of historical narrative, representation in the post-martial law era representation is characterized by introspective depth and reflective quality. For instance, Chen Ye’s Muddy River (1990) and Li Ang’s The Strong Garden (1990) interweave personal narratives and history, and they provide multiple perspectives denied by traditional historical narratives; Yang Zhao’s short story “Fireworks” (1987) expresses optimism rather than “victimization” and his “Dark Souls” (1993) breaks the tradition of realism by including supernatural elements and reaching beyond the bounds of history.

In his discussion on cinematic representation in Chapter Three, Berry focuses on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness (1989) and Lin Cheng-sheng’s March of Happiness (1999). While affirming the importance of both films, Berry considers Hou’s film a more developed meditation on violence that achieves greater historical impact. He studies the nonlinear structure, linguistic diversity, vast array of characters, and use of cinematic techniques in Hou’s film, and demonstrates how its form and style powerfully convey pain and sadness.

Chapter Four is a survey of literature, films and television dramas about the rustification of educated youth (zhi qing) during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Selecting from the huge number of publications and films on the Cultural Revolution and the zhiqing movement, Berry chooses to focus on the educated youths who were sent down to Yunnan province in 1968. Far from limiting the scope of his survey, this focus provides new perspectives on the discourse of trauma, that is, on the popular representation of the rustification movement and its traumatic impact on the younger generation. Berry discusses Wang Xiaobo’s novel The Golden Age (1992), film adaptations of Ah Cheng’s King of the Children, King of Chess (1990), and several television miniseries, such as The Wages of Sin (1994) and Midnight Sunlight (2005).

The Wages of Sin revolves around five children who come to Shanghai to look for their parents, who abandoned them when they left Yunnan. Berry argues that this television series suggests a haunted past underlying the educated-youth characters’ exile and the belated return of the nightmare. Midnight Sunlight is a popular romance television serial drama. Among many twists in the plot, the most dramatic is the male protagonist’s discovery that his bride may be his sister, whom his mother, an ex-zhiqing, abandoned in Yunnan before returning to Shanghai. Even though in the end it turns out that the couple has no kinship connection, the male protagonist dies of cancer at their wedding. Berry affirms the significance of the so-called “low-brow” cultural form:

“Beyond the seemingly superficial and contrived narrative conventions of this miniseries lurks a more serious attempt to articulate a post-traumatic pain that finally comes raging out.” (292-3)

Furthermore, Berry addresses the “global dimensions” of past violence. For instance, Midnight Sunlight traces the journey of the educated youth from Yunnan to Shanghai and then overseas; Tou Du (2003), another popular television serial drama, deals with former educated-youth characters in the United State.           

Chapter Five is the highlight of the book. It is the most comprehensive study produced thus far on literary and cinematic responses to the June Fourth Event, the Chinese government’s crackdown of the student demonstration at Tiananmen Square, which still remains a taboo topic in China. Berry first discusses works by Chinese writers who immigrated to the West after 1989, such as Hong Ying’s Summer of Betrayal (1997) and Beijing Comrade’s on-line novel Lan Yu (2001). These works use body politics to battle state politics. In Summer of Betrayal, which traces the fate of a female student and her circle of intellectual, artist, and reporter friends after the June Fourth Event, sex becomes a political site of resistance to the state’s violence:

“During a time when everything, including even words, is controlled and dictated by the state, the individual is slowly stripped of all her cultured resources of defense, rebellion, and speech until all that is left is the biological self. In the end, sex is her only weapon.” (313)

Berry then discusses four documentaries, Sunless Days (Shu Kei, 1990), Moving the Mountain (Michael Apted, 1994), The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Carma Hinton, 1995), and Sunrise Over Tiananmen (Shui-Bo Wang, 1998). Berry regards Sunrise Over Tiananmen as the most fascinating documentary exploration of the June Fourth Event. There are two features of this film that Berry finds compelling. First, it interweaves historical events and a highly personal narrative. Wang combines family photos with archival images and his own paintings with images of Mao. Thus Wang “is able to address a complex combination of historical forces and ideological conflicts in a lucid and personal narrative.” (328) Sunrise Over Tiananmen also documents almost all the tumultuous events of modern Chinese history, from the Long March and the Second Sino-Japanese War, to the mass famine of the Great Leap Forward and the June Fourth Event. By linking the June Fourth Event with the previous traumatic events, Berry argues that the film provides “the massive social, historical, and philosophical dimensions of the incident.” (328) But it should be noted that Berry’s evaluation of the documentaries is to some degree biased by his view of China as the site of continuous trauma and atrocity, the overriding theme of the book.

