DEFEAT AS VICTORY AND VICTORY AS DEFEAT
During the early phases of the war there was a tactical need for a popular culture that mobilized people and showed how defeat could be turned into victory. As Changtai Hung has pointed out, wartime popular culture made a significant contribution to the resistance effort. Personal and family losses were staggering, but millions of people were determined to sacrifice for national salvation. Of course, most wartime popular culture was state-directed propaganda. It resisted Japanese imperialism quite effectively by building a strong sense of community, but its approach to Chinese society was largely uncritical.
The popular culture of the immediate postwar period discussed in this chapter headed in new directions because it was responding to different needs. Now the challenge was to explain why victory felt like defeat. Even though cultural workers in the state sector were among those who addressed this question, the most vibrant postwar popular culture can hardly be characterized as state-directed propaganda. In fact, those who produced the new popular culture took pride in their relative independence from the state. Some directors accepted state financial support but continued to function as independent-minded and critical artists nevertheless.
One is tempted to say that controversial postwar films are better characterized as an example of popular culture directed by intellectual elites who had close ties to the literary world. But the story of postwar popular culture is more complex (and more interesting) than that. Most popular postwar films, including state and private-sector productions, are interesting examples of top-down and bottom-up cultural cross-fertilization. Intellectual elites like Chen Liting and Shi Dongshan definitely did not pull the victory-as-defeat theme out of thin air and then impose it on a politically docile public in a top-down manner. The popular culture they produced fed on discontent that was already a pronounced fact of postwar life. The filmmakers did not create the disaffection.
But just because postwar filmmaking was not a clear case of top-down cultural imposition by the state or by independent cultural elites does not mean that it was a matter of filmmakers blindly chasing public opinion. That is to say, the most popular postwar productions cannot be regarded as instances of purely commercial activity in which filmmakers contribute little or nothing of their own, preferring instead to give the masses whatever they seem to want. Postwar filmmaking involved an intersecting of elite and mass cultural currents. The ideas and concerns one finds expressed in these works are a combination of elite and popular views.
The Guomindang claimed in the immediate postwar period that it wanted a high-minded, morally engaged, and educational film industry. It wanted a curtailing of what it viewed as degenerate pulp filmmaking. Ironically, the response to
The movies discussed here were surprisingly independent and critical, but they were not intended to be revolutionary. Their original purpose was to address injustices and stimulate reform. But as the political situation in China spun out of control, these films had the longer-term, but unintended, effect of being oppositional and even subversive.
The case of postwar filmmaking is more complicated and ambivalent than writings by Nationalist and Communist scholars allow, because there was a clear connection between the Nationalist state and the production and distribution of controversial films. Some of the most disturbing films made in 1947, pictures like Far Away Love, Heavenly Spring Dream, and Diary of a Homecoming (Huan xiang riji, d. Zhang Junxiang), were produced in government studios, funded with government monies, and distributed with government support.
The state had ample means of cracking down on these and the most disturbing private-sector films. But the fact is that the state did little or nothing to prevent production and distribution, and its failure to get tough had little to do with bureaucratic inefficiency or corruption. A more convincing explanation, but one that has been resisted by Nationalist and Communist scholars alike, is that the sentiments of despair and disillusionment conveyed by the films were consistent with the views of many state and Nationalist Party insiders. Clearly, in early 1947 there were state cultural elites who regarded these works as constructive calls for reform, rather than as conscious attempts to subvert state and party authority. Like the filmmakers themselves, they had no idea that these popular films would serve to deepen the mood of disillusionment and cynicism and thus further undermine government credibility.
In brief, the case of popular culture under review here does not fit into any readymade analytical paradigm. The lines between official and unofficial, state and private, elite and popular, commerce and art, and loyalty and disloyalty are too blurry here to be accounted for by any readymade theory of popular culture, including that of the influential Frankfurt school. As Chandra Mukerji and Michael Shudson have observed, Frankfurt school thinkers "perceived mass culture as aesthetically and politically debilitating, reducing the capacities of audiences to think critically and functioning as an ideological tool to manipulate the political sentiments of the mass public." Postwar Chinese films definitely fall into the category of commercial mass culture, but their critical/democratic essence cannot be accounted for by the Frankfurt school model.
These popular films also fail to fit into any single aesthetic format. Chen Liting called Far Away Love a "tragicomedy" (bei xi ju), but it is better characterized as a rare example of film satire. Eight Thousand Miles of Clouds and Moon, A Spring River Flows East, and Heavenly Spring Dream were classic melodramas (tongsu ju), and Diary of a Homecoming was a playful farce. But, in sharp contrast to what Chinese Marxist scholars say, none of these works had much to do with cinematic "realism."
Alfred Hitchcock supposedly said, "Movies are life with the boring parts cut out." This is another way of saying that movies are not real life at all. The popular films under review here may not have been "realistic," but they clearly captured the public imagination. They created the illusion of reality. They were powerful and, ultimately, subversive because they explained why ordinary people felt defeated after the victory over Japan. In late 1946 the director Shi Dongshan referred explicitly to the new challenges of postwar filmmaking when he wrote that he and his friends found "reason and justification" for the hardships suffered during the war. "It was more difficult," Shi confessed, "for us to understand why, in the months after victory, we felt defeated."