The Role of Documentary Film in 20th-Century China

Ying Qian’s book traces the evolution of a medium that was embedded in historical upheavals.

Eve Glasberg
June 11, 2024

From the toppling of the Qing Empire in 1911 to the political campaigns and mass protests in the Mao and post-Mao eras, revolutionary upheavals characterized China’s 20th century. In Revolutionary Becomings¸ Ying Qian, an associate professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, studies documentary film as a medium that was deeply embedded in these upheavals, and as a prism to investigate the entwined histories of media and China’s revolutionary movements.

Qian discusses how early media practitioners at the turn of the 20th century intermingled with rival politicians and warlords as well as civic and business organizations. She reveals the foundational role documentary media played in the Chinese Communist Revolution as a bridge between Marxist theories and Chinese historical conditions. In considering the years after the Communist Party came to power, Qian traces the relationships between media practice, political relationality, and revolutionary epistemology, from production campaigns during the Great Leap Forward to the class struggles of the Cultural Revolution and the reorganization of society in the post-Mao decade.

Qian talks about the book with Columbia News, as well as what she’s doing now, and who she would like to break bread with at her next gathering.

What was the impetus for writing this book?

My interest in documentary media began in the 2000s, when the availability of new digital technologies enabled an independent documentary culture to flourish in China. This exciting and irreverent indie culture—supported by online cinephilia communities and offline indie film festivals in Beijing, Nanjing, Chongqing, and other major cities—drew many artists (photographers, poets, dramatists, painters, and, of course, filmmakers) as well as people from all walks of life.

Everyone was a viewer, and the majority were also aspiring filmmakers. They collaborated on creating movies, curated screenings in galleries, cafes, and homes, and were each other’s critic and advocate. Conversations after screenings would begin with the films, but quickly expand to discussions about all kinds of questions—political, social, historical, and personal. This exhilarating atmosphere not only started me on making films and engaging in curation, but also spurred my earliest academic writings on documentary film, which centered on indie productions.

This book’s epilogue discusses indie documentary, but its substantive chapters engage with a longer documentary tradition in China, from the earliest days of cinema’s invention to television documentaries in the 1980s, stopping just before the emergence of indie filmmaking. This choice was related to another formative experience I had with documentary filmmaking—an internship at the Long Bow Group to assist the production of Morning Sun (2004), a documentary on China’s Cultural Revolution by filmmakers Carma Hinton, Richard Gordon, and Geremie Barmé. Morning Sun used a large amount of film footage from both documentaries and fiction films made in China during the 20th century, particularly 1949 to 1976.

This was my first encounter with Mao-era documentaries, whose variety and sheer volume astounded me. As I began researching these films, and came into contact with private film collectors in China who regularly screened films from their collections, I became intrigued by the polarized memories these films elicited from viewers. Those who experienced the Maoist period were bitterly divided: Some insisted the movies were faithful portrayals of their youthful years; others called them shameless lies. Younger viewers without direct experience of the period were left to puzzle over how to read and evaluate these documentary images. How can one interpret films that seem transparent, but have a lot of opacity to them?

Indie filmmakers, in their struggle to carve out an independent space, had understandably disavowed earlier documentary traditions, particularly those propaganda productions sanctioned by the party state. Yet I was privileged to move between these largely separate worlds of filmmaking—one, historical, the other, contemporary—and appreciate documentary’s multifarious productivities in both cases.

Both historically and in the present, a documentary creates encounters, connections, and interventions in political and social lives at the time of its making and after its completion. When it’s in circulation, a documentary’s productivity continues, as it becomes part of the audiovisual archive that shapes historical understanding. All of these experiences impelled me to pursue this book project.

Revolutionary Becomings by Columbia University Professor Ying Qian

Can you provide some examples from the book of the foundational role documentary media played in the Chinese Communist Revolution?

Cinema was among the 20th century’s most important forms of media, and documentary was particularly versatile and omnipresent. In China, documentary production far exceeded other film productions in volume. Often produced and screened outside of film studios and theaters, documentary participated much more readily in political, industrial, military, and legal institutions and in social life than its fictional counterpart. Central to documentary’s mediating roles in revolutionary movements was its ability to build activist networks, transform political relationalities, and create new knowledge, all crucial for the directions and outcomes of revolutionary change.

My book begins in 1895, and therefore covers a longer period than the Chinese Communist Revolution. Cinema was involved in insurgent organizing as early as Sun Yat-Sen’s 1911 revolution: Sun’s transnational revolutionary networks supported the film ventures of Umeya Shokichi, the Japanese film pioneer and Sun’s long-term supporter. Shokichi financed Sun’s activities and documented the 1911 revolution on film for international circulation.

