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Reading: Yijing Zhang, “Directors, Aesthetics, Genres: Chinese Postsocialist Cinema, 1979–2010” in

Wiley Blackwell Companion to Chinese Cinema

, ed. Yijing Zhang. (Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2012)


Yellow Earth


Huang tu di

, Kaige Chen, 1984, China)

Write a 400-word journal, it should be written based on the assigned films. In the journal, you should demonstrate that 1) you have watched the film AND 2) you can articulate the main arguments of the assigned readings in relation to the film. In other words, the journal should base on your critical analysis of the film in conjunction with the assigned readings.

Directors, Aesthetics, Genres
Chinese Postsocialist Cinema, 1979–2010
Yingjin Zhang
This chapter delineates the shifting contours of Chinese cinema from 1979 to 2010,
an era marked by contending designations – “post-Mao,” “postsocialist,” “reform
and opening,” “modernization,” “globalization,” to name just a few. The “postMao” started with the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976, but the term has
never gained much currency in Chinese scholarship partly due to the sanctioned
status of Mao and his socialist legacy. The official Chinese designation is that of
“reform and opening,” an unprecedented platform launched by Deng Xiaoping in
December 1978 and expanded by his successors in a sustained effort to lead China
out of poverty to prosperity by means of modernization and, more recently,
globalization.1 As in other sectors in China, the transformation of the planned
economy to the market economy has engendered large-scale “seismic” changes
(a metaphor I will return to in the conclusion) in Chinese cinema, which has developed from an exclusive state monopoly to a jumble of official, commercial, and
independent operations, and which now revolves around the market more than
anything else, although the state has never released its ideological grip through
censorship and a separate, marginal field of independent film production has
emerged and persisted (Y. Zhang 2010a: 170–86).
Despite the official position on “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” many
scholars have chosen “postsocialist” to describe Chinese cinema since the late
1970s. The term was used first in Chinese film studies to indicate certain “popular
perception” and “an alienated … mode of thought and behavior” (Pickowicz 1994:
61–2) suspicious of or alternative to the socialist norms, as expressed in many
popular films Xie Jin directed during the 1980s, but the term’s parameters have
been gradually extended to encompass cinematic styles (Berry and Farquhar 1994),
a political economy (X. Zhang 2000), a periodizing framework (Berry 2004a),
a cultural logic (S. Lu 2007: 208), and a global condition (McGrath 2008b: 13–18).
A Companion to Chinese Cinema, First Edition. Edited by Yingjin Zhang.
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
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Yingjin Zhang
As Sheldon Lu (2007: 210) aptly summarizes: “As a hyphenated construction, postsocialism is by definition the coexistence of multiple temporalities and modes of
production, the symbiosis of capitalism and socialism, and the embodiment of
continuities as well as discontinuities.” As such, postsocialism cannot but be an
evolving reality subject to contingency and uncertainty, and it therefore demands
our ongoing critical attention.
Given limitations of space, this chapter identifies only a small number of salient
discontinuities and continuities in postsocialist cinema. Rather than a chronological
narrative of major events, leading artists, and representative films (Y. Zhang 2004a:
225–96), I concentrate on three interrelated areas – directors, aesthetics, and genres –
and emphasize the crucial importance of multiplicity and simultaneity by taking up
problems engendered by a generational lineup, the significance of avant-garde
experiment and international reception, the complication of genre repackaging, and
the changing functions of cinema in the age of globalization. I argue that,
convenient as it is, dividing directors into generations does little justice to the
complexity and heterogeneity of Chinese film history, that several generations
share their moments of experimental filmmaking at different historical junctures,
and that the principal function of cinema in postsocialist China has switched
from aesthetics and education in the late 1970s through 1980s to entertainment
in the 2000s. To sustain these arguments, we need to step back from the current
exhilarated scene of a whirlwind of record-setting Chinese “mega-films” (dapian)
or blockbusters (see Table 11.1 in Chapter 11, this volume) and pursue a critical
reexamination of recent Chinese film history.
Directors: Problems in a Generational Lineup
In Chinese film studies, a generational lineup of directors constitutes a significant
effort at ensuring a sense of continuity in historical narrative. As director-scholar
Zheng Dongtian (b. 1944) recalled in 2002 (Y. Yang 2006: 28), by the end of 1984,
the emergence of avant-garde films like Yellow Earth (Chen Kaige, 1984) had
occasioned a retrospective lineup of Chinese directors by grouping major figures
who embodied successive mentor–apprentice relationships into various generations. According to this scheme, Zheng Zhengqiu represents the First Generation
who worked on early silent cinema during the 1910s–1920s; Cai Chusheng, who
served as assistant to Zheng Zhengqiu, belongs to the Second Generation who
helped launch the leftist film movement of the 1930s and whose directorial career
continued into the 1940s; Chen Huaiai (1920–94), who trained Zheng Dongtian,
thus counts in the Third Generation who became active in the socialist period of
the 1950s–1960s; Zheng Dongtian, who taught Chen Kaige (b. 1952, Chen Huaiai’s
son), Tian Zhuangzhuang (b. 1952), and others in the first class admitted to the
Beijing Film Academy after the Cultural Revolution (Z. Ni 2002), is included in the
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rank of the Fourth Generation who emerged in the immediate post-Mao period
and whose films dominated in the 1980s; finally, Chen Kaige rounds up in the Fifth
Generation who brought Chinese cinema to the international spotlight after the
mid-1980s. By 1993, another group of young directors including Zhang Yuan
(b. 1963) and Wang Xiaoshuai (b. 1966) appeared with their courageous independent productions and was conveniently named the Sixth Generation, even though
many of them, like the Fifth Generation, studied under the Fourth Generation and
their international reputation followed the Fifth Generation’s only a few years later.
