critical and uncritical viewings

 “Directors are liars; actors are crazies; and viewers are fools” (導演是騙子,演員是瘋子,觀眾是傻子), a Chinese proverb.

“It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified”. Friedrich Nietzsche who also said “The world is beautiful, but has a disease called man.”

To founders of modern psychology and psychoanalysis such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Norman Brown, man, alone of all animals, has a history and a desire to become other than what he is. In this sense, the psychoanalytical meaning of history can only be understood as a neurosis.

Did directors have identity in mind when they made films? Is there such a thing as cultural identity in every film that the viewer can find as the object of knowledge? Of course not. Identity as a moral and rational category (as opposed to be things-in-themselves that are unknowable) helps us investigate the empirical world the same way as “soul”, “universe” or “humanity”. We will explore ways in which films contribute to a new Chinese humanity and/or identity.

break-out chat rooms (cinema, culture, and identity) to discuss, 10 minutes

  1. list avatars for individuals as well as nations/countries/cultures (identity)
  2. list ways in which feature (narrative) films differ from documentaries (cinema)
  3. list (Hollywood) films that best exemplify the American spirit (culture)


critical vocabulary

  • Image, imagine, sign, “Man lives by symbols


    •    /         / Five races under one union 五族共和 1911


    • Chinese = red; Manchus = yellow; Mongols = blue; Muslims = white; Tibetans = black;




  • allegory, world as will, idea and representation
  • cinema (kínēmamovement), narrative film, narration, nation
  • national history, spirit (folksgeist), character, allegory, identity;
  • cultural construct, system of signification and meaning, myth,
  • language (symbolism) translates the way we think about ourselves
  • how is a narrative film different from a documentary? (free of translation?)


  • “To have a second language is to have a second soul”, Charlemagne, 742-814
  • “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, 1564-1616
  • “Translator, traitor.” Italian Proverb
  • “Translation is like a woman: if she is faithful, she is not beautiful; if she is beautiful, she is not faithful.” Russian Proverb
  • “Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.” George Steiner, 1929-2020
  • Translation is the art of failure.” Umberto Eco, 1932-2016
  • “The ideal reader is a translator. He or she can pull a text to pieces, remove its skin, cut it to the bone, follow each artery and vein and thence fashion a new living being.” Alberto Manguel, 1948-

break-out rooms to discuss, 10 minutes

  1. examples of meaningful identities, individual, cultural or national
  2. which matters more, culture (education, etc.) or nature (psychological predispositions, etc.)?
  3. examples of translation in action: literally or figuratively, e.g. when you have to explain yourself


literature and film as translation of cultures

“I believe that in order to rethink the issue of the national and cinema, it is necessary to return to the question of national agency and other types of collective agencies. . . . the variety of such significations itself belies their frequent significations of ‘China’ as singular, essential, and naturalized, revealing instead not that ‘China’ is a nonexistent fiction but that it is a discursively produced and socially and historically contingent collective entity. In this sense, it is not so much China that makes movies, but movies that help to make China.” Chris Berry, Can China Make Movies? Or, Do Movies Make China?

The production of images is the production not of things but of relations, not of one culture but of value between cultures: even as we see ‘Chinese’ stories on the screen, we are still confronted with an exchange between ‘China’ and the west in which these stories seek their market.  Rey Chow, Primitive Passions


sheldonThe end result of Zhang’s film art may seem to be his ability to tell the Western audience enchanting, exotic stories about the other country ‘China’ through stunning visual images. He has offered the Western viewer a museum of precious Chinese objects, costumes, and artifacts. He has presented a dazzling array of icons and symbols of his ‘China’: green sorghum field, red sorghum wine, colorful strips of cloth, dye mill, red lanterns, red pepper, and puppet show. He has told lurid stories of murder, incest, polygamy, and concubinage. He has rendered on screen masquerades of terrifying political events such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. All these spectacles have been masterfully manufactured for the pleasure and gaze of the Western viewer.  Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu Transnational Chinese Cinema

