Movies in China

by Tani E. Barlow and Donald M. Lowe

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 55-57
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

All major cultures share the same media, but each uses media differently — particularly those which do not have a common politics. In 1981-82, the two of us went to China to teach about the West at Shanghai Teachers College. We regularly wrote home about our experiences, stressing how cultural differences separated us from the Chinese working and living around us. The following are excerpts from our manuscript, Chinese Reflections: Americans Teaching in the People's Republic (1981-82), which will be published by Praeger in the fall of 1985. As the reader will notice, we are not so much interested in the films themselves, as in Chinese attitudes toward film as a medium, and how audiences act when they are at the movies.

Last week we saw a fascinating film by Yang Yanjin, a young director from the Shanghai Movie Studio. Most Chinese films lean heavily on complicated plots. XIAO JIE (A LITTLE ALLEY) broke this and several other current cinematic conventions. The plot was simple. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) a young male worker meets a teenage boy in an alley. They become pals. Then the worker discovers "he" is really a she; when the Red Guards cut off her "bourgeois" hair, she was so ashamed she disguised herself as a boy. Secretly, the worker tries to steal a wig for her. But the revolutionary opera troupe which owns the hairpiece catches, beats and blinds him. By the time he gets out of the hospital the young woman has vanished.

Yang took this simple encounter and, by using innovative cinematography, developed it into something very special. The first scene began in the present. A film director (actually Yang playing himself) sits with the blind worker encouraging the man to relate his story, which the movie conveys to the audience through a series of flashbacks — another relatively new technique in Chinese films. Since Yang also refused to use an omniscient narrator, whenever the story reached a turning point, he shifted from technicolor to either black and white or sepia. He also used this obvious technique to emphasize shifts of time or point of view. The beating sequence was particularly dramatic. The camera recorded the action objectively, until the belt buckle smashed into the hero's eyes. Then Yang subjectivized the entire scene by cutting to psychedelic color explosions followed by a blank screen with a voice-over.

Our students were most intrigued by the way Yang refused to provide a denouement. Boy never did find girl. When the story reached the present, the director-in-the-film talked to the protagonist about how they should end their story/film. They considered three possibilities, offering the audience, in the meanwhile, three endings from which to choose. In one, the worker will recover his sight but find his beloved at a drunken bash thrown by the decadent children of some corrupt, high cadres, smoking, dancing and wearing a provocative dress. In the second outcome the worker will remain blind, but discover that the woman is now married to Yang, the film director. In the third, the woman will find him on a train and decide to devote her entire life to caring for him. As each narrative possibility unfolded, the male character remained fundamentally unchanged, while his female opposite showed her essential malleability — decadent socialite, professional matron, model worker. Quite a number of our male students said they could not accept any of the endings, because none of the three incarnations rang true. But they still found themselves fascinated by Yang's technique.[1][open notes in new window]

What struck us was the way the film examined some of the basic categories of Chinese culture. In one excellent scene, the hero and the "boy" go to gather herbs for "his" sick mother. They end up laughing and rolling around in the grass. That puts pressure on the "boy." So "he" begins to question out loud the oppositions of up and down, in and out, old and young, and, finally, male and female. During the GPCR rebels reversed these natural categories of human experience, to challenge ingrained habits of dominance. Down overcame up. The young dominated the old, and made the teachers their prisoners. Outsiders invaded the inside; and at the deepest possible level of violation, women turned into men.

This horrifying cultural inversion showed up in two other moving scenes. In one, the heroine stands at a mirror touching her shaved head. A long stationary camera focuses on her double image as she begins binding her breasts before slipping into her male disguise. Accidentally she catches sight of her sexless reflection; she smashes the mirror and falls down on the ground moaning like an animal. In another scene set in the period before she hits on the idea of the disguise, she brings her violin to a pawnshop where she encounters a gang of Red Guard. One of them — an exaggeratedly demonic-looking man — snatches her large-brimmed, feminine hat. Her shaven head, sign of bad class background, gives her away. To further prolong her agony, he throws the hat into a men's toilet room. This forces her to walk helplessly up and down in front of the door, eyeing her hat, but unable to step over into the sexually forbidden territory to retrieve it. Many of these scenes were shot either with a distorting lens to emphasize the height and ghoulish appearance of the Red Guard, or in sepia, which Yang usually associated with abuse of the heroine. This allowed him to draw an effective line between the present order and the pathology of the past.

