When the OHR established a regular media review section
two years ago, the potential range included any public programs for-mat
that used oral history in a fundamental way: film and video productions,
radio and television broadcasts, interpretive exhibitions, walking tours
and so on. We began with critical analyses inspired by a radio series
and an exhibition, and in this issue we initiate film review with a
symposium on the trilogy of films made about Long Bow, a contemporary
Chinese village, by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon.
Small Happiness (1984) was the first of the Long Bow films to be completed.
It was followed by All Under Heaven in 1985 and To Taste a Hundred Herbs
in 1986. Small Happiness a spirited, inter-generational conversation
with women of the village on mar-riage, birth control, work, and daily
routines, takes its title from the proverb:
To give birth to a boy is considered a big happiness.
To give birth to a girl is a small happiness.
All Under Heaven considers persistence and change in traditional ways
over the past 40 years, particularly as collectivization and decollectivization
have affected life in this northern Chinese village 400 miles southwest
of Beijing. To Taste a Hundred Herbs (subtitled "Gods, Ancestors and
Medicine in a Chinese Village') is a portrait of a traditional rural
doctor. A central and trusted public figure, he is also a member of
the Catholic minority, which gives him an unusual role in the village.
As might be expected from the foregoing, co-directors Carma Hinton and
Richard Gordon know China better than most. Hinton, an American born
in Peking, spent her first 21 years in China. Her first language is
Chinese; she first visited Long Bow Village in 1971. Richard Gordon
has made seven trips to China in the past dozen years. Fluent in Chinese,
he has worked in several villages and in a Shanghai factory. According
to the press packet, the filmmakers were not accompanied by outside
government officials in their trips to Long Bow, nor did they encounter
restrictions on their activities. Support for the project came from
the NEH, the state humanities committees in New York and Pennsylvania,
the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Maryknoll Missioners, the Film
Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Catholic Communication Campaign.
Awards and festivals for the Long Bow films include American Film Festival
(Blue Ribbon, Small Happiness), the Margaret Mead Film Festival, New
Directors/New Films, Global Village Documentary Festival and the CINE
Golden Eagle 1985 (for Small Happiness) among others.
While the complex use of oral testimony in the films itself merits review
for the OHR audience, the Long Bow films demand attention to other dimensions
relevant to oral history: the view of contemporary Chinese life presented
in the films, approaches to filmmaking craft and to public programming,
and classroom use of such materials. Accordingly, I invited four colleagues
with overlapping interests in comparative and East Asian Studies, oral
history methodologies, and public programming projects to review One
Village in China.
My first concern was to make sure that we had a solid grounding in Chinese
history and scholarship to support the discussion of oral history and
audience reception. To this end, Ann Waltner leads off the symposium
with a concise placement of Long Bow village in 20th century China,
the Hinton family's association with the village, and the general treatment
of the political and cultural structures of everyday life in the trilogy.
A second specialist in Chinese history, Marilyn Young, describes her
role as an advisor to the filmmakers, particularly in the development
of Small Happiness, the exploration of women's lives in Long Bow village.
In addition, Young draws on her experiences as a participant in a series
of humanities council-sponsored screenings in New York State. Throughout
her review, Young considers the issue of representativeness in the oral
testimony and the films overall.
In his remarks about the Long Bow films, Lary May focuses on comparative
aspects. Along with others in his program at Minnesota, May is currently
developing an American Studies curriculum for both foreign and American
students that places historical concepts of modernization, frontiers,
industrialism, and immigration in global perspective. He approaches
the films in the context of historiographic concepts and classroom presentation.
OHR editor Michael Frisch, also an advisor to the filmmakers, provides
a coda with his discussion of the same SUNY-Buffalo screen-ing session
that appears in Marilyn Young's essay. Frisch focuses on the films'
reception by relatively privileged, urban Chinese studying at the SUNY
campus. My own brief remarks about filmmaking and fieldwork in the trilogy
follow in an editor's afterword.
A Historian's Perspective
Early in Small Happiness an old Chinese peasant woman,
reluctant to discuss her marriage, says "I can't talk about that stuff."
