Feature Section


Chinese-Language Cinema Salon

March 5, 2015, at the University of Oklahoma

Chen Jingrong

Transcribed and translated by Ping Zhu, Zachary Barrett, and Benjamin Clark


Chu T’ien-wen: Taiwanese fiction writer and screenwriter, 2015 Newman Prize Laureate

Ban Wang: William Haas Professor in Chinese Studies, Stanford University

Man-fung Yip: Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies, University of Oklahoma

Yingjin Zhang: Professor of Modern Chinese Literature, University of California, San Diego

Ping Zhu: Assistant Professor of Chinese Literature, University of Oklahoma


Ping Zhu: Thank you all for coming to the Chinese-Language Cinema Salon this afternoon. We are very honored to have two Chinese cinema scholars join us today: Professor Ban Wang from Stanford University and professor Yingjin Zhang from the University of California, San Diego. Our special guest is Taiwanese writer Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文. She has collaborated with the famous Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝贤 and other Taiwan New Cinema directors on many award-winning films. This Chinese-Language Cinema Salon is presented by the Presidential Dream Course on Chinese cinema. The cosponsors of this salon include the University of Oklahoma (OU) Confucius Institute; the Institute for US-China Issues at OU; the OU Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics; and the OU Department of Film and Media Studies. My colleague Man-fung Yip and I will serve as moderators. I’ll give my comoderator the honor of kicking off the first question.

Man-fung Yip: It’s a softball: What was the first movie you watched that began your love for film?

Yingjin Zhang: My memory is very fuzzy. Why don’t we first go back to this: I grew up in mainland China during the socialist period, so it would be one of those socialist films. I want to pick one that has stuck in my memory for quite a while . . . the Chinese is Yingxiong ernü 英雄儿女 (Heroic Sons and Daughters). It is a war film set during the Korean War about the Chinese volunteer soldiers. Actually, I think that it is very dramatic. It’s not a typical propaganda film; it’s melodramatic in a sense that it caused the audience to not only feel the soldiers’ admiration for the sacrifices on the screen, but also to feel the ups and downs of their emotions. So, that’s it. But it has very little to do with why I got into film.

Ban Wang: I like the film you like. Another one that stuck with me was a film Spring Seedling (Chunmiao 春苗). It is about a barefoot doctor (chiyao yisheng赤脚医生) who taught himself to be a doctor for the peasants, instead of following the sort of bourgeois doctors who only served the elites in town. It was extremely melodramatic. But if you're asking me what I got from it in terms of the pursuit of film studies, I would say this: The film is not simply a story about a self-taught barefoot doctor. It’s about what the whole age, what the whole era of the Cultural Revolution was trying to do—trying to reform the healthcare system—and the trigger for the general intellectual and ideological background that gave rise to this kind of movement. That’s the connection.

Chu T’ien-wen: We watched Hollywood films as we grew up, so my favorite film when I was a child was Gone with the Wind. There was a time when every boy wanted to be Rhett (Clark Gable) and every girl wanted to be Scarlet (Vivien Leigh).[1]

Audience Question: I’ve read some of Chu T’ien-wen’s stories, and have seen several of her films. What really strikes me about them is that they are, in some ways, very feminist, and I love your strong female characters. But I feel like the kind of feminism available to them—I don’t know if that is within Taiwan or just within the contemporary world they live in—is a kind of “shallow” feminism. For instance, the protagonist in your wonderful story Fin-de-siècle Splendor (Shijimo de huali 世纪末的华丽) makes a great declaration that she is going to outlive the men’s world and designs. But then it seems like she only sits at home and makes artisanal paper. I feel that as much as she is a model, she’s also limited to these heteronormative societal roles. I wonder if that is your comment on the fact that these are very strong, worthy protagonists, female protagonists, but we have a world in which their options are still very limited. Maybe the scholars can answer this question.

Wang: You are talking about Mia 米亚, the main character, right? This is what I call “the shape-shifting model.”

Chu: In fact, what literary works often represent is the opposite of the author’s intention. From my own experience and background, I think I’m a woman, but never a feminist. Growing up in a healthy environment, I didn’t feel the desire or the lack, so I have never been a feminist. And I absolutely do not write for any “-ism,” since these “-isms” do not produce good stories.