Yang's concern with gender as a way of showing the GPCR's effect on the "natural" order of things turned up again in the polarized images of female aggressor and female victim. We knew the militant image from THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN: belligerent pose, the hawkish eyes and painted eyebrows, the sturdy legs planted on the earth, muscular arms, sleeves rolled, raised in an operatic style attack. In the film, the Red Guard opera singer whose wig the hero tries to steal plays the role of the uniformed revolutionary woman with a whip. XIAO JIE did everything possible to discredit this vision of female militance. Instead, it promoted an Audrey Hepburn waif, a helpless victim, and made repeated references to female virginity, purity and rape by drawing attention constantly back to the victim's shorn head.

The Four Modernizations[2] campaign has revitalized the effeminate woman. Magazine and television commercials link pretty, passive, decorative women directly to consumer goods. Our male students argue that while prettiness is still not as important to them in a prospective wife as good character and salary, they wish it could be. One older woman student claimed the vision of a fragile, feminine woman evoked strong feelings in her because it reminded her of her ruined youth. People associate the trend with their feelings of having been "raped" by the GPCR and deprived of their political innocence. Everyone knows Chinese women cannot look like Audrey Hepburn. Even in Shanghai life is much too hard to allow that kind of frivolity, though the women decided to go along with the charade. But to many, the filmic image of the useless woman signifies their hopes for an easier future, just as the rape victim represents the horrors of the past.


The Boston Museum's exhibition of American paintings arrived recently in Shanghai. It includes a few modern works, and students keep asking us questions about abstract art and modernism. To their question, "What does it mean?" we keep telling them modern art does not represent anything. This does not help much, because all students assume meaning comes out of representation. Their next question is why, if the paintings don't "mean" anything, do we call them art? The gulf between Western abstract expressionism and what most of our students expect from ART — representation, meaning, moral message — is very, very wide. We have tried to draw parallels between Zen-influenced Chinese paintings, a kind of expressionism, or calligraphy, a very abstract art form, and contemporary Western painting. A man in Tani's "intensive reading" class made the same argument once; but his point that calligraphy is an abstract art did not convince the class. Later he told us many people rejected his comparison, saying ideographs, no matter how you decompose them, still convey their intrinsic language meaning. We also find problems trying to explain Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, which has drawn a great deal of attention lately. The "Quentin" chapter just appeared in translation in the popular intellectual journal, Vu Shu (Study).

Several things stand in the way of our students accepting modernist premises. Chinese socialist realism expresses many of their deeply felt assumptions about style and the significance of ART. Now that they are able to study a whole range of styles, many still vastly prefer nineteenth-century realism. Much Chinese literature has been built on the convention of realistic narrative. So audiences prefer films or novels to be heavily plotted, to have characters who represent moral qualities, to include meaningful conflict and to provide a proper resolution at the end. Some came out of MAD JIE shaking their heads. They did not like the film's lack of a proper ending. Most basic of all, the world that produced Einstein, Picasso, and Faulkner is so different from the China of today that it is hard to explain why modern painting and novel do convey "meaning" to Americans without having to be representational.

When we first arrived on campus we were surprised to find a chalk rendition of Picasso's face, a short biography of the artist, and a copy of his "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" on the blackboard outside the Fine Arts building. To us, "Demoiselles" is the painting which broke the representational tradition in the West and initiated Cubism. We wondered what the painting signified to our students. So one day Don asked a group of them why the art students had put the display up. One insightful student admitted the painting meant nothing to him. He assumed it was there because it is a famous Western painting. Nevertheless, certain modernist techniques are entering Chinese art. Obviously Yang was influenced by Western cinematic concepts of time, and he tried to jolt his audience by withholding the denouement. The recent popular novel Ren ah ren (Ah, Humanity) incorporated stream of consciousness in a watered down form to tell a story about the GPCR. But these are still exceptions. People are investigating "modernism" and are extremely interested in it. As yet they still have no real way of understanding it. (Since this was first written, modernism has been officially prohibited. Scholars may not study it, artists may not borrow from it, students may not discuss it.)


