Personal Revolutions from China’s 5th Generation Filmmakers

Personal Revolutions
Cinema has the ability to inspire a nation’s people into pride or resentment. The latter is found in three Chinese films once banned from release in their own country: To Live, The Blue Kite, and Farewell My Concubine. The realism portrayed in the lives of individuals and families grasps the negative effects brought about by Chairman Mao’s socialist upheaval during China’s Cultural Revolution. Parallels signifying persecution during the fall of national institutions mirror the dissent of artists during the Cultural Revolution and the films’ directors, Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Chen Kaige, being banned in China.

The directors, all from The Beijing Film Academy’s 5th Generation of filmmakers, are part of an artistic reemergence in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Being the first graduates from the Academy after its’ reopening, they redefined the impact of the Revolution with a perspective not readily welcomed by the Chinese government. Tian Zhuangzhuang, director of The Blue Kite was even barred from making any further films in China.

Interwoven Histories-
The Blue Kite and To Live particularly focus on the impact of China’s history on family life. Zhang Yimou’s To Live, similarly follows the survival of a husband and wife over many hardships from the early 1920s to the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Ge You and Gong Li’s performances in To Live portray a husband and wife who endure the worst of life, but an element of their family life survives. Zhang’s optimism nourishes a message that families stay united regardless of how the government reshapes society. The Blue Kite’s less optimistic tone shows a family trying to manage together but in the end is torn apart. What The Blue Kite and To Live do share thematically implies that Motherhood endured the severest hardships through the Cultural Revolution.

Gong Li’s characters in both To Live and Farewell My Concubine also show mothers as the axis upon which family life is balanced. In To Live she raises two children and endures both their deaths due to conditions brought about by the Cultural Revolution. In FarewellâÂ?¦ she portrays a figure of motherhood to both Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) and Dieyi (Leslie Cheung). Though seemingly a love interest that puts a rift in the two opera singers’ relationship, she becomes a caretaker to them both. Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine creates a different dynamic of family, that of an Opera Troupe, but similar in that the relationships are challenged by social and politcal pressures.

In fact each film realizes a mother’s loss of her child due to circumstances brought about by China’s turbulent 20th century history. In FarewellâÂ?¦ Dieyi’s prostitute mother abandons him as a child to the opera troupe, a loss attributed to her inability to provide for him. He and Xiaolou both find a mother figure in Juxian (Gong Li), also a prostitute. Yet in a climatic scene Xiaolou and Dieyi both denounce Juxian for her social standing in front of an angry mob of revolutionaries. Tietou’s mother Shujuan in The Blue Kite is arrested and separated from him at the end of the film also by an angry mob of revolutionaries. Their separation is due to Shujuan’s marriage to a man prosecuted for being a counter-revolutionary. Jiazhen (Gong Li) losses her children in To Live, one dies working in a steel mill, the other while giving birth. All of these examples are in some way caused by harmful social conditions that culminate to devastating ends during the Cultural Revolution.

The films’ narrative structures are closely paralleled in that they all conclude during, or just after the Cultural Revolution. This is reflective of the directors’ perspective as artists emerging after the 1970s. Even though their films were still banned, the productions were free of Chairman Mao’s influence. The characters within each film represent for the director a return to individualism unbound from the mob mentality of the revolutionary masses.

This is prominent in each film containing a character’s artistic venue for social commentary. In To Live it is Fugui’s shadow puppet shows, in The Blue Kite it is Tietou’s aunt Zhu Ying as an actress in the theater and of course it is the opera in Farewell My Concubine. Each venue is challenged by the emerging ideals of the Cultural Revolution. Fugui is forced to burn his puppets even though they enabled him to serve the people. Zhu Ying is pressured out of the theater for not complying to be “politically reliable”, as her commanding officer tells her. The most overt example is Xiaolou and Dieyi’s career in the Beijing Opera, constantly dismantled and forced to conform to whatever political party is in power.

These forms of expression are symbolic of traditional storytelling steeped in customs that the Cultural Revolution hoped to overthrow. As is said of Fugui’s puppets, they are “emperors, scholars, and beauties, classic feudal types”, similar to the styles and characters of the Beijing opera in Farewell. The characters Fugui, Zhu Ying, Xiaolou and Dieyi all represent individualists holding onto traditional stories from the past. As the revolutionaries confront them, they are forced to deny those traditions and also their individuality. Author Jerome Silbergeld writes, “Farewell not only uses the fictionalized subject of art and artists for a political critique of cultural politics, it simultaneously advances its own art – film art – to advance artistry in opposition to politics” (pg 113).

