Posts Tagged ‘history’

History in Progress, with Gaps: The National Museum of China, Part Two

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

By Shelly Kraicer

Visitors seem dazzled by the might of painterly propaganda in the "90th anniversary of the CCP" painting exhibit.

A major function of the National Museum of China is its definition and display of Chinese history under the Party. This section, somewhat romantically entitled “The Road of Rejuvenation” takes up a major part of NMC’s northern section. I walked through it all, from the Opium War to “China in Space.”

Inside the Grand Hall. If it looks like an elegant version of a terminal, it's because the German architects specialize in airports.

First, we enter a sculptural antichamber. This has got to be one of the weirdest immersive sculptural environments I’ve ever seen. An enormous entrance hall has been clotted with what looks like baked clay (I guess it’s depressingly expensive bronze that preserves the original rough slapdash clay “style” of the sculpture). On the left, scenes of feudal China (somewhat more beguiling than depressing, to my eye). On the right, scenes of modern China under the Leadership of the Party (really bleak and ugly, a lot of it is weirdly blank but one can make out a kindergarten model style mini-HK skyline, a high speed train rushing across the Tibetan plateau, and a fast cosmic ball of something, whirring with lumpy clay energy. In the middle, brutally (or, rather, I should say boldly) cleaving past and future in two is a sleek perforated sculpture, designed like a retro jet age style symbolic representation of what must be the progressive force of the Chinese Communist Party (think 1930s deco aggressively angled car hood ornament the size of a small jet). Suitably ideologically seasoned, I entered the Road of Rejuvenation galleries.


Heavenly Culture, with Product Placement: A Tour of the National Museum of China, Part One

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

By Shelly Kraicer

The gallery of Ancient Chinese art in the National Museum of China may be the new highlight of anyone's visit to Beijing.

Beijing’s new National Museum of China opened in March 2011. It’s been steadily expanding inside since, opening more and more galleries to the public. Recently, the galleries of ancient art were finally opened, so I decided it was time to make a thorough visit (I’d been once before in early May just to take a look at the building) and see how the Chinese nation choses to present itself in a grand museum setting.

First of all, the setting. It is very grand. Super gigantic-grand. Reports in Western media describe an amusingly direct series of phone calls by planners of the National Museum of China (NMC) to western museum experts. Sample questions: “What is the floor space of the Louvre?” “What about the British Museum in London?” Clearly, the architects’ brief included making this the Largest Museum In The World (to match Beijing Capital Airport’s Terminal 3, the Largest Building In The World; the Great Wall, and so on). Apparently they succeeded, and out of the shell of two older museums on Tiananmen Square, the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, the National Museum of China is being born, a giant monument to China’s fabled 5000 year history, and as we shall see, to the faithful guardianship of this immense history by the Chinese Communist Party. “Is being born” because the NMC is still a work in progress. Vast swathes of the building are still uninhabited, forthcoming galleries uninstalled. But I would estimate that at least half of the Museum is now open, more than enough for a full day of provocative and sometimes entrancing museum-going.


CinemaTalk: A Conversation with Professor Guo-Juin Hong on Taiwan Cinema, 1949 and Documentaries

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

By Michael Chenkin

Guo-Juin Hong is Andrew W. Mellon Associate Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at Duke University. Hong has published articles on such topics as early Shanghai cinema, new Taiwan cinema, documentary film, and queer visual culture. His essay on colonial modernity in 1930s Shanghai was the winner of the 2009 Katherine Kovacs Essay Award, Honorable Mention, and his dissertation received the 2005 Dissertation of the Year Award, Honorable Mention, both by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Hong teaches courses on film theory and historiography, Chinese-language cinemas, melodrama, documentary, and visual culture.

Earlier this year Guo published Taiwan Cinema: A Contested Nation on Screen (Palgrave Macmillan). The book is described as “A groundbreaking study of Taiwan cinema, this is the first English language book that covers its entire history. Hong revises how Taiwan cinema is taught and studied by taking into account not only the auteurs of New Taiwan Cinema, but also the history of popular genre films before the 1980s. This work will be essential reading for students and scholars of Taiwan and Chinese-language cinemas and of great value to those interested in the larger context of East Asian cultural history as well as film and visual studies in general.”


dGF: Could you tell me a little about your present interests in Chinese language cinema. What are you concentrating on right now, and what do you have planned for the future?

GJH: My book came out in February of this year and it is the first and only full-length book in English language on Taiwan cinema that covers its entire history. In that book, I looked at the question of national cinema as the core problematic because of the unique status of Taiwan. After 400 years of colonial history, Taiwan seemed to straddle between the status of nation and non-nation. Questions of national cinema seem outdated because of all the discussion of the transnational and the global. However, I find that to be over-simplistic. Even though national cinema is a very problematic category, it is still deployed at all times for other minor cinemas in relation to Hollywood. I go through the history of Taiwan cinema and I locate different critical historical moments to test the questions of nation in cinema which is think is still a very productive historio-graphical exercise.