A lot of students told us we should go see DANG-DAI REN (CONTEMPORARIES), a new film by Huang Shu-quin. The five other foreign experts at the college decided to go too, because their classes had all recommended it. We saw a nice story about a tractor factory outside Guilin. The factory has a production and a maintenance department. Production over-fulfills its quota. But it turns out shoddy goods. Neighboring communes keep returning the machines to maintenance for repairs. The young production chief doesn't care, since on paper he's doing his job. Complicating things, the chief of production wants to marry the factory manager's daughter. Young, handsome, charismatic, musical (he does a soft shoe routine in one scene), Cal Ming, the assistant factory manger, would like to reform the plant. The main storyline focuses on Cai Ming's attempts to carry out his plan. After a number of amusing, frustrating setbacks, he sends his fiancée, a fellow factory worker, off to Beijing to get new investment capital for updating the plant. In the last scenes, the old factory manager retires after a moving self-criticism, and Cai Ming takes over.

CONTEMPORARIES had two important subplots. The first centered on Wang Weidan, the privileged, fashionable daughter of the factory manager. She has an unrequited passion for Cai Ming. Soft filters exaggerated the actress's good looks, and heavy make-up made her seductive and pouty. She wore unusually provocative costumes. In one scene, she emerges from a public bathhouse wearing short shorts and a sleeveless shirt and accosts Cal Ming on a deserted street corner. The second subplot introduced a domestic tragi-comedy. The factory's chief engineer and his wife, an assembly-line worker, have twin boys. This is a real blessing under the current birth control policy. But since both parents work, childcare becomes an irresolvable problem. Initially the engineer shoulders his share of the housework and childcare. But his obligations mount every time Cai Ming makes a successful modernizing effort, and the wife ends up being overwhelmed by the "lucky" burden. A serious conflict develops between socialist loyalty and sexual equality.

The director, Huang Shu-quin, shot the film in vivid technicolor and heightened its pace with many short scenes and fast transitions. Most Chinese films favor a deadly slow version of the 1930s French mise-en-scene. This subordinates cinematographic technique to filmic narrativity. In CONTEMPORARIES, the images supported the narrative. Shots of automobiles, motor scooters, cement highways, airplanes and a long sequence of Chinese passengers mingling with foreign tourists at the Guilin airport reconfirmed the theme of modernization. Huang used images to contrast the old and the new. In one sequence, a car containing visiting dignitaries slows to a crawl behind what appears to be a very, very slow-moving tractor. The camera pans around to the front of the tractor — to reveal a water buffalo towing the tractor back to the factory. Another skillfully edited sequence showed factory officials at the top of a flight of stairs leading to the auditorium. As guests arrive, Huang cuts to a close-up of feet running down the stairs to greet the visitor, then marching back up the stairs. Since the guests keep arriving, the feet keep running up and down. We also saw some obvious borrowings. Though not exactly a musical, Huang seemed to have been influenced by the light, facile pace and color scheme of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. A thoroughly gratuitous scene showed the hero in a shower, naked to the waist; several times female characters began taking off their dresses before the camera moved away. During an airport arrival scene, the jet exhaust lifted the fiancée's already short skirt up around her thighs. All these cinematic clichés have become second nature to Western films. It really startled us to see them for the first time in a Chinese film.

Generally, Chinese audiences don't make much noise. The night we saw CONTEMPORARIES, the audience laughed, grunted, groaned and talked. The sequence that got the most knowing roar of laughter was a long slapstick routine where the requisition clerk finds himself caught between the competing demands of the production and maintenance departments. The competitors physically pull the clerk from side to side, and he ends up drenched with sweat but still unable to satisfy either of them. Finally, he slips on a big wooden abacus and falls flat on his face.

