CHNS324: Modern China through Film and Fiction


Instructor Course Description Weekly Schedule Film Showings
How to "Read" a film? Requirement and Grading Useful Links Disability Access


Jie Zhang,, ASC112
Schedule: Wednesday 1:10pm-4pm, SMA306;
Sunday, mandatory film screening, 7pm-9:30pm, Olin Auditorium
Office Hours: MF. 1pm-3pm, Tu.1pm-2pm

Required and Recommended Texts and Films
1. Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (bookstore under Chinese 324)
2. Selected articles and chapters from the Bibliography (on course reserve at Olin)
3. On-line materials

Strongly suggested background reading (On course reserve at Olin):

1. Jonathan Spence. In Search of Modern China. New York: Norton, 2001.
Excellent introduction to modern Chinese history for those who wish to gain a broader sense of the political, economic, and cultural changes in China, particularly in the 20th century. This is not required, however, as we will cover the relevant background for the films in class lecture, presentation, or discussion.

2. Sue Williams. China: A Century of Revolution. A film series by Ambrica Productions in association with WGBH Boston and Channel 4 Television UK. Winstar TV & Video, 2001, 1997. 3 vols (360 minutes).
An informative and concise introduction to China’s modern history while offering great visual historical materials.

Helpful links to study terms of film criticism

Suggested Bibliography (On course reserve at Olin)

Berry, Chris. Postsocialist Cinema in Post-Mao China: the Cultural Revolution after the Cultural Revolution. New York: Routledge, 2004.
________. ed. Chinese Film in Focus: 25 New Takes. London: British Film Institute, 2003.
________. ed. Perspectives on Chinese Cinema. BFI Publishing, 1991.
Browne, Nick, Paul Pickowicz, et al. ed. New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Cheng, Jim. An Annotated Bibliography for Chinese Film Studies. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004.
Chow, Rey. Primitive Passions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Clark, Paul. Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Cui, Shuqin. Women Through the Lens: Gender and Nation in a Century of Chinese Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003.
Dai, Jinhua. Cinema and Desire: Feminist Marxism and Cultural Politics in the Works of Dai Jinhua. Ed. Jing Wang and Tani Marlow. London: Verso, 2002.
Lu, Sheldon H. ed. Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, and Gender. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.
Lu, Sheldon H. & Emillie Yueh-yu. Ed. Chinese-Language Film: Historiography, Poetics, Politics. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005.
Semsel, George, Chen Xihe, and Xia Hong. ed. Film in Contemporary China. West Port and London: Praeger, 1993.
Shen, Vivian. The Origins of Left-Wing Cinema in China, 1932-37. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Widmer, Ellen, and Der-wei Wang. From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth-Century China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Zhang, Xudong. Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms: Cultural Fever, Avant-Garde Fiction, and the New Chinese Cinema. Duke University Press, 1997.
Zhang, Yingjin. Chinese National Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Zhang, Yingjin, and Zhiwei Xiao, Encyclopedia of Chinese Film. London; New York: Routledge, 1998.

Film Showings:

Week 1: Shadow Magic (Ann Hu, 2000) 115 minutes, in-class viewing
Week 2: The True Story of Ah Q (Fan Cen, 1981) 125 minutes
Week 3: Crows and Sparrows (Zheng Junli, 1949) 108 minutes
Week 4: The Lin Family Shop (Shui Hua, 1959) 85 minutes
Week 5: The White-Haired Girl (Wang Bin and Shui Hui, 1951)
or The New Year Sacrifice (Sang Hu, 1956) 120 minutes
Week 6: Herdsman (Xie Jin, 1986) 143 minutes
Week 7: In the Heat of the Sun (Jiang Wen, 1994) 134 minutes
Week 8: Yellow Earth (Chen Kaige, 1984) 89 minutes
Week 9: To Live (Zhang Yimou, 1994) 125 minutes
Week 10: Shower (Zhang Yang, 1999) 92 minutes
Week 11: Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhangke, 2002) 113 minutes
Week 12: Blind Shaft (Li Yang, 2003) 89 minutes
Week 13: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie, 2005) 111 minutes

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Course Description

This course provides an overview of the most significant periods of modern Chinese history through the analysis of representative Chinese-language films. You will also familiarize yourself with the most important genres and directors of Chinese cinema. In some cases, we will discuss the relationship between the films and the fictional works to which they are related.
In this course, our discussion will focus on two major aspects: the artistic features of Chinese cinema, and the political, cultural, and social functions of Chinese cinema. Specifically, we watch the films in six contexts: 1) the cinematic construction of national identity in early Chinese cinema (1930s-1940s); 2) the politics of gender and class in “socialist realist” films from the Mao Era (1949-1976); 3) the varied forms of memory and representation of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in the beginning of New Chinese Cinema (1976-1980s); 4) the visual creation of “epic China” by the Fifth Generation directors (since 1984); 5) the alternative reflections of “China in transition” by younger directors (since early 1990s); and 6) the appropriation of the stereotypical image of China by diaspora Chinese filmmakers. You will understand the dynamics of modern Chinese history and acquire basic skills to appreciate Chinese cinema as a formal and social construct. Advanced Chinese language students meet for one extra hour each week to work on the language.

