Essay Samples

Chinese Cinema: An Analysis

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    Rewriting history and censoring critics have been inherent aspects of Chinese Communism. Over the last fifty years of communist rule, China has been a diverse nation struggling to achieve philosophical and political uniformity, as well as radical modernization, and the leadership has been determined to achieve their ideological goals by whatever means necessary.

    During the Cultural Revolution the Beijing government redoubled its insistence that creative expression in literature and film serve Communism through ideologically appropriate themes. Thus, historical “reality” was metamorphosed into philosophical principles, and stories told within this historical context were allegorical. Films were not made to simply entertain, but to serve as powerful tools in the creation of a new social order.

    From the nineteen-fifties to the nineteen-seventies Chinese films conformed to strictly formulaic standards imposed by the government. These films sought to convey a utopian ideology, and attempted to promote and inspire the construction of a new Chinese culture in which traditional forms of rural society and culture were synthesized with official discourse. (Zhang 941)

    It is significant that after Chairman Mao’s death, Deng’s Reform Decade brought about a shift in official media. This led to a series of connected events, for as the People’s Republic of China began to interact in the global economy, attempting to attract foreign capital, more and more of China’s intellectuals were exposed to global culture, and as they were exposed to foreign culture, they began to realize how much Chinese cinema needed to change in order to reflect life, instead of reflecting what the Beijing government said life was or should be.

    The government in turn finally saw the need to reassess official history. Soon, revolutionary Romanticism began to take shape and more spontaneous productions began to emerge. These factors appear to have allowed the development of a society in search of a redefined ideological identity. This tension between official dogma and the cultural transformation taking place in China created a space in which emerging and talented Fifth Generation filmmakers such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou found their niche. (Zhang 927)

    Movies produced in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 are known as Fifth Generation Chinese movies because they represent a new school of film compared to the Mao era in which movies were merely tools of state propaganda. Fifth Generation Chinese movies not only give their viewers an insight into Chinese politics, society and new cultural traits, but also have a high degree of professionalism in them, which has made them admired and most sought after in the West.

    Naturally, considering that China is still a communist country, the totalitarian government in Beijing has never ceased from limiting freedom of speech and expression in the print and electronic media, as well as in film. Limited censorship is still censorship. And even in times when the Beijing government is relatively more tolerant for freedom of expression in film, everyone knows that things could change again tomorrow, so there is always a form of de facto censorship at play.

    In terms of film criticism, essentially, a film critic in the People’s Republic of China is expected to evaluate the acceptability of a Chinese film based upon how well it reflects Communist Party doctrine. Life in China must be portrayed in a positive manner, for to do otherwise is to admit that the Party has failed to provide just, happy, and productive lives for the Chinese people.

    In other words, Chinese films which depict social problems in a realistic manner, or present themes dealing with issues such as corruption, drugs, prostitution, or any other social ills are in effect criticizing the Chinese government, at least from the perspective of the Chinese leadership. This of course cannot be permitted. The Communist Party is infallible, so how can there be social injustice or evils ?

    So it is made clear in no uncertain terms to film critics that movies of this type are to be reviewed negatively, in order to preserve the Communist Party’s image as the guardian of Chinese morals, and the omniscient power that has made life in China such a paradise on earth. But the criticism must also serve propaganda purposes, so the films cannot be criticized for telling the truth, the criticism must be based upon things the Chinese people would agree with. (Chang and Zhang 122)

    So, if a film reveals things about Chinese life that the government disapproves of, the film is labeled “orientalist” and the film makers are accused of betraying the Chinese people and of pandering to Western approval by making their native land the object of derision and contempt in foreign circles.

    So there is conflict. In effect, members of the Fifth Generation of Chinese film makers want to make movies about real life and not just movies that are little more than government propaganda, but this runs head on into the Chinese government’s determination to only allow films which glorify Chinese life, and portray it in as positive a was as possible.

    Much of the ideological battle that has been waged between the government and the Fifth Generation for the last ten years has been subtle. Films about modern life would be too transparently political, so many Chinese film makers choose historical themes so they can express themselves somewhat more freely than would be the case with films set in recent times.

