Media in China

by Tani E. Barlow and Donald M. Lowe

from Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 117-121
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1989, 2006

The media are not neutral. Not only because different cultures load them with a variety of signs and images, but even more because every culture uses the same media to different ends. In the previous issue we excerpted an article from our book, Teaching China's Lost Generation, to chronicle our impressions of film in China. Our book is a journal of our teaching experiences, based on long letters we wrote home, and will be published by Praeger in the near future. Here we introduce a discussion of opera, drama, dance and film, and show how the Chinese tradition of narrativity affects all of them.

* * *

We saw a Peking opera last week, based on an episode from the traditional epic, Water Margin, concerned primarily with military strategy. Song Jiang and his bandit heroes try three times to storm a nearby village and rescue their comrades. When the first two plans fall through, Song loses heart and delivers a moving aria, expressing his grief at having failed to come up with a winning strategy. Strategy plays an important role in China's other major epic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and obviously reinforces the importance of heavy plotting in narrative. It rebounds into social relations, too, since people still commonly refer to plot elements when they explain personal motives.

Strategy and heavy plotting also help explain the current craze here for the Western detective novel. Many students have already told us they like detective novels better than any other kind of Western fiction. Partly that is because they have trouble identifying the Christian symbolism and purely Western themes. But their own narrative tradition reinforces their preferences, naturally. Basically, they like reading plots. The longer and more intricate, the better. According to one man, students particularly like "clever strategies which lead to happy endings."

The three one-act ballets we saw the other night at the Shanghai Municipal theatre reflected this modem concern with heavily plotted narrative. All three were adaptations of stories by Lu Xun, the country's most celebrated writer of the century. Since Lu Xun wrote during the first modern revolt against China's traditional literary culture and encouraged writers to draw on Western conventions, it was only appropriate that our audience be made up primarily of foreigners and foreign experts.

Before each ballet-story, a man in a Western suit, tie and all, appeared on stage and gave an account of what the ballet meant. He left nothing to individual imagination, since conventionally plots and character portraits ought to render only one, "correct," reading. "Soul" based on Lu Xun's "Autumn Sacrifices," was a fantasy about a woman who dreams the ghosts of her two husbands pursue her through hell. The second ballet consisted of a trite, impressionistic sentimental romance, totally out of character with Lu Xun's caustic spirit and poorly choreographed. It was as though in moving away from representational mime the dancers had lost inspiration.

"The True Story of Ah Q," based on the author's greatest work, combined Western and Chinese dance techniques beautifully, and leaned heavily on ballet mime, clarifying everything, leaving nothing to the imagination. But since the twists and turns of the anti-hero Ah Q's personal history communicate the idiocy and defensiveness of pre-revolutionary Chinese, the literalness of the ballet's plot intensified the performance's effect. Of the three we vastly preferred "Ah Q."

We were fascinated with the ballets because they helped us understand more about how China adapts alien art forms--in this case one from Russia. The first two pieces were merely derivative and forgettable. They could have been choreographed anywhere, in any not very excellent ballet company. "Ah Q" interested us because it combined elements of both cultures, while maintaining a Chinese emphasis on narrative plotting used to communicate the psychology of character through strict attention to action. A sophisticated Western audience might find the performance too old-fashioned and literal. But within the cultural context, and as an exploration of traditional narrative practice, we enjoyed it very much.

We still haven't seen anything in Shanghai as excellent as The White Haired Girl, which we saw on U.S. television years ago. It was good for precisely the reasons we like "The True Story of Ah Q." Mentioning our opinion to Lao Yang, our coordinator, involved us in a terrible faux pas. She winced, then said in her blunt, friendly way that we had better keep this opinion to ourselves. During the GPCR, Jiang Qing banned all but eight plays. Tickets kept being issued and cadres began forcing people to sit through performances over and over again. No one ever wants to hear the names of those operas mentioned again.

* * *

The constant cross-pollination that has gone on historically between traditional opera and fiction showed up in the modern performance we just saw at the Shanghai Academy of Dramatic Arts. The graduating class gave a rendition of Ba Jin's novel Family. In its original novel-form the story became one of the best loved of the May Fourth period (1919-1930). This was the period which established the colloquial language novel. Ba Jin is still alive, in spite of what he suffered during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR). The performance intrigued us. Not only various plays, but a number of movies have been made from the original novel; so everyone we talked to was comparing the play to the movies. Literate people all know the plots and characters as well as they know the stories in a traditional novel like Dream of the Red Chamber, an earlier novel also about the decline of a great family. Don remembers very clearly reading the novel as a boy in Shanghai in the 1930s. The fatalism of the novel had been an unquestioned part of life in his social class then.

