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Filmic Folklore and Chinese Cultural Identity

Author(s): Juwen Zhang


Source: Western Folklore, Vol. 64, No. 3/4, Film and Folklore (Summer - Fall, 2005), pp. 263-
280
Published by: Western States Folklore Society
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Filmic Folklore and Chinese
Cultural
Identity
Juwen
Zhang1
INTRODUCTION
Chinese folklore has
played
a
key
role in
reconstructing
or reinforc
ing stereotypes
toward Chinese culture and
people
since the
1980s,
which is
particularly apparent through
those films
popular
in the West.
While there has been broad interest in
studying
Chinese films that
reflect social and cultural
changes,
one can
hardly
find
any publication
on Chinese folklore in the films besides
commentaries,
even in Chinese
(Huang
2004,
Yi
2000).
In
China,
the fictional films with folklore con
tent are
generally
called
nongcui
or
xiangtu
(rural
or
village
and
folksy)
films as a
genre,
while those
documentary-style
films about
folklore,
rarely by
folkloric
filmmakers,
are classified as
documentary (jilupian).
Scholarly
works have
begun
to show interest in this area
(Huang
2004,
Deng
2002),
but the foci are
largely
on the
emergence
of folklore events
in films and the cinematic
presentation
of
folklore,
using
such
general
terms as
yingshi
renleixue
(visual
anthropology)
or
yingshi
minsu
(or
minsu
yingshi,
folklore in
photographic,
film,
and video
products).
A
differentiation of the
(fictional
and
non-fictional)
film with folklore ele
ments and the film
by
folkloric filmmakers
(with
folkloristic
approaches)
is
yet
to be made.
Outside of
China, however,
fictional films with distinctive folklore ele
ments
by
the "fifth
generation"
(those
trained in the late 1970s and
early
1980s)
and
Diaspora
(overseas)
directors2
are
winning
various
awards,
entering
classrooms,
stimulating
interest in Chinese culture
(tourism,
business,
and
politics),
and even
providing
evidence for
scholarly argu
ments
(college
students' research
papers)
on China. The
popularity
of these films in and outside of China has created a
phenomenon
that
should
prompt
folklorists to ask:
1)
How should folklorists understand
the filmic
representation
of Chinese folklore in these
widely
viewed
(and
commercially
successful)
films?
2)
In addition to
maintaining
tradition,
Western Folklore 64:3&4
(Summer
& Fall
2005):263-80.
Copyright
?
2006,
Western States Folklore
Society
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264
JUWEN
ZHANG
what roles are these films
playing
in
constructing
and
reconstructing
the cultural
identity
of the Chinese and the Chinese
Diaspora?
3)
What
impact
are these films
bringing
to China and its
people
whose folklore
is mimed and reinvented
through
films?
To answer
these
questions,
this article looks at the filmic
representa
tion of Chinese
folklore,
which I call "filmic folklore." In relation to
the folkloric
films,
filmic folklore is an
emerging body
of folklore and
deserves attention from both folkloristic studies and film studies. It
requires interdisciplinary approaches
to define this
genre
or form and
to build theoretical issues to
pursue
it further. To define filmic
folklore,
I will first look at the theoretical
development
of the studies of folklore
and
film,
folkloric or
folkloristic film.
FOLKLORIC OR FOLKLORISTIC FILM
Folkloric
film,
as a
genre
in film studies and folklore
studies,
established
its seminal definition and
methodology recendy
with the
publication
of
Documenting
Ourselves
by
Sharon Sherman
(1998),
who first used the
term
(1977).
Along
with a
great
number of folkloric films
themselves,
the
book earmarked the
disciplinary
field,
and the
concept
is
increasingly
recognized, replacing
the
vague expression
of "folklore film."
The term "folklore film" can be traced back to
1934,
when the
British Film Institute first used it in a call for contributions to Folklore
(1934:290),
with a loose definition of "non-commercial films
dealing
with folklore." In the
U.S.,
the earliest documentation of folklore as
text can be traced to 1935
(Sherman 1998:63).
But the first call for
film reviews in the
Journal of
American Folklore did not
appear
until
1974,
and the film reviews in the
journal
showed the
"growing
interest in
film
among
folklorists
during
the 1970s"
(Sherman 1998:288).
Keith
Cunningham
noted,
"All
[folklore films]
are
shaped consciously
and
unconsciously by
a
producer
or editor
or
collector who has an artistic
vision to
embody,
or an idea of his informants to
present,
or a theoreti
cal
position
to defend"
(1977:123)
and later treated the folklore film as
an
emerging "subgenre
of
documentary cinematography"
(1983:123).
Meanwhile,
Burt Feintuch warned that folklore film should not "rein
force certain
stereotypic views?notably
that
'rural,'
'marginal,'
and
'folk' are
virtually synonymous"
and that
good
folklore films should be
"a
completely objective representation"
(1977:253).
Indeed,
document
ing
folklore
(with
the advance of film
technology),
or
treating
folklore
film as text
(from
a folkloristic
view),
has still been
a
major
theme
or
effort for folkloric filmmakers and for folklorists
dealing
with film.
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Filmic Folklore and Chinese Cultural
Identity
265
Sherman, however,
takes a new
approach
to the critical examination
of the folkloric film
by analyzing
"the relation of film
technique
and
procedure
to the central
subject
or content 'focus' of folkloric filmmak
ers"
(1998: xiv).
