I benefited greatly from the incisive queries of Chuck Kleinhans in regard to film language in Chinese and world cinema. Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh also helped me comprehend the politics of language and dialects in the era of Japanese colonialism in Taiwan. My heartfelt thanks go to them. I am also grateful to Chia-chi Wu for inviting me to Taiwan and sending me relevant material about Taiwanese cinema. Any remaining misunderstanding and insufficiency in the essay are entirely mine.
1. This issue is taken up in an excellent study by Gina Marchetti, “Global Modernity, Postmodern Singapore, and the Cinema of Eric Khoo,” in Chinese-Language Film: Historiography, Poetics, Politics, ed. Sheldon H. Lu and Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005), pp. 329-361. [return to page 1]
2. The May Fourth Movement of 1919 was initially a protest led by Beijing students against the Chinese government that cedes Chinese sovereignty over Shandong Province to Japan. Soon it evolved into a nationwide movement that champions the establishment of new national culture and a new literature, calls for the use of baihua (vernacular) in writing, and advocates the new values of democracy and science.
3. The use of Japanese-style benshi in the Taiwanese transmission of mainland Chinese cinema is intriguing. Chuck Kleinhans’s explanation seems to be totally plausible to me. He states in a personal communication to me that in most of the world since silent films had no audible language, there was no problem of language, dialect, and translation in viewing them (they were "universal"). Even when there were intertitles, these were easily translated into the local language and inserted. Thus German and French films played in the US and UK easily. The unusual exception to the rule of thumb was the practice of the benshi in Japan.
So, why would the Hokkienese audience have someone acting like a benshi. It might well be the case that since Japan had colonized Taiwan at this point and was the conduit for "modernity" including film, the Japanese local entrepreneurs established and ran the movie houses, and knowing their practice back home, just did the same thing in Taiwan. It is kind of interesting and is one of those quirks of colonial history, like the Mainlanders having great beer that they learned to make from the Germans who showed up, or the Vietnamese producing a local cuisine heavily influenced by French cooking, or Chinese who ended up in the Caribbean eventually coming to New York City and setting up "china criollo" restaurants which combine Latin American and Chinese cuisine—with rice as a common lingua franca (all above quoted from Kleinhans with slight modification). All this was not surprising since the Taiwanese company itself, Columbia Pictures, was owned and run by a Japanese.
4. In regard to Japanese policy on Chinese language in the colonial period and throughout most of the occupied period, Chinese (both written and spoken) was not banned except at public schools where only Japanese was used for instruction. Mandarin was not an issue as it was not an official language and most residents did not speak it. Taiwanese residents at this period are familiar with Hakka, Cantonese, Shanghainese (or Suzhouese), and Fuchowese. Taiwan was not a homogenous society: fifteen percent were Hakka speakers and around twenty percent were from different parts of Fujian Province and Guangdong Province. It only became a more “unified” place in terms of language thanks to KMT's draconian language policy in the postwar period. The only period when the use of Chinese in the public sphere was carefully monitored by the colonial administration was between 1941-1945. Similarly, Chinese films from mainland were distributed and exhibited throughout the 1920s and 1930s save the period of the Pacific War, a time when not only Chinese films were banned but pictures from the U.S. and U.K. were also restricted. My thanks to Emilie Y. Y. Yeh for providing all the above information.
5. Emilie Y. Y. Yeh and Darrell Davis, Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005); Chris Berry and Feii Lu, eds, Island on the Edge: Taiwanese Films (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005).
6. Xiaoping Lin offers an insightful study of Jia’s films in his essay, “Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Trilogy: A Journey across the Ruins of Post-Mao China,” in Chinese-Language Film: Historiography, Poetics, Politics, ed. Sheldon H. Lu and Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005), pp. 186-209.
7. This point is made by Chuck Kleinhans per personal communication. [return to page 2 ]
8. Yingjin Zhang points out, “in the eyes of many Chinese critics, art is complicit with politics in Zhang’s symbolic submission to tyrannical power in a new allegory of the unified China as tianxia (literally ‘under the heaven’).” In Yingjin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), p. 293.
9. Edward M. Gunn, Rendering the Regional: Local Language in Contemporary Chinese Media (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006), p. 197.
10. In Chinese sound film history, it has been an issue that not all Chinese-speaking actors are capable of standard Mandarin. In the event that the actors’ local accents are too strong to the extent of violating a tolerable degree of realism in a Mandarin film, their speeches would be dubbed. This is the case of many Mandarin classics in1950s-1970s in Hong Kong.
The international screening of Chinese-language films in the present era has complicated the issue of film accent and audience reception. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was a great box office success globally, and so was Zhang Yimou’s Hero despite its belated international release a couple of years after its domestic release. Yet, although both are “accented” films involving Cantonese speakers of not-so-elegant Mandarin, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon flopped in its first run in the People’s Republic of China whereas Hero was a hit. Something more than accent seems to be at work here. Hero was cherished as a great domestic production by an authentic director of China’s own that aims at reviving the declining Chinese film market. There were concerted efforts at crackdown on piracy of this film as well as an intense publicity campaign inside China. Even though Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was really a transnational co-production, it was still perceived as coming from the outside — Hollywood or Taiwan, a film directed by a Chinese director living in the diaspora. There were no domestic efforts to advertise it as a great hit that would regenerate China’s national cinema.
11. Sheldon Lu and Emilie Yeh expound the ideas of “Chinese-language cinema” and “Sinophone cinema” in their introduction to Chinese-Language Film, especially pp. 4-9. Shu-mei Shih undertakes the study of a broad range of visual culture which she terms as “Sinophone.” See her book manuscript Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming).
12. In the case of German-language film studies, “A film history that acknowledges such differences has to take into account, for example, the fertile influence of German-speaking cultures from Eastern Europe, or from areas which have always had a distinct or separate national identity (i. e. Austria, Switzerland), not to mention wider transnational and transcultural connections. It needs to counterpoint the rabid nationalism of the 1930s and 40s with the cosmopolitan legacy of Jewish diaspora and exile, and to chart the ideological divisions and boundaries of the Cold War, as well as the re-emergence of a more multicultural conception of Germanness in recent years.” The German Cinema Book, eds. Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter, and Deniz Göktürk (London: British Film Institute, 2002), p. 1.
13. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, eds., World Cinema: Critical Approaches (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), the section “Anglophone National Cinemas,” pp. 117-142. Anglophone cinemas include films from Great Britain as well as its historical colonies — the U.S., Canada, Australia, and so on, whereas Francophone cinema does not include French cinema but the cinemas of France’s former colonies that continue to use the French language to a certain degree. To my mind, Chinese-language cinema, or Sinophone cinema, embraces the films of mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and films from any region of the world so long as the films themselves predominately use Chinese dialects.
14. Live Spaas, The Francophone Film: A Struggle for Identity (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 131.
15. Alec G. Hargreaves and Mark McKinney, “Introduction: The post-colonial problematic in contemporary France,” in Post-Colonial Cultures in France, ed. Alec G. Hargreaves and Mark McKinney (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 4.