copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

“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.

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)

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.

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 minuted 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.

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 migrants 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.

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.

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.

“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]

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.

Rey Chow’s Sentimental Fabulations, with its complex discussion of the sentimental (a “predominant affective mode”),[18] touches on the concept of family in these films. Chow’s project is a theoretical look at the concept of the sentimental and its relation to global visibility. She uses Chinese film and China’s specific cultural and historical positioning as departure points to discuss the sentimental in more depth. Chow first elaborates on the different meanings suggested by the concept sentimental, and later defines her own usage of the term. She begins with Friedrich Schiller’s definition of the sentimental as “a modern creative attitude marked by a particular self-consciousness of loss,” which she notes is important also for its relation to time:

“As an affective state triggered by a sense of loss, sentimentalism was, for Schiller, the symptom of the apprehension of an irreversible temporal differentiation or the passing of time.”[19]

Chow then turns to Anglo-American humanities, and notes that there

“the sentimental… clearly occupies a place that has much to do with the enduringly fraught ethics of human society as mediated by art and fiction [Chow’s emphasis].”[20]

In other words, in this second sense sentimentalism reveals a great deal about human social interaction, themes of power, control, justice and consciousness, and their relation to the media in which they are represented. Chow ultimately considers the sentimental more useful as a “discursive constellation” than as simple “affective excess.”[21] As such, she expands on the concept of the sentimental with the idea of “warm sentimentalism.”

Turning to the Chinese context, Chow elaborates the term wenqingzhuyi or warm sentimentalism—a term that brings to mind the idea of  honghuo’s “social heat.” The concept is unique in that it is characterized by the “mild, tender, tolerant, obliging, [and] forbearing.”[22] Chow further defines sentiment in this context as

“an inclination or a disposition toward making compromises and toward making-do and even—and especially—that which is oppressive and unbearable.”[23]

She suggests that whereas Freud saw the sentiment as the overflow of the suppressed, she would counter that the sentimental is characterized by what is kept and preserved, by what “holds things together,” and is rather a “mood of endurance.”[24]

Chow further links warm sentimentalism to the home/ family/ interior. She notes,

“The modes of human relationships affectively rooted in [the] imagined inside—an inside whose depths of feeling tend to become intensified with the perceived aggressive challenges posed by modernity—are what I would argue as sentimental.”[25]

In other words, the family/ home is an important location for the sentimental because of the perceived tension between the inside and the outside. Chow continues,

“…the sentimental is ultimately about the delineation and elaboration of a comfortable/homely interiority, replete with the implications of exclusion that such delineation and elaboration by necessity entail.”[26]

It is notable that Chow’s list of situations wherein the sentimental occurs include themes central to migrants—labor and family. Her situations include:

Thus for migrants the tension between the imagined inside/outside is central. These characters are outsiders spatially (as strangers from another place), metaphorically (as perceived obstacles to China’s modernization), and linguistically—as wailairenkou (population coming from outside, incoming population) and waidiren (people from outside). A desire for a “homely interiority”—literally as in a home and figuratively as in a feeling of acceptance in China’s changing order—is thus desirable, yet inaccessible to migrants due to the problematic nature of globalization. It is in this tension, a tension that often occurs in scenes about family/home, that we see the “drama of the sentimental”—a drama that reveals the ambiguity of “family” during Chinese modernization.

Blind Shaft (2003)

In Blind Shaft, this dramatic tension is centered on the concept of “family.” First, Song and Tang use kinship as a commodity, killing “family members” and selling the loss of their “relative” for money. Chow notes,

“The key to the entire scam is, in other words, the fabrication of a particular unit of social organization—namely, the kinship family—that appeals to others as something natural and authentic….”[28]

It is through the creation of family relations that the two men create legitimacy that can be cashed in on in a market economy, a perverted application of capitalism. As one of the mine owners in the film notes, there is “no shortage” of human beings in China.

