The World of Chinese - - Contents - - LIU JUE (刘珏)

A sen­ti­men­tal look at a re­form era few can re­mem­ber fondly, Th­e­sum­meris­gone is al­ready shap­ing up as 2017's in­die fa­vorite for China on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit. In giv­ing the eco­nomic upheavals of the 1990s a sen­ti­men­tal gloss, di­rec­tor Zhang Dalei avoids the grit of many of his con­tem­po­raries


Set in the back­drop of the 1990s mar­ket re­form in In­ner Mon­go­lia’s cap­i­tal Ho­hhot, di­rec­tor Zhang Dalei’s Golden Horse Award-win­ning solo de­but The Sum­mer is Gone《八月》( ) is a per­sonal trib­ute to the era in the form of a bit­ter­sweet, but mostly static child­hood mem­ory.

Sum­mer cer­tainly speaks the film lan­guage of the clas­sic Tai­wanese New Wave, tap­ping into per­sonal mem­ory to trace so­cial changes. Hav­ing also grabbed the FIPRESCI Prize, and most re­cently in April, this year’s Best Young Di­rec­tor at the China Film Di­rec­tors’ Guild award, 35-year-old Zhang spent al­most 10 years spo­rad­i­cally work­ing on this au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal film, sup­port­ing him­self with short movies and creative wed­ding videos. His ef­forts were fi­nally re­warded with a lim­ited main­land re­lease in late March.

Faith­fully mir­ror­ing the di­rec­tor’s own child­hood, the story starts as 12-year-old Xiaolei en­joys his sum­mer va­ca­tion while his mother, a teacher, tries to get him into a pres­ti­gious lo­cal mid­dle school. His fa­ther, a film ed­i­tor with a boy­ish lively per­son­al­ity, is re­luc­tant to agree, ar­gu­ing that a per­son should be able to earn a liv­ing re­ly­ing on their tal­ent, not the school they at­tend. This be­lief is put to the test when the fa­ther’s work unit, the state-owned In­ner Mon­go­lia Film Stu­dio, has its fund­ing cut off amid a tur­bu­lent se­ries of re­forms aimed at wean­ing state-owned en­ter­prises off the gov­ern­ment teat; sud­denly the stu­dio is ex­pected to find projects and in­vest­ment on its own. Through the eyes of Xiaolei, we wit­ness the once-united work col­lec­tive grad­u­ally col­lapse and the ef­fect this has on his fam­ily and those around them.

Shot beau­ti­fully in black and white, Zhang’s choice of pal­ette is meant to re­flect his view that the decade he grew up in was pure and sim­ple in terms of peo­ple and so­cial re­la­tion­ships, a point he has ex­pressed re­peat­edly in var­i­ous in­ter­views, in­clud­ing one with Cin­ema World mag­a­zine. This ex­plains why 1994, a year many as­so­ciate with mas­sive lay­offs and eco­nomic suf­fer­ing, is so af­fec­tion­ately treated in the film.

Hav­ing grown up among friends and neigh­bors who

staffed Ho­hhot’s film in­dus­try, Zhang later at­tended the St. Petersburg State Univer­sity of Film and Tele­vi­sion, which, thanks to Rus­sia’s with­er­ing movie in­dus­try, of­fered an ed­u­ca­tion with a rich artis­tic tra­di­tion but rel­a­tively small com­mer­cial in­flu­ence.

Zhang’s de­pic­tion of his home­town, a city usu­ally associated with scorch­ing sum­mer sun­shine and dry weather, is so peace­ful that many Chi­nese au­di­ences have mis­taken it for a south­ern town. Apart from the Mon­go­lian song “Mother” sung at a farewell din­ner, there’s lit­tle sense of lo­cal­ity. In­stead, a lus­ter of ten­der rem­i­nis­cence lingers over scenes of fam­i­lies los­ing their in­come, rel­a­tives quar­relling, teens be­ing bul­lied, and a bed-rid­den grand­mother. Through the eyes of Sum­mer’s care­free pro­tag­o­nist, all are re­mem­bered fondly; even the film’s tagline is “Hold on to the good times.” Sum­mer re­flects Zhang’s dream to re­turn to a sim­pler time, a “golden age” where con­flicts are gen­er­ally re­solved peace­fully, and com­pli­ca­tions—such as be­ing turfed out of a com­fort­able rice bowl and forced to pur­sue in­di­vid­ual for­tunes— be­long to a more re­cent era.

