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If China Can Say No, Can China Make Movies? Or, Do Movies Make China?

Rethinking National
Cinema and National Agency
Author(s): Chris Berry
Source: boundary 2, Vol. 25, No. 3, Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age
of Theory: Reimagining a Field (Autumn, 1998), pp. 129-150
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If China Can Say No, Can China Make Movies? Or, Do Movies
MakeChina? Rethinking National Cinema and National Agency

Chris Berry

Writingaboutnationalcinemas used to be an easy task:filmcritics
believedallthey hadto do was constructa linearhistoricalnarrative
describingthe developmentof a cinemawithina particularnational
boundarywhose unityand coherenceseemed beyondall doubt.
-MitsuhiroYoshimoto,"TheDifficulty of Being Radical:The Disci-
plineof FilmStudiesandthe PostcolonialWorldOrder," Japanin the

MitsuhiroYoshimoto'senumerationof the problematicelements of
the nationalcinema paradigmin filmstudies is elegant and concise. But
one element is missing:nationalagency. Foran underlyingassumptionof
the paradigmis thatfilmsfroma certaincountryare somehowthe expres-
sion of thatcountry,that in some sense the nationauthorsthem. In1996,

boundary2 25:3, 1998. Copyright? 1998 by Duke UniversityPress.
2 / Fall1998
130 boundary

a nationalistand anti-American book called ChinaCan Say No took the
Chinese book marketby storm,1reportedlysellingout its firstprintrunof
130,000copies ina matterof weeks.2Thetitleimpliesthatthe nationcalled
"China" is a collectiveagency,a conscious beingthatcan speak, in much
the same mannerthatnationalcinemaassumes nationsmakemovies.For
manyyears, this was not so mucha theoreticallyarticulatedparadigmas
implicitand taken for granted.Overthe last decade or so, the nation,in-
cludingthe nationin China,has come intofocus as an objectof criticaland
theoreticalinterrogation.3 Yoshimoto'sremarkregistersthe impactof this
shifton the nationalcinemaparadigmand also seems to beg the question
of whatshouldtake its place.
Afterall,once one startsto thinkaboutit,the ideaof a nationspeak-
ing shooting movies can seem like quite a ridiculousfantasy.And for
those of us predisposedagainstnationalismsof all sorts,the temptationto
redefinethe nationas a discursivefictionand to dismissthe whole issue
of nationalcollectiveagency and its mobilizationin relationto cinemamust
be strong.Indeed,althougha numberof workshave engaged the national
cinemaparadigmveryproductively in recentyears, Ibelievetherehas been
a tendencyin this directionof elidingor foreclosinguponconsiderationof
the nationalas a collectiveagencywitha putativecollectiveconsciousness.
However,whetherhe mentionsnationalagency or not, Yoshimoto'sstate-
menthas stuckin mymindforsome timenow.Despitethe growingnumber
of newworkson the nationalcinemaparadigm,as faras Iam aware,there
has been littledetaileddiscussionof nationalagency as a problematicin
regardto Chinesecinema.Maybethatis whyhis statementhas stayedwith

1. Song Qiang, Zhang Zangzang,Qiao Bian,TangZhengyu,and Gu Qingsheng, China
Can Say No (Zhongguokeyi shuo bu) (Beijing:ZhonghuaGongshang LianheChuban-
she, 1996). Inan interestingresponse to this volumeand the issue of nationalismtoday,
"Thoughtson Readingthe ChinaThatCan Say No,"Sinorama21, no. 10 (October1996):
76-96, Ju Gau-jengpointsout thatthe titleis adaptedfromIshiharaShintaroand Morita
Akio's1990 bestseller TheJapan ThatCan Say No.
2. Charles Hutzler,"Anti-USSentiment Swells in China, ThreateningImprovingTies,"
< 08 12/DN96_08_12_1b.
hml>. Rone Tempest, in "Close-up:China's Youth Find It's Cool to Be Seen As
quotes Song Qiang as saying that Chinaneeds its own ultranationalist likethe Russian
3. Onthe importationand deploymentof the conceptof the nationinChina,see inparticu-
larPrasenjitDuara,Rescuing Historyfromthe Nation:QuestioningNarrativesof Modern
China(Chicago:Universityof Chicago Press, 1995).
Berry/ IfChinaCanSayNo,CanChinaMakeMovies? 131

me. Clearlyit is timeto ask againwhatwe meanwhenwe talkabout"Chi-
nese cinema,"and whetheror not and underwhat conditionswe should
speak of "Chinesecinema"(or "Frenchcinema"or "Italiancinema")as a
nationalcinemaor even a numberof nationalcinemas.
In whatfollows,I discuss what sort of theoreticalreorganization is
necessary if we are to begin to answer these questions. I believe that in
orderto rethinkthe issue ofthe nationalandcinema,itis necessaryto return
to the questionof nationalagency and othertypes of collectiveagencies. It
is necessaryto examinetheirforms,theirmodes of agency,and theirlegiti-
mization,and the cinema'sparticipation in all these regards.MaybeChina
can makemoviesafterall, butmaybenot in the expressiveand monolithic
sense assumed bythe nationalcinemaparadigm(or,Isuspect, bythe book
title ChinaCan Say No). Drawingon theoriesof the performative, I willar-
gue thatthe making of "China" as national agency is an ongoing,dynamic,
and contestedproject.Ina paradoxicalfashion,statementssuch as thatof
the booktitleor the complexsignificationsof the cinemaparticipatein the
constitutionof "China" as nationalagency bysignifyingthe existenceof this
collectiveentitypriorto the verystatementsthatconstitutethem.However,
the varietyof such significationsitselfbelies theirfrequentsignificationsof
"China" as singular,essential, and naturalized,revealinginstead not that
"China"is a nonexistentfictionbutthat it is a discursivelyproducedand
sociallyand historicallycontingentcollectiveentity.Inthis sense, it is not
so muchChinathat makesmovies,butmoviesthathelpto makeChina.
In orderto reach this conclusion,I firstexamine the relativeab-
sence of detaileddiscussionaboutcollectiveagency and nationalcinema
in English-languagestudies on Chinese cinema.4I arguethatthis may be
the resultof the very same factorthat makes Chinese cinemaa particu-
larlycompellingsite forthis project,namelythe evidentdifficulty of knowing
whatthe Chinesenationis. Underlying this particular are
difficulty broader
questions about the conceptual status of the nationitself. I then turnto
recentworkson othercinemas that engage in the nationalcinema prob-
lematicto see what they can offer,as well as a recent critiqueof those
worksby MichaelWalsh.Walsharguesthat,intheirinvocationof Benedict
Anderson's"imaginedcommunities," manyrecentworkslean towardrein-
4. In regardto the conceptionof the "national"at least, I believethat Chinese-language
filmtheory and criticismremainssomewhat autonomousfromEnglish-languagetheory
and criticism.Thereforeany properstudyof the issue inChinese-languagefilmtheoryand
criticism,althoughcertainlydesirableand necessary, would requireseparate attention
extendingbeyondthe range of this essay.
2 / Fall1998
132 boundary

