Hu, where and when: locating “Contemporary film theory in China”

Uploaded 25 March 1998

If Japanese film was the first non-Western cinema to receive sustained Western interest and Chinese has been the most recent, it is notable that English-language scholarship on these two cinemas has been quite different. For the most part, English-language scholars writing about Japan have been silent about the critical reception of Japanese film in Japan and about the film theoretical environment informing that reception. Most of those scholars are not Japanese in cultural background and some of them do not speak or read Japanese. [1]  In contrast, most of the scholarship on Chinese cinema has been aware to a greater or lesser extent of the Chinese cultural and film cultural context of its production and reception, not least because many of the scholars writing now in English are themselves Chinese in origin or have spent a significant amount of time in China. The existence of two volumes of contemporary Chinese film theory and criticism translated into English is itself indicative of this difference, as I am not aware of any similar books on Japanese film theory and criticism yet. [2]

Chen Mei’s felicitous translation of Hu Ke’s “Contemporary Film Theory in China” is a particularly welcome addition to this literature on Chinese film theory and criticism, as it fills an important gap. Despite its broad title, it actually has a very precise focus. This is the history and assessment of the reception in the 1980s of French, English and American film theory, which Hu refers to as “Western film theory.” Even the briefest glance at the aforementioned volumes of translations reveals that all of them have in one way or another been profoundly stimulated and motivated by an ongoing encounter with Western film theory. An extended account of that encounter and dialogue has not only been missing for those outside China trying to understand Chinese critical and theoretical discourse, but is also crucial for any attempt to do so.

For, all knowledge is located and perspectival. In this case, that means Western film theory does not look the same when seen from China as it does when seen from within its own context, and we need to understand this context if we are to understand some of the significance Western film theory has had for Chinese theorists. Hu Ke’s article was originally published in China’s leading scholarly film journal, Dangdai Dianying (Contemporary Cinema). Written from a Chinese perspective and for Chinese readers, it provides excellent insight into how Western film theory looked to at least one Chinese scholar. Two differences between my own perspective and his catch my attention immediately. No doubt others will catch yours.

One difference is his statement that contemporary theory came to China as a “complete theoretical system.” There is no doubt that this is the case. Although we may perceive Western film theory in terms of a number of competing and often incompatible schools of thought distributed historically and in relation to social fragments, it arrived in China as one job lot in the 1980s, much as “modern art” and many other things previously excluded did.

Second, I am struck by Hu Ke’s failure to discuss feminist film theory or gender studies at any length in his article. The impact of ethnicity and sexuality in cinema studies in the West has been recent enough for me to suppose it may not have been prominent in the lectures and courses given by visiting scholars in Beijing before the post-1989 crackdown put a stop to such things. However, one might think feminism and gender have been so central to Western film theory that they could not be overlooked. But in the absence of any feminist movement or feminist consciousness corresponding to that of the West, it appears this is not the case. [3] . The fact that the vast majority of China’s film scholars are also men with little or no interest in feminism may also have something to do with this.

This leads me to another general consequence of the perspectival quality of knowledge. If Hu’s article is written for Chinese readers it assumes a knowledge of the Chinese film culture that those outside may not share. For those working in that context, knowldge of it may be conscious or unconscious, of course. Also, it must be acknowledged that how that film culture looks to me, an outsider no matter how much time I have spent inside China, may also be quite different form how it looks to Hu. Nonetheless, I would like to venture a comment to make visible what is either assumed or a structuring absence in Hu’s work. This is the fact that no matter how much Hu may stress the difference between the bad old days and the present, internal difference is still not tolerated in the People’s Republic. For one thing, this is why feminist film theory has not found roots in China; even if some local women may wish for such a thing, a women’s movement that is perceived to be oppositional in stance is impossible.

This also helps to explain why classical Western film theory found readier acceptance in the People’s Republic in the late seventies and early eighties than contemporary Western film theory did later. The end of the ‘cultural revolution’ and the rise of Deng Xiaoping to power in 1979 led to a roll back of commandism and the introduction of a measure of autonomy. However, as my remarks above indicate and as Democracy Wall activists discovered that very year, autonomy must not be confused with difference or opposition; it only means the right to do what the Party wants you to do before they tell you to do it, or, at best, those things which are construed by the Party as not interfering with or affecting the Party and its rule. (This is what Deng referred to as the “Four Fundamental Principles”.)

