Myths of Revolution and Sensual Revisions:
New Representations of Martyrs on the Chinese Screen

By Haosheng Yang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 24, no. 2 (Fall 2012), pp. 179-208

The construction of revolutionary martyrs in Chinese cinema has changed over time and across cultures. Before the 1990s, few films shown on mainland screens associated heroic martyrs with romance and sexuality because the personal life of a revolutionary was regarded trivial when contrasted with the epoch-defining revolution that shook China in the twentieth century; but this impersonal ascetic heroism–a central trope in canonical PRC myths of revolution–proved profoundly inadequate in the face of the dynamic international and domestic cultural discourses of the past twenty years. As particularly seen in three recent cross-regional films–A Time to Remember (Hongse lianren, 1998), Lust, Caution (Se, jie, 2007), and The Message (Fengsheng, 2009)–the conventional portrayal of ascetic and almighty revolutionary heroes no longer prevails. Instead, individual romance and sensuality play a significant role in forging new kinds of revolutionary narratives.

This article examines the controversial martyr characters in the three works, and argues that the imperfect martyr is a critical element of how transnational/transregional Chinese-language cinema at the turn of the twenty-first century imagines history and recasts the fundamental myths of revolution. By rejecting the utopian ideological rhetoric of collective power in PRC red classics and staking the legitimacy of their accounts of revolution on the nuanced human performance of the individual, the three films show a willingness to test the existing boundaries of ideological and aesthetic control in mainland China with nonpolitical rhetoric and approach. Their representations of romantic and sensual martyrs illuminate the unique ways in which the filmmakers’ promulgation of ethos and aesthetics are connected to contemporary audiences, who are less ideologically committed to the revolutionary past and whose lives are intertwined with the global present.