copyright 2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007

Dialect and modernity in 21st century Sinophone Cinema

by Sheldon Lu   

Just as China has the largest population in the world, its citizens speak a bewildering array of dialects (fangyan) and languages (yuyan). In modern times, new communication technologies such as radio and film potentially promise to speak to the ears of all citizens in the nation-state. But what language should be used as the standard for all citizens? As a modern and modernizing media, cinema could mold and unify the language of the nation. In this regard, unsurprisingly, language and dialect have been a particularly important issue in Chinese cinema from early twentieth century to the present time. Indeed, the use of a specific dialect in a film pertains to nothing less than the symbolic construction of the modern Chinese nation-state. As Chinese film historians well know, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or Guomindang) in Nanjing established a film censorship board soon after its unification of China in 1927. The Republic of China stipulated that Mandarin be the lingua franca of Chinese cinema and banned the use of local dialects such as Cantonese. A unified China must have a unified Chinese language. As a result, Cantonese-language cinema could only be made outside the sovereignty of the Chinese nation, the island of Hong Kong.

When the Republic of China relocated itself to Taiwan after the end of Japanese colonial rule, the Mainlanders who wielded power in Taiwan established Mandarin as the island's official dialect. Two parallel cinemas existed in Taiwan: Taiwanese (Hokkienese)-language cinema and Mandarin cinema. After the Nationalist Party's decline in power, and with the rise of pro-independence, separatist sentiments in Taiwan since the late 20th century, the Taiwanese dialect has gained importance in all walks of life, even in Presidential politics. Utilizing a variety of languages and dialects, Taiwanese New-Wave filmmakers such as Hou Hsiao-hsien have also consciously explored the intricacies of Chinese/Taiwanese politics and history by featuring a variety of dialects in some of their films, most notably in City of Sadness (Beiqing chengshi), where a profusion of dialects and languages: Mandarin, Hokkienese, Hakka, Shanghainese, and Japanese, are all heard. Moreover, the film's protagonist is a deaf-mute photographer who is incapable of speaking any of the Chinese/Taiwanese dialects. This situation thus further questions what ought to be the common mother tongue of Taiwan.

In the case of Hong Kong after 1949, we may also speak of two parallel cinemas: Cantonese-language cinema and Mandarin cinema. Although the dominant cinema in early days, Mandarin cinema gradually lost to the ascendancy of Cantonese-language cinema as a result of broad social and demographic changes, namely indigenization movements, or “Hong Kongization” from the 1970s onward.

In the People’s Republic of China, official film policy has dictated that Mandarin be the standard language of film despite the great variety of existing Chinese dialects within the nation. The overwhelming majority of films made in China have used Mandarin indeed. However, starting in the post-Mao era of “Reforms and Openness,” a variety of film production practices have emerged, and language politics has become more diversified. The usual stipulation solely to use Mandarin is now and then ignored. Even official mainstream (zhu xuan lü) films depicting the lives of the country’s former leaders often use the local dialects of the particular characters. For instance, the actor for Mao Zedong speaks a Hunan dialect in the way Mao himself spoke during his life. By doing this, the actor Gu Yue established himself as a famous household name because his film character looked like Mao and spoke like Mao. In such cases, the use of local (“unfamiliar,” “quaint”) dialects creates an atmosphere of realism, or in the case of comedy, elicits audience laughter. Meantime, self-conscious arthouse filmmakers also employ local dialects to achieve specific aesthetic effects.

Outside the Chinese sovereign state (Republic of China or People’s Republic of China), the question of Chinese dialect is still a thorny issue. China cum nationhood may be no longer relevant, but questions of ethnicity, Chineseness, and multiculturalism loom large. For example, Singapore, an independent non-Chinese country run by an ethnic Chinese elite, its language policy, and its cinema bring up a new set of issues in the study of Chinese-language cinema.[1][open notes in new window] Furthermore, at the turn of the twenty-first century the widespread production and circulation of Chinese-language films outside the Chinese nation-state in the diaspora and the world further complicate language politics in cinematic discourse.

This essay aims to explore the use of dialects in varieties of Chinese-language films in the early twenty-first century. I briefly examine such diverse films as

  • Viva Tonal: The Dance Age (Taiwanese documentary 2003), which hinges on a notion of local modernity based on the Fukienese/Taiwanese dialect in early 20th-century Taiwanese popular songs;
  • a mainland Chinese arthouse film The World (2004) by Jia Zhangke, whose works have developed a dialectal film aesthetics based on the Shanxi dialects of Fenyang and Datong;
  • Feng Xiaogang’s new-year films Cell Phone (2003) and A World without Thieves (2004) where some key characters speak provincial dialects; and
  • Zhang Yimou’s pan-Chinese films Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), which employ a cast of stars from Greater China who all speak Mandarin.

