August 2010

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By Yap Soo Ei, Ji Xing, Nicolai Volland, Yang Lijun, and Paul Pickowicz

Feng Xiaogang’s blockbuster Aftershock is making headlines these days, setting new records at the box office in China. We cannot say yet if the excitement is justified—Aftershock has only just hit the theaters here in Singapore. It is clear, however, that the current cinema craze in China is not at all a new phenomenon. In fact, new releases on the silver screen created similar sensations in Shanghai as early as eighty years ago. And many of these old films continue even today to fascinate. Films by pioneering Chinese directors of the 1920s and 1930s still dazzle, with their opulent sets, the metropolitan glamour of Shanghai, not to speak of their melodramatic stories of love and distress, passion and agony.

At a workshop held at the National University of Singapore in June and July 2010, directed by Paul Pickowicz and chaired by Yang Lijun and Nicolai Volland, we took a closer look at some of these films, gems of China’s silent film era. Although interest in “Golden Age” Chinese cinema has gradually picked up in recent years, many of these films remain little known, as opposed, for instance, to the works of directors from China’s “fifth” and “sixth” generations. Yet after several days of collective movie-watching and intensive discussion, there is little doubt about the richness of this treasure trove of early Chinese films.

Imagine, for example, the following opening shots: The camera zooms in on the supple thighs of a young woman. A few seconds later, you—the viewer—see her charming smile. She is wearing a simple short sleeved shirt, both arms exposed, and clad in shorts with one of the seams torn. In full view now, you are able to admire her slender body. She is in a playful mood. Such are the opening shots of Sun Yu’s 1931 film Wild Rose (Ye meigui), set in an idyllic countryside. But this dream world will not last; misfortune will soon befall the female protagonist and the man she loves. Painful separation seems inevitable. Will the couple eventually reunite? What will lead them back together? Just a hint (spoiler alert!): they both sign up for a vaguely defined “revolution.”

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Deanna Fei is author of A Thread of Sky (Penguin Press, 2010), a novel about three generations of women in a Chinese American family. Here, she talks with recent UC Irvine graduate Mengfei Chen.

Mengfei Chen: What were some of your inspirations in writing the book? How did it begin? What experiences informed your writing?

Deanna Fei: A Thread of Sky is the story of a family of Chinese American women who reunite for a tour of their ancestral home. It was inspired by a trip through China’s “must-sees” that I embarked on ten years ago with my mother, my sisters, my aunt and my grandmother — six strong-willed, complicated women herded together for two weeks on a package tour. I was struck by the dramatic possibilities of this set-up, as well as the questions it raised about home and identity, culture and authenticity, travel and migration, history and memory. The tour took place at the end of a year I’d spent studying Chinese at Beijing Normal University. I’d thought I was ready to move on to the next stage of my life: teaching in New York, studying creative writing. But a few years later, I hadn’t stopped thinking about that tour. I started scribbling notes, and the characters began taking on lives of their own, completely apart from their real-life counterparts, and soon I was writing a novel.

I knew that in order to write about my characters’ travels through China with the necessary depth and immediacy, I needed to return. This time, I went back on a Fulbright Grant, intending to stay for another year, researching contemporary Chinese history and soaking up modern life in Shanghai while making periodic trips to the cities on my characters’ itinerary. I became so immersed in my research and writing that my stay eventually stretched to three years, during which my understanding of China continually evolved — and I expect it always will.

MC: One of the major themes in the novel is feminism in Chinese history. Why did you want to write about this topic? How did you do your research (sources, etc)? Did you learn anything surprising?

DF: Though they might not call themselves feminists, all six women in the novel are fiercely independent and have strived to make a difference in the world around them. Until this tour take shape, the American-born daughters of this family have always thought of these traits as being tied to their Westernization, but now they begin to trace it back to their grandmother and the story of feminism in China.
Their grandmother was once a leader of the Chinese feminist movement who garnered comparisons to such historical heroines as Hua Mulan and Qiu Jin. In my research, I read accounts of their lives as well as contemporary portraits of female leaders such as those in Wang Zheng’s Women in the Chinese Enlightenment and Xie Bingying’s A Woman Soldier’s Own Story.

