The Aesthetics of Retroactive Memory:
Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock and the Historical Film

By Ruji Wang

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2011)

Promotional flier for Aftershock

Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present. What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past really is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps. This problem animates all sorts of discussions—about influence, about blame and judgment, about present actualities and future priorities.— Edward Said (2002: 3)

Said’s remarks are aimed at postcolonial studies, but they also underscore the reasons for the production of many historical novels and films in China. If History with a capital “H” connotes limits to human consciousness due to our situatedness in time and place, a record of meaningful events in the past strictly as experienced and understood by the people living at that time, then what I call “the aesthetics of retroactive memory” is an art of reconstructing past events according to how the contemporary viewer would like to remember them. The value and uses of such aesthetics cannot be over-estimated in a country with over four thousand years of history; changes are seldom legitimate without some reference to or reinterpretations of past events as a source of moral authority. Central to understanding the cultural life in China is some basic comprehension of the way in which Chinese writers deal with the tyranny of history in art and literature as they effect social change. Mao Zedong, for example, felt his communist revolution justified because previous history always under-represented “the people,” and he believed that “the people,” not heroes, emperors, and generals, were the real motive force in world history (人民,只有人民,才是创造世界历史的真正动力). Those who grew up during the Cultural Revolution will remember what happened to the former deputy-major of Beijing and famous historian Wu Han (吴晗; 1909-69) for writing the historical play Hai Rui Cursed the Emperor (海瑞骂皇帝, which later became a Peking Opera Hai Rui Dismissed from Office 海瑞罢官, 1959). The play was a creative reinterpretation of the life of a Ming dynasty official Hai Rui (1514-1587), known for his moral integrity and candor. Mao praised the play and urged communist leaders to emulate Hai Rui. However Wu’s knowledge and skills as a historian also engendered controversy and made him an easy target for political attacks. Wu was thrown in jail in 1965, by which time the political tides turned after many followers of Mao, especially an army general named Peng Dehuai, spoke critically of the Great Leap Forward. The ultra-leftists Jiang Qing and Yao Wenyuan made the case that this historical opera was in fact an indictment of the political campaign and a eulogy to Peng Dehuai for speaking critically of Mao the emperor. The controversy over this historical play signaled the beginning of the Cultural Revolution during which Wu committed suicide, one of many historians to have died in the battle over the meaning of history. Said is right: the past is never really past, and we should be always mindful of the ramifications of attempts to reinterpret history, which is one of the commonest strategies to judge, blame, and reinterpret the present.

If anything, Wu Han’s personal tragedy as a historian and playwright suggests that each act of reinterpretation of past events in art and literature is always about “present actualities or future priorities.” Since the founding of the People’s Republic, there have been so many historical novels and films produced to shape the collective memories of the past as “an aberration that political change has now rectified” (Larson, 1990: 140). In other words, references to the past must be made very carefully so as not to disrupt the homeostasis of the present. Whereas the state wants the past to confirm present policies and undertakings, public intellectuals, writers, and artists often do more than simply show that the present is an improvement on the past. The latter tend to show the inadequacies of the present, creating a wide divergence between how state authorities want the past remembered and how it is elaborated and interpreted through art and literature. From the beginning of the 1980s when China put itself on the path of economic reform, a political thaw ensued, and people were able to reflect critically on the past outside the official discourse of history and call into question the orthodoxies of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism. Art and literature have been instrumental in this process of cultural reorientation, offering various interpretations and elaborations of the past that had not been possible before. Not very different from Wu Han’s controversial historical play, these historical novels and films are attempts to use history to register the interests of the present. We see judgments made and blames laid in such historical films as Xie Jin’sHibiscus Town (1986), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Blue Kite (1992), Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1993), Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1994), Jia Zhangke’s Platform (2000), Wang Xiaoshuai’sShanghai Dreams (2004), Gu Changwei’s Peacock (2005), and Lu Chuan’s recent City of Life and Death (2009). In these films, the past is reconstructed, elaborated, and reinterpreted in ways that engage new social theories and political ideologies, as well as the private memories. In examining these historical films, one can hardly fail to observe the various uses of “the aesthetics of retroactive memory.” The values of contemporary China—liberal economy, the entrepreneurial spirit, democracy, and civic rights and duties—are introduced and affirmed in the way socialist past is remembered.

