LIT 300: Chinese Film Midterm Paper Topics

LIT 300: Chinese Film Midterm Paper Topics
Compare and contrast elements of socialist realism in the early fifth generation films Yellow Earth and Red Sorghum. How do the films depart from socialist realism, and how do they continue to exhibit its influence?
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Modern Chinese Literature and Culture
Color, Character, and Culture: On “Yellow Earth, Black Cannon Incident”, and “Red Sorghum”
Author(s): H. C. Li
Source: Modern Chinese Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1, SPECIAL ISSUE ON PRC LITERATURE OF THE
EIGHTIES (Spring, 1989), pp. 91-119
Published by: Foreign Language Publications
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
Color, Character, and Culture: On Yellow
Black Cannon Incident
and Red
H. C. Li
In 1987, the July 4 issue of the Economist published a lengthy report,
“The Three Screen Faces of China,” in its arts column. To the majority of
readers unaware of the recent cultural changes in China, the opening
passage of this anonymous article was a complete surprise: “Over the past
three years, more good movies have come from China than from any other
country. More than a dozen outstanding films have poured out of what was
hitherto a cinematic backwater. They included a regional tragedy, ‘Yellow
Earth’, a mordant political satire, ‘The Black Cannon Incident’, and rich
studies of ethnic customs, like ‘On the Hunting Ground’ and ‘The Horse
Thief ”
(83). In retrospect, it is no exaggeration to add that the best was
still to come, for in early October 1987, another Chinese film, Old Well,
won the Tokyo Grand Prix, the Best Actor Award, and two other prizes at
the Second Tokyo International Film Festival. Then in February 1988, Red
Sorghum outdid all previous Chinese films by winning the prestigious
Golden Bear grand prize at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival.1
The reasons behind this sudden emergence of Chinese cinema in the
1980s are not difficulto trace. Firstly, there was a gradual and comparative
relaxation of thought control conducive to artistic development from late
1977 to early 1989.2 If literature and art are too closely watched by the
government, they are lifeless and hopeless (Zhao 108); if films are made
•This is a revised version of a public lecture given at the University of Adelaide on May 18,
1989. 1 am grateful to the Centre for Asian Studies, University of Adelaide, for providing me
with the opportunity to write the first draft. I would also like to thank John Clark, Andrew
Gerstle, and Susan Prentice for their helpful comments on various drafts of this paper.
1 This is the first time that a Chinese film has won the top prize in Berlin, but not the first
time that an Asian film has ever won it, as was claimed by Guangming ribao on February 24
and by Renmin ribao on February 26. A Japanese film, Bushido (1963), directed by Imai
Tadashi, had been awarded the Golden Bear back in 1963, followed by Bengali (Indian)
director Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder (1973) in 1973. The erroneous statement by Chinese
reporters that Red Sorghum’s triumph in Berlin was also an Asian “first” resulted possibly
from friendly but wrong information and professional oversight prompted by national pride.
2 For a survey of China’s literary scene from 1977 to 1984, see Michael S. Duke, Blooming
and Contending: Chinese Literature in the Post-Mao Era (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985).
For film activities of the same period, see Paul Clark, Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics
since 1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987) 154-84. See also Bonnie S. McDougall,
“Breaking Through: Literature and the Arts in China, 1976-1986,” Copenhagen Papers in
East and Southeast Asian Studies 1 (1988): 35-65.
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Li: Color, Character, and Culture
purely to serve political purposes, they are monotonous and mediocre.
China had learned these hard facts from the cultural aridity of the Mao era,
and the new leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were willing
to concede that creative freedom was a prerequisite for artistic excellence.
In August 1977, Chairman Hua Guofeng declared to his political
comrades at the CCP’s 11th National Congress that “For socialist culture
to prosper, we must conscientiously carry out the policies of ‘letting a
hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend’ “(51).
At the Third Plenary Session of the CCP’s 11th Central Committee in
December 1978, the importance of jiefang sixiang [emancipate the mind]
was emphasized and discussed.3 In October 1979, Vice-Chairman and
Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping told an audience of writers and artists that:
In such complex mental labor like literature and art, it is extremely
necessary for writers and artists to give free rein to their individual
creative spirit. As to what to write and how to write, this can only be
explored and resolved step by step through artistic practice by the writers
and artists themselves. In this respect, no arbitrary interference iswarranted.
(Deng III, 5).4
Although this relaxation was never thorough and often intermittent,
with periods of constraint – most notably the campaign against spiritual
pollution from October 1983 to spring 1984 and the anti-bourgeois
liberalization campaign in 1987 – and liberalization alternating unpredictably,
it had succeeded in reviving the cultural scene. Literature and art
were flourishing in China in the mid-1980s. When the Fourth National
Congress of the Chinese Writers’ Association was held in Beijing from
December 29, 1984 to January 5, 1985, a rare sense of optimism and
enthusiasm was prevalent among the delegates. In his congratulatory
speech to the Congress, Hu Qili, a Secretariat member of the CCP Central
Committee, declared that “writers must be able to think with their own
minds and must have ample freedom to choose material, themes and artistic
methods and to express their own feelings, emotions and thoughts, so that
they can produce genuinely appealing and educational works. . . . Our
Party, government, literary and art organisations and the whole society
should act firmly to ensure that writers have such freedom” (FE/7837/
3 “Communique of the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the
Communist Party of China” (Adopted on December 22, 1978), Peking Review Dec. 29, 1978:
6-16. The Communique mentioned jiefang sixiang several times, and prior to the Third
Plenary Session, a Central Working Conference was held where Deng Xiaoping gave a
keynote speech entitled “Emancipate the Mind, Seek Truth from Facts and Unite as One in
Looking to the Future” (Deng II, 151-65).
My translation. For different translations of Deng’s speech, see Deng II, 200-7, and
Howard Goldblatt, ed., Chinese Literature for the 1980s: The Fourth Congress of Writers and
Artists (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1982) 7-14.
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
BII/2). The opening address by the Chairman of the Association, the
eighty-four-year-old Ba Jin, who was absent due to illness, was entitled
“Our Literature Should Stand at the World’s Forefront,” and the closing
speech by Vice-Chairman Wang Meng, who later became Minister of
Culture on June 25, 1986, was called “The Golden Age of Socialist Literature
Has Arrived.” Commenting on the measure of intellectual freedom
in China of the mid-1980s, one critic observed that “Despite the recent
tightening of late 1985 and early 1986, China may be, in some respects, at
its most free since the pre-1949 years” (Shapiro and Liang 187). Another
concluded that while Zhu Houze was head of the CCP Central
Committee’s Propaganda Department,6 “writers and artists enjoyed more
freedom than they had ever done since the 1930s” (Chan 106).
In January 1986, jurisdiction of the Film Bureau was transferred from
the Ministry of Culture to the new Ministry of Radio, Film and Television.
From the government’s point of view, this merger was in line with the world
trend and was not intended to “restrict,” artistically or administratively, and
creative freedom would be respected (Yin 18). Hence, apart from exercising
self-censorship and encountering the usual bureaucratic hindrances,
the film studios were relatively free to produce what they chose.7
Secondly, a group of younger filmmakers, the so-called “fifth generation”
directors, appeared on the scene, and they have created innovative
films of formal brilliance, often imbued with reflective concerns, be it social,
political or cultural. China began to produce films in 1905, and the first
generation directors were active in the silent era, the second, in the sound
era of the 1930s and 1940s. The third generation started to direct films after
China’s liberation in 1949, and the fourth generation directors began their
belated careers in the late 1970s, when the Cultural Revolution officially
ended. Nineteen eighty-two marked the arrival of the fifth generation
directors, who graduated in July that year with China’s first bachelor
degrees in cinema. According to this proposed grouping and periodization,
the origin of which is unclear, Xie Jin (b. 1923) and Wu Tianming (b. 1939),
two of China’s most prominent filmmakers, belong to the third and fourth
5 Both speeches, “Women de wenxue yinggai zhanzai shijie de qianlie” and “Shehui zhuyi
wenxue de huangjin shidai daolaile,” were published in Wenyibao Feb. 1985 (6-7; 8-10). So
was Hu Qili’s congratulatory speech “Zai Zhongguo zuojia xiehui di si ci huiyuan daibiao
dahui shang de zhuci,” quoted earlier (3-5).
The Propaganda Department coordinates and controls all government activities
involving communications and the mass media. Zhu Houze was appointed to head this
department on July 17, 1985, replacing the notorious Deng Liqun, but on February 4, 1987,
it was his turn to be replaced by Wang Renzhi.
7 The production of some “unpatriotic” films, e.g., Taiyang heren [The sun and the man]
(1980) from Bai Hua’s script Kulian [Bitter love], Gezi shu [Dove tree] (1985), and Tamen
zheng nianqing [In their prime] (1986), which were subsequently banned by the authorities,
could not have taken place if there were no creative freedom.