What fascinated me was how an entire movement, a brand of feminism that many argue started earlier and spread wider than its American counterpart, had become obscured in history. In China, the conventional narrative is that feminism began with Communist liberation, when in fact a generation of activists had made huge inroads back in the 20s. Meanwhile, Westerners tend to see themselves as the standard-bearers of progress, particularly in terms of women’s rights. I wanted to explore the life story of a woman whose contributions to modern China had been erased, even as she still carries the cause in her bones.

MC: How does history, personal and cultural, playing a role in the lives of your characters?

DF: In various ways, my characters have seen themselves as somewhat untethered to history, whether by dint of being exiles, immigrants, or American-born. Yet they are all haunted by it, in the form of war wounds, family secrets, genetics or simply sensing its shadow. In China, history just is; an ordinary person doesn’t have to study it or return to it in order to feel it. But for the family in my novel, it’s only when they embark on this tour that they begin to comprehend how their lives play out against the intersections of political and family history, Chinese and American history, that have shaped their present.

MC: Much of A Thread of Sky is set in China, yet it’s also about Chinese Americans. What are some of the issues that you consider to be important for Chinese Americans of your generation?

DF: Whereas previous generations tended either to seek acceptance as assimilated Americans or to hold onto their Chinese identity as primary, I think my generation is eager to build a culture of our own. We’re truly Chinese American — not just Chinese or just American — and we don’t feel limited by the category. We might identify more broadly as Asian Americans, Americans of color, transnational Chinese or all of the above. Whatever the case, we seek to gain a lot more representation in “American” arts, politics, media and more.

MC: There is a growing appetite for writing on China. Is there anything that you think fiction about China offers readers that non-fiction or academic writing does not?

DF: That’s an excellent question. I’ve relied on plenty of wonderful nonfiction and academic writing to deepen my own understanding of China, but fiction definitely has its place. China often tempts Westerners to make sweeping, oversimplified statements — for instance, Chinese culture is repressive, or materialistic or all about saving face. Sometimes this happens precisely because China is a place of such vastness and complexity that it’s easier to make such statements than to convey true understanding; sometimes it’s plain ignorance. Either way, when you combine this impulse with the fact that nonfiction and academic writing are often aimed at arriving at a definitive answer, at some inarguable conclusion, there’s considerable potential for misunderstanding.

Fiction, by contrast, is aimed at exploration, not explanation. It’s the province of nuance and contradiction. A good novel gives a sense of expansion, of a broadening and deepening view, but it also acknowledges that some things remain beyond our grasp. In this way, fiction can sometimes offer readers a truer perspective of China than other forms of writing.

That, at least, is my hope.

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By Mary E. Gallagher

This spring, a series of well-coordinated and successful strikes in foreign-invested enterprises in China made headlines all around the world. Young migrant workers openly and forcefully articulated demands for higher wages, better representation, and more consideration of their “spiritual” and mental well-being. These demands have led to increased speculation that China’s current economic boom is winding down, as its growth strategy founded in part on cheap migrant labor from rural areas faces domestic and international difficulties.

This is not the first time that Chinese workers have openly protested for higher wages, better treatment, and more job security. What makes this period more important and potentially much more consequential is the confluence of demographic, social and political trends that have increased the bargaining power of employees for the first time in two decades. Workers are now protesting in a position of relative strength after a long period of perceiving that the economic and political trends were against them.

Travelling to China three different times this summer has offered me some time to observe this phenomenon from different locations, different perspectives, and in different points of time – when large strikes were still occurring in June to now in late August where strike activity has quieted down. Foxconn’s management just unleashed their 50,000 strong “worker party” with domestic and international media showing bizarre photos of underpaid workers holding up posters of Terry Guo that say “Love Me, Love You, Love Terry.” New Life Movement ideology combines with the CCP’s “your factory is home” propaganda to create a mishmash of capitalist company-driven paternalism and “work-unit socialism:” low pay, Taylorist work organization, company control and oversight of a worker’s life, but without the security and benefits of the now quaint “iron-rice bowl.”