Where the traditional forms of opera, puppetry and theater are challenged by government control, life imitates art in a reflective theme for film directors banned in their own home. Just as their characters’ individualities are hindered within a Revolution that sought to free the masses from the old feudal society. Yet it created another form of oppression over the people it set out to free. Being that the films still enjoyed a worldwide audience the message lived, but in principle the audience they tried to reach in China was at a loss.

Social progress is a slow process and that three films about censorship of art are banned reveals this. As much as great revolutions set afire the peoples’ ambition to enact change, much is lost in the sacrifices people make. In the case of the China the films’ portray it is sacrificing a personal story within a nation’s history. As much as the storyteller characters of the films strive to reveal a personal perspective of history, their message is skewed when government intervenes. This depiction of government interference, again resonates the directors’ own experiences with political influence to prevent an alternate view of history.

The films show China’s history as told by family stories and personal narratives. Once the Revolution enters each of these stories, something is lost or taken away from that history. This is found in that each narrative ends at the Cultural Revolution, a statement in itself about government enforcing a single version of history. The banning of the actual films is an ironic attempt to censor how a nation’s people view history. As seen in the films, censorship comes in the form of the public persecution of characters denied their individualism by a government trying to create a collective perception of history.

In To Live Fugui’s puppetry partner, Chunsheng is persecuted in a public trial for being a capitalist. When Fugui’s son-in-law Wan Erxi tells him Chunsheng has been arrested, he says “we have to draw a line between us and him.” Wan Erxi represents the coming of the Cultural Revolution into the family as a young man who is a leader in China’s Red Guard. He embodies the promise of a better tomorrow for Fugui and Jiazhen’s daughter. Chunsheng’s wife commits suicide after he is prosecuted and the only people he feels safe visiting is Fugui and Jiazhen. Even after what Wan Erxi has said, Fugui is still sympathetic to him and offers help because they share a personal history. These storytellers (puppeteers) feel their own personal stories are safe to share only with each other, told as secrets in the night. This is all the more powerful knowing that it was Chunsheng who caused the accidental death of Fugui’s only son, a harbinger of the end of a family’s history.

Showing the absurdity of the persecutions in To Live, Mr. Niu, the town leader is also accused of being a capitalist. It is Mr. Niu who introduces Wan Erxi to Fugui’s daughter and also encourages him to burn his puppets. Mr. Niu can be seen as the government influence censoring Fugui’s puppets and bringing the inevitable by marrying them into the Cultural Revolution. Even in his being accused Mr. Niu loyally says he still has faith in Chairman Mao.

Under Fire-
In each film characters are forced to burn that which is dear to them, a form of persecution or avoidance of it. The burning of the puppets in To Live is intimately linked with the symbol of fire in both FarewellâÂ?¦and The Blue Kite. Dieyi in FarewellâÂ?¦ burns his stage costumes after being told he must play along with changes forced upon the Beijing Opera by the New Society. A scene follows where Xiaolou and Juxian set fire to several of their household belongings as a voice on the radio announces punishment for those who oppose the Revolution. One of the objects Xiaolou and Juxian destroy are the Jade cups they take a final drink from. The Jade cups represent objects of the old society and also appear in The Blue Kite. As seen near the end of the film, Tietou mentions Jade cups in a poem he reads to his stepfather, who is persecuted for being a counter-revolutionary, connecting the cups as traditions of the old society being overthrown. The Jade Cups in The Blue Kite decorate Tian’s comment on how the Revolution undermined the preservation of history through education.

This comment is again enflamed in The Blue Kite in the scene where Tietou’s stepfather offers a divorce to his mother in their best interest. Tietou and his mother walk in on him burning educational papers in a brazier after being criticized at work. In the last scenes of the film the stepfather’s rude awakening to revolutionaries who arrest him as well as Tietou’s mother is in essence a divorce of education from the family. Flames also burn in the scenes in FarewellâÂ?¦where revolutionaries publicly persecute Xiaolou, Dieyi and Juxian. With several medium close ups of Xiaolou denouncing his love for Juxian and criticizing Dieyi, flames consume the foreground of the shots.