    But even in such cases, serious problems can arise, for the Chinese Communist Party has also interpreted all of previous human history in accordance with Marxist theory, and judged that history from the ideological perspective of communism. Thus, any historical theme in a movie that does not abide by the Chinese Communist Party’s interpretation of historical events, or presents social, economic, religious, or political issues in a way that violates Party doctrine, is likely, as we have noted, to be attacked as “orientalist” or “bourgeoisie” or “decadent filth”. (Chang and Zhang 159)

    Having established and defined through these observation the ideological battleground upon which the Communist Chinese government and Fifth Generation film makers are struggling, we can shift our focus to a survey of contemporary Chinese directors and their recent films. Only then can we make any reasoned judgment as to whether a certain film is “orientalist” or not.

    In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution from 1968 to 1978, Zhang Yimou toiled in the countryside as a farm hand and unskilled laborer. As a hobby, he honed his skills as a photographer. When the Beijing Film Academy was re-opened with government permission in 1978, Zhang enrolled and was admitted, despite his relatively advanced age of twenty-seven. He began his film career as a cinematographer on One and the Eight in 1982.

    Zhang’s great strength is his mastery of the details of film making technique, such as photography, set design, and the use of sound and color are always vivid and impeccable. As a narrator, he favors complex, tragic melodramas that plot the shifting center of power and control in human relations. His films have often been deemed by Chinese critics as “orientalist” and as unflattering political allegories. Oh. That’s a surprise.

    As a result, despite drawing considerable acclaim overseas, most of Zhang’s films have been banned or greatly restricted by the Chinese government, because they are “orientalist.” A Renaissance man of the cinema, Zhang not only directs but acts, notably in the action-comedy The Terra-Cotta Warrior and the drama Old Well. Ju Dou was nominated for an Academy Award in the United States. (Ansen 74-76)

    Chen Kaige, another accomplished graduate of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, and another prominent member of the Fifth Generation, collaborated with Zhang in 1984, working with him to produce the first Fifth Generation movie, Yellow Earth, which proved stunningly popular, and is still revered by foreign movie critics as a milestone in Chinese movie making.

    Yellow Earth is a story of revolutionary era China. In it a soldier of the Eighth Route Army of the Chinese Communist Party, in his mission to collect folk songs, arrives in a village which has been devastated by a terrible drought. Because he is a soldier and therefore a hero, his arrival brings high hopes that he will help the villagers transform their village.

    Depressed by what he sees and experiences, the soldier leaves the village promising to come back later. He does come back, but finds the village is still the same, and a girl who had initially hoped the soldier would help her exit her marriage and join the Chinese Communist Party, has committed suicide by drowning herself in the nearby river. The movie’s message was crystal-clear—with China and the CCP symbolized by the barren village and the soldier respectively, it implied that the CCP could not free the Chinese people from their sufferings.


    Because it told the truth in such an eloquent and memorable fashion, Yellow Earth became an instant hit in the People’s Republic of China, at least among those who were able to see it, and according to some Western movie critics, Yellow Earth was responsible for reviving interest in Chinese movies in the West after a very long period of disinterest. Then in 1987 came Red Sorghum by Zhang Yimou, who had worked as a cameraman for Chen Kaige in Yellow Earth. (Ansen 74-76)

    As a movie attempting to revive wavering Chinese nationalism, its underlying message was that if the Chinese people could unite and stand together against the Japanese invasion in the nineteen-thirties, they could do so again in the nineteen-eighties against the serious problems they were facing. This movie established Zhang as one of the most talented filmmakers of China and also presented Gong Li, the most famous actress in China, to the West.

    After the Chen and Zhang had a falling out in the early nineteen-nineties, Chen made Farewell my Concubine, which some observers believe is his autobiography. Farewell My Concubine was a controversial movie because it depicted the homoerotic relationship between two male opera singers and their relationship during the turning points of Chinese history such as the revolution of 1949, the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of the reform era.

    Since, this movie had dealt with a concept still extremely taboo in conservative Chinese society, the movie was first banned in China as “orientalist” but with its international recognition a carefully censored version of this movie was allowed to be shown in China.

    After the success of Farewell My Concubine Chen appeared fascinated with big projects. His last release, The Emperor and the Assassin is a story of the ambitious Qin emperor, Ying Zhen, who had hoped to unify China and establish a centralized government. More than eleven million dollars were spent in making this movie, making it the most expensive Asian movie ever produced.

