2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 154: Individual Papers: Aesthetics, Ideology, and Internationalism in Contemporary Chinese Cultural Production

Organizer: Kristin Stapleton, University of Kentucky

Chair: Shengqing Wu, University of Kentucky


From Myths to Jokes: Political Parodies in Post-Mao China

Howard Y. F. Choy, University of Colorado, Boulder

While the 1950s–1970s witnessed an idolization of the PRC founders, the turn of the century in China was marked by the proliferation of political jokes about their successors. Myths regarding Chairman Mao’s guerrilla warfare and Premier Zhou’s diplomatic finesse that once fanaticized the whole nation have yielded to japes, which unmercifully mock the ineptitude and corruption of Li Peng and Jiang Zemin, top leaders of the last generation. These quips often translate the clownish duo’s political incompetence into sexual impotence, playing between their powers and libidos. The distorted images of the highest officials suggest not only the discredit of certain politicians, who failed to establish themselves as the new Father of the People’s Republic in the shadow of their precursors, but also people’s distrust of the Party itself.

In light of Freud’s and later theorists’ thoughts on jokes, this paper presents some of the Chinese political jokes collected in recent years from social gatherings and hearsay, as well as some disseminated on the Internet. What does it mean when the communist dictators become standing jests? Are political jokes an indicator of freedom of speech or merely an alleviator of political pressure? Seemingly subversive and antisocial, political jokes actually function as a lubricant to maintain the state machine. In the economy of trading political anxiety for laughter, these amusing stories serve to postpone the impending bankruptcy of an authoritarian government without authority. Nonetheless, it is interesting to study how political jokes as formulaic and yet ever changing social texts are (re)produced, performed, and circulated in post-Mao China.

The Catastrophe Remembered by the Non-traumatic: Counter Narratives on the Cultural Revolution in Chinese Literature of the 1990s

Yue Ma, University of Texas, Austin

After its demise in 1976, the Cultural Revolution has been conventionally portrayed as an era of political persecution, a "cultural desert," an ascetic regime, and a decade of total chaos. Contested memories of this period, however, appeared in literary writings of the 1990s: memories that foregrounded self-motivated learning, sexual indulgence, juvenile adventure and mundane living. Remembering the Cultural Revolution from the perspectives of the non-traumatic, these narratives allowed certain social groups and individuals to forge new identities beyond that of the political victim.

My paper offers a contextual study of these alternative narratives that "detraumatize" the Cultural Revolution, paying special attention to circumstances surrounding their production and reception. It argues that, while sharing a common gesture of redeeming personal histories from a collective past, these narratives cannot always be viewed as counterdiscourses aimed to revoke the official history and its underpinning ideologies. In different cases, the construction of an "alternative reality" of the Cultural Revolution could serve as a coping strategy that fulfils personal or psychological needs; as a means to legitimize new intellectual trends; as a way to boost an emerging cultural fashion; or as a weapon with which cultural agents contend for positions in a drastically restructured cultural field.

Feng Xiaogang’s Films and Contemporary Chinese Art

Rui Zhang, Ohio State University

Despite being the most popular filmmaker in Chinese cinema of the late 1990s, Feng Xiaogang has thus far been neglected in Chinese film studies. On one level, his importance in Chinese cinema can be attributed to his innovation of the wildly popular "New Year" films, box-office champions that offer the promise of saving Chinese cinema from the Hollywood invasion. However, the assessment of his works becomes more difficult when one tries to locate his films within a larger artistic discourse.

Addressing this issue, this paper explores similarities between Feng’s popular cinema and two trends in contemporary Chinese art: Cynical Realism and Political Pop. Unlike the fifth and sixth generation filmmakers, whose films focus on the expression of humanistic ideals and the uncovering of dark corners in Chinese society, or the government sponsored directors, who continue to adhere to an ideology of socialist realism, Feng’s films depict the tedium of the daily lives of ordinary people while offering a satirical commentary on various problems in Chinese society. This reflects a key strategy of Cynical Realism and Political Pop, as represented by Fang Lijun and Wang Guangyi, in which direct confrontation with the authorities is avoided in favor of indirect and cynical social criticism.

This study, incorporating analyses of the styles, techniques, themes and social contexts of both Feng’s films and the works of these two artists, demonstrates that Feng’s cinema is not an isolated cultural and artistic phenomenon, but rather reflects developments that were also witnessed in the Chinese art world during the 1990s.

Screening Gay Sovereignty: Politics of Homo-Economic Libidinale and Heterotopic Polity in Contemporary Chinese Queer Cinema

Jiayan Mi, College of New Jersey

Starting in the 1990s, there have emerged a dozen queer films focusing on the disturbing identity of the LGBT (lesbian, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender) by contemporary and diasporic Chinese filmmakers. These films on LGBT have created a "queer space" for engaging a critical negotiation with the local, national and transnational identities of "Chineseness." By focusing on four Mainland underground/independent films, Zhuang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace (1996), Liu Bingjian’s Men and Women (1999), Li Yu’s Fish and Elephant (2002), and Cui Zien’s Feeding Boys, Ayaya (2003), this paper examines how Chinese independent filmmakers break social taboos of representing gayness/homosexuality on screen in order to carry out a performative engagement with and intervention in the familial, ideological, and heteronormative apparatuses. These films try to claim that post-Mao or post-socialist civility, citizenship, and gender identity can’t be successfully constituted without taking a full account of the sovereignty of LGBT identities. Through technology of mise-en-scène, the filmmakers create a polyphonic space to address the issues of violence, wounds, subalternity, homophobism, masculinity, and political marginalization that lesbians/gay men in China have been subject to in the process of their subjectivity formation. To claim lesbian/gay sovereignty, the cinematic screen has become a fantasmatic post-Lacanian "third space" for the performance of homo-libidinal utopianism and for the empowerment of lesbigay civility and subjectivity. The slippage, a caution the paper will raise, is that such cinematic investment in the domain of homosexuality may fall into a trap of reorientalizing Chinese gay identity, similar to what the fifth-generation filmmakers have done to Chinese heterosexual identity, in catering to the international/Western audiences and celluloid market/festivals, as all of these films are banned in China and thus inaccessible to domestic audiences.

Interculturalism in Zhang Yimou’s Stage Productions

Siyuan Liu, University of Pittsburgh

In 1997, the Chinese film director Zhang Yimou directed the Puccini opera Turandot in Florence with the Florence Opera House under the conduction of the Indian-born international conductor Zubin Mehta. His restaging of the same production a year later in the Forbidden City employed a largely different mise-en-scène especially designed for the grand open atmosphere. In 2001, Zhang collaborated with the Central Ballet Theatre of China to adapt his movie Raise the Red Lantern into a ballet, where his composer, choreographer, and designers were either Europeans or Chinese artists actively working in Europe. In 2003, the ballet toured Europe after a major revision. These productions enjoyed largely favorable reviews both inside and outside of China.

Based on recent scholarship on theatre interculturalism, my paper examines both the finished productions and the rehearsal processes where Zhang Yimou, as a Chinese film director, had to deal with Western art forms and international artists. While mindful of the critical discourse on both Zhang Yimou’s films and the impact of globalization on China and its art scene, my analysis draws its theoretical framework mainly from the models of intercultural performances proposed by Patrice Pavis and modified by Lo and Gilbert. I will demonstrate that, in the end, it was the result of the intercultural negotiations among the various players in the source and target cultures that largely determined the success and limitations of these productions.