Chinese and Chinese diaspora cinema
—an introduction

Plural and transnational

by Gina Marchetti

from Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 68-72
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006

In 1986 and 1989, JUMP CUT published two special sections on Chinese cinema. These special sections featured new scholarship on films from the People's Republic of China. At that time, scholarly exchanges between the PRC and the West were becoming more common, which led to an outpouring of research devoted to Chinese film history as well as to contemporary films by the "Fifth Generation" of filmmakers like Chen Kai-ge and Zhang Yi-mou.

Inevitably, any examination of film from the PRC also must conjure up ancillary questions involving Chinese ethnicity, nationalism, colonialism, and sexuality and gender. Claims to "China" and "Chinese-ness" come from the Mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, various Chinese communities in other parts of Asia (including Singapore, but also Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines) as well as around the globe. As Sheldon Hsiao-Peng Lu notes in the introduction to his anthology, Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender,

"Chinese national cinema can only be understood in its properly transnational context. One must speak of Chinese cinema in the plural and as transnational in the ongoing process of image-making throughout the twentieth century."[1][open notes in new window]

In his article, "A Nation T(w/o)o: Chinese Cinema(s) and Nationhood(s)," Chris Berry, drawing on the work of Benedict Anderson and Homi Bhabha, looks at the creation of new, hybrid spaces surrounding the "DissemiNation" of Chinese cinema found in films made in the PRC before May-June 1989, in Taiwan after the end of martial law, and in Hong Kong.[2]

Indeed, analyzing "Greater China" and the "global Chinese" has recently had currency in a variety of disciplines (e.g., literature, cultural studies, economics, sociology, and Asian area studies). To Wei-ming advocates the term "Cultural China."[3] This broadly defined concept takes in the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Chinese of the diaspora, and "non-Chinese" who take an interest in China.[4] While To maintains an avowedly conservative, Confucian view of Cultural China, Rey Chow writes from the opposite ideological perspective and cautions against looking for "authentic" Chinese-ness within a postcolonial world of diaspora and migrancy.[5]

Many of these issues involving Chinese cinema and related questions of ethnic, national, political and other identities circulate within the broader arena of our common era of globalization. As capitalism configures itself transnationally, the relation between the bourgeoisie and the nation-state changes. Class relations become global. New avenues for domination as well as liberation open up with an explosion of international transport, travel and communication via modems and cellular phones.[6] Postmodernism, postcolonialism, and thoughts of transcending the national, the ethnic, and the gendered body prompt a rethinking of struggle based on race, gender, and ethnic-nationalism. This historical moment demands dialectical thinking to navigate within these complexities and develop a radical critique.


All of the essays collected here look at various configurations of China as a nation. They all also look at China as a divided political, polyglot, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural entity, with dramatic rifts between classes, genders, sexual orientations, etc. Yeh Yueh-yu brings these contradictions between "China" and "Chinese-ness" to the fore in her review of the anthology, New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics. Yeh critiques the book for tacitly assuming a centrality for PRC productions, while subsuming Hong Kong and Taiwan within a cultural, cinematic, and implicitly national-political sphere that does not do justice to the actual history of the region and its various cinema cultures.

The dialectic encompassing China/Taiwan holds a central place in Douglas Kellner's examination of the New Taiwan Cinema of the 1980s. While looking at the cinema in terms of what Fredric Jameson has called "national allegory," Kellner uncovers the complex currents that have come to form contemporary Taiwan as an international anomaly. Taiwan functions as something more than a "renegade province" of the Mainland, something less than the legitimate heir to the rule of the Chinese nation. It finds itself somewhere between a free-floating, postmodern, post-nation and an emerging state looking for international recognition as an autonomous and sovereign nation. Kellner provides an informative history of Taiwanese cinema and a careful examination of the reasons behind the flowering of the New Cinema in the 1980s.

Kellner pays particular attention to the two main auteurs associated with the movement, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. Although stylistically and thematically at odds, Hou and Yang, in their respective ways, embody the contradiction in Taiwanese cinema between the national and the transnational. Hou concentrates on rural Taiwan, village life after the Japanese Occupation, and the merging of various Chinese provincial differences where Hakka, Cantonese, and Hokkien dialects of Chinese give way to a common sense of Taiwanese "roots" and a shared language. Yang, on the other hand, is interested in modern Taiwan, in the urban bourgeoisie, in the transnational hybridity that makes European languages drift as easily into Mandarin as the various Chinese dialects merge into Taiwanese for Hou. Using a distinctly modernist style, inspired by Antonioni and other European directors, Yang presents a world of displacement (from either the countryside of Taiwan or the Mainland), disillusionment, disassociation, and isolation. His cinema contrasts with Hou's unearthing of communal roots. Hou looks for Taiwan as a nation in the island's countryside. Yang looks at the construction of Taiwan as an economic force in the global exchanges of the "rootless" Chinese mercantile and professional classes.

