Zhang Yimou is an internationally acclaimed director working in the People’s Republic of China. He graduated in the fifth class of the Beijing Film Academy in 1982, along with classmates such as Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang. This graduating class formed a core of young filmmakers ¾ called the Fifth Generation ¾ who produced a new Chinese cinema that exploded on screens around the world in the mid-1980s. Fifth Generation films continue Chinese cinema’s long preoccupation with China as a nation. However, these directors reject the politicised angst of national survival in films of the first half of the 20th century and the class heroics of socialist realist cinema under Mao Zedong after 1949. Their films dare to be different and dare to deconstruct the China they know. Two decades on, Zhang Yimou is one of the most prolific, versatile and significant of these Fifth Generation directors. His signature as a filmmaker is a storytelling mode dominated by visual display, especially of his female stars. This display is part of a complex picture of generation and gender in Zhang’s work that reaches back to debates on Chinese modernity in the early 20th century.
Zhang was born in Xi’an in 1951 to parents of “bad” class background and reportedly sold his own blood to buy his first camera. (1) He grew up in socialist China where class struggle dominated life and literature. Like many young Chinese of the time, he was sent to farms and factories during the Cultural Revolution and so gained grass-roots knowledge of life in China. His portfolio of photographs helped win him admission to the cinematography department of the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, after successfully appealing a decision to bar him on the basis of age.
After graduation, he was sent as cinematographer to small inland studios that did not have the entrenched apprenticeship system of the big coastal studios. At this time, all local studios were gaining more control over film production as the state-owned system was progressively dismantled. In Guangxi Film Studio, Zhang worked on One and Eight (Zhang Junzhao, 1984) and Yellow Earth (Chen Kaige, 1984). He was then invited to Xi’an Film Studio, where he found his “true vocation” as a director. (2) His directorial debut, Red Sorghum (1987), was also the first Fifth Generation film to capture a domestic mass audience and it catapulted him and his star, Gong Li, to local and international fame. Tony Rayns claims it is clearly “a photographer’s film”, with lush images and minimal plot. (3) Its success brought international funding for his next two films, Judou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). These three films form a trilogy that cemented his reputation abroad but both Judou and Raise the Red Lantern were banned in China until he made a Communist Party-approved film on a contemporary theme, The Story of Qiu Ju (1992). Many see this shift from mythic to mass filmmaking as Zhang’s capitulation to Party authorities and some trace a decline in his subsequent work. (4) However, Zhang himself sees it differently. He constantly seeks diversity. He believed that his first three films were too similar: “I went from red to red. I don’t want audiences to say, ‘Ah, yes, another Zhang Yimou!’ whenever I make a film”. His filmmaking therefore moved from historical to mostly contemporary themes in the second decade of his career. (5) On the cusp of his third decade, he has again changed style with Hero (forthcoming, 2002), a historical gongfu film that marries the mythic with the most popular of all Chinese genres ¾ martial arts.
