U.S. movies in China

by Peter Scheckner

from Jump Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 44-49
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1992, 2006

In the Year of the Democratic Movement in the summer, 1988, Ramapo College of New Jersey, a largely suburban, middle-income state college, sent my wife and me to the People's Republic of China to teach for a year in the Beijing Institute of Tourism. This is a small four-year college, one of perhaps six in China, which produces most of the country's tourist guides and hotel administrators.

We were scheduled to return home in August, 1989, but when the shooting began in Tiananmen Square the night of June 3 and into the morning of the following day, we started to pack. Three days after the army moved into Tiananmen, after we'd been properly unnerved by the sight of dead students (not our own), burning military vehicles, and the sight of our U.S. friends fleeing, we left China with our six year old daughter.

We arrived in Beijing with a multi-format VCR, monitor, and camcorder. Against standing regulations to have all videos inspected at the airport, we had in our suitcases about thirty U.S. movies on videotape. We had been assigned to teach a variety of English and communication courses and planned to use feature films. My wife used the camera principally to teach oral and visual communication skills. Her students, the junior class, wrote and performed a series of short videotapes about their lives in China. They sent this "video letter" to our students at Ramapo College, hoping to promote international understanding and communication and waiting for a return letter.

I was to scheduled to teach a junior-level course called American Survey and a senior-level course called Western Culture. I planned to use film as a way of illustrating U.S. and European history and culture. Every week, from the beginning of September through the first two weeks in May, 1989, just before Beijing was placed under martial law and the schools were shut, my senior and junior classes saw a film. A few of the more determined film lovers chose to see these films while their fellow students were on the streets boycotting classes and keeping the army out of the city.

No doubt our students learned a lot about the West, though clearly their perspective was shaped by Hollywood. As for myself, I learned a lot about our Chinese college students, not all of which was pleasant, and most of which highlighted the complexities and contradictions of politics and ideology in China. I learned to take very little at face value about our own assumptions about China and its people as they nervously entered the 1990s.

Because I had been warned that it was forbidden to show scenes involving nudity and any suggestion of sexuality, I took the rather severe and absurd step of censoring the first film, THE ODD COUPLE. When the Jack Lemmon character goes to a bar and sits directly beneath a nearly naked go-go dancer, I leaped in front of the video monitor and explained in hurried and barely coherent English that in China the showing of certain scenes was "against the rules." No one quite knew what I was saying or why I was acting so strangely, but this was my first week teaching in China and maybe the juniors assumed this was the way certain "American" teachers behave. Besides, Chinese students rarely question their teachers' worth or behavior, especially those of the "Foreign Experts."

Nevertheless, after my initial and crude attempt at censorship I ceased blocking the monitor. In CROCODILE DUNDEE the juniors watched, with stoicism, prostitutes fighting with pimps, a transvestite, and some sexual dalliance. After class, the head of the school's Audio/Video office, a retired People's Liberation Army officer who had begun auditing the class, informed me that Chinese students were not allowed to see scenes involving prostitutes or drugs. He did admit, however, that both vices had reappeared in the People's Republic. Thereafter, if I anticipated a scene involving sex, as I did when I showed BIRDY, I simply left the room and came back when the coast was clear.

The movie which elicited the most memorable reaction from the class was THE DEFIANT ONES. The 1958 film by Stanley Kramer portrays the growing friendship between a black and a white convict in the South who initially can't get past their racial hostility. Here, I thought, was a film made for China's youth. I had come to China with the assumption that the Chinese, given their own racial oppression and a revolutionary past, shared my own democratic values about race. To my dismay, however, the juniors were barely been able to contain their laughter throughout the film. The students found most comical the scene where the two men fall into a deep pit at a construction site during a rainstorm and spend a while slipping and sliding around in the mud until they realize that only if they cooperate will they escape. What was it my students found so funny? I asked the juniors to write their reaction to the film. In their papers they wrote they were hoping the men would escape and felt disappointed when they were caught.

So what explained their laughter? I asked an U.S. colleague who had taught the juniors since their freshman year. "Peter," he began in a tone that suggested how naive he thought I was,

"the Chinese are 95% Han. They virtually have no minorities, no immigrants, no races. None of them has ever met a black. They think they are superior to you-a white man-in culture, in civilization, in heritage. Can you imagine how much more superior they feel towards blacks?"

"Then why are we here? Why have they invited so many foreign experts to work in China? Why is the government paying us so much money?"

"Because the Chinese need our technology and our methodology. They'd like your video equipment too if you'd give it to them. They want all the things they didn't get because of colonialism, the Cultural Revolution, and as a result of feudalism."

