New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics
Defining "Chinese"

by Yeh Yueh-yu

from Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 73-76
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1998, 2006

New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics. Ed. Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, Esther Yau. Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-521-44409-8, hard cover, $56.95

For people who are interested in Chinese-language cinema, New Chinese Cinemas is a valuable book. It not only provides the cultural and political basics but also combines formal and sociopolitical analyses. It is especially welcome to film studies and East Asian cultural studies, given the lack of literature in the field and a growing interest in Chinese-language cinema.

New Chinese Cinemas anthologizes papers presented at a conference entitled "Cinema and Social Change in Three Chinese Societies" held at UCLA in 1990. Over seven years has passed since the conference. If many of the articles seem dated, it testifies to rapidly changing cultural politics in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the PRC. Selecting nine out of 21 papers from the conference, the book is divided into two parts: 1) Films in the People's Republic and 2) Films in Taiwan and Hong Kong. While Part I shows a consistent and intertwined methodological approach, Part 2 only sporadically addresses the connections between identity, politics, and style in Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinema.

The articles on PRC film give a clear blueprint of the changing relations between cinema spectators and cultural identity. Ma Ning's essay discusses Xie Jin's melodramas with respect to traditional ethics, political change, and female subjectivity. He argues that the social and ideological crises experienced by Chinese subjects in the post-Mao era, what he calls the "new period," can be seen in the films' spatial positioning of female characters. In his essay, Nick Browne proposes "political melodrama" to replace the conventional term "family melodrama." Using the term "political melodrama," Browne argues, has two main benefits. One, Western scholars would then emphasize the previously neglected, socio-political aspect of melodrama; second, they would make the term "melodrama" more accurately describe PRC cinema. Chris Berry discusses why it is impossible to designate a single, unifying spectatorial position in reform-era PRC films. The coherent viewing subject typical of classical Chinese cinema disappears from the films of this period. Berry suggests that this change is due to changing relations between the individual and the socialist system. Paul Pickowicz concentrates on urban films, noting especially Huang Jianxin's works, to demonstrate the changing politics and aesthetic forms in PRC films of the 1980s, a period he calls post-socialist. By locating the analysis in the conjunction between cinematic and political development, these articles provide a clear picture of PRC films in historical transition. But this kind of methodological rigor fails to appear in the essays on Taiwanese and Hong Kong films.

English-language film studies treat Taiwanese cinema and, to some extent, Hong Kong cinema as subgroups of Chinese (or China's) cinema. The idea seems to come from a generally accepted notion that culturally speaking, Taiwan and Hong Kong are inseparable parts of China. Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinema, as a result, are treated as parts of Chinese cinema or perhaps different kinds of Chinese cinema. This is the case in Esther Yau's article entitled "'China' in World Cinema since 1945," in Chris Berry's (ed.) Perspectives on Chinese Cinema. Without exception, New Chinese Cinemas also shows an adherence to the imperial national conception of "Middle Kingdom" (zhongguo),[1][open notes in new window] which the authors also extend to the treatment of Taiwan and Hong Kong culture, including the development of the respective cinemas.

The above works all use the term "Chinese cinema" in either a singular or plural form to include Chinese-language films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China without bothering to qualify the problematic nature of the term itself. When we speak of a certain national cinema, the classifying adjective usually comes from the name of the country. For example, "French cinema" means cinema of or made by French people. But the term goes further than naming nationality. It also denotes the linguistic, cultural, social, and formal codes that can be recognized as something called French. This concept of national cinema provides at least two meanings to attribute to "Chinese cinema." It indicates "cinema of China" (zhongguo dianying) as well as "cinema with certain Chinese linguistic and cultural qualities." The term so defined certainly does cover mainland Chinese films since 1905 when the first Chinese film, DINGJUNSJ-IAN, (a Peking opera documentary) was made by Chinese in Beijing. It does not, however, appropriately cover Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema.