Hu Hsing-chi's article deals with THE STORIES OF RED RIBBONS, a series of videos produced in Taiwan to counter the skewed information propagated by the Health Department there on the subject of AIDS/HIV. As Hu quite rightly points out, the public health issues prompted by AIDS/HIV demand a transnational framework, and the video series chooses to look at the issue regionally. Not only are patterns of transmission addressed, bringing up Thailand as a center of the international sex industry and increased travel by the Taiwanese around the world for business, leisure, and education, but also various national policies involving HIV-positive individuals around the region. In this case, Taiwan's policies and social attitudes have a transnational impact, and the series, though primarily playing locally (with the exception of Tsai Ming-liang's entry), has a global dimension.

Anne T. Ciecko and Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu's article on the PRC production, ERMO (directed by Zhou Xiaowen), demonstrates that the film negotiates the "borderless" territory between the local (northern Chinese rural village) and the global (the promise of television and the "world," i.e., U.S. popular culture) via the "national," i.e., Deng's "modernization" of the Chinese economy by creating a "socialist market economy." This essay highlights the importance of women's work as flexible labor within the reconfiguration of the Mainland's economy. Women's labor circulates within established national borders, moving from the rural to the semi-urban and from the "traditional" to the "modern," because of the promise of access to an imagined global prosperity with U.S. consumerist rather than "socialist" characteristics. This examination of ERMO brings out the dialectic between a postmodern, post-national identity and cultural imperialism's further penetration into the Chinese psyche.


Many of the essays collected here deal with an aspect of the Chinese experience that has received increased attention in recent years; i.e., the Chinese experience of dislocation, relocation, emigration, immigration, cultural hybridity, migrancy, exile, and nomadism — together termed the "Chinese diaspora." In addition to the work of To Wei-ming and Rey Chow mentioned above, several recent studies have dealt with the history and implications of the Chinese diaspora. Lynn Pan's Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora and Sterling Seagrave's Lords of the Rim, for example, both highlight the economic and political underpinnings of this dispersal of human and other resources.[7] There has been a tendency in recent years in the cinemas of Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as among the "Overseas Chinese" globally, to look at this experience with more critical eyes. Rather than take a "pan-Chinese-ness" as a norm, Taiwanese filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-hsien, working outside the dominant Mandarin cinema, look at the complex waves of Chinese immigration that form a culture distinct from the Mainland.[8]

Hong Kong filmmakers returned to Cantonese language production in the 1980s and 1990s in part to underscore a perspective that positions them differently within the global China mix. With Hong Kong's reversion to Mainland rule in 1997, underscoring the difference between Hong Kong and the Mainland became more important for filmmakers. Just as Taiwanese filmmakers began to look at the history of Japanese colonialism and the rule of the KMT, Hong Kong New Wave filmmakers began to look more closely at the experiences of economic and political exiles from the Mainland, of the non-Chinese inhabitants of multicultural Hong Kong, and at the experience of roughly 150 years of British colonial rule. The days of commercial Hong Kong cinema's reliance on a pan-Chinese fantasy of an authentic "Chinese-ness" rooted in a common history, language, and ancient culture has given way to two distinct currents of contemporary filmmaking. One strain looks closely at Hong Kong and its inhabitants in Cantonese. The other abandons Hong Kong, for all intents and purposes, to seek the global market for action films, using English or a polyglot hybrid (like Jackie Chan's RUSH HOUR, which features various types of English from upper-class British accents to African American slang as well as Cantonese and Mandarin) as the lingua franca.[9]

The two articles on Ann Hui's SONG OF THE EXILE featured here (by Tony Williams and Chua Siew-Keng) place the film within that tendency to look at Hong Kong more closely as a specific place within a global context that deviates from the history of the Mainland. Hueyin, the young protagonist of this semi-autobiographical film, travels geographically through England, Hong Kong, Macao, Japan and Guangdong Province in the People's Republic. And, she also travels temporally — through her mother's memories of becoming the Japanese wife of a Nationalist Chinese soldier in Manchuria during the Pacific War to her own experiences of the Mainland during the Cultural Revolution. As the wanderings shown in the film become more widely global, the perspective distills down into something specifically Hong Kong, where the culturally hybrid Hueyin and her Japanese mother Aiko find some sort of "home" in the British colony. Like Ermo and many of the female protagonists of New Taiwan Cinema, Hueyin and Aiko become emblems of movement across borders. Indeed, women often become travelers in these films to symbolize a more general Chinese experience of diaspora, riding economic, political, and social currents of change.

