Dai Jinhua at Ohio State University.

Raise the Red Lantern “raised the eyebrows” of some Chinese critics who wondered about the film’s address to a non-Chinese audience.

Yellow Earth is the film that first put China’s “Fifth Generation” on international film screens, where it garnered massive praise for cinematographer Zhang Yimou’s distinctive visual style.

Zhang Yimou at work filming. He has been accused of “self-subalternizing, self-exoticizing” visual gestures.

Moving between the United States and China, Chen Kaige, pictured here on location, continues to enjoy international prestige as one of the masters of the “self-Orientalizing male elite narrative.”

Chinese feminist
film criticism

by Gina Marchetti

Dai Jinhua, Cinema and Desire: Feminist Marxism and Cultural Politics in the Work of Dai Jinhua, eds. Jing Wang and Tani E. Barlow. London: Verso, 2002.[1]

Cinema and Desire brings together a selection of essays by Dai Jinhua, one of the People’s Republic of China’s most prolific film and cultural studies academics. This collection will certainly make her important critical voice more widely heard within the English-speaking world. Dai’s essays have appeared in positions: east asian culture critique (edited by Tani E. Barlow, one of the editors of this volume); Public Culture; boundary 2: an international journal of literature and culture; and other English-language publications. Before this book appeared, she was perhaps best known outside of China for her critique of the “self-Orientalizing” aspect of the work of filmmakers from China’s Fifth Generation, specifically Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. In “Rewriting Chinese Women: Gender Production and Cultural Space in the Eighties and Nineties,” Dai states:

... as the eternal Other in a patriarchal society, women are made to act out a Chinese historical drama that replaces the Father’s history with a new history of the Other, which is the self-Orientalizing male elite narrative... gory, cruel, and charming stories about women were not only going to resolve the strangeness and opaqueness of the complex Chinese male historical narrative but also win them a ticket ‘to the world,’ or the attention of the West.[2]

Dai Jinhua is not the only Chinese feminist to take this position toward the films of Zhang and Chen, however. Another Dai—Dai Qing, the female dissident journalist perhaps best known for her commitment to ecology and condemnation of China’s Three Gorges Dam project—also made a similar argument in “Raised Eyebrows for Raise the Red Lantern.” Here, she states,

This kind of film is really shot for the casual pleasures of foreigners.[3]

Rey Chow, among others, has criticized the above position. In Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema, she writes:

...what Zhang is producing is rather an exhibitionist self-display that contains, in its very excessive modes, a critique of the voyeurism of orientalism itself. (Mis)construed by many as mere self-display (in the spirit of airing one’s dirty laundry in public), this exhibitionism— what we may call the Oriental’s orientalism—does not make its critique moralistically or resentfully. Instead, it turns the remnants of orientalism into elements of a new ethnography...this ethnography accepts the historical fact of orientalism and performs a critique (i.e., evaluation) of it by staging and parodying orientalism’s politics of visuality. In its self-subalternizing, self-exoticizing visual gestures, the Oriental’s orientalism is first and foremost a demonstration—the display of a tactic...If their glossy surfaces are the ‘myths’ that commodify and betray China, Zhang’s films nonetheless achieve for modern Chinese culture the attention and status that many sophisticated others fail to bring.[4]

In fact, many scholars have participated in debates surrounding the films of the Fifth Generation that Dai Jinhua engages in this collection, including Esther Yau, Jenny Lau, Chris Berry, Wang Yuejin, Zhang Yingjin, and Sheldon Lu, to name only a few writing in English. The fact that many scholars internationally have contributed to such a lively debate brings to light one of the disappointing aspects of Cinema and Desire. That is, the book isolates Dai from her contemporaries both inside and outside of China.

In contrast, the reader gets a very different sense of Dai within the context of an emerging transnational feminist public sphere for Chinese women in Mayfair Yang’s Spaces of Their Own[5] or in relation to other Asian film and media scholars in Jenny Lau’s Multiple Modernities.[6] In Cinema and Desire, for all intents and purposes, Dai stands alone as a feminist and Marxist critic of contemporary Chinese culture. Although Laura Mulvey, Teresa de Lauretis, and other feminist film scholars do get mentioned in passing, the positioning of Dai’s work remains disconnected from the prodigious body of scholarship that now exists on feminism in China, Chinese cinema, media and contemporary culture. Given that Dai has spent much of her career translating European and American film theory into Chinese, it seems odd that she so seldom engages with the scholarship on Chinese cinema that has been produced by scholars based outside of China.