The pedagogical value of this generational lineup is obvious, for common
characteristics of each generation are recognized as representative of a given
period (usually a decade or two in duration), and continuities and discontinuities
are charted out in generational terms. According to this by-now familiar story, the
First Generation – including Zhang Shichuan and Hou Yao (see Chapter 2, this
volume) – established a viable domestic film industry by adopting an entertainment strategy oftentimes spiced up with modern images and reformist ideas. The
Second Generation – including Sun Yu, Fei Mu, and Sang Hu (1916–2004) – brought
film into two “golden ages” (S. Huang 1992: 78) by promoting nationalist and leftist ideologies and cultivating realist aesthetics. The Third Generation – including
Shui Hua (1916–95) and Xie Jin – adapted to political expectations by developing
new historical discourse and revolutionary aesthetics (see Chapter 3, this volume).
The Fourth Generation – including Huang Shuqin (b. 1939), Wu Tianming
(b. 1939), and Xie Fei (b. 1942) – returned to humanism and articulated popular
sentiments closely in line with changing official policies. The Fifth Generation –
including Huang Jianxin (b. 1954), Wu Ziniu (b. 1953), and Zhang Yimou (b. 1950) –
challenged revolutionary heroism and conventional melodrama by experimenting
with new wave cinematic techniques, reaffirming the artist’s subjectivity, and
inventing a national allegory through meditations on modern Chinese culture and
history. The Sixth Generation – including Lou Ye and Jia Zhangke (b. 1970) –
identified with the aesthetic and social margins and resisted the political and
commercial mainstream by producing outside the state system, showcasing
individual perceptions in fragmentary images and narratives, and claiming truth
and objectivity as their primary goals (Y. Yang 2005).
As I have already contended (Y. Zhang 2002: 22–6), problems in such a
generational lineup abound because sweeping generalizations tend to gloss over
the internal contradiction and discontinuity that inevitably mark a generation and
its representative directors. With historical hindsight we see clearly that the Fifth
Generation directors do not – and cannot possibly – share a homogeneous style
over a span of 25 years, nor does any single director in that generation adhere to
one exclusive form of filmmaking in his or her career to date. The discontinuity
and heterogeneity within a generation are already evident in the multiplicity
suggested in the naming of a generation. The emergent Sixth Generation, for
instance, were given competing names such as “the new-born generation” (Yin and
Ling 2002), “the urban generation” (Z. Zhang 2007b), or simply “new generation”
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(Sun and Li 2008). Even though “the post-Sixth Generation” (just like “the postFifth Generation”) and “the Seventh Generation” have surfaced from time to time,
critics and directors seem to have reached a consensus that the generational marker
no longer functions adequately in the new century (Y. Yang 2006: 27).2 Indeed, the
sheer number of 526 annual domestic feature productions in 2010 (H. Liu 2011) –
compared with twenty in 1977 and 67 in 1979 (Y. Zhang 2004a: 196) – makes it
fruitless to sort through differences and decide who belong to which generation
and who represent a new generation.
In terms of film criticism, the naming itself matters less than the dynamics
between and within the generations, and for such a dynamic of continuity and
discontinuity across generations we revisit Dai Jinhua’s analysis of the Oedipal
rivalry between the son and the father in contemporary Chinese cinema. For Dai,
the Fifth Generation (or the “son’s generation”) managed to break away from the
political ideology of their father’s generation (i.e., the Third Generation), but only
to fall back into the “historical trap.” Their “desperate spiritual breakaway” was
achieved through acts of symbolic as well as actual “patricide” – paradoxically in
the name of the “Father” (i.e., Mao Zedong) – during the Cultural Revolution, an
initiation ritual and a “carnival for the sons”; nevertheless, once the fathers’ authority was stripped, as “fatherless sons” the Fifth Generation could not but rectify
their own name by reestablishing their fathers as legitimate revolutionary heroes.3
The struggle between the father–son hierarchy and a “fatherless culture” eventually
entrapped them in a maze of film language and historical representation, rendering their art like a “wrecked bridge” (duanqiao) on a precipitous cliff that would
never reach the other side ( J. Dai 1999: 35–71). In Dai’s judgment, a similar trajectory of an initial breakaway followed by a subsequent entrapment characterizes
the Fourth Generation, who successfully escaped the post-Mao political confinement by promoting humanist values and André Bazin’s realist theory, but their
overwhelming sentimentalism in addressing historical traumas and their newfound
fascination with the “backward” rural rituals of an “ancient China” ultimately
forced them back into the trap of cinematic convention. True, they tried their best
to look out on a changing landscape from a “slanting tower” (xieta), but a series of
“earthquakes” in the form of social transformations increased the slanting of the
tower and finally reduced it to a pile of ruins, entrapping the Fourth Generation in
a state of bewilderment and vulnerability ( J. Dai 1999: 15–34).
Dai’s analysis of the Fourth and Fifth Generations reminds us that continuity
and similarity lie just beneath eye-catching discontinuity and rupture, both
captured in her vivid images of the slanting tower and the wrecked bridge. Indeed,
to trace a later transformation, one striking example of the continuity with the
mainstream ideology is the fact that by the turn of the new millennium, some
prominent members of the Fourth and Fifth Generations would enthusiastically
direct state-funded “main melody” (zhuxuanlü) or propaganda features, such as My
1919 (Huang Jianzhong, 1999) and The National Anthem (Wu Ziniu, 1999). This fact
is striking because previously both directors had ventured into avant-garde
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filmmaking, Huang Jianzhong (b. 1943) with Questions for the Living (1986), a social
intervention more than a ghost story, and Wu Ziniu with Sparkling Fox (1993), an
existentialist meditation on urban civilization. Even Zhang Yuan, an icon of
“underground filmmaking” in much of the 1990s, decided to go through the state
system and produce his first “aboveground” feature, Seventeen Years (1999), whose
Chinese title, Guonian huijia (returning home for the spring festival), is read
allegorically as a sign of the rebellious Sixth Generation returning home after
“wandering” and indulging in emotional irruption and “youthful narcissism” (Yin
and Ling 2002: 186–8).