stallingthe LacanianImaginaryand the nationas a collectiveversionof
the universalsubject.However,I findthatWalsh'sownargumentresponds
to these problemsin conceptualizationby movingawayfromthe issue of
collectiveagency and its constitutionaltogether.Incontrast,I argue here
thata deeper engagementwiththis conceptis necessary.
Inthe wakeof Anderson'swork,the imaginedcommunity-as-nation
is sometimesunderstoodas onlya textualtropeand thereforea social fic-
tion to be dispelledand replacedwithempiricaltruth.Incontrast,I argue
that Anderson'sconcept participatesin that largerrangeof workthat re-
casts the conceptof being,previouslyunderstoodas essential,natural,and
given ("IthinkthereforeI am"),and places it as discursivelyconstructed
and historicallyand sociallycontingent.Fromthis perspective,the nationis
not merelyan imaginedtextualobjectbuta historically and sociallycontin-
gent construction of a form of collectiveagency. Here, I drawuponJudith
Butler'sworkon performativity. Inthese circumstances,if "China" can say
no, we need to ask about the circumstances of the of
constitution this col-
lectiveagency. Similarly,ratherthan arguingforthe totalabandonmentof
the concept of nationalagency in regardto nationalcinema, I argue for
recastingnationalcinema as a multiplicity of projects,authoredby differ-
ent individuals,groups,and institutionswithvariouspurposes,but bound
together by the politicsof nationalagency and collectivesubjectivityas
constructedentities. In regardto China,this recasting,then, means that
Chinese nationalcinema is not simplythe same as all cinema produced
withinChineseterritoriesor by Chinesepeople. Instead,we haveto speak
of Chinesenationalcinemasanddistinguishtheirspecificcircumstancesas
and historicallyspecific projectscontestingeach other
in the constructionof Chinese nationalagency, whichis itself defined in

At first,the lack of detailedattentionpaidto Chinese cinema and
the issue of nationalcinema may seem odd. The eagerness withwhich
the Japanese governmentpursuedthe projectof constructingJapanas a
modernnationand nation-statewell beforethe inventionof cinema might
excuse the ready assumptionof the nationalcinema model in that case
(although,of course, that assumptionalso needs interrogation).5 Butone

5. CarolGluck,Japan'sModernMyths:Ideologyin the LateMeijiPeriod(Princeton,N.J.:
PrincetonUniversityPress, 1987).
Berry/ IfChinaCanSay No, CanChinaMakeMovies? 133

glance at twentieth-centuryChinese historyshould make immediatelyobvi-
ous the problem of assuming a national cinema in the Chinese case and
its potential productiveness as a site for the investigation of the issue. Yet
maybe it is the very obviousness of the difficultiespresented by the unique-
ness of the Chinese situation-the existence of two political regimes, the
People's Republic of China and the Republicof China, each claiming to be
the one and only Chinese nation-state, and the separate but not national
space of Hong Kong-that is still inhibitingdiscussion.
Certainly,that obviousness has not stopped us from sidestepping
the problem in the past.6 In the introductionto their remarkablewebsite on
Hou Hsiao-Hsien's City of Sadness (Beiqing chengshi), Abe MarkNornes
and Yeh Yueh-yu note, "The preference for mainland China studies over
other Chinese areas (e.g., Taiwanand Hong Kong)has also been replicated
in film studies. As a result, Chinese-language films from Taiwanand Hong
Kong were relativelyignored under a specious definitionof 'Chinese' iden-
tical with the People's Republicof China. Therefore,the politics of choosing
City of Sadness ... can be seen as an interventionagainst the monolithic
perspective dominatingthe definitionof 'Chinese' cinema in film studies."7
Nornes and Yeh emphasize a bias toward socialism. They note that Jay
Leyda, author of the first majortext in English on the Chinese cinema, had
an explicit interest in leftist politics and the "wave of pilgrimages to post-
Mao China"upon invitationsin the late 1980s.8 While I am skeptical about
the existence of any Communist plot to seduce American film academics,
Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinemas certainly were relativelyoverlooked.
No doubt the long-prevailinginterest in art-house and "high-culture"non-
Hollywoodcinemas over popularand "low-culture"non-Hollywoodcinemas
played a part in this, particularlyin the case of Hong Kong cinema, which
rightlyor wrongly is so often perceived as an archetypal popularand "low-
culture"cinema. But I would argue that the nationalcinema frameworkwas
also important.Hong Kong was a colonial territory,and the primarymarket

6. I includemyself in the list of guiltypartieshere. Inthe introduction
to Perspectiveson
Chinese Cinema,ed. Chris Berry(London:BritishFilmInstitute,1991),which includes
what could be seen as onlytokenarticleson Hong Kongand Taiwan,I simplyignorethe
7. Abe MarkNornes and YehYueh-yu,"Introduction," "
Papers/CityOfSadness/table. html,"4.
8. Jay Leyda, Dianying:An Account of Films and the FilmAudience in China (Cam-
bridge:MITPress, 1972). On the alleged "pilgrimages," see Hu Ke, "Contemporary Film
Theory in China,"trans. Ted Wang, Chris Berry,and Chen Mei, in Screening the Past,
" the past/reruns/hkrr2b.html"(25
2 / Fall1998
134 boundary

of HongKongcinema is as muchthe Chinese globaldiasporaas it is the
populationof Hong Kongitself.It simplydoes not fit the nationalcinema
paradigm,and attemptingto examineHongKongcinemawouldinevitably
havethreatenedthatmodel.Fordifferentreasons,muchthe same is trueof
Taiwanesecinema.The Kuomintang KMTNationalistpartymaintainsit is
the governmentof all Chinadespite beingconfinedto the islandof Taiwan
foralmostfiftyyears now.WritingaboutTaiwanesecinemawouldrequire
payingattentionto this peculiarsituation,againpotentiallyundermining the
convenientepistemologicalfictionof nationalcinema.
Despitethis historyof avoidance,some workhas toucheduponthe
nationalissue. The recent New Chinese Cinemasvolumedoes cover the
People'sRepublic,Taiwan,andHongKong.Inhis introduction, NickBrowne
does not sidestep the questionof howthese territoriesare relatedto each
otherand to Chinese culturebut makes comparisonsand traces connec-
tions. Itis in the tracingof connectionsthatthe issue of nationalcinemais
alludedto. For,havingstated that "thepresumptionthat Chinese cinema
is the monolithicculturalexpressionof a Chinese nationhas been dra-
maticallyundercutby history," he goes on to speak of "acommoncultural
traditionof social, ideological,and aestheticformsthatstands behindand
informsChinesecinemaas a whole."9Althoughtherecan be no doubtthat
sharedelements informcertainfilmsfromdifferentChineseterritories,this
is a ratherstrongstatement.Here,I believe,there is a riskof replacingthe
discreditedessentializedand transcendentnationas the authorof national
cinema withan equallyessentializedand transcendent"commoncultural
tradition."Althoughthereis nothingto suggest thateitherthe editorsof the
bookor specificallyBrowne'sintroduction intendto engage insuch a move,
it must be pointedout that this repositioningrisksappropriation by those
culturalnationalistforceseager to mobilizeone or anotherformof "Greater
China."10 Retrospectivelyconstructinga commonculturaltraditionis one
of the most basic moves in the mobilization of modernnationalism,if not
indeeda preconditionfor it."Butpointingto commonculturalcharacteris-

