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China Week: Yellow Earth and the girls in the hotel bar...

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Paul Mason | 11:04 UK time, Monday, 4 August 2008

I have decided to mark the build up to the Olympics by blogging on themes and issues and that have bugged me during my trips to China. So, for openers, here are some thoughts about my favourite Chinese movie.

In Chen Kaige's 1984 film Yellow Earth, Gu, a soldier from Mao's "Eighth Route Army" arrives in the Shanbei district to collect folk-songs. Gu arrives at a village that shocks his urban sensibilities. There's a peasant wedding going on: usual deal - arranged marriage, old man, barely adolescent girl. At the wedding feast the waiters bring wooden fish: "you have to have fish at a wedding" explains the host, but of course they are too poor.

Gu's is billeted with a family: Dad is a brute, mother is dead, the young son is mute, Cui, the 13 year old daughtger does all the work. As she trudges down to the Yellow River to fetch water, exactly 14 minutes into the movie, something with universal relevance happens - something that speaks about the lives of peasant girls in the 1930s and about the lives of the waitresses buzzing, eyes averted, around the tables of foreign visitors to Beijing this week.

A classical orchestra begins to play the Shanbei melody "Song of Daughter" and the girl, singing off camera, pours her heart out: she is to be married off, she misses her mother, she wants a different life....

...Soon she hears from Gu what that different life could be: literacy and an end to forced marriages. But when Gu has to leave, and Cui demands to go with him , Gu refuses: they have to stick by tradition. "Why?" she asks. "To keep the people on our side," he answers, bitterly. By the time he returns she is dead; married off, she has drowned trying to cross the river to join the liberation war.

The ending is pure propaganda, and surely what secured Chen permission to release the movie (it has been repeatedly banned): amid scenes of mass tribal superstition, the ghostly figure of Cui in Red Army fatigues appears on the hillside singing "The cock has run up the wall, here comes the CCP to save the people."

OK, so why is this my favourite Chinese film? Why, more to the point, is it seen as the first of the Fifth Generation of Chinese films, spawining Farewell My Concubine and Red Sorghum? And what relevance does it have to modern China?

The cinematography is stunning. It was shot by Zhang Yimou, later famous in his own right as director of Raise the Red Lantern and Not One Less. The barren land of the mountainous region of Shanbei is not only the dominant image but the dominant force: it symbolises the harshness of the poverty that feudal conditions plus ignorance imposed on Chinese peasants. All questions of politics, gender and liberation come second to the conditions that make it necessary to serve up wooden fish in a village just walking distance from a river.

Chen explores the central dilemma of the CCP, one you will see played out in every conflict and controversy of modern China: how much freedom for the mass of Chinese people is compatible with the fight to feed, house and educate them? Cui had to stay with her abusive Dad and marry her elderly betrothed, because the CCP's strategy was to wage a peasant war against the Japanese. Though women in the liberated areas, Gu advertises, are not beaten and are taught to read and write, this does not extend to breaking up the feudal family traditions of Shanbei.

The modern concomitant of this deal is the one the CCP has made with Chinese people since 1978: you will get land, TVs, eventually so much decent food that you can laugh at westerners who think the Chinese eat rice when they go to restaurants. You will get the internet, a stock market bubble and the highest buildings in the world: but you have to wait for political freedom.

Chen's film is an implicit critique of all such deals. But it is also an exploration of why the deal persists.

The first time Gu talks to the girl, Cui, it is because the family - lacking the ability to read or write - has simply put up signs with circles on "to represent writing" outside their door for New Year. He offers to write a couplet for them. "That would be too grand for us," she answers.

In pre-revolutionary China, peasants sometimes named unwanted children "Dog" or "Cat". The concept of "human rights" would have been new to the generation of this film depicts. They had been treated as subhuman by China's Manchu emperors and warlords; also by the Japanese invaders; the European colonial powers did not exactly go out of their way to break the pattern. Mao-era communism invited them not to embrace human rights in the western sense but, as he put it, to first of all "stand up".