Chinese-language cinema was born in Shanghai and Beijing in the first decade of the century. However, over a hundred years of political fractures, ideological oppositions, and contrasting economic systems have separated the PRC, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. This history has formed quite distinctive national cinemas within each territory. Western scholars have tried to redefine "China" as "three Chinas," but this modification cannot encompass Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema. On the other hand, recent Chinese publications in Hong Kong and Taiwan have been striving to modify the ambivalent term "Chinese cinema" by suggesting a counter-hegemonic perspective to study the three cinemas. Some have begun to replace Chinese cinema with "Chinese-language" cinema (zhongwen dianying or huayu dianying) as a more accurate term that would not privilege any one of the three cinemas. However, it functions more as an ad hoc term. As this interpretation has only begun to gain popularity and validity in many Chinese articles, it is hardly addressed in the most recent English books on the subject. Accordingly, New Chinese Cinema is dated not just chronologically, but it also suffers from a wide-eyed sense of "discovery" that tends to homogenize its objects, neglecting the films' more immediate socio-historical background in favor of their "Chinese" status.

In the introduction to the book, the editor addresses the "paradox" of conducting cross-cultural analysis between Chinese texts and Western critical theory: For a Western audience, the presentation of essays on Chinese cinema of the 1980s implies a distance of both culture and interpretation. This distance for film scholars may have a paradoxical aspect — disclosing a fascinating spectacle of another world under a familiar form of analysis. For scholars of Chinese history and literature, a book that takes Chinese film as a central instance of popular culture — one, moreover, that approaches its object though the languages of Western critical theory — may seem novel and strange (Browne 1).

Here a Western theorist most clearly dissociates himself from "the other" in Chinese cinema. Instead of dealing with the "paradoxical" condition's perplexities, the author retains a dichotomy between the fascinating, native "other" and the critical, analytical "us."

Thus, the act of expressing difficulty in cross-cultural reading becomes a posture. It does not try to bridge the gap of cross-cultural analysis. This failure shows in an interpretation of China which depends upon the official ideology proffered by both regimes across the Taiwan Straits. The reigning parties in Taiwan and mainland China have both insisted on the "One-China" policy for different political purposes. The Nationalists in Taiwan have to stick to the policy to 1) prevent any official statement of an independent Taiwan which, as a result, would provoke military invasion from the mainland, and 2) maintain their "legitimate" rule in Taiwan. The opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party, is partially constituted by a hardcore nativism that demands a Taiwan ruled only by Taiwanese with a Taiwanese, not Chinese, national identity. Hence, what we see in the figuration of "China" is a political and cultural definition constructed out of a Manichaean political struggle between the Nationalist and the Communist Party since 1949:

"'China' appears today largely as the consequence of the 1949 Communist revolution, forming an interregional social and economic network defined and sustained by politics…Yet to exaggerate these differences would be to overlook a common cultural tradition of social, ideological, and aesthetic forms that stands behind and informs Chinese cinema as a whole. This book locates the Chinese cinemas of the Peoples' Republic of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong between the elements of a common culture and the differences of form and significance wrought by history and political division" (Browne 1).

This reminds me of the official statement repeatedly made by the PRC government on its One-China policy. While it is true that to some extent, the Chinese in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan still share some common cultural and historical experiences, the emphasis on the premise of common culture tends to homogenize the others.

Given the forced separation of Hong Kong and Taiwan by colonialism (Britain and Japan respectively) in the last century, both areas have developed a different identity that cannot be explained simply as Chinese. The departure from the "orthodox" Chinese identity reached its peak in the 1980s. Why then does this book, with such historical knowledge in mind, still attempt to map out the three cinemas by using tools that ignore the wide differences dividing them? A possible explanation for the persistence of this tendency could be summarized in the following hypotheses: a) an assumption that there is some homogeneity existing in the three cinemas, that as a result, invites a unifying discourse; b) a hope of generating an all-inclusive discourse to "illuminate" the homogeneity and, in turn, reinforce the official statement that there is after all, only one China. Therefore, even though it is not difficult for Western audiences, Western film distributors, and overseas Chinese-speaking audiences to differentiate films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, these film scholars seem more inclined to diffuse the differences and confuse their readers.

This homogenizing tendency is seen in discussions of Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinema. Most of the articles are conducted from the perspective of the taken-for-granted centers (mainland China and the First World) rather than the margins. Papers on Hong Kong all center around Hong Kong's complex and difficult reunion with China. China is thus the configuration of "the return of the father" in Li Cheuk-to's essay, the motherland in Esther Yau's delineation of a syncretic identity in late colonial Hong Kong, and the reference to ahistorical representations of the real historical instances in Leo Ou-fan Lee's discussion of popular films.