9. NickBrowne,introduction to New Chinese Cinemas:Forms,Identities,Politics,ed. Nick
Browne,Paul G. Pickowicz,VivianSobchack, and EstherYau (Cambridge:Cambridge
UniversityPress, 1994), 1.
10. Jing Wang pointsto some of the complicatedand contradictoryarticulationsof vari-
ous GreaterChina projectsin High CultureFever: Politics,Aesthetics, and Ideologyin
Deng's China(Berkeley:Universityof CaliforniaPress, 1996), 65-73, 327-28 n. 34.
11.See, forexample,the essays collected in EricHobsbawnand Terence Ranger,eds.,
The Inventionof Tradition (Cambridge:CambridgeUniversityPress, 1983).
Berry/ IfChinaCanSayNo,CanChinaMakeMovies? 135

tics across certainperiodsand territoriesas informingcinemafromthose
territoriesdoes not have to be done in a mannerthat invokesthe type of
transcendentculturalidentitythat wouldsubtend GreaterChina-ism.To
avoidthis dangerrequiresthe conceptualand theoreticalframeworks that
wouldenable such distinctionsto be made. otherwords,it requiresa
rethinkingof the conceptualframeworksurroundingculture,agency, and
cinemaas surelyas rethinking nationalcinemasrequiresrethinking national
A second bookthat invokesissues of collectiveagency in relation-
ship cinema is Rey Chow'sPrimitivePassions, in which she speaks
of contemporaryChinesecinemaas "a kindof postmodernself-writingor
autoethnography."12 As far as I can tell, Chowdoes not explicitlyaddress
the connectionbetweenthis conceptof autoethnography and the issues I
am raisinghere, but insofaras ethnos means "people,"I understandthat
issues of collectiveagency and authorshipare at stake here,too, although
it mustbe emphasizedthat Chowinsiststhis process is alwaysalreadya
cross-culturalone. Iwillreturnto thisandto Browne'sconceptof a common
culturaltraditionas interestingand importantideas that invokecollective
Chinese agency exceedingthe modernChinese nation-statesafterI con-
siderothercurrentworkon othercinemasthatis attemptingto movebeyond
the oldnationalcinemaparadigm.13Perhapssuch workcan providethe con-
cepts andtools neededto rethinkChinesecinemaandthe issue of national

In a recent article,MichaelWalshsurveys a numberof books on
he findsthat,"ofallthe theorists
12. Rey Chow, PrimitivePassions: Visuality,Sexuality,Ethnography,and Contemporary
Chinese Cinema(New York:ColumbiaUniversityPress, 1995), xi.
13. ZhangXudongalso has a chapteron FifthGenerationas "nationalcinema"in Chinese
Modernismin the Eraof Reforms(Durham,N.C.:Duke UniversityPress, 1997), 347-66.
However,whatconstitutesthe nationaland how it is to be understoodtheoreticallyis not
a majorissue in the chapter.
14. MichaelWalsh, "NationalCinema, NationalImaginary," FilmHistory8 (1996), 5-17.
The mainworksWalshsurveys are: Susan Hayward,FrenchNationalCinemas(London:
Routledge,1993); EllaShohat and RobertStam, UnthinkingEurocentrism:Multicultural-
ism and the Media(New York:Routledge,1994); Sumita Chakravarty, NationalIdentity
in IndianPopularCinema, 1947-1987 (Austin:Universityof Texas Press, 1994);Stuart
Cunningham,FeaturingAustralia:The Cinemaof Charles Chauvel(Sydney:Allenand
2 / Fall1998
136 boundary

of nationalismin the fields of historyand politicalscience, Andersonhas
been the onlywriterconsistentlyappropriated by those workingon issues
of the nationalin filmstudies."'5Anderson'sfelicitousterm"imaginedcom-
munities" has been the triggerinmanyfieldsforrethinking the nation,notas
something taken for granted butas a sociallyand specificidea
of community.As an idealconcept at least, the nationis definedby unity
and sharedcharacteristicsamong its nationalcitizenry,as opposed to the
hierarchiesof differencesstructuring the subjectsof monarchies,empires,
and religiousrealms.'6
Walshthenfocuses on and questionswhathe perceivesas the dan-
gerous slide fromAnderson'suse of the wordimaginaryto its conflation
withthe Lacanianconceptof the Imaginaryin muchof the worksurveyed.
Hisobjectionsare numerousbutcan be summarizedas a concernthatthis
impliesa returnto an alreadydiscreditedMarxist-psychoanalytic structural-
ist approachthat is essentialist,unified,and ahistoricalin its pretense to
scientificobjectivityand universaltruth.Thisuntenableessentialismmani-
fests itselfnotonlyinthe positingof the nationitselfas a collectivesubject
butalso in the relationsbetweenthe filmand the spectator,wherebythe
cinema is said to participatein the constitutionof that subject.This does
not allowforthe heterogeneityof cinematictexts, the range of spectator
responses, and the instabilityof the subject,be it individualor collective.
He cites the exampleof the NewZealandfilmsThePiano,HeavenlyCrea-
tures,and Once WereWarriors as evidence of a "pluralityof conceptions
of the nationand of identitywithinnations."17
However,Walshalso acknowledgesthat the workshe is consider-
ing are shorton explicittheoreticalexpositionand that he is extrapolating
fromwhatis oftenonlyimplicitinthe adoptionof the languageof Lacanian-
Althusserianfilmstudies.Hiscritiquecertainlyhighlightsan aspect of these
recentworksthatlacksadequatetheorization,althoughIsuspect this gen-
eral elision of explicitand theorizeddiscussionof collectiveagency and
its construction,ratherthan wholesale and unquestioningacceptance of
the Lacanian-Althusserian paradigm,may be the problem.Andinsofaras