Gallagher 1

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This week came the not-unexpected news that China has passed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. Here, we’ve rounded up reactions to and analyses of the story:

• At his New Yorker blog, Evan Osnos asks “Why the Long Face?”, explaining that “While the story has rated front-page treatment in the U.S., it has sent China into a frenzy of self-flagellation, in the hope of reminding people that it is still home to a lot of very poor people.”

• Yoree Koh at the Wall Street Journal reports that Japan is taking the news of its third-place status with a shrug:

“It can’t be helped,” said Koichi Matsubara, 36, who works in real estate. “Business has been drifting overseas, our population is shrinking. We’re a small island, and given the size of our country, we were perhaps at the top longer than expected. I think we will continue to lose ground.”

• A few observers, however, are asking if China can maintain its sustained economic growth for much longer. Citing China’s heavy reliance on export-oriented development, as well as the country’s relatively low level of domestic consumption, some economists are instead looking to India to become Asia’s next hot economy, as James Fontanella-Khan of the Financial Times explains. Why?

First of all, unlike China, India isn’t rapidly getting older. In fact, its ratio of working-age people to dependents (children and the elderly) is actually improving.

Second — India’s government reforms, and its growing infrastructure spending, have helped create jobs, and dynamic labour market, and a vibrant private sector.

Finally, globalisation has helped India tap into both the goods export market, but more importantly, the global services exports market — which India now has a 2.6 per cent share of.

• Tom Lasseter, the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchey Newspapers, contemplates that problem of low domestic consumption at his “China Rises” blog. Writing about the story at a microeconomic level — as it relates to his choices when buying a new bicycle — Lasseter concludes that “For a country that wants to drive up domestic consumption, widespread worries about product quality and scant legal recourse to assuage those concerns is a serious issue.”

• At Forbes, Gady Epstein advises readers to take a step back and consider whether or not this story deserves the breathless headlines it’s been generating:

But do we really need a quarterly statistic to tell us anything we don’t already know about these two economies? There is not much value in debating the matter other than for the fun of the headlines and the hype.

We already know that China is the world’s second economic center of gravity now after the U.S., and in important ways is the dominant center of gravity: It has long been the economy that draws every big company in the world seeking growth, and which sets global markets in most commodities . . . When China, growing as quickly as it does, becomes a net importer of something, that is the vital turning point for prices going forward, and it didn’t take until the second quarter of 2010 for this to become true. This has been true for most of the last decade.

• And Joshua E. Keating at Foreign Policy asks “How Do We Know That China’s Economy Is Really Bigger Than Japan’s?” For those of us who need a quick review of college macroeconomics, Keating is a helpful guide as he talks through the various ways a country can estimate its GDP.


There were 12 minutes and 28 seconds remaining.

I had never bid on eBay. It takes too much energy, too much attention to follow the vagaries of an online auction. And there never seems to be anything I want that badly. But I wanted that propaganda poster—a reproduction of an oil painting, mid-1970s—depicting, with the imagination and rhetorical power possible only in socialist realism, the May Fourth movement of 1919.

May Fourth poster

"The May Fourth Movement," propaganda poster, 1976

In the painting, the sky is clearing and clouds are dissipating behind the imposing presence of Tiananmen, which dominates the scene. The students, young men and women, are marching at the center, their facial expressions ranging from outrage to stern determination. They wear either the scholar’s long gown or Western-style suits; both kinds of attire identify them as belonging to the social group of “modern” students. And the fact that they indeed embody the forces of modernity, of progress against an essentialized tradition, is made very evident by the painter. One of their signs reads, “Down with the store of Confucius and Co.” while the notable presence of female students marching prominently in the forefront epitomizes the stance on gender equality.

11 minutes 15 seconds. I wanted it. I repressed the creeping sense of unease, took out my credit card, and placed a bid.

