Heroic Human Pixels: Mass Ornaments and
Digital Multitudes in Zhang Yimou’s Spectacles

By Jason McGrath

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 25, no.2 (Spring 2013), pp. 51-79

Previously hailed in the West as a subversive Chinese filmmaker, Zhang Yimou was later castigated as lending support to the Communist state and incarnating a “totalitarian” sensibility, particularly in his film Hero (Yingxiong, 2002) and in the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, which he directed. This paper investigates such criticisms on the level of aesthetic form by reference to two theoretical touchstones—the “mass ornament” as described by Siefried Kracauer and the “digital multitude” as elaborated by Kristen Whissel. Zhang Yimou’s representations of the tension between collective automata and individual agency are examined with regard to claims of a “fascist” aesthetic, and they ultimately are seen as articulating the formal properties of digital media and digital labor in the context of China’s position as the “workshop of the world” under twenty-first-century global capitalism.