Full Translation of Jia Zhangke’s Essay on Sixth Generation Cinema Now Available

Film director Jia Zhangke

Published as part of Dong Week at dGenerate Films, a series of articles on Jia Zhangke and the art world in China.

Back in August, we published a summary and partial translation of Jia Zhangke’s essay reflecting on the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, “I Don’t Believe That You Can Predict Our Ending (Wo bu xiang xin ni neng cai dao wo men jie ju).” We have now translated the entire article, which can be found below. Thanks to Jia Zhangke and Zhu Wen for providing us with the full text. English translation by Isabella Tianzi Cai.

Jia first delivered the essay on July 25 at the Beijing premiere of Sixth Generation director Wang Xiaoshuai‘s new feature Chongqing Blues. An unsubtitled video of Jia’s address can be found on Youku.com. An abridged version of his remarks, titled “I Don’t Believe That You Can Predict Our Ending (Wo bu xiang xin ni neng cai dao wo men jie ju)” had been published a week earlier in the Chinese newspaper The Southern Weekly.

Speaking of “the Sixth Generation”: I Don’t Believe That You Can Predict Our Ending

By Jia Zhangke

I am not sure how one would define “the Sixth Generation.” In terms of age, I am seven years younger than Zhang Yuan, who directed Mama, and I am half a year older than Lu Chuan, who is believed to belong to “the Seventh Generation.” I made Xiao Wu when I was 28. From 1998 onwards people have thought of me as from “the Sixth Generation.”

All along I have believed that there is no difference between desperately asserting oneself as belonging to a generation and desperately denying that fact. The reason that a film director does not want to categorize him or herself is either because that he or she wants to emphasize his or her uniqueness or that he or she wants to avoid having anything to do with the negative impressions of his or her generation. For example, whenever we speak of “the Sixth Generation,” one of the first things that come to our mind is that they have notoriously bad box office returns. For me, this is fine. If people want to think of me as such, then so be it.

The first time that I heard the term “the Sixth Generation” was probably in 1992. That was when I applied for Beijing Film Academy. On the day that I finished one of my exams, I went to an art gallery. There, I bought a copy of China Art Newspaper. One of the articles in it was on “the Sixth Generation” directors. At the time, Zhang Yuan just made Mama, Wang Xiaoshuai was in the process of making The Days, Wu Wenguang had finished making his documentary Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers, and Lou Ye was almost done with Weekend Lover. It was said that these films started China’s independent film movement.

Political tumult was not yet in the distant past for Chinese people in the early 1990s. In the aftermath of trauma and engulfed by societal-wide depression, the so-called “Sixth Generation” directors used film to challenge the authorities. I was especially thrilled by the “independent” label that they carried.

The Sixth Generation: Challenge the Authority in the Past

The Days (dir. Wang Xiaoshuai, 1993)

I still remember vividly one passage from the newspaper that I bought. It was said that for his film The Days, Wang Xiaoshuai climbed up onto a freight train bound for Baoding in Hebei province to buy cheap black-and-white film stock. I have always imagined it in my head that in those days, the young man must have looked nothing like the puffed old man now; he must have been robust and exuberant. Amongst the numerous howling trains that traversed the bustling Hebei plain was one that once carried a young man with the dream to make films.

Wouldn’t you say that this is also a dream about freedom?

At the time, majority of Chinese were not aware of their agency and did not think much about using film for self-expression. There were 16 state-run studios. Only they had sufficient financial support and grants to make films. All the other film productions were considered “illegal.”

Like the group of people who left state enterprises to do private businesses, many of the independent filmmakers who turned their backs to institutionalized practices became acutely aware of their right for self-expression. Their works testified the credos of the independent film movement by introducing new angles of speech-making that necessarily expanded the freedom for expression and the freedom that people had in society in general. Therefore, I have always regarded the independent film movement as my first lesson on democracy.

I was a 21-year old young man from Shanxi at the time. I had read a few novels, I had a not-so-solid foundation in art, I was a follower of “the Sixth Generation,” and I regarded them as my teachers. I knew that they formed the oppositional force against the authorities, and they were doing everything they could to fight for the freedom for self-expression. Many years later, when I heard others referring to them as an unfathomable community, quixotic Don Quixotes, and ill-timed and deviant monsters, I laughed.

Here’s a poem by the Syrian poet Adonis:

The sea does not have time to chat with the sand,

It is always busy with producing waves.

Adonis is an open-minded poet and is worth applying to “the Sixth Generation.” However, I still want to ask, have we forgotten everything?

From the 1990s we began to hear individuals’ voices outside the official rhetoric, and they were injected with the independent spirit. Today, ordinary people can assert their self-esteem. Shouldn’t we then thank “the Sixth Generation” directors for having directed their attention to the lower rung of society, representing marginalized people, and advocating the restoration of basic human rights to them? Of course, film is not the only force that advances society, but in retrospective, film was the battleground where culture and outdated doctrines played out against each other. Many were banned from making films domestically; some had their passport confiscated too. Yet, many continued to make films, despite having those who stood alongside the authorities laugh at and mock them.

East Palace, West Palace (dir. Zhang Yuan, 1996)

When we see young people today with dyed hair moving freely in the cityscape and having the freedom to choose their sexual orientation, do we ever think of Zhang Yuan’s banned feature East Palace, West Palace? Yes, the film was made possible thanks to the book by Wang Xiaobo and the academic research by Li Yinhe. Their combined efforts spent in organizing events and making speeches brought about the freedom that people can enjoy today. But what about Director Zhang Yuan?

During the reform era, many people were marginalized because they lacked power and money. Which of our films told the stories of these people? Which, amongst them, induced society to acknowledge their existence – helping the weak gain recognition? The Sixth Generation directors’ films did. To me, their films are the gems of Chinese culture of the 1990s.