But she does talk. Through persistent questioning and intelligent listening,
Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon have caught the voices of the villagers
of Long Bow talking about their lives, and in doing so have produced
a document of extraordinary power and significance. One Village in China
follows a long-standing Hinton family interest in and acquaintance with
Long Bow: William Hin-ton, the father of Carma Hinton, is the author
of two studies on the village, the classic Fanshen (1966) and
An Advisor's Perspective
The Long Bow films show the dramatic changes that have affected village
life in China in the past half century, as well as the enduring structures
that have bound the village together. Furthermore, the films demonstrate
the relationship between political change and enduring structure exceedingly
well. Each film takes as its central focus one aspect of village life:
Small Happiness, women and the family; All Under Heaven, work; and To
Taste a Hundred Herbs, religion and medicine.
The lives of rural Chinese women have changed profoundly in the last
half century. One could scarcely ask for a more powerful testament to
that change than the three old women in Small Happiness who, sitting
on chairs, rubbing their knees, and reminiscing, chronicle the changes
in society since the days of their youth. They describe how their feet
were bound and their marriages made as if those were horrors of another
world, another age. Another old woman confesses emotionally that she
had smothered her own baby because there was then no food for the new
child to eat. Despite the distance from these horrors to the present,
today's China is no feminist paradise. Ling Chao, the engaging daughter-in-law
in Small Happiness, earned her license to drive a tractor, but stopped
driving because it wasn't "convenient" for a woman to work with men.
And when another woman is asked if men participate equally in housework,
she rolls her eyes and responds, "Not in a lifetime."
The government policy which has had the most dramatic impact on women's
lives in the past decade has been the birth control program. While urban
women were enjoined to have only one child, the policy in Long Bow and
other rural areas seems to have been somewhat more lenient. A woman
who bore a daughter would be permitted to have a second child. Small
Happiness deftly shows how the birth-control policy, coupled with a
still-ingrained cultural preference for sons catches women in a double
bind. The government restricts the number of children they may bear,
while their families and, indeed, they themselves demand that they produce
a son. The hostility of the women of Long Bow toward the policy found
expression in cruel taunting of the woman charged with its local enforcement,
a woman unable to bear children of her own. The Chinese government seems
to have retreated somewhat from its most stringent birth control policies,
but the pressing nature of the population problem insures that birth
control will be a matter of public concern for years to come.
The economic reforms instigated in the early 1980s have also had a profound
impact on the villagers of Long Bow. All Under Heaven, the second film
in the series, chronicles the process of economic reform in the countryside.
Because Long Bow had prospered under collective management, the decision
to dismantle the collective met with some resistance. Villagers seem
to agree that under the old system motivation was a problem; in All
Under Heaven, Wang Chin-hung, village head in 1973, says of those days
"As long as you showed up you got your ten [work] points." But the new
system where small plots of land are contracted to individual families
gives rise to its own problems. Expensive and not yet paid--for machinery
is useless in the smaller and more fragmented plots. Villagers who have
contracted land may have difficulty meeting their dual responsibilities
to cultivate their land and attend to their paying jobs. This has accelerated
a process already underway in the countryside, the feminization of agriculture.
Men take high paying jobs on the outside and leave agricultural work
to the women. Indeed, much of Long Bow's prosperity has come from income
from sideline occupations such as hauling or factory work rather than
from agriculture. Matters of community concern like irrigation and sanitation
are more difficult to supervise. But perhaps the most fundamental objection
raised is that "people don't start out even:" some families have more
laborers than others and will hence pro-sper more than others under
the new system. The potential for a new inequality is stated with great
glee by a vegetable en-trepreneur in All Under Heaven when he says of
his relationship with his workers: "Everyone has to make some money
- I'll make more and they'll make less." But another man in the same
film takes a more sober view of the possibility when he says: "When
times get difficult, people will think of the collective and Chairman
One of the effects of the recent prosperity of Long Bow has been a resurgence
of lavish weddings, funerals, and festivals, celebrations which were
prohibited as superstitious during the cultural revolution. They are
now permitted, and have been infused with the new entrepreneurial spirit
- "red [the color of weddings] and white [the color of funerals] shops"
now cater to the villagers' ritual needs, and turn a profit while so
doing. These ceremonies, which provide some of the most dramatic footage
in the films, are of course the public demonstration of private bonds,
of kin and community solidarity. Long Bow has a rich festival life,
full of opera, lion dances, and lantern festivals. And modernity has
added another dimension to traditional village entertainments - television.