Now that it is done, I hope that it has opened up doors for people to continue paying attention to not only Chinese language cinemas in general, but also Taiwan cinema specifically because especially in English language study, Taiwan cinema before 1982 has always been neglected. It was a situation that didn’t get at least partially corrected until a year ago when I guest edited a special issue for the Journal of Chinese Cinemas, focusing on what we call the “missing years” between 1960 and 1980. Those years were obviously important to the history of Taiwan cinema but also I think it is an important part of the larger cultural history of East Asia. This is the work I have been concentrating on the last few years.

dGF: What about your newest projects?


Film Threat Reviews Queer China, ‘Comrade China’

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Queer China, 'Comrade China' (dir. Cui Zi'en)

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

In the online film journal Film Threat, Phil Hall recently reviewed Cui Zi’en’s ‘Queer China, Comrade China’, calling it “a genuinely fascinating look at Chinese sociology in a state of continual evolution.”

Hall’s review reiterates the issues raised in Cui’s work, which examines China’s LGBT culture and history through a number of insightful interviews from various political, historical, cultural, legal, as well as psychological viewpoints. He condenses the first half of the documentary as follows:

China was relatively late in openly acknowledging the basic civil rights of its homosexual population – it wasn’t until 1997 that the Communist government decriminalized “hooliganism,” as it was officially known. However, the acceptance of non-heterosexuals into a mainstream societal position has been complicated, although the resistance bears no resemblance to the religious-fueled homophobia that has become commonplace in the United States. Indeed, the film explains that same-sex unions are seen by many as a disruption of the yin-yang harmony within the Chinese mindframe and the disruption of the cohesive family unit that was stressed since Mao Zedong’s rise to power.


Asia Society Film Recap: Gai Shanxi and Her Sisters

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

Gai Shanxi and Her Sisters (dir. Ban Zhongyi)

Continuing our recap of the Asia Society series “China’s Past, Present and Future on Film,” here is an excerpt from a full-length review by Joe Bendel of Ban Zhongyi’s groundbreaking documentary Gai Shanxi and Her Sisters:

Her name was Hou Dong E, but she was known as “Gai Shanxi,” meaning “the most beautiful woman in Shanxi Province.” Unfortunately, beauty can be a curse in a time of war. Such was certainly the case for Gai Shanxi and the other Shanxi women forced to serve as sex slaves for the occupying Imperial Japanese military during World War II. Though she never had the chance to bear witness to the atrocities she suffered, Ban Zhongyi tells the story of the former so-called “comfort woman” on her behalf in his documentary, Gai Shanxi and Her Sisters.

Though many in Japan still persistently deny “comfort women” were systematically sexually assaulted, Ban found one Japanese veteran who essentially confirms on-camera the nature and regularity of such crimes (though he understandably tries to minimize his own culpability). That alone makes Ban’s film quite an important cinematic investigation.

Ultimately, Sisters acts as a testament to a truly beautiful woman, who should have been venerated by her community in her own lifetime. Though its execution is imperfect, it is an important, sometimes angry film that should not be ignored.

Read the full review.

Find out more about Gai Shanxi and Her Sisters.

Watch clips from Gai Shanxi and Her Sisters below:

Shelly on Film: Does China’s Past Have a Future?

Monday, May 4th, 2009

by Shelly Kraicer

The persistence of the past, and the present’s attempts to colonize it, tame it, and re-engineer it, is a remarkable phenomenon of recent Chinese culture, including Chinese cinema. There is no other place I’m familiar with where the past is so constantly present.

Shanghai Film Studio (photo by gumbase)

Shanghai Film Studio, pre-demolition (photo by gumbase)

Fundamentally, the past here in China is both utterly disposable and simultaneously completely re-creatable. This was brought vividly to mind while I read about the recent demolition of the Shanghai Film Studio (SFS). Located in the Xujiahui neighbourhood of downtown Shanghai, the Shanghai Film Studio’s land is apparently far too valuable to continue to house the sprawling and outdated facilities of this fabled centre of Chinese mainstream film production. I was lucky enough to visit twice. The second was an official working visit, when the very helpful staff assisted me in finding prints for the retrospective on the Fourth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers that I presented at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2008. My first visit, though, was somewhat surreptitious. After visiting the neighbouring St. Ignatius Cathedral, I wandered around the Xujiahui neighbourhood just southwest of central Shanghai, a vast area that formerly contained the grounds of the the substantial Jesuit mission to China (the wonderfully restored library, the late 19th century Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei remains, along with part of the former Jesuit school). Just across the street was an ancient-looking stone barn-like structure enmeshed in a wall. The wall was decorated with a flamboyantly kitschy 70s style gate. The gate turned out to be the entrance to the Shanghai Film Studio. The guards seemed too bored to bother to stop me, so I wandered in and strolled around the grounds, where I found some sound stages, a fleet of 1940s style cars marshaled for some period film, perhaps, and a general air of somnolence.