barthesThere is not unmediated perception and the narrative films we teach are never self-explanatory. For these films to be read as signs, we have to put in place systems of meaning according to which moving images are organized. “Since every sign supposes a code, it is this code that one should try to establish. The photographic paradox can then be seen as the co-existence of two messages, the one without a code, the other with a code. … To understand a narrative is not merely to follow the unfolding of the story, it is also to recognize its construction in ‘storeys’, to project the horizontal concatenation of the narrative ‘thread’ on to an implicitly vertical axis. To read (to listen to) a narrative is not merely to move from one word to the next, it is also to move from one level to the next.” Roland Barthes, French linguist and thinker,  Image-Music-Text

jung“Every period has its bias, its particular prejudice, and its psychic malaise. An epoch is like an individual; it has its own limitations of conscious outlook and therefore requires a compensatory adjustment. This is effected by the collective unconscious when a poet or seer lends expressions to the unspoken desire of his times and shows the way, by word or deed, to its fulfillment, regardless whether this blind collective need results in good or evil, in the salvation of an epoch or its destruction.” Carl Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature

Shakespeare’s universalism: Dr. Johnson first saw and said where Shakespeare’s eminence was located: in a diversity of persons. No one, before or since Shakespeare, made so many separate selves.  Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

mosesAbove all, by dramatizing the violent and destructive process by which these archaic societies are transformed by and incorporated into the modern world, these four novelists (Hardy, Conrad, Achebe, and Llosa) testify to the havoc wreaked upon individual human lives in the name of progress. The novelists I discuss are all citizens and beneficiaries of the modern world, but they nonetheless fell compelled to record for posterity the great costs, paid in blood and pain, the peoples around the world have rendered to settle accounts with history. Michael Valdez Moses, The Novel and the Globalization of Culture

plaksThis is the fact that, despite our easy acceptance of the commonsense premise that narrative is that branch of literature which relates a sequence of human events, it is precisely in the area of defining the “event” as an existential unit that we find a wide divergence of conceptual models from culture to culture. The ubiquitous potential presence of a balanced, totalized, dimension of meaning may partially explain why a fully realized sense of the tragic does not materialize in Chinese narrative. …. But in each case the implicit understanding of the logical interrelation between these fictional characters’ particular situation and the overall structure of existential intelligibility serves to blunt the pity and fear the reader experiences as he witnesses their individual destinies. In other words, Chinese narrative is replete with individuals in tragic situations, but the secure inviolability of the underlying affirmation of existence in its totality precludes the possibility of the individual’s tragic fate taking on the proportions of a cosmic tragedy. Instead, the bitterness of the particular case of mortality ultimately settles back into ceaseless alternation of patterns of joy and sorrow, exhilaration and despair, which go to make up an essentially affirmative view of the universe of experience. Andrew Plaks, Chinese Narrative.


history as progressive

HegelBut in India, it [despotism] is normal: for here there is no sense of personal independence with which a state of despotism could be compared, and which would raise revolt in the soul; nothing approaching even a resentful protest against it, is left, except the corporeal smart, and the pain of being deprived of absolute necessaries and of pleasure. In the case of such a people, therefore, that which we call history is not to be looked for. … This [Hinduism] makes them incapable of writing history; all that happens is dissipated in their minds into confused dreams. … But History is always of great importance for a people; since by means of that it becomes conscious of the path of development taken by its own Spirit, which expresses itself in Laws, Manners, customs, and Deeds. History presents a people with their own image in a condition which thereby becomes objective to them. … This element [of the soul], which is contained in Buddhism, has made its way in China, to that extent to which the Chinese have become aware of the unspirituality of their condition, and the limitation that hampers their consciousness.”  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History

Orientals do not yet know that Spirit—Man as such—is free. And because they do not know it, they are not free. They only know that one is free; but for this very reason such freedom is mere caprice, ferocity, dullness of passion or, perhaps, softness and tameness of desire—which again is nothing but an accident of nature and thus, again, caprice. The one is therefore only a despot, not a free man. The consciousness of freedom first arose among the Greeks, and therefore they were free. But they, and the Romans likewise, only knew that some are free—not man as such. …Only the Germanic peoples came, through Christianity, to realize that man as man is free and that freedom of spirit is the very essence of man’s nature. Hegel, Reason in History

Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present. What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps. This problem animates all sorts of discussions—about influence, about blame and judgment, about present actualities and future priorities.