"But why did my students laugh?"

"Because for them the sight of a black man chained to a white man was an absurdity. Furthermore, most Chinese have absolutely no sympathy for criminals. Criminals are executed sometimes by the thousands every year in China. When a man is arrested in China he is already guilty. There is no question in your students' minds as to the guilt of your two convicts. They laughed because the whole notion of what they were seeing was ridiculous."

"But what about the papers they wrote? They said they were hoping the two men would escape."

"No. They wrote what they did because they're smart. They know what you wanted them to say. They know what to say because their government tells them that racism is not the socialist way, that Africa is a necessary ally for third world countries like China. But they don't believe a single word of it."

I next showed my senior class Franco Zefferelli's ROMEO AND JULIET. While the movie was running, I provided a simple translation because the level of English of this class was lower than that of the juniors. During the scene in which Romeo and Juliet die, kissing and in one another's arms, I kept silent, but a few of the men were giggling and laughing as the doomed lovers expire. This time it wasn't difficult to interpret why they'd had this reaction. It is the rare Chinese film which even hints of sex, and the seniors were embarrassed at the open display of physical affection they were seeing. At the same time the seniors were joyful because Romeo and Juliet have made love successfully against all the odds: the star-crossed lovers are of high school age; their families are feuding; none of their relatives approve of their marriage; and Romeo and Juliet manage on their own to make love and get married, if only for a few days.

Although the seniors were in their early twenties, and Romeo and Juliet are in their teens, the Chinese could identify with Shakespeare's heroes. They do what young Chinese students can only dream about: fall in love, have sex, and elope. However, our students certainly were able to relate to the illicit nature of Romeo and Juliet's relationship, since dating among students in China generally has to be discreet until they graduate. The language of the film is that of Elizabethan England and the movie is set in Renaissance Italy. "What can you young people here in China relate to in this film?" I asked the class. We talked about Chinese parents who oppose their children's marriages. Yes, this happens in rural China, the students admitted, and that peasants occasionally kill each other in feuds.

"What about last week's incident when thousands of Chinese students beat up of some African students in Nanjing?" I ask, still thinking of THE DEFIANT ONES and my conversation with my colleague. "Does this show an intolerance of one group for another — as with the Montagues and the Capulets?"

Two thousand Chinese students marched to the dormitories of the African students in Nanjing University, many demanding the Africans' death. Some Africans had refused to show their student identification cards at a school dance, and they brought as dates two Chinese girls. A fight ensued between Chinese and African students. Police were called in and all the Africans were forcibly removed, some with cattle prods, to a nearby town, for their own safety said the authorities.

Comments from China's 1989 class of tourist guides and hotel administrators and questions by the jiaoshou (professor) follow:

"I don't like blacks. I'm sorry, I just don't like them," said Rocky.

"Why not?" I asked.

"I don't know why. Blacks break the law here. They don't obey China's Constitution."

"How? What do they do that is illegal?"

"They don't show their passes at the gates of the university."

"Do they have to show their passes? Where do the security guards think these Africans are from? From out of

"Of course, they have to show their passes."

"Then how come I don't? Do you think it's because I'm white?"

"Of course you have to show your pass."

"Well, I've been to Beida [Peking University] many times and never had to."

"If you went with a Chinese girl you'd have to. The girls those Africans took with them to the dance were prostitutes and it was these girls who refused to show their passes to the security guards."

"I thought there was no prostitution in China."

"There is, but it's illegal."

"Do Africans commit more crime here than the Chinese do?"

"Of course."

"Can you give me an example?"

And so it went. I dropped the conversation before too many bad feelings developed.

The following week I showed LA BAMBA, the 1987 film about Ritchie Valens, the U.S. rock star who died in a plane crash at age 17. The movie is set in the 1950s. Since the music is vintage rock and roll in the United States and parallels the beginning of rock music in China in the past few years, I thought the students would relate mostly to the music. It didn't turn out that way.

One of the primary conflicts in the movie is that between the good natured, family-oriented Ritchie, and his hard-drinking, whoring, pot-smoking brother Bob. For most of the movie Bob is characterized as half mad with jealousy that his younger brother is a success and that their mother so clearly favors Ritchie. Bob struck me as the epitome of the type the students wouldn't like for all the above reasons. Nothing I had come to expect about the Chinese — their devotion to parents, to one another, to monogamy, and their presumed antipathy to drugs, prostitution, and drinking — would possibly indicate any sympathy for Bob. My assumptions were wrong. The juniors admired Bob for the same reasons they eventually joined the student movement then beginning to spill out onto the streets in Beijing against the government. Deep down they perceived Bob as a rebel with a cause. He stands up to his mother and to his brother. He is always assertive, never passive. He demands to be heard; he demands to be accepted as fully as Ritchie is.