In his essay, Tony Williams carefully places SONG OF THE EXILE within Ann Hui's oeuvre. He highlights Hui's interest in issues of displacement and dislocation. And he underscores the importance of this theme in this film as well as in the films and television programs Hui has directed involving the Vietnamese "Boat People." Chua Siew-Keng's essay, complementing Williams' analysis, looks at the film in relation to the historical experience of Han Chinese women within the diaspora, from Chua's own experience of "home" as an Overseas Chinese related to the experiences of Tsai Yen, a 3rd Century B.C. Han Chinese poetess who lived among the "barbarians" of the non-Han Chinese world. Chua problematizes the political nature of "home" and "exile" for women within and outside of the Chinese diaspora. As Chua shows, questions of nation and ethnicity are complicated by the problematic nature of domesticity, femininity, and sexuality.


As the essays float among labels, "Chinese," "Taiwanese," "Hong Kong," "Overseas Chinese," "Chinese exiles," "diasporic Chinese," "Chinese emigrants," "Chinese American," the positions various filmmakers take, coming from geographically and ideologically distant locations, begin to underscore the tremendous complexity and contradictory quality of "Chinese" cinema globally. Peter Feng deals with many of these issues of location in his article on Felicia Lowe's, Lisa Hsia's, and Richard Fung's documentaries on traveling to the People's Republic of China as adults to look for their families' histories. As travel to China from the United States and Canada became possible in the late 1970s and increasingly common throughout the 1980s, documentaries about family reunions, trips to ancestral villages, and other explorations of China by Chinese American tourists, students, teachers, and other cultural workers also began to appear.

Many of these film and video makers used the camera as both a tool of exploration, a way to make contact, and as a mechanism for maintaining distance, of separating themselves from the often alien and alienating aspects of China. Layers of individual identity come to the fore as the relations between the filmmakers and their parents, distant relatives, family histories, cross-cultural expectations, and personal feelings about being Chinese Americans develop in these transnational visits. A generation removed from immigration, these media makers' works take up as salient themes complex relations between Chinese identity, the cultural hybridity of the Chinese diaspora, and the political necessities of an Asian American sense of self. Not only part of the Chinese diaspora, these film and video makers also partake of the flowering of Asian American film culture over the last twenty years.

When looked at as culturally "Chinese," these Asian American and Canadian travel documentaries seem to highlight certain issues involving that experience of family ties and emigration from the Mainland. However, when placed within the tradition of Asian American documentary making, a new set of relations come to the fore — involving anti-Asian racism and U.S. immigration laws, pressures to assimilate within a white-defined mainstream coupled with the facts of anti-Asian violence and discrimination as part of the American experience. Here, the lives of Chinese American filmmakers diverge from those of other Overseas Chinese and, particularly, from those working within Hong Kong and Taiwan. While emigration, exile, hybridity, and migrancy may be common themes, there is another political dimension to these Asian American documentary works that Feng clearly highlights in his article.[10]


One of the most dramatic changes to take place within transnational Chinese screen culture over the last two decades has involved the representation of gays and lesbians in the cinema. While homosexuality has a place within Chinese cultural history,[11] the various modern governments that claim China have very strictly enforced anti-homosexual policies. Given the censorship regulations of the People's Republic, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and the various nations that have significant populations of Chinese film viewers (e.g., Singapore, Malaysia, etc.), it is not surprising that Chinese commercial filmmakers have not been able to deal with gay and lesbian issues in the past. However, several factors have changed this recently. Taiwan has significantly changed its censorship laws, and, now, gay subject matter has found its way into entertainment films like Ang Lee's THE WEDDING BANQUET as well as into works by cutting-edge filmmakers like Tsai Ming-Liang.

Tsai's contribution to the Red Ribbons series is discussed in Mu's article. Unlike the other videos in the series, Tsai's entry received international attention and appeared in several gay and lesbian film festivals around the world. Certainly part of the interest in Tsai's work comes from his established critical reputation, but the increased global visibility of gay and lesbian filmmakers must also be included as a contributing factor. Gay and lesbian liberation has a transnational dimension, and Tsai's look at Asian gays with AIDS/HIV satisfies an interest in both the treatment of gays around the world and in transnational public health issues.

Worldwide, independent filmmakers like Chinese Canadian Richard Fung (discussed in Peter Feng's article) have used their own experiences as gay Asians to portray sexual relations in direct terms. Fung is part of a growing number of Asian American filmmakers who are exploring racism within the gay/lesbian community and homophobia within the Asian American community.

Hong Kong filmmakers are often criticized for their conservative treatment of sexuality, because of the commercial nature of the industry and the importance of their films' salability in even more conservative places like Singapore and Malaysia. This, too, has been changing, with films like A QUEER STORY, HOLD ME TIGHT, and HAPPY TOGETHER winning international recognition. Prominent filmmakers like Stanley Kwan have "come out" and now address their own sexuality openly within their films.