                        ______Edward Saïd, Culture and Imperialism (1993)

In Western Europe during the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, there was individualism that was responsible for today’s civil world, built by countless people who loved freedom more than bread, and who cared more about truth than their own life. Now some say to you, “Sacrifice your personal freedom to fight for the freedom of the nation!” But I say to you: “Fighting for your own individual freedom is fighting for the freedom of your nation! To fight for your own dignity is to fight for the dignity of the nation! A nation of freedom and equality cannot be built by a group of slaves. Hu Shi, Introducing My Own Thinking. Hu Shi, Introducing My Own Thinking, 1930; “西歐有了十八九世紀的個人主義,造出了無數愛自由過於麵包,愛真理過於生命,方才有今日的文明世界。現在有人對你們說:‘犧牲你們個人的自由,去求國家的自由。’我對你們說:‘爭你們個人的自由,便是為國家爭自由!爭你們自己的人格,便是為國家爭人格!自由平等的國家不是一群奴才建造得起來的!” 《介紹我自己的思想》,《胡適談讀書》

. . . each race has its own conception of happiness and its own ideal of life. But this radically differentiated humanity is, once more, a matrix in which there arises a higher type of human organism, namely, the historical organism, that is, a race whose life instead of remaining static develops in time into higher and higher forms. The favored center in which this historical life arises is Europe, owing to its geographical and climatic peculiarities; so that in Europe alone human life is genuinely historical, whereas in China and India or among the natives of America there is no true historical progress but only a static unchanging civilization or a series of changes in which old forms of life are replaced by new forms without that steady cumulative development which is the peculiarity of historical progress. Europe is thus a privileged region of human life, as man is privileged among the animals among living organisms, and organisms among earthly existents.  . . . Herder, so far as I know, was the first thinker to recognize in a systemic way that there are differences between different kinds of men, and that human nature is not uniform but diversified. He pointed out that what makes Chinese civilization, for example, what it is cannot be the geography and climate of China but only the peculiar nature of the Chinese. If different kinds of men are placed in the same environment, they will exploit the resources of the environment in different ways and thus create different kinds of civilization. The determining fact in history, therefore, is the special peculiarities not of man in general but of this or that kind of man. These special peculiarities Herder regarded as racial peculiarities: that is, the inherited psychological characteristics of the varieties of human species. R.G. Collingwood, 1889-1943, The Idea of History

Nations, like narratives, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind’s eye. Such an image of the nation–or narration–might seem impossibly romantic and excessively metaphorical, but it is from those traditions of political thought and literary language that the nation emerges as a powerful historical idea in the West. … A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form. Man does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavors, sacrifice, and devotion. . . . A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.  Homi Bhabha, Nation and Narration

chenduxiuChinese literature today is lifeless and stale, unable to stand next to that of Europe. . . . . The problem of Confucianism has been attracting much attention in the nation: this is the first indication of the revolution in ethics and morality. … The classical literature is pompous and pedantic and has lost the principles of expressiveness and realistic description. Eremitic literature is highly obscure and abstruse and is self-satisfied writing that provides no benefit to the majority of its readers. In form, Chinese literature has followed old precedents; it has flesh without bones and body without soul. It is a decorative and not a practical product. In content, its vision does not go beyond kings, officials, spirits, ghosts, and the fortunes or misfortunes of individuals. As for the universe, or human life, or society–they are simply beyond its ken. Such are the common failings of these three kinds of literature.  Chen Duxiu On Literary Revolution

