Soil and Scroll: The Agrarian Origin
of a Cold War Documentary Avant Garde

By Lawrence Zi-Qiao Yang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 31, no.2  (Fall 2019), pp. 41-80

Richard Yao-Chi Chen’s documentary Liu Pi-chia has long been hailed as the very first example of cinéma vérité in Taiwanese film history. Some have even gone so far to call it the very first “modern” documentary in Taiwan for its non-propagandist rendering of Liu Bijia, a Nationalist veteran in a settlement village designated for farmers and dam builders in eastern Taiwan. Inspired by Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, Chen’s camerawork captured the existential “truth” of the exiled Chinese state in Taiwan, which was believed by most critics to challenge the sensibilities of the Nationalist’s propaganda media and, consequently, incur state policing on his art. This presupposed divide between modernist truth and propaganda ideology, however, might blind us from seeing the complicated media environment and geopolitical site-specificity of postwar Taiwan, where both audiovisual reportage and literary reportage emerged to document Taiwan’s drastically changing rural landscape.

In this essay, Yang situates the putative birth of the documentary avant-garde in Taiwan within a broader media ecology during the 1960s and 70s, a period when the Cold War geopolitics, agricultural modernization, and propaganda media converged to shape the rural landscape across different cinematic mediums and genres. In the first half of the essay, I analyze a series of policy/advocacy films produced or sponsored by the Sino-American Joint Committee on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR) with a focus on an aestheticized politics of speed characterized by acceleration, exchange, and streamlined connectivity. Between the inaccessible landscape of pre-1949 China and the rural modernity of Taiwan, film makers involved in the JCRR media production might have been interpellated into the official ideology of rural modernization. Yet, their intersectional positionality in the society might have also prepared them for a derivative and differential mode of audiovisual reportage endowed with nascent subversive potential. In the second half of the essay, turning my attention to a group of excavated pedagogical documentary films on the rice farming of “free China”—directed by Chen but funded and advised by the American Universities Field Staff and the National Science Foundation, I argue that Chen, whose pursuit of social critique through documentary was considered silenced in the early 1970s, still managed to invent a hybrid cinematic language that “deaccelerated” the JCRR visual rhetoric. By grafting the imperative of scientific/ethnographic truth onto the audiovisual critique seen earlier in Liu Pi-chia, Chen ended up utilizing the aesthetic tropes from the JCRR-sponsored agricultural cinema, while staking out a singular documentary aesthetics beyond the generic conventions designated by the official newsreels and documentaries. This essay shows how Chen’s early experiments with documentary films might have pioneered a distinctive form of audiovisual reportage that has been excluded from the standard historiography on Taiwan’s postwar literary and artistic realism.