I analyze how such films articulate distinct visions of China as nation-state or Chineseness as ethnicity. The films address different audiences and embody various conceptions of China. How a film employs specific local and provincial dialects, or does not, is an important marker of a film's cultural imaginary, be it about local Taiwanese identity, the moral economy of the mainland Chinese nation, or historico-cultural China. Overall, I lay out a spreadsheet of the typography of different dialectal strands in contemporary Chinese-language film production. These relate to identity-formation at various levels: local, national, subnational, supranational, and global.

Viva Tonal: The Dance Age
and Taiwanese modernity

In 2003, Taiwan's Public Television Service (Gonggong dianshi tai) produced and broadcast a documentary, Viva Tonal: The Dance Age (Tiaowu shidai) about the flourishing of popular Taiwanese-language songs in the 1930s. The title of the film is taken from the title of a 1933 popular song, written by the songwriter Chen Junyu. The film documents the rise and fall of Columbia Records, which produced Taiyu songs, interviews the company's singers and staff, and broadly canvases a large sector of Taiwan’s modernization under Japanese colonial rule. The documentary's narrative voice is that of a female speaking in Taiyu, southern Fujianese (Hokkienese) dialect, or Minnanese.

The narrator asserts that although citizens of Taiwan lost political rights under Japan’s colonial rule (1895-1945), Taiwanese society modernized quickly. The island’s infrastructure improved enormously. Railroads, electricity, tap water, and medical schools were made available to Taiwanese, and the items and icons of modern life such as bicycles, eyeglasses, watches, photography, radio, and the music record became part of people’s daily life. People’s consciousness underwent a modern transformation as they tuned in and sang along Taiyu songs with words such as “Ruan is a civilized woman” (Ruan shi wenming nü). The documentary valorizes the values of civilization (wenming), modernization, and freedom in the early 20th century.              

In this nostalgic reconstruction of a bygone golden age of popular culture, Taiwan appeared on the same page as the metropolises of the world: New York, Tokyo, and Shanghai. The beat of the age was foxtrot and waltz. Modernizing urbanites took up as pastimes ballroom dance and drinking coffee in cafés. The phonograph became a symbol of Taiwanese modernity. The key to the commercial success of a recording company such as Columbia Records was to produce songs in Taiyu, or to translate and rewrite Japanese and Chinese songs into Taiyu songs. Linguistic determination was of paramount importance for winning Taiwan's local residents' hearts and minds.

Taiwanese politicians were quick to seize on film's relevance to promoting their political agenda. Pro-independence leaders such as ex-President Lee Teng-hui and present President Chen Shui-bian praised the film as a good example of Taiwan’s independent spirit. But the documentary Viva Tonal itself is more nuanced. Although it highlights the importing of modern ideas and inventions from Japan, the documentary also points to the importance of modern China in the formation of the Taiwanese cultural imaginary of the times. The narrator states that the May Fourth Movement,[2] cultural enlightenment, and Chinese nationalism on the mainland exerted a strong impact on the intellectuals and cultural workers of Taiwan. Chen Junyu, a main songwriter of the period, visited mainland China and brought back Chinese songs to Taiwan. He wrote criticism in journals on such topics as the New Literature Movement, New Poetry, the Avant-Garde, and relations between Art and the Masses. Such cultural movements and intellectual inquiries united writers, artists, and critics across geopolitical divides in the pan-Chinese world of mainland China and Taiwan. After the end of World War II, for example, Chen Junyu became a teacher of Mandarin (Beijinghua) in Taiwan.

More generally, in the 1930s, Taiwanese people readily embraced Shanghai’s modern urban culture and enjoyed Chinese films made in Shanghai. Films such as New Woman (Xing nüxing, dir. Cai Chusheng, 1934) and Peach Blossom Tears of Blood (Taohua qixue ji, dir. Bu Wancang, 1931) were screened to enthusiastic audiences in Taiwan. It is important to note that these films were dubbed live in Taiyu by a commentator (benshi in Japanese) in the theater during screenings. The versatile benshi in the Japanese style ably impersonated the voices of both male and female characters as well as narrated and commented on the film's events.[3] Given the audience’s warm reception of Shanghai's cultural products, nevertheless they needed to understand these things in their own language and idiom. Many theme songs were composed in Taiyu for these imported silent Chinese films from Shanghai. In fact, a large number of the songs were written and released by Columbia Records. In turn, they became popular Taiyu songs throughout the island. Modern mainland Chinese culture, Japanese film convention, and indigenous Taiwanese sensibility all meet in the cultural circuits of the island.[4]

As a “treasure island,” Taiwan has been also an “island on the edge”: on the geopolitical edge of empires, on the cutting edge of world cinema, and on the cutting edge of sectors of economic and technological development.[5] And Taiwan has had ambivalent relations with Japan, China, and the West as revealed in its cinema. The golden age of Taiwanese-language songs was brought to an end by the outbreak of the Pacific War. The colonial government then forced the populace to sing Japanese propaganda songs for the war effort. But overall, as The Dance Age seems to imply, Taiwanese modernity is by necessity an indigenous modernity grounded in the dialect of its people. Even if it sometimes seems a borrowed foreign thing — Japanese, Chinese, or U.S. — modernity must be translated into the speech of Taiwanese people for it to take root on the island.