zhouzuorenFor instance, the Frenchman Maupassant’s Une vie is human literature about the animal passions of man; China’s Prayer Mat of Flesh, however, is a piece of non-human literature. The Russian Kuprin’s novel Jama is literature describing the lives of prostitutes, but China’s Nine-tailed Tortoise is non-human literature. The difference lies merely in the different attitudes conveyed by the work, one is dignified and one is profligate; one has aspirations for human life and therefore feels grief and anger in the face of inhuman life, whereas the other is complacent about human life, and the author even seems to derive a feeling of satisfaction from it, and in many cases to deal with his material in an attitude of amusement and provocation. In one simple sentence: the difference between human and non-human literature lies in the attitude that informs the writing; whether it affirms human life or inhuman life. Zhou Zuoren (1885-1967), “Humane Literature”

But what I mean by the spirit of the Chinese people is the spirit by which the Chinese people live, something constitutionally distinctive in the mind, temper and sentiment of the Chinese people which distinguishes them from all other people, especially from those of modern Europe and America. Perhaps I can best express what I mean by calling the subject of our discussion the Chinese type of humanity, or, to put it in plainer and shorter words, the real Chinaman. Now, what is the real Chinaman? That, I am sure, you will all agree with me, is a very interesting subject, especially at the present moment, when from what we see going on around us in China today, it would seem that the Chinese type of humanity — the real Chinaman — is going to disappear and, in his place, we are going to have a new type of humanity — the progressive or modern Chinaman. In fact I propose that before the real Chinaman, the old Chinese type of humanity, disappears altogether from the world we should take a good last look at him and see if we can find anything organically distinctive in him which makes him so different from all other peoples and from the new type of humanity which we see rising up in China today. Gu Hongming (1857-1928), The Spirit of the Chinese People

All who advocate a blending of East and West feel that both cultures have their faults, so they think up a culture that meets their subjective demands and call it perfect. They do not understand that the reason one culture is that culture in the first place is certainly not due to anything else but its underlining attitude. Their mistaken ideas about blending arise from this misunderstanding. Really, how can one fundamental spirit be combined with the fundamental spirit of another culture? … The Westerners’ life attitude brought about a great fissure between individual and individual, as well as between individuals and nature … profoundly alienating individuals from each other and from nature. With this attitude, it appears to them that nature is indifferent toward people and so they in turn are even more ruthless toward nature, until they have lost entirely their former feelings towards a humanized universe that nourished and brought forth all things, had good intentions toward them, and that they in turn respected. Before this they and the universe were mutually dependent and mutually affectionate. Moreover, because the Westerners’ intellect classifies the whole of the cosmos into intellectual categories, they transform the cosmos into mere matters. Looking at nature, they now see only a great pile of splintered dead things, and themselves as merely compounds of these unrelated dead things. (東西文化及其哲學, Shanghai, 1922; referenced to in The Last Confucian: Liang Shuming and the Chinese Dilemma of Modernity by Guy S. Alitto, University of California Press, 1979, p.86, p.91.) The greatness of China is only the greatness of human reason: [its faults are only the faults of the premature rise of reason and the prematurity of its cultural maturation] …The spirit of the Chinese people, in my understanding, lies in ‘the rationality of the mankind’. I often say that if the Chinese have not lived for several thousand years in vain, if the Chinese have made any contribution at all, then it is that they first understood why humankind is human. That is to say, the Chinese ancients precociously understood humankind … and the spirit of the Chinese people in its entirety is the bringing into play this li-hsing (理性). Liang Shuming, Essence of Spiritual Civilization, 1934

In order to understand the conception of favor, it is necessary to know the beautiful primitive simplicity of life in which the Chinese have lived. The Chinese ideal of society has always been one in which the ‘administration is simple and the punishments are light’. A personal, human touch always colors the Chinese conception of law and government. The Chinese are invariably suspicious of laws and layers, and of highly mechanized society. Their ideal is one in which people living in the heyday of peace and leisure retain a good measure of primitive simplicity. In this atmosphere emerged favor, and in this atmosphere emerged that most beautiful of ancient Chinese characteristics, gratitude, the counterpart of favor. Of this gratitude, the common people of China, especially the agricultural population, have still a large ‘bellyful’. A farmer who has been recipient of an act of favor remembers it for life and will probably worship you for life in a form of an inscribed wooden tablet in his private household, or serve you loyally ‘through fire and water’. True, the people are left without constitutional protection at the mercy of the district magistrate. But if the magistrate is kind, kindness is all the more keenly appreciated because it is something gratuitous. …For the people know it as a favor and not as justice. Lin Yutang, My Country My People, 1935,《吾国吾民》