The bodies of “family” (as in fellow Chinese) become commodities in modernizing China. [29] In other words, somehow during the process of globalization, the family is monetized. Additionally, the murder of family can be seen as a metaphor for the conflicted nature of globalization—Li’s narrative suggests that China’s new economic system relies on the “murder” of its own people. In an economy dependent on the labor of its people, the bodies of the citizens become a kind of capital. In overusing them, abusing them, or tossing them in the system without adequate preparation or protection, the country sacrifices its family to the markets.

The film also invokes family through scenes of filiality, the idealization of which is, according to Chow, possibly the central notion of Chinese sentimentalism.[30] The younger murderer in Blind Shaft—Song Jinming—becomes guilt-ridden after witnessing the obedient filial piety of his next potential victim, Yuan Fengming. Suddenly family becomes an agent of change and potential redemption. Sixteen-year-old Fengming expresses nothing but respect for his elders and sees in Song a kind of paternal figure. He worships and obeys the elder migrant, obediently retiring to bed when Song orders him to sleep. When Fengming disappears in a market—causing his two would-be killers to panic—he suddenly reappears with a chicken that he has purchased for his elders out of respect and devotion. Song slaps the boy, but his reaction is ambivalent: is Song afraid of losing his target/source of income, or is he afraid for the safety of the boy, whose strong sense of filial piety is endearing? Fengming appears to remind Song of his own son, who—like Yuan—also left home to work, and of his responsibilities as a father. Neither Tang nor Yuan have returned home in years, both lacking a sense of responsibility as the heads of their households.

Song also becomes concerned that a man he killed (also surnamed Yuan) might potentially be the missing father of Yuan Fengming.[31] Conflicted, Song laments the prospect of ending the Yuan family line and of offending their ancestors. However, Li Yang is purposely ambiguous and does not reveal if Song would have chosen the moral path in the end: Tang strikes Song a mortal blow before the audience can see whether Song would have saved the boy. Li’s choice to leave Song’s paternal existential crisis unresolved suggests ambiguity about Song’s ability to overcome the compelling desire for money and perhaps an uncertainty about China’s moral future as well.

The search for family is another situation in which the sentimental occurs—the search itself a kind of existential migration. Yuan, as the sole moral light in the film, has left his home in search of his father. He is also migrating to earn the funds necessary for his education and moral enrichment. His migration differs from that of Song and Tang, whose migration is primarily motivated by money. Yuan, who is constantly reading and studying in the hopes of self-improvement and who is, moreover, irrepressibly filial, is the film's most ethical character. The prostitute he sleeps with also demonstrates her filiality by sending money home to her family.

However, Yuan’s character is complicated by his participation in the scam, which is contingent on the target’s willingness to misrepresent himself as a relative. When Tang first meets Yuan, the boy very quickly agrees to the ruse, thus demonstrating his potential for duplicity. Additionally, after very weak protesting at the end of the film, Yuan accepts money from the mine for the deaths of Song and Tang. As such, he is potentially learning the value of commoditizing relatives, and his future may or may not coincide with that of the two con men. In the final shot of the film, Yuan watches smoke rise from the cremation facility burning the corpses of the two con men. Yuan’s expression—at times befuddled, at times contemplative—does not clearly reveal what lessons he has learned from his experience.

The pursuit of education, not listed in Chow’s sentimental situations, might also be considered a location of the sentimental in Blind Shaft. Indeed, the importance of education is vital in the Chinese family context. In the film the lack of education—moral or otherwise—is a core theme and measure of morality in modernizing China. Director Li Yang notes,

“When I asked coal miners about what kept them going regardless of the dangers of working in the mines, the response I got over and over was that they needed to send their kids to school.”[32]

In his personal research, Li discovered the importance of education in the parent-child relationship and in preserving the migrant family. However, Tang lacks education, Song laments his son’s abandonment of school, and Yuan is forced to work because he cannot pay for school.