A migrant dancer in The World

For the purpose of contrastive analyses of the range of Chinese-dialect films, I turn attention to another film about dance, dancers, and dialect, The World (Shijie, 2004) directed by Jia Zhangke, the Wunderkind of the so called sixth generation Chinese art cinema. Consistent with the usage of dialect in his previous films, Jia Zhangke made The World as another Shanxi dialect film. However, set in 21st-century Beijing, the film uses language in a way that connotes more than a provincial dialect; it intervenes in the mixed premodern, modern, and postmodern condition of China at large.              

The film’s protagonist Zhao Xiaotao is a dancer in Beijing’s World Park (Shijie gongyuan). World Park consists of miniature replicas of famous sites in the world: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Pyramid, the Vatican, London Bridge, Manhattan, and so forth. It is a simulation of the world where tourists can vicariously experience foreign monuments. Zhao Tao, the principal actress, was herself a dancer from Shanxi until spotted and picked by Jia to star in his films. She also played lead female roles in Platform (Zhantai 2000) and Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiaoyao 2003).[6]            

Like other migrant workers, Zhao Xiaotao, a native of Fenyang, Shanxi Province, comes to Beijing to seek new opportunities. She dances to entertain guests in World Park in the evenings. During each show, she dons exotic, glamorous Indian costumes and performs on a huge stage along with other dancers representing various nationalities. After taking off her costume, she returns to her usual subject-position as a migrant worker trying to make a living in China’s capital city.

Russian dancers also work in World Park. The Chinese and Russians speak little of the other’s tongue. But Zhao Xiaotao bonds with a young Russian woman, Anna, and they manage to communicate despite linguistic difficulties. In the middle of the film, Anna ventures beyond her routine dances and resorts to something she dislikes to make ends meet; she becomes a worker/prostitute in a nightclub.

Outside the simulated world of the park, real living spaces are a dismal place for the people who work there. These migrant workers are displaced laborers in China’s capital city. The beautiful postcard-like, postmodern simulacra of the world’s landmarks in the park stand in sharp contrast to the squalid, premodern living conditions of the workers and entertainers there. The primitive is condemned to live in a narrow corner of the wide world. World Park stands as a monument to China’s imaginary integration into the world at large, but the characters from Shanxi Province do not partake of this brave new world. They are vagrants at the margins of China’s modernization. Indeed, these people are nicknamed “Beipiao jituan” (northern floating group). Such a floating population comes to Beijing to pursue dreams and look for jobs, only to be abandoned. They live in a fake realm and can only dream about catching a ride on the bandwagon of getting rich. A tragedy occurs at the end of the film, when Zhao Xiaotao and her lover Taisheng, a security officer in the park, are inadvertently poisoned by gas in their apartment. They nearly die.

The film uses a a Shanxi dialect, spoken by Zhao Xiaotao, Taisheng, and folks from their native city Fenyang. The local dialect spoken by these characters clashes with the anonymous, universal putonghua (Mandarin) blaring from the park's loudspeakers. The provincial dialect here connotes backwardness, lack of modernity, and incommensurability of China’s poor in relation to that postmodern virtual world. These migrants stand in for vast numbers of Chinese citizens who have been left out of China’s economic boom and get none of the fruits of modernization. World Park showcases the world to Chinese visitors, but behind its glitzy surface lies ordinary citizens' struggle for survival. In fact, the miniature virtual world entraps its workers and is a mockery of globalization. The provincialism of the dialect and the characters reveals that the provinces do not parallel Beijing, the capital city, and that folks do not dance to the same modern beat throughout the vast country.

In dark, rainy days, characters dream about possible happier things in life — love, friendship, partying. Flashes of hope in this film are bracketed in short, bright animation sequences — surreal, childlike, and cartoon-like fantasies which may not come true. If a loved one or friend leaves a message in a mobile phone, that seems to be the characters' sole source of happiness. The ringing of the mobile phone thus briefly brings hope and mobility to characters caught in a quagmire. Each time Zhao Xiaotao receives a message, the film turns to animation, with hopeful bright colors. She then rushes to the site for a rendezvous with lover or friends. Dream world and harsh reality juxtapose and intertwine in the postmodern simulacrum of World Park. The private life of the dancer Zhao Xiaotao periodically goes in and out of sync with the rhythm of globalization.

