Perseverance through Aftershocks: Epistephilia in
Chinese Reportage and Independent Documentary

By Yingjin Zhang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 31, no.2  (Fall 2019), pp. 129-161

Bill Nichols differentiates “scopophilia” in fiction films from “epistephilia” in documentary films and argues that “documentary realism aligns itself with an epistephilia … a pleasure in knowing” and that documentary “calls for the elaboration of an epistemology.” This article posits that Chinese reportage and independent documentary share an epistephilia that desires to know more, to probe beneath what is circulated as mere news of who, what, and when, to demand an in-depth exploration of why, how, and what if, and to reposition the subject in relation to knowledge and ethics. As a special literary genre, reportage asserts the agency of the knowing subject (both the writer and the reader) vis-à-vis ideological state apparatuses and seeks to renegotiate subject formation through writing and reading. Given the increased censorship and marketization and the dominance of visual culture in China since the early 1990s, independent documentary has taken much of the spotlight from reportage literature in shaping the politics and ethics of artistic representation. To illustrate shared concerns and varied focuses of reportage and documentary, I concentrate on the 1976 Tangshan earthquake and the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake as two similar chronotopes of the real and compare representational practices of Qian Gang’s reportage “The Great Earthquake in Tangshan” (1986) and three works on Wenchuan—Li Mingsheng’s reportage The Epicenter in the Human Hearts (2009), Pan Jianlin and Zhang Le’s Who Killed Our Children? (2008), and Du Haibin’s 1428 (2009), the latter two belonging to independent documentaries. Whereas Qian’s reportage exemplifies the monumental project of rewriting history on a grand scale, Li Mingsheng’s reportage draws the reader’s attention to photographs of wreckages of the earthquake and poses a series of comments and questions along the way. Contrary to the reportage’s assertion of an authorial voice, two documentaries tend to observe the unfolding of history and memory in miniatures at the local level. From Qian Gang’s self-confident narrative voice in speaking for or on behalf of Tangshan victims to recent reportage and documentaries’ insistence on speaking to and alongside Wenchuan survivors in a thematic or improvised manner, we see a radical change in epistephilia in that the status of knowledge is no longer taken for granted as in 1980s reportage and has instead become the site of interrogation and reconstruction in the new century. If Qian’s reportage demonstrates the ultimate knowability of truth as such, recent reportage and documentary works show in graphic images how realities are experienced and reported differently at the local and the national level. More than literary reconstruction in reportage, documentary photography and film foreground ethics as an urgent demand of “response-ability” for the underprivileged other (the so-called diceng) right on the scene (xianchang), at the very moments of encounter in the epicenter of the disaster. In a different way from Qian’s and Li’s authorial comments and questions in reportage, which highlight the intellectual’s mission to pursue and disseminate knowledge, two documentaries adopt the observational mode characterized by open-endedness and indeterminacy, engage the viewers in watching the aftershocks unfolding precariously, and thus compel them to revisit issues of history, memory, ethics, power, and representation from alternative positions.