Thirty years of Communist isolation did little for Chinese arts. Operas such as The Red Detachment of Women, and chart-toppers such as 'I will sing the Glory of the Anshan Steel Mill' left the Western world reaching for the remote control and getting on with rock 'n' roll. After Mao died in 1976, some personal expression did begin to creep back. But political restrictions were still tight, and no criticism of Communist China, past or present, was permitted. Consequently, in the Eighties, the early films of directors such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou appeared obscure and abstract to Western audiences.
More than anything else though, the event that focused world attention on China was Tiananmen Square in 1989. The massacre of the pro-democracy demonstrators went very deep into the Western consciousness, and proved cathartic in terms of our attitudes to China. In a short space of time, we not only became more aware of the situation in China, but we started to sympathise with the Chinese people in a way we never had before. The boy standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square had most of the Western world standing with him.
Despite the harsh clampdown by the Chinese authorities in the wake of Tiananmen Square, there has been a gradual quiet liberalisation in the past two or three years, accelerated by an unprecedented economic boom. With this wider reform has come greater artistic freedom, and Chinese authors and film- makers are starting to express some of the personal tragedy of the Communist era. And it is a revelation to the watching Western world. The painful heart-searching of the Chinese makes compelling reading and viewing.
Perhaps the main influence on Western minds has been Jung Chang's book Wild Swans, a sweeping history of 20th-century China seen through the lives of three generations of women. The book's success has been phenomenal. It has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide, and been translated into 23 languages. Wild Swans is an extraordinary story in itself, and has filled a yawning gap in people's historical knowledge. But its main achievement is that it humanises China: we start to see the lives of individuals. The inscrutable are becoming scrutable.
The books and films emerging now from Chinese artists are less politically controlled, or not controlled at all. So we are starting to see more reality and less of the stereotype. We, in our arrogant ignorance, thought that because the Chinese all looked and dressed the same, they must all think and feel the same. It is a discovery to find that there is fear, love, anger and all the other emotions behind the stoicism.
Chen Kaige's film Farewell My Concubine also presents a tableau of 20th-century China, seen through the lives of two Peking Opera stars. Like Jung Chang's book, it is full of insight into how the lives of ordinary people were affected by the monumental changes of the Communist Revolution. Chen himself knows about the horrors of the Cultural Revolution: as a 14-year-old he was forced to denounce his father, who had been a member of the Nationalist party of Chiang Kai-shek. He has said that this film is a way of exorcising that betrayal.
Farewell My Concubine is also significant in taking homosexuality as its central theme. Under the Communists, homosexuality officially did not exist, but now gay bars have opened in Peking and Shanghai. Anchee Min, in her recent book Red Azalea, relates a passionate lesbian affair she had at the height of the Cultural Revolution, when discovery would have meant the death sentence.
If homosexuality was taboo under Communism, the lot of women at least was improved. Chairman Mao said that 'Women hold up half the sky'. They were given the right to vote and free choice in marriage and divorce. But with the supposed freedom also came a new type of uniformity: short hair, no make-
up and regulation clothing. In Western eyes, Chinese women became not only faceless but sexless.
Now they are rediscovering their individuality, femininity and sexuality. Gong Li, the star of Farewell My Concubine, Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou, is leading the way for a new generation of confident, sensual Chinese women.
Inevitably, much of the 'Chinoiserie nouveau' has come from the United States, and particularly the author Amy Tan. Born of Chinese parents in San Francisco, she has just adapted her first book, The Joy Luck Club, for the big screen. The story deals with four women who escape from Forties China to the US, and have daughters who grow up in America, leading to generational and cultural clashes. The Joy Luck Club is mysterious enough to be fascinating, while rooted enough in the West to be understandable. Just out in Britain, it has already taken more than dollars 30m at box offices in the US, outgrossing Sylvester Stallone's latest film, Demolition Man.
Yet however much China's image is changing, the latest cultural output still frames its stories against very rich, lavish, cruel or exotic backgrounds. The subject may be more real, but it seems that the medium, if it is to appeal to Western audiences, still needs to be stereotypical. The Blue Kite, Tian Zhuangzhuang's subtle portrait of the Cultural Revolution, has none of the lavishness of Farewell My Concubine, and has had much less popular success. Similarly Zhang Yimou, who was acclaimed for his sumptuous 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern, fared much less well in the West last year with The Story of Qiu Ju. It portrayed, in a very documentary style, one peasant woman's struggle for justice in rural Communist China. We want China to be real, but not too real.
Beyond the Clouds, Phil Agland's exquisite series on life in a small town in south-west China, which has just ended on Channel Four, has brought us as much reality as we have ever seen. Agland says he wanted to show 'that China is full of rich cultural diversity and rich individualistic diversity', and he has been hugely successful in doing this. The people make the country come alive, just by the normality of their lives - Xiao Zhou, whose daughter has cerebral palsy; 'Dragon' He, the local shark; Dr Tang and his surgery; Teacher Lu and his school up in the mountains. Yet even such a remarkable and groundbreaking work as this has been made within the lavish tradition of films on China: the combination of a beautiful location and stunning cinematography has preserved some of the myth.
And there is still fascination with the cruel side of China; the treatment of political prisoners; the execution of people for offences as minor as fraud; press reports on the revival of female infanticide in rural China. The stereotypes will not lie down. But this is part of the fascination. Here is a country whose economy is predicted to overtake that of the US by 2010, and yet in the countryside peasant girls are being kidnapped and sold as brides.
Cultural expression is still a sensitive political issue, too. The release of The Blue Kite, for instance, was delayed for a year after Tian Zhuangzhuang was refused permission to leave China to edit the film in Japan, for 'opposing the Communist Party and Socialism' in his treatment of the social upheavals of the Fifties and Sixties. He had to deliver instructions to his film editor by phone each night. Even now The Blue Kite is banned in China. Many Chinese writers and film-makers tread the same line as Tian. They are balanced precariously in the political wind, and one icy gust could stop the flow of riches.
Despite the stereotypes that persist, we are gradually seeing something of the reality of Chinese history and society. And not before time. For if the giant really is going to shake our world, it is as well for us to know what sort of giant it is.
The author works for the BBC World Service's Chinese section.
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