On Historicizing Chinese Cinema

I recently read Lucy Montgomery’s China’s Creative Industries: Copyright, Social Network Markets and the Business of Culture in a Digital Age (2010). The book traces China’s shift from state-controlled cultural production and consumption to the rise of what she dubs “entrepreneurial consumers” in the country. What I really liked about this book was its treatment of China in its own terms and not in comparison to inapplicable Western standards and paradigms that frequently populate studies of China. For example, Montgomery poses the possibility of developments in China presenting us with a unique situation where relaxed intellectual property rights might actually lead to stronger creative industries. She focuses primarily on 3 of these industries: film, radio, and fashion, each of which receive various degrees of government control – film the most, fashion the least.

The book is a great read and definitely needed in terms of developing new approaches to Chinese media. I know I’ll definitely be returning to it for my dissertation! One particular passage regarding Mainland China’s film industry gave me pause though; not because it’s necessarily problematic, but because I think it could use some problematizing and historicizing:

“Private investment is being mobilized to achieve what the state, on its own, could not: China’s commercially focused film industry is finding ways to tell popular, entertaining stories consistent with the central government’s views on the role of film as a tool of propaganda and pedagogy” (60).

This statement seems to suggest to me that the films being funded by private investments continue to willingly and happily deliver content in accordance with the views and ideologies of the Chinese Communist Party. As though given some freedom, filmmakers will continue to make narratives aligned with government wishes. I’m fairly certain that this is not the view taken by Montogmery’s book. Indeed, the argument seems to be that even in an atmosphere of increasing decentralization, the Chinese film industry remains controlled more so than radio and fashion – an argument I completely agree with. However, the assumption that Chinese popular cinema continues to be strictly propagandistic is one that plagues a lot of other writing on the subject, and I’m using this excerpt as more of a jumping point.

It’s important to take stock of the history of Chinese cinema and its previous struggles with censorship and relaxation. I think Ying Zhu and Seio Nakajima’s essay in Art, Politics, and Commerce in Chinese Cinema says it best when they refer to the “long series of cultural openings and crackdowns” (18) that have taken place at various times throughout China’s political history. Some examples include the Hundred Flowers Campaign (opening) followed swiftly by the Anti-Rightist Movement (crackdown) or Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy in 1978 (opening) and the violent return to isolationism in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Though the following is obviously simplistic, the general chronology of these events seems to go something like this: in each instance of a cultural opening, we find the Chinese government proclaiming an era and environment of greater creative, intellectual, political, and cultural freedoms. After some understandable hesitation, the people begin to act on these freedoms, never 100% sure of repercussions and often in a state of self-censorship. Then, something happens that creates panic and ultimately leads to a crackdown. Those freedoms are removed and a state of emergency practically ensues. A little while later, the government proclaims a state of cultural opening with increased freedoms once again, except this time the people are even more hesitant and censor themselves even more, painfully aware – often with personal memories of past repercussions – that another crackdown will inevitably occur.

What this leaves us with, then, is a creative population never fully certain of just how much freedom they really have in pursuing or sharing their creativity. In terms of filmmaking, I believe these openings and crackdowns are directly linked to the dearth of Chinese filmmakers – especially screenwriters – capable of delivering narratives on par with the cohesion, uniformity, and complexity found in the Hollywood industry China so wishes to emulate. Understandably, this creative population would rather err on the side of caution and self-censorship rather than on the side of radical subversion – intentional or otherwise – which leads to more of the same Party-aligned narratives.

China appears to be in another one of its cultural openings, at least as far as films are concerned. Unfortunately, its history of crackdowns has left the industry’s major stakeholders apparently unsure of how to proceed. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, the films that obviously prevail and go through the censorship board without a hitch are those that do support or champion Party ideology in some blatant or subtle way. This doesn’t mean that films intended to be merely entertaining or non-pedagogical don’t exist. Nor that censorship is not an issue. Rather, that many of those in key positions of authority are unsure of what to approve or disapprove of, not only because their own job is on the line, but also because the guidelines they are supposed to follow are conveniently vague. Just as the filmmaker self-censors the narrative content on the side of caution in order to increase their chances with the censorship board, the board members themselves also err on the side of caution and deny the film approval.

From inception to exhibition, the filmic text in China goes through layer after layer of official and unofficial censorship from filmmakers, executives, government officials, and exhibitors. Each level as unsure as the other about what form of government backlash they might suffer – if any – if they make one false move. Even if censorship was not a concern, there is still the issue of filmmaking experience, or lack thereof. As Zhu and Nakajima go on to state:

“After being subsidized by the state for decades, an entire generation of filmmakers remained inexperienced in alternative approaches to film production” (31).

Government censorship, self-censorship, and a general lack of experience in the production, distribution, and exhibition of films in a newly commercialized arena makes the films that do come out the other side without trying to fulfill some Party objective AND which entertain audiences at the same time so fascinating. And also why a director like Dayyan Eng will be getting so much attention in both this blog and my eventual dissertation.

As David Hesmondhalgh frequently reminds us, the cultural industries are complex, ambivalent, and contested. The Chinese cultural industries perhaps even more so…

2 thoughts on “On Historicizing Chinese Cinema


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