Zhang’s visual storytelling is evident in his early work as cinematographer. Tony Rayns, one of the earliest and most astute Western commentators on Zhang’s work, credits Zhang’s cinematography with creating the stunning look of One and Eight and Yellow Earth, the two films that pioneered Fifth Generation cinema. In short, Rayns claims that he was “co-creator” with the directors; Yellow Earth, for example, jointly credits Zhang Yimou, the director and designer in a single frame. (6) These two films delight in film form. They deliberately break all the established (Chinese) rules, using de-centered compositions, real locations, and stark but stunning imagery to tell stories with minimal plot and ambiguous endings. The ending of One and Eight is symptomatic of the Fifth Generation’s attitude to China’s (cinematic) past and (cinematic) future. In this historical film, the only youth to survive a fierce battle against the Japanese is an ex-convict who leaves the Communist Party hero to go his own way across a deserted landscape. The youth says to the Party member, “I’m just a bum who has run wild for half my life. I respect the revolutionary army and the Communist Party but I just can’t stomach all your rules”. According to the cinematographer’s notes by Zhang in the script, this moment is visualised as the final movement in a black and white symphony, reaching personal enlightenment after the darkness of death, war and imprisonment. The film’s aesthetics are explicitly based on wood block carving. The final shot of a vast and raw landscape acts as the empty, reflective space of traditional art in which “words are finite but the heart is infinite”. (7)
The long and empty shots in Yellow Earth serve a similar poetic purpose and also come from a particular style of painting, called the Chang’an School. Zhang Yimou’s many discussions of Yellow Earth tell how the filmmakers adapted the Chang’an School’s high horizon and warm yellow tones of the mother-earth. Thus the earth fills the frames just as it fills the lives of its peasants, often shown as black, white and red dots against their ancestral land. This look is primarily Zhang’s contribution. (8)
While these early films are collective works, the visuals show a working method that informs Zhang Yimou’s later films as director. Zhang says that he always adapts films from stories that he likes. He then decides the big stylistic framework: whether to make a film in expressionist/symbolic mode (xieyi) as in the trilogy, or realist mode (xieshi) as in The Story of Qiu Ju. It is clear that he often works out the look of a film around this stage. In traditional painting terminology this is called liyi, the image-idea that animates and gives coherence to a work. The image-ideas of his best-known films include the vibrant red of yang (masculinity, marriage ceremonies, blood, fire and red lanterns) in the trilogy, the grittiness of docudrama in The Story of Qiu Ju, the shadow puppet motif in To Live (1994), film noir in Shanghai Triad (1995) and calendar art in The Road Home (1999).
It is widely recognised that Zhang’s visual imagery redefines the politics of Chinese self and identity. In the first decade, this imagery focused on the sexual power, reproductive continuity and spectacle of the female body onscreen. Beautiful young women, played by Gong Li, are wife-daughter-mother-lover-virgin-vamp in the trilogy. Red Sorghum breaks cultural taboos against representing female ecstasy, orgasm, and fecundity onscreen. Bold close-ups of Jiu’er’s face ¾ panting and wide-eyed in the sedan-chair wedding sequence and again in the wild-sorghum abduction scene ¾ were unprecedented in mainland Chinese cinema. In Red Sorghum, female desire is not only a force of nature but also the foundation of a vibrant, productive community until destroyed by Japanese invaders. Erotic close-ups continued in the next two films, such as the bathing and seduction shots in Judou and the ritual foreplay around foot-massage and lighting lanterns in Raise the Red Lantern. Rey Chow’s essay on the trilogy emphasises the films’ visual display, a display that “fetishizes” cinematography itself while zooming-in on the seductive, the forbidden and the female as “bearers of his filmic ethnography”. She argues that this interest in the power of the cinematic apparatus continues in later films, such as To Live. (9)
The Gong Li heroines in the trilogy are more than erotic images of beautiful brides sold to old men. They are, of course, looked at with pleasure but these women also look back and in actively looking they also choose their destinies. Jiu’er in Red Sorghum chooses her lover, husband and future father of her son from within the sedan chair, leading to the killing of the leprous, old husband. She is killed fighting the Japanese. Judou secretively and incestuously chooses her son, nephew, lover and future father of her son to escape her brutal but impotent husband. Her son kills both his biological and social fathers. Judou kills herself, burning down the hated dye factory that imprisons her. Both heroines die gloriously. Conversely, Songlian’s narcissistic gaze in Raise the Red Lantern on her wedding night looks back at herself in the mirror. She chooses to torture a servant girl who sleeps with her husband and she chooses to feign pregnancy to manipulate her husband and the other three wives through the possibility of an unborn son. There is no young lover to save her. The plan is uncovered. Her red lanterns are dowsed with black forever. She goes ingloriously mad.
Zhang encodes gender through color in these three stories. For Jiu’er, the red of yang (masculinity) dominates the wedding sedan, the wild sorghum, the sorghum wine that supports her family, and the fire that consumes her at the end. This red force quite literally becomes the black-white power of yin (femininity) and death under ancestral rules enforced from father to son in both Judou and Raise the Red Lantern. Patriarchy is lethal in these films and many commentators have likened the trilogy’s old men to China’s aging leaders, especially after the crushing of democracy activitists on 4 June, 1989.