The story is set in the 1920s and criticizes the old Chinese family system. Subplots abound. The main line of the novel follows three brothers of one branch, much in the style of Turgenev. Actually Family is only one volume of a much longer story cycle. The adaptation we saw was not too successful, but we enjoyed it for other reasons. It intrigued us to hear the older, May Fourth language--Chinese with Westernized sentence structure--spoken on stage. In line with the language, the actors gave half operatic, half naturalistic performances. Main characters acted in heavily romantic, expressive modes and the minor roles as simple caricatures. But mostly we felt the vitality of the narrative, which still found viewers and readers fifty years and much controversy after being written.

Western style theatre entered China during the May Fourth period. And the only reason it survived the GPCR is that the film industry refused to let go of Western conventions like conversational spoken dialogue. But even now many people prefer local opera to formal, Western style proscenium-style theatre. Among the aficionados, Arthur Miller's well-publicized trip to the PRC after the GPCR, to promote literary and other cultural exchanges, boosted official support for Western theatre.

Several days ago we saw a performance of his The Crucible. We walked into a full house. No one seemed any more formally dressed than usual. We have trouble distinguishing people by the way they dress, but it seemed to us that there were working people in the audience, though our students told us tickets to this play were extremely hard to come by. The lights went out and the curtain rose on a well-designed Western-style stage setting. On walked a group of actors all very convincingly Caucasian with the help of putty noses and blond wigs. Certain Chinese cultural circles are convinced that Arthur Miller's anti-McCarthy era drama has significance in their own post-GPCR milieu. Maybe because the cast included some of the best Western style actors in the country, we saw what they meant. The production was heavily stylized. Actors delivered lines as though they had rehearsed them with a metronome. Once we got over this stagy delivery style peculiar to Chinese theatre we found ourselves carried away by the dramatic tension.

But the audience didn't seem to be reacting the way Western audiences do. People kept making comments about the acting, sometimes very loudly just like the Peking opera audience had several days ago. It reminded us of a Kabuki audience in Japan. There people talk, cheer, eat, walk around and generally view the "play" as a spectacle, ignoring the dramatic element which so thoroughly dominates all Western theatre--the illusion of the proscenium arch. This audience did not seem to want to mistake the events going on the stage with real events. Dramatic mimesis, or the theatrical effect which turns playacting into a shadowy reality by silencing the audience, had no place in the production. After the show the applause seemed lukewarm and we couldn't tell whether that too was convention or disappointment.

* * *

We went to a movie, ZHONG SHEN (THE CHIME OF THE CLOCK), adapted from the award-winning short story of 1979 "Qiao changzhang-ren ji" ("The Story of Factory Manager Qiao's Assuming Responsibility"). The movie was about factory management after the GPCR. The hero, a responsible through not flawless cadre, volunteers to try to reform a failing plant, and the plot follows his efforts to rationalize management and resolve worker dissatisfaction.

In one scene, factory people watch the opera Qin Ziang Lian (The Fragrant Lotus), which tells how the righteous Judge Bao Gong resolves a particularly difficult case. Bao Gong is forced to arrest the son-in-law of the emperor. This man abandoned his first wife and tried to have her killed so he could marry the princess. The first wife appeals for justice. The emperor's mother and the new wife-princess warn the judge he had better not proceed. At that point, Bao Gong sings a famous aria in which he resolves to carry out his duty even if it costs him his office, and, possibly, his life. Somewhat later in the film, the hero repeats the aria to himself as he prepares to institute an unpopular yet necessary production reform in the factory.

We notice this re-legitimation of old culture everywhere. Students and friends love to point to the revival of popular Chinese arts, like opera and painting. Increasingly we realize the extent to which the resurgence has official sanction.

We thought the movie was pretty critical. But several people laughed at us when we told them we had enjoyed it. Things are much, much worse than that, they assured us.

Along with the resurgence of the old culture we've noticed a definite rise in the level of Han patriotism promoted through the media. This came up obviously in FENG-LIU QIAN-GU (RENOWN THROUGH THE AGES). We had a hard time understanding the film's dialogue because actors actually spoke in classical Chinese and poetry. Sometimes translations into colloquial language appeared at the bottom of the screen and we noticed most of the audience had to rely on the subtitles, too.

The plot concerned a famous patriot and his wife, both poets, who lived at the end of the Song dynasty. Dramatic action revolved around the old Chinese triangle--the mother blames the wife for the husband's patriotic activities. Even though they love each other passionately, the couple are also models of filial piety; they give in to the mother's demand that they divorce. Both remarry. They meet accidentally years later in the garden courtyard they once shared. The husband cannot suppress his feelings, and after writing a poem on the garden wall, he runs away. The former wife dies soon after. The movie version ended with her death. But historically the male poet finally left his parents and the second wife they had selected for him, to fight against the invading northern barbarians. The film was an interesting use of history. Actually, aristocratic Chinese of the period overwhelmingly ignored the barbarian threat. They huddled in their elegant southern capital until the invading Mongols simply ran right over them.