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Li: Color, Character, and Culture
generations respectively, while Chen Kaige (b. 1952) is foremost among
the fifth generation directors. Other notable directors of Chen’s generation
include Hu Mei (b. 1956), Huang Jianxin (b. 1954), Tian Zhuangzhuang
(b. 1952), Wu Ziniu (b. 1953), Zhang Junzhao (b. 1952), Zhang Yimou
(b. 1950), Zhang Zeming (b. 1951), and Zhou Xiaowen (b. 1954). The
majority of them were the first students of the Beijing Film Academy, which
had reopened in 1978 after being inactive from 1966. To gain admission
into China’s only film college, founded in 1956, they had to survive a tough
selection process through which only 28 out of over 3,000 applicants could
earn a place to study directing (“Chen Kaige” 44). They “were the first
Chinese film makers to be given free access to films from the West. During
their four-year course, they analysed the work of directors like the
Frenchman François Truffaut, the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni and the
West German Rainer Werner Fassbinder. So their horizons were far more
international than those of their predecessors” (“Three Screen Faces” 83).
Belonging to the generation of “red guards,” many of them had their formal
education cut short by the Cultural Revolution and were forced to spend
several years laboring in the countryside. Some also joined the army in an
attempt to better their conditions. With their unusual life experiences,
proper professional training, and above-average abilities, they graduated
in 1982 and were destined to contribute to the renaissance of the Chinese
A third decisive factor is the rise of regional film studios. Cinema has
become a state industry in China from 1949, and film productions have
traditionally been centered at the three major studios in Beijing,
Changchun and Shanghai.9 From 1949 to 1966, more than 600 feature films
were produced, about three-quarters of which were made by these three
studios (Clark 185). From 1981 to 1988, the number of films made rose to
over one thousand, but less than half of these came from the three major
studios. This means that regional film studios in Canton (Guangdong),
Nanning (Guangxi), Xi’an (Shaanxi), and other provincial cities have been
For English articles on the fifth generation directors, see Ma Ning, “Notes on the New
Filmmakers” (Semsel 63-93); Ma Ning, “New Chinese Cinema: A Critical Account of the
Fifth Generation,” Cinemaya 2 (1988-89): 20-27; Tony Rayns, “The Fifth Generation,”
Monthly Film Bulletin Oct. 1986: 296-98; Tony Rayns, “The Sun and the Rain,” Monthly
Film Bulletin Mar. 1988: 69-71; Tony Rayns, “Breakthroughs and Setbacks: The Origins and
Struggles of the New Chinese Cinema,” Filmviews 135 (1988): 20-23; Tony Rayns, “Chinese
Vocabulary: An Introduction to King of the Children and the New Chinese Cinema,” Chen
Kaige and Tony Rayns, King of the Children and the New Chinese Cinema (London: Faber,
1989) 1-58; Chris Berry’s interviewsith Peng Xiaolian and Hu Mei in Camera Obscura 18
(1988): 26-41; and several articles by Chris Berry in China Screen. Chinese articles are found
in Dianying y ishu, Dangdai dianying, and other Chinese film periodicals.
9 For brief histories of these three film studios, see Zhongguo dianyingjia xiehui, ed.,
Zhonghua renmin gongheguo dianying shiye sanshiwunian, 1949-1984 [Thirty-five years of
the Chinese film industry 1949-1984] (Beijing: Zhongguo dianying, 1985) 23-120.
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
making more films in recent years. As some of these smaller regional
studios have few established directors on their payrolls, they are willing to
let less experienced staff direct their films. They also welcome young
graduates to come and work for them, although these newcomers may still
be attached to large studios where chances for directing are slim. Chen
Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang are both employees of Beijing Film Studio,
but they have been directing films for other provincial studios. Quite a
number of young graduates had their films made and their reputations
established through this arrangement, and several regional studios thus
became well-known.
The success of Xi’an Film Studio is particularly astonishing and instructive.
Established in August 1958, Xi’an ‘s output had been meager, with
only 19 films in the eight years from 1959 to 1966.10 Production increased
to 48 during the nine years from 1975 to 1983, but they were neither popular
nor distinguished, except for a few films like Xi ‘an shibian [Xi’an incident]
(1981) and Meiyou hangbiao de heliu [River without buoys] (1983). In 1983,
Xi’an ranked last among the nation’s studios in terms of the number of
copies of movies sold for distribution. The 1983 national box-office statistics
showed that Xi’an had no production in the year’s top ten but had three
films among the year’s bottom seven. In October 1983, one of its staff,
actor-director Wu Tianming, was offered the studio-head job by popular
demand. Through Wu’s progressive reforms and able management, the
studio succeeded in climbing from rock bottom position to the very top
ranking in the film industry by the end of 1984 (Liu Binyan).11 It also
continued to do well in subsequent years. From 1984 to 1987, Xi’an Studio
completed 45 films, eight of which collected a total of 12 domestic prizes
and 11 international awards. In 1988, it produced 13 films and earned a
profit of RMB $3.4 million (US $0.9 million) (Liu Bingqi). Wu, himself the
director of the prize-winning River without Buoys, Rensheng [Life] (1984),
and Lao jing [Old well] (1987), adopted a policy of making successful
commercial films, including kung-fu potboilers, to finance risky artistic
ventures, which often fail at the domestic box-office.12 He has gathered at
10 The August 1988 issue of Daxibei dianying has more than a dozen articles (55-80)
commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of Xi’an Film Studio.
11 Liu Binyan’s vivid two-part reportage on Wu Tianming stands out among the many
pieces of interviews and sketches on him. For a profile of Wu in English, see Liang Heng and
Judith Shapiro, After the Nightmare: A Survivor of the Cultural Revolution Reports on China
Today (New York: Knopf, 1986) 165-77.
1 From Jin Zhongqiang’s “Cong kaobei shu kan dangqian dianying taishi” [Looking at
current cinema’s situation from copy numbers], Dazhong dianying Jan. 1989: 2-3, we learn
that in 1988, Ниапфе daaa [Swordsman of the Yellow River] (1987) had 397 prints in
circulation, while Haià wang [King of children] (1987) and Qi wang [King of chess] (1988),
both adaptations from A Cheng’s short stories, only managed to sell six copies each. All three
films were produced by Xi’an Film Studio.
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Li: Cohr, Character, and Culture
his studio talented directors like Chen Kaige, Huang Jianxin, and Zhang
Yimou, who are given complete creative freedom in addition to moral and
budgetary support. It is no miracle that the majority of China’s outstanding
films are produced under his patronage, and Xi’an Film Studio has quickly
become well known in Europe, America, and Australia.
Huang tudi [Yellow earth] (1984) was the first Chinese film to receive
universal acclaim – it has won festival prizes in Locarno, London, Nantes,
Hawaii, and Montreal – despite a very mixed reception in China. Produced
by the Guangxi Film Studio in Nanning, the film was shot entirely on
location in Shaanbei, the arid north of Shaanxi Province. Headed by
first-time director Chen Kaige and the slightly more experienced
cinematographer Zhang Yimou, the staff group of some thirty technicians
and performers toiled for sixty days, moving from one place to another
within a vast area of 15,000 square kilometers on the shores of the Yellow
River. The picture is about the encounter between an Eighth Route Army
soldier and a poor peasant family in Shaanbei in early spring of 1939. The
soldier, Gu Qing, boards for a few days with the family on his errand to
collect local folk songs to propagandize the Communist cause. The family
is illiterate and the father, a widower old beyond his years, is not impressed
by Gu’s re-telling of social reforms about women receiving education and
choosing their own husbands within the Communist domain in the
province’s south, but Cuiqiao, his dutiful and hardworking daughter, listens
carefully and is delighted to see her taciturn younger brother, Hanhan,
befriended by Gu. She comes home one day to witness the departure of a
matchmaker and is told that her promised marriage to a much older man
will take place in the fourth month. She is doubly unhappy when Gu
announces his intention of returning to Y an’an. The next morning, Hanhan
accompanies Gu in silence and parts with him reluctantly. Further along
the way, Cuiqiao is waiting for Gu. She begs him to take her along. Unaware
of Cuiqiao’s impending fate and bound by the army’s regulation of getting
permission first, Gu refuses her plea but promises to come back for her.
The wedding day arrives and Cuiqiao is carried off in a bridal sedan.
Meanwhile, Gu is in Yan’an watching a drum-dance performance in honor
of new recruits fighting the anti-Japanese war. Back in the village by the
river bank, Cuiqiao tells Hanhan of her decision to run away to join the
army. She bids him to take care of their father and leaves him with a pair
of hand-sewn insoles to give to Gu on his return. She makes her night-crossing
of the turbulent Yellow River, singing the song taught by Gu Qing, but
her voice breaks off in mid-sentence
Summer comes and Gu returns as promised. Finding no one in the
cave home, he goes down to the village and sees hundreds of half-naked
peasants led by Cuiqiao’s father praying for rain: “Dragon King of the Sea,
let the good rains fall. Send cool wind and gentle rain to save us all!”