In addition, my students liked Ritchie's mother because she has complete confidence in his future as a rock star, unlike Chinese mothers, who are timid and would never fight for a son's right to perform such, for the times, revolutionary music. The juniors all seem to admire U.S. competitiveness. Ritchie knew what he wanted and went for it. The juniors themselves can never be like that, they imply, although they all have very private aspirations.

They went wild when Ritchie sings, into a phone from a booth, his famous song "Donna" (the flip side of "La Bamba") to his girlfriend. They laughed merrily during the movie when the police at a rock concert get very nervous as the U.S. teenagers jump out of their seats and start to dance in the aisles. The juniors rooted for their U.S. counterparts and were glad the police were outnumbered and powerless.

LA BAMBA is not only about an art form which, for my students, has the potential of being seditious. The movie is also able to satisfy the juniors' sense of social realism. The movie shows white prejudice toward Latin Americans, and it demonstrates that if you rise too high and get too rich you may also fall. "We're stars, and stars don't fall, do they?" Buddy Holly tells Ritchie moments before their plane crashes. As much as they admire Ritchie, my students perceive a modicum of justice in his death. No one should be that rich — which is one reason they detest their own senior leaders.

When the lights went on, a few of the girls were crying. The title song of the movie played during the final credits and the juniors filed silently out, perhaps once again contrasting their rather predictable lives with the stimulations of U.S. life. A few days later their essays came in on the film. Here is a sampling:

"In America young men can freely grow. If you want to ask me which way do you like best, I think I will choose the American way. I will not treat my baby as my parents treat ed me. Maybe my baby will become a famous singer!"

"In America people can do what they want to do. They can find a place, singing. When they are seeing a performance they are very excited. They even dance beside their seats. I think we cannot do that in China, but in America. American young people are warm-hearted, self confident, and their spare time is colorful."

"American young people are not conservative. They do not bother about trivialities. They have their pursuits. On the contrary, Chinese young people are not used to living night life. They always go to bed early. They have not enough activities. They also have their own pursuits, but they are confined by traditional culture and society. They act carefully, and many of these drift with the tide. They used to national songs instead of rock and roll music. They are not crazy when the singers are singing. Many of them sit there quietly as if they are sleeping."

"What interests me most is that Ritchie's mother and brother are his faithful audience. They try their best to help Ritchie. Ritchie's success is his as well as his family's. It is difficult to get support from one's family if he wants to be a popular star in China because the criteria of esteeming success is different between the two different cultures and society. The way of pursuing success is also different. I prefer the American way because it is more reasonable and it makes us feel more conscious of our existence. Above all, I conclude that the fierce competition of society makes people admire the strong, the strong strengthful music, and the strengthful people. People become strong because they have a strong desire for success."

"In the film we can see how money controls people in America in the 1950s and how people behave when facing money. Money appears everywhere and nobody can live without it. The less money Bob makes, the less love he receives, and the more money he spends on drink, drugs, and prostitutes. There is no sign of coming down from this [pursuit of money] nowadays but rather it is getting more competitive."

"Cultural anthropologists assure us that American children compete fiercely for parental love."

"In America people can do what they want to do. They can find a place, singing. When they are seeing a performance they are very excited. They even dance beside their seats. I think we cannot do that in China, but in America, American young people are warmhearted, self confident, and their spare time is colorful."

"As it comes to American culture in the 1950s, I think America must be absurd in some conditions. They are so crazy about a singer whose age is only 17. It is not necessary for them to esteem such a schoolboy."

It happened that I showed NORMA RAE, Martin Ritt's 1979 film about textile unionizing in the South, during the May student boycott. The timing, I thought, was perfect. The students would see a socially oriented film set in the United States while China was experiencing its biggest social upheaval since the Cultural Revolution. As usual, the results were not as I expected.

First I was surprised that the juniors gathered in class that Wednesday not for instruction but to hold a political discussion. They argued for a while in Chinese, and then as a class walked out in boycott. I was surprised, because none of our students had shown any early enthusiasm for the democratic movement as it came to be called. I was even more surprised when three juniors out of the class of twenty chose to watch the film, thereby defying the rest of the class. The juniors were a tight-knit collective: they took military training together in the summer, went on class trips, partied as a class, occasionally dated among themselves, and took the same classes and teachers for four years. The shouting in class had been about the defection of the three in staying to watch NORMA RAE.

