Sheldon Lu on his book, “Contemporary Chinese Cinema and Visual Culture: Envisioning the Nation”

Sheldon Lu has been Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California at Davis since 2002. His research, scholarship, and teaching lie at the intersection of literary studies, visual studies, film studies, China studies, and cultural theory. He has served as the Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature, Director of the Graduate Program in Comparative Literature, and Founding Co-Director of the Film Studies Program at UC Davis. He is the author and editor of some fifteen books in English and Chinese. His latest monograph in English is "Contemporary Chinese Cinema and Visual Culture: Envisioning the Nation" (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).
Jorlen Garcia CMC '24 interviewed Dr. Sheldon Lu on January 6, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Sheldon Lu.

Your book deals heavily with the Chinese nation-state adapting to globalization and transnationalism in the last century and explores how it has found new ways to reassert itself despite what seems like a weakening of the state in an increasingly borderless world. How does the Chinese state use film and visual arts to strengthen itself in this new age? How do Chinese film and the arts serve a nationalistic purpose?

In the beginning, film was very international and cosmopolitan, especially in the silent era, because there are no words. So presumably, many people can understand, for example, a French film without knowing the words. But then with the rise of sound cinema, vernacular languages are added to the films. So, things get more nationalistic: you have to understand the language (whether Japanese, German, French, or English), otherwise you wouldn't understand the film. So sound cinema with vernacular languages began to serve a nation-building function, as with the case of China. One important function of film in China or in other countries is nation-building, especially in China that is officially a socialist country with a ruling Communist Party. So, the function of art is in part propaganda, and there is a Ministry of Propaganda that is very important. Artists are told to do certain things. After the end of the Cold War, film has become more international and cosmopolitan with a lot of co-productions between different countries, and there is a sense of weakening ideology. There is less an opposition between the socialist world and the capitalist world, and people were talking across borders. But in the case of China, it is nominally a socialist country ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. The party wants the artist to do certain things and use film and visual arts to strengthen its position. They want people to make patriotic films, and this tendency has been clearer in recent years. Therefore, the Chinese government takes advantage of the resources afforded by transnationalism and globalization to fortify a sense of nationhood.  They can invite and recruit actors, and they can shoot a film in other countries, something they could not do during the Cold War. You couldn't go to the Soviet Union or America from communist China to shoot films. Now you can go to other countries to use an international setting, paying and hiring them to work on your films. Thus, using globalization and transnational resources effectively to make nationalistic films has been a new tendency in Chinese filmmaking.

How has the Chinese film industry created its own stories of Chinese heroism, particularly through military and action films? 

Hollywood is or was the biggest film industry in the world, and their films are watched and emulated by other countries, so China learned a lot about how to make film from Hollywood. Even its anti-American films use Hollywood techniques. For example, United States is known for its military films, like the movie series Rambo 1, 2, and 3 where the main character goes to foreign countries, including Afghanistan, to exhibit American values.  A lot of American films are set abroad, such as in Africa or in the Middle East. American science fiction film is also very influential in the world. China learned a lot from Hollywood films like these. They use the same techniques to portray growing Chinese presence in the world: they show Chinese soldiers in foreign territories and how China, Chinese soldiers, and Chinese citizens become important players on the international stage. For example, a few years ago, the highest grossing film in China was called Wolf Warrior 2. The film is about Chinese soldiers rescuing Chinese citizens, defeating terrorist groups, saving Chinese people and others, and how they are so benign in the international stage. And this tendency gets even stronger. For example, the highest grossing film now is The Battle of Lake Changjin about the Chinese army fighting America in the Korean War in the early 1950s. It’s directed by three important directors, Chen Kaige (a fifth-generation Chinese filmmaker), Tsui Hark from Hong Kong, and Dante Lam, also from Hong Kong. These three famous directors came up with this movie praising Chinese heroism and how they defeated American soldiers in the Korean War. And another famous director, Zhang Yimou recently made a film called Sharpshooter (Sniper) about Chinese snipers who outsmarted the American sharpshooters during the Korean War. It’s another film about Chinese heroism. Chinese filmmakers have learned from the famous film American Sniper; then they turn around and tell Chinese stories of heroism with Chinese soldiers winning battles. There's a lot of nationalism. This has also been a new trend because of the geopolitical tension between United States and China today. There will probably be more films in this direction.

In your book, you talk about female prostitution in film as a way to showcase a changing modern Chinese nation. How has Chinese national identity evolved through cinematic representations of gender and sexuality? How do these representations of feminine prostitution contrast with portrayals of masculinity?

There are many different kinds of film, even though the state wants to see certain films, like those that are positive toward the state. However, there are other independent and underground filmmakers who like to look at other aspects of Chinese society. Issues like prostitution, migrant workers, and people who work very hard to make ends meet. Some documentary filmmakers make films about the lives of prostitutes, migrant workers, and people who really struggle on the margins of society. These films are not easily screened in public theaters, so sometimes they have to be shown at a film festival or a special venue that periodically gets shut down by the local government. These films are not new. There are prostitution films going all the way back in Chinese cinema. There's a very famous one from the silent era called Goddess that is about Shennü (goddess), which is a euphemism for a prostitute.  The film is about the life of a prostitute, stigmatization, and inclusion versus exclusion. The film came out in 1934 by director Wu Yonggang, and it’s one of the best-known films from the silent era. There are also other films on this topic. Like in Hong Kong, you can make films about that. In Taiwan, you can probably do it too. But in China, you got to be more careful. It's harder to screen the film officially. In Farewell My Concubine, one of the main characters was actually a prostitute performed by famous actress Gong Li. In 1993, the film was a co-winner of the Cannes film award for best picture. There's a famous director, Jia Zhangke whose film A Touch of Sin, for example, has prostitution scenes. I don't know how the censors cleared that. I was surprised that the film was screened in China. There's a touchy border between what is legitimate and what is illegitimate in the film market. Sometimes those films are allowed to be screened. But sometimes they are not. There are filmmakers and artists who like to take a look at the underbelly of Chinese society, not what the Ministry of Propaganda tells them to do. They want to look at what was going on with real people in China. And of course, these films are very different from the positive, glowing representation of masculinity, as you see in Chinese war films, like The Battle of Lake Changjin and Sharpshooter. These are very positive representations of Chinese masculinity. But the films about female prostitution are the opposite.

