About the Author
Lisa Rofel is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and coauthor of Fabricating Transnational Capitalism: A Collaborative Ethnography of Italian-Chinese Global Fashion, also published by Duke University Press.
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I Want to Be Human
A Story of China and the Human
TRANSLATED BY SHUANG SHEN
In 2009, a Chinese blockbuster, City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing! [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], dir. Lu Chuan), unexpectedly managed to become a symptomatic representation of contemporary Chinese society. It did so by constructing an allegory of China and the human.
The movie represents the horrendous tragedy of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, the mass murder of 300,000 Chinese within a matter of six weeks. It has a distinct visual style: wide screen, black and white with a brownish hue, shallow focus throughout. It transposes human figures in near and medium shots onto an expansive and depthless canvas, exposing the traces of some unselfconscious allegorical construction. The human is projected against the historical backdrop of China, but exactly where the human is located in relation to history lacks clarity or depth. Considering the fact that the film was a state-sponsored project through and through (approved directly by the central government, funded entirely by the China Film Corporation) and its main objective, according to Lu Chuan, the director, was to present a "Chinese style of resistance," the choice of narrative (the Nanjing Massacre) as well as the film's style of narration appear to be at once nonsensical and thought provoking.
The discourse of China and the human presented in this movie reflects the historical entanglement and tension of those two key terms in twentieth-century Chinese cultural criticism. The movie also directly engages with issues of historical trauma (the Nanjing Massacre in particular), the politics of memory, and the recuperation of humanity in the Chinese context. What is unique and important about the Nanjing Massacre is that this historical incident, along with its existing representations, positions the China and the human problematic not just along the China-West axis but also in an intra-Asian regional context. The Nanjing Massacre narrated by this movie and other narratives (The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe and The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, for instance) testifies to the intricate power relations revolving around the human as a concept with a history of unequal and nonequivalent distribution regionally and globally. In this essay, I analyze City of Life and Death as a text that illustrates this nexus of power, which has shaped the narration of China in history and the contemporary moment. I also argue that the movie articulates the desire for the universal human among the emerging new Chinese middle class, which has proved itself to be a formidable force in cultural and ideological production in contemporary China.
Discourses of the Human in Modern China
First, I would like to discuss the historical discourses of the human in Chinese intellectual and cultural histories of the twentieth century. The narrative trajectory of China and the human in City of Life and Death is neither new nor original. It resonates in a belated and anachronistic fashion as the leitmotif of twentieth-century Chinese social criticism. At the turn of the twentieth century, the discourses of modernity and social criticism were constructed upon an alignment between the human and a modern China and an opposition between the human and the real China. The genesis of the modern human is coterminous with the birth of modern China, but the historical and real China represents everything that is inhuman or antihuman.
This is why Lu Xun wrote in "A Madman's Diary" (1918), "I tried to look this up, but my history has no chronology, and scrawled all over each page are the words: 'Confucian Virtue and Morality.' Since I could not sleep anyway, I read intently half the night, until I began to see words between the lines. The whole book was filled with the two words —'Eat people.'" Alternatively, we can think of the often-cited incident that has virtually gained the status of a representative case in modern Chinese history: "Lu Xun and the Slide Show." A slide show at a Japanese university where Lu Xun was studying medicine depicted the beheading of some Chinese spies, along with expressionless Chinese spectators looking from the sidelines. Lu Xun's Japanese classmates, who frame the incident, cheered as they watched the propaganda film in the classroom. This is what led Lu Xun, the most important Chinese thinker of the twentieth century, to make up his mind to give up a career in medicine, return to China, and pursue literature instead as a way to save the spirit of the Chinese.
In most discussions of this widely known event, it is conventionally understood that the killer references the Japanese as the forerunners of Asian modernity, and the spectators symbolize the real China (the imperial China of the Qing dynasty) at the time. However, the true objects of violence at the center of the picture — the beheaded spies — seldom get much attention. In a way, it is this silent center that exposes the hidden connection between this incident and some important characteristics of the self-narration of twentieth-century China. That is, much noise surrounds and reinforces a silent center, a silent object, and this is the location of China and the human.
The subject that is dead — slaughtered and silenced — identifies a site of hopelessness but also a site where hope resides. In the intellectual tradition of the early twentieth century, the human is thus figured both as a bloody corpse and as a fetus waiting to be born. These narratives position the human and a new China against the horizon of the future. The discourse of the human in China is thus a utopian discourse that articulates both the desperation about our condition of existence and the desperate need to resist this sense of desperation.
Even though it is a shared characteristic among many belatedly modern societies and third-world nations to engage in self-criticism and self-negation as a way of jump-starting their entry into modernity, the fact that Chinese intellectuals relied on a deeply felt sense of trauma to define their self-identity and to launch a project of constructing modern Chinese culture configures them as a rather singular case. This has to do with a history of rapid transformation from an ancient empire — the center of world civilization and global commerce — to a battered target of the fast boats and strong cannons of Western imperialism, all within the last hundred years. This transition has produced a trauma of disparity and the psychology of China as the "sick man of East Asia."