When the film was over and the lights came on, the five other foreign experts looked quite irritable. John and Jane, who usually find nothing but good in anything Chinese, shifted uneasily in their seats. "Why was Wang Weidan always lounging around, showing off her legs and bare arms, and screwing up her mouth provocatively?" Valerie asked. Jane and John said they thought the love scenes between Cai Ming and his fiancée had been too steamy. They all were repulsed by the Wang Weidan character. Jane said she couldn't see how Wang could claim she had emancipated herself just because she refused to marry the production chief. Valerie thought the so-called "emancipated" Wang Weidan promoted all the old clichés about female weakness by crying every time she didn't like something. "This is what we complain about at home," Holly, Nelson's wife, said. "It's certainly disheartening to see it here."

To Holly, the most sexist scene in the movie was the exchange between Cai Ming and the wife of the chief engineer. The female assembly workers confront Cai Ming. They say they will go on a sympathy strike unless he does something about their friend's childcare problem. The twins' mother snorts at so-called women's liberation, saying it's liberated her right into slavery. Cai Ming resolved the problem not by giving his chief engineer some time off or setting up a day care center, but by sending the wife home to take care of the children. "For god's sake," said Holly, who happened to be pregnant, "why is the answer to the woman's question the same in a socialist country as in a capitalist one — send the women home?"

We felt just as vehement, and were curious why the regular audience responded so enthusiastically to the film. So we decided to check in with our students and ask them what they thought of it. A bright, older man said he and his group of friends enjoyed the movie because of its wit and humor. It was a nice little film that took a caustic look at mundane problems like bureaucracy, backdoorism, incompetent management, and domestic contradiction. "Chinese audiences live with these problems," he said. "They know Huang was aiming the camera at ordinary people." He suggested that maybe the foreign experts could not appreciate the film because we do not live regular Chinese lives and have no way to measure how close to reality the film got. We let the student talk, waiting for him to mention the sexism. He never did.

We thought maybe the student hadn't said anything because being male he might not be sensitive to the issue. We turned to a very intelligent female student. She repeated what he had already said. We pushed her a little. We asked her what she thought about the Wang Weidan character. "Oh," she said, "there are so many girls like Wang around now. They're only interested in clothes and boyfriends. The parents spoil them, so they think they should get everything they want." We asked her if she found Wang too sexy. "Not at all," she replied. "You must have seen her type around." We just didn't feel like admitting we hadn't. Our student-friend didn't seem to notice the uncomfortable pause. "Where did you see the sex?" she asked. We marshaled the evidence: the shorts, the skimpy, tight sweater, the fiancée's thighs, the shower scene, the bathhouse scene, the kissing. The more we talked, the less convinced she looked. Finally, she just shrugged her shoulders, as if to say something's wrong with our perception. Since she obviously hadn't noticed the sexual images, we wondered if she thought the ploy to send the twins' mother home was fair or not. That problem really interested her. All women would like to spend the first three years of their baby's life at home on extended maternity leave, if possible.

By that time we were more interested in the gap of perception than in the film itself. We heard Huang Shuqin the film's director was giving a talk on campus a couple of days later, so we decided to go. It would be intriguing to find out what the director had intended the film to be. The auditorium was packed. Huang turned out to be a pleasant, solid-looking woman in her fifties with a commanding voice. Her talk focused mainly on how she'd created characters and how she had chosen the actors. Cai Ming she had intended to be extraordinary but not superhuman, and that's why she gave him the ability to maintain presence of mind when others got confused, but also included a scene of him getting drunk to make his character plausible. But her most difficult decision was in choosing an ugly actor, rather than a typically handsome one, to play the role. That came as a big surprise to us.