We disliked the film, particularly the character of the hero. The revival of filial virtue and family obedience made us extremely uncomfortable, as did the sacrifice of marital happiness to parents' needs. Over the years we have seen many films from the PRC and always preferred the modem heroes whose loyalty lies with their work unit. In spite of our reservations about the regressive social theme, we noticed that everyone else liked the patriotic parts immensely.

Photography is the rage now. Everybody tries to rent or borrow a camera at least once, in order to photograph family and relatives. But we've also met a growing number of young men all trying to parlay their skill into a serious hobby, so they can show their work in the competitive photo contests. We saw one such contest in Suzhou last weekend; another is going on here at the campus right now. Prizewinning photographs fall into two general categories, either insistently perspectival shots of natural scenery, or simple translations of conventional Chinese landscape painting into a photographic medium. Some high-speed action shots of dances and athletes show up in second or third place. But the only thing we never find are candid snapshots. Without exception Chinese viewers expect photos to be posed, formal and public. The emphasis on photo-landscape parallels 19th-century Western photographic history to some degree, which also began by imitating painting conventions. As the camera pushes its intrusive way into popular perception, current photographic styles will inevitably change. In the meantime, photographers continue taking formal landscapes that look like painting and people "sit" for posed portraits.

In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag said the photographic image breaks reality into pieces. The Chinese are still resisting that pressure. They try to put as much of themselves into a photo as possible, and they don't like tourists to snap up little pieces of the whole. We always ask politely for permission to photograph. Sometimes we get it, but more often people politely turn us down. One time in Suzhou we spotted some peasant women in colorful headkerchieves at the entrance of a garden. We asked for permission, but the women didn't understand standard Chinese. A man appeared. "Why do you want to photograph them?" he asked. "Because they are beautiful," we replied. "They are not beautiful," he said unbelievingly. "They are just peasants." You have in that remark the usual urban-rural opposition, but also cross-cultural perceptions of beauty, and what ought to be photographed.

How a people communicates meaning differs culturally. In China, the written graph has always dominated and controlled meaning, how people understand, think and communicate. Modernity has introduced the image. Right now, the image is a simple affair, a photograph which merely captures the likeness of family and scenic nature. But in the form of the advertising image, invested with all sorts of modem power, it can overthrow older perceptual categories. Since the end of the GPCR, more advanced, potentially dynamic, advertising has proliferated. How this new form of communication will affect the older, ideographic culture is a fascinating problem to watch.

Instead of the rigid, severe political billboards of ten years ago, a pretty young woman's face surrounded by a few butterflies and bees endorses soap, face-cream or toothpaste. A progressive couple holding a beautiful child proclaim the virtues of the new family planning policy. These advertising images merely reinforce the verbal message. We see them as straightforward and naive. But people have already started complaining about their overtly seductive messages. Chinese ads haven't yet started juxtaposing or contrasting one image with another, because audiences here do not expect the mixed, loaded interplay of meaning Western consumer societies invest in commodity advertising. You do not find things like the famous Levy's ryebread ad which justaposed a picture of bread with the image of an Indian chief, suggesting all Americans should eat "Jewish" rye. There aren't any ads where a sign and a different image are linked to form a third meaning. Since Chinese consumers have as yet only been exposed to one-level advertising, where image is properly contexted by the sign, those who read Western magazines find themselves extremely vulnerable to the flashy, sophisticated, semi-surrealist ads.

Chinese brand names have developed without pressure from the west. In the United States, corporate names sometimes attach to particular commodities, Ike "Coke" or "Frigidaire." We also have animal brands which enhance the image of a commodity. A man who drives a Mustang or a Cougar gets the sexual power of the giant cat or wild horse, along with the car. In China, animal brands are common, but they don't seem to enhance the intrinsic quality of the product. Most Shanghainese prefer Flying Pigeon bicycles over other available brands such as Flying Deer, Sea Lion and Phoenix. Phoenix has been the symbol of fortune for millenia, so it shows up on many other commodities, like cigarettes. We use a Flying Fish typewriter, but there are also Flying Fish handkerchieves. Since people love butterflies, they can buy Butterfly cosmetics, and Butterfly sewing machines. Traditionally Chinese have conferred special meaning to everything double, so we find Double Butterfly jackets, Double Horse textiles, and Twin Cat blankets. Panda wine and Panda condensed milk seem to borrow product recognition from the characteristic Chinese animal. White evidently enhances a brand, so there is a White Cat washing detergent, White Rabbit cream candies, and Big White Rabbit powdered milk. We've also come across Gold Cock biscuits, Seagull shampoo, Peacock socks, Bee and Honey soap, and Lion toothpaste. Our particular favorite would never sell in the U.S.: White Elephant flashlights.

