AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 285

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Session 285: Transnationalism and “Chineseness” in the Cinematic and Performing Arts

Organizer: Margaret Hillenbrand, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Discussant: Yomi Braester, University of Washington, USA

The notion of “Chineseness” has found itself in the full glare of scholarly attention in recent years. On the one hand, the category is often seen as a vessel for a démodé sort of cultural essentialism, and rejected accordingly; while on the other, “Chineseness” has proved itself to be an intriguingly malleable term in both national and transnational contexts. Either way, the question of “Chineseness” – and the complex notions of cultural identity that underlie it – simply will not go away. Whatever its guises, cultural identity is always, of course, a performance; and this panel seeks to throw this performative nature into fresh relief by exploring how it expresses itself across the spectrum of the cinematic and performing arts. Focusing on theater, film, video, dance, opera, installation, and the martial arts, the papers in this panel demonstrate that cultural identity – whether self-professedly “Chinese” or just the opposite – is at its most dynamic when this performative character comes most dramatically to the fore. In particular, these papers home in on questions of transnationalism, bilingualism, artistic collaboration, and aesthetic adaptation to show that performances of identity are in constant dialogue with the diverse audiences they reach. Moving from the “French” Gao Xingjian to Zhang Yimou’s relationship with Japanese cinema, and from pan-Asian avant-garde networks to cross-Pacific cinematic re-makes, these papers explore transnationalism and “Chineseness” both as opposing concepts, and in terms of the common space that they share.

The French Gao Xingjian
Claire Conceison, Duke University, USA

Gao Xingjian has been writing plays in French since 1991 (beginning with Au bord de la vie, also known as Sheng si jie/Between Life and Death), but their identity as French-language works is persistently—and intriguingly—ambiguous, while Gao is still widely perceived as a “Chinese writer.” This paper examines this paradox, offering new insights about national identity, bilingualism, and exile drawn from four years of discussion with Gao and translating his most recent piece, Ballade Nocturne, from French into English. It is crucial to evaluate Gao’s work from a transnational perspective in order to understand the significance of five of his most successful plays, which were first created in French, and to assess Gao’s personal and literary evolution during his twenty-year exile in Paris.

Geographies and Geometries of Exchange: Conceptualizing Transnational Chinese Theatre(s)
Rossella Ferrari, SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom

In the past few decades the field of Chinese-language theatre has witnessed a growing incidence of exchanges and collaborations between artists of Chinese and East Asian descent operating across a range of media and genres such as avant-garde performance, traditional theatre, dance, video/film, and installation. These trans-regional networks of creativity and discourse production demand new conceptual models that go beyond national/mono-regional patterns of analysis and criticism, and emphasize instead the inherent trans-border quality of these enterprises. These collaborative projects also call into question our conventional notions of interculturalism and avant-garde theory by discarding unidirectional (vertical/horizontal) and hierarchical patterns of exchange and cross-cultural “influence” in favour of plural and relational ones. Through the analysis of a number of significant examples, mostly devised by the Hong Kong collective Zuni Icosahedron, this paper shall map this emerging field of trans-Chinese/trans-Asian performance by testing the theoretical and practical possibilities of a concept of transnational Chinese theatre(s). It will attempt to draw a geography and geometry of transnationalism in East Asian performance by examining its key shapes, trajectories, and directions and to conceptualize the Chinese/East Asian avant-gardes as inherently “rhizomatic”, and defined by practices of transmediality, transtextuality and other border-crossing modalities including relations between performance and technology and intersections of “high” experimental aesthetics and popular culture.

Zhang Yimou’s Hero and its Strange “Debt” to Kurosawa
Margaret Hillenbrand, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Zhang Yimou’s Hero has fuelled debate for nearly a decade now. Diversely interpreted as a gesture of servility to the Chinese party-state, a showcase of fascist aesthetics, and a reinvention of tianxia for transnational China, Hero fascinates precisely because it can be seen through so many prisms. Various as they are, however, these views usually agree on one thing: the meaning of Hero lies somewhere in the space between totalitarianism, aesthetics, and the articulation of “Chineseness”. Zhang himself, meanwhile, has made no secret of the fact that his own “hero” is Japanese director Kurosawa Akira. But despite this admission, the relationship between Hero and Kurosawa’s oeuvre is seldom subjected to much more than perfunctory citation. This paper begins by showing that Zhang’s “debt” to Rashômon, Ran, and Throne of Blood is everywhere on display in Hero, from Kurosawa’s silk-and-sword pageantry to his ethics of narrative point-of-view and his exuberant use of color. At first sight, this overlooked “debt” to Kurosawa seems to dilute Hero’s intrinsic “Chineseness”, however the latter is construed. Yet Zhang Yimou may well have the wider world in his sights. This paper argues that Zhang adopts, adapts, and ultimately expropriates Kurosawa’s style in order to claim his place – as an ethnically Chinese director – within a pantheon of auteurs who are creating a shared cinematic language in East Asia. By first apprenticing himself to Kurosawa, and then departing from him, Zhang seeks both to master this language and to stamp it with a “Chinese” accent.

Remaking “Chineseness” in the Era of Trans-Studies
Yiman Wang, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA

In current critical discourses, the category of “Chineseness” has been securely de-essentialized and exposed as a construct oftentimes predicated upon authority-endorsed violence. However, “Chineseness,” understood as a locus of geopolitical and geo-cultural specificity, still commands theoretical, practical and affective value. It offers a sense of location and presence – the very basis for talking about Chinese cinema, theater, literature and subject position. The desire for such specificity results precisely from the recent prevalent emphasis on transnational, border-crossing and global “lines of flight,” which creates the delusive fantasy of borderlessness. As a result, Chinese cinema becomes over-hastily equated with a cinema of transnational production and reception. The superfluous overuse of “transnational” fails to examine what “transnational” actually entails, especially in terms of regulating and producing the “Chineseness” of Chinese cinema while optimizing its commercial as well as artistic viability on the international stage. In this paper, I argue that “Chineseness” is deconstructed, yet not disposed of. In fact, the notion of Chinese specificity still underlies discourses on production and reception of Chinese cinema. It is therefore important to examine how this notion is deployed for specific agendas. By studying cross-Pacific film remakes, I hope to explore the ways in which the transnational transactions help to produce historical and geopolitical specificity of Chinese cinema, while suturing Chinese cinema into the world system. My examples include Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) – remake of Infernal Affairs (dir. Andrew Lau, Alan Mak 2002/2003), and Zhang Yimou’s A Simple Noodle Story (2009) – remake of Cohen Bros’ Blood Simple (1984).