Sherman differentiates the folkloric films and videos
from
documentary
in terms of the foci and
locales,
and the role of
filmmakers of the two
genres,
and
emphasizes
that the
purpose
of folk
loric films "is to document folklore"
(1998:63).
While film critics and
scholars "insist that
documentary provide
social
analysis
that will lead to
social
change,"
Sherman considers that folkloric films
[as
a
genre]
do
not
directly
deal with social
problems,
but "ask viewers to look
at their
own lives and find resemblances to what is seen in the filmic record.
. . .
Folklore film authenticates the folk
practices
and events
that
people
perform,
and viewers search to find themselves mirrored or shattered
by
the
images.
. .
.Thus,
folklore films and videos offer an
interpretive
window for
comprehending
ourselves"
(1998:260).
This
meaningful
approach
to folkloric films as a
genre
examines the intertextual and
contextual interactive relations
among
the
filmmaker, film,
and viewer
within certain social and cultural contexts as
well
as
interpretations
of
such films from different theoretical
perspectives.
To
Sherman,
the
folkloric film's fundamental
goal
is to document ourselves or mirror
our own lives
(whether
from the
filmmaker's,
producer's,
editor's,
or
viewer's
point
of
view).
The terms "folklore film" and "folkloric film"
may
be
confusing
and
problematic.
For
example,
is it a film about
folklore,
or is it a film
that itself is
folklore,
like a
home movie?
Fully advocating
Sherman's
approach,
Michael Owen
Jones
(1998)
prefers
the term "folkloristic
film." He further
explains
that "folkloristic film" indicates that the film
not
only
contains folklore as
data,
but also is informed
by
methods from
the
discipline
of folkloristics
(Jones
2005,
personal
email).
In
addition,
Jones
(1998),
in his introduction to Sherman's
book,
basically
echoes
Sherman who is
using
folkloristic, folkloric,
and folklore film to mean
the same
thing.
Like
Sherman,
he
carefully distinguishes
folkloristic film
from other
kinds,
in
particular, anthropological
film:
As Sharon Sherman
indicates, [folkloristic film]
is first and foremost
about
folklore,
that
is,
expressive
or
symbolic
behavior
learned,
taught,
displayed,
or
utilized in situations of firsthand interaction and
judged
to be traditional.
. . .
While the
anthropological
film tends to concern
the non-Western
world,
often a
folkloristic film
explores
the traditions
of networks and individuals in industrialized
societies,
sometimes even
an
ethnic,
religious, occupational,
or
special
interest
group
with which
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266
JUWEN
ZHANG
the filmmaker is affiliated. But more than
this,
the
questions
addressed
by
the filmmaker and the theoretical
perspectives
relied
upon
to deal
with these matters differentiate the folkloristic film from
any
other
(1998: x).
Sherman's contribution of
distinguishing
folkloristic film from docu
mentary
or
nonfiction film earmarks
a new
stage
for both folklore stud
ies and film studies. In the short
history
of the folkloristic
approach
to
films,
the initial
stage
of
identifying
traditional elements in films and
examining
the
relationship
of folklore text and context in folkloristic
films have now led to the
stage
of
looking
at traditional human behav
ior documented with
film,
as seen in Sherman's book.
Unfortunately,
in the
study
of
film,
in
particular
the
documentary
or nonfiction
film,
folkloristic film has not been seen as a
genre,
nor
had relevant attention
paid
to it. For
example,
in the studies of rhetoric and
representation
in nonfiction film
(Plantinga
1997),
defining
new
style documentary
(Warren 1996),
and
theorizing documentary
(Renov 1993),
there is no
discussion
on folklore in film. In
fact,
most
people studying
films would
consider "that the art of film occurs in two main branches
or
states,
call
them fictional and factual film"
(Cavell
1996:
xi).
The
discipline
of folkloristics has not
only
studied current social and
cultural
changes,
but has also been
strengthened by
this
exemplary
interdisciplinary approach
to film both in folklore content and the
cinematic
process
of
documenting
and
preserving
it. In
reviewing
folk
loristic studies of
popular
film and television in the
past
two decades or
so,
Mikel
J.
Koven
points
out that
"although certainly
not central to folk
loristic
research,
folklorists have
explored
certain
aspects
of
popular
film
and television
beyond
the
documentary
cinema,"
despite
the fact that
the
"motif-spotting"
studies in
popular
mass-media
(fiction
film and tele
vision)
"have tended to dominate the research"
(2003:189-90).
Efforts
of
applying
folkloristic theoretical models to
analyze
film and folklore
have been carried out in
studying
"folkloric
film,"
"nonacademic feature
films,"
and "a
unique
twist" of the
"popular
use of folklore" in feature
films
(Sherman
1997, 1996),
and in
dealing
with
specific
issues such
as
gender
roles
(Koven 1999:294).
In addition to
studying
the "folklore"
that is
already represented
in the
film,
folklorists
are also interested in
looking
at the intent and
impact
of
using
or
creating
such folklore in
fiction films. What shall be done about the films that
are not made to
document
folklore,
but use
folklore
or
folklore-like
(or
mimic
folklore)
elements
(e.g.,
fictional
films)?
What shall folklorists do about those
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Filmic Folklore and Chinese Cultural
Identity
267
made not to mirror
folklore,
but to create folklore so as to
impose
some
idiosyncratic
ideas
by
the filmmaker
or
producer
or writer?