Finally she got around to the female characters. She began by defending the actress who played Cal Ming's fiancée. Those who criticized her failed to understand that the fiancée was a secondary, passive character, included in order to highlight the active nature of Wang Weidan. Huang called Wang an "instinctual" woman. Wang was not too intelligent or educated. But she had a good nature, and her love for Cai Ming was genuine. Her story showed how even ordinary people can deepen their own self-understanding. Cal Ming understood Wang Weidan and helped her transfer her feelings from him to the collective unit. That was why she appeared in the last scene as his secretary. This was another surprise. We hadn't realized the vague, well-dressed clerk hovering around Cai Ming in the last scene had been Wang Weidan. Wang's instinctual nature, continued Huang, had positive elements because passionate impulses in women should not be condemned. But Wang had to learn how to turn selfish desire to more productive ends. Secondly, added Huang, Wang Weidan had taken a big step in the struggle for a personal choice in marriage. She rejected the young production chief, even though he had already given her parents a color television set as a "feudal" bride price. Wang had genuinely emancipated herself and contributed to the modernization of the individual.

Huang's gloss was plausible, but not convincing to us. Movies communicate messages through complex cultural codes. But they are composed of images very different from literature. Huang's intention turned out to be quite different from what we had expected. But our original objection still existed. Those were sexual images we had seen. It did not matter that Huang never once referred to having sexualized her "instinctual" character or that the Chinese audience didn't see any sex in the film. From a longrange point of view, sexualized clichés borrowed from the West will alter Chinese perception.

Huang had a great deal to say about the engineer's wife, but none of it had anything to do with the issue Holly had raised. Huang said she had intended the character to illustrate the worst problem young couples face — the childcare problem. Even when the young generation acts selflessly, the irresolvable problem of childcare interferes with their work and domestic happiness. Huang repeated the contention that the childcare problem affected both the husband and the wife. The only solution was "to probe around for a gap," to find a quasi-legal justification for letting the twins' mother go home on extended leave. Huang remained blandly unconcerned with the problem of sexual equality her solution had raised. She said only that she had made a special effort to create realistic female characters. She admitted some of her inspiration came from Western film history. In the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood turned out fabulous movies starring unrealistically beautiful women, she argued. Neorealism after World War II reversed that tendency. The new directors in China could learn a lot about female characters from European neorealism. That was as close to a discussion of feminine image in CONTEMPORARIES as Huang got that night.

We thought we were beginning to understand CONTEMPORARIES. But we also noticed some people in the audience getting restless during Huang's talk. A few got up and left. So later we caught up with one of our students and asked him why so many people left early. "Some people left," he replied, "because they wanted Huang to gossip more about the lives of the movie stars, and they thought the lecture was too serious, boring." He just thought she didn't have anything to say. This student criticized the character of Cai Ming. No man who had lived through the turmoil of the GPCR would ever have been so defiant and obvious. The GPCR made people very cautious. Real "contemporaries" scheme, maneuver and strategize to avoid direct confrontations with problems. Cai Ming was a false, unbelievable character. In fact, he thought the whole movie was phony and second-rate.

A number of students asked us why we were so interested in this particular film. We decided to give them a copy of what we had written about it. They apparently circulated it around, because we soon started getting all sorts of responses. One woman walked up to Tani and told her bluntly she found the quality of our perception disappointing. It showed her how foreign we still were. We had not understood how difficult balancing work and family is for Chinese woman. If we were more aware and sensitive, we would not object to the twins' mother wanting to go home. Several people said they were a little shocked at all the emphasis we had put on sexuality. They really didn't see it. Finally, a very well-informed man came around to say he'd considered this letter peculiar when he first read it. Then he heard from a friend from another university that a similar story was circulating at his campus. A foreign expert there took her visiting parents to see CONTEMPORARIES, and all three of them had the same reaction to the film as we did. Our student wanted to say the entire round robin made him realize that even sexuality differed from culture to culture.

The CONTEMPORARIES episode taught us a number of things. We try as hard as we can to see life around us as the people who live it. Sometimes we fail because we don't see enough. Other times we don't understand what we are looking at. But there are obstacles which just cannot be gotten around. Like everyone else, we have immediate responses to certain things, like sexuality. There is a limit to how much we can submerge our own perspective into the Chinese norm. We will simply never stop seeing sex, because we are post-Freudians. This leads to the second barrier. We may learn to sympathize and accurately report Chinese norms of perception, but that doesn't mean we always agree with them. We will always filter them through ourselves and write in order to explain Chinese experiences and our encounters in U.S. terms. Our students only know us as good teachers able to explain the United States in Chinese terms. This led them to overestimate how "Chinese" we have become. It's not possible to become the other. We feel more and more divided.


