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