Book Excerpt: Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture by Wendy Larson

As the world’s attention is fixed on China because of the Olympics among other reasons, the insights from Professor Wendy Larson’s book Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture are valuable in understanding the works of Zhang Yimou, who directed the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is back again 14 years later to to oversee the 2022 Winter Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies.

Regarding the concluding chapter “National Culture on a Global Stage: The 2008 Beijing Olympics” of her book , Wendy Larson explains:

My conclusion takes as its material the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, which were directed by Zhang Yimou. Having been developed in the heady days of the emergence of the modern nation-state, the Olympics were motivated by the idea of the equality of nations, and the representation of cultural essence in the opening ceremonies complements this notion. Yet the sports competitions of the Olympics always favor the more powerful, and the equality of cultures is equally illusionary. Reconciling the vision of the ceremonies as cultural expressions of the nation-state with the director’s skepticism toward the utopian potential of culture’s role, in either the nation-state or as one aspect of globalization, produces a contradictory mandate: to overtly represent the essence of Chinese culture, while covertly expressing suspicion about cultural display. In the context of my project and especially with reference to the play-within-play that is part of so many of Zhang’s films, a performative ceremony that symbolically presents a representative Chinese form of culture is particularly thought-provoking. The wide range of readings of the ceremonies, which must be enacted within the inherent demands of the Olympics, provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on the interest in culture that I locate in many of Zhang Yimou’s films. (p. 31)

She notes that “The fact that a well-known feature film director was chosen to develop and direct the opening and closing ceremonies to the Beijing Olympics provides us with a remarkable opportunity to view a display of something imagined as representing the nation on an indisputably global stage” (p. 333) and adds:

Paper, printmaking, the compass, and gunpowder—the four great inventions of China that were featured in the opening ceremony—stand as the exemplars of Chinese culture on display to the family of nations in the Olympic ceremony. Along with the Chinese written form, also highlighted, these four inventions are expressed through precise and intricate inanimate formations made up of hundreds of individual human beings, and complemented by individual performances by people well-known to Chinese audiences, including pianist Lang Lang, singer and professor Liu Huan (with Sarah Brightman), eight famous former athletes including Li Ning (winner of three gold medals in 1984), and a group of actors and singers that featured superstars such as Jackie Chan and Andy Lau. Most critics of the “art of the square” do not address the inclusion of these well-known individuals in the ceremonies, nor does Ai Weiwei (2014) discuss their presence, which is as universally recognized among Asian audiences as is James Bond, who was featured obliquely in the London 2012 ceremony among Westerners. But as Ai suggests, it may well be true that while the British find no need to tout their inventions before the world, a continual striving for parity, inherent in the Olympics’ organization, turns the opening ceremony into a less casual event for non-Western countries or for Western countries seeking to redress the past. Thus, whereas Zhang’s films do not make claims on behalf of the particular forms of Chinese culture, they search for deeper cultural life: the possibilities for rejuvenation, as genuine, raw lived material through which the imaginary of a viable new future could spring. They relentlessly query the meaning of cultural ritual and performance under coercion, duress, and misunderstanding. From these perspectives, the demand to positively perform cultural forms, ideals, or approaches specific to China on the very visible global stage of the Olympics is itself a conundrum, and not just for Zhang Yimou. Even if we consider only the questionable spectrum of collective-to-individual aesthetic forms, the problem remains: Ai Weiwei’s glorification of England’s personal, humorous, and individualistic performance in the 2012 Olympic ceremony suggests that pressure to go along with the style put forward by the West—as well as the tendency to interpret that style ideologically—is very strong.

In the Olympics, the power differential between nations is not formally recognized, but it comes to the fore in the resources available to athletes and in the pool of athletes that can be prepared for competition. Yet an imaginary parity is in effect, and the opening ceremony helps smooth over the power differential by presenting culture, at least, as inherently equal. As the idea carried out in the “Journey of Harmony” taken by the Olympic torch, as well as spelled out with the character he in the segment on printing and moveable type, “harmony” was part of the overall Olympic theme of “One Dream One World.” It also has been a government keyword, and as such is widely ridiculed. In one art installation, Ai Weiwei took advantage of the homophones hexie 和谐 (harmony) and hexie 河蟹 (river crab) to mock the governmental slogan by grouping over 3,000 porcelain crabs together (Binkovitz 2012). Harmony has been criticized by bloggers as equivalent to censorship, and the depiction of the concept in a Chinese character formed by a mass of 897 type blocks eventually were revealed to be human beings who waved at the audience was one target for the criticism that the ceremonies were little more than these scorned principles put into aesthetic form.

Hero implies that global harmony is nothing other than the normalized hierarchy of powerful and weaker nations, each accepting its position and recognizing the position of others: the implicit organization of the Olympics, hiding under a veneer of parity. In Riding Alone, cultural encounters in a foreign country are a way to evade communication at “home,” and inspire the illusion that there is a solution somewhere else. Happy Times features a protagonist who relies on the residue of socialist values, which no longer function in their idealized form and probably never did. An odd combination of Confucian moral codes, street smarts, and socialist comraderie contribute to the friendship that strikes a positive note in Keep Cool, but only when Anhong and the symbolic birth of sons is excluded. The absent but all-powerful sovereign determines subjectivity in To Live, creating a robotic resignation. Qiuju Goes to Court shows the mutual imbrication of culture and politics, questioning any autonomous realm for the former while illustrating the limits of rule by law under contemporary rural conditions. In Raise the Red Lantern, affective relationships are gutted by a performative logic that also erases the spirit and will. The weak male first appears in Judou, which also presents the sour note of an ethical void, making self-benefit the precondition for progress. Only in Red Sorghum do the people have the ability and will to build an equitable community based on human values, to stand up to the invaders, and to weave a positive story for the future. It would be a mistake to cast an all-encompassing interpretive narrative over the legacy of Zhang Yimou. In this project, I have analyzed less than half of his work, and new films continue to appear. Yet it is fair to say that at least in the subset of films discussed in this book, some tendencies stand out, many of them shared by other Fifth Generation directors to some degree. (pp. 342–345)


About the author: Wendy Larson is professor emerita at the University of Oregon. She holds a PhD and an MA from the University of California at Berkeley and a BA from the University of Oregon. Dr. Larson’s previous publications include From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century ChinaWomen and Writing in Modern China, and Literary Authority and the Chinese Writer: Ambivalence and Autobiography, as well as many journal articles.

This book includes 40 images and is in the Cambria Sinophone World Series headed by Victor H. Mair (University of Pennsylvania) and the Cambria Global Performing Arts Series headed by John M. Clum (Duke University).

Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture is available in hardcover, paperback, and multiple digital formats. Order at the Cambria Press website.

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