Blush, dir. Li Shaohong, looks at sexual politics against the backdrop of the campaign to rehabilitate and re-educate prostitutes after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Portrait of director Li Shaong.

For Fun, dir. Ning Ying, offers a contemporary urban story of a group of opera-loving retirees.

On the Beat, dir. Ning Ying, deals with the changing role of the police in China after the reforms of Deng Xiaoping.

“National Identity in the Hall of Mirrors” looks at a range of television serials, such as Yearnings and Beijinger in New York,[12] as well as a number of memoirs and autobiographical novels written by Chinese nationals (mainly women) living abroad. In this essay, Dai looks at the Chinese immigrant experience, especially in relation to discourses involving race and class in the United States. She teases out the Chinese cultural nationalism of many of these narratives, which showcase stories of class mobility and material success in the United States in order to demonstrate Chinese superiority over African Americans and working class U.S. ethnics. In other narratives that focus on the painful process of succeeding in the United States, the consequences of class divisions in capitalism are seen as an “American” or “Western” problem rather than a reality of the dramatic economic changes taking place in China now. Thus, all the troubling aspects of capitalism become narrated as “foreign” problems unrelated to Chinese post-socialist economic policies.

In “Invisible Writing: The Politics of Mass Culture in the 1990s,” Dai looks at the changing meaning of the “square” (guangchang) in Chinese popular discourse before and after 1989. As she traces the evolution of the meaning of Tian’anmen Square in the popular imagination, Dai analyzes the ways in which public space has metamorphosed from political arena to commercial marketplace. In this essay, Dai confronts the ideological changes that have taken place with regard to the meaning of Tian’anmen Square since 1989:

The particular guangchang where the student demonstration was crushed in 1989 has become a deeply complex taboo: it symbolizes the socialist system but also the toppling of that system. So to name a commercial plaza a guangchang, to change the political meaning of guangchang, or at the very least to mask the significance of political mass movements with a happy shoppers’ heaven, is a transformation that is by no means innocent. (220)

Dai carefully critiques the way in which Chinese popular culture has dealt with the emergence of a new class of consumer at the expense of the unemployed, the working classes, and others who no longer can rely on what had been taken-for-granted social services (e.g., health care, housing, etc.) In China, discourses of consumerism laud “individualism” and “self-reliance.” But popular celebrations of the “traditional” family and filial piety place the onus of nursing the sick, unemployment, care of the elderly and incapacitated back on the family; the government has dismantled the health care system and the employment guarantees of the “iron rice bowl.” As the economy privatizes, factories close, work units disband, communes become a thing of the past, and large segments of the population suffer due to the elimination of social services these socialist institutions provided in the past.

Here, Dai is at her best. She calls for Chinese intellectuals to use Marxist theory beyond the “official” iterations of Communist Party doctrine in order to critique these devastating political, economic, and social developments. Women have been particularly hard hit by these changes. The revival of the “traditional” family and Confucian principles require women to shoulder the brunt of the increased domestic labor. Burdensome demands to care for the elderly, the ill, and the young are placed on the family newly bereft of guaranteed employment, health care, housing, day care, and other socialist support services.

In the past,the “official” feminism and Marxism of the Marriage Law of 1950 criminalized many “traditional” practices like concubinage. But this level of advance cannot muster the strength to combat the objectification of women within Chinese consumerism and the impoverishment of Chinese women within the new global economy. Therefore, Dai urges the Chinese “left” to reinvent itself and re-imagine Marxism and feminism in order to critique the current dismantling of socialism and rise of a new gender and class hierarchy on the backs of women, the poor, and the working classes. Thus, Dai’s Marxist analysis complements her feminism.

Overall, most of the essays in this collection may be of more value to those who already have a foundation in Chinese cinema history or who understand the development of the women’s movement in China. Some essays, particularly the last ones collected here, speak to a general readership. However, the quality and accessibility of the essays vary greatly. Likely, some of the uneven quality of the collection reflects the evolution of Dai’s writing as well as the varied approaches of the eleven translators who worked on the book. Many of the translators, like Edward Gunn (Cornell), are very well established Chinese language and literature scholars; others have more of a commitment to Chinese cinema (e.g., Harry Kuoshu, Shu-mei Shih, Yiman Wang); still others are graduate and undergraduate students just beginning their careers.

Unfortunately, other difficulties in the translation of Chinese theoretical and critical essays from the People’s Republic persist, and these can be very hard to overcome. For example, Dai uses certain catch phrases repeatedly in her writings (e.g., “broken bridges,” “floating bridges,” “going from the frying pan into the fire,” etc.) that she assumes have meaning beyond the obvious clichés. It should come as no surprise that many Chinese critics speak and write elliptically out of habit. Chinese artists and intellectuals face many difficulties when they attempt to speak directly about sensitive political issues and events that predate 1989 but have, understandably, been exacerbated since. While this discursive style fulfills an important function within the context of Chinese intellectual circles, it can perplex or annoy the English-language reader.

To complicate matters, this elliptical language may indicate to some outside of China that Dai is a political dissident. She is not. Her position does often deviate from official policy and she is an outspoken critic of some of the consequences of Deng’s economic policies and the current continuation of those policies in the post-Deng era. But she does not set herself against or outside the government in any way that would preclude the publication of her books and essays, her free travel inside and outside of China, and her ability to advance her career within the Chinese academy. The book’s editors praise Dai for deciding not to pursue graduate education outside of China when she had the opportunity after 1989. Regrettably the consequence of that decision limited Dai’s ability to sharpen her critique as a Marxist and a feminist outside the Chinese educational system, where draconian measures are often taken to silence dissident voices.

Dai’s scholarship must be understood within this context, and her position should not be misrepresented or mistaken for something it is not. In fact, the book would have benefited from a more direct discussion of Dai’s role in relation to the Chinese academy before and after 1989. Again, the parallels between Dai and the Fifth Generation filmmaker Zhang Yimou come to the fore. Zhang continues to reside in China, as does Tian Zhuangzhuang, Huang Jianxin, and others, while Chen Kaige left. The consequences of those physical locations, personal choices, and political perspectives continue to complicate our understanding of the People’s Republic, its cinema, and its intellectual culture.

At the same time that I offer this critique, the importance of Dai’s critique within the Chinese academy should not be underestimated. As China rushes to integrate itself within a global economy dominated by U.S. business interests, the world needs more scholars speaking out against the impoverishment of the vast majority of the Chinese populace in the process. The Chinese people have seen the erosion of the social services and the civic guarantees which socialism did, indeed, deliver to most. Dai analyzes the consequences of new and wider class divisions within China’s capitalist, consumerist society, which is still plagued by the excesses and corruption of an aging bureaucracy. With these dramatic changes, women in China suffer as cheap labor easy to exploit within the new economy, as potential “consumers” bombarded by the spectacle of global capitalism, and as “old cadres” who may have benefited from the communist bureaucracy but who are now depicted as hopelessly out of step with a new, potent, “masculine,” market economy.

As such political tensions find expression in cinema and popular culture, Dai serves as an important critical voice that merits consideration. This translation of her essays is welcome. Despite some inelegant prose, poorly argued assertions, embryonic analyses, and inchoate theories, this volume provides valuable insight into the current state of Chinese film theory and cultural studies.

Continued: Notes