Chow, in a very astute reading, considers why the semi-illiterate character Tang appears to be the film's most evil character. She wonders—is there a correlation between Tang’s lack of education and his “evilness”? Tang is hardened, nasty and malevolent. He is the first to approach the boy Yuan Fengming—wolf-like—as a potential victim. When Song criticizes Tang for choosing an adolescent victim, Tang retorts,

“I don’t care if he is a child or an adult. As long as I can make money, it’s fine. If you had money, then your child wouldn’t have to leave and go to work. You feel sorry for [Yuan], but who will feel sorry for you?”

Tang also appears to be dismissive of the education of others. When Yuan Fengming happens upon a begging child holding a sign asking for school tuition, he gives the boy some of his own hard-earned money. Upon witnessing Yuan Fengming give the child money, Tang gives the little boy a hard look and dismissively glances at what he knows must be written on the sign he ostensibly cannot read. “It must be fake,” he grumbles. Tang’s “evilness” is starkly contrasted to the purity of Yuan, who places a great deal of importance on education.

Yet Li Yang is also sympathetic to Tang’s lack of education, which he blames on the changes affecting society. He emphasizes the conflicted nature of Tang’s education by demonstrating that Tang’s upbringing did not prepare him for the transition to a market economy. In one of the few humorous scenes in Blind Shaft, two KTV (“karaoke TV,” a private karaoke room equipped with a television and couches) hostess girls/ prostitutes invert Tang’s rendition of the song, “Socialism Is Good.” They laugh that his version is tu (old-fashioned, uncouth, rural). One cannot help but pity the older Tang as the young girls mock him for his lack of style and knowledge. Additionally, in Li Yang’s interview with Michael Berry, the director claims that the song was included in part to demonstrate that

“the two main characters…received a socialist education. They were brought up singing songs like, ‘Socialism Is Good’; however, they have been deserted by China’s new social situation.”[33]

Li’s criticism here is aimed not at individuals, but at the government that did not prepare society for this change. Tang and Song’s perversion of the market system does not just reveal their faults as individuals, but a much larger social problem.

It is notable that “family” is the site of both salvation and transgression in post-socialist China. For Tang and Song, their upbringing has not prepared them for the new economic system and has resulted in the depraved selling of kin/ breakdown of the family/ disregard of education. The filial, education-hungry Yuan represents the uncertain future of China. At play here is the idea of traditional/ “Confucian” values emerging in the market era. For example, is Li Yang arguing there is salvation in tradition? The film does not try to provide an answer to this question. Rather, it aims to show a country in economic and moral flux.

At the end of the film we are doubtful of Yuan’s future prospects, as he has accepted tainted money—tainted both by his false claim as a nephew, and by the perverted capitalist greed that caused the deaths. However, because of this character’s youth and decency, Li Yang leaves the ending open to hopeful interpretation.

Blind Mountain

Li Yang’s Blind Mountain also explores ways in which migrant characters meet conflicting demands of globalization and family. In terms of Chow’s sentimental situations, the narrative uses all the concepts of togetherness/ separation, family harmony (or lack thereof), and biological reproduction. As in Blind Shaft, family members are again a commodity. The Huang family purchases Xuemei to provide a wife for their son Degui, as well as a womb to continue the Huang family line. In purchasing Xuemei, they separate her from her own family and also cause another drama of separation. The relation to globalization is implied. The isolated village is practically pre-modern, shut off from the developed coastal region of China and stubbornly clannish in its interactions with outsiders. It is a village left behind in China’s development.

The key location of the sentimental in Blind Mountain is the “imperative to reproduce.” Xuemei’s value as a commodity is contingent on her ability to reproduce. As an educated girl from a larger city, she is the fertile future of China: fertile because of her traits associated with globalization—education, youth, urbanity—and because of her femaleness/ primitiveness. Her womb, her sexuality, her oppressed/ subaltern subject positioning.  She is in many ways not dissimilar to the pigs bred on her captors’ farm: her sole purpose in being purchased is to breed future farmers for the Huangs. Even though by the time Xuemei is pregnant she has cheated on her husband with his cousin, her in-laws do not care about the father’s identity. Mrs. Huang begs Xuemei not to cause an abortion, crying plaintively,

“Our Huang family will be grateful to you forever!”