To Taste a Hundred Herbs begins with a rendition of Christian villagers
singing "O Come All Ye Faithful" in Chinese, and much of the film explores
the relationship between the Catholic minority in Long Bow (about twenty
per cent of the village population) and its neighbors. This relatively
high percentage of Christians is by no means typical of China as a whole.
Nor is the prosperity of Long Bow typical, though it is less unusual
than the village's religious makeup. Yet I think we would be foolish
to regard the particularity of Long Bow as a defect in the films. If
we have learned anything from the recent proliferation of regional studies
of China, both historical and anthropological, it is that China is a
nation of vast diversity, and that the notion of a typical Chinese village
is a myth. Simply because some of the precise conditions of life in
Long Bow - Christian religion and relative prosperity - are not replicated
elsewhere does not mean that the issues dealt with in the film are peripheral
to China as a whole. Indeed, they are absolutely central. And the richness
with which the particularity of Long Bow is portrayed ranks these films
among the very best ethnographic reports of China in any medium.
My connection to the Long Bow project came in three
distinct segments. First, I was one of a small group of people who study
China who met with the filmmakers in Philadelphia before they left for
the field. We held a sort of mini-conference, talking and arguing, as
all students of China must these days, about the meaning of recent policy
decisions to decollectivize the countryside. My notes of our discussions
are full of exclamation points, question marks, and angry doodling around
the names of those with whom I disagreed. We were each of us, I think,
fighting for the way we had put China together in the past or for the
way we were putting it together in the present - the China we would
teach our students and write about, the China we could, so to speak,
live with. At the same time we were generating questions we hoped the
filmmakers would answer in the village.
The plan was to make three films out of footage shot at the same time.
In an early plan, two would chronicle the history of collective agriculture
in Long Bow village and a third would focus on women. For the first
two films, the questions we asked Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon to
explore were fairly abstract: the relationship between village and State,
party bureaucracy and peasant, national campaign and village experience.
The women's film was more straightforward - we wanted to know about
women and all aspects of their work, the cycle of their lives, and what
the patrilocal marriage system meant in their lives as they lived it,
rather than as we analyzed it.
Sometime later I returned to Philadelphia, with some but not all of
the original conference group, to watch the rough footage and talk about
how the filmmakers were contemplating carving films out of it. We sat
in a small viewing room, while the editor, David Carnochan, ran the
film on the editing deck and Carma Hinton simultaneously translated
from the sound track. I can't remember how many hours it went on but
I could have watched and listened forever. The interviews Carma Hinton
had gathered were the product of her peculiar location on the margin
of Chinese society. As a stranger she could be trusted with intimacies;
as native born she would understand them. There were scenes and conversations
so fresh and powerful it was like seeing China for the first time -
a China I had read about, but never experienced in this way. The abstractions
of our conference discussions disappeared into the specificity of this
old man telling about a long ago famine in which his father had died
or that old woman imitating her mother-in-law's grudging permission
to see what the peddler at the gate had to offer.
I was most involved with the film on women, now titled Small Happiness.
Along with a group of younger women scholars I commented on the shape
the filmmakers thought the footage of women might assume - some way
of moving through the life cycle of village women in a multivocal, cross
generational way. I resisted cutting anything, as if each image were
alive and each cut a death. Nothing was irrelevant or boring. Instead,
of course, the footage was molded to make a film and to tell a very
particular story - -one that the villagers themselves did not think
of as a story: how women in Long Bow village had come to be there as
brides before the revolution, how they came to be there now, and what,
having married into a village as well as a family, their lives looked
like, not so much to themselves (for they did not look at themselves)
but to people like us who asked gendered questions of them. In contrast
to the other two films, the women's film takes a subject the villagers
themselves are unlikely to discuss in public at any great length and
makes it central. Moreover, although the camera does its usual job of
making us believe we are just watching things as they "really happen,"
the film chooses to focus on powerfully disturbing images, ones that
will demonstrate the two main premises of the filmmakers: compared to
the world of women before 1949, the women of Long Bow feel themselves
to be in "paradise;" but they also know themselves to be a "small happiness"
- the equality which the revolution promised is as yet far from realized.
These premises frame a larger analysis of how the kinship system, as
well as aspects of government policy, lock women into subordination.
So what one learns from Small Happiness is doubly distilled - filtered
once through the questions the filmmakers asked and then through the
analysis made of answers they brought back.