Hanhan spots the soldier in the far distance and struggles against the
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
movement of the crowd to reach him, but Gu Qing is then invisible on the
horizon. As the camera descends from the blue sky and focuses on the
yellow earth, the film ends with the sound of Cuiqiao’s song: “The piebald
cock flies over the wall. The Communist Party shall save us all!”13
Yellow Earth has elements of melodrama (tragic tale of a child bride)
and political propaganda (Communism’s salvation of China), but director
Chen Kaige chooses to de-emphasize such sentimental and didactic clichés
in his film. The script by Zhang Ziliang, “Guyuan wusheng” [Silence is the
ancient plain], is based on a prose reminiscence of approximately 11,500
words entitled “Shengu huisheng” [Echoes in the deep valley] by the writer
Ke Lan (b. 1920). This piece recollects a tragic event witnessed by Ke in
his youth. During his errand to collect the missing words of the famous
Shaanbei folk song Lan Huahua , Ke encountered a thunderstorm and took
refuge in the cave home of a middle-aged couple and their pretty young
daughter, who befriended him. The girl refused to reveal her name unless
Ke promised to introduce her to the army. Ke agreed to return in three or
four days for further discussion. When Ke left the next morning, the girl
saw him off several kilometers from the top of hills, singing the song Lan
Huahua all the way. Ke returned in about six days and was shocked to learn
of the girl’s suicide. A local shepherd boy told Ke how the greed of Cuiqiao’s
stepfather had forced her into marriage and resulted in her killing herself
by swallowing opium, sharing the same fate as the legendary Lan Huahua
(Ke 304-23). Chen Kaige had never read Ke Lan’s original work, the length
of which he wrongly thought to be of less than 3,000 words, and he had
reservations about Zhang Ziliang’s script, which was quite sentimental. He
wanted to make some changes that could deepen, explain, and better
express the significance of the central tragedy. The scenes and elements he
eventually added – drum-dance, rain praying, Yellow River, and yellow as
dominant color- contributed enormously to the success of the film.
Right from the first panoramic shot of Yellow Earth – the film opens
with a series of dissolves showing scenes of weathered ravines and slopes
below the high horizon and views of an approaching human figure from
the low horizon – Chen Kaige strives to express his own vision of life in
China and constructs his film in a visual language rare in Chinese cinema.
Faces, gestures, deep silences, sparse and sometimes off-screen dialogues
are used to depict characters while striking compositions, stunning photography,
extreme long shots, and ritual crowd scenes are employed to evoke
emotions and atmosphere. Thematic folk songs lamenting the plight of
women and daughters are introduced to advance the plot and enrich the
narrative. Besides employing some common means of artistic expression
13 Quotations from songs are based on the film’s English subtitles, credited to Tony Rayns
and Dominique Brasseur (translation is credited to Bonnie S. McDougall). For YeUow
Earth’s shooting script, see Tansuo 91-195.
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Li: Color, Character, and Culture
like metaphors and symbolism, Chen also uses a number of unconventional
techniques seldom seen in postwar Chinese films: alienation effects, ambiguity,
understatement, and synecdoche. When Cuiqiao’s singing suddenly
stops and her boat disappears in the turbulent waters, we see and hear
Hanhan calling in vain for his sister. Then comes a beautiful sequence of
five dissolves depicting the Yellow River’s majestic course at different
hours – night, day, evening, night, and evening again – from thunderous
surge to gentle flow, followed by two more dissolves into the river’s desolate
beaches, the last one showing a huge rock. By distancing us from the scene
of misfortune, the director intentionally prevents the audience’s emotional
involvement with the tragic fate of Cuiqiao, whose song breaks off before
she utters the last word in the line “Jiu wan min kao zan gong chan dang”
which means “Saving ten thousand people depends on our Communist
Party.” There is an ambivalence here, prompting an anti-Communist writer
to comment sarcastically that “the word ‘party’ also accompanies Cuiqiao
and falls into the river” (Tian Ying 85). The same writer also questions the
reality of Hanhan’s vision of the soldier at the end of the film, implying that
this may be an illusion, similar to the Communist Party’s promise of
salvation. Such reading has some validity, as the film is open to different
interpretations in these thought-provoking scenes. At other times, although
the meaning is more obvious, the message is conveyed not by verbal
statements, but through subtle, visual images of striking originality, as in
the unforgettable shot of the dark hand reaching out for a terrified Cuiqiao
on the bridal bed. All these amount to a breakthrough into a new style
distinct from traditional Chinese film aesthetics, which is based on literary
and dramatic conventions and is heavily dependent on the spoken word.
With the collaboration of his brilliant cameraman Zhang Yimou, Chen
succeeds in creating a cinematic masterpiece that is poetic, static, and
Set against an ancient and dusty landscape, Yellow Earth can be seen
as an exploration of the relationship between the land and its inhabitants.
The region of the Loess Plateau in Shaanbei is a microcosm of China, not
only the pre-historic China whose civilization originated from these shores
by the Yellow River, or the pre-revolution China of the late 1930s, when
nearby Yan’an was the Communist base, but also the present-day China
burdened by history and culture, still groping her way on the road to
modernization. Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and their art designer He Qun
had explored the Shaanbei area in northwestern China for weeks on foot
to experience the place, to study the local people and to acquaint themselves
with rural conditions and customs in order to revise the script. Zhang
Yimou said that in Yellow Earth they wanted to express “the boundless
magnificence of the heavens; the supporting vastness of the earth; [t]he
racing flow of the Yellow River; the sustaining strength and endurance of
a nation” (“Yellow Earth” 259). Chen Kaige said that the sight of the
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
Yellow River in Shaanbei moved them deeply. “For here it is broad, deep
and unhurried. It makes its stately progress through the hinterland of Asia,
its free spirit and serene depths somehow symbolic of the Chinese people –
full of strength, but flowing on so deeply, so ponderously” (“Yellow Earth”
260). The strength of their film owes a lot to their choice of locations. The
China they reveal is poor yet authentic,14 the landscape is barren yet
breathtaking, and the characters are illiterate yet noble. Their film was
condemned by Party bureaucrats for displaying the backwardness and
ignorance of the Chinese peasantry, and Chen was accused of distorting
the Communist spirit. In reply, Chen stated that they had expressed a real
love and compassion for the peasants, whom they thought they had
beautified (Semsel 138). As to the complaint that the camera was immobile
and the pace of the film far too slow, Zhang answered that the static camera
helped to create an historical sense and the feeling of a bygone age. He
also wanted the camera to respond to the rhythm of life in that region,
where nothing changed day after day, where everything was the same, very
quiet, very calm, and the camera was obliged to follow that rhythm. He
further pointed out that amid the stillness, movements did occur when
required, as in the two scenes of drum-dance and praying for rain which
expressed joy, strength and vitality (Huashuo 286-87). Viewed in this light,
Yellow Earth conveys a sincere portrait of rural China with rich local flavor.
Visually startling, its photography is effective and its use of color meaningful.
Yellow Earth’s range of color is limited but creative.15 The predominant
color is, of course, yellow: the yellow earth that often occupies the
entire screen, the muddy Yellow River, the inhabitants’ yellow skin, and
their cave homes. The earth is thick, dry and infertile. Its actual color is
rather pale, especially when patterned against a cloudless blue sky, as in
the last scene, when Gu Qing returns. The warm and richer yellow color
pervading the film is the result of technical manipulation. Many of the
scenes were shot in the early morning or late afternoon when the sunlight
was soft and weak, yielding a deeper tone more in harmony with the ideal
of the land nurturing the people and the people respecting the land. After
yellow come black and dark blue: the colors of clothing for most of the men
(exceptions are the soldiers clad in light blue), the colors of shadows and
darkness, and the colors of the turbulent river at night. Most peasants wear
dark cotton-padded jackets, many with white towels as headgear. White is
a striking contrast to black, and Hanhan’s flock of sheep has some white,
14 In 1978, nearly thirty years after China’s liberation, Deng Xiaoping had this to say: “Of
course, there are still difficulties in production in the Northwest, Southwest and some other
regions, and the life of the people there is hard” (Deng II, 164).
15 The analysis that follows is indebted to Zhang Yimou’s comments on his treatment of
color during shooting ( Huashuo 288-90).