In other words, a Huang is a Huang. While the continuation of the Huang family line rests in Xuemei’s hands at that point, she later has no claim to the child. When Xuemei finally escapes at the end, she is notably unable to take her son. After the child’s manufacture, Xuemei’s work is done, but her child—the product—must remain.[34]

Like Blind Shaft, Blind Mountain depicts a society that has acclimated to and surpassed the ruthless market system, trading the bodies of human beings and purchasing “family.” Xuemei is a commodity, her status as such usually defended by her “cost.” Whenever she attempts to escape the village, her in-laws cite the amount of money they spent to purchase her, an argument that proves effective time and time again. When a real family member (her father) arrives to retrieve her, the community does not recognize his legitimacy, instead arguing that the only acceptable way to secure her retrieval is, in effect, a refund. Xuemei’s father recognizes and resigns himself to this legitimacy, weeping over the money he has already spent to find his daughter and lamenting the fact that he now has to find more to purchase her back. In Blind Mountain, Xuemei’s market value usurps her role as a daughter and her rights as a human being.

Even Xuemei learns to regard her body as a commodity. After simply running away does not work, she willingly sells her body for her escape. She starts her affair with Decheng, Degui’s cousin, in the hopes that she can exchange love/sex for freedom. Each tryst begins at Xuemei’s insistence with false professions of love, ending with her inquiries about the escape plan. However, Decheng is an ineffective savior who avoids taking action, is caught and leaves the village. In the scene after he leaves, Xuemei changes tactics, no longer relying on seduction and sentimental feelings such as “love” as a tactic. She sells sexual favors to a local shopkeeper for 50 yuan, and very nearly escapes in the following scene. This attempt is her most effective escape attempt in the film—in the new market economy, money talks.

Indeed, in many recent Urban Generation films, prostitution is a major theme.[35] The sexualized/commoditized female body becomes a metaphor for Chinese modernity and nationality. Gail Hershatter establishes the symbiotic relationship between the status of women and the status of the nation:

“[Woman was] the site at which national modernity was imaged, often through a language of crisis: If the status of women is not raised, if the factors that drive women into prostitution are not ameliorated, the nation will perish.” [35a]

During times of colonization by foreign powers, the victimized woman was a symbol for a China “…threatened with ‘penetration’ by Western imperialism.”[36]

In Chinese films of the 1930s, such as Goddess (1934, dir. Wu Yonggang), Chinese filmmakers filmed crises of nationhood through the bodies of marginalized females. In these earlier migrant films the woman is Han (racial majority of China), yet her presentation evokes minority discourse by virtue of the ways in which she is sexualized and eroticized. She is forced to capitalize on her sexualized body, yet she learns to succumb and adapt to the commoditization of herself. Perhaps in this way, she is sentimental in the sense of Chow’s “mood of endurance.” The migrant female in these films ultimately capitalizes on her own body in order to achieve her goals, attempting to maneuver her victimized position to one of (questionable) power.

Li Yang also ties the “imperative to reproduce” to the community through scenes of communal complicity. First, he demonstrates the unified front of the village (and also dryly satirizes socialist communalism) in the scene where Xuemei is raped. While playing cards with friends, friends goad husband Huang Degui to walk home (20 feet away) and finally consummate their relationship. Xuemei’s violent reaction deters him and he fails to rape her, only to return immediately at the insistence of his parents. His parents hold Xuemei down, stripping her and forcing her legs apart, only leaving the room once the rape has commenced. Thus the rape is shown as a communal activity, first suggested by the men at the poker game and then enforced by Degui’s parents. The community is physically present and verbally complicit.

