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From cultural consciousness to theory building in Chinese cinema

CHEN YANG | 2022-05-19 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: “Spring in a Small Town,” directed by Fei Mu, is hailed as the finest Chinese film of all time.

A retrospective in Chinese cinema’s development would reveal the significance of cultural consciousness for the construction of Chinese film theory, and thus push for a reflection on  innovative cultural film theory. Chinese film theory dwells on Chinese cultural traditions and social realities, while Chinese culture has the traits of realism and transcendence, exhibiting a strong tendency towards “resistance aesthetics.” “Left-wing” films have brought Chinese film theory to a new height and have given birth to a brand-new form of film cultural theory, a form that is pioneering and world leading. The continuous exploration of nationalization of Chinese cinema has embedded Chinese cultural aesthetics and artistic thoughts into films, spawning a new pattern of interaction between Chinese film theory and world film theory.

Early times
Chinese cinema, in its infancy, embarked on two development paths: One was to duplicate the Western genre or style and the other was to open up a Chinese film style on the basis of Chinese culture and thought. The former path, or trend, is best exemplified in the first batch of full-length Chinese feature films, such as “Swear by God” (1921), “The Lady Killer” (1922), and “Yan Ruisheng” (1921). Under such a film environment, Zheng Zhengqiu’s script and the cultural consciousness they carried led Chinese cinema on a correct track. Zheng is thus often considered to be the founding father of Chinese cinema. He fought against eye-catching stimulus with Chinese ethics and thought, which evidently served as a countercurrent to popular Western films at that time, and it opened up a pathway for the development of Chinese film culture.
At the very beginning, Chinese cinema was confronted with a huge contrast between China and the West. Therefore, positioning Chinese cinema and figuring out where it should go is a question that filmmakers with a consciousness of cultural responsibility reflect on. In the handouts from the Changming Film Correspondence School, early filmmakers Zhou Jianyun and Wang Xuchang clearly put forward the following missions of cinema: “To praise the long history of a nation; exhibit the beauty of a nation’s culture; reflect the great character of a nation; boast the noble customs of a nation...” In their view, the reason why Chinese people were “afraid of the West” and “fawning over foreign powers” at that time, was because they watched European and American movies showing the best sides of foreign life, while films depicting Chinese people showed us as barbaric, corrupt, despicable, and as Orientalist caricatures. Out of a sense of filmmakers mission, they regarded cinema as a powerful tool to rebuild Chinese cultural confidence and strived for an equal status for Chinese people and culture, internationally.
In the historical practice of modern Chinese society, a new cultural tradition and national characteristics in films gradually formed, covering historical and realistic experiences, with a tendency towards integrating the best of Chinese and Western cultures. Therefore, cultural consciousness is not simply about restoring traditional practices or pursuing the purity of Chinese culture. Social cultural consciousness elevates the consciousness of film theory, which is the result of interactions between society, history, culture, and film art.
Politics, philosophy, and aesthetics
Looking back at Chinese cinema in the 1930s, we find that both Luo Mingyou and Fei Mu, who upheld traditional Chinese values, and the “left wing” filmmakers who embraced the Marxist ideology, showed a strong sense of resistance against narratives from international and domestic sources where repression, grief, and indignation widely prevailed across China. Therefore, it can be said that both conservative and progressive Chinese filmmakers demonstrated “resistance aesthetics” at that time.
The transformation of ideas into cinematic forms is an important issue in the theory and practice of Chinese films from the 1930s. If a film is only the expression of ideologies and politics but lacks skill or the bearing of an art form, then it cannot realize its artistic function, or establish the artistic attributes of Chinese film itself. 
At that time, both “left-wing” filmmakers and traditional film culture schools had obtained a high degree of recognition for their artistic attributes in cinema. However, due to the lack of cultural awareness, “soft films” were often criticized for their shortsightedness and limitations in film theory, and thus were excluded from discussions of mainstream Chinese films.
The “left-wing” films of the 1930s undoubtedly contained a strong Marxist ideology and made fruitful exploration of film art theory. These achievements are mainly reflected in the following aspects. First, Marxist thoughts helped the Chinese carry out a profound analysis of social reality and enlightened them to understand the nature of social contradictions and crises. In other words, Marxism has become an important part of Chinese film theory. 
Second, in terms of the structure of film scripts, some put forward a few world-class ideas, such as the design of an open ending. This is closely related to the point mentioned above and is a direct embodiment of the transformation of Marxist epistemology into cinema formats. 