In the last section of Chapter Five, Berry discusses narrative films made within China, which he divides into two groups according to the strategies they employ to deal with the June Fourth Event: those that directly portray the incident and its aftermath, such as Lan Yu (Stanley Kwan, 2001), Conjugation (Emily Tang, 2002), and Summer Palace (Lou Ye, 2006); and those that render the incident “through allegory, invisibility, and the politics of disappearance” (329), such as Fatal Decision (Yu Benzheng, 2000). Berry gives an in-depth analysis of Lou Ye’s Summer Palace and highlights the way the film interweaves the trauma of the event and the tragic lives of the people involved in it. His discussion on the construction of the space of trauma is particularly thought-provoking. Summer Palace includes conspicuous changes of location: the female protagonist leaves Tumen for Beijing before the June Fourth Event; and the male protagonist and two other main characters leave Beijing for Berlin after the crackdown; the male protagonist return to Beijing in the end while another character commits suicide in Berlin. Berry makes an insightful comment on the symbolic meaning of Berlin:

“Berlin can be seen as a double, or at least alternate, identity for Beijing…the characters’ journey to Berlin an be seen as a means of retroactively realizing their dreams of liberal democracy and seeing their idealistic revolution succeed…or is it?” (346)

Berry calls attention to the interaction between space, identity, and trauma.

Berry’s analysis of Fatal Decision, a popular mainstream film which makes no direct reference to the June Fourth Event, is interesting, although I do not necessarily agree with his argument that the June Fourth incident “remains an implicit subtext behind the story.” (351) He compares the scene of the factory workers’ protest in this film to the student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989:

“The entire scene is reminiscent of June Fourth, and can also be seen as a conscious attempt to revisit the incident and belatedly reconfigure that past.” (352).

In this scene, the protagonist, a high governmental official, shows his understanding and patience to the workers and makes efforts to solve their problems. Berry reads the scene as the government’s fictional attempt to reevaluate history. In his words,

Fatal Decision presents a concerted efforts to address—and redress—June Fourth without ever actually having to mention the subject. In the context of popular culture, the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] reinvents itself as a regime that does not slaughter students in the middle of the night, but instead labors the night through to maintain peace with the people. Leaders are not dismissive but sensitive, and social unrest is not violently quelled but gently pacified.” (352)

Though one may disagree with this analysis of films like Fatal Attraction as the CCP’s reconfiguration of the June Fourth Event, it is easy to read propagandistic films that praise the government’s efforts to deal with corruption as the official culture’s response to the anti-corruption sentiment during and after the June Fourth Event.

Berry concludes his book with a brief discussion of works relating to the 1997 Hong Kong handover, which adds to the existing scholarship on this event. Using the five traumatic events and the recent Hong Kong handover, A History of Pain consistently presents the “evolving chain of events and representations” of trauma in modern Chinese history. The book is significant for its extensive survey of the discourse of trauma, its cross-disciplinary approach (covering literature, film, television, and photography), its wide range of texts from inside and outside China, and its diverse perspectives. Although sometimes Berry makes disputable comments in passing, the book achieves a substantial degree of critical engagement by providing insightful analysis of important texts, which lifts it above the level of a mere historical survey.


1. Braester, Yomi. Witness Against History: Literature, Film, and Public Discourse in Twentieth-Century China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. Wang, Ban. Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, and History in Modern China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004.[return to text]

2. Wayne, Mike. “Third Cinema as Critical Practice: A Case Study of The Battle of Algiers,” in Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema. London: Pluto Press, 2001. P.13.

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