Blind Shaft: The miners trek across a desolate, colorless landscape. The realistic setting and acting in the film is juxtaposed against a tightly controlled Hitchcockian suspense.

Blind Mountain: Li often juxtaposes images of nature after scenes of intense violence.

Blind Mountain: In the international DVD release, Xuemei kills Degui with an axe after failing to stop him from beating her father.

Blind Shaft: The mine owner demands all exits blocked. Here, Li is depicting the notorious corruption of mine owners and one of the side effects of cutthroat development—disregard for the lives of workers.

Blind Mountain: Xuemei waits patiently as her employers negotiate her “job.” The villagers surround her, enveloping her figure in shadow. She does not yet realize that she is the commodity being inspected.


Blind Shaft: As part of the con, Tang and Song adopt two roles—the family member, and the negotiator. Tang cries as the bereaved family member and...

Blind Mountain: Xuemei sits locked in her room as her wedding occurs outside.

The communal wedding celebrations conflict with Xuemei’s quiet trepidation at her impending rape, invoking the image of a virgin sacrifice.



“Family” in Li Yang’s
Blind Shaft
and Blind Mountain

by Amanda Weiss

By analyzing two films by director Li Yang, Blind Shaft (2003) and Blind Mountain (2007), I hope to explore how Li’s migrant narratives portray the human cost of China’s problematic globalization process. Drawing on Rey Chow’s reading of Blind Shaft (2003), I focus on “family” (lineage/ education/ togetherness) in these films and its relation to the uprooting process of globalization through the concepts honghuo and Chow’s “sentimental fabulations.” Finally, I conclude that the messy changes of China in flux mean that “family” as a remedy or source of comfort in China’s rapidly changing economic reality is ultimately problematic—in fact, the perversion of the migrant/ worker/ peasant family offers a suggestive metaphor for the failures of Chinese modernization.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Synopsis: Blind Shaft (2003)

Blind Shaft (2003, dir. Li Yang) is a dark Hitchcockian tale of two migrant workers turned con artists who murder coal miners in order to extort insurance money from mine operators. The film is based on Liu Qingbang’s 2002 Lao She Literature Prize-winning novel Sacred Wood (Shenmu), which in turn is inspired by China’s notorious coalmine safety problem. China is the largest producer of coal in the world, yet its coal mines are infamous for lax safety standards and deadly accidents (such as a shaft flooding that killed 173 miners in 2007). Even China’s state-owned newspaper Xinhua acknowledges the problem’s severity. In 2004 it reported coal mining as the deadliest job in China, with China producing 50% of the world’s coal but 80% of mining-related deaths.[2] Li presents his narrative against the backdrop of this well-publicized social issue.

Blind Shaft: A smiling Song strikes the first victim a lethal blow

The mine recedes in the distance.

In the first scene of Blind Shaft, con artists Song and Tang bludgeon a miner to death in the shaft, blaming his untimely demise on a lack of mine safety. The con artists have presented the miner as a family member, so the mine pays them for the loss of their relative in order to avoid further repercussions. After receiving the payoff, the con artists go in search of a new victim. Soon they find their next target, a sixteen-year-old migrant named Yuan, who is searching for his missing father. At this point, the film distinguishes between the “bad” con artist and the “good” con artist, as Song becomes increasingly afflicted by guilt. His own son, whom he has not seen for years, would be the same age as Yuan. Additionally, Song recalls that one of their previous victims was also named Yuan and could potentially be Yuan’s missing father. Tang perceives Song’s changing conscience and developing father-son relationship with Yuan as weakness. The two con artists disagree over whether or not to murder Yuan, with Song grudgingly agreeing to continue with the plan. They decide to take Yuan to a prostitute before murdering him, but the boy is embarrassed and morally offended by the encounter, lamenting that he has “become a bad man” and that “[his] life is over.” In the penultimate scene, Tang attempts to kill both Song and Yuan with a pickaxe. However, despite surprising Song with a preemptive blow, Song is able to kill Tang and thus protect Yuan before ultimately succumbing to his injuries. Ironically, the mine owners quickly pay off a confused Yuan for the loss of his “family members.” The film ends with the cremation of Tang and Song, Yuan waiting outside to collect their ashes.

Synopsis: Blind Mountain (2007)

Meanwhile, in Blind Mountain (2007, dir. Li Yang), college graduate Bai Xuemei searches for work in order to pay her parents back for their investment in her education. However, she soon discovers that she has in fact been duped and sold to a rural family in order to provide a wife for their son. The girl spends her “wedding day” bound and gagged in bed, not even physically a party to the wedding. Later, when unbound, she desperately attempts to escape. She also angrily spurns the halfhearted sexual advances of her “husband,” Huang Degui.

Gorgeous scenes of nature show a seemingly peaceful countryside as Xuemei finds work for the first time.