Unwin,1991);and John King,Ana M. L6pez, and ManuelAlvarado,eds., MediatingTwo
Worlds:CinematicEncountersin the Americas(London:BritishFilmInstitute,1993).
15. Walsh,"NationalCinema,"6.
16. BenedictAnderson,ImaginedCommunities:Reflectionson the Originand Spread of
Nationalism,rev.ed. (London:Verso,1991).
Berry/ IfChinaCanSayNo,CanChinaMakeMovies?137

Walshis arguingthat the modelof the psychoanalyticsubjectcannot be
assumed to be universal,seamlessly complete,or the only modelof sub-
jectivityand agency availableor suitable,Iam in completeagreementwith
him.Despitethe factthatI havefrequentlydeployedconcepts derivedfrom
psychoanalytictheoryin myworkon Chinesecinema,Iwantto emphasize
that I have no interestin privilegingthatconceptualframework overothers.
Andin recognitionthatthere is a real (ifsometimesinadvertent)dangerof
suggestingsuch a positionby usingtermslike"thenationalimaginary" and
"thenationalsubject,"Iwillcontinueto use whatI hope willbe acceptedas
less specificallypsychoanalyticterminologysuch as "agency"and "collec-
tivity"here. ButI am afraidthatin his concludingparagraphsWalshmakes
his ownslidefromquestioningthe universality of the Lacanian-Althusserian
paradigmtowardabandoningquestionsof nationalagencyand itsconstruc-
tion altogether.He concludes by suggesting, "Ifthe term [nationalimagi-
nary]simplyrefersto a bodyof conventionalized imageryrelatedto nations
and nationally-bounded groups,Iwouldarguethatmoreinterestingtheories
of nationaland transnationalcinemacould be producedby simplytalking
aboutconventionsratherthanthis proliferation of imaginaries."'8
Perhaps we can a
get stronger ideaof the typeof workWalshis advo-
catingbylooking at his In
citations. passages priorto the one quotedabove,
writerssuch as DavidBordwelland NoblCarroll,alongwithliteraryformal-
ism, are mentionedwithapproval.Walshpointsout quiterightlythatatten-
tionto formalcategoriesneed not entaillackof attentionto sociohistorical
groundingand conditionsof production.Indeed,Bordwell'smeticulousat-
tentioninhis bookon Ozuto the filmmaker's biography, the institutional
ditionswithinwhichhe worked,and otherproximateand materialevidence
couldall be citedas examplesforsimilarworkon cinemaand nationaliden-
Also, in what is probablythe most popularacademic introduction
tity.19 to
the fieldof filmstudiestoday,DavidBordwelland KristinThompsondefine
nationalcinemas in terms of, first,films made withina particularnation
thatshareformalfeaturesand,second, filmmakers whoshareassumptions
aboutfilmmaking and workwithina commonproductionstructure.20
Certainly,there are considerablebenefitsto be derivedfromfocus-
ing concreteanalysisand sociallyand historicallylocateddiscussionof
18. Walsh,"NationalCinema,"16.
19. DavidBordwell,Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema(Princeton,N.J.:PrincetonUniversity
Press, 1994).
20. DavidBordwelland KristinThompson,FilmArt:An Introduction, 3d ed. (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 1990), 371.
138 boundary2 / Fall1998

the texts involvedin relationto the constructionand significationof national
agency and nationalism,ratherthan simplyassumingthat all filmsfroma
particularcountryexpress some nationalessence. Indeed,I believe that
manyof the worksWalshcites attemptto do just that. In additionto the
exampleshe gives, I wouldadd TomO'Regan'smorerecentbookon Aus-
traliancinema.O'Regan'sbookexploresa varietyof competingrepresenta-
tions of Australiannationalidentityand nationalcultureinthe mannersug-
gested by Walsh'scitationof NewZealandfilms.He also movesawayfrom
automatically encompassingall Australian filmsin a discussionof national
cinema. Instead,he locates nationalcinemaas a projectdevelopedin re-
sponse to AmericanHollywooddominationof certainterritories,noting,"In
Australia's case, the projectof nationalcinemadidnotemerge until1969."21
Withthis approachto replacethe conceptof nationalcinema itself,
twodifferentbutpotentiallylinkedareas of workon cinemaandthe national
appear.One consists of mappingpatternsof filmdiscoursethatsignifythe
nationinvariousways.Thesecond concernslocatinginstitutions involvedin
the productionof nationalcinema,whetherconceivedof termsof locally
based industryor in terms of a local industrythat also producesand pro-
motescinematicconstructionsof the national.Thissecond projectcan also
be expandedintothe investigationof groupsof filmmakers workingtoward
such goals withor withoutinstitutional
Inthe case of Chinesecinema,this approachcan yielda numberof
potentiallyproductiveprojectsthat move beyondthe old nationalcinema
conceptto distinguishdifferenttextualand institutional conceptsof national
cinemaandthe national.Forexample,the filmpoliciespursuedbythe gov-
ernmentof the People'sRepublicof Chinaafter1949were heavilyinformed
by a particularconceptionof nationalcinema and the Chinese nation.
These policiesentailednationalization of studios not onlyto putthem into
state ownershipbutalso to secure the leadershipand controlof the state
throughthe FilmBureauinthe Ministry of Cultureandan entireadministra-
tive structurethat was constructedunderit. The importof Americanfilms
was terminated,and the circulationof existingprintscame to a haltwith
China'sinvolvementin the KoreanWarin the early 1950s, effectivelyre-
versingAmericandominationof the Chinesemarketand replacingitwitha
nearmonopolyof Chinesefilms.Inadditionto this institutional transforma-
tionof the cinema,a series of policieswere institutedconcerningcinematic
contentand form.Whatis particularly interestinghere is the intersection

21. Tom O'Regan, Australian National Cinema (London: Routledge, 1996), 51.
Berry/ IfChinaCanSayNo,CanChinaMakeMovies? 139

of socialismand nationalismunderthe rubricof the "NewChina,"as op-
posed to the "OldChina."Inotherwords,as a projectof the revolution, the
Chinesenationwas understoodto be undergoinga transformation inwhich
the undesirablewas beingdiscardedand the new was beingbuilt.Notable
here is the gongnongbing(worker-peasant-soldier) policy,whichnot only
placedan emphasis on themes concerningworkers,peasants,andsoldiers
butalso emphasizeda style appropriateto audiences composed of such
people. Amongotherthings,this involvedthe endorsementof clear moral
plots in whichother people, such as landlordsand capitalists,appeared
as villains.Oftentheirvillainywas signifiednot onlybyclass treacherybut
also by betrayalof the nationto foreignenemies. Thiscinemawas partof a
broadmediacomplexthatcommunicatedthe message thatinthe People's
Republicof Chinanotall China'scitizenswere membersof the "people."
Mostof the details in the briefsketch I have providedabove have
been drawnfromPaulClark'shistoryof the Chinesecinemabetween1949
and 1981.22But it wouldbe interestingto carryout furtherresearchthat
examinedthose detailsin regardto the particular ways inwhichthe revolu-
tion'sdualemphasison the nationand socialismhada mutuallytransform-
ing effect in both mattersof policyand cinema aesthetics over the years.
These detailscouldthen be contrasted,say, to the policiesin the cinema
pursuedby the KMTin Taiwan.In the case of the People's Republic,it
may be particularly interestingto tracethe productionof "NewChina"and
the nationalcinemathatparticipatedinthatproductionas a dynamic,con-
tested, and ongoing process of sortingand categorizing,a process that
excludednotonlycertainforeignthingsbutalso muchof "oldsociety,"form-
ingthe backdropforthe 1980s filmsthatrediscoverprerevolutionary China
as an exoticand,one couldeven say,foreignculture.23 Thisappliesnotonly
to the ornateand inventedritualsand detailsof ZhangYimou'sfilms,which
have been muchdiscussed and brandedby some criticsin Chinaas self-
orientalizingproductsdesignedforforeignconsumers,24 butalso to a wide
rangeof otherless well-known worksmadeprimarily forcontemporary Chi-

