The longer you live in China the wider the cultural chasm between yourself and locals can seem. Recognising cultural difference is easy — understanding where it’s coming from presents a whole other challenge. To take a small but telling example, one of the most surprising things I’ve encountered while living in Beijing is an extreme sensitivity among the Chinese over the ways China is depicted on screen.
I first felt this touchiness talking to a student from the Beijing Film Academy shortly after I arrived in China. One of my favourite directors is Jia Zhangke, whose work explores the dramatic upheavals in Chinese society that happened as a result of the now-famous economic reforms imposed after Mao died. But my enthusiasm for Jia’s work immediately provoked a tetchy response from the student: "Westerners like those films because they make China look bad," she snapped.
At the time I was stunned — I’d never thought about how Jia’s films make China "look", since they didn’t seem intended as definitive statements on the nation. They’re small dramas about individuals caught up in times of change. And while they depict conflicts in the society in which they are set, they never struck me as being particularly negative about China per se.
In fact one of the things I like about Jia’s work is that he refrains from taking definite positions vis-à-vis his characters’ actions or situation, allowing the audience to form their own views on the reality he constructs on screen. But what I found most bizarre was the student’s belief that I derived pleasure from seeking out movies that cast her country in a negative light — particularly as I’d just elected to come and live in China.
Six months after this conversation, I attended a Beijing screening of a 30-minute film entitled Untouched, by Russian-born artist Varvara Shavrova. The work was an entertaining comparative study of social change in two different places – in Qianmen, one of Beijing’s oldest areas lying just south of Tiananmen Square, and in a small rural community in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast. In both places, a nation-wide economic boom has seen living standards rise and people leave their old homes for modern abodes, fundamentally altering the dynamics of the respective communities.
As a sociological study, Untouched isn’t particularly rigorous or philosophically profound. It’s simply a good-natured attempt to illustrate some surprising commonalities in people’s experiences across a vast geographic and cultural divide. So I was taken aback by the vehement reaction of two Chinese friends who accompanied me to the screening.
I had a feeling they weren’t happy as soon as the film ended. When I asked if they enjoyed it, one of them looked at me darkly and replied, "It was ok. I liked some of it." When we got outside, the other one let rip.
"I didn’t really like it. I didn’t see any similarities between the Irish and Chinese people. And the Irish people were so negative — the Chinese were much more positive — Chinese people are much more flexible," she gushed in a breathless stream.
I didn’t really understand why this was grounds for not liking the film, but I gently tried to suggest that the wry sarcasm of the Irish participants wasn’t necessarily negative. "It’s just a different kind of humour," I explained.
My friend retorted: "And the filmmaker isn’t Irish or Chinese. She’s a kind of third eye." Again, I didn’t really understand why this was a problem, since I didn’t think the film purported to be offering an insider’s perspective. Her comment seemed to be a variation on the "Foreigners just don’t understand Chinese culture" line, frequently deployed as an all-purpose retort to criticisms of the country. While it’s true in many cases, it’s also a sweeping defence that stonewalls further debate and forces everyone to retreat behind their own prejudices. In any case, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why my friends perceived Untouched to be critical of their country, let alone "an attack on China" as one of them later described it.
Several months later a drama in the same venue, this time by a Chinese artist presenting her own work, provoked a similarly heated response from a young local viewer. An Archeologist’s Sunday is an eight-minute short by UK-based filmmaker and writer Guo Xiaolu, made for this year’s Venice Film Festival. It’s an ironic, though slightly stilted, portrait of a relationship between an Italian archeologist and a Chinese girl living in Rome. It opens with the couple exploring a dank cave beneath the city’s streets, before the woman’s parents arrive in Rome later the same day. Over an awkward Italian meal, it becomes clear the parents are unimpressed with their daughter’s choice of partner.
The film’s mild satirising of Chinese and Italian cultural mores provoked one young woman to stand up after the screening and angrily inform Guo Xiaolu that there are good reasons why Chinese parents are wary of cross-cultural relationships; "They are worried about whether foreign men can provide for their daughters!" she stated defiantly. She went on to take issue with a humorous scene in which the main character explains to her soccer-mad Italian lover that her parents prefer ping-pong to football. "I love football!" the indignant audience member declared. "I’m sick of people thinking I like ping-pong just because I’m Chinese!"