Nonetheless, the force of continuity does not work for the status quo alone. The
term “New Chinese Cinema” covers three generations – from the Third to the
Fifth – whose works in the 1980s share the same noticeable experimental spirit (to
be further illustrated in the next section) and therefore point to a particular kind of
continuity in challenging the establishment with innovative practices.4 The shared
interest in avant-garde filmmaking, although taken up at different historical
junctures, compels us not to attribute aesthetic innovations exclusively to one
generation (i.e., the Fifth) while ignoring similar attempts in other generations. As
a matter of fact, what characterizes the thirty years of Chinese postsocialist cinema
is that each generation went through the cycle of pursuing aesthetic innovations
first and returning to the more or less conventional form of melodrama. The
conspicuous discontinuity created by each generation’s initial breakthrough is
therefore counterbalanced by their subsequent turnaround to the cinematic convention on the one hand and their succeeding generation’s initial breakthrough on
the other. For instance, Horse Thief (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1986) foregrounds the
Fifth Generation’s determination to push the minimalist plot and dialogue and to
challenge the audience’s concept of cinema at a time when the Fourth Generation
had become comfortable in restaging traditional culture in rural China, as evident
in A Girl from Hunan (Xie Fei, 1985) (see Figure 4.1) and A Good Woman (Huang
Jianzhong, 1985), both following sexual and social tensions resulting from the practice of having a teenage bride marry a toddler husband. Similarly, Beijing Bastards
(Zhang Yuan, 1993) announced the emergence of a rebellious Sixth Generation at
a time when the Fifth Generation was no longer experimental in such heartrending works as Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993) and To Live (Zhang Yimou,
1994), although both address politically sensitive issues by dramatizing prolonged
suffering in a seemingly nonstop succession of political events in twenthiethcentury China. More recently, Red Snow (Peng Tao, 2006) sets up an existentialist
stage for the irrational violence of the Cultural Revolution and demonstrates the
extraordinary vitality in China’s independent filmmaking at a time when the Sixth
Generation were increasingly conventional in their aboveground films, like
Shanghai Dreams (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2005).
As shown in our brief revisit to the problems in a generational lineup of directors
in this section, Chinese postsocialist cinema is indeed an embodiment of continuities as well as discontinuities, and such embodiment occurs at different artistic,
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Figure 4.1 A teenage wife (Na Renhua) and her toddler husband in A Girl from Hunan
(dir. Xie Fei, Youth Studio, 1985).
ideological, and historical registers. Given their prevalence in Chinese film studies,
it makes sense that we continue to use the generational markers, but we must keep
in mind that the characteristics of each generation refer more often than not to
that generation’s early phase of experiment. In order to appreciate these experimental phases that, if examined from a higher level, bear resemblances across
recent generational divides, we now take a closer look at issues of film aesthetics
and international reception.
Aesthetics: Of Avant-Garde Experiment
and International Reception
The post-Mao period witnessed an urgent call for changes in Chinese cinema. In
1979, Zhang Nuanxin (1940–95), a female director teaching at the Beijing Film
Academy, and Li Tuo, a noted writer and critic, published a long co-authored
article, “The Modernization of Film Language,” which was immediately celebrated
as “the blueprint for experimental film” and “the artistic manifesto of the Fourth
Generation” (Y. Ding 2002, II: 10). Writing against what they saw as the “stale” or
even “regressive” socialist film language at the time, Zhang and Li selectively
reviewed the development of film language in international film history and
enumerated new breakthroughs ranging from Italian Neorealism and the French
New Wave to other innovative examples from the Soviet Union, Japan, and the
United Sates. Their major target was the influence of “theater” (xiju) – including
theatric conflict, dramatic tension, and narrative plot – on film, which for them
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had become Chinese cinema’s “clutch” that must be thrown away in order to
modernize Chinese film language. “Documentary style” (jilu fengge) and “long
take” (changjingtou) aesthetics based on Bazin’s realist theory were promoted in
lieu of the prevailing reliance on montage and editing. More specifically, mise-en-scène,
variation within a single take, color contrast, pace or tempo, split screens, and
audiovisual counterpoint were cited as innovative practices that would enrich
Chinese film language.
The urge to modernize Chinese film language was shared by many Fourth
Generation directors in the early 1980s. Narrow Street (Yang Yanjin, 1981) drives
home the sense of contingency in life by featuring three alternate endings to a
tragic love story in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, while My Memory of
Old Beijing (Wu Yigong, 1982) is permeated with sentimentality through its poetic
presentation. However, in terms of artistic impact on Chinese cinema and the
international film festival, the Fourth Generation – despite their historical role as
the initiators of a modernist film language in postsocialist China – paled in
comparison to their students, both the Fifth and Sixth Generations. Zhang and Li’s
call for nondramatic tempo and audiovisual counterpoint, for instance, is best
exemplified in Yellow Earth, which reduces its dialogue to a minimum and evokes
repressed emotions through the intermittent singing of bitter folk songs and abundant landscape shots of Loess Plateaus. Similarly, rather than characterizing any
single Fourth Generation director, the documentary style and long-take aesthetics
have become the signature of the Sixth Generation, especially its latecomer Jia
Zhangke, as well as an increasing number of young independent directors like Liu
Jiayin (b. 1981) and Ying Liang (b. 1977).5
Back in the mid-1980s, Chen Kaige was proud of the “concealment” (hanxu)
style of Yellow Earth, which is illustrated by Zhang Yimou’s inspirational cinematography. “The boundless magnificence of the heavens; the supporting vastness of
the earth,” and the “flow of the Yellow River” (Barmé and Minford 1988: 259) – all
this takes on more visual and conceptual prominence than do human figures in the
film, the latter often dwarfed by a disproportionate composition that emphasizes
the volume of the yellow earth and the emptiness of the blue sky. The film’s radical visual language puzzled the film establishment of the time. Yu Yanfu (b. 1924),
a Third Generation director, complained that the film is by no means faultless
(Barmé and Minford 1988: 261): “There are a lot of shots in which the camera simply doesn’t move, and the characters remain immobile and silent for long periods.