To answer these
questions,
the studies of folkloristic films have
pro
vided
a
theoretical base. In this
vein,
in the
following pages,
I
argue
that
filmic folklore has
emerged
as a
phenomenon
in non-folkloristic films
(as
defined
above)
and deserves attention from
folklorists,
and I will dis
cuss
it,
primarily
from folkloristic
views,
as a
genre
that is characteristic
of the films
by
the fifth
generation
and overseas Chinese directors.
FILMIC FOLKLORE
Filmic
folklore,
by
definition,
is an
imagined
folklore that exists
only
in
films,
and is a folklore or folklore-like
performance
that is
repre
sented, created,
or
hybridized
in fictional film. Taken out of the
original
(social, historic,
geographic,
and
cultural)
contexts,
it functions in simi
lar
ways
to that of folkloristic films. Filmic folklore
imposes
or reinforces
certain
stereotypes (ideologies),
and
signifies
certain
meanings
identi
fied and consumed
(as
"the
truth")
by
a
certain
group
of
people.
The
folklore in filmic folklore
may appear
as a
scene,
an
action,
an
event,
or
a
storyline (plot),
and in verbal or non-verbal form.
Filmic folklore is
an
emerging body
of folklore and
possesses
the
characteristics of
traditionally
defined folklore: it is a reenactment
(Abrahams 1977),
but in a
non-traditional
milieu;
it is
performance
(Bauman 1977),
but in a
non-traditional verbal or
non-verbal
context;
it is artistic
communication,
but in non-traditional small
groups (see
the contrast with Ben-Amos's 1971
definition),
not to mention the role
of filmmakers in such folklore
performance;
and,
it is
art, artifact,
and
artifice
(Oring
1994),
but made and transmitted in non-traditional
societies.
Overall,
it is a
historical artifact
(the
film
itself);
a
describable
and transmittable
entity; (through
the medium of film
technology);
a
cultural
product;
and a
behavior
(in
filmic
patterns) (Georges
and
Jones
1995).
At the same
time, however,
it is also a
non-historical artifact
(the
folklore elements in
film);
a
non-describable and non-transmittable
entity
(to
the actual
practitioners
and
viewers);
a
culture
(or
popular
culture)
that
produces only
filmic
folklore,
rather than a
culture that
is
integral
of
continuing
traditions;
and
a
non-behavior
(compared
to
actual
practice).
Filmic folklore does not
mirror the culture and the
people
of a cer
tain time and
place,
as
folkloristic film is
supposed
to
do,
but it likewise
does offer an
interpretation
of folklore
(or
folklore-like
practice)
as an
entity
of a
culture. Films with filmic folklore do not have the
purpose
of
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268
JUWEN
ZHANG
documenting
folklore,
but rather of
deconstructing
and
reconstructing
folklore
through
the medium of
film,
thus
creating
a
time out of time.
Such filmic
folklore,
in
turn,
influences the filmmakers and
viewers,
and the actual folklore
practitioners
whose folklore is
partly
revealed
(with invention)
to the
public
domain.
Thus,
it is
meaningful
to look
at the role of filmic folklore in
constructing
cultural
identity
at
group
and national levels
(which
I discuss
below).
For
example, John
Ford
created the
"Hollywood
Indian,"
an
intentional false
representation
of
the Native Americans in his
films,
which "often
encouraged ignorant
audiences to make this kind of
mistake,"
that of
taking
the fictional as
the fact
(Nolley
1998:76).
As seen
through
filmic
folklore,
the medium of
representing
folklore
itself has become
folklore,
and thus the three
components
of folklore
(folk, lore,
and their interaction
through
certain
media)
should all be
given equal
attention. Unlike traditional
concepts
of
folklore,
filmic
folklore,
through
the lens and
screen,
establishes
a
communication
among
the filmmakers and viewers
(even
with different
cultural/lingual
backgrounds), through
the "text" of the filmic folklore. It links the
past
and the
present
in a
unique way,
and thus
impacts
the future.
Thus,
the
artistic communication of filmic folklore functions to facilitate the con
struction of new identities.
A SEMIOTIC INTERPRETATION OF THE ARTISTIC
COMMUNICATION OF FILMIC FOLKLORE
Filmic folklore
suggests
that it is a
body
of folklore
developed
out of
the need for communication between the filmmakers and the viewers
as
well
as between the insiders and the outsiders of Chinese culture
(in
the case of Chinese
film)
in
particular
social and cultural contexts. This
need for communication
implies
much more than we have understood
at both individual and national levels. The fifth
generation
directors
"have revolutionized Chinese cinematic
language
and have
brought
Chinese film to international attention"
(Zhang
and Xiao
1998:164),
and,
along
with the Chinese
Diaspora
films,
have "moved Chinese film
into directions
unexplored
before"
(Semsel 1987:14).
More
importantly,
this turn is a reflection of the
deep
roots of the Chinese culture.
But,
this
communication would not be
possible
without
a
global
context
(trans
national investment and
distribution).
The desire to communicate
through
the medium of film is not
only
artistic,
but
cultural;
in other
words,
it is the result of fundamental
cultural values and beliefs
coming
into conflict with
new values and
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Filmic Folklore and Chinese Cultural
Identity
269
beliefs. The film's artistic value
may
exceed other
meanings directly
or
indirectiy
embodied
through images (e.g.,
a
photograph). Clearly,
filmic folklore transmits the
past
to the
present
and to the
future,
as
other distinct cultural forms.
Similarly,
films with folklore elements are
more like memories or
fantasies,
representing
a
folklore that we think
is
ours,
but
one
with which
we are unable to interact. These films
may
invoke
our
longing
for the rich tradition that
we have
by arousing
our
nostalgia.