The third connection I have with these films involves using them in
the classroom and, more recently, as part of a New York Council on the
Humanities outreach grant which took Carma Hinton and/or Richard Gordon
and one of the attached academic "experts" on the road with Small Happiness
in upstate New York. This has been, in some ways, the most interesting
part of the whole experience. When I show the films in class I have
carefully prepared a context for them. They illustrate points I want
to make. I use the films, to the distress of cineastes, no doubt, the
way I use literature, to the distress of literary critics, as material,
data for points I choose to make, or counterpoint to my own arguments.
Of course students will make of the films what they will, just as they
do with the books I assign. It's another matter when you publicly identify
yourself with a film and then go around showing it with filmmakers.
Showing such a film in small town libraries and churches has been an
entirely new experience for me. Here the immense distance between China
and America (or perhaps between any foreign nation and America) becomes
very evident. A social order so very different is hard to imagine even
when you are sitting there in a darkened church basement looking at
it. We might have been 19th or early 20th century missionaries with
a lantern show; if we had taken up a collection for the children of
Long Bow I am sure we would have done very well. The authenticity of
the testimony, the careful exposition of themes and problems, the insistence
that the "Red Chinese" are ordinary human beings with personal histories
and personal ambitions must move against a weight not so much of prejudice
as of isolation.
Showing it to university audiences was another matter. In Buffalo, for
example, all three films were shown at the State University to a large
audience of whom a high percentage were Chinese. The response, especially
to Small Happiness was a total surprise to me. Many Chinese in the audience
were insulted by what they saw as the film's focus on China's backwardness
and historic shamefulness (bound feet). Why didn't Hinton and Gordon
make a film about Shanghai or Beijing? About students and intellectuals
rather than peasants? The voice of wounded patriotism was loud, insistent,
and distressing. These privileged young women and men (though it was
mostly the men who complained) found peasants "ugly," saw victimization
where Carma and I saw strength, were embarrassed by the evident ongoing
subordination of women, but clearly had themselves thought little about
the subject nor, I would venture, found it as upsetting as we did. Their
complaints made me angry, but they also made me look at the film in
a somewhat different way. The next time I heard a mainly Caucasian audience
burst into laughter at the sight of the bride and groom in their country
bumpkin finery I winced a little. Familiar issues of objectification
reared their contradictory heads and I wondered if the strategy of the
other two films, where village voices of authority lead us through the
issues, avoided some of the problems the audience raised about Small
And yet, precisely because the subject was women, it is difficult to
think of alternative strategies. We made women a central issue, not
the villagers. In the films that deal with the history of the collective,
or village religious and medical practices, villagers not only tell
their story but even have some control over its representation. With
complete confidence, Dr. Shen discusses his latest cures and explains
his exotic medicines. The village leader, similarly in complete command,
paces off the soon to be divided collective land, sardonically displays
the now useless machines for harvesting corn, and speculates on the
future of Long Bow. The women of Long Bow tell stories of their lives
but it is not the story of the village itself. Precisely because we
were outsiders we could make the story of the women of Long Bow one
of Long Bow's stories. On further reflection, these issues the film
raises are the unresolved ones of oral history as such - or, for that
matter, of representation more generally.
A Comparative Approach
These three remarkable films use oral interviews to
dramatize the lives and traditions of an agricultural village in China.
Through the use of in-depth conversations with families, village leaders,
and the people of Long Bow, the directors show us the impact of three
separate eras on the peoples' traditions and historical memory. These
three eras are the old feudal order that dominated China before the
communist state, the revolution of 1949 that brought the communist regime
to power, and the cultural revolution of the late sixties. The context
for all three is the current regime's ex-periments with private enterprise
and opening to the west. Throughout, the filmmakers, Richard Gordon
and Carma Hinton, interview old and young people and allow the viewer
to feel and see, with the camera's close-ups on the faces, the personalities,
even the soul of the individuals. The result is that the great events
that have transformed China become not just abstractions on a time line
but highly personal experiences.