What needs to be pointed out is that absolute self-negation and debasement have left the subject of modern China — as well as the human subject of modern China — empty and undefined. The two motifs of Chinese modernity, anti-imperialism and antifeudalism, are not only mutually connected but also contradictory toward one another in profound ways. While anti-imperialism seeks the reaffirmation of the Chinese self through programs of "national salvation in pursuit of survival," antifeudalism implies the total and drastic negation of traditional Chinese culture and articulates a yearning for Westernization throughout the past century. As an invention of modern Europe and a capitalist society, the human is dangled above China, signifying a promise and signified as an object of desire.
The Repression and Return of the Human in Contemporary China
This discourse of the so-called Chinese national character (guominxing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) was fundamentally transformed by World War II, of which the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 formed a part. It took yet another turn after the establishment of the People's Republic of China. If the emergent demands of national salvation during the Sino-Japanese War enabled the formation of China as an imagined community, then the founding of the People's Republic gained for the new China the rights of self-representation even before the Communist Party defeated the Nationalist government's army. Thus, it has been widely believed that, with the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the Chinese people stood up and that if "the old society turned humans into ghosts, the new society [would] transform ghosts back into humans."
Nevertheless, this radical transformation also implied a suspension of discussions over issues of China and the human, since the category of the people now replaced the human as a keyword for the new society. In other words, the Marxian ideology of class struggle replaced bourgeois humanism to become the centerpiece of a new hegemonic narrative. Unexpectedly, this substitution exposed a central dilemma in socialist ideology, a dilemma caused by two sets of intersecting criteria: one aligning the modern with China and socialism; the other connecting the modern with universal notions of the liberal human and humanity. Between these two sets of criteria, a provocative history that plays with the alignment of as well as the contradictions between China and the human is bound to recur repeatedly.
We can see this history manifested in the 1970s and 1980s, when China had just ended its Cultural Revolution and was about to embark on a new era. It was at this moment of transition from the Mao era to the Deng era that the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, along with the entire socialist period, were deemed to be "inhuman," judged from some preconceived standard of the (universal) human. It was also at this moment that a rhetoric of the human replaced the discourse of class struggle in the critical discourses of various intellectual communities. The humanism of the young Marx replaced the Marx of political economy. These shifts effectively launched a series of social-political practices that, while effective, were depoliticizing. At the same time, we witnessed in the literary arts — more specifically, in the "scar" novels and films — the genesis of a term that does not make much sense in the ideographic system of written Chinese: "the human writ large."
The human writ large stands in opposition to the real condition of the human in China. It is a utopian construction poised above the horizon of the future, one promising the materialization of some kind of universal value. The relationship between the notion of the human writ large and that of the new person of socialism is of course a relationship of the universal versus the particular, but the former also mutates to underwrite the person writ small as the natural condition of human beings to desire profit and to avoid danger.
Furthermore, the discourse of the human at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s is associated with death or the dead. However, death here is no longer related to conditions of torture and pillage, as in the early twentieth century and as embodied in the Nanjing Massacre. Rather, death is chosen voluntarily in connection with some determined faith or higher expectations for the promise of the future. In the 1979 short story titled "Who Am I" ("Wo shi shui" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) by the female writer Zong Pu, the protagonist becomes obsessed with the philosophical question "Who am I?" after enduring much political persecution and psychological torment. When she looks up to the sky one day, she sees a line of geese flying by, creating a pattern that resembles the Chinese character ren, or human ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). In a sudden flash of light, she becomes aware of the dignity of the human, and she makes a willful choice of death as a protest against political violence — as a strategy to defend her own humanity.
In the same year, 1979, the film script Bitter Love (Ku lian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), also known as The Sun and the Human (Tai yang yu ren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), managed to generate a great deal of controversy, becoming a social and political event indicative of a new era. This movie presents a highly dramatic, vivid depiction of the death of its protagonist, a principled and upright intellectual who returns home from overseas. This scene shows the dying man crawling his way across an expansive snow-covered plain, under the blazing sun and through howling wind. With his body, he inscribes the giant figure of "ren" on the exposed black earth. In the transition from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Chinese society and culture repeatedly inscribed the character meaning the human over sky and earth, as if it were a dying wish, a will to mandate utopian expectations for a future generation.
