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«New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 12, 1 (June 2010): 46-66 DESIRES, BODILY RHETORIC AND MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION: WOMEN IN THE MAKING OF ...»

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New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 12, 1 (June 2010): 46-66






University of Denver

Introduction: Revolutionary Myth Making

Historian Margaret MacMillan argues that in our secular age of the nation-state, history has replaced religion as a means of “setting moral standards and transmitting values.” “History with a capital H is being called in to fill the void. It restores a sense not necessarily of a divine being but of something above and beyond human beings. It is our authority: it can vindicate us and judge us, and damn those who oppose us.” This conviction of the centrality of history in sustaining a modern state illuminates our understanding of that practice massively engaged in via the state-sanctioned main ideology after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

Spanning the years from 1949-1966 and commonly referred to in contemporary Chinese history as The Seventeen Years, this nationwide practice of constructing revolutionary history mobilized the popular memory of the nation’s past largely for the purpose of legitimizing and securing the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, or Party) in mainland China.

Film as a mass medium occupies a prominent position in this nationwide mythmaking practice in the Seventeen Years. Films of the period, as Dai Jinhua outlines, are generally based on two thematic categories: those that elaborate the revolutionary history and those that elevate revolutionary heroes.2 Since the CCP considers itself to rule “on the basis of [its] appropriation of the Marxist teleological view of history as a dialectic movement toward Communism through class struggle,”3 the first category of revolutionary literary works primarily supplies “proof of the historical predictability of the ultimate victory of Communism” primarily through telling about battles against “Guomindang reactionaries” and “Japanese imperialists” and by making those stories * I am grateful to Rosemary Roberts, whose insightful comments helped the author to refine the focus of this article.

Margaret MacMillan. Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, New York: The Modern Library, 2008, p.20.

See Dai Jinhua’s “Qingchun zhi ge: lishi shiyu zhong de chongdu” (“The Song of Youth: a re-read from a historical perspective”) in Tang Xiaobin ed. Zai jiedu (Re-interpretation), Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1993, p.147-48.

3 See Ma Ning’s “Symbolic representation and symbolic violence: Chinese family melodrama of the early 1980s” in Wimal Dissanayake

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believable from that point of view.4 The narrative structures of these war stories, mostly the legends of the famous battles fought and won by the communist armies, (usually comprised of the phases of combat, setback, life loss but, at last, triumph) signify “a single, multi-segmented episode in the saga of the broader revolutionary struggle” 5 toward the teleological goal of progressive history.

The second category further validates the alleged moral goal of the communist revolution, that is, “to emancipate” and “to enlighten” the politically repressed and economically exploited, namely, the proletarians or the People. This goal is achieved by revolutionary heroes who devote themselves to achieve the mission of liberation, despite hardships, sacrifice of family life and personal happiness, or, even at the cost of their own lives. Most of the “heroes” in this category of filmic presentations are, interestingly, female, and they fall into two types depending on their political maturity: the veteran revolutionaries and the revolutionaries-in-becoming. Zhao Yiman, the female military commissar of a regiment of the Northeast Anti-Japanese Alliance is the central character of a 1950 feature film that bears her name; Party secretary Wang Yumei in the 1958 production Daughters of the Party (Dang de nüer), and, Gao Shan, a woman-disguisedas-man platoon leader in Youth in the Flames of War (Zhanhuo zhong de qingchun), also produced in 1958, make up the gallery of over-determined, experienced revolutionary heroines or martyrs. The other heroines in this group are initially victims of the repressive social classes, but they eventually “come of age” via identifying themselves with and devoting themselves to the revolutionary cause. Such characters include Hu Xiuzhi in Daughters of China (Zhonghua ernü, 1949), Lin Daojing in Song of Youth (Qingchun zhi ge, 1959), and Wu Qionghua in Red Detachment of Women (Hongse niangzijun, 1960). “Daughters of China” narrates the story of eight women, including protagonist Hu Xiuzhi, a newly enlisted young widow, who are fighting in the Anti-Japanese Alliance in the occupied Northeast, and ultimately make the choice to drown rather than be captured by the surrounding enemy. The Song of Youth tells how Lin Daojing, a despairing young girl student and a victim of old style marriage, politically matures and becomes a Communist Party member with the inspiration of veteran revolutionaries Lu Jiachuan and Jiang Hua, whom she encounters in the different stages of her journey to becoming a revolutionary. Red Detachment of Women is an engrossing depiction of how a slave girl, Wu Qionghua, becomes a revolutionary soldier under the tutelage of Party Secretary Hong Changqing, her savior and mentor.

This study will critically investigate these three films that feature victim-turnedrevolutionary heroines. One of the reasons that inspire this investigation is that these three films enjoyed the most remarkable popularity among audiences with varied See Dai Jinhua’s “Qingchun zhi ge: lishi shiyu zhong de chongdu” (“The Song of Youth: a re-read from a historical perspective”) in Tang Xiaobin ed. Zai jiedu (Re-interpretation ), Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1993, p.148.

