Entering Middle Age
China's urban intellectuals

by Mark I. Pinsky

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, p. 54
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

Peking: From time to time a movie will so precisely capture the emotional moment of a generation that it becomes not only a film but an anthem, much like THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and THE GRADUATE. For urban intellectuals of China, WHEN ONE ENTERS MIDDLE AGE is such a picture.

Last year 112 feature films were produced in the Middle Kingdom and 29 billion tickets were sold. Of all these pictures, a spare, depressing movie (also translated simply ENTERING MIDDLE AGE) with an exceptionally low budget — even by Chinese standards — shot in and around the capitol, has gripped this city like no film of recent memory. Already it has won the three major film awards given in the People's Republic: the GOLDEN ROOSTER, selected by the industry; the HUNDRED FLOWERS, based on a movie magazine poll of millions of fans; and a special citation given by the Ministry of Culture.

Based on a controversial novella by Shen Rong, MIDDLE AGE focuses on the angst and material privations of average intellectuals, and its power lies in the very ordinariness of its protagonist, (In China, anyone who has graduated from high school and holds down a white collar job is considered an intellectual,) Through a series of bedside flashbacks, the film tells the story of a dedicated, 42-year-old eye surgeon who nearly works herself to death, in this case, from a heart attack.

However, Dr. Lu Wenting is no Communist Camille. A gifted opthamologist who is said not to have missed a day's work, neither she nor her metallurgist husband are members of the party, nor did either suffer greatly during the Cultural Revolution. The couple's young son and small daughter exhibit no great abilities or disabilities. Their problems are common, if not universal. The family, even on two salaries, does not make enough money. They all live in a room-and-a-half, cold water dwelling with an outdoor toilet across the courtyard. They have no sofa, no wardrobe, and only one desk which all must jockey for use. Most of all, the career of each parent saps the time and energy they feel they owe their children.

 "I only pay attention to my work," Lu admits to her understanding husband, Fu Jiajie, leaving most of the housework and childcare to him. He demurs, "You're a very tough woman. You've made so many sacrifices." After 18 years on the job, her monthly salary is $28, which is why, her boss observes, "People say better to be a barber with a razor than a surgeon with a scalpel."

Professionally, Lu is blocked by the sclerotic bureaucracy at her hospital. She is still officially classified as an "intern," despite the fact that an administrator volunteers that based on her ability and skill, Lu should be a department head by now. Inside the crowded facility, the old Rockefeller-funded hospital now called Capital, all of the shortcomings of socialized medicine are revealed. A high party cadre receives the same quality of care but gets much more respect and personal attention, right down to the large black car which chauffeurs his wife to the hospital for visits. When Lu's sick daughter wants to recuperate at home with her mother rather than at the hospital's daycare center, the doctor first calls her husband — who is tied up in a meeting — and then hesitates, torn by visions of the crowded waiting room filled with longsuffering patients with correctable problems.

Even when Lu herself is felled by a heart attack at home, her husband finds it impossible to get a taxi or ambulance to take her to her own hospital. There is also a fair rendering of the pervasive cynicism and disdain, voiced openly by people in China toward officious party cadres and relatives who are used to abusing their positions. Before her husband's cataract surgery, the cadre's wife asks the hospital administrator if Lu Wenting is not "a very ordinary doctor to operate on a vice minister?" When the operation is a success, the older woman gives the opthamologist a pep talk on joining the party. She urges Lu to have faith that the promises of a materially better life for intellectuals of her generation will be carried out. As she leaves, the hospital administrator describes her as "just an old lady spouting ideology."

Other, smaller touches made almost in passing enrich the tableau: the long, time-consuming lines at fresh vegetable stands; the husband Fu taking off his shirt, revealing a frayed undershirt; the son chalking his regular cloth shoes to make them at least resemble the white gym shoes his teacher requires, but which he knows his family cannot afford.