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Li: Color, Character, and Culture
some black. As the landscape is barren and dry, green is seldom seen. Apart
from the last scene, when all praying peasants have green branches crowning
their heads, green is only obvious in one crucial single shot. Cuiqiao is
taking two buckets of water home but stops and watches Gu Qing teaching
Hanhan a Communist song. When she resumes her journey, she is smiling
with glee and she quickens her steps. In a lyrical shot accompanied by music,
we see patches of green grass appearing on the background slope as her
red figure moves forward against a clear blue sky. The green in this scene
echoes and heightens her joy. This emotive use of color is ingenious and
expressive. It is the only time Cuiqiao is wildly happy, but her jubilation is
immediately shattered. As she reaches home and opens the door, she comes
face to face with the village matchmaker, an unwelcome messenger of
The most subtle use of color in the film is reserved for red, which
evokes contrasting emotions in different contexts. Red is a fiery color
signifying happiness and excitement. Red appears repeatedly in the first
wedding ceremony: red sedan, red silks attached to the musicians’ horns,
red curtains, red candles, and the teenage bride all in red. Cuiqiao, the
concerned onlooker, is also dressed in red. Her subsequent fate is hinted
at as the striking difference in age between the couple is noted by Gu Qing.
Later, during her own wedding, the repetitive appearance of vermilion
red – red bridal sedan, red paper-cuts of the Chinese character “double
happiness” decorating the window, red antithetical couplet on the
doorframe – denotes neither fortune nor happiness but rather the fear and
anxiety of oppressive marriage. Cuiqiao is shown sitting in the bridal room
all enveloped in red, her face hidden under the red head-scarf. A closer
shot shows her still waiting, and from off-screen comes a male left hand,
neat but rough and dark, unveiling her bridal head-scarf. As she shrinks
backward in fright and anguish, breathing heavily, the whole screen is
almost completely red. In this agonizing scene, the narrow horizontal strip
of yellowish wall on the top of the screen makes the red color more
arresting and its negative connotation more poignant. The next shot
abruptly changes to Yan’an’s drum-dance spectacle with another aggregation
of red: red drums, red waistbands, red slogans, etc. Red is now restored
to its positive significance of spontaneity, excitement, enthusiasm, and
revolutionary fervor.
One more significant use of red appears in the last memorable scene.
When Hanhan is seen among the praying villagers, he is the only one in the
half-naked crowd wearing a red undergarment ( doudu ), which makes him
conspicuous. He preserves his individuality and behaves differently. He
moves against the human tide in an effort to join Gu Qing. Visually on the
color palette, his red is dynamic among a medley of yellow (peasants’ bare
backs, earth and dust), black (hair and trousers), and green (willow twigs
as ceremonial crowns). Symbolically, he is the awakened in pursuit of
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
progress and change. Red is the color of the Chinese revolution, and
Hanhan has always treasured the sewing kit with a red star, a present from
the Eighth Route Army soldier, Gu Qing. Although the peasants may not
heed Gu’s exhortation that “all of China must change,” the audience knows
that in 1949 it finally did.
Our next movie under review, Heipao shijiart [Black cannon incident]
(1985), which focuses on life in contemporary China, does shed some light
on current impediments to progress affecting all Chinese.
One stormy night in 1983, a man wearing glasses arrived at the post
office in a taxi and sent a telegram – “Lost Black Cannon. Look 301.
Zhao.” – that alerted the postal clerk’s suspicion of a subversive coded
message. The police were informed, arrived within seconds, and the man,
Zhao Shuxin, was placed under secret investigation. The case was later
taken over by Zhao’s employer, a mining company that had imported the
WD equipment from Germany. Zhao, a German-speaking engineer unmarried
at forty-nine, was from a Catholic family. Once a Catholic in his
youth, he had never been involved in politics, had never caused any trouble,
and was generally regarded as a good and dedicated worker. This had been
demonstrated the year before, when the company assigned him to interpret
for Hans Schmidt, a visiting German engineer who had recently returned
to China to supervise the installation of the WD equipment. Now that Zhao
was under suspicion, the company did not want him to work with Hans again
and replaced him with Feng Liangcai, a young translator from the tourist
bureau. Zhao was even prevented from visiting Hans in private but the
German kept asking for him. To avoid any embarrassment, Zhao was
transferred temporarily to the maintenance department. In fact, he was not
needed there but fooled himself into believing that there were important
things for him to do and that he was being well treated.
As Feng had no technical knowledge of machinery, he committed
error after error when translating for Hans, who repeatedly complained to
company manager Li Renzhong. Li had backed Zhao all along but he could
not convince the Deputy Party Secretary, Zhou Yuzhen, of Zhao’s innocence.
Apart from the telegram, a heated argument between Zhao and
Hans the year before had also aroused some suspicion. Desperate for a
quick solution, Li visited Zhao one night and found Hans in Zhao’s room,
as the German had also heard about Zhao’s return. Li discovered that Zhao
did have a chess set with a black cannon piece missing. Meanwhile, the
company’s security chief had found out from Hans the reason behind his
quarrel with Zhou and presented Li with crucial evidence that Zhao had
been defending the company’s interests by correcting a miscalculation
committed by the Germans in their engineering plans.
Another Party Committee meeting was called to discuss Zhao’s case,
and Li thought that this time Zhao could be cleared and recalled to work
with Hans; but Zhou, who was cursed by others behind her back as “Dead
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Li: Color, Character, and Culture
Serious,” “Marxist Granny” and “Leftist Secretary,” was adamant that
something was still wrong. She argued that it was illogical for Zhao to spend
more than a dollar on a cable when buying a new chess set would cost him
less. She also produced an intercepted telegram sent to Zhao – “Black
Cannon Sent. Pick up. Qian.” – as further proof of secret communication.
Wu Kegong, the Party Secretary who chaired the meeting, was habitually
indecisive. While agreeing that the case against Zhao should be dropped,
he did not want Zhao to take over from Feng, as installation work was
drawing to a close. Li was upset and helpless and found it hard to face Zhao,
whom he bumped into at the scrap iron dump beside the railroad. “I don’t
want to hear about it. Don’t come to see me. Sorry!” was all he could
A package addressed to Zhao finally arrived. An eager Zhou was
waiting for the moment of revelation as the package was opened without
Zhao’s knowledge or consent by a member of the security staff. To their
disappointment, the contents were nothing but a black cannon chess piece.
Zhao rushed in, took back the piece, which he had lost in room 301 in a
hotel during an official trip to the south, and left in anger.
Hans left by plane after installation was completed, but, twenty days
later, the WD equipment broke down. Zhao was urgently called in to
investigate the problem. The cause of the damage was eventually traced to
in a translation error in the manual for which the Germans were not to
blame. Li, Zhou, Wu, and others were dumbfounded. The breakdown
resulted in the loss of a million dollars. Everyone was forced to reflect on
the real cause of the whole misfortune. Zhou could no longer refrain from
asking Zhao the overdue question: “How much is a chess piece worth! Why
did you pay for a cable to get such a worthless thing?” Zhao meekly replied:
“It’s upsetting to lose a piece.” Wu commented: “A new set does not cost
much!” Zhao agreed and promised: “Yes, I won’t play chess any more.”
One hot evening amid a glorious sunset, Zhao Shuxin wandered into
a park after a day’s work and saw two little boys playing with bricks taken
from a building site. They patiently arranged tens of heavy bricks in one
long curved line and vied for knocking over the first brick. One by one the
rectangular bricks fell, to the hearty mirth of the children. Zhao exchanged
funny faces with the younger boy and threw some sweets at him and his
companion before he left. The boys then started to play their games again.
Reflecting on China in 1925, Lu Xun observed in one of his “Sudden
Notions” that “Our chief aims at present are: first, to exist; secondly, to find
food and clothing, and thirdly, to advance” (140). If Yellow Earth is about
16 This and all subsequent quotations of dialogues are from the film’s English subtitles by
Yuan Qing and Chris Berry, with two instances of slight modifications (indicated by square
brackets) for greater accuracy. For the film’s shooting script, see Tansuo 555-636. A variant
version of this script appears in Heipao shijian: congxiaoshuo dao dianying [Black Cannon
Incident: From novel to film] (Beijing: Zhongguo dianying, 1988) 99-187.
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
survival and sustenance, Black Cannon Incident is about development and
economic growth. Yellow Earth sympathetically portrays the sorry plight of
China’s peasants; Black Cannon Inciderà dispassionately analyzes the distrust
accorded to China’s intellectuals. This distrust is pervading, ironic,
and ultimately detrimental. The loss of a chess piece leads to a huge waste
of money for the country. In exposing the ineffectiveness of the Chinese
management system through an absurd story, this film is an enthusiastic cry
for reform, not only on the economic level but also on the political and
cultural levels. China is modernizing herself industrially with imported
technology to increase productivity, but, as the following conversation in
German between Hans and Zhao in the film indicates, there are obvious
failings undermining her success:
Hans: There is something I must say. We are friends, damn it. Why do
you buy this machinery? I don’t understand. It’s obsolete. We
can’t sell it even in Africa. We have new ones. They would be just
right for you. This old stuff is no use to you.
Zhao: I knew that straight away, but we don’t make purchasing
Hans: Who does? Party Secretary Wu?