It was thrilling, though, to think of the Shanghai Film Studio’s illustrious past, the amazing movies that were created on this spot, in these buildings. Founded in 1949, the SFS absorbed workers from Shanghai‘s golden age of movies (which was led by Lianhua Film Studio and Mingxing Film Studio’s 1930s productions of modernist melodramas and comedies, featuring great directors like Sun Yu and Yuan Muzhi, and sublime film stars like Ruan Lingyu and Zhao Dan). The SFS was responsible for its own post-golden age of great movies, including Xie Jin’s series of classic films (Women Basketball Player No. 5, The Legend of Tianyun Mountain, Hibiscus Town) and many of the foundational works of the Fourth Generation (Evening Rain, My Memories of Old Beijing).

But that’s merely history, and the buildings were looking shabby in 2006. Today, the SFS is just rubble. Presumably to be replaced by something of real, contemporary value: another shiny glass shopping mall or luxury condo complex reflecting Shanghai’s imagination of what its future should look like. What particularly caught my attention in the account I read of the demolition was the fate of that old building I noticed in the corner of the wall. It was one of Shanghai‘s oldest structures, a Carmelite convent, St. Joseph‘s Convent of Carmel, constructed in 1874. It is also now rubble. But not gone forever, or so the guardians of China‘s physical history would have it. As the invaluable blog Shanghai Scrap describes it, a city bureaucrat explained that “they are knocking it down and rebuilding it on the old foundation. It will be a new version of the old convent. It’s much cheaper this way. Restoring it would take too much time and money.” Instant history! It will be a brand new-old, an “improved” copy of the original, but presumably much less shabby and much more appealing.

That’s the key: it is fake, re-constituted “history”, built right on top of the smashed rubble of the actual past. In China, this is quite common, and from a Chinese perspective, one might ask why Westerners like me fetishize actual relics of the past, with their supposed aura of authenticity. We worship this authenticity, and insist that it gives some kind of mystical, direct, non-mediated access to what we think of as a real, objective past. But is it not also a complicated proposition, that needs critiquing and unpacking too?

The key popular mainstream films of this holiday season are about trundling out, as mass entertainment, official versions of history. Both Chen Kaige’s Forever Enthralled and Wilson Yip’s Ip Man devolve into Party-approved accounts of patriotic resistance against Japanese invaders (coincidentally, one of the key historic pillars of the Party’s own legitimacy). John Woo’s Red Cliff epic plays it a bit safe: its history is set far back in the Three Kingdoms era (220-280 CE). But it still updates, with state of the art cinema technology, a foundational myth about heroism, Chinese unity, and legitimacy that, on the surface at least, nicely harmonizes with the Party’s current view of things.

Outside of the zone of official discourse, there are independent artists and filmmakers whose works are obsessed with documenting this disappearing past before it succumbs completely to State-defined ideological re-construction. Jia Zhangke’s recent 24 City digs deeply into a moment of transition: the obliteration of a socialist-era factory in Chengdu. Jia insists on animating, through documentation and reconstruction, the lives and social history that are about to be obliterated. Hu Jie’s controversial series of documentaries, offering radical historical re-investigations of the most controversial episodes of China‘s post-1949 history, are one filmmaker’s act of resistance against faked, ideologically massaged history.

Qianmen during renovation, April 2008 (photo courtesy

Qianmen during renovation, April 2008 (photo courtesy

On a grassroots level, Ou Ning’s documentary Meishi Street addresses the human cost of Beijing city government’s policy of near-total obliteration of its traditional residential quarters. The inhabitants of Meishi Street have a special burden to bear. They are in the way of a “re-creation” of the Qianmen district just south of Tiananmen Square. This vast urban demolition project is the Carmel convent story writ super-large. Beijing has prepared a modern copy of an imaginary late Qing dynasty commercial district , this time ready for visitors to Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games (I wrote a bit about my visit there in my last blog entry). This for the sake of a master plan that sanitizes the city’s real history — this area was a vibrant commercial district of Qing dynasty Beijing, where Manchu courtiers and Chinese subjects could mingle and enjoy the city’s famous brothels, among other things. Today’s Qianmen is a purified zone, a 3-D diorama that tourists can safely consume..Some of the people who actually lived on Meishi Street, as the film shows, were creative enough to mount a form of resistance, but were ultimately powerless against the collusion of government regulation, police power, and property developers’ interests.

Here, in the People’s Republic of China, history still actively determines contemporaneity. In a place with China‘s still heavily contested history, political power’s ultimate responsibility, to safeguard and bolster its own legitimacy, is deeply rooted in its control of that past, or, to be more specific, in its control over the discourse surrounding the past. As long as power can control that discourse, in its essentials, it maintains a lock on what it perceives to be the historical foundations of the legitimacy of its own rule. Copies are more “real”, in an ideological sense, than the “real thing”, or at least more stable, more reliable. Shanghai will have its new-old Carmelite Convent, as part of a newly projected Shanghai Film Centre. And what version of the history of Chinese cinema will that film centre offer? I’m pretty confident that it will be as problem-free, as purged of messy thought-provoking details, as reassuringly consumable as Qianmen today.