I propose to look at Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock (唐山大地震), a film derived from Zhang Ling’s (张翎) novella Yu zhen (余震), in this critical framework. However, the points that history is constantly made anew in art and that the past is often evoked to shape the present were lost to many working in the state-controlled media in China; they failed to understand the film as anything other than a realistic representation of how people suffered because of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. One TV talk-show host even had the director join her and meet the survivors of the quake as judges for how authentic the film depiction of the quake was. During an interview with TV personality Yang Lan, Feng explained the massive appeal of his film by saying that it told “a story of ordinary people” (一个普通老百姓的故事) and that the characters “all speak truthfully and honestly” (都说的是人话). As the guru of popular Chinese culture, Feng tried to contribute his film success to Zhang Ling’s novella he happened to be reading when someone approached him with the idea to make a film about the Tangshan earthquake. But a comparison of the film and the novella reveals much originality and even intellectual daring on the part of the director who created a national sensation and blockbuster out of an initially obscure story by a therapist for the hearing impaired living in Toronto.

In the Epilogue of her book that is the source for the film, Zhang Ling recalls how she by chance picked up a copy of First-Hand Accounts of Tangshan Earthquake at Beijing International Airport one day in July of 2006. The book enabled her to imagine the death and devastation of the earthquake (which happened exactly thirty years earlier) as if she had been there. Intrigued by the question of what happened to the many kids who survived, she was left unsatisfied with such perfunctory accounts as “they . . . became the mainstay of the company,” “entered college by passing the entrance exam with flying colors,” or “had a happy family.” She found herself wanting to write a book to lend expression to the hardship and pain of the survivors that she felt had been filtered out by the passage of time or blocked out by good wishes (我固执地认为一定还有一些东西,一些关于地震之后的‘后来,’在岁月和人们善良的愿望中被过滤了; Zhang 2010: 227). For the author, the motivation to recreate the past is a desire to deepen people’s understanding of the human psyche in the present. In psychoanalysis, healing begins only when the patient is brought back to and made conscious of the moment in which trauma occurred in the past, conscious of the complex in which s/he is pathologically stuck. This is precisely why the novelist entitles her book “Aftershock,” to draw attention to the small cracks and post-traumatic injuries hidden underneath the normalcy of Chinese cultural life. In the novella, the stress is on how difficult it is for the individual to recover from her post-traumatic injuries. To the author, these psychological wounds seldom get addressed or healed after the survivor appears to be already normal and functional. As Zhang puts it, “My Aftershock is mainly about the psychological pain and injury that linger after the natural disaster is over” (“《余震》是关于疼痛的。一种天灾带来的,却没有随天灾逝去的心灵疼痛”; Zhang 2010: 228) In this sense, her book is a true example of what James Hillman calls “healing fictions,” which are “mental constructs, fantasies by means of which we fashion or ‘fiction’ a life or a person into a case history” (Hillman 1994).

The heroine of the novella, Fang Deng, has to overcome her suicidal thoughts and self-loathing, growing up with the knowledge that, when faced with the horrible choice of saving one child over the other, her mother favored her twin brother, Fang Da. Hers is a case history punctuated by her mother’s abandonment, sexual molestation by her foster-father when she is only thirteen, and her boyfriend’s betrayal. The novella unfolds in two geographical locations, Toronto and Tangshan, and over course of thirty years, during which time the heroine is always in the grip of fear, unable to embrace or trust anybody. “To her, houses were not the only thing that came tumbling down suddenly on that day; there was also her faith in the world” (对她来说,在那一天里轰然倒塌的不仅仅是房屋,还有她对整个世界的信任;Zhang 2010: 228). In the novella, which alludes to Sigmund Freud by name, the way to heal one’s self is through self knowledge: Fang Deng must return many times to a past in which she is still trapped emotionally.