These articles constitute a Hong Kong cinema of the 1980s defined solely by an identity crisis: Hong Kong is portrayed as a rich, corrupt child caught in a custody fight against her greedy bi-cultural parents. While it is ignorant to deny the relevance of the 1997 issue in the Hong Kong cultural imagination of the 1980s, it is equally fallacious to overlook at how Hong Kong cinema is determined by elements and traditions evolved in the course of its film history since 1913. Regrettably, here teleological determination overruns actual history. The critics write as if Hong Kong cinema is so haunted by 1997's ghost that immediate, current factors have no power to speak and be seen in the films.

Genre films of the 1980s have managed to talk back to the undesirable and tyrannical "parents" in various ways. Horror and ghost films express rebellion by means of entertaining, highly stylized, fantastic forms. Supposedly ahistorical representations in costume and martial arts films articulate a Hong Kong identity that is not only historical but aggressively metropolitan, capitalist, late colonial, and anti-hegemonic. The films' syncretic nature, suggested by Esther Yau, cannot be confused with a simplified opposition between capitalism and socialism, between modernization and pre-modern nostalgia. In fact, their syncretism epitomizes the emergence of a concrete Hong Kong identity that tries to represent itself in a self-reflexive, self-parodying, and sel-faffirmative way.

The center manifests itself again in the essays on Taiwanese cinema. William Tay's discussion of Hou Hsiao-hsien's films shows a nice textual reading in light of cross-disciplinary analysis. He situates the recurring theme of initiation in the context of Taiwan's postwar socioeconomic changes. Yet, given Hou's importance in Taiwanese cinema, a textual analysis based on initiation themes fails to connect Hou's oeuvre with the cinema's history, politics, and movements, and with the New Cinema in particular.

As a matter of fact, Hou began his career as the assistant to Li Hsing, a veteran director attacked by critics trained in Western film theory for his conservative ethical values. The first three films that Hou made before THE SANDWICH MAN were melodramas influenced by modernization projects, literary movements, and diplomatic catastrophes of the late 1970s. Hou's emphasis on rural life, family, and traditional ethics therefore has a link with films of the late 1970s, when a conservative Taiwanese identity was about to emerge in a period of gradual historical, political, and social transformation. This, in part, continued to influence the New Cinema of the 1980s, particularly in its vision of a postwar Taiwanese history slightly different from the Nationalists' version. This project of writing history is consciously woven into every new film.

Therefore, the absence or cancellation of the father figure as pointed out by Tay, is not merely a fixture in Hou's films but is also a favorite metaphor in both Edward Yang's and Wan Jen's films. The waning father is not, as Tay suggests, subversive only on a textual level. Instead, there is a correspondence between the decline of domestic patriarchal power and the rise of a middle class. A sea-change in social mores surged because of struggles for a measure of economic security. This security came at the price of instituting an authoritarian national government and martial law. Tay's neglect of a larger scope for dealing with cinematic and critical politics consigns Hou's films to a corner of outdated Western lit-crit topography.

In Fredric Jameson's article, the "discovery" of a modernist resurgence in the postmodern "Third World" Taipei is another example of a Third World text inexplicably popping up in the agenda of an evolved First World critical perspective, i.e., North America and Western Europe. While Jameson celebrates a Taiwanese film in the postmodern geopolitical map, the appraisal simultaneously divorces the significance of the film from the context of Taiwan. As informed by Jameson's intertextual reading of THE TERRORIZERS, Edward Yang's films are attuned to European high modernism. Yang's films have always been known for their tangled connections with the First World — manifested in modernist techniques à la Antonioni and Godard, cultural expressions like a love of rock'n'roll music, and themes such as the derogatory handling of urban space and critique of industrial civilization. Yang's practice of high European modernism, therefore, reveals a poignant post-colonial condition in Taiwan.

This post-coloniality is two-fold. On the one hand, Yang's attachment to modernist form represents a cultural phenomenon of the 1960s and the 1970s when modernism was worshipped in Taiwan's intellectual circles. During that time, there was no opportunity to practice modernism in commercial film. The incorporation of modernism into Taiwan cinema was only possible in the early 1980s when the film industry urgently needed revitalization. On the other hand, Yang deliberately chooses modernist techniques as an effective form to articulate a post-colonial, self-reflexive hybridity.

