Chinese film classics of the early reform era

From The story of Qiu Ju.

Along with the first flush of the liberal reforms that attended the collapse of the commune system, the classic feature films of the 1980s’ “fifth generation” were part of a widespread flowering of the arts, overturning the “socialist realism” of the Maoist era.

As with the other arts, while Chinese films and documentaries have continued to adapt (see e.g. Social issues in rural Hunan), it remains worth celebrating this early body of work—made just around the time when I was becoming familiar with folk music and ritual in village China, fostering my concern to consider wider social change. For more films (mainly documentaries) on Chinese ritual and rural life, see here.

Wedding scene from Yellow earth.

There’s a wealth of academic and media coverage, but here I’ll make a little selection of some films—just the Usual Suspects, for those already in the know—that explore the lives of ordinary people (both rural and urban), including their folk music. Often set in the barren landscapes of rural Shaanbei and Shanxi, several of these works use amateur actors—always a good sign. Some are verité depictions of the early reform period itself, while others are set in the Maoist and pre-Liberation eras, but they were all important in helping revise our image of China. Of course, as fieldworkers we hope to document all three periods.

A seminal film from the early days was

  • Yellow earth (Huang tudi 黄土地, Chen Kaige, 1984). Set in the Shaanbei base area during the War against Japan, exemplifies the travails of early CCP folk-song collectors (cf. Hequ 1953) as they were confronted by the poverty of rural China, and the vast cultural gulf separating them from the peasants they were seeking to rescue from “feudal superstition”. It’s framed by the opening wedding scene, and the final rain ritual:
  • Old well (Laojing 老井, Wu Tianming, 1986, with Zhang Yimou) [1] is based on a poor village’s struggle against constant drought. One well-observed vignette (from 1.20.19) features a village story-telling session with blind musicians, and the peasants’ taste for “dirty songs” licensed by a token politically-correct speech (cf. Bards of Shaanbei, under “Old and new stories”):

Despite the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, this wave persisted into the early 1990s. A timeless, mystical story of a rural blind bard in a stunning landscape is

  • Life on a string (Bianzou bianchang 邊走邊唱, Chen Kaige, 1991):

In more verité style, filmed in rural and urban Shaanbei, is

  • The story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju da guansi 秋菊打官司, Zhang Yimou, 1992), surely Gong Li’s greatest and most uncharacteristic role as a sullen, aggrieved, confused peasant, a far cry from her standard fragrant image—with the street scenes particularly authentic, and a soundtrack punctuated by gutsy wanwanqiang singing by Li Shijie 李世傑 (sorry, no English subtitles here):

On the insidious pressures of urban family life under Maoism, a most moving film is

  • The Blue kite (Lan fengzheng 蓝风筝, Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993):

And in similar vein,

  • To live (Huozhe 活着, Zhang Yimou, 1994)

In these two films I find links with depictions of the lives of ordinary people under the GDR.

Among many films revising images of Tibet within the PRC (note Robbie Barnett’s chapter in Conflicting memories, and §4 of his Columbia course) is

  • The horse thief (Daoma zei 盗马贼, Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1986):

Similar themes and approaches were to be explored in the work of directors such as Jia Zhangke, set in small-town Shanxi.


[1] Not to be confused with Blind shaft (fine translation of Mangjing 盲井, Li Yang 2003), another disturbing film about mining.

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