It also seems odd that the editors, themselves so knowledgeable about these debates as seen in their own scholarship (i.e., Jing Wang’s High Culture Fever[7] and Tani Barlow’s Gender Politics in Modern China[8]), should not make more of an attempt to place Dai within this intellectual context. Although the interview conducted with Dai by Lau Kin Chi that concludes the book is rather helpful, the brief introduction and even shorter biography of Dai does not do enough to inform the reader of the environment in which Dai works in China and her importance beyond China to scholars working on Chinese film and culture.

Ironically, like many of the Chinese filmmakers she criticizes, Dai and other Chinese intellectuals seek out and enjoy the interest and sponsorship of academics outside of China. Such recognition solidifies their position in China by letting them acquire an international reputation. While most academics hope to do research that will cross borders and make an impact around the world, this is particularly important for Chinese artists and intellectuals who often must look outside of China for validation or, in the case of filmmakers, funding, distribution, and exhibition venues outside of the tight monetary and censorship controls of the People’s Republic. For filmmakers whose work is routinely banned in China and for intellectuals who take a critical stance toward government policies, international recognition can mean the difference between maintaining a career and losing all pubic voice.

However, these transnational ties need not be “Western” in the strictest sense. Writing in Chinese, Dai’s work speaks to a global Chinese academic community, and Chinese scholars based in America often quote her. At this point in time, there is significantly greater contact among Chinese scholars based in the P.R.C., Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other countries around the world, including the United States. The fact that many scholars writing in Chinese address their remarks to other Chinese scholars working in other languages outside of the People’s Republic should be kept in mind. In 1997, Dai and Jing Wang, for example, began to collaborate on a major project involving Chinese popular culture, funded by the Luce Foundation. Wang, educated in Taiwan and the United States and based in the United States (teaching for most of her career at Duke and, more recently, at MIT), sought out the Beijing-educated and based Dai Jinhua for this project. As movement within the Chinese diaspora intensifies, the address of scholarship involving China becomes more complicated. A simple Chinese/Western split simply does not exist.

In many ways, the trajectory of Dai’s career outside of China parallels the Fifth Generation filmmakers of whom she writes. By critiquing films that have captured awards at international film festivals and found their way into American art house distribution and home video outlets, Dai’s work speaks about texts that circulate outside of China more easily than they do domestically. As a consequence, scholars in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States and elsewhere look to her for a critical perspective on these films.

In her writings, Dai describes contemporary films from the People’s Republic as texts produced by filmmakers coming from a particular historical moment in China that travel as commodities about China for the rest of the world. The disjuncture between the moment of production and the films’ various contexts for consumption forms the basis for her analysis of the Fifth Generation. She shows how filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige deal with their experience of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese history generally, and the complexities of gender, sexuality, Confucianism, and socialism within the Chinese imagination.

As a feminist, Dai does not unconditionally accept the representation of the brutalized woman in these films as a call for women’s liberation. Rather she dissects the way in which women’s bodies figure within a visual imagination that uses that body to deal with male filmmakers’ own feelings of personal and political impotence as well as to create a spectacle of a victimized China for international consumption.

Born in 1959, Dai is younger than most of the Fifth Generation filmmakers, who like her entered college in 1978 to become the first generation to finish their studies after the Cultural Revolution. Because of this age difference, she does not have the same experience of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) as do other artists and intellectuals who were a few years older and more deeply marked by that period. After graduating from Beijing University, Dai took up a teaching position at the Beijing Film Academy, establishing a film theory major in 1987. Working under the auspices of Ni Zhen (screenwriter and professor of art direction/film theory at the Beijing Film Academy, 1980-2000)[9] and closely with her collaborator Meng Yue in her early work, Dai quickly established herself as an important presence within Chinese film theory.[10]

Cinema and Desire’s bibliography of works by Dai lists an impressive twelve books, collections of essays, and edited volumes from 1989 to the present. In 1993, Dai moved to the more prestigious Beijing University, and, in 1995, she established its program in cultural studies. Dai has traveled widely in Asia and Europe. And she has lectured extensively in the United States at Ohio State University, Duke, Cornell, Pittsburgh, Harvard, various campuses in the University of California system, and other American universities. Dai’s work, thus, speaks to an audience within and outside of China.