MIDDLE AGE reflects a major and long overdue policy shift in the People's Republic, nothing less than a much-needed and concrete corrective to Mao Zedong's virulent anti-intellectualism. Although they suffered much less than many party members persecuted both during the "Anti-Rightist Campaign" of the 1950s, Lu and Fu are the kind of people once officially consigned by the Chairman to "the stinking ninth category" of Chinese citizenship. The new line, repeated frequently at the highest levels of the party and the state, is that the country's 25 million intellectuals and, more particularly, the estimated five million between the ages of 36 and 55, constitute "the backbone of our country and society" and are overdue for rewards. Adding an ideological imprimatur, General Secretary Hu Yaobang told the 12th Congress of the Communist Party of China that they are henceforth to be considered "a part of the working class."

There is, it is important to note, very little in the way of altruism in this campaign. One magazine observed:

"Chinese newspapers and magazines have recently been reemphasizing the obvious truth that socialist modernization requires a strong contingent of intellectuals able to master modern science and technology."

In reaction to the campaign, some grumbling has been heard on the part of peasants, industrial workers and recalcitrant Maoists about these pledges of preferential treatment. However, the main criticism comes from the targeted intellectuals themselves, impatient to see the promises translated into action. In MIDDLE AGE this is illustrated when one hospital official — shaken by Lu Wenting's heart attack — is urged to write a report about how his professional staff is overworked and underpaid. "What's the point?" he asks his superior, enumerating other such documents he has composed in the past. "We should have confidence in the party's policy," admonishes the hospital director.

This dialogue is duplicated in Lu Wenting's 12-square-meter home, as the couple hosts a farewell meal for two of the doctor's classmates and colleagues who are about to emigrate to Canada with their daughter. "I have confidence in the Central Committee," says Fu. "But it takes years and years to be carried out at the grass roots," the other husband replies bitterly. "I can't wait," he says, accusing his hosts of contributing to the situation by their passivity.

Despite the quality of MIDDLE AGE and the awards it has won, the film is unlikely to be entered in any international festivals or to be distributed commercially abroad. The reason is not simply that it shows a darker side of life in the People's Republic. Movies depicting the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, some extremely graphic, were made and exhibited in the late 1970's although a few, like Bai Hua's UNREQUITED LOVE, were never released. Nor is it that there is no satisfactory resolution to the problems of the main characters: Lu and Fu agree to muddle on, and the supporting pair emigrates, albeit with great reluctance. The film wouldn't travel well, even if it was permitted to, as its popularity is so closely tuned to conditions inside the country, and the acting and technical levels are only average by Western cinema standards. Audiences abroad may not be as affected as the Chinese doctor, preparing for study in the United States, who said of the film: "That's the story of my life!"

None of this is to say that the domestic reaction to the movie has been universally favorable. One middle-aged intellectual charged that the film was unrealistic because Lu's family had a kitchen area. A more substantive criticism was that the novella — whose 48-year-old author suffered a nervous breakdown and had to leave her job as a scriptwriter at Radio Peking — lost much of its punch in the transition from the printed page to the screen. Some bad reviews have been attributed to dissatisfaction with the film's pessimism among older, higher level party cadres. While a number of regular moviegoers in my office said they didn't want to become depressed by watching their own lives acted out on film, the Cultural Ministry insists that it is pleased — in general — with contemporary films with themes close to real life.

It is interesting that the run of MIDDLE AGE coincided with the opening in Peking of Arthur Miller's Chinese language version of Death of a Salesman on stage. Both clearly demonstrate how decent people can be chewed up by a system, be it socialist or capitalist. One difference, noted in other socialist countries over the years where the play has been performed, is that in the People's Republic, one is not simply discarded when worn out. Not exactly, anyway. According to the Peking gossip mill, which is very accurate, the real doctor on whose life the story is based suffered a stroke subsequent to her heart attack. Because of partial paralysis, she was forced to recuperate for a year before returning to her job at Capital Hospital, even part-time. As a result, the "sympathetic" hospital authorities ruled her ineligible for two automatic salary increases for the period, despite a petition circulated by the staff on her behalf. On the other hand, Shen Rong has been admitted to the Peking branch of the Chinese Writers Association, and the actress who portrayed Lu Wenting has been awarded both the GOLDEN ROOSTER and the HUNDRED FLOWERS.