November 14, 2014, by Tony Hong
Nü Zhi Qing: the Wilted Flowers of the Country
By Flair Shi,
Currently Studying Comparative Literature (MA) at University College London,
Graduate of the School of English University of Nottingham Ningbo,
BA in English Language and Literature.
For the young college students enjoying China’s unprecedented expansion of urban wealth and education in the 21th century, it is very hard to imagine with what kind of mixed feelings of enthusiastic idealism and doubtful resignation the young “zhiqing(知青)” of the 1960s and 1970s responded to Mao’s “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement (上山下乡运动)”.
Indeed, many a young student in my generation possibly have never heard about such experiences from people they know, largely due to the generational lacunae in the family. Our grandparents were born well before the establishment of the PRC so they could not be the young the Party targeted in the 1960s. Our parents who were born in the 1960s were just lucky to get back to universities and colleges after the notorious “Gang of Four” was struck down. Just as the Party under Deng gradually admitted its past mistakes and gave out compensations in a series of “setting things right (拨乱反正)” sessions, the government of the PRC has recognized the great waste of intellectual labor brought by the corruption and injustice of the movement.
However, apart from the said generational lacunae and the possible general political apathy of our young generation today, this particular part of the nation’s and naturally also the CCP’s history, is not as emotionally and viscerally narrated and emphasized in education.
As Foucault reminds us, the construction of the narrated history is forever tied to the power dynamics and necessities of legitimacy associated with he who wields the strongest control over power. Hence, the collective and yet selective memory of the presented history. Then it becomes totally understandable why the admission of such tragic mistakes reads like a cold statement while the war with the Japanese enjoys much more weight and vivid depictions in Chinese history books.
But the collapse of totalitarianism also meant the end of the official representation of history as the sole accessible version of history, and in the Chinese case, this collapse and liberation dialectic is at best ambivalent. Two of the best artistic reexaminations of that turbulent era, Lu Le’s “The Foliage” (2003) and Joan Chen’s “Xiuxiu the Sent Down Girl” (1999), despite or perhaps owing to their sharp gender focus on the nü zhi qing (女知青), the female students involved in the movement, both, at least temporarily, was banned by the Chinese authorities.
Lu Le, like most of the fifth generation Chinese film directors, excels in his expositions of the old corrupted China through his social realism. Yet he is probably among the least known directors of this dominant generation, say, compared to fellow directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige as most of his films were banned. “The Foliage”features two of the most famous of Chinese stars, Liu Ye from the mainland and Shu Qi from Taiwan, and together they present a tragic yet beautiful love story in a unique background.
Forcibly displaced in the tropical heat of the Yunnan mountain villages, Ye Xingyu (Shu Qi) struggles for the opportunity (the quota) to go back to the city to attend her ill father and in the process falls for the rebellious Liu Simeng (Liu Ye) from another camp. Compared to her insensitive and idealistic communist boyfriend who knows only of slogans and class struggles, Liu’s somewhat Robin Hood-like character that constitutes his courageous difference and altruistic individualism proves to be new and attractive to Ye. For example, the most political moment in this romantic film is perhaps when Liu steals party money to buy food for the beggars and explains it later to Ye as “communism means distribution according to needs”.
The film’s tragic turn comes when Ye’s jealous boyfriend lied to Liu, making him believe that Ye’s love for him is only a ruse to get herself the quota to return to the city. As a result, Liu was punished and Ye returned to the city. In a somewhat convoluted allegory, one can see how love sprouts because of politics and how it also perishes because of politics. Together the individuals’ emotional turbulence constitutes a more vivid representation of history, in the process of which the boundaries between the private/personal and the public/historical become blurred.
Comparatively, Joan Chen, perhaps due to her overseas Chinese identity, is much harsher in exposing the sexual and social exploitation of the nü zhi qing in that dark era. Xiuxiu (played the equally famous Li Xiaolu), an angelic and charismatic girl from Chengdu, was sent down to live in an isolated steppe with a castrated old man to learn shepherding. She gradually became hopeless waiting in vain for the leaders to pick her up as promised. Cheated into believing she would be given chances to get back to the city, she gradually became a prostitute for every party correspondent passing by the steppe. When the old man finally sent her back to the village hospital to abort her unexpected pregnancy, they found out everyone was gossiping about her as a shameless whore. They eventually returned to the steppe and committed suicide. The idyllic tone of the first half of the film forms a sharp contrast against the dark human nature prevalent in the second half.
The focus on the nü zhi qing highlights the directors’ intention to use gender to further explore the complicated prevalence of exploitation that was stimulated by the movement. In foregrounding the subalternity of the female students in the sexual objectification and social stigmatization imposed on them, the films shake off the simple binaries such as the movement vs. the zhi qing, or the corrupted officials vs. the exploited students. As the films show, there is also the male students’ exploitation of the nü zhi qing, everyone sabotages against one another, and also people’s self-mutilation just for the quota. Thus, there is no such thing as the system vs the individual, because the individuals had already been corrupted by the system that brought out the most dark and selfish sides of them.
How reminiscent this is of Lu Xun’s “cannibalistic society”. This only deepens the irony of Mao’s great praise for Lu Xun’s dark satiric exposure of the most despicable part of China’s culture Mao himself announced to eradicate. Nü zhi qing, the flowers exuding the fragrance of the grand communist dream of the country, were doomed to wilt and perish, because the earth they were rooted in, was dead to start with.