The trilogy is probably Zhang’s masterpiece. Its visual power rests on female sexuality as onscreen spectacle. Its narrative power rests on reworking the early 20th century debate on Chinese patriarchy, liberation and modernity. Lu Xun, China’s best-known writer in the early 20th century, was a trenchant critic of Confucianism, especially filial piety. He called on fathers to liberate the young and so liberate society. Without such systemic change, he wrote, children are socialised into a cannibalistic society in which everyone is gobbled up. Within this framework, young women who challenge the system in social realist Chinese cinema of the 1930s nearly always die. The Chinese Communist Party subsequently claimed that they had liberated the masses from Confucian and capitalist bondage: men, women and children. Fifth Generation cinema, however, recast the Party as political patriarchy in a devastating cultural critique. Zhang goes even further in the trilogy. Old men personify a system that never relinquishes power. Freedom only comes from real or symbolic patricide that is carried out by the son but instigated by female desire. Women have agency. Their ability to choose a man is the catalyst for social change, for better among peasants in Red Sorghum or for worse in the artisan and literati households of, respectively, Judou and Raise the Red Lantern. Thus, many commentators call the trilogy a Chinese exploration of oedipality, founded on ancestral controls over female desire rather than on the son’s actual desire for his blood mother. (10) The argument is no longer that fathers must liberate their children but that children must kill their fathers to liberate themselves.
The female spectacle continues in later films such as Gong Li’s portrayal of a sing-song girl in Shanghai Triad or Zhang Ziyi’s lyrical portrait of love in The Road Home. Even where the spectacle is muted, a common denominator across Zhang Yimou’s work is strong female characters whose deepest individual desires ¾ whether for love, sex, sons, justice or simply survival ¾ challenge the systems that threaten them. This individualism is a long way from China’s socialist-realist cinema, which legitimised only collective, class-bound desire as the beginning and end of all storytelling. Hence, the liberation of desire in Zhang’s films personalises China’s quest for collective liberation that was promised but never really arrived.
This feminine focus in all Zhang Yimou’s films conceals a highly differentiated masculinity. The male roles distinguish generation and gender, commonly including the moral gaze of the young: “the son’s gaze”. The “son’s gaze” is the (de)legitimising force within and across the cinematic narratives. The son may be a blood son, grandson, nephew, surrogate or even just a wish. Different male characters offer social choices to young females and the ramifications reverberate through the “son” or the lack of sons in Raise the Red Lantern. When I put this proposition to Zhang, he adamantly denied it ¾ again and again. Yet the “son’s gaze” unites Zhang’s work. Sons and grandsons are the heirs of their respective families in the trilogy. The grandson records his grandmother’s heroic life and death in Red Sorghum; the evil heir of the perverted family in Judou re-performs the hitting, beating and killing of his fathers; the phantom son is both hope and death to Songlian’s future in Raise the Red Lantern. Later films echo the “son’s gaze” in Red Sorghum, such as the surviving grandson in To Live or the son’s reminiscences of “my father and mother”, a literal translation of the Chinese title of The Road Home. Despite a conscious change of style, the whole plot of The Story of Qiu Ju also rests on having sons. The plot begins offscreen when the village Chief assaults Qiu Ju’s husband who abused him, saying that he can only father “hens” (daughters). This begins Qiu Ju’s onscreen search for an apology to her husband through layers of the legal system until the Chief saves Qiu Ju during a difficult birth. She has a son and the dispute is resolved. The Chief is then arrested, again offscreen, for criminal assault. At one level, the film seems to affirm law’s accessibility to poor and far-away villagers. Read through the grid of father and son, however, The Story of Qiu Ju is subversive: it portrays the law as re-rupturing a local community, criminalising a civil dispute, and imprisoning the Chief, the baby’s “social father”. The final and only close-up of Qiu Ju’s face, alone on the roadway, freezes in isolation, disbelief and distress. Thus, the “son” begins and ends this film.