As an American born in China, the central interviewer, Carma Hinton,
brings to the exploration a concern not just for uncovering the vast
changes altering China in the last forty years, but for revealing those
facets of its life that will provide among Western audiences a comparison
with their own lives, particularly the impact of technology and western
ways on a peasant village. And that story is heightened by the uniqueness
of the medium. As images and sounds spread across the screen, viewers
experience a country that often seems only a name or a stereotype. And
as the camera shows the symbols of the revolution coupled with ancient
family rituals, religious practices, and folk songs, the same images
seem to ask a question: what is more lasting and meaningful, the culture
of a traditional society, or the process of revolution and economic
This complicated question is pressed home right from the beginning,
in All Under Heaven. The narrator explains that China has a folk saying:
"All things under heaven that are together come apart, and those that
are apart, come together." In the context of the film, this refers to
the fact that the community has gone from a feudal regime, to a collective
farm, and now back to private divisions. Yet the director will not allow
us to see this just as a static process, for new elements of control
over material conditions are also very present. Old people tell us of
a village life before the revolution where starvation, famine, and death
occurred as fate. Only now, in the wake of the Revolution, is food plentiful,
and the people have their first experience of controlling fate, with
modern appliances and technology.
Such themes unfold on many different levels in this and the other two
films. But one of the most important is, perhaps surprisingly, what
the trilogy suggests to students of American culture about how we teach
our classes, construct our scholarship, and use new evidence. These
concerns are of pressing importance to us in the American Studies Program
at the University of Minnesota. Over the last five years, we have become
deeply involved in teaching foreign students, and have begun to seek
new ways to study America. Given our student body, we have found that
one of the most fruitful approaches has been to examine the United States
comparatively. In this regard, we are currently involved in devising
a new course that will enable us to analyze America in an international
Yet we have found few guides on how to proceed, since the culture of
the United States is conventionally studied in isolation from other
societies. New models are in formation, however. Some recent scholars
have begun to break from this internalistic mode and study race relations
in an international perspective. Several excellent works have recently
been published, including Eric Foner's Nothing But Freedom which compares
slave emancipation in the American South to emancipation in Latin America
and Africa, and John Dower's War Without Mercy which compares American
and Japanese cultures as factors in the strategies and warfare of World
We intend to draw on these works as well as those comparing frontiers,
industrialization, immigration, and modernization. A primary concern
will be how social and cultural experiences of the United States compare
with those in other countries, and how foreigners have perceived American
life. Along the way, we intend to make these distinctions tangible to
students through the use of films, literature, oral histories, and memoirs.
In this context, One Village in China will be a major asset. To take
one example, one of the most important comparative themes the films
evoke is that of modernization. We see the villagers responding to the
creation of a modern state, the impact of industrialization, the rise
of the free market, and free labor concepts. Many mainstream social
scientists and policy makers, popularizers of modernization in the postwar
period, advanced this process as a way to avoid revolution. Yet as All
Under Heaven unfolds the students will learn that Long Bow, in fact,
has been through a long process of revolution during which village landlords
were over-thrown, a new regime established and diverse policies advanced
to increase production above the subsistence level. The village leaders
describe the first efforts at collective farms, then efforts at free
labor, industry, and female work outside the home. And as an old couple
describe the wonders of a washing machine and television, I hope that
students accustomed to modern appliances would see how much they mean
in the underdeveloped world, and why the United States has attracted
such envy in the world since 1946.
At the same time, Long Bow presents us with a series of alternative
routes to modernization. In advocating an increase in production, Westerners
have often assumed that this process would have to follow that of the
west, from liberal doctrines of economics to a domesticity rooted in
the nuclear family. Yet what is omnipresent in Long Bow is a world permeated
by Chinese families who are traditional to our eyes and modernizing.
We see a long scroll where family members trace their lineage back hundreds
of years, children are taught to bow before pictures of ancestors, and
Dr. Shen practices a medicine based on herbs and acupuncture that has
been passed on from father to son for several generations. The doctor's
professional code, seemingly quite different from that of American practitioners,
dictates that his trade not reward him with wealth, but rather serve
What perhaps gives the films greatest power is the decision to set up
the dialogue between the interviewer and the people in Long Bow as a
form of debate. Villagers tell of their success and discontent under
the old regime, Mao, and even the current leaders. They argue over how
much tradition can exist with modernization, how much free labor and
enterprise can exist with the needs for community sharing, how much
female emancipation can be tolerated. In many ways, this interaction
also suggests that the current rulers of China, who allowed the film
to be made, want to enter into a dialogue about their past, their present,
and their future. More importantly, the debate illustrates that the
making of a new society is a contest between choices and policies Indeed,
one of the beauties of One Village in China is that while it shows that
Long Bow is surrounded with timeless traditions, its people draw on
those same resources to make a new world. All things under heaven go
in circles, but the world does change. Not a bad lesson to teach our
students when they think about America's place in the world.