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social interests and educational backgrounds during The Seventeen Years and beyond:

Daughters of China, the earliest film made in Mao’s China, not only enjoyed long box-office runs and was one of the earliest films to be selected for international film festivals, but has also inspired paintings and theatrical works in the post-Mao era. 6 The publication of The Song of Youth was a sensational event. From the end of 1958 to early 1960, in just over a year, 1,700,000 copies were published, and it was adapted into a major motion picture in 1960.7 The Red Detachment of Women won the Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress categories of the very first One Hundred Flowers award—the only film award at the time and solely determined by the votes of viewers.

How could these films about coming-of-age heroines on the one hand exhibit a high standard of “revolutionary purity” in the state-sanctioned revolutionary mythmaking, and, on the other hand, enjoy the highest popularity among film viewers of various kinds? The intriguing double play of official propaganda and popular needs enacted in these films compels us to look into the complicit relationships between texts and readership, communist ideology and folk tradition in the long pre-communist era, and, in particular, gender as both a political category and a semiotic signifier in representations. What kinds of motifs, character traits and modes of representation are developed and manipulated in these films to evoke the multifarious imaginations of the viewers as they were toiling to reconfigure their lived experience in the past and the living reality under a new, monolithic political system?

The multi-dimensional and complex process of creating a revolutionary myth through telling and envisaging stories of victim-turned-revolutionary-heroine, I argue, is largely made possible by “the melodramatic imagination,” to borrow a concept that was initially proposed by Peter Brooks and widely applied to literary and film studies.8 For many critics, melodrama is a modern form arising out of a particular historical conjuncture “where traditional imperatives of truth and morality had been violently questioned and yet in which there was still a need to forge some semblance of truth and morality.” 9 Melodrama is a convergence of psychoanalysis, “conceiving psychic conflict in melodramatic terms and acting out the recognition of the repressed, often with and Jay Leyda, Dianying: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1972, p.183.

Joe Huang, Heroes and Villains in Communist China: The Contemporary Chinese Novel as a Reflection of Life, London: C. Hurst & Company,1973, p.72 8 In the field of Chinese film studies Nick Browne was probably the earliest critic to notice that though socialist realism was promoted as a principle method in literature and film production during the Seventeen Years, many influential works actually adopted melodramatic modes of creation. See his “Society and Subjectivity: On the Political Economy of Chinese Melodrama” in Nick Browne, Paul Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, and Esther Yau eds. New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics, Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 40-54.

9 Linda Williams further develops Peter Brooks’ theorization of melodrama, highlighting its theatrical function as a quest for a hidden moral legibility. See her “Melodrama Revised” in Browne ed. Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, Berkeley: University of California Press,1998, p. 51.

Desires, Bodily Rhetoric and Melodramatic Imagination 49 on the body.” 10 Furthermore, the body that offers a key emblem of that convergence is typically “a woman’s body, and indeed a victimized woman’s body, on which desire has inscribed an impossible history, a story of desire in an impasse.”11 In view of melodrama as a basic mode of storytelling and its convergence with bodily desire to make sense of Chinese revolutionary experience, this study explores how the victimized female body as a site “for the inscription of highly emotional messages that cannot be written elsewhere” is enacted through inter-play with other melodramatic rhetorical mechanisms, such as hyperbolic expressions, binary thematic arrangement, dark plottings, and the polarization of good and evil. It is the “melodramatic imagination” that makes the hybrid forging of varied disparate elements, such as communist politics and universal eros, revolutionary ideologies and traditional morality, collective social ideals and personal sexual desire, operative and natural, thus rendering the hard-core, one-dimensional revolutionary myth as believable, non-ideologically “given” and, ultimately, consumable.

Desire en Impasse and the Inevitability of Revolution By extending an argument initially made by Max Webber with respect to the Chinese social context, critic Wang Hui notes that, “politics is first and foremost made of power relations of ‘order and service’…Though any form of political rule contains a certain level of voluntary obedience, this alone is not sufficient for ruling in a real sense. Ruling de facto must also require a ‘belief in the legitimacy’ of the ruling class or party.” 12 What is required for this identity-affirming revolutionary history making is “not compliance but a willingness to comply, not just control but a belief in the legitimacy of that control.”13 Indeed, to make the imagined revolutionary myth effective, nothing is probably more crucial than to articulate why revolution is required despite the violence, destruction, and loss of life it always brings along. What are the political, economic or moral urgencies that necessitated the Chinese revolution? What motivated the people to join the revolution? These are the key answers the producers of these films strive to provide via deployment of the stories of the protagonists.

In Chinese revolutionary discourse, emancipation of the repressed is presented as the exclusive goal, occupying a central place in revolutionary literature. It is often evoked by rebellion, a time-honored theme repeatedly appearing in the literature of the pre-communist era. For the revolutionary writers, the sole reason that makes Chinese revolution urgent and necessary is “the official compels; thus the people rebel (guan bi 10 Peter Brooks. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995, p.22 11 Ibid.

12 See Wang Hui “Zhengzhi yu daode jiqi zhihuan de mimi: Xie Jin dianying fengxi (On politics, moral codes and the secrets of the switches in their positions: an analysis on Xie Jin’s films), in Zhongguo dianyingjia xiehui (The Association of Chinese Film Makers) ed. Lun Xie Jin dian ying (On Xie Jin’s Films), Beijing: Zhongguo dianying chubanshe,1990, p. 178.

13 Robert Chi “The Red Detachment of Women: Resenting, Regendering, Remembering” in Chris Berry ed. Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, London: British Film Institute, 2003, p.155.

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