22. PaulClark,Chinese Cinema:Cultureand PoliticsSince 1949(Cambridge:Cambridge
UniversityPress, 1987).
23. This idea underpinsChow'sdiscernmentof primitivism and autoethnographyin Fifth
Generationcinema in PrimitivePassions; see esp. 142-45.
24. The best-knownexample translatedinto Englishis Dai Qing, "RaisedEyebrowsfor
Raise the Red Lantern," trans.Jeanne Tai,PublicCulture5, no. 2 (1993):333-37. Chow
discusses this critiqueof Zhangin "TheForceof Surfaces,"in PrimitivePassions.
140 boundary2 / Fall1998

nese viewers and sufficientlywelcomed by them that they have become a
staple genre of contemporary Chinese cinema.
Inthis sorting process, differinginterpretationsof revolutionarypoli-
tics mandated the acceptance of certain things as part of this new national
collective culturalformationand the rejection of others, and the things ac-
cepted and rejected could be both foreign and Chinese in origin.25The con-
notations of costume are a relativelysimple example. Wang Ping's 1958 film
The UnfailingBeam (Yong bu xiaoshi de dianbo) is a typical spy drama set
before the revolution.Unsurprisingly,Chinese who are traitorsare marked
by foreignclothes and habits. However,these are not just any foreignclothes
and habits but those markedas bourgeois and Western, that is, those of the
imperialists.LiuNina, the main collaboratorwiththe Japanese, has a West-
ern given name. When she first appears, she is sitting in the back of a car,
wearing heavy makeup, a wide-brimmedhat with flowers and fruit,promi-
nent earrings, a fitted white suit that clings to her body, and a dark cape.
Other male collaboratorsputtingin later appearances wear aloha shirts pat-
terned with palm trees, wide ties, and white, double-breasted Western suits.
Liu Nina is chauffeured to a large hotel, where a flunkyin a uniformopens
the car door for her. The positive characters also appear in costumes that
could be said to be foreign in origin, such as modern army uniforms,over-
alls, and simple, less extravagant Western-style clothes. Here, the soldier-
or worker-class connotations of their clothing make them an acceptable
part of the new Chinese nation. In ruralfilms like the numerous versions
of The White-HairedGirl(Baimao nOi),where most if not all the characters
typically wear Chinese-style clothing, class again determines what is and
what is not part of the new Chinese nation, with landlordsdistinguished by
their robes as opposed to the working clothes of the farmers. This sorting
process in the construction of the new Chinese national is found in other
elements, includingmodes of speech, gesture, religion,and so forth.
The authors who accuse Zhang Yimou of making prerevolutionary
China exotic in order to catch the eye of foreigners also often accuse him
of catering to them by adopting Hollywoodtechniques.26This ignores the

25. Clarksets up the useful device of a spectrumbetween hard-lineYan'anpoliticsand
softer,less class-struggle-dominatedShanghaipoliticsto examinethese shiftingpolitical
sands in the filmindustry.
26. For a sophisticatedexample of this type of critique,see Dai Jinhua, "Liegu:Jiushi
niandaidianyingbijizhi er"(Rifts:Notes on ninetiescinema, part2), in DaiJinhua,Diany-
ing lilunyu pipingshouce (Handbookof filmtheory and criticism)(Beijing:KexueJishu
WenxianChubanshe[Science and TechnologyDocumentsPress], 1993), 82-86.
Berry/ IfChinaCanSay No,CanChinaMakeMovies? 141

fact that the whole of Chinese cinema between 1949 and 1979 was also
dominated by a realism itself drawn from Western culture, and especially
Hollywood. The history of realism in Chinese cinema is a complex topic,
probably deserving of a book in its own right. However, in regard to the
sorting process mentioned above, it seems the imperialistand foreign pedi-
gree of the dominant realist form in much of People's Republic cinema has
been buried. Two factors may have contributedto this. One is the detour
via Soviet cinema that overlays the Hollywood origins of this model with
a revolutionarypedigree, making it acceptable for adoption as part of the
new Chinese nationalculture.The other is the retrospectivesearch for local
forms similarto realism in order to legitimate its adoption as the dominant
form in the literatureand the arts of the People's Republicvia nationalism.27
Anotherinterestingarea forfurtherresearch linkedto the above proj-
ects would be the "Progressive Left-Wing"cinema of the 1930s and its late
1940s follow-up.Here again, a project of national construction and mobili-
zation in response to the Japanese invasion was clearly a majorelement in
the 1930s, and disillusion with the KMTwas clearly an importantelement
in the late 1940s. But the question of whether this cinema was directed by
the Communist Party of China or whether these filmmakersof the 1930s
and 1940s should be seen as part of a social realist cinema as opposed to
socialist realist cinema remains unresolved and requires furtheranalysis of
both the films and the circumstances of their production.28
I have tried to sketch out these possible projects according to my
understanding of what Walsh sees as the positive directions in the new
scholarship that has succeeded the old national cinema paradigm. I have
focused on various discursive patterns and conventions signifying the na-
tional and on the relevant institutions and policies whose determination
upon the texts is relativelymaterial, direct, and traceable. I have carefully
avoided concepts and rhetoricrelatingto identityor the imaginarythat might
invoke the psychoanalytic in any form. Certainly,I believe this approach is
an importantadvance on the old model, and no doubt a considerable num-
ber of other projects along these lines and relatingto Chinese cinema could
be proposed. However,before we start introducingmore such projects, it is
necessary to ask whether this new conceptual frameworkis adequate.
27. DavidHolm,Artand Ideologyin RevolutionaryChina(Oxford:ClarendonPress, 1991),
28. For an analysis that favors a "social realist"reading of these films, see Leo Ou-
fan Lee, "TheTraditionof ModernChinese Cinema:Some PreliminaryExplorationsand
Hypotheses,"in Berry,ed., Perspectiveson Chinese Cinema,6-21.
142 boundary2 / Fall1998