Oral History Across Cultural
Responses of Some Chinese Students
When Jo Blatti described the essays she was receiving
for this symposium, I suggested adding a supplemental note, building
on Marilyn Young's comments about the reactions of Chinese students
at the Long Bow screening at SUNY-Buffalo, part of the New York Council
for the Humanities "Films in the Humanities" series. The discussion
Marilyn reports, in which filmmaker Carma Hinton also participated,
turned out to be only the beginning of a complex response by a considerable
proportion of the hundred or more students from the People's Republic
of China who had a very unusual experience: being part of a large American
and Chinese audience being shown a complex documentary portrait of their
own country and people.
As Marilyn notes, from heated discussion after the showing of Small
Happiness, the first of the trilogy, we knew that at least a few Chinese
students, all men, had found the film provocative, unsettling, and even
offensive. The next day, discussion after the other two films was more
complex - the criticisms less biting and emotional, but at the same
time more broadly based among a larger number of students, men and women.
In the days that followed, the Chinese students remained in great ferment,
arguing passionately among themselves about the intent and effect of
the films, and even about the integrity of the filmmakers. Finally,
a number of these students suggested that it might be productive for
Chinese and Americans to sit down together and sort through reactions
to the films.
Some forty people jammed the room at the start of the meeting we arranged
in response to this request, over half of them students from China,
with many others joining in later. The talk went on for nearly four
hours and could have lasted another ten, it seemed. The flavor is suggested
by one Chinese woman who began by nervously announcing "I have seven
points I want to discuss:' and went on for twenty minutes, talking through
objections, before saying "Now to my second point...", upon which she
finally was persuaded to yield the floor.
There was no prevalent "Chinese" response, I should say: the students
were deeply and passionately divided about the films, and those who
either loved the trilogy or hated it did not always do so for similar
reasons. Nevertheless, there were some suggestive patterns in their
responses to the Long Bow trilogy's portrait of rural China.
Marilyn Young has already discussed a first dimension of response -
embarrassment at peasant life and the poverty of rural China, intimations
that there was callousness and even irresponsibility at "exposing" this
backwardness to the outside world, and fear that the American response
would be a mixture of contempt for the people and misreading of China's
progress. But in the crucible of extended discussion, other concerns
began to appear beneath the surface of such objections. As it happens,
these turned on issues that had less to do with China and more to do
with deeper disagreements about documentary and oral history. Three
particular themes are worth brief notice here.
First and most centrally, those critical of the films raised the issue
of "representativeness:" all the ways in which this village, these individuals,
and the subjects chosen for presentation may not actually be representative
of more general patterns of Chinese life. The filmmakers insisted that
they did not presume to generalize at all, pointedly having already
decided to title the PBS showing One Village in China. But the Chinese
critics countered that this did not dismiss the question of accountability.
A set of images was being presented to huge Western audiences, they
argued, and if these were misleading or distorted, the claim of nominalism
- just one person speaking, just one village - was not an adequate defense.
The filmmakers had to take responsibility for their choices.
It was not hard for those who liked the films to defend those choices
as responsible and meaningful. But it is interesting how much, in the
process, discussion came to revolve around a central issue in documentary,
and indeed in the oral historical method itself, the Catch-22 tension
between the insights that can arise only from the depths of an informant's
idiosyncratic narrative, and thereby beg the question of how much can
be concluded on the basis of such unique evidence.
A second related concern involved discomfort with the films' reliance
on historical and political analyses as offered by the villagers themselves.
It became clear only in the fuller discussion that a good deal of the
students' embarrassment was grounded in the degree to which the peasants
were not only observed and pic-tured, but were broadly permitted to
articulate the film's analysis, and hence its politics.
A confirmation of this came not from the trilogy's detractors but from
its staunchest defenders - at least some of whom seemed unable to deal
with the complex interviews. One Chinese student, for instance, offered
a rapturous appreciation. The films had provided him, an urban person,
with his first view of rural China; the people there were wonderful,
he exclaimed, "like some primeval tribe," exotic survivors of an ancient
world. This is the precise opposite of the reaction of most Western
audiences, who are touched by the thoroughly recognizable humanity of
the people encountered in the direct conversations filling all three
films. The Chinese students critical of the films were, in a sense,
closer to this position than to that of their romantic colleague. Rather
than being able to comfortably dismiss the peasants as distant and quaint,
they sensed the importance of permitting villagers a voice in assessing
past, present, and future - and they found this disturbing.