As a mem­ber of the post-80s gen­er­a­tion, more at peace with re­cent his­tory than its pre­de­ces­sors, Zhang’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal style re­calls Tai­wanese di­rec­tor Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early work The Time to Live and the Time to Die《童年往事》( , 1986), which won a Golden Horse for Best Orig­i­nal Script a lit­tle over three decades ago. Hou’s film was also based on his own ex­pe­ri­ences of grow­ing up in the 1940s, when ties be­tween Tai­wan and the main­land were sev­ered. But while the cin­e­matog­ra­phy is sim­i­larly po­etic, Hou’s gaze is bit­terly hon­est on gen­er­a­tion gaps, grow­ing pains, and the im­pact of a par­tic­u­lar so­cial en­vi­ron­ment on in­di­vid­u­als.

An­other fes­ti­val fa­vorite, Hong Kong di­rec­tor Alex Law’s Echoes of the Rain­bow《岁月神偷》( , 2009), which won Best Film in the Gen­er­a­tion Kplus cat­e­gory at the 2010 Ber­lin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, drew on a child­hood spent in 1960s and 70s Hong Kong un­der colo­nial gov­ern­ment, war­ily view­ing events on the main­land such as the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. While every­day life takes on a fairytale-like qual­ity for the child pro­tag­o­nist, Law is un­flinch­ing in de­tail­ing the every­day racism, pres­sures to sur­vive, and bit­ter­ness of death.

It’s this lack of per­sonal growth that’s at the cen­ter of Sum­mer’s prob­lem. Both the cen­tral male roles seem to merely bob with the tide amidst tu­mul­tuous changes; it’s Xiaolei’s mother, a sup­port­ing role, who does most of the heav­ing lift­ing in the plot. Near the end, there’s a scene where the fam­ily’s broad-leaved orchid cac­tus fi­nally blos­soms; its brief flo­res­cence is sup­posed to sig­nify the fleet­ing sum­mer as a cher­ished mem­ory. Per­haps it’s more fit­ting as a metaphor for the whole film—an ex­quis­ite per­sonal story, evok­ing the child­hood mem­o­ries of a gen­er­a­tion, but as tran­sient and il­lu­sory as the pass­ing sea­son.


Based on their stage play of the same name, Zhou Shen and Liu Lu’s no-frills hit Mr. Don­key《驴得水》( ) is not just a smol­der­ing cri­tique of cor­rup­tion within mod­ern so­ci­ety. It may rep­re­sent a prece­dent for home­grown come­dies to match, and in some cases out­strip, their Hol­ly­wood coun­ter­parts.

While Hol­ly­wood hits like Lo­gan, Ar­rival, and Res­i­dent Evil have dom­i­nated the Chi­nese box of­fice this year— nine of the 10 top-gross­ing hits of 2017 so far have been Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tions—the film mar­ket has un­der­gone sev­eral changes over the past few years. Th­ese have in­cluded the sleeper suc­cess of non­state-backed Chi­nese films such as Lost in Thai­land《泰( 》, 2013) and The Mer­maid《美人鱼》( , 2016), which raked in 208 mil­lion USD and 553 mil­lion USD re­spec­tively, and gave hopes to the coun­try’s stag­nat­ing film in­dus­try ( The Mer­maid, Stephen Chow’s en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist com­edy epic, still holds the num­ber-one gross earn­ings spot, above Fu­ri­ous 7).

En­ter Zhou and Liu’s Mr. Don­key, a low-bud­get look into the hu­man and emo­tional roots of cor­rup­tion that quickly ex­ploded into the mar­ket, earn­ing rave re­views from crit­ics and au­di­ences alike. The film’s dark hu­mor, punchy de­liv­ery, and witty script quickly made it last year’s high­est-rated movie on China’s IMBD equiv­a­lent Douban, gar­ner­ing an im­pres­sive 8.3 out of 10. Its suc­cess has prompted a re­vival of the orig­i­nal play, most re­cently in Beijing in April, as well as in­ter­est in the com­mer­cial pos­si­bil­i­ties of in­de­pen­dent film.