You can’t really tell what they’re supposed to be thinking.” Xia Yan, a Second
Generation screenwriter and a ranking film bureaucrat in socialist China, likewise
expressed his discomfort with the film’s portrayal of “the broad masses” (i.e., local
peasants): “I simply fail to understand how people so close to Yan’an could remain
completely untouched by the new spirit that came from Yan’an” (Barmé and
Minford 1988: 267). Xia and Yu’s complaints register the radical potential of the
avant-garde film language in challenging, if not subverting, the state-sanctioned
aesthetics of revolutionary realism.
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Yingjin Zhang
In its slow pace and its painterly rendition of natural landscape, Yellow Earth is
aesthetically linked to contemporary experimental arts in post-Mao China (see
Chapter 21, this volume). “Father” (1980), Luo Zhongli’s large oil painting of an old
peasant, is widely believed to have influenced the artistic design of the taciturn
father figure in Yellow Earth; likewise, the film’s peculiar landscape composition
may be traced to a regional painting style from Shaanxi (Wilkerson 1994). An obsession with barren landscapes marks several high-profile Fifth Generation films, from
One and Eight (Zhang Junzhao, 1984) to Red Sorghum (Zhang Yimou, 1987), Evening
Bell (Wu Ziniu, 1988), and Life on a String (Chen Kaige, 1991) (X. Zhang 1997:
282–328). Indeed, the painterly quality of these avant-garde films may have inspired
the consistent presentation of wild landscapes in China’s West in martial arts films
of the 1990s, culminating in the picturesque landscape in Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000), which have spawned countless imitations in recent blockbuster films, including those from Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. Even within
China’s independent productions, Thomas Mao (Zhu Wen, 2010) is still located in
this painterly tradition, showcasing the Mongolian grassland on the one hand and
featuring the real-life painter Mao Yan and his regular model Thomas Rohdewald
(a native of Luxemburg) as male leads in a series of existential adventures.
If the Fifth Generation – with its iconic breathtaking rural landscapes – fulfilled
Zhang Nuanxin and Li Tuo’s “modernist” expectation of innovative color contrast
and minimalist plot better than its mentors in the Fourth Generation, the expectation of a sustained documentary style and long-take aesthetics was not met until a
decade later when the Sixth Generation pursued its relentless exploration of
precarious, anxiety-ridden urban conditions of everyday life in postsocialist China.
Instead of painting, a revered form of high art embodied in Western oil painting as
well as Chinese ink-wash painting, the Sixth Generation turned to video, an
emergent practice associated with amateur art at best. Significantly, it is this “spirit
of amateurism” (Z. Jia 2003) that brought a fresh look and a new aesthetics to
Chinese cinema in the 1990s. Mama (Zhang Yuan, 1991), a prototype of the underground film, contains video interviews with Qin Yan, the film’s screenwriter who
plays a distressed mother who defies social prejudice to care for her autistic
son. Such a relentless documentary method was subsequently adopted in Zhang
Yuan’s Beijing Bastards, which includes the rehearsal footage of Cui Jian, China’s
first rock star and an icon of subcultural rebellion in the years immediately after
the military crackdown on the Tiananmen democratic movement on June 4, 1989.
Gradually, the Sixth Generation’s typical claim on objectivity and truth was
strengthened by real-life actors and locations in films like Sons (Zhang Yuan, 1996)
and Quitting (Zhang Yang, 2001), the former following an alcoholic family and the
later a drug addict – Jia Hongsheng (1967–2010), who plays himself before he committed suicide – in their respective struggles for rehab. When Jia Zhangke appeared
with Xiao Wu (1997), his signature long-take aesthetic (McGrath 2008b: 129–64;
Berry 2009) would enhance the appeal of “on-the-spot” (xianchang) realism
normally attributed to documentary filmmaking (Berry, Lu, and Rofel 2010). To a
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considerable extent, such documentary realism, replete with shaky camerawork,
disheartening subject matter, and existentialist angst, still informs much of current
documentary and feature production in China’s vibrant independent sector (see
Chapter 16, this volume).
Given the Fourth Generation’s early commitment to modernizing Chinese film
language, it is worth speculating why their works were rarely recognized in international reception. Since the 1980s, major international film festivals in the West
have consistently favored the Fifth and Sixth Generations as well as new wave
directors from Hong Kong and Taiwan (see tables in Chapter 13, this volume).
Even though Woman from the Lake of Scented Souls (Xie Fei, 1993) and The Wedding
Banquet (Ang Lee, 1993) both won the Golden Bear at Berlin in the same year, Lee’s
film had an impressive subsequent arthouse run in Euro-America, whereas Xie’s
quickly fell into oblivion, even inside China.
In my view, the international film festivals’ lack of interest in the Fourth
Generation can be attributed to several factors. First, in terms of cultural content,
Fourth Generation films usually demanded a high level of knowledge with regard
to Chinese history and culture, and their insistence on capturing Chinese
emotional life had made their films rather inaccessible to average international
arthouse audiences. In contrast, Zhang Yimou’s early films – including Ju Dou
(1989) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) – resonate with a longstanding Orientalist
view of a backward rural China, and those “ethnographic films” (Y. Zhang 2002:
207–39) based on the so-called “Zhang Yimou model” (T. Lu 2002: 157–73) –
showcasing aggressive female sexuality, cruel patriarchal repression, traditional
architectural confinement, and picturesque wild landscape (Larson 1995) – were
fairly successful in international reception during the 1990s.6 Second, in terms of
artistic style, the Fourth Generation was less experimental than the Fifth and Sixth
Generations and their films fared poorly with those film festivals that prized
innovative styles and auteurist visions. On the other hand, the Fifth Generation
had the advantage of a striking visual language that would easily transcend cultural
barriers, and the Sixth Generation’s initial reliance on rock music secured a certain
affinity with the previous Western experience of a youthful counterculture
(Donald 1998). Third, in terms of transnational politics, the Fourth Generation
was generally perceived as pro-establishment, whereas the Fifth and Sixth
Generations, whose early works were often labeled “banned in China” for real or
for publicity purposes in the West, attracted attention partly or primarily because
of their censorship problems at home. Consciously or not, their sensitive subject
matters, along with their experimental styles, have obtained different political ends
in the uncharted waters of the post-cold war global cultural arena. To quote a
prominent Chinese critic ( J. Dai 2002: 90): “Just as the films of Zhang Yimou
and his imitators satisfied the West’s old Orientalist mirror image, the West
again privileged the Sixth Generation as the Other.… Created as a mirror image, it
again validated Western intellectuals’ mapping of China’s democracy, progress,
resistance, civil society, and the marginal figure.”