This resistance to having peasants speak "for" a larger situation seemed
closely linked to an uneasiness at being unable to identify the films'
political "voice." Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon had no official Chinese
approval or status, yet they had received some cooperation from the
government and had not been criticized. Many of the Chinese students
seemed unsettled, especially amidst the volatility of recent Chinese
politics, by a text whose pedigree they thus could not clearly read.
And for all their fashionable talk of democratizing China, a number
of them fell back to the most extreme line of defense: the films should
have been presented for official approval in China, and not shown in
the West until and unless this were received.
This attitude, first understood by many of the Americans present in
narrow political terms, actually had deeper roots, a third dimension
that became evident when the students offered specific examples of where
they thought the films were irresponsible or distorted. Early on, one
talked at length about the most dramatic moment in Small Happiness,
where a grandmother confesses to having many years ago smothered her
own baby, whom she could not begin to be able to feed in the crushing
poverty of feudal China. The student did not deny that this might have
been true - but she faulted the film for having, by including it, implied
that the behavior was appropriate. If infanticide is wrong, she went
on, it must be clearly identified as such, not hidden behind a more
complex message about the nature of pre-1949 poverty.
The argument was vigorously resisted by both Chinese and American students,
yet there was something compelling about the critique, which became
clearer in a less charged example late in the discussion. Another student
pointed to the image of the young bride dressed in an elaborate traditional
wedding costume yet sporting brazenly contemporary mirrored sunglasses.
For him, it was the epitome of everything wrong in the film. While it
made the audience laugh, he said, it made him want to crawl under a
rock in shame. And in trying to explain this feeling, he made a point
that had been implied in the infanticide discussion and a number of
the other complaints: he well understood the image's point about the
relation of tradition to change, but he felt that by seemingly celebrating
the bride's expression of complexity and cultural confusion, the film
abdicated a responsibility to introduce clarity into confusion, meaning
into chaos. The purpose of documentary and of art more broadly, he said,
was not passively to reflect a paradoxical or ambiguous reality, but
rather to introduce moral clarity and truth, which he took to be much
the same thing.
This produced another heated flurry of discussion, but the point suggested
a profound difference that cut the argument loose from the films and
their context, at the same time providing a kind of resolution to the
debate. We were judging the films by two very different aesthetic approaches.
That of the filmmakers explicitly highlighted complexity and openness
to viewers' judgments. The view articulated by the student looked to
documentary for formal resolution.
After all, the Long Bow Group had chosen that very same image of the
sunglassed bride for its poster advertising Small Happiness; it had
carefully framed and placed the infanticide episode, aware that its
power could either propel or deform the film and its portrait. And I
know, as an advisor to the Group, how hard they had worked to have the
films present the reality of life in rural China on its own terms, avoiding
the easy labels that commentators are so relentlessly eager to attach
to China. If there was one thing that was explicit in editing decisions,
it was the intent to celebrate the complexity of the village, without
a mediating message declaring the recent economic reforms as good or
bad, women as truly liberated under socialism or not, Dr. Shen as a
good doctor or not - and to thereby challenge viewers to examine their
own categories and assumptions, in dialogue with the villagers.
In the final analysis, then, the trilogy's very success in this intention
produced a good bit of the response of its Chinese critics. Their implicit
belief in the clarifying and didactic responsibility of documentary
art has, of course, a rich heritage with many echoes in the West, reaching
beyond Communist propaganda and Socialist Realism to the Confucian roots
of traditional Chinese culture, with its stress on the "rectification
of names" But it proceeds from a very different set of assumptions about
oral history and documentary than those propelling these films.
This suggests differences not to be resolved in an afternoon's discussion.
But appreciating their dimension helped us all conclude, I think, that
we had in fact actually seen the same films and focused on the same
qualities about them, however different our responses. In so doing,
the discussion confirmed the power of oral history, embodied in films
as powerful and as well crafted as One Village in China, to force to
the surface the most enduring questions of history, politics, art, and
communication across cultural space.