Zhao: No, higher up.
Hans: Higher? You could make recommendations. Yes, I’ll give information.
You make the recommendations. That way you can
understand things better. You can avoid being fooled. It’ll be
good for your government. You may even get a reward.
Zhao: I did all that before you came, but they said I hadn’t been abroad.
What could I know!
Hans: Why didn’t you show them our catalogs?
Zhao: They won’t listen. Iam powerless. Never mind, let’s have a drink.
Such neglect of knowledge and expertise is actually less common today
as China is recognizing the contributions of her intellectuals, and the
current Party policy is to respect and trust them. In May 1977, Deng
Xiaoping told two CCP Central Committee comrades that “We must create
within the Party an atmosphere of respect for knowledge and respect for
trained personnel. The erroneous attitude of not respecting intellectuals
must be opposed” (Deng II, 54). Since then, the Party has been trying hard
to redress the wrongs and repair the damage done by the Gang of Four
through the implementation of its new policy on intellectuals. On Oc17
See the document “Zhonggong zhongyang zuzhibu guanyu luoshi dang de zhishifenzi
zhengce de jidian yijian” (Nov. 3, 1978) [A few suggestions from CCP central committee’s
organization department concerning the implementation of party policy on intellectuals] in
Zhishifenzi wenti wenxian xuanbian [Selected documents on the issue of intellectuals]
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Li: Color, Character, and Culture
tober 24, 1984, the “Decision on Reform of the Economic Structure” was
adopted by the 12th Central Committee of the CCP at its Third Plenary
Session. In his speech to the CCP Central Advisory Commission two days
later, Deng Xiaoping emphasized the urgency of employing and promoting
people with technical and managerial skills: ” ‘Decision’ is in ten parts, all
of which are important, but the ninth is the most important. The ninth part
can be summed up ‘respecting knowledge and talented people.’ The key to
success is to identify and employ talented people” (Deng 1, 81). The Party
desperately needs cadres who are both red and expert, but it often ends up
with those who are only red and inept. In the first committee meeting in
the film, opinions are quite divided on how to implement the Party’s policy
on intellectuals:
Li: Why can’t we be more straightforward? Let’s ask Zhao about it.
Zhou: [How can this be possible?] It’s still under investigation.
Li: Asking him is investigating.
member: Yes, let Security talk to him.
Zhou: Don’t forget the policy on intellectuals.
Li: Trusting people is important [essential].
Zhou: We haven’t made any conclusion yet. Investigation is to clear it
up. That’s really trusting him.
Wu: I agree that we should trust Zhao. Keep him away from Herr
Schmidt. That’s for his own good. Maybe there really isn’t a
problem. Wouldn’t that be great!
And the drama goes on. According to director Huang Jiarodn, the characters
in this film are neither heroes nor villains, as their virtues and defects
are inseparable. This reminds us of the similar situation in Yellow Earth
where the father is not a cruel oppressor of his daughter but a poor
kind-hearted farmer whose hard life has made him stubborn and unfeeling.
He sings for Gu Qing for fear that the soldier may lose his job if not enough
folk songs are collected, and when he sings, it is a tune lamenting the fate
of a teenage girl, married and widowed, driven to commit suicide. If the
father is a victimize^ he is also a victim. His weaknesses and strengths are
closely related. This complexity in characterization is a refreshing change
from the familiar stereotyping of good versus bad prevalent in conventional
Chinese cinema.
(Beijing: Renmin, 1983) 51-64. It is tragic and ironic that things have changed for the worse
by 1990, when many of China’s leading intellectualsre inactive, in jail, in adle, or still in
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Modem Ornese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
The characters in Black Cannon Incident are likewise governed by
self-contradictions. Every one of them possesses a mixture of good and bad
qualities. Deputy Party Secretary Zhou Yuzhen is inflexible became she is
a dedicated Communist. She sticks to her principles and follows what the
Party has taught her, but her inability to keep up with the times has resulted
in her making wrong decisions. She does not intend to harm Zhao Shuxin,
but sincerely thinks that relieving him from translation work is showing
concern and helping him through. Manager Li is an intellectual newly
promoted to his post. He is a reformist who backs down when outnumbered
and does not know how to use his authority to defend the truth. Party
Secretary Wu Kegong, a veteran of political struggles, fully understands
the rights and wrongs, but lacks sharp decisiveness. He wants to maintain
Party unity without aiming for true consensus based on correct ideology.
Zhao Shuxin possesses the best and worst characteristics shaped by
Chinese culture. He is a serious scientist and a very responsible worker. He
is patriotic and does not hesitate to defend his country’s interests. He
argues bravely with Hans and shows his anger when truth is denied. But in
the presence of his superiors, he is weak and servile. He does not fight for
his own rights and often restrains himself from expressing his own ideas.
As a typical intellectual, he is tolerant of his situation and toils without
complaint. His sacrifice of his only hobby – “I won’t play chess any more” –
is unwarranted and pitiful (Xue Ying 59). His personality traits make him
a typical model in whom audiences can recognize shades of themselves and
their acquaintances. The character of Zhao Shuxin comes alive as a representative
portrait of Chinese intellectuals.
Zhao Shuxin is played by Liu Zifeng, who relies on physique, posture,
gait, and gesture in his acting. Liu won a Golden Rooster Award (China’s
Oscar) for Best Actor in 1986 for his brilliant portrayal of this helpless
character. Black Cannon Incident is generally regarded in the West as the
best film satire from China since the late 1950s. Inspired by the literature
of black humor exemplified by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and the cinema of
alienation of Antonioni, director Huang Jianxin has staged his absurd
drama in the urban industrial landscape of a Chinese coastal city. His China
has a clean, slick, and modern look, an impression created by careful art
design and clever camera work. His expressive use of conspicuous colors
and unrealistic sets is especially commendable. In the prologue of the film
before the title and credits (black characters on white screen) appear, we
see a black and white typewriter on a red desk-top. Then, barely sixty
seconds into the film, our hero Zhao Shuxin, dressed in black, bumps into
two giants just inside the entrance of the post office. A close shot shows
Zhao still brushing off the raindrops from his nose while looking up in
confusion through his spectacles. As the two strong men wearing T-shirts
are both over two meters tall, only their shoulders appear on the left and
right of the screen sandwiching a bewildered Zhao. And the colors are
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Li: Color, Character, and Culture
white, black, and red. The same pattern reappears in the performing show
of red girls dancing before a black and white stage set. Toward the end,
when the black cannon piece is recovered, it is placed on a red desk-top
next to a white telephone.
The film is justly famous for the two Party Committee meeting scenes
dominated by white: white table cloth, white seat covers, white curtains,
white walls, people all dressed in white, even the glasses are filled with
colorless drinking water. White is the Chinese color for death and funerals.
To heighten the clinical intensity of whiteness, the room in this set is long
and narrow. In the center hangs a huge black wall clock whose hands silently
register the wasted minutes and hours. In the second meeting in this sterile
room, the increasing conflict between characters is expressed by the introduction
of some colors. Tea is served instead of water and two members
are dressed in black. The Chairman is dressed in light brown and there is a
lemon yellow jacket on the white table. The same color scheme reappears
in the final meeting scene, when senior staff are assembled to wait for
Zhao’s finding about the disastrous breakdown. The room, the furniture
and most of the people present are dressed in white. Zhao is the only one
wearing black. These futile meetings are rendered unforgettable by overexposing
the images.
Red, orange and yellow are the other eye-catching colors throughout
the film. Red umbrellas, red company cars, red curtains, carpets and
tablecloths. When Zhao is watching a soccer game between a red team and
a white team, a man in a red T-shirt approaches and talks to him. In the
background a worker is painting a wall red. Some characters are dressed in
red: the female company clerk who learns German self-taught, the young
couple eager to exchange foreign currency illegally, the little girl in red
trousers outside the church and the cute half-naked infant boy in red
underpants playing in the park. Red signifies anxiety, conflict and danger.
In the restaurant scene of Zhao and Han’s violent quarrel, the color is
predominantly red. The sunset scenes are in red, orange and yellow.
Orange is the color of gigantic machines and giant transport trucks. Yellow
is associated with workers’ helmets and jackets. The film’s creative use of
color is consistent and effective (Xue Ying 60).
Black Camion Incident has a number of scenes apparently not essential
to the plot, like the disco dance act attended by Zhao and his girlfriend,
the series of eight shots of the setting sun, and the last scene of two boys
playing brick dominoes. Another scene has Zhao going to a church but
stopping short of entering at the door, where he encounters a little girl
eating a popsicle. All these scenes are subject to different interpretations,
making the film rich in multiple meanings. One may recall the words of T.