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As Dai Jinhua (2002: 90–1) observed, the Western reception validated – indeed,
appropriated – the Sixth Generation for its own political ends more than innovative aesthetics, and the contrast between the Sixth Generation’s international fame
and its domestic obscurity thus made it “a scene in the fog” (wuzhong fengjing) in
the early 1990s. Precisely for such apparently one-sided favoritism from the
Western media, since the early 1990s the Fifth and Sixth Generations have
frequently been faulted by Chinese critics for catering to Western audiences
(Q. Dai 1993). In fact, similar criticism has even come from the West. Here is
Shelley Kraicer’s (2009) daydream/fantasy:
There exists, down some dusty grey hutong alleyway of Beijing, a Chinese Indie
Director’s Discount Emporium. You want to make a film? Step right in and assemble
your movie at bargain prices. The shelving on the left is stocked with cast members:
long-haired village boys, out of school, drifting aimlessly. At the back is a set of
grainy, dusty, brown-grey village-scapes, ready to be populated by said drifters. To
the right, useful equipment. Some tripods, but with a restriction: they must be set up
at least 50 metres from the subjects being filmed. Right beside is a very long long
shelf, holding 3 minute, 10 minute, even 20 minute-long takes, offered for a steal at
family-sized package prices. Alternatively, you could go for deep discount on little
DV cams, with the proviso that, held close to the subjects, they be shaken as
vigorously as possible. The dialogue shelves in the centre are threadbare: screenplays
for rent are all dialogue-light. And, off in a corner, is a shelf labelled “Prostitutes.” It’s
over-loaded, with a three-for-the-price-of-one sale.
Kraicer (2009) admit that his imaginary scenario is “a bit mean” but cannot but
pose this question: “Who can blame a young director from China, who, with little
or no chance of gaining any return on his or her investment within his own
country, tries to design a film to suit those foreigners who pay the bills, fund
postproduction, and just might offer an overseas distribution deal?”
A young Canadian curator who has recently lived and studied in Beijing for
years as an enthusiast more than a skeptic, Kraicer is a new associate in what Dai
Jinhua (2002: 89–90) saw as “the refined and arrogant European festival circuit [and
the] conceited American film circles,” but Kraicer’s suspicion of formulaic artistic
practices of the Sixth Generation and its followers – elsewhere projected in such
iconic objects as “bulldozers, bibles and very sharp knives” (Nornes 2009) – once
again raises the question of once-innovative directors falling back into the trap of
unimaginative convention. As illustrated in the preceding section, such a cycle of
breakthrough followed by entrapment occurred historically to the Fourth and
Fifth Generations. Just as the emergent Fifth Generation intended to make their
screen images radically different from those of their father’s generation, so did the
pioneering Sixth Generation rebel against such stock images as yellow earth, sorghum fields, waist drums, red cloth, bandits, and landlords in the Fifth Generation’s
ethnographic films (Cheng and Huang 2002: 31). The cycle of formulaic stalemate
and innovative breakthrough must therefore be understood as part of the very
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dynamics that generates the simultaneity of aesthetic continuity and discontinuity
in Chinese cinema. In this sense, Kraicer’s gloomy scenario is only one side of the
picture, for the aesthetic dynamic itself ensures that innovative works continue
to appear year after year, as the energetic scene of recent Chinese independent
filmmaking has proved.
Genres: Between Critical Intervention
and Commercial Repackaging
If we leave aside the international reception that consistently prefers avant-garde
aesthetics and controversial subjects, we may realize that, rather than the awardwinning art films mentioned above, the dominant market force in postsocialist
China has always operated in the realm of genre films, in particular melodrama,
comedy, and martial arts.7 In order to delineate the dynamics at work in the
domestic film market, we reexamine two critical debates below – the first on “Xie
Jin’s model” and the second on “entertainment cinema” (yule pian) – that capture
the anxiety of Chinese film critics and filmmakers in an age of far-reaching
In 1986, young critic Zhu Dake (b. 1957) published an article criticizing Xie Jin’s
film model. For Zhu, Xie Jin’s films of the 1980s excelled in expanding emotions
and making viewers weep so profusely as to be manipulated willingly into accepting the artist’s traditional moral values. The way Xie’s emotional provocation
worked resembled the spread of medieval religions on the one hand and, on the
other, the typical Cinderella story of Hollywood commercial films. Like
Hollywood, Xie Jin’s model had its set procedure of arranging moral–emotional
codes: “a good person suffering injustice,” “discovery of hidden values,” “moral
persuasion,” and “the triumph of good over evil” – all this aimed to defuse social
conflicts and betrays the lingering effects of cultural imperialism. Moreover, Zhu
argued, Xie had developed his “cine-Confucianism” (dianying ruxue), which
was typified by his leading woman character invariably portrayed as gentle,
kind-hearted, industrious, resilient, submissive, reserved, and self-sacrificing – an
outdated exemplary woman who was nothing but a “deformed product of patriarchal culture,” a woman who, in her status as man’s accessory, was used to discover
and confirm man’s values and provide him with happiness. Xie’s cine-Confucian
woman thus embodied an investment in family and patriotism. As such, Xie Jin’s
model was regarded as a discordant note in China’s cultural change and a retreat
from the May Fourth spirit (D. Zhu 1986).