The World reveals Jia’s usual film aesthetic: static immobile camera, slow horizontal pans, long takes, long shots, medium shots, and absence of close-ups. By denying the spectator close-ups, the film maintains a critical distance between viewers and actor. For the ordinary viewer, the film's use of the Shanxi dialect also creates a defamiliarizing, alienating, and distancing effect. The viewer is positioned as a detached, cool-headed observer of events unfolding in the film. She/he is prompted by the camera eye to be a witness to an objective, realistic description of a Chinese world characterized by the great disparity and non-synchronicity of its citizens, entangled in the heated games of modernization and globalization.

In addition to Jia Zhangke, recently other eminent directors have used dialects in crafting their film language. The two films by the popular young director Lu Chuan are both dialect films. For example, The Missing Gun (Xun qiang, 2002) uses a dialect from Yunnan Province. The “funny” accent of the province, coupled with Jiang Wen’s stellar performance, augments the film's comic flavor. Kekexili (Mountain Patrol, 2004) mixes the Tibetan language and the Chinese dialect spoken in Tibet-Qinghai, and the characters' way of speaking infuses the film with a raw, gritty, documentary, authentic feel. Peacock, the winner of the Silver Bear Award (Jury’s Grand Prize) at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005, directed by cinematographer-turned-director Gu Changwei, uses the dialect of Anyang, Henan Province throughout the film. Here, the local speech of the Anyang area helps convey the confining small-town lifestyle of an ordinary Chinese family in the mid- and late 1970s, a transitional period of Chinese history between Mao’s socialist planned economy and Deng’s market economy, a time that sparked both hope and desperation. When the paratrooper recruitment officers of the People’s Liberation Army arrived in the town, Sister became enamored of the beautiful Beijing accent of a handsome young officer. Here, the connotation is that the Beijing dialect, as the “standard national speech,” embodies the hopes and dreams of local dialect-speakers.

World of thieves and cheaters
in the telecommunication age

The flashy, fast-paced film style of China’s prominent commercial filmmaker, Feng Xiaogang, varies greatly from the ponderous, austere aesthetics of Jia Zhangke’s dialectal art films. But local dialects also play important thematic functions in Feng Xiaogang's recent pictures. The use of the Sichuanese and Hebei dialects in Cell Phone (Shouji, 2003) and the Hebei dialect in A World without Thieves (Tianxia wu zei, 2004) produces comic effects to entertain the domestic Chinese audience on New Year Eve's in 2004-05. More important, these dialects subtly mount a social critique of China’s modernization.

The 2004 new-year-picture, Cell Phone, takes up the themes of language, communication, surveillance, and marital infidelity. A prologue begins the film. It's 1969 in a northern Chinese village in Hebei Province, not far from Beijing. Yan Shouyi, a name that connotes “fidelity,” is a would-be superstar TV talk host but here a 13-year old boy. At that time, he spoke a heavy Hebei dialect just like everyone else in the area. It was the year when a telephone line reached the village. On a bicycle newly purchased by his father, the lad took Lü Guihua, his cousin Niu Sanjin's beautiful young bride, to the post office in order to place an important phone call to Niu Sanjin. Although a long line of peasants were waiting to make phone calls at the post office, Lü Guihua and Yan Shouyi could finally call Niu, who worked at a remote coalmine. This telecommunicational breakthrough represented a joyful day as well as a personal accomplishment for the teenager Yan Shouyi. What became evident in the prologue were Yan Shouyi’s purity of heart, his faithfulness to his family, cousin, and cousin’s wife, and more generally the social mores of the villagers in primitive, premodern China.

When the main story begins, a magic fetishized commodity object, a cell phone, occupies the center of the frame of the film in the opening credits. A directory section of a cell phone on screen introduces and lists the actors’ names. Blatant product placements (China Mobile and others) appear from the very beginning and run throughout the film. Adult Yan Shouyi (Ge You), far from that primitive, tongue-tied, simple peasant boy, works as a glib talk host at a major television station, speaking putonghua (literally “universal language”). The rest of the story then develops a farce about how married, professionally successful men such as Yan Shouyi attempt to cheat on their wives with the help of cell phones. In this plot, the cell phone, with deceptively placed messages, is a major device, impeding the protagonist. It beeps, is turned on and off, and ultimately turns against its user and exposes the infidelity of the husband to his wife. There is no place to hide secrets anymore. Time has proven that the technology of the cell phone often brings people too close to each other. It even has the feature of global satellite positioning, which pinpoints the exact location and apartment number of the user of the phone, as demonstrated in the film. Ironically, the cell phone destroys the bonding between people and within families rather than bringing them closer.