Wang: Just a brief comment, I also feel that the character you are talking about [Mia] is a little bit superficial. But what else can she do? What would be the alternative, right? Would she be able to unite with other street fighters to go demonstrate for the rights of women to do something, or to do more than just cultivating their own gardens? Now, what she does is basically to cultivate her own garden and build her own shrine. There’s something quite positive about [her actions], that in this kind of cold, extremely commercial society, there is very little that she can call her own, something genuine or authentic. So, in doing all those small things—in Taiwan today they call it “little certain happiness” (xiao quexing 小确幸), making crafts, making paper—you retrieve something authentic about yourself, about your being in the world.

Chu: When you live in great times, mainstream thoughts most likely would be dominated by the masculine narrative: grand and big topics. But ordinary individuals are more concerned about the minute details in their lives, hence there is a phrase, yifu zhenzhi xue 衣服政治学, meaning “clothes politics” or “fashion politics”; but this kind of politics is not about clothes, it’s actually about what’s behind or opposite clothes. 

Question: Is there one thing in your screenplays that you specifically return to time and again, almost as though you cannot escape from it? Do you find yourself almost inevitably writing about a certain viewpoint or idea?

Chu: There is the story about my parents’ generation. My father came to Taiwan from mainland China after the Nationalist Party lost the Civil War to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, but my mother’s family had lived in Taiwan for generations. These two people from drastically different backgrounds got married. My father represents the “military home quarters” (juancun 眷村) tradition, whereas my mother’s father used to be a medical student at a Japanese university. The combination of these two different families, of different persons from different backgrounds, is something that I frequently revisit and re-read in my stories. There were fierce clashes between my father’s and mother’s backgrounds: my father’s side was anti-Japanese, but my mother’s family actually spoke Japanese. We grew up experiencing these cultural clashes, and this experience became our wealth.

Question: This is a question related to Chu T’ien-Wen’s background. I’m really interested in one of her movies, A City of Sadness (Beiqing chengshi 悲情城市), and I was wondering: When she was doing this movie, before and after, were there any changes in her view and perspective of Taiwan and China? Also, could you please share some interesting stories from this movie?

Chu: Well, it's a long story. Precisely due to the cultural differences, when A Time to Live, A Time to Die (Tongnian wangshi 童年往事) was released, our friend Wu Nien-jen 吴念真, who was one of the scriptwriters of A City of Sadness, was shocked. He said that he had never known about the psychology of mainlanders who came to Taiwan in 1949. Take my father as an example: He didn’t want to move out from the “military quarter” (juanshe 眷舍]), a kind of temporary refuge camp, until I was in high school. In the 1960s and ’70s, when my father’s peers started to complain about the shabbiness of the military quarter and bought their own homes, my father still resisted the idea. In his eyes, purchasing a home meant settling down in Taiwan and never going back to the mainland. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s father, a civil servant, bought a lot of bamboo furniture, which would be disposable if the family returned to their old home in Shandong Province in mainland China. We used this plot in A Time to Live, A Time to Die. Wu’s ancestors were buried in Taiwan, so he was shocked to see the old generation of mainlanders who regarded themselves as sojourners instead of residents of Taiwan. He was able to understand and sympathize with the mainlanders after he watched A Time to Live, A Time to Die.

There was a famous line in A City of Sadness: “Taiwan is like a whore, whom any man may possess.” Any man can come to rule Taiwan, and the next ruler (invader) always erases all memories about the previous one, so everything starts all over again. Taiwan is the “orphan of Asia” (Yasiya de gu’er 亚细亚的孤儿): It was ceded to Japan during the Qing dynasty; when the KMT took over, their “de-Japanization” campaign forced those Taiwanese who grew up learning the Japanese language into a kind of aphasia. People in Taiwan had been learning everything via Japan, so when the Japanese language was banned in Taiwan, they lost the ability to learn the world, too. This is another example of colonization that created trauma in Taiwan. A City of Sadness shows the Taiwanese people’s desire to be independent, which can be understood deeply by studying the history of Taiwan.

Question: My question is for both of the scholars. We have watched several films in our Chinese cinema class that have some type of feminism in them, a more Eastern style of feminism that’s not like a Western style. Specifically, we have a feminist-type character in Spring in a Small Town (Xiaocheng zhichun 小城之春), but she finds her feminism in relying on the family. We also see a type of feminism developed by communism in Li Shuangshuang 李双双 and Red Detachment of Women (Hongse niangzi jun 红色娘子军). It’s feminism, but it’s not Western-style in that you find the feminism from the community or from the nation, rather than finding it within yourself. The most Western-style feminism I’ve seen in Chinese film is in Spring Peach (Chuntao 春桃), which is the name of a woman who actually finds her own feminism in her relationship with two men, and in finding her own job and developing herself as an individual, separate from society. Do you feel that Chinese film is growing more toward an individualistic type of feminism, similar to Western-style feminism, or do you feel like it is finding its own niche, related to and within the country and the family? Perhaps it is more traditionally Chinese?