The clearest visualisation of the “son’s gaze” is in Shanghai Triad where Shanghai’s underworld is seen through the eyes of Shuisheng, a 14-year-old country boy belonging to the Tang family triad. The camera often tracks Shuisheng, seeing betrayal, gang warfare and execution through his eyes. In the end, he literally sees the cruel world upside-down as he hangs by his ankles from the beam of the Godfather’s barge. Zhang again visually recuperates a powerful early 20th century theme that arrived in translation, a reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s childhood gaze as the only gaze that sees the truth of the emperor’s new clothes. The boy is co-opted into evil even as he sees its brutality.
Overall, the “son’s gaze” cites Confucian, reformist and Maoist emphases on cultural continuity through conservative, perverse, yet-to-be-corrupted or rebellious new generations that are defined here by their masculinity. This is a collective subconscious. Zhang’s aversion to this reading is probably because China’s patrilocal, patrilineal and patriarchal heritage is absolutely unacceptable to him.
Nevertheless, we could say that Zhang Yimou himself is a son of China whose filmmaking gazes at past, present and future through the “son”. In this sense, generation and gender are equally important in his films although the visual and often spectacular focus is on his female leads. Gong Li is his most famous star and his pictures with her are his most famous films. His propensity for visual display has been fiercely criticised in China for its exoticism and lack of historical authenticity. However, Zhang does not claim that his films document China or its people; he creates fictional worlds through moving images that often defamiliarise, shock, seduce, and subvert. He documents desire instead, circulating themes that have long haunted the national psyche and using seductive image-ideas that marry reality, dream and nightmare.
Acknowledgements to Margie Brenan of the Griffith Asia Pacific Institute, Griffith University, for editing this paper and the filmography.
This article was refereed.
Films directed by Zhang:
Film dates sometimes differ depending on the completion or release date.
Red Sorghum (Hong gaoliang) (1987)
Operation Cougar (Daihao meizhoubao) (1988)
Judou (Judou) (1990)
Raise the Red Lantern (Dahong denglong gaogao gua) (1991)
The Story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju da guansi) (1992)
To Live (Huozhe) (1994)
Shanghai Triad (Yao a yao yaodao waipo qiao) (1995)
Lumière et compagnie (1995) (Director of one short segment)
Keep Cool (Youhua haohao shuo) (1997)
Not One Less (Yige dou bu neng shao) (1999)
The Road Home (Wode fuqin muqin) (1999)
Happy Times (Xinfu shiguang) (2000)
Hero (Yingxiong) (2002)
House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu) (2004)
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005)
Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
To Each His Cinema (2007) segment “Movie Night”
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009)
Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010)
The Flowers of War (2011)
Coming Home (2014)
The Great Wall (2016)
The Small Courtyard (Xiaoyuan) (1981) Director unknown (Cinematographer)
Red Elephant (Hong xiang) (1982) Dirs: Tian Zhuangzhuang, Zhang Jianya and Xie Xiaojing (Cinematographer)
One and Eight (Yige he bage) (1984) Dir: Zhang Junzhao (Cinematographer)
Yellow Earth (Huang tudi) (1984) Dir: Chen Kaige (Cinematographer)
The Big Parade (Da yuebing) (1986) Dir: Chen Kaige (Cinematographer)
Old Well (Laojing) (1986) Dir: Wu Tianming (Actor)
Terracotta Warrior (Gujin dazhan citongqing, aka. Qingyong) (1989) Dir: Ching Siu-tung (Actor)
Soul of a Painter (Huahun) (1993) Dir: Huang Shuqin (Scriptwriter)
Dragon Town Story (Lung sing jing yuet) (1997) Director unknown (Producer)
Turandot (1999) Dir: Allan Miller for TV (Opera by Puccini, Stage Director)
Listed as general and then individual film awards. Please note this is not a comprehensive list: only international and major national awards are included. Awards are listed only for films directed or shot by Zhang Yimou.