The significance and importance of Zhang’s fictional work, which inspired Feng Xiaogang’s epic film about a painful chapter in Chinese history, cannot be fully appreciated independent of the literary developments after Mao’s death, which occurred in the same year as Tangshan earthquake. It is thematically connected to a body of fictional texts known as the “literature of the wounded” (伤痕文学), texts in which the immediate past is reconstructed as a series of aftershocks that left ugly scars on the human psyche. The title—Aftershocks —is emblematic of many post-traumatic and long lasting emotional injuries carefully elaborated in such fictional works as “Class Monitor” (班主任,Liu Xinwu, 1977), “The Wounded” (伤痕 Lu Xinhua, 1978), The Execution of Mayor Yin (尹县长 Chen Ruoxi, 1978),Unrequited Love (苦恋 Bai Hua, 1979), Ah (啊 Feng Jicai, 1979), Bolshevik Salute (布礼 Wang Meng, 1979), Ren a, Ren! (人啊!人 Dai Houying, 1980), Six Chapters from My Life Downunder (干校六记 Yang Jiang, 1980), A Small Town Called Hibiscus (芙蓉镇 Gu Hua, 1983), Half Man Is Woman (男人的一半是女人,Zhang Xianliang, 1984). Working under the policy to “present the past as an aberration that political change has now rectified,” these writers nonetheless felt encouraged to speak for those casualties of Mao’s revolutionary excess and expose the disastrous consequences of the seismological changes during his rule. And speak and expose they did, to the best of their ability, while trying to avoid being implicated in the campaign against “bourgeois liberalism” in 1980. Liu Xinwu, who is generally thought to have initiated the “literature of the wounded,” addressed it as “revolutionary humanism” (Liu 1992: 51) in the name of which writers demanded and justified greater freedom for themselves (Larson, 1990). In Liu’s “Class Monitor” (1977), Teacher Zhang embodies the spirit of this kinder and gentler humanism, whereas his student, Xie Huimin, represents the mass-minded society China became through Mao’s uninterrupted revolutions. The tension between them over whether to include or isolate the sixteen-year-old juvenile delinquent Song Baoqi constitutes a careful negotiation between liberalism and the ideology of hate. The teacher’s sympathetic view of the young hooligan, which is a striking contrast with the ultra-leftist mindset of the young secretary of the Youth League in his class, suggests the extent to which past history could be open for reinterpretation and offers redress to those who had been treated wrongly as “class enemies.” In the novella, teacher Zhang’s liberal attitude is a countervailing force to the history and ideology of socialist revolution.

Like some of the movies and novels mentioned above, Feng Xiaogang’s film takes this new humanism to another level, unthinkable in the 1980s when writers and filmmakers had to use the same cash of vocabulary and rely on the same currency of ideas that were essential to the discourse of socialist revolution. The political and intellectual climate at that time clearly favored change and openness, but that spirit of optimism was not powerful enough to erase the cynicism that many felt, including film director Chen Kaige who regrets the open denunciation of his own father that he was compelled to make during the Cultural Revolution:

Whenever a social or political disaster is over, there are always too many who would stand up from their original kneeling position and say ‘I accuse’ but far too few who would kneel down and say ‘I repent.’ And when disaster [of political oppression] recurs, those who would kneel down and say ‘I repent’ always outnumber those that would stand up and say ‘I accuse.’ (无论什么样的社会的或政治的灾难过后,总是有太多原来跪着的人站起来说:我控诉!太少的人跪下去说:我忏悔。当灾难重来时,总是有太多的人跪下去说:我忏悔。而太少的人站起来说:我控诉!) (Chen Kaige 1989)

Cynicism persists as long as such acts of political expediency, done out of cowardice rather than one’s own moral conscience or sense of personal integrity, are still a commonplace and receive no real critical scrutiny. As Zhang Ling aptly points out, as people tried to recover from the disasters of the past and achieve normalcy in post-Mao China, many things went unheeded. In other words, it is easy to say, “I accuse!” when the political climate encourages it or even demands redress and reparation; it is much harder to say, “I repent!” or “I am sorry!” out of a sense of decency or civic duty. If anything, Feng Xiaogang’s film and (to some extent) Zhang Ling’s novella are precisely that: psychological and moral dramas that seek to combat cynicism and callousness. Zhang may be truly disinterested in this political dimension of writing about China’s past, but she is not (nor are her readers, Feng Xiaogang, or his audiences) unaware of the past as an allegory. To the extent the story is informed by the discourse of psychoanalysis and about the recovery of someone who finds healing in self-knowledge, it also lends itself to the function of providing psychotherapy as well as redress for those still suffering from past grievances, personal or political.