"Before you talk about human rights," one of my CCP media minders once snapped at me, "please remember this is the first generation in which we have not had a famine". This is the rationale you will get, in any sensible conversation with a Chinese official, for the deliberately retarded progress towards democracy. In the western tradition, our pattern of revolutions - from 1776, 1789, 1848, right through to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 - has been one where grievances over extreme poverty feed into a bigger narrative about democracy and individual freedom. The same pattern was observable in China's urban revolutions: May 4th 1919, May 30th 1925 - and until it was snuffed out, June 4th 1989. But once Mao had designated the peasantry as the route to power Chinese communism was indelibly marked with an "economy first and above all" mindset. That mindset was of course also present in Soviet-era Marxism, but in China it has survived the transition to a market economy.

"Before you can love, educate or break up feudal traditions you have to eat", is the principle Gu acts on, and the principle the harsh yellow earth of Shanbei instils into everybody except Cui. Cui revolts against the land, the feudal family and the social policies of the Eighth Route Army. Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, in making the film, also revolted.

Today Chen and Zhang are giants of the Chinese film establishment: Zhang is director of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony; Chen Kaige has discovered CGI and kung fu and has become so mainstream that some juvenile prankster has recut his latest film as a 27 minute spoof titled "The Bloody Case that Started with a Steamed Bun", just to take the rise out of him.

Today also you will meet young professional women in the coffee bars of Chinese cities who are totally liberated; who day trade stocks and shares, wear Versace and use the words "I'm available" instead of "I'm single". But you will also see, in every hotel bar and restaurant, young migrant women waiting table for £40 a month, obliged by job description to act subservient, eyes to the floor, dressed like semi-slaves from the Qing dynasty.

Chen and Zhang, when they were young rebels, understood that the woman with her eyes to the floor in a village is also a human being and just as much entitled to freedom as the Red Army soldier or the urban intellectual; or to put it in the language of the 2008 Chinese hotel lobby - the woman in traditional dress bowing and scraping for £40 a month is just as entitled to freedom as the CCP officials and international journalists at the tables shouting for more peanuts and Tsingtao beer.

She has, under law, an equal right to go clubbing or wear Versace but will not be utilising that right because the dormitory, the £40, the rigid work discipline, the loneliness of migrant life are a kind of modern equivalent of the Shanbei soil. There are, I would imagine, thousands of Cuis among the women waiting table in modern China: when I interviewed the staff of the Shenzhen Migrant Workers Centre, an NGO whose work has changed official attitudes to employment rights in the city, they were nearly all young, female migrants who had left school at 16 and had had enough of subservience.

Yellow Earth is a film about why history makes some people wait for freedom and others get it sooner, and why all theories to rationalise this sound hollow and irrational to those at the back of the queue.

Yellow Earth (Huang Tu Di) is hard to get hold of on video but you can find it on various online retailers. "Song of Daughter", Cui's riverside lament, is on a CD called Masterpieces of Shanbei Folk Songs, and I got hold of it on iTunes.


  • Comment number 1.

    I do honestly feel that the human rights and the working conditions will get much better in China as time goes on and as the population gets richer.

    I see it as their "Industrial revolution" . Remember it was only 100 years ago when British people and children were slaving away in factories with no rights and low wages and the British government was conquering and ruling other countries and using concentration camps.

    Just watch this space, things will get better for the average Chinese worker as their wealth and value increases and I am including their freedoms and government.

  • Comment number 2.

    so you need marxist totalitarianism to stop famine? it seems those beliefs cause it? Marxists like to hide behind the anti word. Anti famine, anti racist, anti fascist, anti whatever.

    Marxists are as much role gamers as monarchists. They are living out a fantasy that demand everyone else to play roles they determine for you. You can always tell a role gamer. They are 'insulted ' if you do not behave according to the 'traditions' of their role game.

  • Comment number 3.

    I wonder how many people that contribute to these Blogs have ever visited China never mind lived there for any time?

  • Comment number 4.

    What is the difference between BBC moderation and Beijing censorship?????
    Nothing is the answer

  • Comment number 5.

    Bet that woke a few up in Broadcasting House

  • Comment number 6.

    I lived in China for six months in 2000. What struck me then was that though life there is very tough for lots of people, people were willing to put up with a lot on the grounds that things would change slowly and peacefully. Everyone I knew, even though they might be getting a rough time, was super patriotic.

  • Comment number 7.

    A short comment on the quote of the day!