At this historical juncture, what was unique about this particular evocation of the human was its presentation against the backdrop of Chinese social tragedy, in opposition to political violence as well as the violence of the state, but not in opposition to "China." This acceptance of China came from a highly naturalized and depoliticized concept of the homeland — a discourse of China as the homeland. In my view, instead of considering this homeland-China narrative as the emergence of a nationalist sentiment, it is more productive to think of it as the reappearance of early twentieth-century cultural complexes: love for homeland is bitter love, entangled with certain globalist sentiments and imagination as well as with multiple inversions and transpositions of self and other, homeland and alien lands.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the human not only provided an emotionally charged term of protest against political violence but also served as a metonymic figure of internal subversion within socialist ideology. Thus, the discourse of the human writ large is a specific landmark in world history. It testifies to China's participation in launching a project of post–Cold War globalization — indeed, with nearly the same eagerness and pace as those political leaders in Washington, DC, during the last decade of the Cold War (1979–89).
However, when a communist regime starts a process of wholesale capitalism, there are bound to be disruptions that threaten the continuity of party principles and power as well as rifts within social structure and ideology. A crisis of legitimacy is bound to occur. Thus, the originally apolitical rhetoric surrounding China and the human, patriotism and cosmopolitanism, was bound to be tolerated, if not appropriated, by reformers within the Communist Party. This is how a discourse of China and the human today has come to occupy a space shared between Communist Party reformers and intellectuals. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the notion of the human became the seam as well as the fissure of Chinese social culture. After the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, when political ideology collapsed, discourses of the human became a foundation for the reconstruction of mainstream ideology. The discourse of the human writ large has become a symptomatic figure for Chinese society because, whereas this discourse invites self-criticism and a negation of Chinese society and culture (since adopting the perspective of humanity is tantamount to an unexamined identification with the West), what called this figure into existence in the first place was a great anxiety concerning China's position on the global stage.
City of Life and Death
This history of twentieth-century discourses of China and the human informs the narrative of City of Life and Death by placing China and the human in a complex international context, where the two concepts are often at odds with each other. The film tries to resolve this difficulty through fictional means by constructing a representation of a historical trauma — the Nanjing Massacre. Even though the film is supposed to be about China, or Nanjing, in 1937, the dominant figure of the human represented by the film's main protagonist is not Chinese but rather a young and handsome Japanese soldier, the invading conqueror Kadokawa. The film begins with a shot taken from the perspective of the attacking Japanese army looking up toward Nanjing, the former capital of Republican China. It ends with a Japanese ceremony celebrating the seizure of the city. In what might perhaps be considered a grand concluding gesture, the Japanese military, clad in native costume, march in perfect unison to the beat of a taiko drum through a city that has just been reduced to near-total ruin. Interestingly enough, according to initial plans of the director, two sets of parallel perspectives were supposed to contrast with one another in this representation of the city of life and death: one provided by the young Japanese military officer, Kadokawa, and the other by the young Chinese officer Lu Jianxiong (played by the tall, handsome film star Liu Ye).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "After The Post–Cold War"
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Table of ContentsSeries Editor's Preface / Carlos Rojas vii
Editor's Introduction / Lisa Rofel xiii
Introduction / Translated by Jie Li 1
Part I. Trauma, Evacuated Memories, and Inverted Histories
1. I Want to Be Human: A Story of China and the Human / Translated by Shuang Shen 25
2. Hero and the Invisible Tianxia / Translated by Yajun Mo 47
Part II. Class, Still Lives, and Masculinity
3. Temporality, Nature Morte, and the Filmmaker: A Reconsideration of Still Life / Translated by Lennet Daigle 67
4. The Piano in a Factory: Class, in the Name of the Father / Translated by Jie Li 91
Part III. The Spy Genre
5. The Spy-Film Legacy: A Preliminary Cultural Analysis of the Spy Film / Translated by Christopher Connery 109
6. In Vogue: Politics and the Nation-State in Lust, Caution, and the Lust, Caution Phenomenon in China / Translated by Erebus Wong and Lisa Rofel 127
Finale. History, Memory, and the Politics of Representation / Translated by Rebecca E. Karl 141
Interview with Dai Jinhau, July 2014 / Lisa Rofel 160
Selected Works of Dai Jinhua 181
Translators' Biographies 189
What People are Saying About This
“An avant-garde figure in cultural criticism since the late 1980s, Dai Jinhua constantly integrates various theories and methodologies—from feminism and ideological analysis to psychoanalysis and cultural studies—into her work on film studies, literary history and criticism, and third-world social movements. She is one of the few Chinese scholars who traverse the boundary between the academy and the mass media, both domestically and internationally, and she continues to be an important critical voice of China and the contemporary world.”
“Many books aspire to be this book. None of them comes close. After the Post–Cold War, written by Dai Jinhua, an intellectual of global stature, stands alone as an analysis of contemporary Chinese culture and politics.”
“In a dazzling series of symptomatic readings of works by some of the key directors in contemporary Chinese cinema, Dai Jinhua uncovers the complicated disjunctive temporalities of China’s positionings in contemporary global capitalism. After the Post–Cold War provides an indispensable feminist perspective on the cultural and political dimensions of human existence in a world that can no longer say no to China and confirms Dai's status as an important voice of global new left thought.”