Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 28, September 2004







Paul Fox


On the Writings of Dai Jinhua



Dai Jinhua

_Cinema and Desire: Feminist Marxism and Cultural Politics in the Work of Dai Jinhua_

Edited by Jing Wang and Tani E. Barlow

London and New York: Verso, 2002

ISBN 1-85984-264-X

280 pp.


This book contains a collection of essays, covering several decades, by one of China¹s leading and most prolific film and cultural theorists, Dai Jinhua. The collection engages the work of the Fifth and Sixth Generation filmmakers of the People¹s Republic, addressing both the content and the theoretical bases of their work from Dai¹s politicized perspective. It is worth stating from the outset that, despite the impression one might gather from many of the statements within the essays, Dai is not a political dissident, rather a critic of the new movements present in Chinese communism, movements she deems counter to the traditional and valuable goals of China¹s socialist past. Through analyses of the cinematic art, she critiques the modern cultural situation she sees in The People¹s Republic. Her blend of Lacanian psychoanalysis along with interpretations of feminism and Marxism inflected through a non-Western viewpoint, make occasionally for theoretical tightrope walking. Nevertheless, for students of Chinese cinema and variants of political philosophy, this book may well offer a profitable read. It will certainly do much to make Dai¹s work more accessible to Western readers.


To reduce Dai¹s work to a succinct generalization, considering her varied theoretical influences, influences that are made strange to most Western readers by their orientation, is more than mildly difficult. However, two major strands of thought seem to dominate the collection of essays: firstly, Dai insists upon viewing cinema as a production from an historical moment that has been commodified and distributed primarily as signifiers of China for the West. She critiques the work of the Fifth and Sixth Generation filmmakers in what she views as the dislocation of these productions from the context of their consumption. Secondly, this Marxist approach is combined with Dai¹s reading of the status of Chinese womanhood as portrayed in the Fifth Generation¹s work. She reads women¹s apparent representation as symbols of oppressed and tortured China as being produced for Western consumers, and as symptomatic of male filmmakers¹ feelings of political and personal powerlessness. It is in this manner that Dai combines what are often conflicting and competing political positions, those of feminism and Marxism.


The ŒDesire¹ of the collection¹s title refers to multivalent systems of signification: the position of China in the gaze of the West mirroring filmmakers¹ portrayal of the feminine; the consumptive want of the West vis-a-vis the cinematic impotence of the Fifth Generation¹s productions; and the traditional ideals of Marxism and feminism within the modern historical context of present-day China. Dai deftly weaves these varied and various strands into a theoretical position that offers both philosophical and particular insights into the cinema of the People¹s Republic.


In the collection¹s first essay, ŒSevered Bridge: The Art of the Son¹s Generation¹, Dai employs Lacanian theory to analyze the centrality of the symbol of the female body/sexuality as the scapegoat to be sacrificed to protect China from the onslaught of alien culture, what is referred to as Œa ritual of cultural conflict¹ (44). The tension between the desire of the filmmakers to reconstruct a post-Maoist cultural identity whilst simultaneously criticizing traditional Chinese values and those of Maoist communism, is adroitly teased out from the films _Red Sorghum_, _The King of Children_, _One and Eight_, _Yellow Earth_, and _Horse Thief_. The motif of the ŒSevered Bridge¹ portrays the disjunction between the Fifth Generation¹s disavowal of traditional Chinese historical identity and culture, whilst searching for a modern Chinese sense of self.


After detailed analyses of the relation of the films _Raise the Red Lantern_ and _Life on a String_ to the post-colonialism of the Nineties, Dai discusses the radical change which overtook Chinese cinema between the decades of the Eighties and Nineties, the works of the Fifth and Sixth Generation of filmmakers. This third chapter, ŒA Scene in the Fog: Reading the Sixth Generation Films¹, discusses the younger generation of filmmakers as being imbued with a sense of the Chinese Œstreet¹ and the influence of Western forms of culture, specifically music and youth culture. As opposed to the work of the Fifth Generation in the Eighties, this Œcounter-culture¹ is fed by,


Œa different cultural sociocultural situation: the ambiguous ideology of a post-Cold War era; the implosion and diffusion of mainstream ideology; global capitalism¹s tidal force and the resistance of nationalisms and nativisms; the penetration and impact of global capital on local cultural industries; cultures¹ increasing commercialization in global and local culture markets; and the active role local intellectuals, besieged by postmodern and postcolonial discourse, have undertaken in their writing¹ (72).


The chapter is a more detailed examination of specific cinematic pieces than the collection has contained thus far, and foregoes the Lacanian readings of the earlier essays for a more descriptive approach.


The following two chapters, ŒGender and Narration: Women in Contemporary Chinese Film¹ and Œ_Human, Woman, Demon_: A Woman¹s Predicament¹, are, as their titles suggest, analyses of female filmmakers and feminist readings of Chinese cinema. The first is a broad review of the place of women in Chinese cinema before and after the 1949 Revolution. The continuing alteration of women¹s roles in contemporary China is expressed through the lens of Chinese history, specifically in its relation to social hierarchies and class. The essay is somewhat pessimistic, Dai opining that:


ŒIt seems as if China¹s historical progress can only complete its course at the expense of the regression of women¹s culture. An overt oppression and the regression of women¹s status will perhaps usher in a more self-conscious and profound women¹s resistance. In this process, will women truly become part of the visible humanity? Or perhaps women¹s film and television work may emerge as a new marginal culture? I cherish this hope but dare not make an optimistic prediction yet¹ (144).