After a year of the kinds of incidents I’ve described above, I’ve found myself asking why films about China are so often regarded by young local viewers as attacks on their country — attacks they take very personally. Part of the explanation can no doubt be traced to a deep-seated national insecurity. Hundreds of years of humiliating defeats at the hands of colonial powers, decades of turmoil and civil war during the 20th century, and 30 years of poverty, social upheaval and political violence under Mao have left many Chinese people understandably sensitive to perceived slights, especially from outsiders.
However, I think there are also deeper historical and contemporary cultural factors at play here.
Although China has recently undergone one of the fastest processes of industrialisation in human history, the country’s social structure is still in many ways more akin to a traditional agrarian society than a modern urban culture. This is especially true in north China, where the winds of economic change came much later than the areas neighbouring Hong Kong. In an interview with British novelist Justin Hill, Guo Xiaolu reflected on how this disjunction between a surface modernity and more traditional psychology is reflected in Chinese attitudes towards collective memory versus individualised creative voices:
"Chinese people think in terms of family, not individuals. Older people in China talk about collective memory…or a certain kind of story that belongs to the collective memory. And they’re not sure how to bring in the personal point of view…"
To put Guo’s claim another way, the modernist understanding of the artist as an individual who casts a detached, critical eye over society, and reflects a subjective view back to the audience via his or her work, has yet to find general acceptance in China. When my friend complained that the Russian-born director of Untouched was neither Irish nor Chinese, ultimately I don’t think this was a response to anything specific the film was saying, but rather an expression of her discomfort with the idea of an distanced, critical authorial voice — or a "third eye" as she put it. The attendant conception of art as a disruptive force that might challenge the assumptions by which we make sense of the world has little traction in China, and is actually regarded as a threatening notion by a significant number of people — not least those in positions of power.
Which brings me to the second, more contemporary, cultural factor that I think is at play here. The evolution of cultural attitudes in China has been severely impeded by the Communist Party’s resistance to the development of a heterogeneous civil society comprising critical creative voices. While contemporary visual artists are given considerable leeway these days (arguably because their work has little impact on the general public), China’s mass media, including popular cinema, remains firmly under state control. You don’t have to be long in the People’s Republic to realise that the press, with very few exceptions, speaks with one, unrelentingly optimistic voice. To a lesser extent this glossing over or ignoring of problems, and the presentation of a homogenised view of current events, history, and Chinese culture, also characterises official mainland film and television production.
The stir caused by Taiwanese director Ang Lee with his film Lust, Caution earlier this year is one case in point.
Lee’s morally ambiguous wartime tale is a far cry from the comic-book version of the War of Resistance that plays out endlessly in Chinese television dramas. When it was released on the mainland, Lust, Caution had over 30-minutes of explicit sex scenes excised, and senior officials were reportedly infuriated by lead actress Tang Wei’s sensitive portrayal of a resistance agent whose emotional involvement with a collaborator leads to her downfall and the betrayal of her comrades. The actress was blacklisted (unlike Ang Lee, she hails from the mainland) and advertisements containing her image were pulled from Chinese television screens.
China’s leaders contend that their rigorous suppression of a critical popular arts sector is in the interests of a "harmonious society", to use current party parlance, an argument that carries considerable weight in a vast nation with a history of internecine conflict. Recent decades have seen China come a long way in terms of economic and social progress under policies of tight control. However, given the many issues faced by the People’s Republic as it moves into the 21st century, China’s rulers are ultimately doing their people a gross disservice by muzzling creative and critical interrogations of the nation’s history and contemporary situation.
It will take more than putting a mindlessly positive spin on every issue for the nation to come to terms with its history and face up to its current challenges.
Blocking, silencing and blacklisting alternative voices might make party cadres and young nationalists feel less insecure, but problems and contradictions don’t disappear simply because they’re not on television.
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