Enraged by her defiance and motivated by a desire for offspring, the entire family participates in Xuemei’s rape. Her mother and father-in-law hold her down and strip her, encouraging Degui to consummate their “marriage.” Degui appears to derive little enjoyment from the rape, yet he passively obeys his parents. After this scene, Degui becomes more forceful and violent in his confrontations with Xuemei over her attempts to escape.

Unsuccessful, Xuemei initiates an affair with a local teacher (Degui’s cousin, Decheng), begging for his help. When the villagers discover the affair, Decheng leaves the village and abandons Xuemei. Afterwards, she sleeps with a shopkeeper for 50 yuan (U.S. ~$8), again in exchange for help. The community conspires to collectively stop her attempt to flee the village, and she is finally impregnated, bearing a child.

One year later, Xuemei’s father arrives at the village with police and a police van, but even then the law is ineffective. The villagers reject his claim, pull Xuemei from the van, and force her father to bargain for the price of Xuemei’s release. She remains in the village. Finally, her father hires men to come rescue her. The men incapacitate Degui, but Xuemei’s mother-in-law refuses to hand over Xuemei’s son. Xuemei and the village’s other kidnapped women rush to the car, one woman begging at the last minute to be let go so she can remain with her child. As the truck speeds away from the village, Xuemei gazes back at her mother-in-law. Mrs. Huang chases the van determinedly, the abandoned child clutched in her arms. Xuemei’s expression is ambivalent as she moves further and further away from the village.

In the Chinese version, Xuemei is forced to abandon her child.

As the van drives away, she gazes back at her abandoned child.

Migration: a background

Li Yang’s two films tackle the complicated situation facing migrants during China’s globalization—in Chinese, often described as a “march towards the world.” Clearly, globalization is a divisive force and has in many ways increased class stratification. China’s development project relies heavily on the cheap labor force of rural migrants. Yet, as Li Zhang notes,

“Migrants are frequently depicted as ignorant, poverty-stricken, and envious of the urban affluence they lack.”[3]

The workers are outsiders both exploited for cheap labor and scapegoated for everything from rising crime to congested buses, the heroes of the Mao Era often perceived (by urbanites) as the flotsam of the cities. As Lisa Rofel notes, in mainstream public discourse,

“workers appear in official and elite commentary on the obstacles that might hinder China from ever reaching modernity.”[4]

In Chinese, there are a number of derogatory terms for migrant, including liudong renkou (floating/drifting population), waidiren (people from outside), wailairenkou (population coming from outside), and mangliu (literally “blind flow” or drifting). Many of these pejoratives characterize the “flow” as blind, and workers as “outsiders.” Notably, Li Yang’s two films featuring migration and rural poverty, Blind Shaft (2003) and Blind Mountain (2007), also use the term “mang” in their titles.  However, Li’s usage of the term of the term is layered—Tang and Song, formerly migrant workers, have become morally bankrupt and thus directionless in their migration. Xuemei’s migration does not end with the promised job, but kidnapping and rape. By problematizing the migration depicted in these films, Li by extension also problematizes China’s own migratory “walk to the world.” A second meaning is directed at the audience: Li is stridently pointing out blind ignorance (or purposeful ignoring) of China’s migrant problem.

In one chapter in her book on modernity’s meaning in a swiftly changing China, Lisa Rofel addresses the different realities facing male and female workers during the market transition. She notes that Hangzhou markets were filled with peasants from outside the city, and that “a dangerous and exciting masculinity thrived in this arena.”[5] She contrasts the young men—who dominated these markets and who were demonstrating their “worth as men” by “showing their daring, savvy, strength, and ability to entice”—against the status of women.[6] Women, “by contrast, [were] viewed as too brazen, as bad women,” and in danger of being exploited economically and sexually.[7] Rofel, though, is very much aware of the exploitation of both male and female workers. She discusses the “decentering of workers” and the “feminized subaltern” subjugation of both male and female migrants.[8] While among migrant workers the female workers are perceived as inappropriate participants and particularly vulnerable to exploitation, within the larger question of Chinese globalization, both male and female workers are oppressed and feminized.

Blind Mountain: Throughout the film men are portrayed as violent and chauvinist. Male villagers often encourage Degui to beat or rape his wife in order to control her.

Post-rape, Degui smokes a cigarette with his father. In this world, men and women are isolated from each other.

For Chinese laborers, reasons for migration range from making money to self-improvement. Whereas money might seem to be the primary motivation, migrants actually have varied, complex reasons for their movement. Migration not only provides the economic opportunity to attain upward mobility,[9] but also contributes to the individuals’ developing self-reliance and subjectivity. For example, in Tamara Jacka’s interviews with rural migrant women in Beijing, reasons for migration were diverse. Motives included making money, travel, escape, “changing one’s fate,” and self-development, with money “not usually described as the main motivation.”[10] Ironically, while migrants are the key to China’s globalization, they are also pilloried by public opinion as they attempt to navigate China’s problematic globalization and their own changing attitudes and subjectivities. Against this paradoxical backdrop, Li Yang demonstrates the effect of China’s economic development on individual migrants.