Zhu’s article triggered a heated debate in 1986. On the one hand, critics accused
Xie of pandering to popular tastes and audiences’ desires. Li Jie (1990), for instance,
judged Xie Jin’s to be “a closed model of stability,” a perfect combination of “the
three major aspects of Chinese film – politics, entertainment, and art” – that had
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“brought him a series of successes” as well as “blind cheers and applause”; precisely
due to its popularity, “this obsolete film model should be discarded … Xie Jin’s era
should end.” On the other hand, defenders acknowledged Xie’s invaluable contribution to Chinese cinema. Zhong Dianfei, a veteran scholar who had suffered
political persecution as a “bourgeois Rightist” in 1957 (see Chapter 3, this volume)
and who was not rehabilitated until 1978, praised Xie’s ability to attract audiences
young and old as an unusual accomplishment, for “film cannot live without
audiences”; instead of “obsolete,” Zhong described Xie as an artist moving “ahead
of his time” (D. Zhong 1986).
The debate on Xie Jin’s model in 1986 reveals a fundamental dilemma in
postsocialist cinema: whereas young critics assumed an avant-garde position and
idealistically expected film art to be separated from politics and commercialism,
Xie Jin combined art and politics in such a way that resonated with popular
sentiments. Xie’s commercial success was correctly attributed to the influence of
Hollywood melodrama, but this influence alone must not warrant negative
judgment. In response to Western melodrama film theory, Nick Browne (1994: 43)
proposes a concept of “political melodrama” for Xie Jin’s case and defines it as “an
expression of a mode of injustice whose mise-en-scène is precisely the nexus
between public and private life, a mode in which gender as a mark of difference is
a limited, mobile term activated by distinctive social powers and historical circumstances.” The popular success of Xie’s films like The Legend of Tianyun Mountain
(1980), the first interrogation of the injustice suffered by bourgeois Rightists on
the post-Mao screen, shows that his melodramatic reconfiguration of power, gender, history, and memory, along with his typical concluding catharsis by restoring
justice, worked wonders in enabling the audience to articulate pent-up emotions
in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.
In retrospect, the young critics’ premature pronouncements appear rather
ironic on several counts. First, except for the socialist period, Chinese cinema
always kept its distance from the May Fourth “elitist” enlightenment discourse
because the “popular” film melodrama, with its “rhetorical excess, extravagant
representation, and intensity of moral claim” (Pickowicz 1993a: 300–1), time and
again diluted or even derailed heavy-handed ideological indoctrination. From Little
Toys (Sun Yu, 1933) and Dream in Paradise (Tang Xiaodan, 1947) to Hibiscus Town
(Xie Jin, 1986), Paul Pickowicz (1993a) locates a long tradition of melodrama in
Chinese cinema and contends that the melodramatic imagination is deeply rooted
in Chinese life. In fact, melodrama dominated the Chinese silent screen as early as
the 1920s (see Chapter 2, this volume). Second, not only has Xie Jin’s model of
combining politics, entertainment, and art continued in various incarnations since
the mid-1980s, but melodrama was actually the foundation in postsocialist cinema
involving enthusiastic participation from Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Generation
directors after their respective initial phases of aesthetic experiments. In the new
century, former avant-garde directors Chen Kaige (Together with You, 2002) and
Zhang Yuan (I Love You, 2002) turned to melodrama without much hesitation. To
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a great extent, many films in the “Zhang Yimou model” are melodramatic in
nature, except that in this variation the suffering woman may not be rewarded and
good may not triumph over evil. Third, in a changed socioeconomic environment
from the 1990s onward, box-office successes like Xie Jin’s would no longer carry a
stigma of commercialism, for a slate of new reform measures – including the
financial self-sufficiency required for all state-run film studios (Y. Zhu 2003) – had
forced Chinese filmmakers to reevaluate their positions and rethink concepts like
art and entertainment.
A revisit to a series of debates on entertainment cinema in the late 1980s helps
us better understand the changing dynamics of postsocialism at work on the
cultural front. In 1987, the state-funded academic journal Contemporary Cinema
dedicated its first three bi-monthly issues to a forum, “Dialogues on Entertainment
Cinema,” and several film directors participated and called for restoring the
legitimate status of entertainment in Chinese cinema. Song Cong (b. 1941), for
one, raised three theoretical theses: “Entertainment cinema is the mainstay (zhuti)
of cinema; entertainment mentality is lofty rather than vulgar; entertainment
should be treated as an end rather than a means” (D. Li 2002: 599). In December
1988, Contemporary Cinema organized a conference on contemporary Chinese
entertainment cinema, and many participants subsequently published articles
based on their presentations. In his 1989 article, Chen Haosu (then Vice-Minister
of Radio, Television, and Film) postulated the ontology (zhuti) of entertainment
cinema and reversed the previous order of cinematic functions: “the entertainment function is the origin and foundation, whereas the artistic (or aesthetic) function and the educational (or cognitive) function are its extension and development”
(D. Li 2002: 587). Chen’s radical postulation drew immediate rebuttals. Lu Weiping,
for instance, castigated the idea of the ontology of entertainment cinema as
“anti-tradition,” “anti-culture,” “anti-art,” and “anti-rationalism” and equated it to
a cultural policy of “fooling people” (D. Li 2002: 588–9).