    In the meanwhile, Zhang made movies like Raise The Red lantern and Judou. Raise the Red Lantern dealt with polygamy in China, and Juduo dealt with female sexuality. Banned in the People’s Republic of China for it’s strong sexual content, which of course made it “orientalist” the latter movie revealed the dangers of suppressed female sexuality and attacked the rural tradition of arranged marriages in which, for the most part, young girls were married to men twice their age. (Ansen 74-76)

    Another Zhang film is The Story of Qiu Jiu, in which the protagonist of the movie, Qiu Jiu, struggles to get justice for her husband who has been kicked in the groin by the village chief. All she wants is a formal apology from the village chief who adamantly refuses. Later, when the matter is getting resolved within the village, the police arrive and take the village chief into custody.

    The underlying message of the movie was that things get done in China but not necessarily what one wanted nor in the manner in which one wanted it done. Orientalist! This movie too, received wide acclaim in the West for its story, cinematography and Gong Li’s acting as Qiu Jiu. Not One Less is yet another movie by Zhang Yimou to achieve international recognition. In this movie Zhang compares China to a growing child who needs support from everyone to achieve success.

    Tian Zhuanzhuang, another renowned Chinese film personality, directed The Blue Kite in the early nineteen-nineties. The Blue Kite took the political defiance of the Fifth Generation Chinese movies to an even higher level. The central character of this movie is Tietou, whose parents fall victims to the Chinese Communist Party policies throughout the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties. (Brown 88)

    Boldly portraying the effect of the Anti-Rightists Campaign and the Great Leap Forward on the lives of the common Chinese people, the movie was banned in China for its political content (it was “orientalist!!”) and Tian was temporarily barred from making movies. However, the print of this movie had already crossed the Chinese boundaries and was released in the United States, where it received wide acclaim from American film critics. The movie also received the best film award of the year at the Tokyo Film festival.

    There are also some Fifth Generation Chinese movie makers who have made movies about the problems of economic reforms perpetuated by Deng Xiaoping. One such movie is Er’mo by Zhou Xiaowen. The protagonist of this movie, Er’mo, is a village woman who wants to buy a bigger television than that of her neighbor. In order to earn money to buy her dream television set, she goes into the town to sell noodles, and suffers the indignity of being sexually exploited. The movie shows the ugly aspect of consumerism and materialism haunting Chinese society and the female sexual exploitation that takes place in the reform era.

    Zhang’s acclaimed films Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qui Ju are intimate looks at the cultural and social subjugation of women to power. Zhang’s films tend to focus on the plight of women in China, both past and present, a subject politically acceptable as gender and the emancipation of women were strong selling points of Communism. (Brown 131)

    His films help viewers understand that there was nothing more powerless than women in China. The plight of women lends itself immensely as an allegorical vehicle regarding oppression. It’s also not surprising that his films center around struggling heroines as Gong Li, China’s most adored and respected actor, was Zhang’s lover for much of his career until recently. Their partnership produced astounding films of great richness and beauty.

    Despite all of their international and financial success, which one would think has reflected well on China, the Communist government has cracked down on Chen and Zhang. The tension between the political dogma and cultural transformation that had allowed their emergence in the first place has yet to go away. Chen and Zhang shared the common purpose of wishing to leave behind the political abstraction and symbolism of earlier Chinese filmmakers and depict the works of politics and ideology on a more human level.

    But to the powers that be in Beijing, they are “orientalists,” their movies are “orientalist,” and they are betraying the Peoples Republic of China. To the rest of the world, they are skilled cinematic craftsmen who have devoted their lives to interpreting the human condition through the lens of truth, and giving audiences what all audiences so fervently desire—films of power and honesty, films that touch the soul, and films that reveal humanity for what it is, flawed and imperfect, but capable of soaring nobility and courage.

    It should be noted that historically, Chinese Confucianism and then Chinese Communism both insisted upon the sublimation of the individual to the government, and thus, the ultimate good of society as a whole. Chen and Zhang not only gave their stories a more human face, but a more intimate, human face which realistically expressed desperate personal needs. (Ansen 74-76)

    Although the stories in their films tend for the most part to be traditional dramas such as heartbroken lovers, as in Ju Dou, the early years of the Communist Revolution as in Yellow Earth and To Live, or the more decadent and corrupt Old Society as in Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad, they are also political allegories covertly criticizing the government.

