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Documentaries play key role in constructing ‘memories of China’

YU GUOFANG | 2017-12-14 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


The documentary The Forbidden City depicts the Imperial Palace, which was the center of the highest authority for more than 500 years in China. With garden landscapes and an enormous architectural complex consisting of 9,000 chambers and halls containing furniture and works of art, it has become the historical landmark witnessing invaluable Chinese civilization during the Ming and Qing dynasties.


Texts are important carriers of memories, but they lack the same expressive force as images as well as capacity to restore and render detail. It can be said that images are practical, subtle, timely and unique reproductions of reality, which makes them essential to cultural inheritance. In particular, documentary images, which can faithfully preserve texts, rituals, space and other types of memories, are indeed superior among all ways to convey memories.

Since the beginning, Chinese documentaries have borne the responsibility of shaping China’s memory. In recent years, as Chinese have grown increasingly aware of the importance of documentaries, a series of retrospective films have been aired, such as China Remembered, Intangible Cultural Heritage in China, and Memories of Mountains and Rivers, highlighting the Chinese nation’s vigorous cultural charm and its splendid cultural history. Many of these documentaries have not only managed to construct the memory of the times, relate to the audiences and inspire a strong sense of national identity but also have marked milestones in the history of Chinese documentaries.


National character
When cataloguing the memories of China, the primary question we need to ask is: What should the Chinese remember? Over the course of China’s 5,000-year history, the various nationalities and cultures that constitute the extended family of the Chinese nation have interacted with one another across generations, forming what renowned Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong described as the “pluralistic integration of the Chinese nation.” That said, the key to keeping the memories of China alive is to make sure the national symbols of Chinese culture are properly highlighted.

The symbols of national culture constitute an ideographic system of a culture, full of national sentiments and spirit that could awaken the nation’s common memory as a community. The Chinese cultural symbols are broad, profound and all-encompassing because they have been passed down over generations and represent unique personalities of the Chinese, such as a sense of worrying about the rise and fall of the world, a will to sacrifice oneself for the greater good, patriotism, and concept of honor and disgrace featuring loyalty, filial piety, rite and morality.

At its very beginning, Chinese documentaries have been sketching the memories of China with elements and symbols unique to our nation. For example, the widespread documentaries Silk Road, Stories of the Yangtze River, The Yellow River and Odyssey of the Great Wall all chose the scenic landscape of China as the dominant symbolic image, which not only conforms to the aesthetic sense of the Chinese people but also represents the most common elements that can summon a collective memory of China.

As Chinese scholar Guo Shaotang wrote in his Journey: A Cross-culture Memory, “the Chinese people occupy a favorable position, with a vast pool of cultural heritage from a consistent past, to carry out cultural reconstruction based on a wealth of natural landscape resources.”

When the large-scale television documentary Stories of the Yangtze River was aired in 1983 on China Central Television, audiences were thrilled and called it an “exciting patriotic scroll.” This work marked a milestone in the history of Chinese documentaries. Its theme song “A Song of the Yangtze River” was also widely broadcast, winning unprecedented popularity.

Again, in 1991, Odyssey of the Great Wall, a joint production of China Central Television and the Tokyo Broadcasting Station, became the highest-rated television documentary in the history of both countries at that time. General Director Liu Xiaoli said in a later interview that the Chinese documentary must emphasize cultural characteristics to tell the stories of China right.

In addition, a batch of documentaries, such as The Forbidden City, The Destruction of China’s Yuanming Yuan, 600 Years of Kunqu Opera, and Peking Opera all feature the most outstanding national elements of Chinese culture.

These icons encapsulate the unique value and spirit of the Chinese nation and could help to evoke a national memory that strengthens our identity and makes us stand firm amid the influx of powerful global cultural products and images.


Individual voices
Since French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs put forth the theory of collective memory, it has become a dominant voice in the study of sociology, whereas individual memory has been relegated to a subordinate position. Some scholars argue that Halbwachs overlooked the subjective, dynamic and resilient nature of individual memory, and the two are by all means intertwined. In a way, individual memory is the “glimmer of memory” in the grand narration of collective memory and, to a certain extent, a supplement and amendment to the historical discourse.