I had imagined that the view of Chinese life presented
in the Long Bow films would be the element likely to provoke instructively
divergent perspectives. In their own ways, Ann Waltner's placement of
Long Bow as unusually prosperous and unusually Catholic and Michael
Frisch's account of the trilogy's reception among Chinese students concerned
about national images abroad confirm that sense. At the same time, I
note that even the concerned students seem to accept the issues and
the ideas Hinton and Gordon have laid out in the films as fundamental.
Why are we all so inclined to go along with the filmmakers' interpretations?
Marilyn Young locates the filmmakers' achievements in oral historical
exposition in their magisterial use of "insider/outsider" perspectives.
I would extend Young's observation to include the aesthetics of camera
work and editing in the films as well. Long Bow is one of those rare
projects in which the subject and the talents of the production team
are gloriously well-matched. Gordon and Hinton combine the conventions
of disciplined inquiry, oral historical methodology, and film to produce
a body of work that satisfies on all three levels. While it's a commonplace
that good fieldwork makes for good ethnographic filmmaking, it is rare
when, as here, no one dimension pulls the films out of intellectual
or aesthetic focus. In individual moments, we see the co-directors'
mastery in the handling of dramatic, emotion-laden sequences such as
the infanticide narrative in Small Happiness. With quiet solicitude,
the camera backs off to an elderly woman's hands and domestic task as
she recounts the enduringly raw memory of smothering a male child for
lack of food in a long ago famine. With a heavier touch, this testimony
would be exploitative of the informant and unwatchable for the viewer.
Here, it is respectful inquiry.
What I admired most in the films, though, was an almost understated
breadth and depth of conception. In a sense, One Village in China is
group portraiture via disputation and dialogue. We learn, for instance,
that the old woman's family opposed her decision to speak of the child's
death and her own reasons for going ahead. As Lary May points out, we
are getting the community's range of thought concerning collectivist
and individualist economics, birth control, men's and women's work,
inter-generational perspectives, the strike at the saw-sharpening shop,
and much else. The filmmakers select, as anyone working in a presentation
medium must, but they don't pre-digest the information for us. And,
through the inclusion of many of Hinton's questions and exchanges with
community members, we have grounds to evaluate the filmmakers' relationships
and information-gathering techniques.
The visual accompaniment offers a social and physical geography of the
community. We encounter many of the same people in different roles and
relations to others: wife/mother/daughter-in-law/opera-goer/agricultural
worker and one-time tractor driver; parent/medical practitioner/religious
communicant/public health officer. In spatial terms, we visit terrain
which includes domestic interiors and public facades, mediating courtyards,
market squares, workshops, fields, country roads, the village as a whole.
We attend fairs, a funeral and a wedding, traditional opera, an outdoor
movie. This chance to observe paths and connections among village people
may seem a surprising thing to praise in a film. But think about other
recent documentaries that so often are characterized by tunnel vision.
Whether the work is a close-up of an individual or a place, a mid-range
problem, a ritual-centered piece or a relatively distant overview, documentary
usually tends to isolate its subjects in the endeavor to present them.
One Village in China is among a new crop of films expanding the conventions
in this area.
By and large, much of the symposium discussion has focused on Small
Happiness and All Under Heaven. Marilyn Young and Lary May have identified
some of our own cultural preoccupations with the feminist and modernization
issues in the two films. The power and the drama of the women's narratives
in Small Happiness serve especially to concentrate our attention. However,
no one should overlook To Taste a Hundred Herbs. To my mind, the film-makers'
decision to profile Shen Fasheng, the village doctor, confirms their
imaginative and communicative capacities as does neither of the more
obvious subject choices. Dr. Shen is an extraordinarily humane, engaging
person - a natural subject. But in many ways he is as much an insider/outsider
as is Carma Hinton. Christian in a predominately Taoist and Marxist
world, a locally renowned herb doctor charged with responsibility for
modem health care delivery, his story undercuts any inclination we might
have to engage in stereotyping. We cannot imagine that it is based on
any uncomplicated or unexamined reliance on tradition. Instead, we are
led to consider the diversity of Chinese peoples and culture, the historical
influence of external forces such as the Catholic Church, yet another
angle of vision on the individual in village and broader society, yet
another view of family and culture as factors in personal choices.
On behalf of all the symposiasts, I commend the One Village in China
to your attention.
Village in China: Small Happiness
| All Under Heaven | To
Taste a Hundred Herbs
First Moon | Stilt