Chinese Cinema Culture

A Scene in the Fog

by Dai Jinhua (Author)
©2019 Monographs 326 Pages


From her early film studies to her most recent critiques of contemporary pop culture, Chinese Cinema Culture: A Scene in the Fog presents Dai Jinhua’s multiple theoretical moves toward writing difference into the Euro-American discourses current in China today; it is an account of both her interrogation of mainstream Western theories and her eventual flight from them. She searches for a theoretical strategy that enables her to narrate critically the intellectual and gendered film history and culture of the post-Mao and post-Deng eras without sacrificing it to the orientalizing gaze of the West. Her work demonstrates brilliant insights into China’s cinema tradition that is inseparable from both the political legacy of Maoism and current postcolonial order of cultural knowledge. This book includes 11 essays organized in three parts and one dialogue on Chinese cinema culture as the afterword.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise For Chinese Cinema Culture
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part One: Between the Reels
  • Severed Bridge: The Art of the Sons’ Generation (Translated by Lisa Rofel and Hu Ying)
  • A Scene in the Fog: Reading the Sixth Generation Films (Translated by Yiman Wang)
  • Subject Structure and Modes of Viewing: Films by the Fourth Generation Directors at the Turn of the 1970s and 1980s (Translated by Nina Tao)
  • Part Two: Ashes of Time
  • The Roar of Silence: Under the Facade of Urbanness: Chinese Cinema of the 1980s and 1990s (Translated by Nina Tao)
  • Encountering “The Other”: Notes on the Theory of “Third World Literature” (Translated by Nina Tao)
  • Rift Valley: Glory and Downthrows in the Post-1989 Art Cinema (Translated by Nina Tao)
  • Ermo: A Modern-Day Allegory Created by a Fifth Generation Director (Translated by Nina Tao)
  • The Piano in a Factory: Class, or in the Name of the Father (Translated by Nina Tao)
  • Part Three: Half the Sky
  • Gender and Narration: Women in Contemporary Chinese Film (Translated by Jonathan Noble)
  • “Human, Woman, Demon”: A Woman’s Predicament (Translated by Kirk Denton)
  • Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Films: Pursuing and Escaping History (Translated by Zhang Jingyuan)
  • Appendix: The Isle of Yesterday—Film, Scholarship, and Me (Translated by Nina Tao)
  • Index

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I am grateful to all of those who have contributed their efforts to this project. I would like to especially thank Ms. Nina Tao, the translator of seven pieces of essays in this volume. I would also express my sincere appreciation to my friend Professor Edward Mansfield Gunn, who has polished the text in a most meticulous way. My sincere thanks will also go to Professor Lisa Rofel, Professor Hu Ying, Professor Yima Wang, Professor Jonathan Noble, Professor Kirk Denton and Professor Zhang Jingyuan, who have granted their permissions to use their translations in this volume. ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →


← 1 | 2 →

← 2 | 3 →


The Fifth Generation was entangled in a hostile historical snare from which they struggled desperately to escape.1 Their predecessors, the Fourth Generation of filmmakers, had created an art form out of a search for personal memories, wrested from a homogeneous political configuration and the spurious style of officially defined mainstream art. But their attempts only resulted in a recentering of the discourse at the margins.2 The Fifth Generation, by contrast, sought to transcend the disjuncture of history and culture. Staging symbolic representations of individual trauma in the “shock” of experience invested Chinese history with a different significance and established a novel film language, grammar, and set of aesthetic principles. The Fourth Generation set out to rescue hostages from history, yet in the end their art became a pastiche of outmoded and affected historical metanarratives; while the Fifth Generation, submerged in an evacuate a history, in the fissures of culture and language, went astray in the labyrinth of language and representation itself.

The focal point of articulation between Chinese film art and Chinese social life in the 1980s did not rest on economic/productive or reproductive reality. Rather it lay in the recollection of a shared nightmare and a common psychological referent: the historical reality and representation of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” In Fourth Generation art, the “Cultural ← 3 | 4 → Revolution” appeared absent in its very presence. These artists directly confronted the ten-year “Cultural Revolution” during the first period of their work (1979–81), but they held a rather fixed psychological approach, adopting an imploring posture of grieving, outworn humanism, to represent the era’s “inexorable doom” as if it were a classical romantic tragedy of youth. As they were direct participants in the “Cultural Revolution,” their object was to cleanse the blood from those unintentionally murderous gangs, using the passions of individual life history and the tears of youthful tragedy. They drew on conventional notions of humanity, human nature, civility, and barbarism to dispel but also to expound on the uniqueness of this phantasmic historical disaster.