What do you mean by the phrase in your chapter title, “Masculinity in Crisis”? How has film served to ease, or further exacerbate, this crisis?

There have been profound social and historical changes in socialist China. There are role models in socialism under official state ideology. I call them the Holy Trinity: workers, peasants, and soldiers. The role models are the working class, including model workers in industry and peasants in agriculture, public servants who are Communist Party members, and soldiers. Then society started changing with China's opening to the world, bringing in uncertainty, and the result is that a lot of men get confused. They don't know who they want to be, and they're looking for role models.  This is where Jia Zhangke films come in because many of his films are about the search for role models. He's heavily influenced by gangster films from Hong Kong, so gangsters populate Jia Zhangke's films, including his film Ash Is Purest White. Petty thieves and gangsters in his films make Chinese men question themselves, who am I? What do I want to do? You see individual entrepreneurs and people work for themselves instead of a state factory, state agency, or government. They are individual businessmen who can become role models. Because of profound social and historical changes, you see this intense search for new role models among men. That's what I mean by masculinity in crisis, because old role models don't resonate with many young people in China. They think: "I don't want to be a worker. I don't want to be a peasant. I don't want to be a soldier. So, who am I? I want to be somebody. Maybe I want to be a businessman and work for myself. Maybe I want to be gangster. Who knows?”

There exists a recurring tension between the Chinese state and independent artists where the latter has to pick between free artistic expression or succumbing to state-sponsored commercial projects. How does state censorship affect artists’ ability to showcase projects that involve social commentary and critique? How have artists adapted to circumvent that, particularly with film festivals and technological advancements? 

That's an important question that I try to discuss in my book. There is heavy censorship in China. If you don't touch the bottom line, you can do whatever you like. There are the bottom lines, and China's censors are more pervasive. The censors look at a film and may say cut 20 seconds here or 3 minutes there. Filmmakers have to submit their screenplay and get it approved in order to get permission to shoot officially. And then once the film is completed, the censor must watch the film again to approve it for screening. In order to circumvent censorship, sometimes artists don't get permission and just shoot the film anyway. Then they don't even go through domestic channels and send the film to a foreign country and an international film festival. However, sometimes the Chinese state punishes those people and bans them from making films for the next couple years because they circumvented the rules. There's a push and pull between the independent filmmakers and the state. Sometimes they're being punished, and other times the censors look the other way. If the film is not approved, the filmmakers don't get back their investment, and they cannot screen it publicly. People could privately circulate their films through DVDs or cassettes or links for people to watch their films, even though the films cannot be screened on a public platform. Because of technological advancements in the digital age, film is also more readily accessible. In theory, you can make a film with a cell phone and send it to somebody, allowing the filmmaker to bypass certain restrictions. There are ways of bypassing official restrictions. When you feel this restriction, there's more anger or frustration to do something and fight for your vision of the world. In some American films, there's not much to say, and things can get a little bit tedious, but in China, there is something to fight for. People are angry, and they can't express themselves. So, they try to find a way to embody, envision, and convey their anger and frustration by circumventing the official procedure. And once in a while, you see an exciting film coming out of this weird cultural landscape in China.

How does independent film and critical visual art negotiate the limits of censorship in a post socialist China? How do these artists encourage Chinese society to engage in the public sphere and create a more critical civil society?

If we're looking at modern countries, we are looking at the public sphere or civil society where people are called citizens rather than subjects of the emperor or monarch. Unfortunately, in an authoritarian environment, people are very submissive. In every modern nation, there is a public sphere, but in China, things are kind of fuzzy. From what I heard, people are discouraged from using the word "civil society." People do not use the word "public sphere;" maybe several years ago, people use those words. Now, you are not supposed to talk about civil society or the public sphere. Artists try to live in a civil society and public sphere. They fight for the right to exhibit their painting, their installation, and their videos in the public sphere. They want to make a statement and say something with impact. They’re pushing but there’s censorship. We have seen a lot of crackdowns on artists recently. Very high-profile entertainers were targeted by the media with the implicit support of the government, like the famous actress Zhao Wei. Her films were taken down from the shelf. No one knows what's the charge, yet she is blacklisted. You can't watch her films anymore. All the stores take down her products. There's also a pianist, Li Yundi, who was caught with a prostitute, so he's stigmatized. And lastly, there are some sixth-generation famous directors who were caught doping, smoking marijuana, or with prostitutes. So, they're stigmatized too. The media is in a frenzy, and the state interferes. Occasionally, they try to point fingers at people's lack of morality, sometimes without any official charge. China is a unique situation and unique society. It's a very exciting country and a frustrating place at the same time. You can have difficulty expressing yourself if you're an artist. It is an interesting place for us to observe.

Jorlen Garcia CMC '24Student Journalist

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