Zhang: First, I would not use the term “feminism” in this case. Probably you would need to add the qualifier of “state” to feminism. So, state feminism of course is not individual, it’s for the collective well-being, and the well-being as defined by the state. It’s a transformation of the family, and the very structure of it, through state intervention by promoting strong female characters. This speaks against patriarchal “feudalist,” or non-communist, ideas. So, that’s the sort of state feminism if you want, and that gets very close to it. The protagonist of Spring Peach is not exactly feminist; she belongs to this long tradition of Chinese strong women. You have a strong woman who tries her best to maintain the stability of the patriarchy, not for individual family interest. There is a long tradition of that character. Spring in a Small Town—no, it’s not feminist. I would describe it as more “feminine,” with a very strong emphasis on the individual female consciousness. That’s a real film and that’s why this is still one of these quite unique films. It really highlights the female voice and downplays the importance of male characters. But again, that’s not feminist. According to one Beijing film critic, there’s only one feminist film in China, and that’s Woman, Demon, Human (Ren gui qing人·鬼·情). That’s the only one because in that film a female stage actress plays a male role. The interesting thing in that film is that the female performance, or the female character on- and offstage, realizes that the only way to save herself—or the only force that can save the woman—actually is the woman herself, through her performance. That is Dai Jinghua’s 戴锦华 argument.

I won’t say that Chinese cinema in general is getting toward that direction. Actually, it’s reversed right now. After the new century and going back to commercial production in which women willingly present themselves as the interest for patriarchy, we see the reverse. Except for a few independent productions, we still don’t see a very strong feminist voice. We do see a little bit from Hong Kong, but it’s still from independent productions. Not probably from Taiwan, no.

Question: As a follow up question: With [the character of] Spring Peach specifically, how do you feel that her type of non-feminism is working with the patriarchy? I thought she was doing what she had to do to survive in her situation, but I don’t understand what that has to do with patriarchy.

Zhang: Oh, no. I mean that the whole society is patriarchal. This is my understanding of the term feminism: “feminism” means you sort of challenge patriarchy and patriarchal values. But in Chuntao it’s probably not challenged; instead, she negotiates or creates her own space to live in that kind of social structure. I don’t see that much of a challenge or even subversion except in terms of her articulation of her own desires. That’s a slightly different emphasis. Of course, you can argue differently and say that’s the feminist part.

Wang: I think it is good to make a distinction between feminism and what Professor Zhang calls “state feminism.” I think state feminism is good, but what goes under state feminism is a kind of pursuit of women’s equal status, equal pay, and equal social status, or in short, socio-economic status. This had been a long tradition starting from the late nineteenth century, when China received all this socialist thought and social democratic thoughts from the West. But the individual feminist is a Hollywood tradition. So even in Red Detachment of Women, part of it is about women’s liberation—liberating themselves from the dependence on patriarchy to become an equal member of the new society. They are fighters. But there is also a romantic and individualistic-based relationship between the female character Wu Qionghua 吴琼花 and the male leader Hong Changqing 洪常青. That is not against the patriarchy, because the male is the leader and also the champion of women’s liberation. So, the male position is not necessarily patriarchal. In the movie Spring in a Small Town, even the woman’s unwillingness to leave her husband behind is very hard for us to read as a sort of dependency on patriarchy. Really, it is the traditional obligation to be a good wife, but in a positive sense, because you cannot leave. The moral obligation does not permit you to leave the sick man behind to pursue your own personal love. The same is true of Spring Peach. It’s not about patriarchy; it's about reciprocity between husband and wife. This sort of ignores the “feminist,” and ignores women’s personality or any independent pursuit because there’s a moral obligation.

Zhang: But the question here is that “feminism” is a very loaded term and, as you just said, there are different types. If you want to apply the term you should come out and define what you mean early on, so people know what you are talking about. If we are using the same term to mean different things, then you have to get the scale right in the beginning. If you want to describe this strong articulation of female desire as a kind of feminism, then you can proceed from there. I would sort of move this out of the strong feminist type that challenges the legitimacy of patriarchy. We don’t see that in Spring Peach, we don’t see that in Spring in a Small Town, and obviously that challenge has to exist, but we don't see it. It’s very difficult in the Chinese context, and not just in Chinese film but also in Chinese literature. In literature more than in film, you see the strong feminist voice, but somehow in film productions it isn't that strong.