Documentary filmmaking under the direct supervision of the Communist Party began in 1938 in the Communist base area of Yan’an. At a time when Communist survival was under threat, and the rural outpost of Yan’an could hardly supply sufficient grain to support the troops, documentaries, along with other popular forms of media such as storytelling and theater, mended strained relationships between the Communist troops and local villagers. Shot on expired film, printed by hand frame-by-frame, and shown only locally, the 1943 Nanniwan and its handicraft production offered a convincing example of Communist self-reliance, boosting confidence in the Communist army’s ability to alleviate shortages in the base area.

After the Communist Party took state power in 1949, a nationwide film production and exhibition infrastructure became consolidated, and documentary experienced rapid growth. Meanwhile, new situations gave rise to new questions. Domestically, how to envision a socialist economy and distribution of power within that economy? How to envision a socialist modernization process, and at what speed to launch it? With land reform and the nationalization of industries, domestic class composition went through rapid change. Would the enemy classes such as the capitalists continue to exist when the economic foundations for them were no longer present? Would new class antagonisms form, and what would be their nature? Internationally, growing ideological differences destabilized relationships within the Socialist Bloc, and newly independent states found their processes of decolonization increasingly entangled with Cold War politics. How to navigate the shifting geopolitics of the Cold War, and build relationships with socialist and non-socialist states across different degrees of ideological differences?

These new situations could be navigated by documentary in two complementary ways: Documentary could create stable categories of meaning and fields of action by mapping, diagramming, and depicting a process with clear sequentiality; or documentary could stay attuned to the emergent, withhold judgment, and allow observation, experiment, deliberation, and reflexivity. While the second tendency had always been an undercurrent, the first tendency was prioritized, and as time went on, more and more dogmatic.

In the early 1950s, documentaries depicted the processes of land reform and other socialist transformations, and mapped class relationships and geopolitical affinities. During the nationwide production campaign of the Great Leap Forward (1957-1960), documentaries, like today’s DIY videos, trained new workers to adjust to the rhythm and speed of industrial production, and propagated optimal work routines and vernacular technologies, including how to build makeshift backyard furnaces for cottage production of steel and iron. During the Cultural Revolution, documentary was put under forensic examination to identify class enemies and facilitate struggle sessions. By then, documentary had entered a crisis, along with political relationality and knowledge formation in the country.

Are there any lessons from your book about the relationship between media and political movements that can be applied to current events?

Media’s saturation in today’s political and social lives has prompted a lot of scholarly interest in historical media: We start to realize that media has been foundational to our societies all along, and media history needs to be written into political and social histories.

Looking back at the radical experiments of 20th century revolutions, I find the question of knowledge formation particularly important. What counts as knowledge in political movements? Which and whose experiences do we validate as sites of knowledge? How can people, differentially situated and with different experiences, bring their ways of knowing together to work out the directions and processes of change? And since any striving for social transformation is necessarily an experimental act, how should an activist epistemology allow for errors and failures, and growth from them? Finally, how can this epistemology be attuned to the emergent and the new, grasping these with both precision and openness?

Media is important to how political relationality is forged, and what kinds of knowledge are being produced and circulated in society. Chinese revolutions of the 20th century have alerted us to the high epistemological requirements for projects of emancipation. Such requirements can only be met when healthy and inclusive political relations in society are fostered by healthy media environments.

What do you read while you're working on a book, and what sorts of things—if any—do you avoid reading while writing?

I read everything—scholarly literature, news articles, essays, poetry, and short fiction. I find poetry particularly enjoyable, because it renews my faith in language’s astounding precision and openness.

What did you teach last semester?

I was on leave, and based at the Institute for Advanced Study at Central European University in Budapest. I will be teaching a graduate seminar on Chinese media cultures in the fall of 2024, and an undergraduate seminar on media and China’s transition to capitalism in spring 2025.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a monograph on media and economic thinking in China’s era of reform and opening.

Which three academics/scholars, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party, and why?

If I could invite two filmmakers instead of scholars, I would invite Zheng Junli (1911-1969), a progressive actor, director, essayist, and translator of Stanislavski. He left behind voluminous production notes, and I have worked with them long enough to feel I know him well, and I admire his talent and integrity.

I would also like to invite Roza Sarkisian, a young dramatist from Ukraine now seeking refuge in Poland and working in theater there. I met her in Budapest this spring, where she directed a theater workshop for Ukrainian students. Sarkisian’s work in theater reminds me of Zheng’s writing from the late 1930s and early 1940s, also during a prolonged war (the Sino-Japanese War). The two share a vision of theater as a safe space for interpersonal healing and democratic deliberation, and would have so much to talk about.