An interesting "provincial" character is the Sichuanese-speaking head of the television station, Fei Mo, or Lao Mo (Old Mo, played by Zhang Guoli, who also stars as an endearing yet compromised husband in Feng Xiaogang’s film A Sigh [Yisheng tanxi, 2000]). Lao Mo attempts to have an affair with his female assistant but does not carry it out. He is incapable of adultery despite his secret wish, and yet he still feels disgraced and shamed once his wife finds out what he is up to. Here too, the postmodern technology of a cell phone does not help him but finally betrays him in his hide-and-seek game with his wife. The voice-over narrator tells the audience that Lao Mao quits his job at the TV station, leaves China and goes to Estonia to be a Chinese-language teacher. No further news about him is heard. What is charming about this character is the fact that he consistently speaks Sichuanese in the capital city. His provincial quality and clumsiness become his saving grace. He retains a measure of purity, and has not descended to the lower depths of sweet talkers of putonghua in the postmodern metropolis.

At the end the film jumps from the global village of Beijing to Yan Shouyi’s premodern childhood village, with the haunting echo of the teenager Yan calling out the name of his cousin’s wife, Lü Guihua. These last scenes remind people of a prior, more primitive stage of society, a time when a legendary, irretrievably strong bonding existed in a small local community. The ending thus dovetails with the prologue visually and thematically.

In Feng’s 2005 new-year-picture The World without Thieves, the prologue to the film is an intriguing, comic episode that nevertheless sets the serious main themes of the film: money, lust, technology, and language. General Manager Liu (Fu Biao), an obese, bald, middle-aged man, studies English with a female tutor Wang Li (Liu Ruoying) in his luxury private mansion. Liu has a loving, caring, beautiful wife, portrayed by Xu Fan, Feng Xiaogang’s real-life wife. (Xu Fan also acts the roles of a loving, suffering, cheated wife in Feng’s film A Sigh and Cell Phone). Liu wants to study English in order to improve his ability in dealing with foreign businessmen. But he also wants more. He attempts to have sex with Wang Li behind his wife's back, and unbeknownst to him this is recorded by Wang Bo (Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau) with a Canon camcorder (product placement!) from a hidden position in the house. It turns out that Wang Li is Wang Bo’s girlfriend. These conspiring thieves, threatening to expose Liu's infidelity, take away his expensive BMW (product placement!) as a substitute for one million yuan cash payment. The thieves use English, the corrupt lingua franca of international business, as the language of extortion. The couple drives off in the BMW and head toward remote western China, arriving at a Tibetan monastery. Thus the film begins.

The film's most hilarious and extraordinary character is a young male peasant, Shagen, (Root, or literally “Dumb Root”), a migrant worker at the Tibetan Buddhist temple, who speaks with a heavy provincial dialect. The actor, Wang Baoqiang, also successfully portrays a similarly innocent young man, who becomes easy prey for blood-thirsty predators in Blind Shaft (Mang jing, dir. Li Yang, 2003). Root has been hired to repair a Tibetan temple for several years. Having earned 60,000 yuan, he is eager to return to his village to build a house and find a wife. His co-workers advise him not to carry the money home because of thieves everywhere, and urge him to wire the money home, which would cost 600 yuan at the postal service. But Root does not believe there are thieves in the world.

Root’s naïveté and simple manners contrast with the wiles and guiles of thieves who are now equipped with postmodern technologies of camcorders and cell phones. While boarding the train, he announces to the crowd of passengers that he carries sixty thousand yuan with him, and challenges any thief to come out to get him. After that, two gangs onboard the same train target him for robbery. Illustrating his provinciality, Root delivers an  outrageous rhapsody about manure and wolves to Wang Bo and Wang Li on the train. His words are absurdly laughable as well as authentically moving, delivered in a quaint Hebei dialect:

"In our village, people collect cows manure. When people forget to bring their manure baskets, they use stones to mark the manure. Other people would know this manure belongs to somebody else already and would not touch it."

"In the highland where I work, I am often alone, and have nobody to talk to. I talk to wolves. I am not afraid of them, nor do they harm me. Now there are so many people on the train who come to talk to me. Wolves do not harm me. How can human beings harm me?"

Such words even move the most jaded, cynical thieves. In the world as yet known to Root, he thinks human beings and animals live in a perfect moral order. Robbery is unheard of. Ultimately, his innocence becomes his saving grace and moves the heart of veteran pickpocket, Wang Bo, who then dies in a fatal fight with the head of another gang, Li Shu, or “Uncle Li” (Ge You), all for protecting Root’s money.