Third, Chinese filmmakers have gained an in-depth understanding of the filmmaking space and Montage narrative, and have also established a mature film review system.
In his article “The Road of Chinese Cinema,” film critic Wang Chenwu debunked the view that film art should not have social functions, and instead argued that film ideology is a universal existence, which is of great pioneering value in the history of global film theory. In addition, he also put forward the theoretical strategy of “documentary films” to rescue Chinese films from the domination of Hollywood. 
In the article “Words of Sin in Film,” Zheng Boqi clearly proposed implicit and open endings for protagonists in film, instead of a happy reunion or a daydream, so that films could better inspire the audience’s imagination. It should be emphasized here that documentaries and open plots are the two basic characteristics of Italian neorealist films which became popular more than a decade later. Therefore, the avant-garde nature of Chinese film theory in the 1930s certainly serves as a significant contribution to the history of world film theory.
French film historian Georges Sadoul visited China in 1956, and during this visit he watched Chinese films from the 1930s. While speaking highly of these productions, Sadoul raised several questions: Why were some Chinese films from the 1930s so similar in style to Italian neorealist films from the 1940s? Why did these Chinese films come out 10 years before Italian neorealist films? What are the similarities and differences between the experiences and upbringings of Chinese and Italian artists who made these films?
In fact, the theoretical and practical experiences of the aforementioned “left-wing” films have, at large, answered Sadoul’s questions. In addition, the inheritance and influence of China’s excellent traditional culture cannot be ignored. Chinese films at that time thoroughly interpreted the ideal personalities and aesthetic realm of life valued by Chinese culture, and are directly portrayed in the confident and courageous film characters with great historical responsibility.
Practical features
The “resistance aesthetics” formed in the 1930s and 1940s is the inevitable result of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, and also reflects the more violent and comprehensive awakening of Chinese culture in the process of long-term oppression. Thus, a set of theoretical and ideological systems have been initially formed in film creation, criticism, performance, and other aspects, and many have continued to take effect till this day.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the theoretical construction of Chinese film was manifested in the search for “national forms,” which strived to blend traditional Chinese philosophy and aesthetic thinking into the lens language and structural form. Consequently, a batch of excellent works were produced, such as: “The Opium Wars” (1959), “The Lin Family Shop” (1959), “Withered Trees Revive” (1961), “Zhang Ga the Soldier Boy” (1963), and “Early Spring” (1963).
Since then, leading Chinese cinema scholar Lin Niantong summed up the unique theory of “single shot—Montage aesthetics” in Chinese films, which undoubtedly broke the “long take” boundary and “Montage theory” in world films, and made a great contribution to the development of world film theory.
It is an important feature of Chinese film theory that traditional Chinese aesthetics have realized a profound modern transformation in film. As early as 1934, Fei Mu, one of China’s greatest directors, put forward the famous theory of “air” in film, an invisible yet crucial element that brings film to life. After a long period of experimentation, Fei incorporated Chinese aesthetics and artistic skills into his “air” theory. “Spring in a Small Town” (1948), directed by Fei, is considered by many the greatest Chinese film of all time. 
Beijing Film Studio film photographer Nie Jing followed the aesthetic principle of “enlivening scenes.” In the process of filming the movie “Zhang Ga the Soldier Boy,” he summed up the theory of a “lens rhyme,” which connects montage elements such as emotion, rhythm, and atmosphere with Chinese aesthetics, giving rise to a mature poetic narrative in Chinese cinema. In fact, the aesthetic principle of “enlivening scenes” is highly isomorphic, with a theoretical core of “compression—explosion” in montage. From the perspective of Chinese philosophy and aesthetics, it can be said that “motion” is embodied in “stillness,” which is actually the most important issue for “momentum” in montage thinking. Therefore, most excellent Chinese films present a strong poetic color.
Chinese film theory and practice are mutually reinforcing, and closely related to Chinese cultural accumulation, philosophy, aesthetics, and artistic traditions. Therefore, blindly imitating foreign film theories while ignoring national theories and practices will not only lead to the loss of cultural autonomy, blind obedience, and disorder in creation, but also deviate from the essence of Chinese culture, which is inclusive and cohesive overall. As a matter of fact, Chinese film theory has always maintained close organic connection with Chinese social progress and cultural traditions, so that it could establish a theoretical discourse system with Chinese characteristics in interactions with world film theory.
Chen Yang is a professor from the School of Literature at Renmin University of China.
Edited by YANG XUE