In Fifth Generation art, however, the “Cultural Revolution” is ubiquitously absent. Until the 1980s, the Fifth Generation avoided this topic entirely; however, their films inevitably came to reflect the fact that they (not the Fourth Generation) are the “Cultural Revolution’s” spiritual offspring,3 heirs to the historical and cultural ruptures it caused. They are the ones who bear an unspeakable historical unconscious. Their generation, following a historic act of Patricide, faces the castrating power of the double weight of ancient Eastern civilization and assaults launched from the West. This generation struggled in despair at the margins of the Imaginary but failed to enter the Symbolic Order. The art of the Fifth Generation is the art of the Sons. The history of the “Cultural Revolution” determined that their struggle would painfully negotiate an abiding Father-Son symbolic and a Fatherless reality. Thus, in the 1980s, the Fifth Generation’s films traversed the rift between history and culture, only to collapse in the form of a severed bridge. The novel film language and innovative mode of historical narration they struggled so hard to create became a biography of a generation’s spiritual exile.

Outside the Carnival

The sum total of every absurd image in the history of China, the “Cultural Revolution” turned itself into a disastrous spectacle. The performance of this tragedy as farce or, shall we say, the unfolding of its original intention as a solemn squaring with the detritus of history resulted in one of the darkest acts in the cyclical drama of Chinese history.

Authoritarian state power (or feudal fascist autocracy) paradoxically used a spectacular form of Patricide as a precursor to establishing an absolute ← 4 | 5 → patriarchy. The onset of the “Cultural Revolution” witnessed Patricide in the name of the Father: it destroyed the existing order, by way of a control beyond every control. Perhaps most absurdly, the “Cultural Revolution,” which generated a culture of murderer-Sons, began unexpectedly with a Sons’ carnival: the “Red Guard Movement” that shocked the world. People prostrated themselves before the three loyalties—loyalty to Chairman Mao, loyalty to Mao Zedong thought, loyalty to Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line, and the four infinities—boundless love, absolute devotion, firm belief, and infinite adoration (for Chairman Mao). They also justified mass destruction and tyranny under the slogan “to rebel is justified.” (“There are a thousand truths in Marxism but fundamentally, those are but one: to rebel is justified.” Quotations from Chairman Mao.) So on one hand lies a transcendent image of authority beyond question (doing one’s utmost to establish the absolute authority of Mao Zedong and Mao Zedong thought); on the other, a profanation of powerholders, authorities, and elders—the “mortal” Fathers. The powerholders equal the capitalist roaders equal the enemies in the new historical circumstances. The authorities equal the mouthpieces of the capitalist class equal the garbage of history. The elders equal backward elements equal the obstruction of revolution. Seemingly overnight, then, China entered a revolution against order, a disorderly chaos mobilized and approved by patriarchal authority, that formal order beyond all order.

“The Cultural Revolution” was an exuberant and uninhibited carnival of the Sons compared to the genuine, social, political, cultural, and linguistic Patricide of the May Fourth Movement. The Sons of the newly born, delicate Young China shouldered the unbearably heavy burden of teleological condemnation as a consequence of May Fourth. Initially they registered elation. Eventually elation gave way to a hyper-rationalist, historicist reflection and a guilty, despairing grief. That is the stricken cry of Lu Xun’s Kuangren riji (Diary of a Madman), the ambivalence of Bing Xin’s Siren du qiaocui (Alone and Weak).4 The Patricide of the “Cultural Revolution,” by contrast, received prior forgiveness and affirmation in the transcendental Father’s name. Moreover, it used an anti-rationalistic fervor and ecstasy as its emotional register. As phantasmic historical spectacle, the “Cultural Revolution’s” first scene looked like this: the carnival of killing Fathers and Sons, an officially sanctioned activity, reenacting the preexisting dominant ideology, which was a narrativized myth of revolutionary war. Most of the “Red Guard Movement’s” members completed (or failed to complete) their education and their process of interpellation precisely within this ideological formation. In this historical ← 5 | 6 → narrative mode, revolutionary battle (that is, rebellion) was the only way to affirm that they had “entered the gates.”5 The “Cultural Revolution” offered them this providential opportunity.