The crystal-clear blue lakes, green grassland, snow-capped mountains, and pristine landscape of western China, the murals inside temples, and the religious devotion of pilgrims appear all the more otherworldly to visitors from inland China, where ordinary citizens have been accustomed to lying and stealing as part of a frenetically busy consumer society. In this narrative, Root stands as the redemptive figure in a fallen world of consumerism and theft. Shagen/Root's characterization, as the dumb figure, speaking an uncouth provincial Hebei dialect, critiques the calculating manners of urban folks in society's mindless nationwide rush toward modernization.

Feng Xiaogang is China’s most outspoken director for commercial cinema, and this film has numerous deep-pocketed sponsors. The credits at the end of the film give a long list of rich transnational and local corporations, including Nokia, Canon, BMW, Hewlett Packet, Beijing Morning Post, and so on. But Feng, from Beijing, gives eloquence in his film to a dialect speaker, the Hebei-speaker Root, a quintessential non-commercial character who articulates a vision of China caught in the shady pursuit of capitalist consumerism. The film is Feng's version of the return of China's repressed unconscious, as it were.

Admittedly, “quaint” local dialects add to the humor of the comic genre, which is intended to provide fun and entertainment after all. At the same time, local dialects often symbolize premodern, innocent forces, so that their use often indicts the woes of reckless globalization and modernization. In this case, the film has an idealist vision, as the title loudly proclaims — “there are no thieves in the world” (tianxia wu zei). But in terms of language use, that ideal must come to expression in a local dialect, rather than in putonghua or English. Still, any idealizing of provinciality in the forms of dialects in Feng’s films does not mean advocating a retreat to some subnational level of identity-formation. Feng presents a general comedy based on a malaise in contemporary China, but this Beijing-based commercial filmmaker is not outlining and calling for some kind of regional independence. His use of dialect amounts to a carefully orchestrated critique of the uneven state of modernity in the Chinese nation at large.

World of dancing martial arts heroes

Now I would like to examine how language functions in another kind of Chinese films, i.e., Zhang Yimou’s commercial blockbusters Hero (Yingxiong 2002) and House of Flying Daggers (Shimian maifu, 2004). In these films, only standard Mandarin is used. “All under heaven” (tianxia), these heroes speak a universal putonghua. Their combats and showdowns appear more like well-choreographed dance sequences than actual fighting. Special effects enhance the quality of improbable feats of martial arts. Indeed, in the beginning of House of Flying Daggers, the Zhang Ziyi character, Xiaomei, a member of a secret society, pretends to be a blind dancer, showcasing an extraordinary, putatively Tang dynasty-style dance in a pleasure quarter.

The characters of the films come from northern China — especially Zhang’s home province, Shaanxi. Hero is set in the Qin (modern Shaanxi Province). House of Flying Daggers is set in the Tang Dynasty, and the locale of action is in Feng Tian County, near the capital city Chang’an, or modern Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. But the Mandarin spoken by some of Zhang’s larger-than-life, ancient heroes and martial arts experts is slightly accented Mandarin. However slight their accents are, the speeches of Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Andy Lau do not sound like the kind of elegant Mandarin delivered by mainland Chinese actors and actresses in traditional films and historical dramas. Chinese drama and film academies have trained their actors to speak and act in certain appropriately “dramatic” fashions. The situation is perhaps not unlike the difference between British actors trained in the Royal Shakespeare Company to a U.S. college production of a Shakespeare play. It is the same play, but vastly different in speech expression, delivery, and convention.[7] It appears that the Mandarin spoken by these most highly paid megastars from Hong Kong lacks the lyricism and eloquence that audiences in Mainland China and Taiwan expect. But director Zhang Yimou has the entire Asian and world market in mind, and he uses stardom to appeal to global audiences. He is looking at the example of worldwide commercial success of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which is notorious for its Cantonese-accented speeches by the lead actors (Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh). The dialectal implausibility does not affect the warm international reception of Ang Lee’s film. The audiences do not understand any Chinese dialect anyway and rely on subtitled English translation, which in itself is full of classical lyricism. Therefore, it does not matter if Zhang Yimou’s cast of superstars delivers Mandarin lines with small local accents in his martial arts films. What matters is that the presence of these stars from Greater China would guarantee box office success.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in Hero and Andy Lau (Captain Liu) in House of Flying Daggers speak a Cantonese-tinged Mandarin, and Jin Chengwu (Kaneshiro Takeshi, Captain Jin) in House of Flying Daggers speaks in the style of Taiwanese-Mandarin (Taiwan guoyu). It is the farthest from the truth to say that only speakers of perfect Mandarin lived in ancient China. The fact of the matter is that the audience’s linguistic expectations have been conditioned by what they have watched on screen and TV. Television series and historical dramas produced in mainland China and Taiwan have been watched by people in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the diaspora. They set the standards for what appears to be authentic historical events and plausible historical characters. Mainland Chinese actors such as Chen Daoming in Hero and Zhang Ziyi in House of Flying Daggers thus appear to be more believable characters and steal the show. The First Emperor speaks in the mouth of the Beijing-trained actor Chen Daoming, and expounds the virtues of creating a grand Chinese empire, a globalized Chinese world — tianxia.