English poster for AftershockIf for Zhang Ling revisiting the Tangshan earthquake is to heal people, then for Feng Xiaogang, who works with roughly the same set of characters and plotline, the point of this historical film, about a family first torn apart by the 1976 quake and then further devastated by displacement and estrangement, is to promote civic duties and rights. For Feng Xiaogang, the massive psychological damage done to the seven-year old Fang Deng percolates over the course of thirty years into a quest for national solidarity on the part of the director. One film poster shows Fang Deng standing in the rain, covered in mud, with only underwear on. She is the poster child of a common humanity across age, race, gender, class and political views. Feng Xiaogang has much to invest in this child if everybody in China is to see a small piece of their own grief and sorrow reflected in and purged through her. Her personal journey to recover from self-loathing and self-pity resonates with anyone and everyone who has suffered and wants that suffering recognized. In this sense, the quake is truly unimportant and immaterial. The magnitude of destruction in the twenty-three seconds during which over 240,000 lives were lost, cinematically reproduced and reconstructed fifteen minutes into the story and a great spectacle common in Hollywood disaster films, is nothing compared to the pain and spiritual neglect that people experience while trying to live a normal life. Feng Xiaogang devotes the next two hours to painstakingly reconstructing and piecing together the broken lives of the quake survivors who, like Fang Deng, are scarred for life. Hidden beneath the appearances of normalcy are painful personal memories that linger and poison personal relations. Through his cinematography, Feng honors the belief of the author who, as a third-person omniscient narrator, states “the way people fall tends to be uniform whereas there are multiple ways in which people stand up” (人们倒下去的方式都是大同小异的。可是天灾过去之后每个人站起来的方式却是千姿百态的;Zhang 2010: 55) Whereas a necessary condition for cultural normalcy and social success is to forget and be callous, indifferent, or oblivious to what hurts most, the film dwells on the lingering pains the individual must manage in order to stand up and survive. In the film, Fang Deng explains to her foster father that the reason for her reluctance to go to Tangshan to look for her relatives, as he urges her to do, is not that she no longer remembers who they are but that she cannot forget them (especially her mother, who told the rescue workers to save her brother instead of her). Fang Deng thus personifies what Freud refers to as the return of the repressed, hurt and haunted by what she cannot forget, and defenseless against a memory that paralyzes her. As a physical therapist, Zhang Ling treats past events as psychic realities that do not follow laws of time, whereas Feng Xiaogang treats past events of human suffering as testimonies of national character. Can China become a great nation if the people have no notion of their civic duties and rights, and if people work and live together without a sense of common decency?Chinese poster for Aftershock

On some level, the reconstruction of the Tangshan earthquake in Aftershock provides a general outlet for dissatisfaction and allows suppressed feelings and emotions to be listened to and attended to. In other words, the film serves as catharsis; through heroine Fang Deng, the viewer’s negative feelings and grievances are purged and addressed. It creates a synergy between the collective memory of a natural disaster and the current national project of building a civic society, a governance by mutual consent, social contract, and democracy. The dialogism in this historical film lends expression to the core values of contemporary China among such characters as Fang Deng, her boyfriend, Fang Da, mother, foster parents through whom we come to experience the existential meaning of the present. Fang Deng’s reconciliation with her mother Yuanni opens an aesthetic space where the differing beliefs and values of two generations coalesce into one stream of historical consciousness. The generational gap reminds me of the remark critic Lucien Goldmann makes about the work of Balzac which “might constitute the only great literary expression of the world as structured by the conscious values of the bourgeoisie: individualism, the thirst for power, money, and eroticism, which triumph over the ancient feudal values of altruism, charity, and love” (Goldmann 1975: 14). Mother and father in the film represent a collective past when self-sacrifice was expected of everyone, whereas Fang Deng, her boyfriend Yang Zhi, Fang Da, and his wife voice the views and attitudes of those who grew up in post-Mao China, motivated and driven by the pursuit of individual happiness. In both the novella and film, trauma results when Fang Deng hears her mother tell the rescue team to save Da, her brother. Psychologically and figuratively speaking, this is the aftershock. The shock that her mother would sacrifice her to save her brother paralyzes her for the next thirty-two years. As soon as she regains consciousness after the earthquake and walks away from a pile of dead bodies, including that of her father, she becomes an orphan, cut loose and drifting away from her roots. In this earth-shattering moment, a family breaks up, with Fang Deng having to survive and deal with the void left by the death of her father and her mother’s emotional abandonment or betrayal. In other words, it is after the devastating quake that the shock is felt—when the issue of emotional recovery emerges as the film crosscuts among various members of the Fang family and their efforts to fill the voids left by the quake. Only toward the end does she achieve a sense of closure when new families and new relations emerge. Fang Deng is brought up by and forms a strong bond with her foster father, a bond she never had with her biological father. Fang Da, the twin brother, marries a young woman almost entirely out of his psychological need to give his mother the baby girl that she has lost saving him. Fang Deng also forms a family with a white Canadian who accepts her and her daughter (born out of wedlock) unconditionally. This sense of closure results from a collective memory serving as a common thread connecting unrelated individuals together, even nationally and transnationally.