    As a trained microbiologist, and without preference to my own personal beliefs, Dawkins violates the basic premise of science with his quote. Dawkins cannot disprove the existence of God no more than he can describe exactly how the universe was formed. Suppositions and generalities exist from both points of view of what is reality.

    Perhaps a measure of the limits of resolution on both sides of the issue.

  • Comment number 8.

    "so you need marxist totalitarianism to stop famine? it seems those beliefs cause it?"

    I think to say that communist beliefs cause famine is ludicrous. There can be no doubt that Chairman Mao's totalitarian rule of China caused untold suffering, but to suggest it was communist thinking which caused it is ridiculous. Mao came to be power on the back of he suffering of the people of China, this poverty was the engine behind his rise to power, just as the feudal inequalities in Russia enabled communist revolution. In both these vast, harsh and sparsely populated places the people saw Communism as a way to end their suffering. Famine causes communism not the other way round.
    The sad fact is that it is that the avarice of the few, the incompetence of the many and extreme weather conditions are the real cause of famine, problems which preclude political beliefs.

  • Comment number 9.

    I think ignorance causes so many problems in the world.
    It is not one political party.
    Anyone with an ounce of sense knows Moa was only interested in power and control.
    Bit like the President's of the good old US of A.

  • Comment number 10.

    Your comment about the super patriotism of the Chinese people regardless of their personal circumstances, is what really scares the West.
    Let's see what happens at the Games.
    Maybe the US of A will attack China if they score more medals than the US of A.

  • Comment number 11.


    If God died, how would we know?

    Didn't someone say that when life meets ones expectation of it, it is more-or-less bearable? Do we have the right to raise expectations?

    Who is best prepared for the global changes to come? The city-centre penthouse dweller or the subsistence farmer? Why then, encourage the latter with visions of the former?

    The primary human right is to remain unconceived. Violators will be persecuted - when the truth dawns.

  • Comment number 12.

    I thought this was a fantastic post, providing some informed insight into the current situation in China.
    Having said this, I'm not entirely sure what most of those that have left comments are talking about.

  • Comment number 13.

    Interesting reading, thank you.
    Having just watched panorama and it's stream of nonstories I'm a tad fed-up with the china-bashing.
    China is improving, maybe slowly, but in a number of areas such as the economy and particularly human rights, they are improving.
    We, the so-called civilised ones, are getting worse.
    I watched the local news this evening as a reporter proved on camera that you cannot take photographs in a shopping mall any more.
    If you are fotunate enough to get permission to put together a political demonstration you can expect to be photographed by the authorities.
    If your dna is taken as part of any investigation, it will be kept on record, even if you are a child.
    Did I read a story not long ago about a journalist having his camera film confiscated, yes I did.
    Biometric id schemes are on the way, you are not allowed to have fluids or string in your hand luggage on airplanes.
    On the tv now is a programme featuring lots of adults that have never learned to read or write, in this one of the richest nations on earth.
    With each and every day that our liberties are more restricted and china's improve, the mor duty has a journalist, surely, to make that as much a part of their stories as they relevantly can.
    If the trends continue, what will chinese reporters be making of the situation here then I wonder?

  • Comment number 14.

    Stevie, your comment puzzles me. When the world slates America for its bully boy tactics, its paranoia etc. does that make Americans less patriotic? If anything it makes them more bullish about their country, faults et al. Why should the Chinese be any different? Are they not entitled to patriotism?

  • Comment number 15.

    An excellent, unhurried post, helping those many of us whov'e never been to China to understand some of the dynamics of a country whose political evolution will greatly affect us all.

    By way of predictions for 2008 I offered:

    "there will be unrest in China, and the government will feel confident enough to suppress it, even during the Olympics ..."

    and I think we begin to see this. My reasoning follows closely on Mason's account. The Chinese people have been offered a compact: suppress your desires for freedom and we will gradually meet your desires for material well-being.

    But when the world economy falters - if only for a year or so - the world will not be buying Chinese exports, and the well-being side of the compact won't be delivered on.

    It's only a blip, no doubt, but without a political safety-valve there will be big trouble. And does anyone doubt the Chinese government's willingness to suppress it ..?

  • Comment number 16.

    Xin Jiang bombing

    Why is it that every time Islamic extremists blow up public places in the western world, it is the terrorist’s fault, but when the same Islamic extremists drove a truck packed with explosives and killed 16 policemen in Xin Jiang, China, it’s the Chinese government (i.e. the communist party) that receives the blame?

    hmm....I smell hypocrisy in the air!