However, to reenact this historical myth, they had to complete the inversion of the myth’s subject, which is to say they had to reverse the myth of the Father’s generation. The Father was precisely the exalted, valiant hero of revolutionary historical myth; thus the “Red Guard Movement,” through permanent revolution, had to reinscribe the Hero/Father as the enemy. As they performed once again the myth of the Hero/Father, the Sons’ generation witnessed the ideal Father’s collapse. This turned out to be more about blasphemy and disillusionment than brutal heroism. If the May Fourth Movement was a death and rebirth à la Guo Moruo’s “Phoenix Nirvana,” a reconstitution of cultural essence even in the process of reinterpreting history and culture, the “Cultural Revolution” was cultural destruction, pure and simple.6 The carnival of Sons simply lacked the capacity to establish a fraternal alliance or order after killing the Father, because no means existed to surpass the transcendental signifier—the Name of the Father.

This signifier’s extraordinary castrating force lay in its coexistence with the deconstructive and dehistoricizing power of the “Cultural Revolution.” Thus, when this seemingly endless but ultimately short-lived carnival was over, the “Red Guard Movement,” that grand power, was sent to the countryside and border areas, subsequently metamorphosing into the equally formidable “up to the mountains, down to the countryside youth movement.” For the core “Red Guards,” this was far from a forced exile or demotion. Rather they took it as a continuation of the festival. They completed their coming-of-age ritual in this “vast and open wilderness.”7 But the harsh reality was that this expedition turned into the carnival’s final scene. Their coming-of-age ritual was continually deferred. In the existential reality of China, they became conscious of a rigidity in the Father-Son political order. They came to an awareness of the cultural and psychic reality of Fatherless Sons, which is that of exile from the Symbolic Order.8 The Sons were doomed to experience an endless spiritual exile.

To comprehend Chinese society in the 1980s and the Fifth Generation, however, by making the “Cultural Revolution” their main psychoanalytic referent and discursive context, a critical reality must be kept in mind: most Fifth Generation filmmakers were not part of the nucleus of the “Red Guard Movement.” The “Red Guard Movement” was certainly not a revel for all sons. Sons did not comprise a unified subjectivity. An extremely rigid Father-Son order ← 6 | 7 → divided their collective subjectivity into the “five red categories.”9 Indeed, the inversion of the subject of revolutionary war mythology meant that most Fifth Generation filmmakers (who grew up in elite families) lost their position at the heart of the inner circle. In the generation of the Sons they represented class difference and were stigmatized as belonging to one of the “five black categories.” They, too, “drew a clear class line” against Fathers, taking up the rights and duties of Patricide. But this action could not alter their categorical position, since the stigma resulted from their fathers’ high social status. Dominant ideology, having designated them as “educable children,” offered them a promise of interpellation, but forever deferred its fulfillment (like waiting for Godot). If the first stirrings of the youth movement comprised the final act in the carnival of Sons, for most Fifth Generation filmmakers it was an exile in the real sense of the term. It was a dismal April Fools’ for the five black categories—that is, those Sons in the categories of difference. The Fifth Generation felt the “Cultural Revolution” as one immense shock, one deep internal wound, an interminable descent where fervor met humiliation.

The “Red Guard Movement” generally misrecognized the “Cultural Revolution” as a historic rite of passage into adulthood (“All under Heaven Is Ours, All of Society Is Ours”).10 The experience of those in the black categories was, by contrast, regression to a prediscursive stage. They were forced to stand outside the carnival and watch, from an outsider’s position, the performance of this historic, fantastical play. This generation was destined to undergo an endless spiritual wandering, as a consequence of the inability of the preexisting Symbolic Order to produce an imaginary relationship between them and the existential Real, a relationship that might organize and communicate their experiential shock. Their spiritual exile began, then, almost at the same moment as the carnival.11 Onlookers marked by their category of difference, eternal quasi-subjects in a social sense, they could not help but extend some sympathy toward the Fathers.

Even more lucidly and painfully than the “Red Guards,” they witnessed the humiliating collapse of the myth’s heroic Father image. They became fearfully conscious that this collapse signified the end of an era. Their internal psychic world—legitimate, transcendent, existential—disintegrated in the shock of experience encountered in cruel reality. This shock determined the contradiction they encountered between cognition and emotion. On one hand, they subjected themselves to the mainstream discourse, in the hope of resolving their spiritual wandering and entering the Symbolic Order. This meant they had to resort to mainstream discourse. In the social context of the ← 7 | 8 → years 1976 through 1979, they had to reinvert the inverted historical myth. They had to rehabilitate the Name of the Father, to renarrate the historical myth of revolutionary war. This became their enduring passion.