S. Eliot in trying to appreciate these episodes. In his essay on “Hamlet and
His Problems” (1919), T. S. Eliot states that “ТЪе only way of expressing
emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’, in other
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the
formula of that particular emotion” and which will evoke the same emotion
from the reader (Eliot 48). Ь the recurring appearance of children also an
objective correlative, as in the “Ali Baba” rock show representing urban
modernity, or the football match ending in a fight, expressing frustration
and boredom? What is the meaning and significance of the children’s
brick-domino game?
A child is first mentioned when Zhao walks out of the noisy dance
show “Ali Baba” with his girlfriend, who tells him of her daughter’s liking
of him. Later, between shots of Zhao checking on machines at night, his
girlfriend is shown preparing dumplings at home with the help of her
daughter, a prim little girl in white wearing a red scarf. Then, in the brief
encounter between Zhao and manager Li in the small community garden,
five children and a naked infant boy appear in the scene playing with
colorful balls. Finally come the enigmatic scenes of Zhao’s silent rapport
with the young girl at the church entrance and the two little boys in the
park. These images of children present an ideal picture of simplicity and
innocence contrary to the adult world of anxiety and distrust. Zhao’s
naivety enables him to understand and communicate with young children
who are models of spontaneity and artlessness. One may view the last scene
of the brick-domino game as an indication of one false move in a chain
reaction upsetting the whole system. There are, no doubt, other sound and
convincing explanations. Chinese audiences have come up with no less than
twenty different interpretations. One is that a single mistake will ruin
everything. Another puts the key factor in the leadership: if the leader errs,
all those who follow will be led astray. One optimistic and crowd-pleasing
explanation is that “although China is running into a lot of problems on the
path of reform, we will overcome them one after another. If this generation
can’t complete the task, the next will” (Zeng 35).
Black Cannon Incident is the product of a young film crew averaging
28 years of age. Director Huang Jianxin was not a student in the class of
1982, but he had completed a shorter course on directing at the Beijing
Film Academy before making his debut at the Xi’an Film Studio. The film’s
success owes a lot to his fresh inventiveness, in particular his masterly
juxtaposition of sight and sound. This can best be illustrated by the nine
successive scenes near the end of the film, commencing with Zhao Shuxin’s
hurrying through the corridor to Zhou Yuzhen’s office to claim his parcel,
and concluding with the first alarm of the crisis caused by the breakdown
of the WD equipment. Not a single line of dialogue is spoken in this
seven-minute sequence in which Zhao takes back his black cannon in
anger, wanders around at the mining site, throws the chess piece away and
immediately retrieves it, walks down the street, stops at the entrance of a
church, watches the priest conducting a mass, smiles at the little girl at the
other side of the door, returns to his dormitory, sits down in dejection, and
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Li: Color ; Character, ; a/u¿ Culture
transport trains, city cars, religious music, door-opening, and one chess
piece hitting another when landing on the chess board. Then comes the
memorable moment when the light in Zhao’s room becomes dimmer and
dimmer and Zhao’s immobile back is enveloped by the surrounding darkness,
leaving only the nape of his neck and his right ear barely visible. As
our attention is drawn to the single white spot on the black screen, the
poignant background music changes imperceptibly, only to be interrupted
and drowned out by the loud, shrill sound of a passenger plane that we see
taking off and ascending into a gray sky. This abrupt color transition from
black to white, heightened by the sudden sharp changes of music and sound,
is visually haunting and aurally unforgettable.
By adding these significant scenes to the film, Huang and his scriptwriter
Li Wei have strengthened the theme of Zhang Xianliang’s (b. 1936)
humorous novellette, “Langman de heipao” [Romance of a black cannon]
(1984), on which their film is based. Zhang’s original work is verbose
(Zhang Xianliang 339-98), featuring a loquacious narrator with numerous
comments unrelated or marginal to the plot. In Zhang’s story, the hero, or
anti-hero, is called Zhao Xinshu and is three years older than the film’s
Zhao Shuxin. The Deputy Party Secretary is a male character, and Zhao’s
girlfriend never appears on the scene, remaining only a name still to be
introduced to Zhao. Zhang Xianliang, who has had three of his earlier
works adapted for the screen, has openly praised the superiority of the film
over his novellette: “It’s much better than I imagined; it’s much better than
my original work.” He is also pleased with the appropriate inclusion of
scenes such as the “Ali Baba” dance show, the church visit, and the
brick-domino game, which have been added without consulting him but are
in total agreement with his aesthetic point of view. As to the magic formula
for a successful adaptation, he has the following advice for writers and
filmmakers to ponder:
Why, despite their excellence, their enormous impact on society and
readers, and great efforts made to adapt them for the screen, are the film
versions of many literary works often greeted by adverse criticism? The
reason lies in their failure to resolve the problem of what is literature and
what is cinema. A few years ago, it was suggested that cinema should
strengthen its literary [narrative] qualities. My view is just the opposite.
Cinema should enhance its cinematic [montage] qualities. Cinema is
cinema, itself a unique artistic form. A Sne film artist has only to grasp
the most stirring element in the literary original (viz. the work’s “soul”)
and express it in cinematic terms. (Bo 1)
The success oî Hong gaoliang [Red sorghum] (1987), Zhang Yimou’s
adaptation of two novellettes by Mo Yan (b. 1956), is living proof of the
validity of this statement. First published as two separate pieces in 1986,
Mo Yan’s “Hong gaoliang” and “Gaoliang jiu” [Sorghum wine] eventually
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
validity of this statement. First published as two separate pieces in 1986,
Mo Yan’s “Hong gaoliang” and “Gaoliang jiu” [Sorghum wine] eventually
end up as the first two chapters of his long novel Hong gaoliang jiazu [Red
sorghum family] (1987). Although the script of the film is credited to
Chen Jianyu, Zhu Wei, and Mo Yan himself, their original draft was heavily
revised by Zhang Yimou.19 Mo Yan, a native of Gaomi in Shandong, has
a passionate attachment to the landscape and people of his birthplace.
Many of the characters in his red sorghum stories are earthy, amoral, and
larger than life, resembling some mythical figures of a bygone age rather
than credible common mortals. His style is sensual, evocative, and intensely
exuberant, in the tradition of earlier Northeast writers like Duanmu
Hongliang (b. 1912). Rejecting a chronological structure, he employs a
complex use of first-person narratives and flashback devices to unfold his
exciting folk myth. Reading him, one recalls the surrealistic realism of Latin
American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez. Zhang Yimou has
successfully captured the most thrilling aspect of Mo’s stories – the
dynamism of the expansive sorghum field and their neighboring inhabitants
imbued with unvanquishable spirits – in his screen adaptation, although he
has, to Mo’s regrets, transformed the author’s blood-red sorghum images
into mystical green sorghum forces (Mo 7). Zhang also cuts out some
characters, changes the male protagonist from a ruthless and lascivious
bandit chief to a naive sedan-chair carrier, and rearranges the plot in
chronological sequences. In his explanatory notes to his production staff,
Zhang has summarized his own thoughts on the film as follows:
From time immemorial, people have been telling love stories. This
film is yet another one.
There is an old saying: food and sex are the prime desires of
mankind. The sadness and joy in the relationships between men and
women are still captivating to filmgoers. In the red sorghum fields at the
“Green Killer’s Crossing,” “my grandpa” and “my grandma” burn with
passion for each other. This film expresses the intensity of their emotions.
Several decades ago, China suffered at the hands of the Japanese.
Today we talk of friendship and collaboration. But that war was not the
first time in our history that we were humiliated by foreigners. The
18 Mo Yan, Hong gaoliang jiazu (Beijing: Jiefangjun wenyi, 1987) 1-95, 96-194. “Hong
gaoliang” originally appeared in Renmin wenxue Mar. 1986: 4-36, and “Gaoliang jiu” in
Jiefangjun wenyi July 1986: 4-34.
19 For an account of Mo Yan’s involvement with the film project, see Mo Yan, “Yejiao
Hong gaoliang jiazu beiwanglu” [Also called Red Sorghum Family memorandum], Daxibei
dianying Apr. 1988: 3-8. See also Mo Yan, “Yingpian Hong gaoliang guanhou zagan”
[Random thoughts after seeing the film Red Sorghum], Dangdai dianying 2 (1988): 53-54.
The shooting script of Red Sorghum is published in Dangdai dianying 2 ( 1988): 125-53. For
an appreciation of Zhang’s adaptation, see Zhong Chengxiang, ” Hong gaoliang. xin de
dianying gaibian guannian,” [Red Sorghum : New concepts in film adaptation], Wenxue
pinglun 4 (1988): 44-50.