  • Comment number 17.

    If the Muslim people or the Tibetans feel oppressed by the communist regime in China, they should make protests at the government and not take out their anger on innocent, unarmed civilians. I blame the Chinese government, but not for the reasons reported in the BBC. I blame them for giving in to western pressure for the sake of the Olympics, and not responding quickly and vigilantly at the start of the crisis. The dire consequence of their mute action is that Tibetans were set off on a rampage to kill and torture Han Chinese freely in the city and set fire on buildings and people’s houses.

    In your short video about China last night, why didn’t you have any gruesome pictures of those details, or did you replace it with something else irrelevant so as to tell your side of the story?

  • Comment number 18.

    Nice comments on a nice movie, but... Anyone who thinks "young professional women in the coffee bars of Chinese cities... who day trade stocks and shares, wear Versace and use the words "I'm available" instead of "I'm single" are "totally liberated" really missed the message.

    Paul, for all your effort, and righteous northern anger, which is, I dare say, as informed and genuine as that of any BBC journalist, you show you visit the worlds of women just as Gu in 'Yellow Earth', I'm sorry to say. But whilst he saw the ghost of a girl in the uniform of the people's army as a sign of her participation in future liberation, you see young women in Versace suits in Beijing bars as having conquered all. But perceptions both are fantasies, a long way from reality.

    What are those trading jobs and that "available" status costing in terms of their reproductive abilities? What is the likely length of their economic lives, and what then? How welcome will they be in those high powered jobs and expensive bars as they age, compared to men? How welcome if they were not spending a fortune on Versace clothes and saving instead? How far do they safely feel from the lives of those women in the villages, serving in the bars, or who live not at all because they were aborted simply for being female? They live either in dangerous ignorance of that, or haunted by it. We all do. How high can they rise, to safer economic heights, to commanding heights, in a world which has just clearly demonstrated that no woman, however well prepared, or rich, or well married, can ever get the top job?

    Recent research showed that women, as they age, become increasing disappointed with life, realising their aims will not be achieved, whilst men become increasingly satisfied, as they achieve theirs. The cruel lives of girls in the grinding poverty and discrimination of the third world are not isolated from the lives of women in happier economic circumstances. Liberation is a goal few achieve, except perhaps by sleight of mind.

  • Comment number 19.

    SLEIGHT OF MIND (The Global Village Idiocy in just13 letters)

    Thanks Jenny63. 'We' can't wait to save the woman who walks miles for water, and put her in a BMW to drive hours for . . .?

  • Comment number 20.


    it is nice that you are having a CHINA WEEK...

  • Comment number 21.

    Communism is communism, despite all the changes and liberties, there is a limit to this form of government. For the Chinese people to enjoy total freedom reform is necessary, democracy is not a choice.

    Change will happen, whether it’s trough natural evolution of society or speeded up by outspoken intellectuals, sound governmental policies and international pressure.
    But 100 years is a long time, that’s a whole lifetime + an adolescent, in the meantime people have to live their lives, we can’t stand back and hope everything turns out okay.

    Just recently I’ve become interested in Tibet and the struggle there, and I urge anyone reading to research into this.
    Since the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, we have seen the systematic eradication of Tibetan people and culture, monasteries have been destroyed and every single human rights violation that we would expect a communist government to commit has been committed.
    And yet the Dalai Lama is persistent in his peaceful pursuit to an end to the crisis.
    However, some of his people are growing restless, and see the peaceful approach of the Dalai Lama as going nowhere, if a solution isn’t found within the lifetime of the Dalai Lama, I fear violence will ensue.

    I must admit, the stance the Chinese government takes on this issue confuses me, Tibet is worldly know to be a peaceful and beautiful place, even Chinese people like to travel to the region, and it seems to me that the Dalai Lama’s requests are far from demanding, in fact I think China would greatly benefit from allowing him to restore some order to the region.

    I have not been to China or Tibet, but I will do. Some of my Chinese friends share my interest into Tibet in fact, not to the same level I’m sure, but I will go with them there, I know that the Potala Palace has been turned into a museum; it will be interesting to find out the Chinese version of history.


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