Rather than excessive rhetoric, Jia Leilei struck a balance by bringing the debate
to a theoretical level in a 1989 article. First, he defined entertainment cinema as
“conventional cinema” (changgui dianying) characterized by “its ultimate goal in
commercial value, its ontological status in plot-driven narrative, and its primary
function in providing pleasure”; second, he pointed to a series of adjustments the
artist must make when engaging in entertainment cinema: “merging the principle
of individuality into that of collectivity; integrating the subject’s unique creativity
into the adaptability of the group; transforming breakthrough and transcendence
into observance and preservation of rules; shifting from philosophical meditation
to emotional persuasion; and molding inspiration into experience” (D. Li 2002:
589–90). Obviously, for Jia and other scholars, the opposite of entertainment
cinema was experimental or “exploratory cinema” (tansuo pian), which was their
familiar territory, endowed with claims to individual creativity and philosophical
sophistication but which, unfortunately, started to face serious problems in the
domestic market in spite of its growing international reputation.8
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In fact, the entire film industry was caught in a downward spiral in postsocialist
China. Annual movie attendance had declined steadily from 29,310 million in 1979
to 21,900 million in 1986, losing 1,000 million a year on average (D. Li 2002: 580–1),
although annual feature productions had more than doubled from 67 in 1979 to
151 in 1986 (Y. Zhang 2002: 196). These two diverging trends meant that film
studios were losing huge amounts of money exactly at a time when they were
required by the state to be financially self-sufficient and their products were no
longer guaranteed automatic distribution that had previously come with a steady
stream of flat-fee payments regardless of box office. Under increasing financial
pressures, many studios began producing entertainment cinema, and its ratio to
the total annual feature production almost tripled from 20 percent in 1987 to 58
percent in 1989. In terms of genre breakdown, martial arts films and cop–gangster
thrillers topped the box office; even so, among the top ten, the numbers of copies
sold per film still illustrated the market downturn, from the highest 379 copies for
the 1988 top-grossing film to 255 copies for the 1991 top film (D. Zhong, Pan, and
Zhuang 2002: 249–53). The contraction of the film market accelerated in the
1990s, as annual movie attendance nose-dived further from 14,400 million in 1991
to 3,000 million in 1994, 460 million in 1999, and 220 million in 2001 (Y. Zhang
2002: 192), the last figure a far cry (merely 0.75 percent) from the heyday of 29,310
million in 1979, when audiences flocked to the theaters to watch newly released
films produced before the Cultural Revolution.
Interestingly, when the Chinese film market touched bottom around the turn of
the new millennium, with the total box office at RMB 850 million in 1999 and RMB
840 million in 2001 (of which a large percentage came from exhibiting Hollywood
blockbusters after 1994), it was neither melodrama nor thriller that rushed to the
rescue, but comedy. Ever since his The Dream Factory (1997) scored RMB 33 million
at the box office, Feng Xiaogang’s “new year films” (hesui pian) – films released
during the holiday season from Christmas to Chinese New Year (usually late
January to early February), mostly comedies in the late 1990s but increasingly
making forays into martial arts and action genres in the 2000s (R. Zhang 2008) –
have been all the rage, setting domestic box-office records one after another (see
Table 11.2 in Chapter 11, this volume). In a consistent manner, Feng’s single yearly
release would represent approximately 11–14 percent of the domestic box office
(excluding foreign films) in a given year: with RMB 30 million, A Sigh (2000), a
romantic comedy, accounts for 10.7 percent of the domestic film box office at
RMB 280 million in 2000; with RMB 120 million, A World Without Thieves (2004), an
action thriller, accounts for 13.3 percent of the domestic film box office at RMB
900 million in 2004; and with RMB 260 million, Assembly (2007), a war film,
accounts for 14.4 percent of the domestic film box office at RMB 1,801 million in
2007 (Y. Zhang 2010a: 172). When Feng’s disaster film Aftershock (2010) earned
RMB 647.8 million, the total box office (combining domestic as well as foreign
films) in 2010 would soar to RMB 10,170 million (H. Liu 2011). Although the 2010
total box office is impressive (i.e., twelve times as much as that of 2001), it still
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represents only 34.7 percent of the record movie attendance in 1979. The
percentage is even lower if we factor in the difference in ticket prices over time: a
ticket in 1979 cost as little as RMB 0.05 at a student discount, but in 2010 it stood at
RMB 80 or more for a blockbuster, and the 3-D IMAX version of Avatar ( James
Cameron, 2009) sold for as much as RMB 150 per ticket.
Set against the current euphoria over the steady double-digit annual growth of
China’s film market in recent years (Y. Zhang 2010a: 170–86), the two critical
debates in 1986–9 summarized above look quite antiquated, even ironic. Not only
is box office not a stigma any more, but it has become the primary market force
worshipped by most producers and directors, if not yet all critics. Similarly,
entertainment is no longer treated with suspicion or trepidation in scholarly
and public discourse. After two decades of genre filmmaking, especially when
Hollywood blockbusters were allowed to screen in China on a shared-revenue,
fixed-quota basis since 1994, entertainment has come back with a vengeance (for it
was the driving force in Chinese cinema as early as the 1920s), and no other genre
represents this comeback better than martial arts films.
When The Mysterious Giant Buddha (Zhang Huaxun, 1980) came out, it was
hailed as a breakthrough because the martial arts genre had been banned in
socialist cinema regardless of its earlier contribution to the Chinese film industry
(see Chapter 15, this volume). Despite its popularity in the late 1980s, the link to
entertainment rendered martial arts films a marginal genre unworthy of sustained
critical attention. Even though the rush to coproductions with Hong Kong in the
early 1990s expanded the genre’s appeal, it was not until the unexpected success of
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that the genre found its place in China’s new initiative in global expansion. With unprecedented support from the state in such areas
as guaranteeing the best release windows and cracking down on piracy, Chinese
investors quickly teamed up with their Hong Kong partners to produce a slate of
high-budget martial arts blockbusters. From Hero (2002) to Curse of the Golden
Flower (2006), Zhang Yimou reinvented himself from an “ethnographer” of
Chinese culture to an inventor of fantastic scenes and superhuman actions. The
ingredients of magic, romance, sex, violence, and DGI-enhanced special effects
are now routinely – and oftentimes mechanically – mixed in the genre, and the
casting of top stars from Hong Kong and Taiwan – sometimes also Japan
and Korea – has repackaged the genre as a transnational Chinese or even Asian
blockbuster brand (Teo 2009).
The current surge of Chinese blockbusters has had a profound impact on
postsocialist Chinese cinema. In an age when the entertainment function reigns
over the artistic and education functions, the convergence of art, politics, and
entertainment – regarded as a “fatal” flaw in Xie Jin’s model in 1986 – is now not
just expected but celebrated. Not only have the main-melody films moved toward
the blockbuster mode of production by recruiting major stars, as in The Founding
of a Republic (Han Sanping, Huang Jianxin, 2009) – where a veritable hit-parade of
Chinese-language film stars is displayed, thinly disguised as historical figures (see
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Chapter 12, this volume) – but martial arts films now also directly serve the
mainstream ideology of nationalism and patriotism, as in Bodyguards and Assassins
(Teddy Chan, 2009) and Ip Man II (Winston Yip, 2010), where individuals heroically
sacrifice their lives to protect the revolutionary cause and national dignity.