To the extent that Chris Berry (2000: 159) is correct that it “is not so much China that makes movies, but movies that help to make China,” it can also be argued that Aftershock brings about a civic society that responds to human suffering and natural disasters quickly or spontaneously, in which people are interconnected by both private and collective memories of the past and willing and ready to lend support to one another in selfless ways. (Feng also directed A World without Thieves in 2005, another fantastic story of thieves fighting to defend the money and innocence of the weak who cannot fend for themselves in the Darwinian jungle that is contemporary Chinese society.) To be sure, it is a tough world, visited by natural disasters that demand of people hard choices. But thanks to many civic-minded characters and their spirit of humanism, the victims of the Tangshan earthquake are able to ultimately find a sense of closure and bounce back. Their resilience is evident not only in their survival of the Tangshan quake but in the fact that when the 2008 Wenchuan quake rocks Sichuan, they rush to the epicenter to give aid to its victims. In this reconstruction of history we recognize the mosaic of a new national identity and solidarity because of which people are able to come together, as they did in 2008, thirty-two years after the Tangshan earthquake, when Sichuan was rocked by another devastating quake. Help, sympathy, love, and support flowed steadily to the Sichuan quake’s epicenter as if demanded by a collective memory of the victims of Tangshan quake, and as if common decency, respect for and remembrance of the innocent victims in the past would require nothing less. What is traumatic is not the magnitude of human suffering (there have been episodes in Chinese history in which the loss of lives was far greater), but the absence of adequate attention to what is lost and dead that can express the moral needs of the living as a people and society. For example, Fang Deng’s humanity manifests itself when, fifteen years after the quake, she changes her mind about having an abortion. Eager to have her go through with the abortion, her selfish boyfriend reminds her of the young girls they have seen at the gynecology clinic hoping to end their unwanted pregnancies. “Others can, but I cannot; I am from Tangshan; you don’t know me at all,” she says, rejecting his callous disregard for life as if preserving and honoring the memory of the quake victims. The idea of the abortion comes from her boyfriend, who does not want her dropout of college, which would be, in his words, too much of a “sacrifice” for a relationship. “You don’t know the meaning of sacrifice,” she replies, sulking and remembering the kind of real personal sacrifices people like her parents had to make in 1976. Such is the strategy of this historical film, to refine the sediments of past devastations and extract from a pool of human misery the shining moments of self-sacrifice, extraordinary compassion, loyalty, and resilience that dignify human existence. Yuanni cannot forget her husband, a hero and loving husband who was crushed to death when trying to get back into their home to save their children. The natural disaster strikes indiscriminately, but it brings out the best in people and serves to forge a civic society nonexistent under normal circumstances. The film thus constitutes an alternative moral vision to the cutthroat and relentless competition in contemporary China where people are so consumed by the acquisition of material wealth that they can be quite indifferent and callous to the people around them.

