JO BLATTI, ANN WALTNER, MARILYN YOUNG, LARY MAY, MICHAEL FRISCH
JO BLATTI is a principal in History Afield, a Minnesota-based consulting firm specializing in public programming and editor of Past Meets Present: Essays About Historic Interpretation and Public Audiences (Smithsonian Institution Press 1987).
ANN WALTNER is Assistant Professor in History and East Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her reviews and essays in Chinese Studies have appeared in The Asia Record, American Historical Review, and Ming Studies, among other publications.
MARILYN YOUNG, Professor of History at New York University, is the editor of Women in China: Feminism and Social Change, and co-author of Transforming Russia and China: Revolutionary Struggles in the 20th Century.
LARY MAY is Associate Professor in the American Studies program at the University of Minnesota, and author of Screening Out the Past. He is currently editing Promise and Peril: Explorations in the Origins of Postwar American Culture (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press).
MICHAEL FRISCH is Editor of the OHR, and Pro-fessor of History and American Studies at SUNY-Buffalo, His book A Shared Authori-ty, Essays on the Craft and Practice of Oral and Public History is forthcoming from the State University of New York Press.
All Under Heaven, To Taste a Hundred Herbs, Small Happiness 58 min. each, color, 16mm film. Also available in videocassette. Directed by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon. Edited by David Carnochan. Produced by Richard Gordon, Carma Hinton, Kathy Kline, and Dan Sipe. Distributor: Kathy Kline. One Village in China was televised nationally by PBS in August and September, 1987. (For more about these films, see the section on Long Bow Village.)
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 Shenfan (1983).
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 Mao."
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.
An Advisor's Perspective
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 Happiness.
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 modernization?
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 perspective.
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 War II.
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 the community.
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 Space:
Responses of Some Chinese Student s
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.Editor's Afterword
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.