Later, when Xuemei's father arrives to claim her, everyone in the village again unites in a proletariat struggle session reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. The villagers become the revolutionary peasant masses, their shouts mimicking the communal hysteria of an earlier era. However, the rhetoric they use is that of capitalism—purchases, receipts, refunds. Li Yang uses the collectivist village’s rape and purchase of Xuemei to expose a society struggling to adapt to a market system after a socialist education. The villagers invoke collective socialist might and capitalist logic at random—their ideological consistency hopelessly flawed. Both their socialist and capitalist arguments prevail over Xuemei’s basic human rights.

Even education—the saving grace within Blind Shaft—is problematic in Blind Mountain. The teacher, Decheng, is an ineffectual savior more intent on betraying his cousin Degui and using Xuemei for sex than in his job as a teacher. Xuemei asks Decheng if he enjoys teaching and Decheng retorts, “The pay is low and often late…It is meaningless.” Xuemei also appears to be ambivalent about her education. She teaches village children but finds little satisfaction in teaching. Her education—which she gratefully describes in the first scene of the film—was not sufficient to save her from the plotting of the villagers, nor was her intelligence enough to plan a successful escape. In Blind Mountain, there is no “togetherness” in family, education is not a saving grace, and humans regard themselves as commodities. It is an unrelenting view of a hypocritical and inconsistent society, wherein all overtures to the “homely interior” are conflicted and confused by the destructive “exterior” forces of a transitioning China.

Blind Mountain has been described as a lesser film than Blind Shaft due to its one-sided characterizations of the villagers and repetitious scenes. Li’s film has been described as realistic and might be said to be an example of naturalism:

However, despite these attempts at realism, the film succumbs to some of the simplistic binaries that Li avoided in Blind Shaft, such as rural/urban, uneducated/educated, and primitive/civilized—there is little attempt on the part of the filmmaker to humanize and complicate the villagers. Moreover, the tension of Blind Shaft—Song’s changing morality and Yuan’s potential spiritual “pollution”—is not present in Blind Mountain. The villagers do not change their positions, no one shows sympathy for Xuemei, and Xuemei herself never changes her point of view on the village. Therefore, without change or tension, the film lacks the drama, depth and moral ambiguity of Blind Shaft.


In making a film about the complicated positioning of rural workers in a transnational era, director Li Yang’s own subject positioning is conflicted. On the one hand, Li is a German citizen with access to education and mobility decidedly unavailable to the subjects of his films. The funding and audience for his films are also both privileged and foreign. Despite distribution in China, his films are not well known outside of film and academic circles. On the other hand, Li is bringing the plight of marginalized populations to a wider, albeit elite/international, audience. Li seems genuinely concerned about the predicament of marginalized workers. The word “blind” in the films’ titles asking audiences to pay attention and “see” the social issues involved. His films, with plots revolving around migration, criminality, and amorality, also stress the moral vacuum that has accompanied China’s development.

In Li Yang’s films, migrants are transfixed by the idea of the home/family, or jia. Yet, as Chow notes, these characters are depressingly and ironically trapped in a contemporary era marked by homelessness.[37] Throughout Blind Shaft and Blind Mountain, kinship/family is explored both in positive practices (the search for family, migration to support the family, education) and negative practices (kidnapping and rape to continue family lines; family members monetized).

Women, perhaps because they are symbolically associated with the concept of “home,” are often victimized in these films. In that sense, the sentimental also revolves around the figure of a woman (as womb, as wife, as nation), who is for many of the male characters a perceived “key” to resolving the conflict between the exterior (globalization) and the interior (home/family). Thus, the attempt to find a “homely interiority” is divergent and messy during the globalization process—what can “family” mean in the midst of chaos?


1. This paper is partially based on research conducted as an MPhil candidate at Cambridge University. I would like to thank my advisors and the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies for their advice and mentorship. Also, I would like to thank Chuck Kleinhaus for his useful suggestions in revising. [return to text]

2. Zhao, Xiaohui and Jiang, Xueli. “Coal Mining: Most Deadly Job in China.” Xinhua Nov 13 2004. [Online]

3.  Zhang, Li. Strangers in the City: Reconfigurations of Space, Power and Social Networks within China’s Floating Population. Stanford University Press: Stanford (2001): 143.