On the other hand, they found the rational reflection that comes of being the carnival’s displaced spectators. This lonely exilic form of reflection determined their interrogatory posture toward the transcendental Father, the Father-Son order, and the myths recounted through history. It determined their pained but sober self-reflexive realization of history’s circularity, culture’s disjunctures, and the aporia in language. It necessitated their desire to create a new language, to struggle free from this linguistic vacancy and nameless condition in order to seek a symbolic vehicle for their inner experience of shock. They had to withdraw their investment in self-pity and acknowledge the reality that they were Sons without the Father, and finally to seek a way to name themselves. The social-discursive world after 1979 offered them this distinct possibility.

Thus, the fact that Fifth Generation filmmakers consider Yige he bage (One and Eight) their inaugural undertaking should not completely surprise us.12 In narrative terms, the film is a classic revolutionary war myth. Written by sixties mainstream poet Guo Xiaochuan, it draws on mythic plot devices, such as “the hero meets misfortune” and “pure gold proves its worth.” The film has a wronged, misunderstood hero, Wang Jin, who faces humiliation and even death as a test of his boundless loyalty. He is the inspiring Communist Party member who steps forward bravely at the key moment of imminent peril. The film swells with enduring heroic passion. One and Eight was a renarration of the classic hero myth. It reflected the structural emergence in the late 1970s and early 1980s of a reconstituted order and the return of the Father’s collective subjectivity. Simultaneously, it was a self-referential declaration, a self-defense, by a Fifth Generation which had once borne a class stigma. It demonstrates a posture of subjection.

The film was also a “deconstructive iterability” (to borrow from Derrida). It used new concepts and new formal aesthetics to rip aside the familiar screen representation of the mythic world. Jump cuts, stationary camera work, high- and low-angle master shots, non-diegetic camera movement, extreme stylization, and rejection of classical composition by placing characters at the margins of the frame—these techniques completed the defamiliarization of historical myth. Further, the film used an excess or overflow of expressions and devices to push history into a temporal depth of field, out of which an objective narrative distance emerged. This excess exposed an a priori subject ← 8 | 9 → as well as the very presence of the camera; this discloses both the ideological effects of historical myth and the desire in the film narrative to transcend ideology. In renarration, the auteurs of the Fifth Generation hoped to rectify the Hero/Father’s Name (and simultaneously, for themselves, the name of the legitimate hero’s Son). At the same time, through the self-deconstruction of the narrative, they wanted to return the myth of the Father to the Father, to the era and history that had indeed subsided.

What displacement wrought through of excess of representation was the projection of the creative subject (rather than the character in the film) through camera work itself. Using high- and low-angle shots—techniques that dispense with illusion—displacement brought to a close the farewell ceremonies of the generation of Sons. It directly structured the grammar of the last narrative sequence in One and Eight. In it, another bandit hero, Truck Eyebrows, finally emerges from the Valley of Death, a survivor. In an overhead shot, at the lower left margin of the frame, we see him kneel down hurriedly and raise his gun to indicate his determination to leave. The scene then shifts to a close-up of Wang Jin’s benign face, positioned in a matching low-angle shot in the middle left of the frame. This maneuver overlaps the Son’s farewell to history with the gaze of the Hero/Father. But then Thick Eyebrows unexpectedly appears in a low-angle extreme close-up. Raising the rifle in farewell, his hands divide the frame into two symmetrical triangles. In this moment, the subject’s and the narrative’s points of view are reversed. Thick Eyebrows assumes a posture of subjection when proclaiming his intention to desert, thereby appearing to affirm the image of authority and to share the burden of history’s fate.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 326 pp.

Biographical notes

Dai Jinhua (Author)

Dai Jinhua is Professor of Chinese Literature and Languages at Peking University. She is an eminent film critic and scholar and a public intellectual with a critical voice. Dai has published numerous books in Chinese on film, culture, and politics. Her English-language books include Cinema and Desire (2002) and After the Post-Cold War: The Future of Chinese History (2018).


Title: Chinese Cinema Culture