With this
nostalgic
mood,
we view and
identify
the filmic
folklore in films "as
a time we
have
survived;
and because
we dream
we have survived it?its
challenges,
its
interrogations,"
and we view the
filmic folklore
(or
the
imagined
folklore)
that is
"negative"
or
"exotic"
(for
example,
the foot
massage
in
Zhang
Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern
(1991),
or the male
queue
or
"pig-tail"
in Xie
Jin's Opium
War
(1997)),
"we think
we watch a
history
that is
simply past, incapable
of
troubling
us in the
present"
(Cantor 1996:23).
By taking
a
folkloristic
approach
to filmic
folklore,
we
will be able to
identify
old and new folklore
elements,
and
then,
by
means of a
semiotic
approach,
examine their role in
expressing
and
signifying something
obtuse,
or what Barthes
(1985)
calls the "third
meaning."
Indeed,
filmic
folklore creates or reconstructs the "webs of
significance"
(Geertz 1973)
and builds
new
meaning
into the culture with which certain
groups
identify
in certain contexts. In this mode of
communication,
filmic
folklore often becomes
a context to
interpret
the
past
and to reflect the
present.
In
fact,
we cannot and should not treat filmic folklore as text or
context.
Rather,
as
Sherman
(1998) does,
we should look at event and
interaction and
processes
documented
on
film.
For
example,
in the
early
fifth
generation
film,
Yellow Earth
(Cheng
Kaige,
1984;
a film which has much to do with folklore and folklorists
conducting
fieldwork,
but is not a
folkloric film
by
a
folkloric film
maker),
one scene is
obviously
added
as a
signifying
shot,
although
many
others are
reenacted
as true
practice
(a
wedding banquet,
a rain
praying
dance).
In this
shot,
the
girl, Cuiqiao,
stands in front of a
door
watching
the
beginning
of a
wedding.
Pasted on
the doorframe is one
part
of a
classical text
couplet showing
the words: "three obediences and
four virtues"
(namely,
the Confucian virtue of women
obeying
men).
While the folklore
practice
of
pasting couplets
on
doorframes
during
the Chinese New Year has been
common,
such
wording
is
against
the
traditional
practice
of
using only auspicious
words for this
occasion,
and is
clearly
the filmmaker's "voice-over"
expression
to invoke the
audience's association with the
negative
side of tradition and to
identify
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270
JUWEN
ZHANG
it with this common
practice.
Here,
the folklore form
remains,
but the
content is
changed
so
that the audience will reflect
upon
the Confucian
teaching
for women. Such a
filmic folklore
presentation
is offered to
impose
a
modified tradition. But the studies of this film have focused
on other
aspects
such as
political
and social
changes
since the 1980s
in China
(Semsel 1987;
Clark
1987;
Berry
1991, 2003;
Chow
1995;
Cornelius
2002).
It is in this kind of filmic
representation
that the
signi
fied third or
obtuse
meaning
is revealed.
Another
example
of filmic folklore
can be found in Raise the Red
Lantern,
based on
the novel
by
Su
Tong
(1988).
Two
particular
scenes
in the film have
caught
the attention of
viewers,
and criticisms
by
some
Chinese commentators
(such
as Dai
Qing
1993):
hanging up
red lan
terns in front of the room of one of the wives as a
signal
of the "master
of the house"
bestowing
favor
upon
her
(an
action
repeated
several
times in the
film);
and
giving
the chosen wife of the
night
a sensuous
foot
massage.
These scenes
have no
basis in Chinese
folklore,
were not
in the
novel,
and were
simply
invented
by
the filmmaker.
In Chinese
folklore,
raising
lanterns in front of houses
or
businesses
has
a
long history.
Red lanterns
are the
symbol
of
auspiciousness
and are
raised in front of the houses
(rich
and
poor) during important
festivals
even
today.
The Lantern Festival
(the
fifteenth
day
of the first month in
the Chinese
calendar)
is still
widely
celebrated. Red or blue lanterns
or
banners in front of
a restaurant mark the levels of cuisine offered. Red
lanterns with names in front of a brothel function as
signs
of
advertising,
which is still
expressed
in the current Chinese
phrase
"red lantern dis
trict"
(hongdengqu).
The use of the red lantern is informational
(for
dates
or
places)
and
symbolic (pursuing good-fortune
and
ridding
the
building
of evil
spirits
or
misfortune
during
festivals),
but in this film it
clearly
has
a filmic folklore
significance. By transferring
the
symbolic
red lanterns of
brothels to a common
house,
the film
suggests
that the social and ethi
cal
corruption
not
only
exists in some red lantern
districts,
but also in
the households of the rich.
By moving
the red lantern from in front of
the outer
gate
or
door
leading
to the
courtyard
(a
common
practice)
to
the interior and outside of the chosen wife's
room,
the
suggestion
is that
the mistress's fortune
depends
on
the man's
fancy. By (intentionally
and
inventively) relocating
the common use of the
symbol
to this
particular
use of the
symbol
(but
unfounded in folk
practice),
the
suggestion
is that
one need reflect
upon
the familiar from
a new stance.
While
sexuality
is
richly explored
in Chinese literature and Daoist
philosophy,
in a
society
in which Confucian ethics
predominate,
it was
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Filmic Folklore and Chinese Cultural
Identity
271
considered immoral to exhibit
signs
of
sexuality
in
public spaces,
even
in the common rooms inside one's
house,
or at
inappropriate
times
to
inappropriate
individuals. But filmic folklore breaks the boundaries
of time and
space
and
targets,
and fulfills a
psychological
function to
release the desire in the subconscious
as well as the conscious.