Re­cently, the great­est up­sets in the in­dus­try have not come from mas­sive pro­duc­tions go­ing head-to-head, but low bud­get New Wave di­rec­tors go­ing gold: the se­rial killer thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice《白日烟火》( , 2014) gar­nered both awards (in­clud­ing a Golden Bear) and com­mer­cial suc­cess in­ter­na­tion­ally and at home, while Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin《天注定》( , 2013) was widely ad­mired in China, de­spite never be­ing ap­proved for do­mes­tic boxof­fice con­sump­tion. Mean­while Zhang Yi­mou’s sci-fi fan­tasy opera The Great Wall《长城》( ), re­plete with 3D vi­su­als and a pony­tailed Matt Da­mon, was so widely

panned that Peo­ple’s Daily claimed that re­view­ers’ neg­a­tive crit­i­cisms were caus­ing “se­ri­ous harm to the Chi­nese film en­vi­ron­ment.”

Ini­tially writ­ten for film, di­rec­tors Zhou and Liu were found to adapt the script for Mr. Don­key for the stage due to lack of money, then turned it back into a screen­play af­ter a suc­cess­ful the­atri­cal run. The film is set in 1942 in a re­mote ru­ral vil­lage in China. There, a school ad­min­is­tra­tion team is strug­gling to find fund­ing, as their school is de­funct and bereft of stu­dents.

In the first act, they find a po­ten­tial sav­ing grace: by nam­ing the tit­u­lar pack beast, which brings them wa­ter daily, as an English teacher, the pro­tag­o­nists are able to pro­cure ad­di­tional fund­ing. But they are in­evitably drawn, too, into a web of lies and de­ceit. The farce thick­ens when a gov­ern­ment ad­min­is­tra­tor de­cides to pay a visit, forc­ing the teach­ers to see their im­pro­vised plan (and own foibles) to the bit­ter end: One teacher has diges­tion prob­lems, an­other is hot­tem­pered, the dean is try­ing to raise a daugh­ter, while their so­lu­tion is dress up an il­lit­er­ate lo­cal cop­per­smith— who can speak Mon­go­lian—to play the “English teacher.”

The sec­ond act sees the un­rav­el­ing of th­ese char­ac­ters and their lives, and the plot quickly sheds its comedic na­ture, as each char­ac­ter be­comes a study of iden­tity and greed un­der duress. The gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, too, has his own bad habits, in this case “the op­ti­mal al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources,” namely tak­ing back­han­ders.

While clas­si­fied as a com­edy, the movie is a not-so-sub­tle look at how ra­tio­nal acts of self-in­ter­est can quickly be­come ab­surd, es­pe­cially when look­ing at how the film por­trays gov­ern­ment and mod­ern so­ci­ety. The di­rec­tors are able to get away with such scathing cri­tiques of greed and cor­rup­tion by pre­sent­ing its present­day com­men­tary in a his­tor­i­cal set­ting, in this case the Repub­lic of China.

Reg­u­la­tions in the Chi­nese film mar­ket have lim­ited for­eign im­ports in or­der to boost Chi­nese films’ rank­ings. But the fact that smaller pro­duc­tions that es­chew the cookie-cut­ter main­stream cul­ture are slug­ging it out with Amer­i­can and Chi­nese films for the top-earner spot is a tes­ta­ment to the strength and progress of China’s do­mes­tic tal­ents.

While Mr. Don­key is an in­de­pen­dent film, its mes­sage has res­onated with such mag­ni­tude it has shot to in­stant fame. It is a rel­e­vant and timely com­men­tary on the concerns of the every­man and woman, es­pe­cially re­gard­ing cor­rup­tion and the in­di­vid­ual’s place within the rule of law. The con­ver­sa­tion it started should not be ig­nored.