The characters in Feng’s film exemplify the civic virtues; they constantly offer apologies and forgiveness to make peace and amend broken relations. Never has the viewer heard people say “I am sorry” (对不起) to one another so readily and freely as in this film. The world in the film resembles a culture in which spiritual existence is regulated by such religious rituals and ceremonies as confession, absolution, and redemption, a polite society in which people conduct themselves according to such civic values as mutual respect and human rights. When Yuanni, the mother, finds Deng’s body next to that of her dead husband, she lifts it up and holds it tight, choked by tears saying, “I am sorry, Deng” (妈对不起你), as if asking for forgiveness for the decision she has made to save her son Fang Da first. While Tangshan is still a huge pile of rubble, Yuanni’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law come to pay her a visit. With their true intention of taking Da away with them made very clear, Yuanni apologizes profusely to her in-laws for having survived her husband and daughter, and keeps saying to herself: “Mom, I am sorry; I’m sorry, Fang Deng; I’m sorry, Daqiang [her husband]; I’m sorry, Da [who has had one arm amputated].” When confronted with an angry father with no news about his daughter, Yang Zhi, Fang Deng’s boyfriend who gets her pregnant before she goes missing, apologizes to her foster-father for being derelict in his duties as a boyfriend, “I’m sorry; I’ll go find her at once.” After years of living as a single mother with her daughter born out of wedlock, Deng finally returns to see her foster-father and offers this apology, “Dad, I’m sorry for not coming back to see you sooner” (爸,对不起,这么多年都没回家看看). In the end, when Deng finally faces her mother who has been a widow all these years, she asks her why she has not remarried, Yuanni replies, “If I had been trying to live it up, I’d feel even worse and sorrier to you” (我要是过得花红柳绿的就更对不起你了). Able to understand now her mother’s words “save brother,” a choice that has hurt her for decades, she finally breaks down and apologizes to Yuanni for not being daughterly all these years, “I’m sorry; I’m sorry. As soon as I saw Da alive in Wenchuan, I started hating myself. He is my brother and alive! How wonderful! Mom, I’m sorry! I tormented you for thirty-two years, for which I cannot forgive myself. Mom, I’m sorry.” The incident that contributes to this moment of reconciliation and healing, carefully engineered by the director, is the Wenchuan earthquake: Deng joins a rescue team from Tangshan and sees a mother make the wrenching decision to amputate her daughter’s leg, and she finally comes to understand her own mother’s decision thirty years earlier. This means, among other things, that in a public sphere, public interests override a mother’s love for her children and that if put in the same situation, she would have to act similarly and carry out her duties as a citizen in a civic society.

This is no longer a Confucian culture (although filial piety is very much present) that infantilizes people and emphasizes blind obedience, nor is it the political culture of Maoism that asks people to sacrifice themselves for the grand ideal of communism. Emerging from the film is a bourgeois civic society where life is lived and valued at the level of individual happiness and where even family members are civil to one another. Aftershock is a blueprint of a civic society in which people interact not because of a grand ideal, a political cause or a revolutionary ideology but by observing the tacit rules of common decency, mutual respect, and equality for all. We do not see, as we did during the Mao era, idealized revolutionary heroes who die for a political cause. The characters are motivated and driven by very personal desires that a twenty-first-century Chinese viewer can understand and relate to. They explain their actions not by referring to a political discourse, but to their pain and grievances suffered in silence as victims of unfortunate circumstances. In the past, films and national monuments commemorated revolutionary martyrs, but not here. The film ends with a long shot of the Tangshan Memorial Wall on which are carved the names of over 240,000 quake victims. The shot draws attention not only to the numbers of those who fell victim but, through what happens to the Fang family, to the personal struggles of the individual to stand up and recover. With his film, Feng Xiaogang inserts into the official history of China the sorrows of the faceless and forgotten ordinary people. Right after the film’s release, the whole crew of the Hong Kong based Phoenix TV station, along with other news reporters and journalists, went to the Wall to pay their respects to the dead. The film is thus a lesson in civic duty and citizenry to the millions of viewers who made it such a success at the box office. It shows them how to interact in a civic society worthy of greatness, and how to remember the past. If China is to live up to its greatness, then more walls need to be built in the future to honor those who fell victim to past famines, wars, and social upheavals, who have remained till this day nameless, their personal stories never told, and their faces long forgotten. By staging the recovery of one family from disaster, Feng successfully manages to reawaken the moral conscience and gentle soul of a nation with many painful and disturbing memories. This disaster film tells the viewer that it would reflect badly on the humanity of those who survive and prosper today if dead are allowed to remain nameless or faceless, with their grievances repressed by a deliberate collective amnesia. As is made evident by the logic of this story, a common humanity is always achieved performatively by mourning the dead and by saying “I am sorry” to the survivors.