The film sympathetically focuses on the struggle to unionize black and white workers who distrust one another. It is not revolutionary, but the film shows how it is possible for the underdog to win some justice. Surely here was a film in May, 1989, Beijing college students would easily relate to. The three juniors told me they were bored by the film, preferring the more exciting and socially meaningful movies like STARMAN and CROCODILE DUNDEE. I asked Philip (Liu Li) why the film bored him. Philip was the student who, in September, said he wanted to be rich some day and believed in capitalism and in making millions. "The film is too revolutionary," was his exact reply. His observation appeared to echo the government's position that the student movement in Beijing was disruptive and was causing social disorder.

A larger paradox was becoming manifest. Showing all these movies was having a reverse effect on the students from the one I intended. I thought these films would expose both the positive and negative aspects of U.S. society and culture. The juniors and seniors would see not only the excitement, boldness, and dynamism of U.S. movies and culture, but see also our preoccupation with violence, sex, and social competitiveness. I thought I could start a dialogue about the United States. American Survey should challenge the students' assumptions and stereotypes about my country, just as my assumptions had all been overturned after ten months in China.

My plans had an unanticipated effect on the juniors. Instead of seeing the United States in all its multiplicities and contradictions, my juniors saw only the profound flaws in their own society and national character. For the graduating class of 1990, China, not the United States, was the country which needed reforms and was too socially restrictive. For better or for worse, the juniors would become part of the intellectual class of a new China when they graduated.

Because they were witnessing and participating in the biggest upheaval in China since the Cultural Revolution, they felt empowered for the first time in their lives. When they wrote about the movies, they made comparisons with China. As to what directions China should take in the next ten years, this was a subject they could write about with

When the students compared U.S. films to Chinese films, they denigrated the latter without mercy. One student wrote, "Chinese films are always dull and uninteresting to see. The films cannot grasp people. So when I see Chinese films I feel tired." For them Chinese films end too predictably; the characters, like China, I suppose, undergo no real changes. The bad guy is defeated and the community wins. An individual's psychological makeup is never taken into account.

I showed my juniors E.T., which they liked as much as LA BAMBA. The movie was so popular in fact that my sophomores got wind of it and the audio/video department head let me have a special showing. One would think that Spielberg's fantasy was just the innocent escapist movie needed to get everyone's mind off the current "disorders."

Just the opposite occurred. Eliot, the young hero in E.T., really belonged to the student movement in Beijing — or so it sounded reading the students' essays:

'Eliot is very impressive. He is a very brave, very adventuresome and courageous. Even though his mother is divorced she is still independent and strong. American children are much more independent and have much more imagination than Chinese children."

"The American children hide E.T. from theft parents; Chinese children would never do that. He is not afraid of any adults. Eliot and his family are very rich. He has lots of toys and a color tv. The fact that Eliot had some weird toys — like transformer toys — prepared him to meet E.T. who is so ugly."

"American children can drive cars and they outsmart the police. None of these things could happen in China. We admire him and his friends who rescue E.T. from the police."

Other students called E.T. a science film and not a science fiction film. The students admired the United States' ability to imagine things, especially the future. One sophomore wrote, "Our Chinese people should learn this advantage from the Americans."

They all agreed E.T. had profound meaning. "I am obsessed by E.T.," said a student, "and also I admire the America's imagination." Children, many write, are the hope of the world. The movie was really about personal relationships and how we need peace. E.T., argued one student, "is really preparing us for the time we have to leave the earth." The scientists depicted in the movie were harshly criticized. They "have lost the childish pure. They doubt everything," observed a sophomore. The director was trying to recapture Americans' love for one another through this film because, as one student wrote, the American people are "getting colder and colder."

To some E.T. contained some serious warnings, most of which have serious political overtones. The most grave of these was described as follows:

"What strikes me most is one should live with his friends or live in his own country. Otherwise he will meet more troubles .... We can imagine what would probably happen if E.T. did not phone his home. What troubled E.T. most should teach all the Chinese students who studied in America a terrific lesson in order to let them change the ideas of living in America and never coming back."

This was the most timely and ideological comment of all. This sophomore, whose English name was Flash, was a candidate for the Communist Party. A great source of embarrassment to the government is that, of the 60,000 or more Chinese students studying abroad during the last five years, fewer than half have returned or mean to return to China. "E.T. come home. Chinese living abroad, come home," was what I heard Flash and, possibly through him, the Communist Party saying.

Given their general acumen, I was surprised that no student made the connection between E.T. and LA BAMBA that Eliot and Ritchie Valens came from broken families and that both Eliot and Ritchie's brother stood up to their mothers. Rebelliousness counted, not the fact that their fathers were missing and that the U.S. family might be in trouble. What was important was that children and women in the United States are more independent than are their counterparts in the People's Republic. Eliot defied his mother by hiding E.T. and then by relying on his buddies and not on her. Most young Chinese would never challenge their parents, and they loved it when they saw sons talk back to their mothers on the screen.

