Ying Xiao, Assistant Professor in Literatures, Languages, and Cultures, used her 2015 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship to travel to China and finish research for her book project, China in the Mix: Cinema, Popular Music, and Multilingualism in the Age of Globalization, 1984-2010. Film, film sound, and popular music present a complex picture of contemporary Chinese culture – a culture shaped by global economic trends, China’s embrace of capitalism, and new cultural contacts. Films offer complex images and stories that tap into cultural tropes and highlight moments of cultural change. Film soundtracks, although subtle, create crucial connections between sounds and images. Their analysis is important for understanding the effects of media in a global world. Post-socialist China is no different. Focusing on the films of Zhang Yimou, an influential and popular Chinese director, Xiao argues that the connection between sound and image in his films tell a larger a story about Chinese culture in the global age.
Zhang Yimou began his career in 1987 with the release of Red Sorghum, a story about peasant culture during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film utilizes a distinctive audio-visual palette to highlight certain themes. The central visual cue is the color red which, along with four songs associated with specific scenes in the film, celebrate erotic individuality and free-spiritedness. The film was made in the aftermath of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms which opened China to the global market and embraced a vision of transnational capitalism. The audio and visual cues foreground erotic desire and individual action, which are embedded in a national Chinese culture opening itself up the world and embracing individual consumption. Such cultural transformations, as the film makes clear, do not happen without conflict.
Another Yimou film, The Flowers of War (2011), about the sacrifice of 13 Chinese prostitutes to save 13 Chinese schools girls with the help of an American mortician indicates the cultural consequences of political compromise in China. The film is dominated by lush visuals and audio cues similar to Red Sorghum but the contextual representation is different. Rather than celebration, the film acknowledges the tragedy of cultural and political sacrifice while presenting itself as a massive Hollywood blockbuster bridging the gap between East and West. The tragic sacrifice of the older generation (the prostitutes) to preserve the younger generation (the students) recognizes the real cultural loss that came with a new generation of transnational capitalism. But accepting that loss is portrayed as heroic and courageous; a sacrifice for the good of a collective future. The traditional gives way to the global. Rather than the celebratory hues of Red Sorghum, The Flowers of War tells a more chastened story of sacrifice for the preservation of a Chinese future. Globalization is here to stay.
Xiao’s research highlights the complicated cultural conflicts and compromises that arise in the wake of globalization and new cultural contacts. As China continues to rise on the world stage, it is all the more pressing to understand the dynamic cultural relationship between China and the world. Her project also reminds us to pay close attention to the elusive connections between sound and image within films, music, and television.
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