Urbanism and Post-Mao Chinese Cinema

By Kuoshu, Harry H. | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview
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Urbanism and Post-Mao Chinese Cinema


Kuoshu, Harry H., Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Chinese post-Mao cinema left behind an allegorical era of cultural critique to move into the urban realistic era in the last decade of the twentieth century. This article explores the theoretical implications of post-Mao cinematic urbanism. It traces various roles urbanism plays in changed historical junctures. It contrasts Chinese critical reception of urbanism with the Western discussion of urbanization to illustrate the special features of post-Mao cinematic urbanism, which accompanied the perplexing cultural process of separating individuals from the collective entities. City (the Faustian) shattered the status quo (the Apollonian). Urbanisms held by the fourth and sixth generations of film directors illustrated a changing structure of feelings toward city and the differed ways to represent city--from the allegorical and the universal to the fragmental and the specific. The early post-Mao allegory about city was quickly drowned by the raw realism of everyday urban lives; the ensuing cinematic urbanism has been a deviation from the Utopian urbanism of Maoist China. The new urbanism has presented a complex spectrum of feelings and issues. It cuts through topics of globalization, common culture, lifestyle, youth, emotion, and position of art with rising materialism and commercialism. As the grandest urbanization has yet to peak in China, this cinematic urbanism keeps reinventing China and itself, and it therefore merits our study. City films in post-Mao cinema were first identified as an emerging trend in the mid-1980s. They were hailed as a deviation from the pre-eminent roots-searching films that had marked the onset of Fifth-Generation filmmaking only a few years earlier. (1) As such, they were seen as a departure from the grand narrative of national culture discourse, shifting from an allegorical redemption of the nation and its people to a down-to-earth attention to the fragmented situations of individuals. In immediate post-Mao China, the concept of the city film became a test balloon for the general direction of the culture. (2)

German sociologist Oswald Spengler's contrast of city and countryside offered some Chinese film critics an early terminology for pinpointing the cultural significance of this emerging cinematic trend. Using Western culture as a model, but believing that his urbanism was applicable to non-Western cultures as well, Spengler proposed the idea of a cyclical development of City: first, the agrarian phases of a culture will develop a particular identity or "folk spirit." Second, this cultural identity will be fragmented by the development of the City, which encourages individuality and separateness in its members. Third, the inevitable corruption of the city--through over-institutionalizing the process of human interchange and a "routinism" that reduces warm personal contact between individuals--will lead the culture to revert to another agricultural phase and another round of growth and decline. Although one may not agree with Spengler's idea of cycles, what is fascinating in his thinking on urbanism is how urbanization may obliterate a particular cultural identity and how dismal the prospect of urbanization can be. Applying Spengler's insight to contemporary postcolonial globalization, we are also forced to see that urbanization in developing countries has often used routinized Western life to erase various national cultures.

Spengler's thoughts on city culture connect him to other prominent sociologists of the German School, such as Max Weber and Georg Simmel. Their critical thinking about city culture in the first half of the twentieth century identified the cold, impersonal aspects of city development such as bureaucracies, fragmentation, and isolation. (3) For Chinese film criticism, the German School's warnings about urbanization were almost inaudible. Political bureaucracies were already highly developed in Chinese socialist totalitarianism. The Chinese "folk spirit" at the threshold of the new push for urbanization was a blend of ancient Confucianism based on closely knit communities and of the Communist ideology of collective social action.

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