My students admired Americans for being more expressive than they perceived themselves to be. They thought Americans said no when they meant no, spoke theft minds and took risks and, most of all, were not impressed by authority. In short, my students loved the movie characters they saw on the screen for all the characteristics they felt they lacked.

Of course the great irony was that during the months in Beijing they were seeing these films with wonder and envy, large number of young Chinese students were causing the central government to experience the early symptoms of a nervous breakdown from which they have yet to recover.

In the fall I resumed teaching English literature and writing at Ramapo. A year after we returned, I became a seminar fellow in the New Jersey Internationalizing the Curriculum Project, of which my wife was appointed co-director. My project was to internationalize the course content of College English, a combination of reading, writing, and introduction to literature, offered every term at Ramapo and, in one form or another, nearly everywhere else in the United States. I had lots of time to figure out what had happened in my classes in China which might be integrated into this ambitious statewide project.

If my intention in China had been to teach my students about life in the United States and to use feature-length films to accomplish this objective, I probably failed. Actually, I did worse: I had unwittingly reinforced all the stereotypes the Chinese college students have about the United States: most Americans live in capacious suburban homes, drive large cars, come from broken families, have great social lives, enjoy a wide variety of entertainment, can accomplish almost anything they wish, and are so free from social restraints they are able to defy the police and most adults. All these elements were evident in E.T., REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, BACK TO THE FUTURE, and LA BAMBA — the most popular films I showed that year.

When I showed my students NORMA RAE, a film which did not conform to these fixed notions and the only film which attempted to address and relate social class differences and racism, the students were obviously unhappy and did not wish to discuss the film. THE DEFIANT ONES drew from my juniors more laughter than a serious response, and this film and CROCODILE DUNDEE almost certainly convinced them of what they already "knew": people of color in the United States, and people who are poor, are either too lazy to work or they are criminals. Only a handful of my students ever expressed sympathy for the poor and homeless in the United States, believing that those who wish to work and succeed can; the ones who fail deserve to fail. All in all, the films I chose only confirmed in my students' minds that most North Americans were well off and far more privileged in every respect than they are.

My wife, who was teaching oral and visual communications and not U.S. or Western culture, much more realistically translated U.S. society to our students (we both taught the juniors). She had her students prepare a "video letter" to our Ramapo students back home, and they in turn were preparing to send one to Beijing.

In their tape, the Chinese students chose six topics they felt would be of most interest to their U.S. counterparts: college life (they spend 28 hours, five and a half days a week and 36 weeks a year in class); spare time (the students don't have much, but like rock music, dancing, sports, and photography); family life (they said their families were closer knit than U.S. families); the enormous growth of private companies in China (to disabuse North Americans' stereotype of China as a wholly communist country); and the problem of inflation in China (a primary cause of workers in Beijing joining the student movement). After each segment the Chinese students asked the Ramapo students to comment about these six subjects as they affected their lives in the United States. Unfortunately, by the time this video arrived at Ramapo, the army had moved against the students and various working-class neighborhoods in Beijing and so the tourist students never received a reply.

Given the events beginning in April and ending in June, the year we spent in China could hardly be considered typical of what the Western teacher experiences in a Chinese college classroom. Ironically our Chinese students probably learned more about China than they did about the United States as they contrasted their lives with those of the various characters they saw on the video monitor for almost twenty weeks. In the year of the student democratic movement, whatever I taught the juniors and seniors about the West was bound to be translated by our students into the question, "What does this say about my country, China?"

The Chinese we met, mostly college students, intellectuals, and professors — a minuscule percentage of the Chinese population — were thoroughly convinced that the United States is the paradigm of all that is democratic, socially progressive, and economically sound. Possibly nothing I might have done would have complicated, if not contradicted, this simplistic view. But I am sorry that with my heavy reliance on mainstream Hollywood movies I did not provide a wider range of perspectives. I did not offer enough material to enable the Chinese students to reach conclusions which went beyond their narrowly held, stereotypical ones of life in the United States. Surely the starting point of any global education is to open up the world, provide analytical and critical skills, and develop multi perspectives. Hollywood films hardly globalize the world for North Americans, let alone for Chinese college students who have surprisingly fixed and very positive views of this country.

At times I felt that to the extent our juniors were awestruck by the triumphs of Eliot in E.T. or Ritchie in LA BAMBA, the more they found to dislike in China. This is not what I had hoped to achieve in the People's Republic.