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General Requirement and Grading Policy
1. Good preparation, class attendance, and active participation in all forms of class interaction and discussion
2. Attendance of film screenings. Missing a film screening equals to missing a class.
3. Preparation of discussion questions. Email at least two questions on relevant films to by Tuesday morning 9am.
4. Two oral presentations on suggested topics, one as individual and the other as a group.
5. Three response papers (2-3 pages each) on assigned topics. Chinese language students may choose to write in Chinese.
6. Take-home final examination
7. Final paper (6-8 pages) on a topic of your choice.

In completing all requirements, students are expected to abide by the policies for academic integrity as outlined in Students’ Handbook.

Grading Policy

Attendance and participation 20%
Preparation of discussion questions 10%
Presentations 16%
Response papers 24%
Final examination 15%
Final paper 15%

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Weekly Schedule

Beginnings: Screening Modern China

Week 1 (1/18)

Introduction to the course. What is the historical “modern China”? What is “China” in the filmic imagination? What constitutes a national cinema? What are the legends of the film’s beginnings in China?

In class screening: Shadow Magic (Ann Hu, 2000) and discussion

I National Crisis and “National Character” (1840-1949)

What is “China” in the works by the May Fourth (1919) writers? Who is “the mass”? Who is the self and who is the other? Who are the intended audiences?

Week 2 (1/22-1/25) Discussion: The True Story of Ah Q (Fan Cen, 1981)

Week 3 (1/29-2/1) Discussion: Crows and Sparrows (Zheng Junli, 1949)
“My Two Landlords” (Kang Zhuo)
Individual presentation #1: “My Two Landlords”

II Class and Gender in Socialist Construction (1949-1966)

What constitutes the cinema of “socialist realism and romanticism” thematically and formally? How do the motion pictures construct boundaries between social classes cinematically? How do the elements of gender and sexuality function in the context of “class struggle”?

Week 4 (2/4-2/8) Discussion: The Lin Family Shop (Shui Hua, 1959)
“The Shop of the Lin Family” (Mao Dun)
Individual presentation #2: “The Shop of the Lin Family”

Week 5 (2/12-2/15) First paper due in class!
Discussion: The White-Haired Girl (Wang Bin and Shui Hui,
1951) or The New Year Sacrifice (Sang Hu, 1956)
Individual presentation #3: “Constructing and Consuming the
Revolutionary Narratives” (Cui, Women Through
the Lens, 51-78)
Group presentation: Li Shuangshuang (Lu Ren, 1962) or The
Red Detachment of Women (Xie Jin, 1961)

III: Remembering the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

How might trauma be remembered, represented, and repressed? What constitutes the genre of melodrama? How much of Jiang Wen’s film is a parody and how much is an expression of nostalgia?

Week 6 (2/19-2/22) Discussion: Herdsman (Xie Jin, 1986)
“Spatiality and Subjectivity in Xie Jin’s Film
Melodrama of the New Period” (Ma Ning, in
Nick Browne, et. al, ed. New Chinese Cinema,
Individual presentation #4: “Cultural Revolution”
Group presentation: Hibiscus Town (Xie Jin, 1986)

Week 7 (2/26-3/1) Discussion: In the Heat of the Sun (Jiang Wen, 1994)
Individual presentation #5: the “Mao nostalgia” in
contemporary China (search online materials)

(3/4-3/18) Have a Great Spring Break!

IV: The Creation of “Epic China” by the Fifth Generation Directors (since 1984)

What is the nature of the experimentation in the Fifth Generation films? Why are these experiments politically unacceptable to the Chinese government? How do these films market China’s past for international audience?

Week 8 (3/19-3/22) Second paper due in class!
Discussion: Yellow Earth (Chen Kaige, 1984)
“Yellow Earth: Western Analysis and a Non-
Western Text” (Esther Yau, in Chris Berry, ed.
Perspectives, 62-79)
Individual presentation #6: “After Yellow Earth” (Ni Zhen, in
George Semsel, et. al. ed. Film in Contemporary
China, 29-37)

Week 9 (3/26-3/29) Discussion: To Live (Zhang Yimou, 1994)
“National Cinema, Cultural Critique,
Transnational Capital: The Films of Zhang
Yimou” (Sheldon Lu, in Lu, Transnaitonal
Chinese Cinemas, 105-36)
Individual presentation #7: “National Cinema”
Group Presentation: Red Sorghum (Zhang Yimou, 1987) or
Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1990)
V: From the Ruins of “China in Transition” (Post 1990s)

What are the aesthetics and politics of the “new Chinese cinema of everyday life”? How do these films use the traditions of Chinese cinema? What are the advantages of being labeled an “underground” filmmaker?