For Chinese film theorists, then, the discovery of Bazin and Kracauer and their ideas about the essential characteristics of cinema were most useful in arguing for the creation of film as something other than a propaganda tool. [4] Bazin and Kracauer and other classical film theorists may have been concerned with justifying film as an art form in its own right and therefore worthy of serious attention. But in China, the formalist bias in classical film theory proved useful in arguing for film as something other than a propaganda tool for dissemination of drama without suggesting any political overtones. Contemporary Western film theory is acceptable in such a context so long as one limits oneself to semiotics. Hence, perhaps, Hu’s emphasis on the linguistic roots of contemporary Western film theory. But the possible uses of such a system in the Chinese context are less clear. However, post-1968 film theory, with its heavy commitment to ‘subversion’ and other (rhetorically, at least) oppositional activities, has found less fertile soil in China, especially since 1989.

Finally I would like to draw attention to the dialogical value of translating and discussing Hu Ke’s text. For it not only gives insights into the Chinese context, but also functions as a sort of mirror in which those of use outside China can examine our own practices, even if we are uncertain of Hu’s representation of them. Clearly, Chinese film theorists used Western film theory in this way in the 1980s, and Hu’s account shows quite clearly how they are appropriated, adapted and discarded according to their needs. One particular example strikes me. As Hu makes clear, Chinese film theorists and critics have a long tradition of directing their writing towards future production. Indeed, for the most part, they do not work in universities at all, but in organisations that are connected to the film industry and part of film culture, such as the China Film Archive and the China Film Association. In these circumstances, the function of contemporary Western film theory remains obscure to many of our Chinese colleagues. As I have already suggested above, there are particular limitations on what is possible in the People’s Republic that would make its function even more obscure to them. But maybe, as academia is being reduced to a research and development and job training organisation for industry, we need to think more about these issues ourselves. And as the same global capitalist forces are operating with the dismantling of government funding in postsocialist China, maybe the ‘we’ that needs to think about these issues on a larger scale is a syncretic formation that dialogical exchanges like these can begin to facilitate.

However, at the risk of concluding on an even bleaker note, for that to happen Western scholars will have to address their own particular formative blind-spot. If difference and dissension are inconceivable in the People’s Republic and hence formative of discourse there, there is limited evidence yet that Western film theorists are ready or able to move beyond that old orientalist assumption that the non-West is only an object of study. Although the existence of Chinese film theory has been acknowledged in the translation of the two volumes discussed in the opening paragraph, it does not seem to have struck anyone beyond those writing on Chinese film itself that this might be of interest itself, that it might have relevance to contemporary film theory in general and not simply be an object in the field of Chinese film studies. I hope the same fate does not befall this article — but I’m not holding my breath.


[1]For discussion, see David Bordwell, “Our dream cinema: Western historiography and the Japanese film,” Film Reader 4(1979-80), 45-50; Peter Lehman, “The mysterious orient, the crystal clear orient, the non-existent orient: dilemmas of Western scholars of Japanese film,” The Journal of Film and Video 39 , no.1 (1987), 5-15; Chris Berry, “Our problem cinema: the challenge of Japanese cinema,” Continuum 4 , no.1 (1990), 193-8; Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, “The difficulty of being radical: the discipline of film studies and the postcolonial world order,” in Masao Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian (eds.), Japan in the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 388-410.
[2] eds. George S. Semsel, Xia Hong, and Hou Jianping, Chinese Film Theory: A Guide to the New Era (New York: Praeger, 1990), and eds. George S. Semsel, Chen Xihe, and Xia Hong, Film in Contemporary China: Critical Debates , 1979-1989 (Westport: Praeger, 1993). Subsequent references to Semsel, Xia and Hou appear as page numbers in brackets. Also useful is Xia Hong, “Film theory in the People’s Republic of China: the new era.” in ed. George Semsel, Chinese Film: The State of the Art in the People’s Republic (New York: Praeger, 1987), 35-62. Unfortunately, readers must be warned that the usefulness of all these sources is somewhat marred by factual inaccuracies and somewhat patchy translations. For film theory in the 1980s, readers of Chinese are referred to ed. Luo Yijun, Zhongguo Dianying Lilun Wenxuan (Anthology of Chinese Film Theory), 2 vols., (Beijing: Wenhua Yishu Chubanshe [Culture and Art Press], 1992), where most of the originals translated in the aforementioned books can be found.
[3]For work that addresses these issues in relation to film in the late eighties, see E. Ann Kaplan, “Problematizing cross-cultural analysis: the case of women in the recent Chinese cinema,” Wide Angle 11 , no.2, (1989), 40-50 and Chris Berry, “Chinese ‘women’s cinema’,” Camera Obscura no.18, (1988), 8-41.
[4]For example in the index to Semsel, Xia and Hou, Bazin gets no less than twenty two entries distributed across the whole book (211)