Foot
massage,
for
example,
is familiar to the Chinese audience as
a
traditional medical treatment: the hand
postures
in
massaging,
the
rhythmic
sound made
by
the wooden hammer and the
physical
comfort
one
may get,
all remind those who have been
massaged.
More
impor
tant,
Raise the Red Lantern
presents
a
montage-like memory-sensual
recollection that breaks down the normal boundaries of
memory
and
desire
(fantasy):
foot
massage
was in fact
commonly given
to males and
in medical clinics or
public
baths,
whereas in the film it was done for
a
female and in the bedroom. The
hammering rhythms
heard in the film
are
typical
in
massage
for other
parts
of the
body,
whereas in the film it
was done
on the feet
(during
the historical
period
when most women
had bound
feet,
thus
making
the scene
ahistorical).
The audience
may
identify
with the familiar
physical
comfort after
massage,
whereas in
the film it was done for sexual desire and
pleasure.
It is this
crossing
of boundaries and
reconstructing memory
of folklore that stimulates
audience members and invites their identification
through
"broken"
pieces
of
memory
or
fantasy
and filmic folklore. This
imposed image
of "traditional" Chinese
people
and
society
recasts and contrasts the
new
identity
in the
making.
The familiar becomes the remote
past;
the
vaguely
memorized
past
becomes familiar. The invented becomes the
identifiable. The confusion and malaise in current life are
released
through
the familiar
past.
The obtuse
meaning signified
was the release
of the
(natural sexual)
desire and resistance
(to
the traditional
ethics)
of the filmmaker. Studies that
adopt
a
semiotic
approach
to this
(Kong
1996)
and other films note a
similar creation of filmic
folklore,
although
their
analyses
are not
necessarily
folkloristic.
Filmic folklore is
particularly apparent
in the recent
surge
of
kungfu
(martial arts) films,
represented again by
Chen
Kaige (e.g.
The Promise
(2005)
and The
Emperor
and the Assassin
(1999))
and
Zhang
Yimou
(e.g.
House
of Flying Daggers
(2004)
and Hero
(2002)).3
To some
extent,
this
trend of
shifting
to the
kungfu genre might
have been accelerated
by
the
success of
Crouching Tiger
and Hidden
Dragon (Ang
Lee
2000),
which won
multiple
Oscar awards.
However,
in this wave
of
applying
and
creating
filmic
folklore,
film
makers
increasingly replace
the serious social and cultural issues in the
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272
JUWEN
ZHANG
films of the 1980s and 1990s with a
large
number of more
romantic and
commercial
(in
a
sense,
transnationally
invested)
films such as
kungfu
films. This shift
may pardy
be understood as a more
metaphorical
and
romantic
approach
to the old
problems,
and
pardy
due to the rise of
the "sixth
generation"
directors who
change
the focus from the "root
seeking"
in traditional culture at
large
to the individual search for iden
tity
among
the urban and rural
marginalized
groups (e.g.
Xiaoshuai
Wang's Beijing Bicycle
(2001)
and
Shanghai Dreams/Qing Hong
(2005)).
The
longing
for commercial success also
signifies
the desire to com
municate
cross-culturally
and to
employ
more
implicit metaphorical
action?kungfu. Again,
we see filmic folklore fabricated
by
the filmmak
ers
through
certain
settings
and
scenes,
and even
storylines (e.g.,
Hero
reinterprets
the same historical event as The
Emperor
and the
Assassin,
as
I note
below).
The
popularity
of
kungfu
films,
following
the
popular
ity
of
kungfu
novels,
proves
the fundamental function of folklore as
amusement. After
all,
"folklore reveals man's frustrations and
attempts
to
escape
in
fantasy
from
repressions imposed upon
him
by society,
whether these
repressions
be sexual
or
otherwise"
(Bascom 1954:343),
as seen in the fad of
kungfu
films.
Through
this familiar other
world,
the
filmmakers and the viewers communicate
as one small
group; they
find
the same medium of
expressing
their desires
or
frustrations.
It is
precisely
this kind of familiar use of the familiar
symbol
in an
unfamiliar situation that is characteristic of folklore transmission and
transformation in film. And it is
precisely
for this reason that such filmic
folklore has not
only
been taken for
granted by general
viewers,
but
also
enjoyed
as a
nostalgic
venture.
Many
viewers,
especially
the
young,
absorb filmic folklore into their
personal
memory
of the
past,
and in
turn,
the memorized and
imagined
tradition becomes
integral
to their
sense of
identity.
In this
sense,
filmic folklore becomes
nothing
but
familiar. In
fact,
its
impact
may
be
more
profound
than
some
popular
culture
forms,
such
as
wearing
"culture T-shirts"
(wenhuashan,
with
a
culturally meaningful saying
on the
shirts).
Such filmic
representation
of
folklore,
whether
as a short
or
long
shot
or a
storyline,
is characteristic of what I call filmic folklore. It fulfills the
functions of folklore
as
entertainment,
a reinforcement of social ritu
als and ethical
values,
and the stabilization of cultural behavior. Filmic
folklore itself offers an
interpretation,
not
explanation,
of the culture on
which it is
based,
whereas for other folkloric
forms,
scholarship
offers an
interpretation
of the
practice (Oring
1976).