Week 10 (4/2-4/5) Discussion: Shower (Zhang Yang, 1999)
Group Presentation: Beijing Bicycle (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001)
Individual Presentation #8: on the economic gap between city
and country in China (search online material)

Week 11 (4/9-4/12) In-class viewing: My Camera Does Not Lie (an interview of
underground Chinese directors)
Discussion: Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhangke, 2002)
“Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Trilogy: A Journey
across the Ruins of the Post-Mao China” (Lin
Xiaoping, in Lu, Chinese-Language Film, 186-
Individual presentation #9: “Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic

Week 12 (4/16-4/19) Third paper due in class!
Discussion: Blind Shaft (Li Yang, 2003)
Individual presentation #10: “There is No Sixth Generation:
Director Li Yang on Blind Shaft and His Place in
Chinese Cinema” (Stephen Teo’s interview with
Li Yang, in Senses of Cinema 27, Jul./Aug.,2003)

VI: The Image of China: A Transnational Perspective

What kind of legacy do Chinese authors and filmmakers abroad inherit? What are their resources, and their anxieties? Is there a possibility of the “Great Chinese Novel” being written in English or French?

Week 13 (4/23-4/26) Discussion: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai
Sijie, 2005) & the novel
Individual presentation #11: on the debates about Gao
Xingjian winning the Nobel Prize of Literature

Conclusion: China on Screen

Week 14 (4/30-5/3) Final examination questions distributed in class.
What constitutes a national cinema? Does authenticity still matter in the landscape
of transnational production (for instance, Ang Lee’s films)?

Take-home final examination and final paper due on 05/10 noon.

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How to "Read" and Write about a Film?

I. McCormick, R. Instructions for Sequence Analysis

1. State the “message(s) of the sequence, i.e. what is the filmmaker trying to communicate.
2. Explain how the message(s) are communicated by such channels as image, speech, music, sound effect and etc.
3. Sequence Analysis Worksheet:
A. Describe briefly what you see in the selected sequence.
B. What is the filmmaker trying to communicate in the segment?
C. How do the five channels of information in film, visual image, print, speech, music, sound effect, and work together to communicate the message? Is space—landscape or interior—used as a “comment” on the character’s inner state of mind? Does the use of space exude a certain atmosphere? Are there any symbolic uses of props? How are focus, angles, lighting, color and sound effect used to help communicate? What are some of the social and cultural codes?
D. Try to determine what function and significance this segment has for the film as a whole?

II. Viewing and reading share the same basic interactive process of getting the meaning across.
Playwrite    --->
Text ---->
Film ---->
<---->Film audience

Active reading and viewing involves constant interacting with the text and the film, analyzing how the messages are communicated via various channels. What broad statement is the film director trying to make? How is character portrayal is done to help communicate the director’s message(s)? How does the setting and time period shape or contribute to the film’s thematic structure or messages? Are certain cultural values (virtues) singled out for critical examination or upheld for emulation? How are cultural or social messages conveyed? How imagery is used? Such as camera angles and shots, lighting, color, focus, sounds, etc. Can you watch the movie and watch yourself watching the movie at the same time, i.e. critical reading/viewing?

III. Writing about a film.

When you write about movies,  “it is insufficient to convince others to like or dislike the film, but to add to their understanding of the film… personal feelings, expectations and reactions may be the beginning of an intelligent critique, but they must be balanced with rigorous reflection on where those feelings and expectations and reactions come from and how they relate to more objective factors concerning the movie in question: its place in film history, its cultural background, its formal strategies… what is interesting is not pronouncing a film good or bad but explaining why (T. Corrigan)."

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Other Useful Links

1. Click here you will go to Dr. Shaoyi Sun's web site on Chinese cinema at USC

2. Click here you will be able to visit the China section of the Asian Films Connections

3. Click here for another site on Chinese films

4. Click here for a website on Chinese history

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Disability Access Statement
If you have a hidden or visible disability which may require classroom or test accommodations please see me as soon as possible during a scheduled office hour. If you have not already done so, you must register with the Coordinator of Disability Services (Erin Salva,, x5145), who is the individual responsible for coordinating accommodations and
services for students with disabilities. All information and documentation of disability is strictly confidential. No accommodations will be granted in this course without notification from the Office of Disability Services.

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