4. Rofel, Lisa. Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China After Socialism. University of California Press: Los Angeles (1999): 96. In this usage of the term modernity, Rofel refers to what she calls the “post-Mao imaginary of modernity” on page 217.

5. Rofel: 102.

6. Rofel: 103.

7. Rofel: 103.

8. Rofel: 97.

9. Yang, Xiushi. “Interconnections Among Gender, Work and Migration.” Re-Drawing Boundaries: Work, Households and Gender in China. Ed. Entwisle, B and Henderson, G. University of California Press: Berkeley (2000): 197.

10. Jacka, Tamara. Rural Women in Urban China: Gender, Migration and Social Change. M.E. Sharpe, Inc: Armonk (2005): 247.

11. Sixth Generation and Urban Generation are both somewhat limited as labels. Sixth Generation tends to refer to directors who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in the late 80’s/early 90’s and whose films focus on poverty, migration, and crime (Lou Ye, Wang Xiaoshuai, Jia Zhangke). This would exclude Li Yang (educated in Germany) and Ning Ying (educated at the BFA at the same time as the Fifth Generation, but her late start in filmmaking and focus on urban issues aligns her temporally and thematically with the Sixth Generation). On the other hand, the term Urban Generation does not suggest films that take place outside of city spaces, like Platform (2000, d. Jia Zhangke) and Li Yang’s films. Of the two, “Urban Generation” is perhaps more useful in describing the gritty contemporary dramas from the mid 1990’s to the late 2000’s.

12. Donald, Stephanie Hemelryk. Public Secrets, Public Spaces: Cinema and Civility in China. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc: Boulder (2000): 121.

13. Zhang, Zhen. “Bearing Witness: Chinese Urban Cinema in the Era of ‘Transformation.’” Zhang, Zhen, ed. The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Duke University Press: London (2007): 2-6.

14. Teo, Stephen. “There is no Sixth Generation! Director Li Yang on Blind Shaft and His Place in Chinese Cinema.” Senses of Cinema 57 (2003).

15. Bian, Yanjie. “Chinese Social Stratification and Social Mobility.” Annual Review of Sociology 28 (2002): 108.

16. Chau, Adam Yuet. Miraculous Response: Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Stanford University Press: Stanford (2006): 153.

17. Chau: 153.

18. Chow, Rey. Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films. Columbia University Press: New York (2007): 14.

19. Chow: 15.

20. Chow: 17.

21. Chow: 17.

22. Chow: 17-18.

23. Chow: 18.

24. Chow: 18.

25. Chow: 19.

26. Chow: 19.

27. Chow: 19-21.

28. Chow: 174.

29. Chow: 172.

30. Chow: 22.

31. In the case of Liu Qingbang’s novel Sacred Wood (Shenmu), which this film is based on, this was the case, but Li Yang found it too trite for the film. See: Berry, Michael. Speaking in Images. Columbia University Press: New York (2005).

32. Berry. 222.

33. Berry: 226.

34. Note, on international DVD’s the ending is different. Bai Xuemei stabs her husband in the final scene and whether or not she keeps her son is open to interpretation.

35. Films with such characters include: So Close to Paradise, 1998, dir. Wang Xiaoshuai; Blind Shaft, 2003, dir. Li Yang; The World, 2004, dir. Jia Zhangke; Luxury Car, 2006, dir. Wang Chao.

35a. Hershatter, Gail. Women in China’s Long Twentieth Century. University of California Press, 2007, p79.

36. Teng, Jinhua Emma. “The Construction of the ‘Traditional Chinese Woman’ in the Western Academy: A Critical Reading.” Signs 22.1 (Autumn 1996): 143.

37. Chow: 178-179.

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