Likewise,
films with filmic
folklore have
produced
a
body
of folklore or culture that needs
scholarly
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Filmic Folklore and Chinese Cultural
Identity
273
scrutiny.
It establishes
a discourse between the traditional and the mod
ern,
and between the insiders
(Chinese)
and outsiders
(non-Chinese).
It creates an artistic communication between the filmmakers and their
films'
viewers,
and between the viewers of one
language
(or culture)
and the viewers of
another, but,
most
importantly,
it
exhibits, reflects,
and refracts traditional behavior for those who share the filmic folklore
as
part
of their entertainment and
group identity.
Filmic folklore differs
from
popular
culture in
many ways
but that is
yet
another issue that
needs to be taken
up separately.
In
any
case,
it continues to
impact
our
understanding
of the
culture,
and our
everyday practices
that are rooted
in and
express
culture and cultural
identity.
FILMIC FOLKLORE IN CONSTRUCTING CULTURAL IDENTITY
The studies of
identity by
folklorists
began
in the
1970s,
but the
concept
of
identity
was not further scrutinized from the
aspects
of
individual,
personal,
and collective identities until two decades later. As
Oring points
out,
"the
very
definition of the term folklore has been little
more than an effort to
privilege
an
array
of cultural materials in relation
to a
concept
of
identity"
(italics
in
original),
and
"[w]hen
identity
could
no
longer
be situated in the durable
past,
it was invested in the creative
act
itself,
and folklore was
defined
as an
aesthetic communication. And
when
identity
came to be
regarded
as an
imaginative
construction,
folklorists
began
to turn to the full
output
of cultural
production
from
which
identity might
be fabricated"
(1994:213-224).
The
emergence
of
filmic folklore
certainly
shows an awareness of a crisis
regarding
Chinese
cultural
identity
in a new era of cross-cultural confrontation.
Cultural
identity,
however,
must not be treated as
the
equivalent
of ethnic
identity. Doing
so
is a
dangerous
reduction,
because "ethnic
ity
is not a natural
quality,
it is a
political
and cultural construction"
(Bausinger
1997:7).
For this
reason,
I am
looking
at Chinese cultural
identity, separate
from the discussion of Chinese ethnic
identity
within
China
(as
seen
through
the so-called
"minority
nationalities"
film)
and
outside China
(as
Diaspora
or
the ethnic
minority
in the
U.S.).
For the
Chinese,
cultural
identity
becomes
significant only
when the
Chinese culture faces
challenges
from,
mostly,
the outside
(outside
in
the sense of outside the Han-Chinese
majority
culture,
which
represents
Chinese
culture).
The Chinese sense
of their
culture,
tradition
or
root,
had not been
seriously challenged
until the internal chaos and weakness
was
exacerbated
by
the external
(European)
threat
during
the 19th and
20th centuries.
(The
unity
and
disunity
of China in the
past twenty-five
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274
JUWEN
ZHANG
centuries was the main
thread,
but these were
considered internal con
flicts).
This sense of cultural
identity
led to the reflection
upon
and reac
tion to the traditional
(Confucian) culture,
as
exemplified
in the
May
Fourth New Culture Movement in 1919 and
by
a series of
political
and
social
changes
in the 20th
century.
Under these
circumstances,
it is not
surprising
to see that "fifth
genera
tion" films are
also called
"root-seeking" (xungen)
films,
along
with the
emerging
of the
"root-seeking"
literature and reflexive "scar"
(shanghen)
literature in the 1980s. In the midst of confrontations between traditional
values and modern
concepts,
between China
(economically poor)
and
the West
(economically
rich),
and between individual desires and societal
(or familial)
ethical
morals,
among
others,
the Chinese
begin
to
question
who
they
are and how their culture has
shaped
their
identity
in the
global
context.
They
need to seek
an
identity
that is
uniquely
theirs.
They
find it
only
in their
traditions,
but
they
also find so
many
unsatisfactory
elements
associated with these traditions.
They
then find the filmic
expression
to
challenge,
to
explore,
to
release,
and to
satisfy
and amuse themselves.
"Typically,
the narratives of these films
[by
the fifth
generation
directors]
are set in rural China in some
unspecific period
of time and
expose
the
backwardness of the traditional
ways
of Chinese
life,"
and
"they
also failed
to
engage
Chinese film audiences at
large" (Zhang
and Xiao
1998:164).
As a Chinese film critic
comments,
"The rural
marriage
and
family
folk
lore far from modern civilization
represented
in these films
[made
since
the 1990s
by
the "fifth
generation"
directors]
is not the record of
folklore,
but
a
folkloric
fantasy.
Folklore in these films is not
real,
but
a
strategy,
a
folkloric
fantasy
embodied with various
complex
desires"
(Yi 2000:332).
In this
process
of
"root-seeking"
and
identity-creating,
"fifth
generation"
films have
expressed "primitive passions"
and Chinese cultural
identity
(Chow 1995:22),
and filmic folklore becomes
an instrument to
"modify"
traditions
or memories
so as to create a new
identity.
To a
great
extent,
the filmic folklore of the fifth
generation
films has
helped
construct a
"third cinema"
(in
contrast to the traditional
genre/content
and cin
ematographic technique)
which then contributes to the construction of
Chinese cultural
identity
in
global
communication and to the reconstruc
tion of the
identity,
or the "third
culture,"
of the
diaspora
Chinese.