A couple of Thursdays ago, we saw a movie called KE CONG HE LAI (WHENCE CAME THE GUESTS) about some foreigners at the Canton Trade Fair. Most of the assorted Europeans, Arabs and Overseas Chinese in the film are innocent business people. But a few have come to do some industrial espionage. The object of the story is for the police chief and his upright female detective to discover which foreigner is the spy. Clearly a B-minus movie. We had no trouble anticipating the outcome of the plot. But we learned a lot from the way it presented Chinese stereotypes of non-Chinese.

The tall, thin, Scot lecher, McGregor, whose sexy secretary won't sleep with him, is the chief suspect. Our Scot foreign expert, Nelson, didn't like the character at all. Oddly, McGregor spent much of his time either working too hard or drinking too much. Kathy falls in love at first sight with another man and immediately dances with him (gasps of horror from the audience!), and later kisses and hugs him (more gasps). Tani felt quite offended. The Overseas Chinese all had oily, long hair and connived endlessly to carry out their sneaky capitalist deals. Don felt unjustly insulted. Fortunately for international detente, all the foreigners, though truly inscrutable, turned out to be innocent, the culprits being Guomindang agents sent by Taiwan.

Filmic stereotype give clues to how a people categorize outsiders. And foreigners are very strange to the Chinese, since there are so few of them in China. We also suspect that the tendency to stereotype might be exaggerated in China, since manners, costume and action are all much more conventionalized than in the U.S., permitting less individual variation.

* * *

Shanghai has no 24-hour television, no movie retrospectives, no music in the parks, few coffee houses or watering holes. We joke with Valerie about all the things that aren't here, because she's used to Paris. We also realize not having things makes what is here very precious. Books, movies and conversations mean more. Coming from over-abundance, we never had to consider this problem. It's very painful to think about. A group of students gave us a winter scarf and a summer fan, saying these tokens would insure that all year round we would not forget them. As life gets more comfortable, it loses this intensity: we can have dozens of scarves and fans in San Francisco. But intensity cannot justify poverty and hardship. This simple truism hurts us. Many of the people we've met have a depth only suffering brings. The depth still doesn't forgive the pain. And many suffer without learning.

Even so, when something really good comes along it causes an incredible intellectual excitement. Like when we saw BEI AIXING YI-WANG DI JEU-LUO (THE CORNER FORGOTTEN BY LOVE), not only the best film we've seen in China, but one of the best we have ever seen. The story, about the lives of a poor peasant family from 1949 to the present, was filmed on location in Sichuan by Zhang Qi and Li Yalin. The central interest was a romance between two young peasants who fall in love and sleep together, although they cannot marry because her parents are so poor they've been forced to sell her to another family. When the villagers discover the lovers, they beat and imprison the boy. The girl drowns herself. The film presents the action through the eyes of her younger sister. Woven into the narrative via an elaborate system of flashbacks (a favorite technique among young filmmakers currently), the moral issue of peasant poverty was never resolved. Many people in the audience cried. Our students went back to see the film over and over again. For days after we discussed the film with students, and everyone we met, since they all seemed to have an opinion. People analyzed and reanalyzed every aspect of the film, its symbolism, the characters, the intent of the filmmakers, the political issue of poverty in China. Somehow people here seem to have more time to think.


1. XIAO JIE was subsequently released in an edited version which offered only a single outcome.

2. The Four Modernizations campaign was instituted after Mao's death and the end of the GPCR (i.e., the fall of the "Gang of Four") to reinforce the Chinese Communist Party's renewed interest in industrial and technological development. This includes a commitment to a more active trading relation with Western countries, e.g., the U.S. This policy, as is evidenced here, has also had its ideological ramifications.

3. This refers to the fact that Barlow and Lowe originally developed this manuscript from a series of letters written during their stay in the PRC.