Hero is also a story abut the Chinese language, the Chinese written script, and Chinese calligraphy. When the assassin Wuming (literally “Nameless,” Jet Li) tells the Emperor that there are nineteen ways of writing the word jian (sword), the Emperor retorts that in his future unified world there will not be the confusion of so many ways of writing one word, but there will be only one way of writing it. In fact, the historical First Emperor was the person who unified the Chinese language. He ordered all the former feudal states to adopt the Qin zhuan script (zhuanti) as the standard Chinese script. The nationalist ideology of the film might be lost to world audiences, to non-China specialists unfamiliar with intra- and inter-Chinese politics as they are engrossed by the beautiful cinematography, fantastic choreography of action, and neo-orientalist spectacles. Zhang’s film has faint echoes of the real historical story of Jing Ke’s attempted assassination of the First Emperor as recorded in historical records, but the details are largely fictional. Jing Ke does attempt to kill the First Emperor at the Qin court, but Wuming backs down from his original plan, becomes a follower of the Emperor’s Great China ideology, and willingly sacrifices his life for the sake of national unity.[8]

With the ambition to capture the global box office, it does not matter if Mandarin sounds impure or inauthentic to the ears of Chinese-language speakers. What matters to Feng Xiaogang matters less to Zhang Yimou. Dialectal authenticity is important for the effect of fictional realism in Feng’s films. As we know, Feng’s films are extremely popular in mainland China, but do not circulate in the movie theaters of the world. But Zhang Yimou aims at creating a pan-Chinese, pan-Mandarin world in the Greater China area for his films to freely circulate. Linguistic authenticity is not an issue in the targeted international market.

Furthermore, the desired effect is the creation of a breed of supranational Chinese films to be watched and enjoyed by global audiences. The Zhang Yimou of pan-Chinese martial arts has come a long way from the early Zhang who diligently explores contemporary social problems of mainland China. For example, in The Story of Qiu Ju (1993), dialectal authenticity is crucial to his film aesthetics. Gong Li and other actors must learn how to speak proper Shaanxi dialect in order to faithfully portray their characters. More specifically, the Shaanxi dialect used in the film is no ordinary Shaanxi dialect, but the dialect of Baoji, “a crossroads of migrants from Sichuan, Gansu, and Ningxia.” As Edward Gunn reminds us,

“Like Zhongjiang and Wanxian in the comedy of Chengdu and Chongqing, or Subei in the comedy of Shanghai, the residents of Baoji were ridiculed in Xi’an as the stereotype of quaint, slow-witted boors.”[9]

The Baoji dialect sounds even more rustic and local than some other dialects of Shaanxi. But that kind of linguistic and atmospheric realism is no longer a consideration in Zhang’s new films whose success is built on fabricating unreal yet aesthetically pleasing scenes and actions. The Story of Qiu Ju, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers are all set in present-day Shaanxi Province, Zhang’s homeland and pride, and his favorite locale of action. But his strategy of filmic representation has changed.

Sinophone cinema?

Evidently, we are looking at examples of Chinese-language films in which dialects serve different functions. They may address the domestic audience of mainland China (Feng Xiaogang’s films), or resonate with the tastes and aspirations of a local audience (The Dance Age), or spill over national boundaries and target global audiences and markets (Zhang Yimou’s films). The Minnan dialect in The Dance Age establishes a Taiwanese modernity distinct from that of guoyu-speaking mainstream mainland culture, a modernity which could be local or national, depending on one’s political persuasion. Local and provincial dialects in The World, A World without Thieves, and Cell Phone are not about the provinces per se, but are emblematic of larger national predicaments in China’s modernization efforts. The bland, ubiquitous putonghua in Zhang Yimou’s martial arts films does not enhance the building of a credible regional flavor and an ambience of cinematic verisimilitude. These films sell themselves out to pan-Chinese audiences in the Greater China as well as to non-Chinese spectators around the globe where the issue of Chinese language is irrelevant.[10] In a state of polyglossia, dialects in such diverse films constitute subjectivities at not only the national, but also the subnational and supranational levels. In the analysis of dialectal aesthetics, the model of national cinema can only cover part of the problem at hand. The “transnational” is better suited to track the flows and circulations of film culture beyond the limits of the nation-state.

