Theory Teacher's Blog

China’s History through Chinese Cinema

Four of my English majors will be working in China after graduating this May, and since not all of them took advantage of their university’s excellent Asian Studies program, I thought I’d give them a crash course on China’s history through the delightful medium of its movies in my blog. Arguably, China makes some of the best movies in the world, and as the Renaissance poet Philip Sydney famously theorized in his Defense of Poetry, art should be a “delightful teaching.” Learning history through movies can be fun, but movies are not transparent accounts of the past, so I’m going to try to frame them in a dialectical, critical light.

I suppose I should start at the beginning, since, as we know from The Sound of Music, that’s a very good place to start — the foundational moment of China’s history, the beginning of the Qin Dynasty in the third century B.C. This is not the first dynasty in Chinese history, but it’s a foundational one since it is said to have unified China under one rule and eventually built the famous Great Wall. There are two hit movies about this moment. The one more well-known in the United States is Hero, starring Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, and Maggie Cheung and directed by Zhang Yimou in 2002. The lesser-known but perhaps better movie is The Emperor and the Assassin, directed by Chen Kaige in 1998. It is worth watching both movies for points of comparison and contrast. Both are beautifully shot martial arts movies, full of gorgeously choreographed action and brilliant spectacle. Interestingly, Zhang Yimou’s Hero is much more patriotic and simplistic, and has been criticized by the Chinese public for being so, in contrast to Chen Kaige’s investigation of the past which is more critical and multifaceted. I think it’s interesting that Americans tend to prefer Hero even though its ideology is clearly chauvenistically patriotic and monocultural instead of Emperor and the Assassin which seems to promote a more circumspect, pluralistic, and open society. A whole essay could be written about America’s preference, I suppose.

The two directors Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou have clashed before — both being the two most famous directors to come out of China in the early 1990s. Both made movies about China’s progress out of the troubled 1930s and the civil wars of the 1940s through the Communist Revolution to the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Chen Kaige directed the groundbreaking and internationally celebrated Farewell My Concubine in 1993, and Zhang Yimou directed the contoversial To Live in 1994. Both star one of the most beautiful and internationally celebrated actresses of our time, Gong Li. Both movies were controversial in China, and both offer slightly different perspectives on the cultural revolution and its significance. They are also important statements that suggest how the generation of Chinese people in the 1990s feel about the recent past — critically, but not dismissively. Both movies are very dark and depressing but cover a lot of ground historically as they tell a beautiful and emotionally touching story. Personally, I prefer Chen Kaige’s style which is more ironic and self-conscious in contrast to Zhang Yimou’s, which is more sentimental.

Both directors have also made movies about gangsters during the gangster-ish era of pre-revolution China: Temptress Moon and Shanghai Triad. These are gorgeously made dramas, some of the best cinematography you’ll ever watch. But it’s sometimes easier to see how the average Chinese feel about their past by watching the more simplistic martial arts movies by Jet Li and Jackie Chan whose movies present an anti-colonialist position against the imperialism of Europe, the United States, and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jet Li’s Once upon a Time in China is probably the best and most patriotic Chinese filmic statement against European imperialism and European racism. Similarly, his more famous movie Fist of Legend (which is a remake of Bruce Lee’s classic Fist of Fury) articulates a Chinese position against Japan’s attempt to colonize China. Personally, I prefer the more comical early work by Jackie Chan, such as Project A, which mocks European colonialism in China. All of these movies are set in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. They have been very popular in the United States, which is interesting considering that all of them present a clearly anti-imperialist attitude. More could be said about why Americans (such as myself) like watching movies that criticize American imperialism, but I’ll defer that question for another day.

Coming to the present, one of the biggest issues troubling China in the 1980s was the relationship between the country and the city. After rapid industrialization, the economic and cultural gap between the country and the city was recognized by China’s government to be a problem that needed to be addressed. Hui Wang’s theoretically brilliant and sophisticated book China’s New Order explains the complexities and significance of this dynamic (and I also like this book because it’s by a literature professor in China, but he’s doing political science and history.) Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), blending Kafka-esque comedy and tragedy, brilliantly represents the problematic relation between country and city. Two other movies also explore this relationship in the more recent context of the globalization of the 1990s. Zhang Yang’s sweet and touching movie Shower (1999) and Wang Xiaoshuai’s much darker Beijing Bicycle (2001). Both received interntional acclaim. Also thoughtfully engaging with the changing post-globalization China is the surrealistic Zhou Yu’s Train (2002).

So, that’s my course in “China’s History through Chinese Cinema.” Unfortunately, I haven’t been paying too close attention to Chinese cinema since Zhou Yu’s Train. If anyone has any suggestions, please post a comment with your advice. Or if anyone wants to correct my sense of history or my opinion of the movies, please do. Meanwhile, for Shakespeare fans, probably the best cinematic interpretation of Hamlet is Legend of the Black Scorpion, a.k.a., The Banquet.


April 25, 2010 - Posted by | movies, teaching


  1. Steve, thanks for the recommendations. I’ve gotten through “Shower,” “Beijing Bicycle” and “The Emperor and the Assassin” so far and have thoroughly enjoyed (and learned something from) all of them.

    Comment by Kelsey | July 3, 2010 | Reply

  2. Hi could we talk to you about useing this article for our magazine

    Comment by Tyrone | March 11, 2012 | Reply

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