If the Man­date of Heaven had a phys­i­cal form, it would be a four-inch square block of the purest jade in the realm. Its base would be carved with dragons cir­cling the mes­sage, “Hav­ing Re­ceived the Man­date of Heaven, Live Long and Pros­per,” in case of con­fu­sion. It would have been com­mis­sioned by China’s first em­peror Qin­shi­huang (秦始皇), and passed from rul­ing dy­nasty to dy­nasty—un­til dis­ap­pear­ing for good over 1,000 years ago.

Sounds like the stuff of le­gend? The ex­is­tence of the Heir­loom Seal of the Realm (传国玉玺, “Jade Seal Passed Through the Realm”), as this relic was known, is well at­tested in an­cient his­tory books, but the ob­ject has been re­ported lost then mirac­u­lously re­cov­ered so fre­quently in its 1,000-year his­tory that one has to take the de­tails with a grain of salt. On the other hand, records of em­per­ors gain­ing and los­ing what was ef­fec­tively the phys­i­cal em­bod­i­ment of their right to rule has proven to be a use­ful nar­ra­tive de­vice for his­to­ri­ans to ru­mi­nate on the na­ture of power.

Per­sonal seals have been used to au­then­ti­cate doc­u­ments in China since at least the Zhou (1046 BCE – 256 BCE), when the char­ac­ter 玺 ( xi) first ap­peared in the records, later be­com­ing the ex­clu­sive char­ac­ter for im­pe­rial seals. Highly or­na­men­tal, usu­ally made from jade or gold, and topped with three-di­men­sional carv­ings of aus­pi­cious sym­bols, the xi seems to have been used for cer­e­mony as much as (if not more than) stamp­ing doc­u­ments. The Qing em­peror Qian­long (乾隆) had as many as 1,800 seals made, but we only have records of about 30; most were crafted to com­mem­o­rate events like im­pe­rial birthdays and mil­i­tary vic­to­ries, and kept in a special hall of the For­bid­den City. One of Qian­long’s seals, made of steatite and dec­o­rated with nine dragons, fetched 22 mil­lion USD at a Paris auc­tion last De­cem­ber.

Like­wise, no prints by the Heir­loom Seal ex­ist, and most his­tor­i­cal paint­ings sim­ply show it held in the tri­umphant hands of a new em­peror. But it’s no great stretch that a tra­di­tional Chi­nese im­ple­ment for per­sonal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion could be reimag­ined as a stamp of iden­tity of the realm it­self. His­tor­i­cal records about the mak­ing of the Heir­loom Seal—writ­ten in the Han dy­nasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), the Qin’s suc­ces­sors—con­flated the seal with the le­gend of the Heshibi (和氏璧), a price­less jade disk cov­eted by var­i­ous kings dur­ing the War­ring States pe­riod (475 BCE – 221 BCE). Qin­shi­huang is said to have turned the disk into the seal when he united the realm, and the third Qin em­peror handed it to the Han’s founder as part of his sur­ren­der, thereby kick­ing off a new, con­tin­u­ous, and lin­ear par­a­digm of power trans­fer in the his­tory of China.

The seal dis­ap­peared mul­ti­ple times as it passed down the rul­ing lin­eage. Qin­shi­huang, never a fa­vorite with the Han his­to­ri­ans, was said to have cast the seal into Dongt­ing Lake to en­sure a smooth pas­sage for his boat; it was found and re­turned by an hon­est farmer eight years later. In pe­ri­ods be­tween dy­nas­ties, ri­val war­lords of­ten claimed to pos­sess the seal when they were gain­ing the up­per hand, while it dis­ap­peared again in times when the win­ner was un­clear. Though some records state it was lost for good when the last em­peror of the Later Tang state (923 – 936) burned down his palace as the in­vaders closed in, records of the North­ern Song dy­nasty (960 – 1127) state that it resur­faced 150 years later via an­other sharp-eyed farmer— just when the realm was feel­ing pres­sure from in­vaders in the north.

