Cinema and Desire: Feminist Marxism and
Cultural Politics in the Work of Dai Jinhua

By Dai Jinhua
Edited by Jing Wang and Tani E. Barlow

Reviewed by Megan Ferry
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2005)

Dai Jinhua.                Cinema and Desire: Feminist Marxism and Cultural Politics in the Work of Dai Jinhua.              Edited by Jing Wang and Tani E. Barlow. London: Verso, 2002. ISNB:              Cloth: 1-85984-743-9; paper: 1-85984-264-X

Dai Jinhua.  Cinema and Desire: Feminist Marxism and Cultural Politics in the Work of Dai Jinhua. Edited by Jing Wang and Tani E. Barlow. London: Verso, 2002. ISNB:
Cloth: 1-85984-743-9; paper: 1-85984-264-X

Comprised of nine chapters ranging from analyses of Fifth and Sixth Generation films to 1990s consumer culture, Cinema and Desire reflects a decade of Chinese scholar Dai Jinhua’s thinking and writings about film, women, and Chinese culture throughout the 1990s. This is the first time English translations of her writings have appeared in a collected volume, though her work was published inModern Chinese Literature and Cultureboundary 2positions: east asian culture critique, and Public Culture, as well as in edited volumes, such as Mayfair Mei-hui Yang’s Spaces of their OwnCinema and Desire offers the reader the opportunity to delve into Dai’s critical thinking within the context of her scholarly development. An extensive bibliography at the end of the book demonstrates Dai’s productive career.

Prefaced by editors Tani E. Barlow and Jing Wang’s commentary on her radical New Left critique of Chinese culture, Dai’s book examines critically the self-Orientalizing practices of Fifth Generation filmmakers, the quickness by which “generations” are categorized, canonized, and then dismissed, the position of women within both filmic and literary discourses, and the apolitical position that contemporary intellectuals currently take in China. Generally, the strength of the essays lies in Dai’s consistency and impending clarity in situating Chinese film history within the larger historical context of Chinese modernity, enlightenment, globalization, and consumer culture. Her keen eye for what goes on in film, media, literary, and cultural discourses leads her to observe the changes that China has undergone since the late 1980s. There are times, however, when her admittedly “tortured” prose, as the editors and Dai herself suggest, offers an expression that may not come across easily in English translation. The reader encounters abstractions, heavy reliance on metaphors, and ideas that leave one begging for clarification. These issues may have to do with translation problems or the idiosyncrasies of scholarly style, or both. While the use of footnotes to clarify translations can often hinder the reading of a text, they could still be of help in grasping any potential polysemy, thus assisting the process of interpretation itself. If, on the other hand, the above noted problems are a question of style, the editors’ introduction could have provided further insight as to how to read Dai’s works in the context of translation. In general, the inevitable shortcoming of an anthology is its partiality, since it presents a wide-ranging overview that often leaves the reader wanting more. A more detailed introduction to the collection could help the reader understand more concretely some of the queries the selection itself and its potentially unreferenced terminology could generate.

The first essay in the volume begins with “Severed Bridge: The Art of the Sons’ Generation.” Making use of Lacanian framework, the essay examines the aesthetic maturation of the Fifth Generation filmmakers in light of the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, which severed their position as inheritors of the Name of the Father and History. Examining One and EightKing of the Children, and Red Sorghum, Dai traces the Fifth Generations’ treatment of the individual experience of “shock” to conclude that the films made in 1987 represent a coming of age of the sons who must contend with the new threat of globalization. Though critical of their treatment of women, as sacrificial lambs for the good of “the collective male society’s coming of age,” she considers these films sympathetically as expressions of shock and confusion (43). Her analysis foreshadows Chen Kaige’s and Zhang Yimou’s recent films, The Emperor and the AssassinHeroHouse of Flying Daggers, which repeat the refrains of self-sacrifice and national myth. Unfortunately, the writing style in this essay is far from transparent, so that Dai’s arguments tend to lose concreteness. Unfortunately, relying heavily on psychoanalytic and poststructuralist language, the writing style in this essay is far from transparent. The clarity of Dai’s argument is further obscured by expressions that are not readily apparent to the reader, such as the “dangerous tension” that emerges between the content of the narrative and narrativity itself in the films One and Eight andHorse Thief (21), or in her discussion of the “May 4th gap” and the metaphor about needing to build a bridge to fill the gap and the “similarly painful and torturous task of dismantling the freshly built bricks and tiles of Qin and Han” (30).

In “Postcolonialism and Chinese Cinema of the Nineties” Dai expands her discussion on the Fifth Generation, charging that their over-coded texts respond to a conflict between the myth making of a national culture (a cyclical process) and the linear progression of history vis-à-vis Western adaptation. She examines the way in which globalization perpetuates a postcolonial “syndrome” that “fractures” Chinese culture (69). As a result, she argues, Fifth Generation filmmakers have constructed their filmic narratives along the lines of Western expectations and conventions, thereby simultaneously sustaining and creating a national culture predicated on allegorical depth and superficial pretense.

“A Scene in the Fog: Reading the Sixth Generation Films” distinguishes between the Generations and their respective agendas; yet Dai cautions that the Chinese trend to name generations overlooks the reality that Chinese filmmaking faces in the nineties. She is equally critical of Western desires to view this generation as underground or as cells of counterculture resistance. The influx of global capital, the rise in visual media (especially television and advertising), and the decline in the centralized film studios, Dai argues, expose the Sixth Generation’s complicity in mainstream ideology, while their films serve as witness to Chinese people’s rapidly changing physical and psychological worlds. The essay alludes vaguely to power centers, but does not specify which ones. Hence, this reference sweepingly incorporates the meta-narrative of Western enlightenment discourses that have played an influential role in Chinese notions of modernity and progress, and the industries of such a discourse, such as television and advertising.