This new
identity
reflects and is derived from the traditions that
are
at the core of Chinese
culture, which,
most scholars
agree,
can be sum
marized
as follows:
1)
The
immortality
of the soul
(linghui
bumie):
This is an animistic and
polytheist practice
seen in ancestral
worship
and other rituals. With this
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Filmic Folklore and Chinese Cultural
Identity
275
belief,
Chinese ancestral
worship
and
kinship system
is stabilized.
Ju
Dou
(Zhang
Yimou
1990),
based
on Liu
Heng's
1987 novel Fu XiFu Xi
(Fu
Xi
and his
sister,
Nu
Wa,
are known as the creators in Chinese
mythology),
is a
highly
controversial film for its
expression
of
"commodity
fetishism"
(Chow 1995),
sexuality
(Cui 1997:303),
and
political allegory
(Callahan
1993),
but it is
essentially
a reenactment
through
filmic
performance
of the traditional ritualistic
practice
of
marriage, naming, child-raising,
and funeral. An
example
of filmic folklore in this film is a scene
during
the funeral
procession,
in which the son
(in
name
only)
of the deceased
sits on
top
of the
coffin,
an invention of the filmmaker. In
practice,
it
is
a
taboo to have
anyone
sitting
on a
coffin;
the eldest son is to
carry
a soul banner in front of the coffin
during
the
procession.
In the
film,
however,
the cultural
signal overweighs
the
expectation
of the confor
mity
to
customs,
as seen in the scene of shot of the innocent
boy sitting
on
top
of the coffin in which lies a man who was a
typical
traditional
man/husband,
and under which a
couple
(the
boy's
mother and father
in
fact,
but the
boy's
mother and cousin brother in
name)
of
living
and
oppressed
woman/wife
and
man/father
(a
symbolic
man
oppressed by
the natural desire and distorted
by
the socio-cultural
values)
continues
to
carry
out the
"family
rules" set
by
the
family
clan. Both the film
maker and the audience
expect
the
exposure
of the dark side of the
social
values,
rather than the
authenticity
of traditional
practice.
In this
sense,
the film
provides
a
liminal moment in which the traditional val
ues are
subverted. As a
result,
such filmic folklore
helps
the audience to
reflect
upon
traditional Chinese beliefs.
Similarly,
The Road Home
(Zhang
Yimou, 1999)
is a
reflective
expression
of this belief in modern
society.
2)
The naturalistic sense of the
unity
of nature and man
(tianren
heyi)
and its
political
and ethical
application
of the Great One
(dayitong):
Chen
Kaige's Life
on a
String
(1991)
and
Zhang
Yimou's To Live
(1994)
both
signal
that those who follow the
way
of nature
(literally
and meta
phorically) may
survive human disasters.
Zhang
Yimou's Red
Sorghum
(1987),
based
on
the novel
by
Mo Yan
(1986), expresses
the
longing
for the
harmony
of the
nation,
society
and human nature
through
the
use
of filmic folklore. For
example,
a scene of a
boy urinating
into the
liquor
barrels is a
metaphorical
use of the
"spirits"
of man and
liquor.
In
Chinese folk
medicine,
the
magical
use of a
baby boy's
urine,
for exam
ple,
is not uncommon. This sets the
psychological
base for the audience
to
accept
the filmic transformation of similar folkloric
elements,
and
thus allows the filmic folklore to
signal
other social and cultural mean
ings.
An
example
of filmic folklore in the House
of Flying Daggers
is the
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276
JUWEN
ZHANG
scene of a blind
dancing girl drumming
with
long
sleeves
by following
the
dropping
sound of beans
among
a
circle of drums. This is
a
fantastic
performance typically
found in martial arts fictions and folktales. In the
film, however,
the filmic folklore
hybridized
traditional elements and
switched
gender
roles
(see
AT 575 with motif
F1021.1;
AT
592;
AT
1812;
and AT
879B).
Similarly,
Chen
Kaige's Emperor
and Assassin and
Zhang
Yimou's Hero are two different
interpretations
of the same historical
event,
both
using
filmic folklore
(e.g.,
the fantasies in traditional martial
art
legends
and
tales;
the
customary practices
of the virtues of
loyalty
and
fidelity)
to have
developed
a
patriotic
or
nationalistic
genre
of films
characteristic of
contemporary
China.
3)
The
pursuit
of
good
fortune and avoidance of misfortune
(quji
bixiong)
and the
practice
of
following
local customs
(ruxiangsuisu):
This
has become
a
key
marker of Chinese
identity
seen in
everyday
folklore
practices:
diet,
family
ties,
and
fortune-telling
and
fengshui (Yih-yuan
Li
1995).
Such folklore and filmic folklore
are
represented
in films like
Yellow Earth
(e.g.,
the door
couplets
as mentioned
above,
and the use of
a wooden fish on
banquet
table
as a
symbol
of abundance
yu). Diaspora
Chinese films also
strongly
reflect this
aspect,
for
example,
in
Wedding
Banquet (Ang
Lee
1993),
one's
good
fortune lies in the
marriage
and
descendents,
accompanied
with all
symbolic objects
and
actions).
These
examples
of folklore are also evident in other
films,
such
as
Pushing
Hands
(Ang
Lee
1992),
Eat Drink Man Woman
(Ang
Lee
1994),
The
Joy
Luck Club
(Wayne Wang
1993),
and
Floating Life
(Clara
Law
1996).
As a
virtuous
practice,
this belief of
pursuing good
fortune shows the value
of
adapting
to others while
maintaining
one's
own. But in the
cross
cultural context
shaped through migration
and ethnic
interaction,
the
process
of
re-establishing
one's cultural
identity
becomes
a
long
and
challenging process.
