Introducing Chinese Cinema

It is not so much China that makes movies,
but movies that help to make China.
— Chris Berry, “If China Can Say No, Can China Make Movies?” (1998)

Projecting China: An Introduction to Chinese Cinema (HIST277/CHIN177) is a 15-credit module open to second-year History and Film Studies undergraduates, as well as first-year Chinese Studies students, at the University of Liverpool. It has been offered since the 2016-2017 academic year, and will run again in 2017-2018.

The module comes with collaborative screenings with the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) at Liverpool.



This module has two principal aims. First, it develops students’ knowledge and understanding of contemporary Chinese cinema (mostly that produced in the People’s Republic of China in the last 25 years), both in terms of its historical development and its recent proliferation around the world. Second, the module introduces a number of landmarks in the history of twentieth-century China through their representations in filmic texts. In tandem, the way in which the Chinese (mis)remembers its past is dissected. The title of the module, “Projecting China”, therefore points not only to China’s cinematic production but also how the ideas of “China” and “Chineseness” are projected.

The module begins with an exploration of the history and politics of Chinese cinema, with particular attention paid to the rise, in the 1980s, of the so-called “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou (1951- ), Tian Zhuangzhuang (1952- ) and Chen Kaige (1952- ). The critical and commercial dynamics involved in the global spread of Chinese cinema is studied through the lens of Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee’s (1954- ) Lust, Caution (2007) and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002). Whereas Lust, Caution covers the theatre of revolution and espionage during the Sino-Japanese War, Hero appears to be an allegory of present-day Chinese politics told through the failed assassination of the First Emperor of China Qin Shi Huangdi. The struggles of the “ordinary folk” in the Deng Xiaoping/Reform period and the pitfalls of modernisation are showcased through the realistic, documentary-style films of Li Yang (1959- ). The module ends with the 2010 blockbuster on the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, Feng Xiaogang’s (1959- ) Aftershock (2010), which has been labelled a piece of “sentimental pedagogy” that seeks to inculcate humanist values and restore a “human face” to “socialist market economy”. No previous knowledge of Chinese history, Chinese cinema or Chinese language is required.


Schedule 2017-2018

1.  “It isn’t so much that China makes movies, but movies that help to make China”
2.  “I’m just one of the Master’s robes. He can put me on or he can take me off”
3.  “Subjects of people in misery have deep meanings”
4.  “Tomorrow we make waves to save our nation. Tonight we toast the lead actress”
5.  “The Westerners begin by trying Sweet and Sour Chicken”
6.  “Mommy, today we ‘struggled’ our principal and wrote posters against her”
7.  Tutorial Week
8.  “But even now, when the Chinese speak of their country, they call it ‘Our Land’”
9.  “My camera doesn’t lie”
10. “In China there’s a shortage of everything – but no shortage of human beings”
11. “It hasn’t, so far, been possible to compete with movies like Avatar and Inception
12. “The way people fall tends to be uniform whereas there are multiple ways in which people stand up”


Possible Screenings

The Great Wall (Chang cheng 2016, dir. Zhang Yimou, 103 minutes)
Raise the Red Lantern (Da hong denglong gaogao gua 1991, dir. Zhang Yimou, 125 mins)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wohu canglong 2000, dir. Ang Lee, 120 mins)
Lust, Caution (Se jie 2007, dir. Ang Lee, 157 mins)
Farewell My Concubine (Bawang bieji 1993, dir. Chen Kaige, 171 mins)
The Blue Kite (Lan fengzheng 1993, dir. Tian Zhuangzhuang, 140 mins)
Ip Man (Ye Wen 2008, dir. Wilson Yip, 108 mins)
Hero (Yingxiong 2002, dir. Zhang Yimou, 99 mins)
Blind Shaft (Mangjing 2003, dir. Li Yang, 92 mins)
A Touch of Sin (Tian zhuding 2013, dir. Jia Zhangke, 135 mins)
East Palace, West Palace (Donggong xigong 1996, dir. Zhang Yuan, 94 mins)
City of Life and Death (Nanjing Nanjing 2009, dir. Lu Chuan, 133 mins)
Suzhou River (Suzhou he 2000, dir. Lou Ye, 83 mins)
Aftershock (Tangshan da dizhen 2010, dir. Feng Xiaogang, 135 mins)
3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (3D Rouputuan zhi Jile baojian 2011, dir. Christopher Suen, 113 mins)
Tiny Times (Xiao shidai 2013, dir. Guo Jingming, 115 mins)


Recommended Books

Chris Berry and Mary Ann Farquhar, China On Screen: Cinema and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
Rey Chow, Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
Aynne Kokas, Hollywood Made in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).
Song Hwee Lim and Julian Ward (eds.), The Chinese Cinema Book (London: British Film Institute, 2011).
Yingjin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema (London: Routledge, 2004).


Source for Feature Image

Screenshot from 24 City (Er shi si cheng ji, 2008), directed by Jia Zhangke.