Migration on film

In cinema, the films of the “Urban Generation” (also known as the ‘Sixth Generation’) [11] frequently employ the figure of the migrant worker to discuss China’s modernization. The country/ city divide—characterized by the urbanization of China and the “ideological downgrading of the peasantry in favor of socialist-capitalism and national entrepreneurship”—provides plot conflicts for films of the 1990s to the present day.[12] Protagonists are  often the disenfranchised of Chinese urban centers: starving artists, prostitutes, criminals, and migrant workers. As Zhang Zhen states, by concentrating on China’s third world living in the midst of its first world, these filmmakers expose imperfections in China’s globalizing urban landscape.[13] The Urban Generation filmmakers seem particularly interested in the plight of the floating population because the situation of the migrants also registers the change from a socialist to a post-socialist capitalist society.

Migrant worker Gui carries his broken bicycle across Beijing in Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle (2001). "Shoulder-pole" Dongzi walks among city dwellers in Wuhan in Wang Xiaoshuai's So Close to Paradise (1998).

Li Yang’s films, however, present a departure from these filmmakers’ work. Part of the reason for this could be his own unique positioning. He did not graduate from the Beijing Film Academy, but rather, being both German-educated and a German citizen, his identity is decidedly transnational.[14] In other Urban Generation films, the city/ country binary is clear—rural migrants are shown attempting to move “forward” economically, technologically, and spatially within a hostile city. By contrast, Li complicates the urban/ rural narratives found in films like So Close to Paradise (1998, dir. Wang Xiaoshuai), Beijing Bicycle (2000, dir. Wang Xiaoshuai), and Lost in Beijing (2007, dir. Li Yu) by avoiding the city entirely. While the theme of migration is still present in his films, his characters are rural migrants or somewhat educated individuals searching for work in rural places. Li’s films largely reject simplistic spatial binaries, complicating the meaning of migration. Li’s films further stress the violence of migration and its opposing force, the desire for “family”  (togetherness/ lineage/ education).  As such, the concepts guanxi, honghuo and “warm sentimentalism” are useful starting points for discussion.

... Song uses family relations as a bargaining tool.

“Family”: honghuo and warm sentimentalism

In the Chinese context the family, guanxi, honghuo, and renao (excitement, flourishing) form essential components shaping these narratives. Guanxi means “relations,” not only in the business sense, but also as in familial and sexual relations. Cultivating good relations is important both socially and economically in China, especially now. For example, one recent study suggests that Chinese workers’ reliance on guanxi for entry into the labor force rose from 40% in the 1960s to 75% in the 1990s.[15] Indeed, in Li Yang’s films overlapping business, family and sexual guanxi dominate the issues plaguing migrant worker families. As for honghuo or renao, they connote a kind of “social heat,” using Adam Chau’s terminology. In his study on rural communities in northern China, Chau notes:

“The key component of honghuo is people; the more people, the more honghuo. Embedded in this belief is a premium put on the warmth or heat generated from human sociality and a fear of, or distaste for, social isolation, which is associated with loneliness and coldness.”[16]

Honghuo is associated with a desire to foster healthy guanxi. Additionally, the longing for honghuo as in home is also tied into this concept.  Peasants told Chau:

“…as trees set down their roots, it is important for people to beget children…having no children is not honghuo (bu honghuo), making a household cold and desolate and its occupants feeling lonely and sad….”[17]

It takes the participation of Degui’s parents to “consummate the marriage.”

The perverted rape emphasizes Xuemei’s role in the village.
She is a purchased womb and possession. Her domination represents Degui’s manhood.

Degui’s mother works as negotiator and spy.

The mother tries to persuade Xuemei to submit to the marriage. Degui and his father never converse with Xuemei or ... ... explain their reasons for kidnapping her. A weaknesses of Blind Mountain is a lack of characterization of the men in the village.

As seen in Blind Mountain, the Chinese desire for a honghuo family environment (characterized in the film by the Confucian patrilineal impulse to have descendants) triggers the purchase, rape and pregnancy of Xuemei. For the Huang family, who exist outside of Chinese modernity in their stagnant rural backwater, the forced creation of honghuo becomes a matter of survival. As we watch Xuemei’s mother-in-law resolutely pursue the van while clutching Xuemei’s child awkwardly in her arms, her pitiful chase problematizes the victory of Xuemei’s escape. As sadistic and perverse as her treatment of Xuemei is, in this final scene our sympathy as an audience is split—Xuemei’s education, youth, fertility and vitality are essential for the survival of the village. With her departure, there is no possibility of honghuo, and thus little chance of saving the village.

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