China may be regarded as an artist nation, with the virtues and vices to be expected of the artist: virtues chiefly useful to others, and vices chiefly harmful to oneself. Can Chinese virtues be preserved? Or must China, in order to survive, acquire, instead, the vices which make for success and cause misery to others only. And if China does copy the model set by all foreign nations with which she has dealings, what will become of all of us? . . . Nevertheless, as regards the other two evils, self-assertion and domination, I notice a definite superiority to ourselves in Chinese practice. There is much less desire than among the white races to tyrannize over other people. The weakness of China internationally is quite as much due to this virtue as to the vices of corruption and so on which are usually assigned as the sole reason. If any nation in the world could ever be “too proud to fight,” that nation would be China. The natural Chinese attitude is one of tolerance and friendliness, showing courtesy and expecting it in return. If the Chinese chose, they could be the most powerful nation in the world. But they only desire freedom, not domination. … They have not the ideal of progress which dominates the Western nations, and affords a rationalization of our active impulses. … I think the tolerance of the Chinese is in excess of anything that Europeans can imagine from their experience at home. We imagine ourselves tolerant, because we are more so than our ancestors. But we still practice political and social persecution and, what is more, we are firmly persuaded that our civilization and our way of life are immeasurably better than any other, so that when we come across a nation like the Chinese, we are convinced that the kindest thing we can do to them is to make them like ourselves. I believe this to be a profound mistake. … It is humiliating to watch the brutal indolence of white men received by the Chinese with a quiet dignity which cannot demean itself to answer rudeness with rudeness. Europeans often regard this as weakness, but it is really strength, the strength by which the Chinese have hitherto conquered all their conquerors. . . . The Chinese, from the highest to the lowest, have an imperturbable quiet dignity, which is usually not destroyed even by a European education. They are not self-assertive, either individually or nationally; their pride is too profound for self-assertion. They admit China’s military weakness in comparison with foreign Powers, but they do not consider efficiency in homicide the most important quality in a man or a nation. …We in the West make a fetish of “progress,” which is the ethical camouflage of the desire to be the cause of changes. If we are asked for instance whether machinery has really improved the world, the question strikes us as foolish: it has brought great changes and therefore great “progress.” What we believe to be a love of progress is really, in nine cases out of ten, a love of power, an enjoyment of the feeling that by our fiat we can make things different. … I wish I could hope that China, in return for our scientific knowledge, may give us something of her large tolerance and contemplative peace of mind. … Unless they adopt some of our vices to some extent, we shall not respect them, and they will be increasingly oppressed by foreign nations. …. The events of the past few years have greatly increased the gravity of the outlook. It now seems highly probable that the Powers will continue to bully China until that country is forced into militarism, and that when that day comes all foreigners except Russians will be driven into the sea, while the Chinese themselves, by acquiring all our vices, will lose the qualities which have earned them the respect and affections of all who knew them well. __Bertrand Russell. The Problem of China, 1922

One absolutely central aspect of the concept of moral autonomy in Western philosophy involves distinguishing morality proper from conventional mores. … This basic element of autonomy in Western ethical theory generates the distinction between codes of etiquette, fashion, and customs, on the one hand, and morality on the other. Etiquette, fashion and customs are products of history. They are, from moral point of view, accidental. One can always ask whether one ought to follow accepted and established prescriptions. It does not follow from mere existence of any such system that its prescriptions are morally correct. It may fairly be asked if Confucius’s traditionalist political philosophy has this distinct concept of morality at all.

Chad Hansen, “Punishment and Dignity in China” in Individualism and Holism