The Representation of Chinese Society, History, and Culture

free essayCinema of China is very diverse and multifaceted in its genres, subjects, and styles. Scientists define three main controversial and important periods in the development of Chinese film industry: period of Republican China (1912 – 1949), Socialist China period (1949 – 1976), and the Post-Mao China period (since 1976). Chinese filmmakers from those periods were significantly influenced by historical situation, cultural traditions, state propaganda, demand, and interests in the society.

At the beginning of the 1930s, the Chinese moviemakers had a similar vision about the social and cultural mission and idea of nationhood in their movies. They used films, as the psychological weapon, which helped to conduct new reforms. In these conditions, it was very common for the films from that period to have leftist, patriotic, and acute socially-oriented scenarios (for example, it was popular to show the life of poor low-class people in the overpopulated Chinese cities, to represent the burning problems of capitalistic society or to show boundless patriotism and self-sacrifice of the Chinese people). Despite the fact that directors of the movies were only men, many films were about the struggle for liberation and equality of women. Moreover, the productive work of Chinese filmmakers and a financial and technical support from the United States (from 1920 and up to the foundation of the People’s Republic of China) led to the development of the ‘Golden Age’ of the Chinese cinema. One of the most outstanding films from the period of Republican China is the black and white, silent movie ‘Goddess’, screened by prominent director Wu Yonggang in 1934. Even though this movie was a debut, it looks quite mature and professional. The film is silent, but Wu made a non-verbal contact between actors and viewers with the help of the widespread usage of large and medium plans. The movie’s subtitles only complement the facial expressions, gestures, and looks of the actors. They are very true, natural and emotional but, at the same time, without excessive expressions, that was typical for social-realism movies of that time. The focus of the movie is a tragic story of a prostitute and the discrimination, prejudices, terror and problems she faced in Shanghai. The author raised the problem of the patriarchal society that was unable to provide normal working conditions and opportunities for a decent life of women. The main heroine was forced to become a prostitute to survive and to care for her small child Shuiping. It was quite common situation for women at that time. According to statistics, there were nearly 7,000 licensed prostitutes (and much more non-licensed ones) that worked in 200 legal brothels in Hong Kong in 1930, while in 1932 the government of the country issued a complete ban on prostitution (Yang 52). In these conditions, many women were left without work, money, and means of existence. The main character of the film was among such women; however, she did her best to survive and to support her child in such a difficult and challenging period of the country’s and society’s history. In particular, she invested all her money in her son to enrol him in school and provide good education. In her opinion, education was an essential way to have a much better life than she had. Through this character, Wu dramatically showed two sides of the woman’s life (the mother and the prostitute) in China. At the end of the movie, when the main character was in prison (for killing the main gangster ‘The Boss’), she asked a school principal to tell Shuiping that his mother is dead and not to tell anything about her. It would save him from the shame and problems for all his life because of his mother’s past. The film director wanted to stress that social norms in the Chinese society of that time were so strong that despite significant financial efforts and purest love from the mother, profession of prostitute was inacceptable for the society. People in China could not understand that a prostitute is not necessarily a ‘fallen woman’, but can be a person in great need or help.

