Unlike the United States, China regards its cinema as a high art rather than a form of entertainment. According to David A.Cook’s History of Narrative Film, Chinese Cinema is “taught and understood as another form of literature.” This is due in part to its mastery of film aesthetics including cinematography, montage, and mise-en-scène. Simple plot structure and symbolic narrative story lines serve as guidelines for philosophical reflections and political ruminations. (see Deepika Bahri)

Chen Kaige is one of the leading directors in Chinese cinema and one of the more philosophical artists to reach international acclaim. His mastery at formulating visual metaphors, audio streams, and cinematic language palpitates with intellectual insights on society and Chinese culture.


Born in Beijing on August 12, 1952, Kaige was influenced by film at an early age through his father, Chen Huai’ai, also a director. Having experienced the beginning stages of the Cultural Revolution at fifteen and participating in the People’s Liberation Army for nearly eight years, Kaige finally decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and took his chances with a job in the Beijing Film Processing laboratory. Discovering his inherent talent for cinematography and directing, as well as an innate love for film, Kaige was accepted into the Beijing Film Academy several years later (Tam & Dissanayake).

Following graduation in 1982 and filled with experience, Chen’s first cinematic endeavors included Farewell to Yesterday (Xiang Zuo Tian Gao Bie) in 1980 with Fujian Television, and as an assistant director for Brother Echo (Ying Sheng A’Ge), The Fragile Skiff (Yi Ye Xiao Zhou) and 26 Young Ladies (26 Ge Gu Niang). But it was Kaige’s release of Yellow Earth (Huang Tu Di) which brought not only personal international acclaim but artistic recognition for Chinese cinema as a well. Since then he has directed numerous other films incuding: The Big Parade (Da Yue Bing), King of the Children (Hai Zi Wang), Life on a String (Bian Zou Bian Chang), Farewell to My Concubine (Ba Wang Bie Ji), Temptress Moon (Feng Yue), as well as acting in The First Emperor. His more recent films are Killing Me Softly, The Promise, The Orphan of Zhao, and Sacrifice. One of the leaders of the Fifth Generation film directors, Chen’s work is marked by his beautiful landscape shots of China and realistic portrayals of rural life. His mastery for symbolic narratives and film aesthetics serve as a vehicle for social, political, and nationalist messages (Tam & Dissanayake). (see Theodor Adorno)

I always wanted to teach people through film, to give them a big message. But now what I feel I want to do is more to dream through film, hoping that maybe the film itself will be able to tell more than I can (Schell).

Yellow Earth

DVD cover of Yellow Earth, 1984.
DVD cover of Yellow Earth, 1984.

Made in 1984 and shown at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Kaige’s Yellow Earth marked the start of the Fifth Generation film directors and the birth of a new Chinese cinema. Challenging the propaganda used by socialist realism, Kaige created his narration by focusing on images and mise-en-scène aesthetics. Based on the novel by Ke Lan, Yellow Earth recounts a simple story of a Communist soldier who goes to a small village in Northern China with the intent to collect folk-songs for nationalistic purposes (see Marx and the Idea of Commodity, Hegemony in Gramsci, Frantz Fanon) . The soldier resides in an impoverished home with an old man and his two children, a young girl (Ciuqiao), and her nearly mute brother. During his brief stay, the solider tells Ciuqiao about the capital Yan’an, and the treatment of women under Communism there. After discovering that she was betrothed in infancy, Ciuqiao runs away in search of a new life in the city but accidentally drowns while crossing a river. Full of visual metaphors and allegories, Yellow Earth examines the complex relationship between culture and politics and the interplay between the past and present.

Reflecting ancient Chinese paintings, the cinematographer Zhang Yimou brought the film to a deeper level with shots that parallel the young girl’s inevitable failure in the search for freedom with harsh destitute forms of nature. Although winning international acclaim, the film was bombarded with criticism from Beijing censors who viewed it as a way of stereotyping the Chinese (Tam & Dissanayake).

Life on a String

Chen Kaige’s most philosophical work, Life on A String (1991), was adapted from a story by Shi Tiesheng about a blind storyteller and his young disciple. As a young boy, the blind storyteller was given a Chinese banjo known as a sanxian and told of a sacred prescription for blindness trapped within it. But it is only after the thousandth string is broken that the instrument will open up and reveal its medicinal secret. After years of performing, the thousandth string is finally broken and the prescription revealed. Ironically, the prescription is blank and the old blind man’s faith is shattered (Schell). In many ways, the film deals with issues of Chinese nationalism. The dichotomy between the young apprentice and the old man is reminiscent of the false sense of hope and ideologies presented by China’s leaders and a political rumination about the people who follow them. In his own words, Kaige explains the consequences of following false hope:

It is important for the old man to believe in something, even though this belief finally comes to naught. Actually, he does get a great deal back from life by saving people, and I can identify with this, because I know it’s important that people have something to believe in. But disastrous consequences can also result from such beliefs and illusory dreams. Look at the Cultural Revolution. How many Chinese believed in it, and yet how many will now take any responsibility for that illusion? (Schell)

Aside from its controversial political agenda, the film captures Kaige’s unique aesthetic vision through cinematic techniques. Kaige paints a mesmerizing background on screen with colorful imagery and pays special attention to artistic compositions that echo Japanese theories on positive and negative space. The film was a commercial failure in the movie market and the visual power of the film was not enough to win over critics and audiences.

Works Cited

  • Dissanayake, Wimal & Tam, Kwok-kan. “Chen Kaige: Steps toward a Personal Cinema”. New Chinese Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Schell, Orville. “Chen Kaige”. The New York Times. 27 Jan. 1991: Sec 2, pg.13.

Selected Bibliography

  • Browne, Nick. New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
  • Clark, Paul. Reinventing China : a generation and its films. Hong Kong : Chinese University Press, 2005.
  • Cui, Shuqin. Women through the lens : gender and nation in a century of Chinese cinema. Honolulu : University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2003.
  • Dissanayake, Wimal. Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
  • Lim, Song Hwee. Celluloid comrades : representations of male homosexuality in contemporary Chinese cinemas. Honolulu : University of Hawai’i Press, 2006.
  • Semsel, George S. Chinese Film Theory. New York: Praeger Publishers,1990.
  • Zhang, Xudong. Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms: Cultural Fever, Avant-Garde Fiction, and New Chinese Cinema (Post-Contemporary Interventions). Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Related Links

Biographies of Director and Analysis of Films
Chinese Movie Database

Yellow Earth

Farewell My Concubine
Farewell My Concubine Site

Author: Helen Han, Spring 1999
Last edited: July 2017

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