In the volume’s first three essays, Dai appears to be working toward an understanding of an historical experience that is unmoored from the mediated machinations of Western ideology as well as the totalizing discourse of China’s recent history. She frequently invokes May 4th intellectuals when discussing contemporary issues, thus establishing a link with another era that renegotiated the self’s relationship with society. Such a reading may be what has recently prompted Dai to broaden her cultural studies scholarship to include a cultural history of early twentieth century film, as she suggests in the final chapter’s interview with Zhou Yaqin. This new work appears to complement her feminist study on women writers with Meng Yue over a decade ago, as both address the gendered cultural and sociopolitical contexts of the respective literature and film disciplines.

In “Gender and Narration: Women in Contemporary Chinese Film,” and “’Human, Woman, Demon’: A Woman’s Predicament,” Dai turns her focus to a historical overview of women’s representation in film and to women filmmakers. The former essay is part of a larger work in progress, hence what is included in the volume is not a sustained analysis but rather a historical sketch of what promises to be an engaging and important discussion of female desire and Chinese modernity. Dai’s reading of Huang Shuqin’s film, in the latter essay, cogently develops what she sees as women’s modern predicament, caught between a traditional discourse on women and the modern promise of an unrealizable completeness. The closing thoughts on women’s self-redemption, and the “real process of memory” (168) point to a provocative avenue of study, which goes largely unexplored. In both essays, Dai is working toward excavating a woman’s culture, though what constitutes such a culture remains vague.

The next three essays, “Redemption and Consumption: Depicting Culture in the 1990s,” “National Identity in the Hall of Mirrors,” and “Invisible Writing: The Mass Politics of Mass Culture in the 1990s” represent some of Dai’s stronger and more coherent articulations of contemporary Chinese culture and individual expression. In “Redemption and Consumption,” Dai takes up again the theme of individual redemption in postsocialist society and examines the tight relationship between political power and consumption in writings on Mao Zedong and autobiographies of educated youth during the Cultural Revolution published in the 1980s and 1990s. She argues that the redemption of the self, while confirming individual experience, becomes complicit with an apolitical practice of consumption. The stories, and the “Mao Zedong Fever” of the nineties, revisit individual experience, but are neither self-reflexive nor remorseful.

In “National Identity in the Hall of Mirrors,” Dai perceptively analyzes China’s self-imagination within the global arena by examining Chinese diaspora writings directed toward mainland Chinese readers and TV series about Chinese abroad, such as Beijinger in New York and A Chinese Woman in Manhattan. Although she does not explicitly state it, she demonstrates how Chinese media construct a Chinese diaspora to suit the needs of a nation facing an identity crisis in light of globalization. She cogently argues that the TV series and personal narratives substitute the discourse of race for the less palliative discourse of class, thereby glossing over the inequality that globalization and capitalism generate. Here she is particularly critical of intellectuals who remain silent on the numbing effects of racial identification and absent themselves from a discussion of class.

Dai’s critique of intellectuals’ silence on the increasing class stratification throughout the nineties takes a more direct turn in “Invisible Writing.” Working from the metaphor of the guangchang, or plaza, Dai illustrates how both political and commercial drives throughout the latter part of twentieth century China call for the self-sacrifice of the people yet never fully address their needs. She chastises intellectuals for abdicating their position as mouthpieces for social equality. Lamenting this loss, Dai states forcefully that “the presence of a public, critical social conscience is absent in our time” (233).

The final chapter, “Rethinking the Cultural History of Chinese Film,” is based on an interview Beijing University student Zhou Yaqin had with Dai on a wide range of issues. Here the reader comes to understand more clearly Dai’s scholarly agenda and position within Chinese academia. She distinguishes neatly the difference between Western and Chinese sinological scholarship, which leaves the reader wanting to hear more. In this interview, the reader becomes aware of Dai’s breadth of knowledge on Chinese and Western contemporary scholarship, a knowledge that rarely surfaces in her essays.

While the final chapter sheds important light on Dai’s oeuvre, the editors’ brief introduction could have better situated Dai’s works within the Chinese scholarly and feminist contexts for English readers, especially in clarifying where this collection of translations positions Dai’s works among English writings on Chinese cinema, women, and contemporary culture. Effectively, Dai’s writings appear to be moored on an isolated island rather than being contextualized in the larger cultural and transnational discourses in which much of her work has appeared. Rather than clarifying Dai’s important position in contemporary Chinese studies (both in China and the West), the volume prompts the reader to want to further contextualize Dai’s scholarship among her Chinese and Western peers.

Although the volume includes essays that are not as well-composed as those previously published in English, readers will find this volume useful. The unevenness of Dai’s writing in the first few essays, the vague abstractions, and unpacked arguments make this a difficult text for undergraduate students, but sufficiently accessible for graduates and scholars. It would have been helpful to include the publishing dates of each essay. As the book stands, one has to search through the bibliography only to find essays bearing a different translation. It would also help the reader to know whether essays not found in the bibliography were new pieces written for the volume, or whether Dai rewrote pieces for the English translations. In general, Cinema and Desire offers an important critical view of the current state of film and cultural studies in China.

Megan Ferry
Union College