Question: Ms. Chu, you are a woman working very successfully within a male dominated industry. Even if you look at the academy awards here in the U.S., very few women were nominated in any of the categories of director or screenwriter, and that reflects the dearth of women who are successful in this field here in the U.S. Could you comment on your great success with screenwriting in China and in Taiwan?

Chu: I think what I helped Director Hou with most is a reading list. For a long time, whenever I came across an interesting book, I’d recommend it to Director Hou, even if it was not directly related to films and screenplays. The process is like setting up a fire: you need to throw many pieces of firewood into the stove without knowing which piece is useful. I always think my biggest contribution to film is to provide things outside of film. There is a saying with a touch of Zen: Literature comes from things beyond literature, such as life, or things larger. By the same token, film comes from things beyond film. My contribution is precisely this “beyond” (yiwai 以外).

Robert Frost writes in a poem: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I—I took the one less traveled by.” I don’t know if this leads to success. After graduating from college, many people went abroad, but I was not interested in this popular road. When I face the two diverging roads in my life, I always choose the less traveled one, or we can call it “the loser’s road.” Why do I choose it? Is it because of my family or my reading? I don’t know for sure. Your personal value might not be realized or paid back to you in ten, twenty years, or even your entire life. Sometimes your value will be realized only after your pass away. Take Sima Qian司马迁 for example. He believed that history would ultimately pay him back, so he completed Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji 史记). So long as you believe in the return, you will likely choose the loser’s road. However, the loser’s road can also be the “loser takes all” road. I don’t think I was striving for success, nor do I have a clear goal in my life. I’ve actually chosen the less traveled road, and this road turns out to be the “loser takes all” road.

In Graham Greene’s novella Loser Takes All, there is a man who gambles in the casino but always loses. One day he meets a vagrant on the street who gives him a tip: Go back to the casino and keep gambling, keep losing; so long as you endure all the loss, you will win eventually. Again, this sounds like a Zen story. Writing is like this, too. I’m from a writing family, my sisters and my brother-in-law are all writers. Every morning we go to a coffee house at around 9 a.m. and write there. After we finish one day of writing, we often come back home and ask each other: “Did you lose or did you win today?” And the answer is often: “I lost today.” But we will keep writing in the coffee house despite the loss, until we win.

Question: As a first-generation mainlander, your father experienced the turmoil in modern China. In your writing and life, can you feel a kind of nostalgia from the depth of history, a legacy that has been passed down to you from your father’s generation?

Chu: This is the source of my writing. We grew up hearing stories about our hometown in mainland China from our parents, and we read books about the Yellow River, Yangtze River, and Chinese history. When Taiwan was among the five founding Big Five of the United Nations, it was a small island with a massive soul. However, “my father’s city-state” (jiafu de chengbang 家父的城邦) collapsed when the second-generation mainlanders were allowed to visit mainland China and read different versions of history about Taiwan in the 1980s. We also found that the China of today was no longer the China of our cultural imagination or the China in Li Bai’s 李白 and Du Fu’s 杜甫 poetry; that caused further disillusionment in us. Such a collapse and disillusionment become the foundation of inspiration when we write. We don’t write happy stories, as these cannot motivate people. Leo Tolstoy once said: “Happy families are alike.” Only the unhappy stories are worth writing about. This unhappy experience is the unique creative source for the second-generation mainland writers, as we are always trying to build on the debris after the collapses and disillusionments.

Question: How is the third/new generation of Taiwanese immigrants different from the second and first generations? How do they recognize their social status in the world? How do they identify themselves?

Chu: The new generation was born in the 1980s when the Taiwan consciousness was pretty heightened. My generation experienced the marshal law era and various political movements, and knew that a good life had to be earned or fought for. But the new generation already had everything, such as democracy, when they were born, so they have a different mindset. In addition, between the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Taiwanese realized the harsh fact that Taiwan was just a small island and barely had a position in international affairs, therefore the new generation appear to be more indifferent to politics. They live a more carefree life.

Question: This brings me back to the initial question about childhood movies. It makes me want to ask: Do movies matter? The initial answers were Heroic Sons and Daughters and Gone with the Wind. If you asked screenwriters and scholars today, they might all say Avatar. They’d be watching the same movies in Taiwan, the mainland, Hong Kong, or Japan, and the impact of cinema on socialization would be pretty similar for each country or region; popular culture in Asia today is so widely shared. Yet the same audiences might have drastically distinct perceptions of “being Chinese” or “being Taiwanese.” So, do movies matter?