Unfortunately,I believe the new conceptual frameworksketched out
above, although a very importantmove forward,is still incomplete. Wittingly
or unwittingly,it performsa sort of short circuitthat forecloses consideration
of what is most cruciallyat stake in cinematic significations of the national.
Ithighlightsdiscursive patterns withinthe texts and the immediate material
circumstances of their production,but downplays consideration of the ways
in which these texts usually attempt to solicit recognition of membership
in a collectivity and to signify that this collectivity extends to include both
the audience and the filmmakers.Yet I believe that this must be one of the
core issues in any consideration of cinema and the national. For whether
or not such cinematic efforts to participate in the construction of collective
agency are effective, this is their aim. And in the case of Chinese cinema,
where there are clearly so many differentand competing efforts to consti-
tute Chinese collective agency, the development of an adequate conceptual
frameworkfor thinkingabout this issue is particularlyimportant.
How is it that Walsh's discussion slides away from this core issue?
Two tendencies can be observed. One is his insistence on locking dis-
cussions of collective agency into a rigid Lacanian-Althusserianmodel of
subjectivity,which excludes it from furtherconsideration. The second is his
failureto question the individualas subject or the issue of collective agency
in regard to groups, which amounts to a simple equation of subjectivityand
agency with individualidentity.At one point, Walsh remarks, without fur-
ther justification,"Iwould argue that personal identity,especially in the way
psychoanalysis conceives of it, is much more fixed and marked by at least
the conscious illusion of unity,than is national identity."29I find this an in-
triguingand, dare I say it, symptomatic remark.For,first, it reveals Walsh's
understanding that the models of subjectivityhe critiques assume the suc-
cessful productionof a fixed, essentialized unity.And second, it reveals his
tendency to downplaythe problems in assuming any such unityin the case
of the individualsubject, leading him to speak of filmmakers and critics
without questioning the constitution of their subjectivity.His thoughts are
contraryto my reading of psychoanalytic theory. The origins of psychoana-
lytic theory lie in the questioning of the seemingly naturalself, by placing
an emphasis on the tenuous and contingent nature of any seeming unity,
be it individualor collective, and its constructedness. Having downplayed
the problemof the constitutionof the individualsubject, Walsh's discussion
29. Walsh,"NationalCinema,"11.
Berry/ IfChinaCanSay No,CanChinaMakeMovies? 143

of the social impact of discursive constructions of the national is confined
to the advocacy of learning theories to understand how individualaudi-
ence members respond to such textual figurations,and then to the tracing
of institutionalizedcritical responses that feed back into state policy. The
constitution of collective agency is in danger of disappearing from view
again. This in itself is an ideological move, conscious or not, that follows
the liberal individualisttendency to deny the collective and draw attention
away from it, as exemplified in MargaretThatcher's notorious remarkto the
effect that society did not exist, a comment she made while in an office that
empowered her to transformthe very entity she denied.
To move beyond this deadlock requires rethinkingtheories of subjec-
tivity,includingpsychoanalyticallyderived ones, ratherthan rejecting them
tout court. After all, if Walsh can rescue literaryformalism from charges
that it is ahistorical by anchoring textual studies socially and historically,
there is no logical reason that theories of subjectivity, including but not
only those that draw on psychoanalytic concepts, cannot be socially and
historicallygrounded. If we return to Anderson's discussion of "imagined
communities,"his interventionand the vast quantityof writingthat has fol-
lowed it join a larger conceptual shift that works to erase the naturalized
realm of the essential, the absolute, and the universal, and to re-situate it
as historicallyand socially constructed, as contingent. This shift should be
understood as applying not only to the national as textual figurations but
also to national agency as a mode of being itself. Nationalagency does not
just disappear with the discreditingof discourses that place it as essential;
rather,it reappears as a contingent formation.
From this perspective, psychoanalysis and psychoanalytically de-
rived theories along with other models for understanding various forms of
agency and their constitutionbecome culturalpatterns that do not pre-exist
the discourses that speak them but subtend the various social institutions
and texts that circulate those discourses. Walsh objects to Susan Hay-
ward's nomination of the relationship of French national cinema to Holly-
wood in terms of a relationto the Other,and to HomiBhabha's discussion of
colonialism as fetishistic on the grounds that these arguments necessarily
slide back into the universalismand essentialism of Lacanian-Althusserian
psychoanalytic theory.30But it is not at all clear to me that the deployment
of these and related terms by Bhabha, Hayward,and others is necessarily
essentialized and not the description of a historicallyand socially located

30. Walsh,"NationalCinema,"11.
2 / Fall1998
144 boundary

discursivepattern.Certainly,there is no reason to confine ourselves to
psychoanalytic termsinsuch discussions,andindeedthereare almostcer-
tainlymanyother patternsand models to be discerned.Forexample,in
the last pages of the revisededitionof ImaginedCommunities, Anderson
compares waythe modern individual lifehistory is constructedthroughthe
writing biography with the writing of histories of modern nations.31And
in the specificcase of China, is important to undertake genealogicalre-
search to trace the specific local inflectionsin the terms that are used to
speak of the nationaland collectiveagency in regardto cinema.32
Withthis understanding, to invokecollectiveagency,and the nation
as a formof it, does not necessarilyentaila slide backintoessentialistic,
universal,unifiedcategories,psychoanalyticor otherwise.Andwiththis in
mind,we can turnagain to the connectionbetween Chinese cinemaand
the constitutionof Chinesenationalidentities,notas absoluteor unifiedbut
as contingent,dynamic,contested, and often competing.Insome cases,
we do nothaveto relyonlyon the evidenceof the discursivepatternsfound
across bodiesof filmsforthis discussion.Inthe case of post-1949People's
Republicof Chinacinema,forexample,its deploymentinsupportof efforts
to constructa nationalagency can be tracedquiteclearlywiththe type of
proximatematerialevidence Walshadvocates. Ifone consultsthe media
coverageof any film,one willfindnumerousaccountsthat place a filmin
preciselythis way,connectingand oftenconflatingnationalismand social-
isminthe mannersuggested above.Criticalarticleson a filmexplicitlyfocus
on the issue of whetheror not and in what ways leadingcharactersare
suitableforaudienceemulation.Inaddition,thereare numerousreportson
filmstudy groupsthat are formedto encouragethis emulationby relating
the filmcharactersto people amongthe localaudience.This discoursein
itselfis highlyunified,policedanddisciplinedas itwas bythe administrative
mechanismsof a totalitarian state, that is, a state that admitsof no more
than token internaldifferenceand allowsno competinginstitutionswithin
the bordersof its territory.Of course, it must be noted that the existence
of this discoursewithits structuresto engage cinemaspectatorsdoes not