9 minutes 20 seconds. “You have been outbid.” Somebody else wants it? But who? And why? Who could want that? I tried to resist the urge, tried not to get sucked into this perverse poker-like game of raising the stakes. I am an intellectual, a historian; I am above the petty antiquarian lust for ownership, for artifacts. I trace trends, ideas, and lives. Right.

8 minutes 35 seconds. All true. But I am specifically a cultural historian. I work with materiality, I study representation, I analyze images. Why shouldn’t I own my subject matter?

I looked at the image again. Around the marching students, people converge toward the demonstration: they are workers, common citizens awakened by the words of students, words they literally clasp in their hands, in the forms of the leaflets students have distributed. The signs the protestors carry—“Give us back Qingdao,” “Abolish the unequal treaties”—alert the people of the imminent danger to the territorial integrity of China: the Treaty of Versailles had just assigned to Japan the German colonies in Shandong Province. It was then the pull of nationalism that drew the students out of their schools and connected them to the people.

7 minutes 22 seconds. “You are now the highest bidder.” My opponent seemed to have given up. Reassured, I started fantasizing, imagining the poster in my office, or better, in my living room. I had seen that image before, many times. I reached for a copy of Vera Schwarcz’s The Chinese Enlightenment, and there it was, on the cover. Schwarcz never talks about that painting, and, for some reason, until this time I had never paid much attention to it either. But now, I was becoming obsessed with owning it.

4 minutes 10 seconds. Still the highest bidder.

It is a powerful image, and it synthesizes perfectly the multiple legacies of the May Fourth movement, a moment that, in different but converging histories, has been made to coincide with the birth of Chinese modernity, the emergence of a national consciousness, the birth cry of an infant class struggle. But the painting clearly suggests a precise historical interpretation; in the official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mythology, the events of May Fourth mark the first encounter between the students and the people. Yet in the picture the students still march alone (and one wonders whether the promises of that encounter will ever be truly and completely fulfilled). They march under their own banners; they bring awareness to the people, thus making evident that their new political consciousness has matured apart from the people, inside a closed community, and implicitly because of that very isolation. The political awareness of the students is then almost a natural byproduct of their status. But how can it be that this particular category is always assumed to be “naturally” political?

3 minutes 19 seconds. Still the highest bidder.

The monumental outline of Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) looms in the center of the scene. It marks more than a simple location; it is the central point in the map of student activism throughout the following century. Tiananmen stands as the symbol of continuity of the nation-state, the embodiment of power, authority, and national unity. Through the gate an uneasy suture is achieved between the public space of protest, the modern state, and an ahistorical national past (the cyclical recurring of China’s five thousand years). By implicitly linking May Fourth’s student nationalism to the imperial officers’ concern for the dynasty, the gate suggests a continuous reference to the long history of the relation between the state and intellectuals, for which “students” are the modern embodiment. Students are therefore always already political because they inherit a particular place in relationship with the state (imperial or national); they are always already standing in front of Tiananmen, waiting to be heard by (or curry the favor of) who is inside. Differences in time and space are erased in this perspective, and every instance of student activism becomes just the recrafting of an old tradition.

1 minute and 20 seconds. “You have been outbid!”
Damn! Too late to place another bid, too late to recover the lost image. I am left with doubt (who stole it from me?), remorse (why didn’t I bid more?), and this digital reproduction.

Now that I had lost the chance of owning it, I looked at it again. Maybe, if we just shift our perspective a bit, the image lends itself to other readings, to completely different interpretations. Maybe Tiananmen is not as central and dominating as it looked at first glance. Rather, it might be seen as emerging among the dissipating clouds, suddenly revealed, its contours becoming more precise. It looks almost like a nascent symbol, summoned into life by what was happening in the streets. But if we can challenge the stability of the gate, then maybe none of the other elements in this picture will be fixed and determined either, including the “students” themselves. What will we find if we look behind the gate?

Excerpted from Behind the Gate: Inventing Students in Beijing by Fabio Lanza. Copyright © 2010 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Poster image from Stefan Landsberger’s collection at

Fabio Lanza is Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona.

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