Reframing the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Diaspora: Joan Chen's the Sent-Down Girl

By Lan, Feng | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Reframing the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Diaspora: Joan Chen's the Sent-Down Girl


Lan, Feng, Literature/Film Quarterly


After the remarkable success of her directorial debut Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (Whispering Steppes, 1998), Joan Chen was once asked why she chose to make a film set in the 1966-1976 Chinese Cultural Revolution. Chen answered, "It was a story about my generation, about a whole ten years of our lives, and nobody really told it" (Caswell). Adapted from a novella by the Chinese diaspora woman writer Geling Yan, Chen's film narrates the tragic life of Xiu Xiu, a teenage girl who, like millions of Chinese youths, was sent to work in China's remote rural areas during the Cultural Revolution. Although Chen herself escaped the "sent-down movement," she grew up witnessing the plight of many people caught in that massive exile, including her family members. For Chen, then, the memory of the sent-down movement registers the most haunting aspect of the Cultural Revolution, its dehumanizing nature matched by few other events of history. "It was almost like the Vietnam war here," Chen once told an interviewer in America. "The psychological effect is that generation[s] would be talking about it. It's the most important thing for them. I mean, nothing can be compared to the Holocaust . . . but I think the Cultural Revolution and the sending down of the children are of that kind of importance for humanity" (Palmer).

Chen's determination to explore the universal implications of a local event derives from her position as a Chinese artist in diaspora who seeks to reclaim Chinese history. Such an undertaking challenges the home regime of power and knowledge, which likes nothing better than erasing the Chinese people's memory of that "ten-year calamity." While Chen's diasporic reconstruction of Chinese history offers refreshing insights about an important aspect of the Cultural Revolution, it also generates problematic contradictions that reduce the aesthetic appeal she invests in the film.

The sent-down movement, in which Chen's narration is set, is known in China as shangshan xiaxiang ("up to the mountains and down to the villages"). It is one of the key strategies by which Mao Zedong and his radical colleagues carried out the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. In fact, the vision of completely restructuring Chinese society by mingling educated youths with the laboring masses had taken shape in Mao's thought as early as his guerrilla years. For instance, in a famous 1939 speech on "The Orientation of Youth Movement," Mao maintained that the only progressive criterion for judging the actions of a Chinese youth is "whether or not he is willing to integrate himself with the broad masses of workers and peasants and does so in practice" (Selected Works 246). After the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, took power in China, Mao constantly urged urban intellectuals to reform their worldview by going to work in the "vast universe of the countryside." The Cultural Revolution allowed Mao to put this vision into serious experiment. The nationwide sent-down campaign was officially kicked off on 22 December 1968, when the CCP's People's Daily published Mao's "supreme directives" stating that "it is necessary for the educated young people to go to the countryside to be reeducated by the poor and lower-middle peasants" (Bernstein 57). By the end of 1976, when the large-scale campaign stopped, over sixteen million urban youths had been sent to the countryside, forming the largest migration movement in human history (Leung xvii; Pan xi). In China, the sent-down youths are referred to as zhiqing, or "intellectual youths," and the word zhiqing has become synonymous with an entire generation doomed to senseless sacrifice and abandonment.

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, there have been two major types of zhiqing narrative in China. The first type, mostly prose fiction produced during the period from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, belongs to the so-called "scar literature," named after Lu Xinhua's 1978 short story "Shanghen," or "Scar. …

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