Chinese cinema

by Gina Marchetti

from Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 85-86
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1989, 2006

In JUMP CUT, No. 31, we presented a special section of current scholarship on film in the People's Republic of China (PRC). This section offers several articles which take up and expand on some of the issues dealt with in that issue. [That issue is still available for $3.00 ($3.50 in Canada and abroad).]

Several factors have led to the present availability of materials on Chinese film. Since Nixon visited the PRC in 1972, official U.S. relations with China have grown warmer. As a result, filmmakers like Xie Jin have had the opportunity to visit the U.S. and scholars like Tani Barlow, Don Lowe, George Semsel, Chris Berry, and myself have had the chance to go to China. Film exchanges have become more frequent, and PRC films pop up more and more often in both U.S. and European festivals.

Concurrently with this increase in scholarly and artistic exchanges, Chinese film production, since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, has also steadily grown. Therefore, there are more films to be seen and analyzed. And these current films stand in marked contrast to those produced by earlier generations of Chinese filmmakers. Ambiguous, provocative, and clearly influenced by Western modernism, films by the so-called "Fifth Generation" of Chinese filmmakers (e.g., Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, etc.) have captured awards and critical attention internationally.

Perhaps because of this new visibility of current films and filmmakers, there seems also to be an increased interest in the history of Chinese film. Much of this historical work is of particular interest to Marxist film scholars. A great deal of Chinese filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s features the cinematic expression of Chinese critical realism, a type of left aesthetic perhaps best known in the West through the writings of Lu Xun. In his article, "Poisonous Weeds or National Treasures? — The 1930s Leftist Cinema in China and Cross-Cultural Criticism," Chris Berry discusses the political controversy surrounding these films after Liberation in 1949 and attempts to place them historically, culturally, as well as politically within the broader framework of international oppositional cinema practices.

Although early Soviet film and Marxist filmmaking in Latin America as well as other parts of the Third World have received quite a bit of attention from film scholars, post-1949 revolutionary Chinese film has gotten very little critical attention, with the exception of Jay Leyda's Dianying (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972) and the occasional article, until very recently. The period between 1949 and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 saw the development of a uniquely Chinese socialist film aesthetic combining Soviet, U.S., European, as well as Asian cinematic influences in an attempt to represent the Revolution to the Chinese populus. To anyone interested in oppositional and revolutionary film practices, the case of early PRC filmmaking raises vitally important ideas regarding socialist realism and the nature of radical film form, the representation of gender within Marxist film practices, the nature of popular political filmmaking, among other issues.

In order to better understand this era, the career of the director Xie Jin provides an interesting case in point. Beginning filmmaking in the 1950s, Xie Jin, who is still very active today, has contributed to every stage of the development of film art in the People's Republic. My article on Xie's TWO STAGE SISTERS situates that film within the director's overall oeuvre as well as within the history of Chinese film. Da Huo'er's interview with Xie Jin highlights the tremendous political and cultural changes Xie has witnessed.

Still controversial today, Xie un links the pre- and post-Cultural Revolution eras. Although always interested in marrying the melodrama with political content, Xie Jin's films have changed dramatically from his pre-1966 tales of women finding personal liberation through revolutionary struggle to his recent work which has been critical of Party policy during the Anti-Rightist campaign of the 1950s (LEGEND OF TIANYAN MOUNTAIN) and the Cultural Revolution (HYBISCUS TOWN). He has also made the virulently patriotic and openly nationalistic GARLANDS AT THE FOOT OF THE MOUNTAIN. However, today, Xie Jin is not criticized for the political content of his work, but, rather, for his use of melodrama, for exaggerating emotions, and using character types which some critics have seen as "Confucian" in their unambiguous devotion to traditional virtues. In other words, Xie is condemned for being "old-fashioned," for not being modern.[1][open notes in new window]

This controversy surrounding Xie Jin and the changes in his work as well as the provocative nature of the young Fifth Generation filmmakers' projects actually point to far broader transformations within Chinese politics, art, culture, and everyday life. Even twelve years after the Cultural Revolution, Chinese intellectual circles still reel from the turmoil of that period and the letdown from the euphoria of Maoist idealism and the purposefulness of Mao's continuing revolution. Artists and intellectuals have attempted to fill this vacuum with a fascination with all things Western from technology and private enterprise to modernist art, a flirtation with both traditional and imported religions, an interest in Chinese history, as well as a call for Chinese nationalism above Party loyalty. In this period of ideological crisis, film opens up an avenue for a better understanding of the way a post-revolutionary society deals with sweeping social, political, and cultural changes.

In addition to Da Huoer's interview with Xie Jin, George Semsel's interview with Teng Wenji provides some valuable insights into the current state of Chinese film production as well as intellectual and artistic life. Taken from Semsel's book, Chinese Film: The State of the Art in the People's Republic (NY: Praeger, 1987), this interview shows the changes which have taken place in the Chinese film industry over the last few years through the career of one of the PRC's more controversial directors.

Perhaps the most telling piece on current conditions in the PRC, however, is Tani Barlow and Donald Lowe's article on the media. In 1981 and 1982, Barlow and Lowe taught English language and U.S. culture at Shanghai Teacher's College. There, they were able to observe the rapid changes taking place in Chinese mass media as well as their students' responses to these changes. This excerpt from their book, Teaching China's Lost Generation: Foreign Experts in the People's Republic of China (San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals, Inc., 1987), shows the way in which the Chinese media audience is adapting to and reworking cultural influences from the West.

To many, who may have been moved by the vehemence of the Red Guards marching in Tiananmen Square in the late-1960s or Mao's swimming the Yangtse River, China today may pose a problem. With Maoist idealism gone and the pragmaticism of Deng Xiaoping's "Four Modernizations" on the current agenda, is China still a socialist culture? Does the study of contemporary Chinese film offer anything to ongoing Marxist film scholarship? Certainly, as in the past, Chinese filmmakers are still wrestling with the issue of their own identity and looking for what it means to be a Chinese filmmaker in a world dominated by Hollywood and a socialist filmmaker at a time of sweeping social and political changes. To those of us outside of China committed to social change and oppositional media work, we can only learn from this search.


1. Pie Kairui, "Confucianist or Realist? — The Xie Jin Debate," China Screen, No. 1, 1987, p. 12.

A note on romanization of Chinese: Over the years, scholars and linguists have used several methods of transcribing Chinese into the Roman alphabet. The Wade-Giles system (still used in Taiwan) remains the best know. However, pinyin, used in the People's Republic, is gradually replacing it. In addition, many commonly used names for people and places (e.g., Canton) really do not fit into either system because they bear little or no relation to the Mandarin pronunciation. Canton becomes Guangzhou in pinyin. In this special section, we've left Romanization to the authors' discretion. Most use pinyin, while sometimes preferring other renderings for more commonly used names and places and peple (e.g., Mao Tse-Tung for Mao Zedong, Peking for Beijing). We hope this doesn't create confusion for the reader. Please note that sometimes the same film appears with several slightly different titles (e.g., WREATHS AT THE FOOT OF THE MOUNTAIN or GARLANDS AT THE FOOT OF THE MOUNTAIN).

Distribution: For video copies of Chinese films write to China Video Movies Distributing Co., Inc., 1718 Redwood City, CA, 94063. (415) 366-2424. Also many Chinese embassies and consulates have some films and videos available gratis.