Revolutionary Sons-
Climatically, flames and persecution are inextricably paralleled in each film. The persecutions become the catalyst to the overthrowing of institutions. It is the Opera (Art) in Farewell�, the hospital (health care) in To Live, and the school (education) in The Blue Kite. All are staples of society that suffer conformity to changes enforced by the mob mentality of Cultural Revolution. The downfall of these institutions is further connected to how the institution of family is torn apart.

In FarewellâÂ?¦ the Opera Troupe is, as mentioned, something of a family dynamic. Xiaolou and Dieyi are both adopted sons of the troupe and together they call themselves “stage brothers.” Along with Juxian associated as a figure of motherhood, another dynamic is found in Dieyi as father figure. Dieyi adopts a younger singer, Xiaosi’r, as a son to train for the opera. As essayist Yomi Braester writes of Xiaosi’r he “refuses to take part in operatic traditionâÂ?¦resists his adoptive father’s disciplineâÂ?¦leaves for the new society and joins the revolutionary masses” (pg. 91). It is also Xiaosi’r that leads the persecution of Xiaolou and Master Yuan, another father figure considered the greatest patron of the Beijing Opera. So we see that doubly, the adopted son joining the revolution overthrows the institutional and familial dynamic of the troupe.

In The Blue Kite Tietou’s aunt is publicly persecuted as principle of the school and put on trial by the students who denounce her, cutting her hair in an act of disrespect. We later see her at the dinner table with a black eye, as Tietou tells his grandmother burning books at school was fun. Tietou becomes entangled in the contradiction of wanting to help his family, and joining in the “fun” of the revolutionary kids at school. Just before asking to help his stepfather burn counter-revolutionary papers, he is heard praising someone at school for having “the best Mao Badge.” Tietou’s family is strained to be cautious of revolutionary acts and at the same time understanding of their child. After the arrest of the stepfather, Tietou is separated from his mother in a seen that visualizes the Red Guard violently tearing the family apart. The film ends with Tietou lying alone on the ground, bloodied and unconscious, conflicted as a victim of the very Revolutionaries he aspired to be.

Perhaps the most horrific depiction of the failing institution is found in To Live. With student doctors running the hospital, the birth of Fugui and Jiazhen’s grandchild becomes a bloodbath. The only hope of a successful labor lies in a persecuted doctor brought in off the street who is starving to death. Their son-in-law, Wan Erxi tries to use his pull as a Red Guard leader, but Jiazhen’s last remaining daughter cannot be saved. Even though the grandchild, Little Bun, survives the labor, the scene epitomizes institutional de-functionality during the Revolution. The family’s only son (son-in-law) Wan Erxi is a parallel representation of the revolutionary sons in the other films, unwittingly rallied up in revolution fever.

Progress Within Resentment and Banishment-
The films’ realism awakens a desire to find ones own personal story within history while threatening to stir resentment in their Chinese audiences. Sharing a remarkable amount of thematic material and artistic aesthetics, they also inspire a creative “blending of the intimate and the social, the lyrical and the epic, the familial and the historical” (Sheldon, pg. 18). Furthermore they signify change in both a negative and positive light. The social change depicted in the narrative is one of violent revolution deeply scarring families that are forced, rather than helped to adapt. The other is progressive change in the medium of storytelling from that of the older forms of puppetry, opera and theater into filmmaking. Along with other 5th Generation films they mark a significant evolution for Chinese film as an artistic outlet for preserving a people’s history.

Works Cited:
Braester, Yomi. “Farewell My Concubine: National Myth and City Memories.”
Chinese Films in Focus. Ed. Chris Berry. British Film Institute. Ã?Â?2003

Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu. “National Cinema, Cultural Critique, Transnational Capital:
The Films of Zhang Yimou.” Chinese Cinema: Film 28 Course Packet
Ed. Augusta Palmer. 2004

Silbergeld, Jerome. China Into Film. Reaktion Books. Ã?Â?1999

Additional Sources:
China Avant-garde: counter-currents in art and culture.
Edited by Jochen Noth and Kai Reschke. Oxford University Press Ã?Â?1994

Class struggle and deviant labeling in Mao’s China: becoming enemies of the people
By Wenhui Cai. E. Mellen Press Ã?Â? 2001

Deviance and Social Control in Chinese Society
Edited by A.A. Wilson, S.L. Greenblatt, R.W. Wilson. Praeger Ã?Â? 1977

New Chinese Cinema: Challenging Representations.
By Sheila Cornelius and Ian Haydn Smith. Short Cuts �© 2001

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