In addition to being truthful accounts of facts, documentaries are enchanted because they give voices to individuals within the grand narration. The memory construction of documentary images is made up of many individual fragments. For example, the 15-volume documentary Memories of Beijing is a record of people’s memories. It blends the grand background of the times with precious individual experiences, such as Quanjude roast duck, Qianmen large bowl of tea, self-employed personnel and Beijing pictorials. These individual memories with historical sentiments are what constitute a panorama of the reform and opening-up period.

Then, the 10-series documentary Stories of Chinese People focuses on 10 representative figures and through their individual memory, reveal their 30-year pursuit of dreams with vivid details. When these stories are told in the context of a certain time, they form a collective memory of an era.

As famous Hollywood producer Kieth Merrill said in an interview with China Youth Daily, the key to a successful documentary is people, who have the most fascinating tales of all. To make good documentaries, he suggested directors and producers in China learn how to tell good stories through people.

The five-episode The Memory of Nanjing in 1937, which took two years to complete, attempts to present a full and objective picture of the tragedy through interviews with more than 120 scholars, survivors and their descendants. This lively individual memory revealed the inhuman atrocities of the Japanese invaders. As shocking and heartbreaking as the documentary can be, it also serves as a collective memory of mankind. As director Yan Dong said, “Only by turning individual memory into national memory and a memory for mankind can this tragedy be prevented in the future.”

What’s more, recent series such as Masters in the Forbidden City, The Tale of Chinese medicine, and Gongfu Shaolin, which focuses heavily on the traditional kungfu still being practiced in Shaolin, also rely on individual perspectives to construct a collective memory. With tons of details about daily life, these works take us back to the old days, blurring the boundary of the past and present somewhat.


Other’s perspectives
There has always been a huge difference between Chinese and Western perspectives. China’s journey to modernity has been a painful and humiliating process: A once prosperous and powerful Oriental civilization was forced to open up under the threat of Western cannons and steel ships, culminating in an era of unequal East-West cultural exchanges where China had little discourse power.

For a long time, in the eyes of the Western world, they saw a “manufactured China.” Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, especially after the reform and opening up, China has been on a rapid rise and become a strong national power as well as an indispensable player in global governance. However, the Western bias against China still prevails. Therefore, the construction of memories of China requires a cross-cultural perspective to gain the world’s recognition.

When they first started to film, producers of the 12-part The Forbidden City worked with the National Geographic Channel to create a 60-minute abridged version for Western audiences. The documentary Yuanming Yuan followed the lens of three Western missionaries, from the other’s perspective, to tell the story of the scarred imperial garden. Narrations of Victor Hugo’s verses were added in multiple places.

The documentary Tibet: The Truth, directed by Hollywood director Chris Nebe, uses a wealth of valuable image materials to present a true picture of Tibet to the world from the Western perspective, with an emphasis on the fact that Tibet and China have been united throughout history, thus powerfully dismissing some intentional distortions.

Likewise, China’s Challenges, was produced by the International Channel Shanghai, a member of Shanghai Media Group and hosted by Robert Kuhn. The documentary followed Kuhn as he traveled across China, exploring the ways in which the country is tackling critical issues while undergoing large-scale urbanization and confronting a changing global economic environment. The series has drawn wide attention from the United States, Germany, Australia and other countries and won the 25th China News Award and the 68th Emmy Award in Los Angeles.
The essence of the other’s perspective is to win “memories of China” a place in the world discourse from a cross-cultural perspective, and it is also the embodiment of the Chinese discourse “going global.” However, it is worth noting that China’s rise must build on its own culture and traditions, which is indeed the gene and origin of the national spirit.

Cultural confidence is the affirmation that a nation, a country and a political party hold to their own cultural values and traditions. As a source of cultural confidence, memories of China are urgently needed to strengthen people’s sense of national identity.

It is the Chinese documentaries’ due duty to shape the historical memories of China.


Yu Guofang is from the Anhui Broadcasting Corporation.