But though the seal sym­bol­ized the em­peror’s suit­abil­ity to rule, his­to­ri­ans have been care­ful to note that it wasn’t just by grab­bing the ob­ject that em­per­ors se­cured a rul­ing man­date for them­selves. When a coup was staged in eight CE by a Han of­fi­cial named Wang Mang (王莽), the Heir­loom Seal was one of the first things he de­manded from the de­posed em­peror’s fam­ily, and it was promptly re­moved from him when the Han was re­stored just 15 years later. The war­lord Yuan Shu (袁术), ac­cord­ing to The Records of the Three King­doms, ad­ver­tised his pos­ses­sion of the seal at the same time he de­clared him­self em­peror, but other war­lords ral­lied against him any­way be­cause he was a back­stab­bing tyrant.

By con­trast, Yuan’s ri­val, the Machi­avel­lian Cao Cao (曹操), also claimed to have ob­tained the seal some­time af­ter Yuan’s death. The Records state Cao was asked whether he would de­clare him­self em­peror, but he replied, “If heaven wills it, then I could be King Wen of Zhou dy­nasty.” This ref­er­enced the fa­ther of the founder of the Zhou dy­nasty, who never took the throne but was posthu­mously named as king by his son. Ac­cord­ingly, Cao spent his war­lord ca­reer stat­ing that he was “sup­port­ing” the fad­ing Han em­peror, and his son Cao Pi (曹丕), founder of the Wei king­dom (220 – 265), made a show of re­fus­ing the Han em­peror’s ab­di­ca­tion three times, be­fore agree­ing with the re­mark, “I fi­nally un­der­stand what it was like when [leg­endary kings] Shun and Yu sagely ac­cepted an ab­di­ca­tion.”

It seemed that the seal, like the Man­date of Heaven, was be­lieved to act of its own ac­cord: You didn’t seek it out, in­stead heaven vouch­safed it if you showed po­ten­tial to gov­ern well. In that sense it might have been quite easy for peo­ple to ac­cept that the seal could al­most mag­i­cally dis­ap­pear and reap­pear de­pend­ing on how sta­ble or cen­tral­ized the em­peror’s power ap­peared to be at a par­tic­u­lar time.

But this was sub­verted by the seal’s fi­nal dis­ap­pear­ance, which dif­fer­ent records put at var­i­ous times be­tween the Later Tang and the Mon­gol-led Yuan dy­nasty (1206 – 1368). By the time of the Ming (1368 – 1644), the seal was in­dis­putably gone for­ever—records state that the found­ing Ming em­peror, Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), searched as far as the Mon­gols’ home­land in the North, but couldn’t find the seal. The Ming era was also when em­per­ors be­gan to pro­duce more com­mon­place, per­sonal seals en masse, cul­mi­nat­ing in Qian­long’s vast col­lec­tion; as Zhu Yuanzhang him­self said, his reign was a time for the com­mon peo­ple to “dis­pense with cults and fall in with the right ways.” The nar­ra­tive of a myth­i­cal seal, de­rived from the old-school Con­fu­cian ethos of di­vinely man­dated rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, may have be­come less sig­nif­i­cant as Zhu con­sol­i­dated the realm on more sec­u­lar lines—mil­i­tary, com­merce, and strin­gent laws.

In re­cent decades, sev­eral seals un­earthed in the Chi­nese coun­try­side—in­clud­ing one by a 13-year-old boy in Shaanxi in 1955—were thought to be can­di­dates for the lost trea­sure, but ended up be­ing the many other im­pe­rial seals from the Qing and Ming. In 2015, a new con­spir­acy the­ory was re­ported by that the seal ac­tu­ally sur­vived into the Repub­lic of China and had sunk in a ship­wreck on the Bo­hai Sea in 1948, when the Na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment tried to evac­u­ate it be­fore the Com­mu­nists took Beijing.

And though this claim is sup­ported by nei­ther his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence or logic—for why would the Na­tion­al­ists or any­one keep the seal a se­cret for so long?—an­cient chron­i­clers would have been proud of how well this so­lu­tion nar­ra­tively mir­rors the po­lit­i­cal limbo be­tween the two par­ties at the war’s end. No farmer or fish­er­man has yet come for­ward with the find.

The gov­ern­ment in­spec­tor and his fel­low con­spir­a­tors pre­pare for an­other visit—this time by an Amer­i­can—in Mr.don­key

a wa­ter­melon dur­ing a trip to ru­ral Ho­hhot Xiaolei and his fa­ther share

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