The choice of modernism shows the complexity and irony in the cinematic reflections of a nation. One should caution against simplistically equating modernist forms in Third World cinema with European modernism when these forms may have a different signification. Just as the boundary between the First and the Third is not easily transgressed (any non-American permanent resident can describe how tedious it is to pass the immigration inspection at major U.S. airports), a critique of Taiwan's neocolonial history should not be undermined in the re-mapping of a "Third World" city/ nation from a Western cosmopolitan perspective.

The book's all-encompassing scope also produces shoddy research on Taiwanese cinema in its Chinese bibliography. English writings on Taiwanese cinema are rare, but since the book includes Chinese sources from the PRC and Hong Kong, it is surprising that only two book entries from Taiwan are included.[2] In fact, Taiwan's major film journal, Film Appreciation, has published many important articles on the New Cinema in the 1980s, and it is still regularly organizing special topics on themes such as the representation of Taiwan's aborigines, documentary film, colonial cinema, etc. The Film Archive has conducted research on Hokkien (the Chinese dialect spoken by the majority of people in Taiwan) films of the 1950s and the 1960s as well as projects on early Taiwanese film. Another important intellectual journal Contemporary constantly publishes scholarly articles on PRC, Hong Kong, and Taiwan films. One wonders whether lack of access or lack of interest makes the book's editors presume that there is no film studies in Taiwan. Ironically, one can easily find writings on Taiwan in mainland China's publications.

Such an oversight ties in with the book's ignorance of how many aspects of cultural production in Hong Kong and Taiwan deal with the reconstruction of identity. If one examines Tsui Hark's works beyond superficially accusing them of cynicism, one finds in them the articulation of an identity and an interpretation of Chinese history from a specific colonial subject position without apology. Tsui Hark's SWORDSMAN series (SWORDSMAN, SWORDSMAN II, EAST IS RED), and the series about the legendary martia-larts master Huang Fei-hong (ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA I, II, III, and IV) have clearly expressed a national and cultural identity based on revised interpretations of historical incidents and ambivalence toward cultural essentialism.

Since the mid 1980s, historians in Taiwan have begun to redefine the relation between Taiwan and China from an activisit/ nativist perspective. In many cultural fields, the debate on what constitutes a legitimate Taiwanese identity has been a fervent topic. To defend Taiwanese identity does not mean, as many would argue, purely ideological opposition-conventionalized as capitalist vs. socialist — but contesting national concepts between the monolithic and the plural. Yet New Chinese Cinemas seems unaware of these new developments.

In the current relations between Hong Kong and the PRC as well as between Taiwan and the PRC, China remains an oppressive political entity. This can be judged from the PRC's uncompromising attitudes toward the Hong Kong Chinese regarding the 1997 issue and constant interference in Taiwan's international relations.[3] On the other hand, in order to reinforce the "One-China" policy, the term "Chinese" has become loaded with cultural chauvinism, and this is apparent in studies on the two margins by PRC scholars. With China's continual chauvinistic attitude to Hong Kong and Taiwan, scholarship in Chinese-language cinema (zhongwen dianying) should resist the imposition of China's (zhongguo de) hegemony upon the margins.


The Chinese translation of this essay appeared in the Taiwanese journal Film Appreciation 26.2 (1996): 75-86. Special thanks to Darrell W. Davis, David E. James, and Gina Marchetti for their helpful comments.

1. The concept of empire in Chinese history can be traced back to the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.) when Qinshihuang established a unified Chinese empire. Since then, the conception of the "Middle Kingdom" has been constituted by three components, namely, unification, standardization and centralization. Although the imperial structure was terminated by the Republican revolution in 1911, the three defining concepts have not lost their vitality in the later communist administration. The military invasion of Tibet, centralized policy on governing the ethnic minorities, and its claims of sovereignty on Taiwan and Hong Kong are, in fact, manifestations of the central ideas of the traditional empire.

2. The two books are Taiwan tin dianying [Taiwanese New Cinema] and Xianggang dianyingfengmao [Hong Kong Cinema], edited by Taiwanese film critic, Chiao Hsiung-ping.

3. The examples are numerous. In the summer of 1994, due to PRC government pressure, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked Taiwan's President Li Teng-hui not to go to the opening ceremony of the 1994 Asian Games held in Hiroshima, Japan. The most recent and well-known instance is Li's visit in the United States to give a speech at Cornell University. See "Cornell's Reunion is China's Nightmare: China fumes over a private U. S. visit by Taiwan's leader to his old school" by James Walsh, Time, June 5, 1995.