    “Orientalism again!”

    This caused strong criticism at home in the People’s Republic of China, for Chen and Zhang and other members of the Fifth Generation were regarded as insufficiently respectful of official dogma. Their aesthetic concern for visual and narrative subtlety was regarded as elitist and subversive, and overly sophisticated for Chinese mass audiences.

    Ironically, as the democratic West’s enthusiastic appreciation of Fifth Generation films promised more badly needed foreign investment in China, the Chinese authorities were torn between allowing progress and falling back upon that old standby of theirs, reaction. As a result, in recent years the Communist government has waffled between crackdowns and allowances.

    One has to wonder why, with all the international acclaim, offers of investment abroad, and scathing criticism and official stonewalling at home, Chen and Zhang don’t just throw up their hands, take their talents, and catch the first plane heading West ? But upon further reflection, such a move would probably be a mistake, for it would not only be impossible to make these films abroad, it would in effect destroy their unique voice and the cultural specificity that have empowered them.

    The fundamental reality is that both filmmakers are Chinese. The unique attributes of their films are adamantly Chinese. Chen and Zhang have learned to walk the fine line with the government authorities, and have become quite expert in achieving their goals, or at least most of them. It is a credit to them that they chose to remain in China, telling their versions of her story.

    The above-mentioned movies are just a few examples of the work of Chinese Fifth Generation movie makers. For the most part they recreate the past to depict present realities of Chinese society, using their creative and artistic talents to criticize the government and it’s policies in a country where submission to the state has been the norm for the last two-thousand years. (Chang and Zhang 271)

    In conclusion, China’s Fifth Generation films feature the richness of ancient and modern Chinese culture. The emergence of these films despite the rule of authoritarian Communism is a tribute to the Chinese qualities of perseverance and creativity against long odds. Two Fifth Generation filmmakers, Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, have managed to give the world amazing films, uniquely embodying Chinese sensibilities and yet highly accessible to international audiences, and have led other talented Fifth Generation film makers to shining achievements in cinema as well.

    As movie-lovers know, cinema is a powerful art form, and may be one of the most potent tools in the transmission of culture. An expert mix of Western cinematic style, traditional Chinese themes and values, and modern Chinese culture, Fifth Generation films are fundamentally different than the films permitted in China under the rule of Mao Zedong.

    In the final analysis, we have noted that rewriting history and censoring public expression is an inherent aspect of Chinese Communism. During the Cultural Revolution the socialist government insisted that creative expression in literature and film serve Communism, so historical “reality” was metamorphosed into philosophical principles, and stories told within this historical context mandated by the Chinese Communist Party were allegorical.

    In other words, Chinese films were not made to simply entertain, but to serve as powerful propaganda tools in the creation of a new social order. This wasn’t such a new idea, for Beijing Opera encompassed similar tenets, such as the belief that the moral is one of the most important elements of any form of drama, as well as one of the most prominent features, of Chinese film, theater, song, and opera. Also buy dissertations on Chinese Cinema or other at

    For thirty years after the Communists gained power in China, films conformed to strictly formulaic standards. They conveyed a utopian ideology, attempting to inspire the construction of a new culture in which traditional forms of rural culture were synthesized with “official” discourse. After Mao’s death, Deng’s Reform Decade brought about a shift in official media.

    As the People’s Republic of China began to interact in the global economy, attempting to attract foreign capital, more and more of China’s intellectuals were exposed to global culture. Because of this the government saw the need to reassess official history. Revolutionary Romanticism began to take shape. More spontaneous productions began to emerge.

    These factors appear to have allowed the development of a society in search of a redefined ideological identity. This tension between official dogma and cultural transformation created a space in which Fifth Generation filmmakers Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou have found their niche.


    • Ansen, David. “Raising the Red Flag; Film Festival Scuffles with China Over Star Director.” Newsweek. October 9, 1995.
    • Brown, Nick. New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
    • Chang, H. and Zhang, X. Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms: Cultural Fever, Avante-Garde Fiction, and the New Chinese Cinema. Raleigh: Duke University Press, 1997.
    • Zhang, Xudong. “The Power of Rewriting: Post-Revolutionary Discourse on Chinese Socialist Realism.” The South Atlantic Quarterly. Summer 1995.

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