No effort was spared in the production of this historical film to promote what Feng believes should be the core values for contemporary China as a civic society. As the film pursues the personal stories of a family broken up, separated, estranged, and reunited by earthquakes over a time span of thirty-two years—beginning with Tangshan Earthquake in 1976 and ending with the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008—viewers becomes conscious of their duties as citizens to treat others with dignity and respect for their rights, regardless of economic standings. The historical moment of the Tangshan earthquake is never looked at so closely as it is now because at the time it was eclipsed by another important event that Feng Xiaogang also keeps in his filmic time capsule: the death of Mao, which occurred just a few months after the earthquake. The director embeds in the film documentary footage of over a million people mourning Mao in Tiananmen Square, followed by a scene of Fang Deng’s foster father mourning along with other enlisted men in the People’s Liberation Army. The occasion of Mao’s death, however, is reconstructed in the film to give ordinary people a public venue to mourn the deaths of their loved ones: a close-up of Fang Deng’s foster father shows him standing in a sea of army uniforms and lost in thoughts about the quake victims he and his army comrades have helped. In other words, Mao’s passing as depicted here becomes a proper occasion to mourn the quake victims. The shot conveys a bitter and poignant irony: the loss of over 240,000 lives commanded less national attention than the death of one man. The clip of the public funeral for Mao subtly challenges and subverts the official version of history by what seems to be a tragedy of ordinary people, if such an oxymoron makes any sense. Feng Xiaogang understands well that the way a nation honors its dead directly reflects and reshapes the morals of that nation, and this gives the Tangshan quake survivors a real sense of closure. No memory or history is meaningful unless we know by name the people who lived in it: the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. preserves the memories of the dead American soldiers, and each year New Yorkers honor over 2,000 victims of 9/11 terrorist attack on World Trade Center by reading out their names one by one.

While politics and ideology are perhaps the last things on Feng Xiaogang’s mind, Aftershock is not entirely free of political significance. In fact what appears to be art and entertainment (the historical novel or film) has created a venue for channeling grievances and past wrongs that have never been properly acknowledged or received redress. Such grievances could easily include those against the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist movement, the Cultural Revolution, and even the Tiananmen massacre, which were political disasters that resulted in the loss of millions of lives. No real national solidarity is possible until such painful events are either totally forgotten or receive proper acknowledgement and redress. It is heartening to see so much public attention given to the past that is not really past, and to present actualities and priorities not adequately acknowledged. By revisiting this painful chapter in Chinese history, the film identifies and celebrates the civic virtues to take hold in China and to become the bedrocks of a new chapter in Chinese history. His is truly a “story of the ordinary people” (一个普通老百姓的故事) who must find new ideals as the cornerstones of an emerging civic society that would not be shaken to the ground by natural disasters or such man-made calamities as a world financial crisis or an economic tsunami. This is why the film has strong moral appeal to Chinese audiences. It compensates for the harsh and bleak reality of China’s present, a reality in which ordinary people are often left to fend for themselves and are at mercy of the powerful. Not surprisingly, therefore, the heroine in the film is the most popular and best understood character, trying to stride through the world while still haunted by fear and post-traumatic injuries. In this fantasy of natural disaster, all the necessary ingredients of a good drama—catastrophe, tragedy, sympathy, love, compassion, and honesty—fall into place to warm the human heart.

Rujie Wang
College of Wooster


Berry, Chris. “If China Can Say No, Can China Make Movies? Or, Do Movies Make China? Rethinking National Cinema and National Agency.” In Rey Chow, ed., Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory: Reimagining a Field. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000, 159-180.

Chen, Kaige 陈凯歌. 1989. Chen Kaige qingchun huiyilu 陈凯歌青春回忆录 (Memoirs of Chen Kaige’s youth). Beijing: Renmin daxue.

Goldmann, Lucien. 1975. Towards A Sociology of the Novel. London: Tavistock.

Hillman, James. 1994. Healing Fiction. Woodstock, CT: Spring Publishing.

Larson, Wendy. 1989. “Bolshevik Salute: The Chinese Intellectual.” In Wang Meng, Bolshevik Salute. Tr. Wendy Larson. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Liu, Xinwu. 1992 [1981]. “Reflections in the Hot Springs at Hakone: China, Our Impoverished, Trouble-Ridden Motherland.” In Helmut Martin, ed., Modern Chinese Writers Self-Portrayals. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 47-52.

Said, Edward. 2002. Culture and Imperialism. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Zhang Ling 张翎. 2010. Yu zhen 余震 (Aftershocks).Beijing: Shiyue wenyi.