It seems to us that films like this are not profitable, but why can’t we help the public accept them? The current situation is not the result of our market economy. It is caused by the shunning of these films from the public for the past decade or so. If not for the control over ideology for the past decade, our films would have amassed their audiences, and behind our backs a large supportive community would have formed. Additionally, it would not have happened that when we were finally able to market our films, Hollywood enthusiasts were all that there were. Many directors feel powerless, but the persevering and ill-timed ones amongst them are the true heroes who continue the tradition of China’s film art.

Xiao Wu (dir. Jia Zhangke, 1997)

In 1997, China’s economy was accelerating. In that year, Lou Ye was preparing to shoot Suzhou River, Wang Xiaoshuai made Frozen, Zhang Yuan was preparing for Seventeen Years, and Zhang Ming had just finished making Rainclouds over Wushan. In the same year, I started shooting Xiao Wu. I am glad that I am being labeled “the Sixth Generation.”

Being a cinematic movement, “the Sixth Generation” has started to branch out today. Different directors have taken on different career paths. For one short phase of our film career though, each one of us presented the problems that we discovered in our daily lives, and we exposed our weaknesses in using the film medium. However, it is reassuring to me that most of us chose to film reality using a realist approach. The films that were produced complemented and resonated with one another, sketching out the revolution that took place in China’s film art, leaving behind a trace that would have otherwise lost in a consumer society. This trace is also a scar, leaving a pain behind, in history and in us.

Challenge the Market in the Present

I cannot forget the day in 2003 in Beijing Film Academy where it was announced that the majority of “Sixth Generation” directors who had been banned from making films previously could make films again. A government official added that, although the government lifted the ban, we should realize that our works would soon go underground in the market economy. During the six years after the incident, I experienced the tyranny of the market. However, that does not mean that I became antagonistic towards the market, because a market economy is part of the dream of freedom. We do not want to complain about anything. We know that there are insidious deals made behind the scenes with people with power, but we embrace the market, and we are prepared to devote ourselves to this cause till our last breath and penny.

What is most ironic is that every time we sell a film, the media are extremely sensitive to our box office history, and they like to sentence our films to death before the films even hit the screen. Art films need a relatively long period of time for the market to warm up to them. For a month or two after their releases they can still be in the fermentation stage. When the media prognosticate that these films would have disastrous box office returns, directors will be hit hard and victimized. Since there is not even a three-day period to get warmed up, potential viewers will walk. Nobody wants to watch dead corpses whereas everybody wants to see miracles.

We have survived in the battlefield of the market economy. I am willing to belong to the imperishable “Sixth Generation.” Although this movement has drawn to an end already, there is still a long way for each of our careers. After the French New Wave, Truffaut became a great commercial director, with an outstanding box office record; Godard became an auteur; but most New Wave directors fell somewhere in between. Personal failures and successes cannot speak for a generation. Conversely, the negations of one’s generation cannot be used to speak against him or her. Doing so would be outdated.

No matter what happens, we will always be loyal to cinema. If you are willing to accept culture as an integral part of film, I will say to you, for the past dozen years or so, all the best films that have tried to embrace culture are made by the Sixth Generation filmmakers. It would be hard to imagine that without their seminal works how we would extend our culture into the future or what we could offer to the world as ours. Because of them, China’s film culture is still alive and breathing.

I still have my passion for film, for viewers, and for the market too. Here is a poem from the Latvian poet Vizma Bel√Ö¬°evica:

If you don the vivacious starry sky,

I will light you up with my love.

Each time you hurt me,

You will only extinguish one star.

If so then, why would I need to sigh?

Challenge the Self In the Future

Sixth Generation Directors Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai and Lou Ye at the BC MOMA screening of Wang's Chongqing Blues

Like any generation of film directions, we will get old, and we will lose our creativity gradually but surely. The force that will drag us down and instigate us to abandon our true selves will continue to grow. The tire that accompanies old age both physically and mentally will invade us. Even selfishness has an increasing grasp on us. However, for me, when I see those crowded streets, I feel inspired all over again. They remind me why I wanted to make movies in the first place.

Learning how to marry ourselves to the torrid force of life and reality is what will keep us going. Many people who are familiar with revolutionary art are still being influenced by it. This kind of art uses the most popular form to disseminate the voice of those people who are in power. Throughout this process there is no need and no space for the self. Some people have suddenly encountered the self when they watch “the Sixth Generation” directors’ films. They wrongfully disregard this encounter with the self and think of it as a form of narcissism. When they fail to see the message that the film is to convey, they conclude that the film does not have a thesis.

Although such kind of interpretation is naïve, it still authenticates people’s personal feelings towards our films. When the goal is to propagate truth, we should never adopt an overpowering tone.

Do not worry about our intransigence. Film should be entertainment. Most of us have been working hard to protect its right to offer entertainment. However, pluralism is not exclusive to entertainment. When our cultural values lose their last abode in film, pleasure-seeking masses will dominate.

We will continue to produce all kinds of good films, so will we continue to produce all kinds of bad films. However, I believe that as long as we are true to ourselves, we will be able to keep our souls alive. As long as we stay attuned to what’s happening around us, our creative energy will keep flowing.

I am sorry for having been speaking of “us” and “we” all this while because I do not believe that any one person can embody the whole spirit of film. I would like to end this essay in the old-fashioned way by quoting a poem by Chinese poet Bei Dao.

I do not believe that the sky is blue,

I do not believe that thunder has echo,

I do not believe that dreams are false,

I do not believe that death defies retribution.

And I would like to add one more line: I do not believe that you can predict our future.

Tags: , , , , ,