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Li: Color, Character, and Culture
aftermath of those experiences is still felt today. Therefore, our country
must be strong. The film is set in the Sino-Japanese war. These peasants
are used to freedom. They don’t want to be bullied. In their anger, they
will fight for their lives (“Red Sorghum”).20
Red Sorghum is narrated as a legend about peasants and laborers in
Northeast China around 1930, beginning with an illicit love affair and
ending with a tragic village ambush on Japanese invaders. It is a Dionysian
ode to life, full of passion and vitality. An exotic melodrama in red – red
clothing, red wine, red sun, red blood, and red sorghum – it is also a tribute
to the heroic spirit of the Chinese people. Zhang Yimou wishes to show us
a dynamic picture of his countrymen who dare to love, to hate, to live, and
to die. He has assimilated a variety of cinematic styles from Japanese and
European masters including Kurosawa Akira, Shindo Kaneto, Bernardo
Bertolucci, and the Taviani brothers. Viewers of Red Sorghum inevitably
recall scenes from Rashomon (1950), Yojimbo (1961), Onibaba (1964),
1900 (1976), and Kaos (1984). Zhang Yimou, a 1982 graduate from the
Department of Cinematography at Beijing Film Academy, began his career
at Guangxi Film Studio as cameraman in Zhang Junzhao’s Yige he bage
[One and eight] (1984), the first significant film by a fifth generation
director,21 where he experimented with sculpturesque photography and
asymmetrical composition. His next film, Yellow Earth, earned him a Golden
Rooster for best photography in 1985. He continued to cooperate with
director Chen Kaige in Chen’s second feature Da yuebing [The big parade]
(1986). One and Eight is about the nobility of an Eighth Route Army
commander wrongly convicted and imprisoned with eight bandits during
the anti-Japanese war. The Big Parade is about the hopes and fears of six
soldiers undergoing intensive training that would qualify them for a place
in the 1984 National Day Parade. Both films met with censorship problems
and were only released after major revisions and undue delay.
In late spring 1985, Zhang met Wu Tianming, head of Xi’an Film
Studio, in Beijing and was invited by Wu to work for Xi’an Film Studio. In
1987, he co-shot and acted in Wu’s film Old Well , earning for himself a
Golden Rooster Award for Best Actor in 1988. In 1987, he also directed
his first film, Red Sorghum , which won a Golden Rooster Award for Best
20 This quotation has been slightly modified for greater accuracy and fluency. For the
original Chinese text of this passage, see Zhang Yimou, “Honggaoliang daoyan chanshu”
[Director’s exposition of Red Sorghum], Wenhuibao (Shanghai) Jan. 29, 1988: 4.
Early films by fifth generation directors include Hongxiang [Red elephant] (1982),
co-directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang and his classmates Zhang Jianya and Xie Xiaojing,
Houbu duiyuan [The candidate] (1983), co-directed by Wu Ziniu and Chen Lu, and Jiuyue
[September], (1984) directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang. The first two are children’s films.
September is about a boys’ choir and clearly has a children’s audience in mind. Then comes
OneandEigfit, completed on October 8, 1984, and Yellow Earth, completed on December 6,
1984, which started the new wave of innovative films.
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
Feature Film in 1988, sharing this honor with Old Well. Zhang lost to Wu
in the Best Director Award competition, but he was more than compensated
for by Red Sorghum’s triumphant success in winning the top prize at
the 1988 Berlin Film Festival. In less than five years, Zhang Yimou has
distinguished himself as a cinematographer, an actor, and a director and
has collected several reputable prizes for his achievements in all three
categories, at home as well as abroad. He recently co-directed an action
thriller called Daihao Meizhou bao [Code name cougar] (1989) and has
also resumed his acting career. As Red Sorghum and Zhang Yimou clearly
deserve detailed treatment in a separate paper,22 only brief comments on
three aspects of the film, relating to its production, its characterization, and
its reception, will be offered here.
The budget for Red Sorghum was around US $200,000, about twice
that of Yellow Earth ‘s. The film was shot in 68 days, edited in six and a half
days, with dubbing and other sound synchronization all completed in a
week. This hasty finishing was intentional and accounted for the film’s
rough quality and casual atmosphere. Irrespective of how it got made, its
photography stood out against a mediocre script. As pointed out by an
appreciative but non-flattering critic, its filmmaking is also better than its
film-writing. “The authors – there were three – have a weak sense of timedimension;
some minor events take as much time as major ones. And the
long last section about the Japanese comes as a surprise. First, we have had
no hint until then of the film’s period; it might have been centuries ago.
Second, that last section is not germane to what has preceded it. It is so
unprepared, in the musical sense, that it seems an addendum, to whoop up
the picture to a big conclusion” (Kauffmann 36). This exposes a general
fault vexing China’s new cinema, namely, the scarcity of good scripts and
script writers. On the other hand, there is an abundance of excellent
cameramen. Some, like Red Sorghum’s Gu Changwei (b. 1957), who also
shot Chen Kaige’s third feature Haizi wang [King of children] (1987), The
Horse Thief s Hou Yong (b. 1960), who also shot Wu Ziniu’s Wanzhong
[Evening bell] (1988), and Zhang Yimou himself, are extremely versatile
and resourceful.
The exotic locations and scenic beauties oí Red Sorghum help to cover
up some of its weaknesses, such as poor characterization. Because the hero
of the film behaves like a foolish rogue, the heroine is called upon to act
22 Despite the flood of articles on Zhang Yimou after his Red Sorghum success, the best
profile of him is still Chen Kaige’s “Qinguo ren: ji Zhang Yimou,” [Man from the kingdom
of Qin: on Zhang Yimou], Dangdai dianying 4 (1985): 101-107. This superb piece was
reprinted in Taiwan under adifferent tile in 1988 by Werodng in its May issue (34-40), which
featured Zhang as its cover story. Zhang’s second film was not a success, critically or
commercially, but his third, Judou (1990), a Sino-Japanese co-production, won the Luis
Bufiuel Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1990. (See the article by Ying-hsiung Chou
elsewhere in this issue – Ed.)
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Li: Color ; Character ; дли/ Culture
out a more sympathetic and convincing role. Jiuer, played by pretty
twenty-two-year-old drama student Gong Li, is quite an interesting character.
Her peasant father marries her off to a local distiller, a leper about
three times her age. Her situation is apparently worse than Cuiqiao’s fate
in Yellow Earth. In that film, when Cuiqiao is watching the opening wedding,
she is standing by the doorway, where the first line of a couplet is
clearly visible. The line reads “San cong si de zhen shu nü,” meaning “three
obediences four virtues true fair maiden.” This refers to the three obediences
(to father before marriage, to husband after marriage, and to son after
the death of husband) and the four virtues (morality, proper speech,
modest manner and diligent work), spiritual fetters imposed on women in
Chinese feudal society. Cuiqiao is a victim of this Confucian code of
behavior, but Jiuer is apparently unbound by such ethical restrictions. Jiuer
arms herself with a pair of scissors and keeps her husband away from her.
On the return journey to her father’s house the third morning after her
marriage, she enjoys being ravished by the sedan-chair bearer in the
sorghum field. At home, she quarrels with her father and overturns her
dining table. That night her husband is murdered. She takes charge of the
distillery, is kidnapped and released by armed bandits, soon takes in the
burly carrier as her consort and bears him a son. Unlike countless heroines
in Chinese cinema, Jiuer is a woman unshackled by Confucian ethics, and
her sudden and tragic death at the hands of the Japanese invaders also
places her above all moral judgment and criticism.
Since winning the Golden Bear Award in Berlin on February 23, 1988,
Red Sorghum has enjoyed enormous success in China and abroad with
critics and audiences alike. Of all the films directed by fifth generation
directors, Red Sorghum is the first film accepted and welcomed by the film
establishment, the critics, and the general audience. Although cinema can
be an artistic means of expression, it is primarily an industry depending on
box-office returns for its survival. In the four years from 1980 to 1983,
China’s urban film attendance decreased by about two billion,24 and the
whole country’s annual film attendance went down from 26.94 billion in
1984 to 21.76 billion in 1985.25 As Chinese moviegoers have of late been
enjoying a much greater variety of other cultural and recreational activities,
23 Whether Jiuer is a convincing character isa matter of debate. It is interesting to note
that among female audiences, while some may feel that Jiuer “is little more than a male
fantasy” and that the “seduction” scene is distasteful and chauvinistic (Jaivin), others may
not share the same view, as evidenced by Zhang Nuanxin’s short appreciative piece, “Hongle
gaoliang” [Sorghum turns red], Dangdai dianying 2 (1988): 55-56, which has nothing but
praise for the same scene, albeit from a technical (cinematic) point of view. Zhang Nuanxin
(b. 1940) is a fourth generation director who teaches at the Beijing Film Academy.
Jingji ribao Nov. 19, 1984: 1.
Zhongguo tongjimanjian 1986 [Statistical yearbook of China 1986] (Beijing: Zhongguo
tongji, 1986) 778.