31. Anderson,ImaginedCommunities,204-6.
32. Minzuis one term that has already received attentionin English-languagescholar-
ship, althoughso far only in regardto issues of race. ChrisBerry,"Race:Chinese Film
and the Politicsof Nationalism,"CinemaJournal31, no. 2 (1992):45-58; YingjinZhang,
"From'MinorityFilm'to 'MinorityDiscourse':Questions of Nationhoodand Ethnicityin
Chinese Cinema,"CinemaJournal36, no. 3 (1997):73-90.
Berry/ IfChinaCanSay No,CanChinaMakeMovies? 145

necessarily mean it succeeded entirelyin doing so. But findingthe material
traces of any such failure may be more difficult.
In understandingmobilizationsof national agency such as the one I
have described forthe post-1949 period in mainlandChina and the cinema's
participationin that effort, a useful model that might be excluded by any
taboo on psychoanalytic terminology is the workof JudithButlerand others
on performativity.I believe Butler'swork is particularlyuseful here precisely
because it offers an account of the construction of subjectivityand agency
that is neitheruniversalist,nordeterminist,nordevoid of historicaland social
specificity. As such, it may offer the possibility of tracing and accounting
for the ways in which Chinese cinema participates in the construction of
a variety of possible Chinese national collectivities. Butler'swork produces
an account of subjectivityand agency that is grounded by the concepts of
citation and iterability.Inso doing, she utilizes Althusserian ideas like inter-
pellationto note the paradoxicaldiscursive effect whereby subject positions
are implied to pre-exist the very texts that construct them. This insight re-
locates "being"from transcendent space into the materialityof discourse.
Butler further grounds her observation socially and historicallyby noting
that each such citationis partof a chain that linksdifferenttimes and places,
making it differentfrom the original it claims to repeat but simultaneously
conditioned by that originalit requiresforthe workof citation. Inother words,
each citation is necessarily a mutation, in the Foucauldian sense of the
term. Sometimes, the forces deploying such mutations will strive to mini-
mize or erase theirdifference fromthe original.At other times, they may use
the originalstrategicallyto push in new directions. Itis this understandingof
performativitythat enables her to state of interpellation,"Ifthe one who de-
livers it does not author it, and the one who is marked by it is not described
by it, then the workings of interpellativepower exceed the subjects consti-
tuted by its terms, and the subjects so constituted exceed the interpellations
by which they are animated."33Perhaps this concept can be extended to
providea model of nationalagency as performed,and as always exceeding
and exceeded by, in contingent ways, both those who author it and those
it attempts to recruit. I believe that with this model of performativitywe can
begin to thinkof cinema in a dynamic relationto the national, as something
that mutates in every citation and every screening (which is a form of cita-
tion in itself). And we can also thinkof filmmakersand audiences in relation

33. JudithButler,ExcitableSpeech: A Politicsof the Performative(NewYork:Routledge,
1997), 34.
146 boundary2 / Fall1998

to those cinematic invocations of the nation without reducing them to mere
functions of those invocations.34

As I indicatedat the outset of this article, Ithinkthe complex question
of what the Chinese nation is places particularpressure upon us to develop
such an understandingof collective being as contingent and performative,
ratherthan eliding the issue. Instead of having to answer this question in
the singular, we now have a flexible conceptual frameworkthat suggests
any identityis infinitelypluralbecause it exists only in its infinitelydifferent
citations. Yet, at the same time, these citations are linked into clusters and
chains that can be treated as bundles. Forexample, ratherthan tryingto ab-
stract an efforttowarda singular constructionof Chinese national agency in
the People's Republic of China after 1949, we may be able to trace a chain
of citations in which this collectivitythat links the national and the socialist
undergoes various mutations. These mutations might include, for example,
greater emphasis on class struggle at certain times and greater empha-
sis on patriotic unity at others and would be bolstered by critical writings
citing party line, Mao's thoughts, and so forth. However, the possibilities
for "perverse"citation within cinema itself were always limited by the tight
institutionalcontrols that prevailed during this period. By way of contrast,
the FifthGeneration films often stand as greater mutations of the originals
they cite, empowered by the internal devolution and exposure to foreign
culture inspired by Deng's reforms. From this performativeperspective, a
filmlike YellowEarth(Huang tudi) cites well-established socialist narratives
about revolutionaryhistory and the horrors of life in the prerevolutionary
countryside and equally well-established charactertypes, such as the tragic
child-bride,the earnest and sincere revolutionarysoldier, the superstitious
and impoverished peasant farmer,and so on. But, as is commonly noted by
critics, it also cites Chinese traditionallandscape paintingstyles, which are
translated into cinematography,and the codes of certain types of European
art cinema, including a minimizationof dialogue, the latter legitimated by
critical citation of the Dengist call to "modernization,"in this case as the

34. However,at the same time we must also be carefulnot to elide issues of access to
discourseand publicvisibilityas thoughallwere equallyempoweredto cite and transform
in the filmsof
originals.I have discussed these issues furtherin relationto performativity
ZhangYuanin "StagingGay Lifein China:ZhangYuanand East Palace, West Palace,"
Berry/ IfChinaCanSay No,CanChinaMakeMovies? 147

"modernizationof film language."The incorporationof these additionalele-
ments, in turn, opens up the filmbecause it replaces the didactic linearityof
the socialist realist mode with contemplative ambiguity and distance. The
resultantvarietyof interpretationsranges fromthe completely conventional,
which allowed it to be passed by the censors, to scandalous readings that
break the line between new and old China to see the prerevolutionaryas a
metaphor for postrevolutionarysociety. A reading along these latter lines,
then, impacts upon the kindof collectivitythe filmcan be said to construct,
shiftingitfroma simple investment in the revolutionaryvision of a new China
to a broader perspective that exceeds that particularnation-state project
and questions its inclusiveness. It is in this sense that I would refer to it
as mobilizingor attempting to mobilize a "postsocialist"Chinese collective
Fromthis example, it is possible to see that with a model of national
agency that is pluraland performativeanother question about cinema and
nationalagency can also be considered productivelyin the Chinese context.
The existence of two nation-states claiming to be the one and only China
and, until1997, Hong Kong'sexistence as a colonial territory,taken together
with the Chinese diaspora, all suggest that China exceeds the nation-state
in a way that may be more obvious than is the case in many other places,
such as Japan, which I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. In these
circumstances, then, is it possible to think of some of the "Chinas"that
are making movies as collective agencies other than the nation-state, or as
performativemutations that move away from that model?
The example of certain readings of YellowEarth I have just given is
one possible instance of that. However, it must be noted that China's post-
socialist condition is characterized by continuingstrict politicaland ideologi-
cal controls operating simultaneously with economic and culturaldiversifi-
cation. In these circumstances, it is difficultto tell if films like YellowEarth
should be read as voluntarilysubscribing to a position that eschews any
readilyvisible advocacy of an alternativenation-state projector as doing so
as a survivaltactic.
I thinkBrowne'sdiscussion of a "commonculturaltradition,"however
problematic I have suggested that term can be, also invokes the possibility
of collectivitythat moves beyond nation-state projects. And I also thinkthis
is what intrigues me about Rey Chow's use of the term autoethnographyin
PrimitivePassions. Inpart, Chow uses this term to invokethe self-alienation
and even self-orientalism in which some of the so-called FifthGeneration
filmmakerscan be said to engage in their images of either historicor out-of-
148 boundary2 / Fall1998