There are several ways to explain China's heavy reliance on animal brand names. Since the state rather than corporations control commodity circulation, one wouldn't expect heavy reliance on sex to sell products. But Chinese thinking has always drawn correspondences between animals and human activities. In tai-ji quan (Chinese shadow boxing) you part the wild horse's mane, stoop so the white crane can spread its wings, grasp the tail of the bird, and so on. Brand names fall back on a cultural reservoir of these images, drawn from folklore, language association and poetry. The important difference, so far as we can tell, is that these images do not attempt directly to enhance the value of a commodity or to sexualize it. You don't drink Big White Rabbit milk in order to look like one or to breed like one.

Contemporary Chinese filmic image also comes framed inside the older, more familiar, fictional narrative. Films have big plots gradually unfolding, with definitive, moral messages. The audience transfers its novel-reading habits to the screen, and expects a film to be like a novel, the more subplots the better. Coming from the U.S., we know the filmic image's potential to break older, narrative frameworks. But so far, Chinese films don't have the sheer visual impact Hollywood delivers. Someone we know attended a special screening of Francis Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW at the Shanghai Movie Studio and was absolutely horrified by the visual intensity of the film. Generally, Chinese filmgoers expect the plot to unfold in one, forward-going direction. They find excessive use of flashbacks upsetting. We are accustomed to Hollywood films and tend to find Chinese movies too slow and not visually stimulating enough, precisely because they still subordinate the essential property of film, the image, to the older literary conventions of novel and story. Chinese film reduces cinematographic dynamics to literary narrative.

Television is the most popular luxury in China today. Since Chinese TV production remains fairly limited and studios do not shoot enough footage to fill two nightly channels, plus weekend daytime TV, it uses a lot of foreign footages dubbed in Chinese. The evening program begins at 7 with domestic news; a person sits in front of a map of the PRC and reads the news out aloud. This is followed by fifteen minutes of international news, using footages supplied by the information offices of Western governments and Western TV stations. At 7:30 you often get Western documentaries. One night we saw a German film about horse breeding. This is followed by the Chinese equivalent of Western soap opera, maybe the story of an ideal courtship between a factory worker and a PLA officer. Another night we saw an excellent Peking opera based on an episode from Journey to the West, a traditional epic about the adventures of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims to India.

Recently a channel has been running a very popular Japanese samurai film and a Hong Kong gung-fu serial. Both shows are a lot more violent than Chinese fares, and some Shanghai parents have started worrying about the effect on their kids. But obviously Chinese television has not taken over and dominated channels of communication as has happened in the U.S. Nor do advertisements play a central role. U.S. TV's most effective programming is the expensive commercial with its speedy, surrealist montage. Chinese commercials, sedate and straightforward, have a long way to go, before they shape popular imagination the way Western ads do.

So far, communication of photo, advertising, filmic and television images has not overturned the tradition of the narrativity of the ideograph. In America, publicity image sustained by corporate capitalism has all but taken over the definition of reality. Chinese still prefer the formal portrait to the photo snapshot, the unilevel reinforcement of advertising sign by image, the straightforward re-broadcasting of other media on the TV screen. We suspect Chinese image communication will never match America's powerful, multi-perspectival media, partly because the ideograph, a combination of picture and sign, has more capacity to resist photo image than the abstract alphabet, and partly because narrative is fundamental to the PRC as a means of communicating political ideology.

Monday evening, we went to a modern dance-drama called Feng-ming Qi-shan (The Phoenix Returns to Mount Qi), based on a legend about the fall of the Shang and the rise of the Zhou dynasty in ancient China. The performance combined many styles, including Western ballet, modern dance, and a little traditional folk dance. As usual, dances used representational pantomime to act out the heavily plotted narrative. We didn't enjoy it at first, but after a while the narrative pulled us in and we ended up enjoying several of the routines. The rest of the audience sat in enraptured trance, thoroughly enjoying this innovative theatre, forbidden just a few years ago. Except Lao Gu, the college driver, a lanky, slow-moving balding man with a sweet, shy smile and a heavy Shanghai accent, who is a Chinese opera buff. He listens to the radio broadcasts in the car and sings along with the arias. Lao Gu kept reading the program notes, trying to follow this plot. Then he discovered a program ad taken out by the Shanghai People's Television Factory.

"What is this page of advertising doing in the theatre program?" he grumbled to us. For him, realities are consistent and self-contained. No connection yet exists between television and dance-drama, or the dance troupe and the Shanghai People's Television Factory.


1. THE WHITE-HAIRED GIRL was based on the classic revolutionary play written in Yenan during WWII, which became one of the few "model" operas to be performed in various media (including ballet) during the GPCR. It recounts the tale of a peasant woman driven to live in the mountains like an animal; her suffering concretized by her prematurely white hair. Eventually, the Red Army arrives to turn the tables on the wicked landlords who drove her to this fate.

2. PLA = People's Liberation Army.