Thus
far,
filmic folklore in "fifth
generation"
films has revealed
a
pro
cess of
constructing
cultural
identity
on the basis of traditional folklore
elements and fundamental beliefs. This
process
is as
important
as the
discourse about
ethnicity
and nationalism
(Zhang
1997),
the debate
on
globalization
and
modernity (Kang
1996),
and
political
otherness
(Chen 1997).
Each film with filmic folklore is cumulative to the
process,
along
with the
songs
and
images
that become the commercial
targets
and
part
of
popular
culture.
Together,
these films create
something
unique
of the Chinese culture and
people,
which
help
the Chinese in
China and overseas establish
an association and thus demonstrate
a
group identity. Regardless
of
stylistic
and thematic
change
in the films
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Filmic Folklore and Chinese Cultural
Identity
211
of the fifth and the sixth
generations,
filmic folklore has taken root in
cultural
communication,
and is
playing
an
increasingly important
role
in the construction of Chinese cultural
identity
in a
global
context.
CONCLUSION
Based on the studies of folkloristic
films,
this article looks at the
rarely
studied area of filmic
representation
of folklore and folklore-like
prac
tice,
with the
examples
of the Chinese and
Diaspora
Chinese
films,
and
defines it as filmic
folklore,
an
emerging body
of folklore that
appears
relevant to folklore studies and film studies and that deserves further
attention. The
emergence
of filmic folklore shows a
historical and
social need for
reconstructing
the cultural identities of China and the
Chinese in an
age
of
globalization,
and of the
Diaspora
Chinese all over
the world. Filmic
folklore,
although
it exists
only
in
films,
functions and
communicates in similar
ways
to folklore in
practice
in
constructing
and
demonstrating
cultural
identity.
It also
impacts
the folklore in
practice
and
brings up
new
problems
for those who
can relate to such filmic
folklore?the senses of "familiar" as well as
"strange,"
and
"belonging"
as well as "alienated." While this articles tries to define a
phenomenon
of filmic
folklore,
efforts are
yet
to be made to examine the entextual
ization,
intertextuality
and contextualization of filmic folklore in a film
which frames the filmic folklore in its own context
(i.e.,
text, audience,
and the filmmakers under
a
broad socio-economic and cultural envi
ronment)
, and
suggests
that
interdisciplinary
scholars need to examine
the role of filmic folklore in
constructing
new cultural identities while
maintaining
traditional ones.
NOTES
1. I thank Sharon Sherman and Michael Owen
Jones
for their detailed and
thoughtful
comments and
suggestions,
and Ken
Nolley
for his
input
from
a film studies
perspective.
Their
critiques reshaped
and
sharpened
this
article,
but all errors and
responsibilities
are
mine.
2. These include filmmakers such as Chen
Kaige
(Yellow
Earth
(1984)
and
The Promise
(2005)),
Zhang
Yimou
(Raise
the Red Lantern
(1991)
and Hero
(2002)),
and
Ang
Lee
(Pushing
Hands
(1992)
and
Crouching Tiger
and
Hidden
Dragon
(2000)).
3. The shift of the
genres by
these fifth
generation
directors
may signal
not
only
the exhaustion of the social and
political topics,
but also the
escape
of
this
generation
from
reality
or
replacement by
the sixth
generation.
This content downloaded from 150.165.254.27 on Mon, 22 Sep 2014 10:05:32 AM
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278
JUWEN
ZHANG
FILMOGRAPHY
Beijing Bicycle
[Shi
Qi
Sui deDan
Che] (2001),
113 min. Xiaoshuai
Wang
Crouching Tiger,
Hidden
Dragon
[Wo
Hu
CangLong]
(2000),
120 min.
Ang
Lee
Eat Drink Man Woman
[Yin
Shi Nan
Nu] (1994),
123 min.
Ang
Lee
The
Emperor
and the Assassin
[fingKe
Ci
Qin Wang]
(1999),
163 min. Chen
Kaige
Floating Life
(1996),
95 min. Clara Law
Hero
[YingXiong]
(2002),
99 min.
Zhang
Yimou
House
of Hying Daggers
[Shi
Mian
MaiFu] (2004),
119 min.
Zhang
Yimou
The
Joy
Luck Club
(1993),
139 min.
Wayne Wang
JuDou
(1990),
95 min.
Fengliang Yang
and
Zhang
Yimou
Life
on a
String
[Bian
Zou Bian
Chang]
(1991),
110 min. Chen
Kaige
To Live
[Huo Zhe] (1994),
125 min.
Zhang
Yimou
Opium
War
[YaPian
Zhan
Zheng]
(1997),
150 min.
XieJin
The Promise
[Wuji;
Mo
Gik] (2005),
in
production.
Chen
Kaige
Pushing
Hands
[Dui Shou] (1992),
105 min.
Ang
Lee
Raise the Red Lantern
[Da
Hong Deng Long
Gao Gao
Gua] (1991),
125 min.
Zhang
Yimou
Red
Sorghum [Hong
Gao
Liang]
(1987),
91 min.
Zhang
Yimou
The Road Home
[
Wo de
Fuqin Muqin]
(1999),
89 min.
Zhang
Yimou
Shanghai
Dreams
[Qing Hong]
(2005),
123 min. Xiaoshuai
Wang
Wedding Banquet
[Hsi Yen] (1993),
106 min.
Ang
Lee
Yellow Earth
[Huang
TuDi]
(1984),
89 min.
Cheng Kaige
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