the-way parts of China. But Ithinkit is also fairto say that ifthese filmmakers
are engaged in writing-themselves-as-a-people, which is what both the term
autoethnographyand the metaphorical possibilities of films like King of the
Children(Haizi wang), Raise the Red Lantern(Da hong denglong gao gao
gua), Red Sorghum (Hong gaoliang), and Judou suggest to me, then per-
haps they can be said to be engaged in the effort to produce a collective
agency. However, Chow does not use the term national in regard to these
films. I would suggest one way of understandingthis is that it precludes any
confusion of the self that is producingthis ethnographywith the self that is
invoked by the nation-state of the People's Republic of China, and the type
of collectivitythat model invokes. For,to give an obvious example, if all those
evil patriarchs in Zhang Yimou'sfilms can be read as allegorical represen-
tations of China's currentregime by some viewers, then these films may be
understood as producing a kind of collective Chinese agency that claims
to be a popular one distinct from the nation-state as it currentlyexists. I
might note here that for Walsh and other analysts who place a premiumon
proximate material evidence, such an interpretation,which is unsupported
by recorded audience response or criticalwritingsfrom withinthe People's
Republic and is based on wholly allegorical reading, will seem flimsy at
best. While I understand this concern, I can only point out again that in a
situation in which the practices of the regime attempt to rigorously police
any explicitlyoppositional statements, this is hard to avoid, and indeed this
is what makes cinematic discourse particularlyinteresting. Jing Wang, in
High CultureFever, notes that the national continued to be an overarching
sign of legitimacy in the People's Republic throughout the 1980s, so that
differentintellectuals contesting one another's power or (usually implicitly)
the power of the nation-state consistently laid claim to the national in at-
tempts to authorize themselves. However,the question that a performative
understanding of the national begs is what sort of "nation"these various
discourses invoke, and in particularwhether or not it is a "nation"that can
be accommodated within the modern, unified nation-state model or one
that exceeds it. Perhaps the Fifth Generation films can also be placed in
this context.35

35. Jing Wang, HighCultureFever.Particularlyrelevantto this essay is chapter5, "Ro-
mancingthe Subject:UtopianMomentsin the Chinese Aestheticsof the 1980s,"in which
Wangconsiders the Chinese adoptionand utilizationof the concept of the "subject,"in-
cludingand in particularthe collectiveand nationalsubject (195-232). As mentionedin
note 13, Zhang Xudongdoes place these filmswithinthis "national" context but without
problematizingor retheorizingwhat is meant by the "national"
Berry/ IfChinaCanSay No,CanChinaMakeMovies? 149

Finally,if a performativemodel of collective agency allows us to begin
to speak of Chinese nationalcinemas that construct collectivitydistinctfrom
the existing nation-states, Iwould liketo raise the question of how we should
understand the type of collectivityand agency that Hou Hsiao-Hsien's City
of Sadness can be understood as enabling. As is, I think, well-known,the
filmdeals with a majorevent in Taiwanese history,discussion of which was
suppressed for forty years. This is the so-called February28th Incidentof
1947, in which a revolt by the local Taiwanese Chinese against the new
KMTgovernment on the island was put down brutallywith considerable
loss of life. However,the filmdoes not depict the incident directly,focusing
instead on its effects on an extended familylivingin the hills outside Taipei.
Furthermore,the main character in the film is a deaf and mute photogra-
pher who seems to stand in for the filmmaker.As Ping-hui Liao points out
about the film in his commentary on the contemporary debate around the
incident, "By using a deaf and mute character, the filmmakercan maintain
an ambivalence that allows him at once to say nothingor anythingabout the
character (and the Incident).... Hou consistently--and redundantly--turns
his gaze away and focuses on the landscape that, in its permanent silence,
seems to witness the loss of human lives and nevertheless survives."36
Certainlythis use of the photographercharacter and the grassroots
focus of the film made it difficultto mobilize as a tool in the productionof
Taiwanese anti-KMTfeeling, as Liao notes and Nornes and Yeh also dis-
cuss in their website. How,then, should we understand the agency the film
constructs? Is this a purely individualagency, quite apart from any kind
of national or other collective agency and sense of selfhood, an agency
similar to the seemingly private agency of the photographer and his wife,
who it seems would preferto disengage from any involvement in publicaf-
fairs? Can it be understood as a broad Taiwanese sense of self, resistant
to the projects of both the KMTand Taiwanese nationalism? Or is it part of
an even broader Chinese culturalconsciousness resistant to state projects
and politics?37Rather than attempting to answer these questions in any
36. Ping-huiLiao,"Rewriting TaiwaneseNationalHistory:The February28 Incidentas
Spectacle,"PublicCulture5, no. 2 (1993):294.
37. Discussinganotherof Hou'sfilms,NickBrowne,in "HouHsiao-hsien'sPuppetmaster:
The Poetics of Landscape,"Asian Cinema8, no. 1 (1996),also writesof Hou'sgrassroots
perspective and use of landscape, arguingthat "politicshas real effects and conse-
quences, butthey are viewed as incidentaland temporaryagainstthe landscapeand the
largerpatternof life.The value of any post-colonialcritiquemust confrontand come to
terms with the aesthetic ontology of Hou'sworkand the equivocalplace it accords to
150 boundary2 / Fall1998

definitiveway, I would suggest that if agency and consciousness are under-
stood as performative,we need only look to the various mobilizationsof this
ambiguous text by differentaudiences and critics to understand how each
is a differentand specific citationof both the text and, via the interpretations
of it, the agency, whether individual,Taiwanese, Chinese, or a combination
of these three. But I would also add that what interests me most about the
City of Sadness in terms of the topics raised in this essay is not only its
potential for the mobilizationof a Taiwanese collectivitythat, like the films
of the Fifth Generation, exceeds the unified collectivities invoked by the
nation-state and modern nationalisms at the same time that it registers the
violence perpetrated by them. I am also particularlyinterested in the insis-
tent heterogeneity of that collectivityas it is inscribed in the film by different
dialects, languages, personal histories, and so forth, which to me invokes
a collectivity and perhaps even a "common culturaltradition"that not only
exceeds but resists co-optation into modern, unified nationalformations.