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The second film analyzed within this essay is The White – Haired Girl, screened by Wang Bin and Shui Hua in 1950. It represents the time when Communist Party of China came to power. In general, the Party took under control the whole film industry (Changchun Film Studio and Shanghai Film Studio became a state-owned one) and used it for propaganda to support and promote the country’s ideology. The critics from all over the world claimed that none of the Chinese movies of that period had a clearly marked own face, style, and individuality. Contrary to that, they were faceless, as any manifestations of the personal ‘I’ and identity were forbidden. Therefore, only films that glorified the Communist regime or the life of ordinary soldiers, workers, or peasants were widely spread for this period. When analyzing the film The White-Haired Girl, it is important to mention that it is one of the best examples of the movies from the Socialist China. It raised the problems of the heartlessness, corruption, poor life conditions, and avidity of the feudal lords. The plot of the film unravels in one of China’s small villages in 1935. It showed a difficult life and the oppression of poor farmers by a greedy and rich landlord in general, and the tragic life of peasant daughter Xi’er in particular. A poor farmer Yang Bailao was forced to give his daughter Xi’er as a payment to the despotic landlord Huang Shiren for the New Year’s debts. After that Xi’er became a maidservant in Shiren’s home. In this situation, Yang Bailao was not able to survive this shame and made a suicide, while the Wang Dachun (Xi’er’s fiance) joined the Eighth Route Army to find justice there. The main heroine Xi’er was often beaten and even raped by Shiren in his house. For the reason to be unable to withstand the sufferings, she decided to run into mountains from the terror and bondage. She started to live in a cave, and because of the difficult life, lack of light, and appropriate nutrition her hair became completely white very quickly. People mistakenly recognized in her a white-haired goddess and brought her some food donations. Only this allowed her to stay alive and to wait for her betrothed. After some time, Wang Dachun helped Xi’er to return to the community. Besides, together with the Chinese Red Army he brought Huang Shiren to fair justice for all his terrible actions. Wang Bin and Shui Hua have widely used a montage and confrontation of the tone and action of the movie to get a high artistic effect and to reveal the propaganda message of the movie. The main basis of the concept of the film was the idea of cross-class differences (the main views of Marxism and Maoism), and the fact that socialism is the best alternative to the feudal system, which for thousands of years oppressed millions of peasants. Notwithstanding that people worked very hard and were tired and starving, they could save the will for free life without a feudal lord. Thus, the central priority of the movie was to show to Chinese people that only in cooperation with the Communist party it is possible to break the old unfair feudal system. Directors perfectly represented the Communist regime message that ‘the old society turned a person into a ghost and the new society turns the ghost back into a person (King 193)’. Today, many people reproach Communism, but this movie clearly showed why it was crucially important to clean China from the ‘feudal evils’ and to start a new life in the Communist era.

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The third movie Farewell My Concubine that will be analyzed within this essay is a perfect representation of the Post-Mao China cinema period. It was screened by one of the most famous directors from the Fifth Generation of moviemakers, Chen Kaige in 1993. During this 171-minute film, Kaige showed the story of two actors, who played in the ancient Chinese opera Farewell My Concubine. They performed it for decades and experienced all the vicissitudes of Chinese history of the twentieth century (the Japanese occupation, Nationalist Government, communism and the Cultural Revolution). Douzi (stage name Cheng Dieyi) played on the stage one role of a woman for many years, and he unconsciously started to identify himself with a woman and fell in love with his partner Shitou (stage name Duan Xiaolou). Consequently, daily wearing of women’s clothes for the opera plays transformed the nature of the character and erased the line between reality and fiction, masculine, and feminine for him. The fight for the man appeared to him as a battle for art in which there was no division by sex, but only a sublime passion. However, Shitou, who played only masculine roles, did not share the same feelings and loved the prostitute Juxian. Douzi thought that Shitou destroys himself in this sinful love affair and his betrayal to the real art. Douzi, in his turn, accused his friend that he lost the perception between illusion and reality and completely reincarnated with his role of the concubine. In this movie, the director did not use patriotic fervour and embellishment that were common for the previous communist propaganda period. Kaige just made a cocktail of different topics in the film, which covered the most scandalous themes (homosexual love, prostitution, drugs, suicide, etc.). Chief cinematographer Gu Changwei made a titanic and extremely energy-intensive work to show all the variety of the Chinese mentality. He professionally demonstrated all the changes in the style and way of life in China, starting from the transformation of humans’ minds and actions and finishing with the changes in the political systems. At the same time, Kaige professionally showed the whole Communism terror which touched millions of Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution. It influenced all spheres of life and the spiritual consciousness of the people. The Cultural Revolution ‘trampled in the mud’ all the rich and old Chinese history, as it was not suitable for new ‘proletarian culture’. In these difficult years, very few people valued the concepts of friendship, honor, and justice. Mao politics and nihilistic propaganda destroyed the culture and ’killed’ the actors for whom the opera was the vital reason and basis of existence.

Finally, it is necessary to state that all the films analyzed above are the perfect examples of each period, as they represent the progress and challenges of the Chinese history. Chinese cinema is not only complex and ambiguous phenomenon, but also a rich source for understanding society, history, and culture of China.