Conclusion: After Seismic Changes
I want to conclude my survey of three decades of Chinese postsocialist cinema
with the metaphor of seismic changes. The postsocialist period started in 1976, a
year marked by a devastating earthquake in Tangshan on July 28 that claimed an
estimated 242,769 lives and 435,556 injured (Baidu.com n.d.c). Remarkably, it took
24 years for Chinese filmmakers to confront this disaster in a blockbuster feature,
Aftershock, which set a box-office record in 2010 and responded, in collective catharsis, to the fresh memories of two recent earthquakes: the Wenchuan earthquake
that struck on May 12, 2008 and claimed 69,227 lives and 374,643 injured (Baidu.
com n.d.b), and the Yushu earthquake that struck on April 17, 2010 and claimed
2,698 lives (Baidu.com n.d.a). If the Tangshan earthquake had remained a largely
repressed traumatic experience in public memory outside Tangshan for decades,
the Wenchuan and Yushu earthquakes were quickly turned into a series of nationwide rituals of mourning and fundraising aimed at reaffirming the government’s
legitimacy at a time when China was preparing, respectively, for two euphoric gala
shows of the century – the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and the Shanghai
International Exposition in 2010.
Beyond the obvious expediency of having three devastating earthquakes
bookend the postsocialist period under discussion in this chapter (although the
period continues forward), the metaphor of seismic changes vividly captures the
grand scale, the profound shock, and the unexpected outcome of the sweeping
transformations that have taken place in China over the past three decades.
Between these earthquakes were endless pre-shocks and aftershocks, in geological
as well as social, cultural, and psychological terms. When Dai Jinhua (1999: 16)
described the Fourth Generation as looking out from a “slanting tower” that
would eventually collapse amid rumbling earthquakes, she might not be cognizant
of the implication that this iconic image of the slanting tower – along with the
“wrecked bridge” over a precipitous cliff for the Fifth Generation – also references
a landscape of ruins in the aftermath of earthquakes.
Aesthetically and psychologically, then, the images of ruins compel us to look
beyond the current euphoria over the box-office booms and examine cracks and
fissures glossed over by the illustrious film stars and magic special effects.
Historically, as Sheldon Lu (2007: 210) observes, “postsocialism in the era of
cautious reform and openness in the 1980s has transformed into postsocialism in
the age of grandiose transnational capitalism from the 1990s to the present,” but
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the cultural logic of postsocialism has produced heterogeneity and contingency
more than homogeneity and stability. If we turn away from the facade of modernization and globalization, images of ruins of all kinds – natural, cultural, industrial,
psychological – abound in the field of independent and semi-independent productions, where young directors have vehemently refused to entertain the audience or
please the state. Instead, they stubbornly train their camera on a wide array of
gritty, disquieting, and heart-wrenching images of contemporary Chinese life, as
in West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003), Still Life ( Jia Zhangke, 2006), and Little
Moth (Peng Tao, 2007), and these images constitute the hidden side of Chinese
postsocialist cinema that deserves critical exploration (Pickowicz and Zhang 2006).
After all, postsocialism is nothing but a jumble of contradictions and tensions, an
embodiment of continuities and discontinuities, and a coexistence of multiple
temporalities, spatialities, localities, mentalities, and subjectivities. Fortunately,
cinema has provided us with relentless moving images with which we can track,
comprehend, and evaluate the transformation of postsocialism in China amid
constant seismic changes.
1 Three recent English books on Chinese film and television contain “reform” in their
titles (X. Zhang 1997; Y. Zhu 2003; X. Zhong 2010).
2 One example is the declaration “There Is No Sixth Generation” from Li Yang (b. 1959),
whose independent feature Blind Shaft (2003) drew much critical attention (Teo 2003).
3 Acts of patricide are staged twice in Ju Dou (Zhang Yimou, 1989), in which the son
accidentally kills his nominal father and deliberately murders his biological father. The
rectification of the revolutionary hero is exemplified in One and Eight (Zhang Junzhao,
1984), in which a wrongly accused Communist cadre leads a group of bandits in
fighting against Japanese troops.
4 One additional benefit of the term “New Chinese Cinema” is its implied “new wave”
status and its link to similar film movements in Hong Kong (the “Hong Kong New
Wave”) and Taiwan (“New Taiwan Cinema”) in the 1980s (Tam and Dissanayake 1998;
Cornelius 2002).
5 Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide (2005) and Oxhide II (2009) consist of extreme long takes of her and her
parents in intimate domestic scenes shot with the fixed camera. Long takes also
characterize Ying Liang’s films, and his 19-minute short Condolences (2009) is a one-shot
long take on an old woman’s inarticulate trauma after a tragic bus accident killed her son.
6 While the majority of such ethnographic films come from the Fifth Generation, Ballad
of the Yellow River (1989), a Fourth Generation film that fits this model, won the Best
Director award for Teng Wenji (b. 1944) at Montreal in 1990.
7 War film was a major genre in the 1980s, but it quickly fell out of favor in the 1990s
except for state-funded propaganda mega-series produced to commemorate the
anniversaries of the PRC, the Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, etc.
(Y. Zhang 2002: 173–201).
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8 On the Hunting Ground (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1985) set the worse record with only one
copy sold, followed by King of the Children (Chen Kaige, 1987) with six copies, Horse
Thief with seven copies, Evening Bell with nineteen copies after winning the Silver Bear
at Berlin in 1989 (initially with zero copy), and Yellow Earth with thirty copies (D. Li
2002: 583). In comparison, The Great Knight-Errant from the Yellow River (Zhang Xinyan,
Zhang Zi’en, 1987), a martial arts film coproduced with Hong Kong, sold 379 copies
(D. Zhong, Pan, and Zhuang 2002: 351).
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