We may explore these multi-dialectal phenomena in yet another direction by looking into the problematic of what we may call “Sinophone cinema.”[11] Naturally, Chinese-language cinema calls for a comparative study of parallel cinematic traditions where language transcends the territorial boundaries of nation-states, such as German-language cinema, Francophone cinema, and Anglophone cinema. Not unlike these traditions, Chinese-language films express the claims and convictions of diverse communities with varied cultural, political, and dialectal backgrounds, albeit all under the loose rubric of “Chinese- language speakers.”[12]

“Huayu dianying,” “Chinese-language cinema,” and “Sinophone cinema” seem to be equivalent terms denoting a same field of cultural production and a same analytic framework. But the connotations of these terms may diverge as well as overlap. To use Sinophone cinema to describe our field is to open up a new range of issues. Can we speak about Sinophone cinema in the same way we talk about Anglophone cinema and Francophone cinema? Colonialism, mimicry, decolonization, national independence, identity politics, and postcoloniality often define the perimeters and themes of these cinematic traditions. Obviously, China was subject to colonization historically, and it also acted like a colonial-imperial power to its periphery. Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and parts of mainland China became colonies or were granted the status of extraterritoriality. The aftermath of the colonial legacies continues to be felt today. In cinematic production, the use of dialects indicates such historical and present divisions within the Chinese body politic and mindset.

We may float the idea of “Sinophone cinema” in order to draw certain preliminary comparisons and contrasts with related situations in world film. In the anthology World Cinema: Critical Approaches, the cinemas of Britain, Ireland, Australia, and Canada are listed and studied under the category of “Anglophone national cinemas.”[13] Hollywood, an Anglophone yet global cinema, is too large and international to be subsumed under “national cinema.” Francophone cinema refers to the films of Francophonie or Francophonia, namely, the former French colonies outside the sovereignty of France. Although France hopes to assert its influence on these countries by promoting the notion of Francophonie, post-independent Francophone Africa is steadily moving away from France’s cultural and linguistic hegemony by asserting its own indigenous traditions and idioms. Nevertheless, African filmmakers sometimes strategically identify themselves with the Francophone world for a wider distribution of their films.

“Despite the increasing use of Arabic and local languages throughout the African continent, reference to Francophone African cinema continues to be valid; it views African cinema in its historical context and is a means of promoting the films of these individual countries more strongly. It also provides a counter-balance against an increasing incursion of Anglophone cinema.”[14]

In the terrain of Francophone cinema, there are the simultaneous movements of extending the neocolonial cultural influence on the part of France and of the resurgence of indigenous cultures in postcolonial African states. Resistance and self-affirmation in postcolonial African cinema nevertheless operate within and take advantage of the larger Francophone network of production, funding, and distribution. Yet, between the francophone and the postcolonial, there are further important distinctions.

“Unlike francophonie, the political dimensions of which are masked by a term which superficially appears to denote a purely cultural field of reference, the post-colonial highlights a political condition characterizing certain forms of cultural production, i.e. the legacy of colonial domination out of or against which cultural practices are seen to emerge.”[15]

Greater China is not necessarily a monolithic, colonial, oppressive geopolitical entity, or an intrinsically conservative concept. Neither is Sinophone cultural production from the margins an inherently postcolonial, counter-hegemonic discourse. A film's political and cultural impact depends on specific conjectures of forces and circumstances. It might be useful to revisit the old problematic of colonial/postcolonial in the context of our present state of existence, namely, a new wave of globalization that has intensified in the post-cold war era. Transnational, border-crossing Sinophone cinema goes hand in hand with globalization and is its epiphenomenon. Chinese-language films address audiences beyond the Chinese nation-state, engage citizens of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, spread to the Chinese diaspora, and reach interested spectators anywhere in the world. Sinophone cinema thus takes a more flexible position in regard to national identity and cultural affiliation.

There is no one dominant voice in the field. The multiple tongues and dialects used in varieties of Sinophone cinema testify to the fracturing of China and Chineseness. Each dialect-speaker is the voice of a special class, represents a particular stage of socio-economic development, and embodies a specific level of modernity within a messy ensemble of heterogeneous formations in China and the Chinese diaspora. This profusion of accents in fact comprises a pan-Chinese world — a collective of diverse identities and positionalities that a single geopolitical, national entity is unable to contain. Shijie or tianxia is not a monologic world speaking one universal language. The world of Sinophone cinema is a field of multilingual, multi-dialectal articulations that constantly challenge and re-define the boundaries of groups, ethnicities, and national affiliations.


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.

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 U.S. and U.K. 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.

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 US, 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.

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