The second of the two essays focuses on the female filmmaker Huang Shuqin¹s _Human, Woman, Demon_, reading it in relation to Chinese opera (opera film allegories being a key component of Chinese film history). Dai obviously places value on such women¹s works that dissociate themselves from the ruptured Œhistories¹ of many of their male counterparts. Shuqin¹s film is not unique, but is certainly part of a small minority of films that are self-consciously aware of the particular power-relationships inherent to gender roles, and that examine the individuality of the feminine, in counterpoint to the traditional, repressive masculine voice. The two essays together offer a general and a particular analysis of feminism in operation, both through Dai¹s analysis, and also in the historical movement of Chinese women¹s advances toward defining their own sense of identity.


The remaining essays in the collection address concerns more accessible to general readers who lack a foundation in Chinese cinema and the history of Chinese feminism. The final three essays deal broadly with the impact of cultural transformation that was undergone by the People¹s Republic through the Nineties. The first of these, ŒRedemption and Consumption: Depicting Culture in the 1990s¹, examines the fashion for Maoist memorabilia and ties it to a search for Œredemption¹ in terms of identity. Dai suggests that political images of Mao have been transferred into the realm of consumer capitalism, consumed to acquire the redemptive sense of identity that is denied by the nature of the transaction itself.


In ŒNational Identity in the Hall of Mirrors¹ the experience of Chinese immigration is examined, particularly through the rhetoric of class and race terminologies in the United States. Analyzing several immigrants¹ autobiographies and diaries, Dai shows the manner in which Chinese nationalism is allocated a narrative space within the American capitalist discourse of class mobility. By portraying the superiority of the Chinese immigrant in relation to other ethnic minorities in the United States, these texts pattern identity for the contemporary Chinese immigrant within the framework of capitalist rhetoric. In other texts examined by Dai, she shows how the problems for the immigrant Chinese of materially succeeding in the West are often narrated as particularly Western problems, rather than as being engendered first at home by the difficulties within post-Maoist China¹s economic system.


The final essay, ŒInvisible Writing: the Politics of Mass Culture in the 1990s¹, deals with the changing conception of the meanings of the Œsquare¹ in China around the 1989 moment of Tiananmen. Dai shows how the Œsquare¹ has become a paradoxical concept: in its popular conception as both political forum and yet also as a commercial space, it Œboth symbolizes the socialist system, but also the toppling of that system¹ (220). As a commercial space, it reflects the new consumer class which has emerged in contemporary China. Dai criticizes the encouragement of the development of this consumerism by the Chinese government and examines how cultural discourse is employed to bolster such a political emergence whilst simultaneously the Chinese people undergo a dismantling of the socialist framework of healthcare and full employment. In particular Dai examines the government¹s praise of Œtraditional¹ at-home family care for older or sick relatives, which naturally tends toward affecting women more radically than any other section of society as their domestic workload increases (229-30).


The concluding pages of the collection contain an interview with Dai, and it is here that her philosophy comes most strongly into focus. She responds to questions concerning film theory and its relation to history and culture. Placing this interview at the start of the collection might have allowed for an easier entry into Dai¹s political philosophy for those unfamiliar with Chinese film and, indeed, Dai¹s work itself. Nevertheless, this chapter suggests a unifying thematic to what is largely a collection moving between theoretical foci and across several political planes. It is, coming at the end of the text, an almost necessary elucidation of Dai¹s place within the broader philosophical context of feminism and Marxism. Many of the essays gloss major theoreticians¹ positions, or have sections edited to maintain the slimness of the volume. The context of Chinese film studies is equally vague. This is not to detract from the centrality of Dai¹s work to either political theory, nor, of course, to cultural studies in the People¹s Republic, but it is difficult to assess Dai¹s situation in relation to other thinkers without a prior knowledge of their positions. The volume promotes Dai¹s thought without placing it in any broader, general context.


In the interview Dai states that:


ŒUnderlying the so-called revision of history in the eighties and the conceptualization of a twentieth-century China, I would argue were efforts to establish continuity on one hand and transcendence on the other, as if we could eliminate, by means of new interpretation and ellipsis, the internal disruptions of twentieth-century Chinese history¹ (240).


In many ways the collection suggests the editors¹ attempts to both establish continuity between several decades of Dai¹s work and also to transcend the contemporary theoretical landscape by making such scant reference to the context, both in China, and the world, of the theoretical framework in their volume. No doubt the latter was not a deliberate attempt, but it is a constant bugbear when reading through what are very insightful and thought-provoking essays. Dai¹s statement that Œall histories are contemporary histories¹ (240) places her thought in the present moment, to be interpreted and re-interpreted constantly. To read that thought in the moment should be to evidence its context. Unfortunately, this collection fails to do so by referring so minimally to others¹ thoughts. It is, in itself, an internal disruption which might well have been avoided in a volume that is of value to students of Chinese cinema and cultural theory.


Zayed University

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004



Paul Fox, ŒOn the Writings of Dai Jinhua¹, _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 28, September 2004 <>.







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