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Modem Chinese Literature (Verf. 5, 1989)
such as television viewing, home videos, theater performances, concert
recitals, sports events, and art exhibitions, the film industry has been trying
in vain to woo back its lost audience. The rise of the fifth generation
directors resulted in a significant step forward for the art of Chinese film,
but contributed little to reviving people’s interest in cinema. On the
contrary, the obscurity and indulgence of some innovative films alienated
even young urban viewers, so much so that a stigma of boredom and
incomprehensibility was associated with China’s new cinema. The
popularity of Red Sorghum , a film intended to please the eye and excite the
senses, and a film endowed with superficial brilliance but not deep content,
did a lot to remove that stigma. It provided ample evidence that an
innovative film can be interesting and entertaining. However, despite its
box-office success, Red Sorghum arrived too late to revive the fifth generation
film movement, which was already a spent force by mid-1988, quite
unable to stand its ground against a new heated wave of commercialization
that has since affected many fifth generation directors.27
Red Sorghum also follows in the footsteps of Yellow Earth and Old Well
in triggering off emotional debates at home. “Almost all the major papers
in China have been involved in the dispute. Hundreds of articles and letters
about Red Sorghum have been published there. Many of them commend
the film’s great achievement and many others strongly criticise the film
because it exposes the backward side of Chinese culture, which they view
as an affront to the nation. … At the press conference following the
screening of Red Sorghum at this year’s New York film festival, Wu
Tianming, director of the Xian Film Studio, made a brief but powerful
statement about the current dispute in China over Red Sorghum : A person
who does not have the courage to admit his/her shortcomings can hardly
make any progress; a nation that does not have the courage to admit its
defects is doomed” (Zhang Jia-xuan 43).
Red Sorghum’s critical success abroad has deeper significance than one
first realizes. Compared to her glorious past, China has declined dramatically
since the turn of the nineteenth century. Today she is still lagging
behind quite a number of Western countries in cultural, scientific and other
fields. Although China has proven her excellence and dominance in some
sports like table-tennis, badminton and volleyball, her contemporary
26 In 1988, Red Sorghum bad 206 prints in circulation, and the film earned a profit of
RMB$ 40 million from May to September, although Xi’an Film Studio could only pocket
five million because of an outdated and monopolized distribution system. See Jin
Zhongqiang’s article documented in note 12 and Zhang Yuezhong’s “Ba dianying
faxingquan huangei dianyingchang” [Return film distribution rights to film studios], Dianying
pingjie March 1989: 5.
The demise of fifth generation cinema is discussed in Ni Zhen’s following two articles:
“Has the ‘Fifth Generation’ of Chinese Film Ended,” China Screen 1 (1989): 14-15, and “The
Post-5th Generation Cinema Is Coming,” China Screen 2 (1989): 11.
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Li: Color, Character, and Culture
achievements in art and literature have not impressed the world. China has
been hoping in recent years to score some international cultural success,
such as winning the Nobel Prize for literature,28 an honor awarded to only
two Asian writers in its long history of almost nine decades. The Bengali
(Indian) poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) won in 1913 and Japanese
novelist Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972) won in 1968, but Chinese writers
have not yet succeeded in winning the Nobel Prize for themselves and for
their country. Failing to secure this honor in literature, Chinese artists and
intellectuals are keen to achieve universal recognition in other areas. Since
cinema is the artistic medium of the twentieth century and film studies have
now become a respectable academic discipline in China, winning a prestigious
award like the Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear is
a cultural achievement of great symbolic value. By winning this coveted
prize in 1988 in competition against more than twenty other films, including
such strong contenders as Russia’s courageous Commissar (1967), Poland’s
powerful The Mother of Kings (1982), East Germany’s tragicomic ¿tear Ye
One Another’s Burden (1987), and three excellent films from America,
Broadcast News ( 1 987), Cry Freedom (1987), and Moonstruck (1987 )™Red
Sorghum not only demonstrated to the world the talent of one unknown
director and the excellence of one country’s cinema, but also gave China a
much-needed boost to her self-confidence and self-image as a great nation.
Yellow Earth, Black Cannon Incident , and Red Sorghum are among the
very best Chinese films of the 1980s, although they are not free from certain
obvious weaknesses. One reviewer finds the characters of Yellow Earth and
Red Sorghum more like ciphers than well-rounded personalities (Jaivin).
To a group of veteran Japanese scriptwriters, the script of Black Cannon
Incident is structurally weak and dramatically disappointing (“Guanyu
wubu” 23-29). One must admit that there is more than a grain of truth in
these criticisms. If one compares Yellow Earth with Andrei MikhalkovKonchalovsky’s
The First Teacher (1965), 30
a modern classic that has been
28 See Wendy Larson and Richard Kraus, “China’s Writers, The Nobel Prize, and the
International Politics of Literature, “Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 21 (1989): 143-60.
29 All these films, with the exception of Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, did manage
to win a prize. Moonstruck ‘s Norman Jewison got the best director award, Broadcast News’
Holly Hunter was voted best actress, and two unknown young actors in Bear Ye One Another’s
Burden shared the best actor honor. Polish director Janusz Zaorski received a Silver Bear
(outstanding single achievement) for his The Mother of längs, which had been banned for
several years. Aleksandr Askoldov’s long-suppressd Commissar, Red Sorghum’s strongest
competitor in Berlin, was awarded the International Critics’ Prize in addition to a Silver Bear.
For an account of Commissar’ s ordeal, see Peter Kenez, ” Commissar Comes Out of the
Can,” New Leader May 2, 1988: 8-10, and “Odyssey of a Soviet Filmmaker,” New Leader
May 2, 1988: 10-12.
30 See review and discussion of the film in Monthly Film Bulletin Dec. 1967: 187, and in
Károly Nemes’s Film of Commitment: Socialist Cinema in Eastern Europe (Budapest:
Corvina, 1986) 45-46. Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky (b. 1937), also known as Andrei
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
shown all over the world, one cannot help being amazed by the striking
similarities between the two films – inhospitable landscape of a remote
region with a single tree, a revolutionary’s encounter with backward villagers,
the enforced marriage of a child bride, gnarled peasants’ ignorance
as the main hurdle to change, spectacles of primitive customs, haunting
images of running water, and a naive poetic style. One can also argue that
the black-and-white Russian film’s finer details and greater verisimilitude
make it the better and more satisfying film.
In the context of world cinema, while no Chinese feature film has yet
been nominated for an Oscar Award, the supreme prize in the mythology
of the cinema, two Danish films, Babette’s Feast (1987) and Pelle the
Conquerer (1988), were voted best foreign pictures in two successive years
by the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Perhaps the simple and painful truth must be told: despite the international
attention, appraisals, and awards given to Chinese cinema, its long march
toward the world has only just begun,31 but as the eventful, hopeful, heroic,
and tragic year of 1989 is drawing to a close, one can only view the future
of Chinese cinema with pessimism and despair.32
Konchalovsky, is the co-writer ofAndrei Tarkovsky’ s Andrei Rublev (1966) and the director
of The First Teacher (1965), Asya’s Happiness (1966), A Nest of Gentlefolk (1969), Uncle
Vanya (1970), Lover’s Romance (1974), Siberiade (1979), Maria’s Lover (1985), Runaway
Train (1986), Duet for One ( 1987), and Shy People (1987). Born into a distinguished Moscow
family with artistic parents, Konchalovsy is a cosmopolitan figure who lives between Los
Angeles, Paris, and Moscow. There is an intimate portrait of him in Shirley MacLaine’s
Dancing in the Ligfit (New York: Bantam, 1985) 163-292.
31 See Xie Jin’s excellent lecture at Fudan University, “Zhongguo dianying ruhe zouxiang
shijie?” [How does Chinese cinema stride toward the world?], Wenhuibao (Shanghai)
Feb. 16, 1988: 3. More articles on Chinese cinema have been published in American
academic film journals in recent years, e.g., Esther C.M. Yau, ” Yellow Earth: Western
Analysis and a Non-western Text “Film Quarterly 41.2 (1987/88): 22-33, and the four articles
by Esther C.M. Yau, Ma Ning, Yuejin Wang and E. Ann Kaplan respectively that compose
the entire Chinese Film issue of Wide Angle 11.2 (1989). As for international awards, Wu
Ziniu’s Evening Bell won a Silver Bear for China in Berlin in February 1989.
32 See the anonymous article “A Scattered and Shattered Fifth Generation,” Filmnews
(Sydney) Aug. 1989: 9, which reports that “Chen Kaige … has been out of China since 1988.
. . . Wu Tianming has held press conferences inthe US and denounced Deng Xiaoping and
his government’s action in Tiana[n]men Square It has been rumoured that the Xi’an
Studio has been closed A complete turnover of staff (read purge) of personnel at the
Ministry of Radio Film and Television istaking place There is general agreement that it
will be some time before we see any new masterpieces from the Chinese cinema.”
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Li: Color ; Character ; ami Culture
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Ba Jin
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Li: Cobr, Character, and Culture
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Huang tudi
jiefang sixiang
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Modem Chinese Literature (Vol. 5, 1989)
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