Zhang: Of course, what I would say is yes and no. “Yes” means that people share the same memory. Avatar is one kind of film, but when you talk about the environment, things like that are shared between people. But Avatar doesn’t touch on identity or nationalism issues, so it’s different. “No” in the sense that people probably won’t lend so much weight to a particular film, to an extent that they are influenced by watching it. So films, like literature, are a sort of slow-moving presence in someone’s life. But it has impact for sure.

Question: But maybe not as much as the educational system?

Zhang: Well, this is an educational system where you use movies.  That’s why the Chinese government is still insisting on producing all these propaganda films, because they believe they do have power. So the answer to your question is yes, certainly yes. “We need to make these films, continue to pour in money making these films. It’s very useful.”  If I repeat that line ten thousand times, it comes true. But only because it’s stuck with you; it doesn’t matter whether it’s it’s true or not. That’s the government’s idea. What’s happened now is that people have more choices. They can watch different kinds of films, and Avatar is one type of film that speaks to young people. Maybe young Japanese audiences and young Chinese audiences will choose to watch other kinds of films, but that will reflect their national identity and culture.

Wang: I wouldn’t pit Gone with the Wind against Heroic Sons and Daughters, because Gone with the Wind was warmly received when it was released in China. A lot of literary writers were actually fans of Gone with the Wind—just read Leo Lee.  A handwritten copy of Gone with the Wind was circulated during the Cultural Revolution. Many people read it and were starved for Gone with the Wind. I think that Gone with the Wind actually motivated a lot of people to watch “soft” [2] Chinese films for this kind of eroticism, like one film where a woman danced rumba, Intrepid Hero (Yingxiong hudan 英雄虎胆). It’s not really this film that leads to one kind of perspective or one kind of position. The cinema is heterogeneous. Even revolutionary state-sponsored film is open to all kinds of perspectives. So you have all kinds of sources to build up your own kind of identity, national or social or individualistic. A lot of people see The Song of Youth (Qingchun zhi ge 青春之歌), a very revolutionary movie, as a kind of an individualistic film because it’s about the pursuit of one’s fulfillment. So, that’s why film matters. It matters because it provides a whole range of sources. Not one way, but many ways.

Question: I have a general question for the scholars. Whenever you’re reviewing or critiquing a film, is there some sort of rubric you follow?

Zhang: Ah, that’s a very good question. It depends on your project. If the project means that you want to use your reading experience of some particular film in order to prove some kind of argument, then yes, you use some kind of a rubric. Film scholarship is very different from general film criticism, where you can just say, “Ok, this is a good story,” and then you can talk about the art and the directing and things like that. With scholarship, you usually want to engage some kind of argument.

Wang: I would just add that questions that we find today, all the questions, are a good rubric. Like, feminism is actually a good rubric. When you apply that, you find that maybe it has limitations, that it’s not good enough, and yet it really breeds more things, generates more things. National identity is also a good rubric. You’re not talking about film per se, but I think it’s really difficult to talk about film as film; you need to talk about something around it, the things that surround film.

Zhang: Even Chu T’ien-Wen says film is not about film, film is something behind the film. So we scholars can say, to comfort ourselves, “Okay, we’re doing the right thing.” Because film is not the target—it’s something behind the film.

Zhu: Let’s thank our two scholars and Ms. Chu for answering all these questions. Thank you all for coming!

[1] Chu T’ien-wen’s words were translated from Chinese to English by Ping Zhu; other participants’ words were directly transcribed from the audio recording of the salon. 

[2] In modern China, there is a debate on “soft film” (ruanxing dianying 软性电影) and “hard film (yingxing dianying硬性电影) between left-wing and right-wing intellectuals. Roughly speaking, “soft films” feature romantic, sentimental, or individualistic themes, whereas “hard films” feature political and revolutionary themes.

Ping Zhu is an assistant professor of Chinese literature at the University of Oklahoma. She serves as a deputy editor of Chinese Literature Today and contributing editor of World Literature Today. Her new book is called Gender and Subjectivities in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature and Culture. She has published in Gender & History, Frontiers of Literary Studies in China, Comparative Literature and Culture, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, and Visual Anthropology. She is currently coediting a volume to be titled “Maoist Laughter” with Jason McGrath and Zhuoyi Wang.

From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 5 No. 2

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THIS ISSUE’S ART: “Seductive Evolution of Animated Illuminations, 2013.” By Shih Chieh Huang. (Modification of fifteenth-century Renaissance period Murano glass chandelier. Combined with micro controller, computer cooling fans, LEDs, garbage bags, and plastic shrink wrap.) Image courtesy of the artist.


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