However, as "greater" China has been warming up to frank treatments of gay and lesbian themes, the People's Republic of China has even stricter controls on the film industry as a consequence of the events of May-June 1989 in Tian'anmen Square. Because of this crackdown, though, some talented filmmakers have found a way to work independently outside the government controlled studio system. The transnational co-production, FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, by Chen Kai-ge may come immediately to mind, since it did receive limited release in the United States and is available on video. However, this film, which has been decried by many critics as homophobic, does not represent the only work dealing with homosexuality in China to receive international critical attention. EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE by Zhang Yuan is a dramatic breakthrough in the silence surrounding the lives of gay men in the People's Republic. As Chris Berry points out in his article on the film, EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE seems to come from a dramatic tradition associated with the plays of Jean Genet and some of the films of Fassbinder. The film creates a highly theatrical presentation of a gay man's encounter with a policeman in the bathroom of a Chinese park as a metaphor for more general relations of power. Minimal and stylistically daring, the film takes chances in depicting gay life and also criticizing government authoritarianism and its impact on the psyche.


If nothing else, this collection of articles puts established definitions of Chinese cinema into question. As transnational productions become more common, questions of politics and nationalism, particularly involving Hong Kong and Taiwan, continue to strain against a facile leap to an imagined "Greater China." However, the common experiences of the Chinese diaspora and the global links among various Chinese communities must not be dismissed. Particularly for those who traditionally may be at odds with a conservative Chinese patriarchy, such as many heterosexual women, lesbians, and gay men, the ability to cross borders and to participate in a wider, global sphere transcends ethnic and cultural ties. The contradictions surrounding the label of "Chinese cinema" call for a truly dialectical film criticism. These articles provide excellent examples of critical thinkers engaging these political, social, and cultural complexities.


1. Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, "Historical Introduction: Chinese Cinemas (1896-1996) and Transnational Film Studies," in Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, edited by Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997), p.3.

2. Chris Berry, ""A Nation T(w/o)o: Chinese Cinema(s) and Nationhood(s)," East-West Film Journal, Vol. 7, No. I (January 1993), pp. 24-51.

3. To Wei-ming, "Cultural China: The Periphery as the Center," in The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today, edited by Tu Wei-ming (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 1-34.

4. For a critique of Tu's Confucianism and an examination of Confucianism and Chinese identity in Zhang's JU DOU, see W.A. Callahan, "Gender, Ideology, Nation: JU DOU in the Cultural Politics of China," East-West Film Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1 (January 1993), pp. 52-80.

5. Rey Chow, Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

6. For more on the cultural and cinematic consequences of these changes, see John Hess and Patricia R. Zimmermann, "Transnational Documentaries: A Manifesto," Afterimage (January/February 1997), pp. 10-14.

7. Lynn Pan, Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora (New York: Kodansha International, 1990).

8. Sterling Seagrave, Lords of the Rim (London: Corgi, 1996). Hong Kong cinema has traditionally relied on its "pan-Chinese-ness" and suppression of a uniquely Hong Kong voice to make money within the lucrative Overseas Chinese markets. Gigi T.Y. Hu implies that Hong Kong filmmakers' absorption in their own identity wrapped up in the issues surrounding the 1997 reversion to Mainland sovereignty may partially explain the dramatic drop in popularity of Hong Kong films among the Overseas Chinese in recent years. Hong Kong filmmakers seem to be out of touch with the global Chinese entertainment markets. See Gigi T.Y. Hu, "Reaction to Hong Kong-made Films in Southeast Asia: Some Observations," Media Asia, Vol. 25, No. 2 (1998), pp.98-101. See also Grace Leung and Joseph Chan, "The Hong Kong Cinema and its Overseas Market: A Historical Overview, 1950-1995," Fifty Years of Electric Shadows, edited by Law Kar (Hong Kong: 21st Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Urban Council, 1997), pp. 143-51.

9. For more on Hong Kong filmmakers abroad, see Steve Fore, "Home, Migration, Identity: Hong Kong Film Workers Join the Chinese Diaspora," Fifty Years of Electric Shadows, edited by Law Kar (Hong Kong: 21st Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Urban Council, 1997), pp. 130-135.

10. See Peter Feng's other important articles on Asian American film culture: Peter Feng, "Being Chinese American, Becoming Asian American: CHAN IS MISSING," Cinema Journal, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Summer 1996), pp. 88-118; Peter Feng, "In Search of Asian American Cinema," Cineaste, Vol. 21, Nos. 1-2 (Winter-Spring 1995), p. 32ff.

11. See Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).