Vision in Film Award, Hawaii
Freedom of Expression Award, National Board of Review, USA
International Filmmaker Award, Palm Springs
Individual Film Awards:
Yellow Earth (Huang tudi), 1984
Best cinematographer, Golden Rooster Awards
Best cinematographer, French Three Continents International Film Festival
Best cinematographer, Hawaiin International Film Festival
Red Sorghum (Hong gaoliang), 1987
Golden Bear Award, Berlin International Film Festival
Best feature, Hundred Flowers Award
Best feature, cinematography, sound, music, Golden Rooster Awards
Best picture, best director, best artistic achievement, Zimbabwe International Film Festival
Film Critics Award, Sydney Film Festival
Belgian French Radio Young Jury Award for Best Picture, Brussels International Film Festival
Silver Panda, Montreal International Film Festival
Top Ten Chinese Language Films, Hong Kong Film Festival
Annual Award, German Democratic Republic Filmmakers Award
Best Feature Film, Cuba Film Festival
Operation Cougar (Daihao meizhoubao), 1988
FIPRESCI, West Berlin International Film Festival
Top Ten Chinese Language Films, Hong Kong Film Festival
Luis Buñuel Special Award, Cannes Film Festival
Golden Spike, Valladolid International Film Festival
Best Foreign Feature Film (Amanda), Norwegian International Film Festival
Gold Hugo, Chicago International Film Festival
Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.
Raise the Red Lantern (Dahong denglong gaogao gua), 1991
Top Ten Chinese Language Films, Hong Kong Film Festival
Silver Lion Award, Venice Film Festival
Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film
Best Feature, Hundred Flowers
Best Film not in the English Language, BAFTA
Best Cinematography, Los Angeles Film Critics Association
The Story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju da guansi), 1992
Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival
Golden Cup, Changchun International Film Festival
Best Feature, Hundred Flowers
Best feature, Golden Rooster
Critics Award, French Syndicate of Film Critics
Best Foreign Language Film, National Society of Film Critics
To Live (Huozhe), 1994
Grand Prize of the Jury and Prize of the Eucemenical Jury, Cannes Film Festival
Best Film not in the English Language, BAFTA
Jury Award, Best Actor (Ge You), Cannes Film Festival
Shanghai Triad (Yao a yao yaodao waipo qiao), 1995
Technical Grand Prize, Cannes Film Festival
Not One Less (Yige dou bu neng shao), 1999
The Golden Lion, Lanterna Magica, Serrgio Trasatti and UNICEF awards, Venice Film Festival
Best Director, Golden Rooster
Audience Award, Sao Paulo Film Festival
The Road Home (Wode fuqin muqin), 1999
Silver Bear and Prize of the Eucemenical Jury, Berlin Film Festival
Audience Award, Sundance
Crystal Simorgh, Fajr Film Festival
Select English-language Bibliography
There is more written in English on Zhang Yimou’s first decade of work than on his second decade although major essays are in the process of publication.
Zhang, Yingjin and Xiao, Zhiwei, Encyclopedia of Chinese Film. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
This work contains most references published in Chinese and English before 1998 as well as entries on Zhang Yimou’s major films up to and including Shanghai Triad (1995).
Anagnost, Ann, “Chili Pepper Politics”, National Past-times, Narrative, Representation and Power in Modern China. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1997. 138-60.
This is a chapter on The Story of Qiu Ju.
Chow, Rey, “We Endure, Therefore We Are: Survival, Governance, and Zhang Yimou’s To Live“, The South Atlantic Quarterly 95.4 (1996): 1039- 64.
Farquhar, Mary Ann, “Oedipality in Red Sorghum and Judou“, Cinéma, Le Nouveau Cinéma Chinois 3.2-3 (1993): 61-86. (in English)
Gateward, Frances, ed., Zhang Yimou Interviews. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 2001.
This book contains a chronology and filmography as well as interviews.
Lu, Sheldon H., “Understanding Chinese Film Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century: The case of Not One Less by Zhang Yimou”. Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese 4.2 (2001): 123-142.
Zhang, Yinjing, Screening China, Critical Interventions, CinematicReconfigurations, and the Transnational Imaginary in Contemporary Chinese Cinema. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2002.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
The Road Home by Dimitri Tsahuridis
House of Flying Daggers: A Reappraisal by Hwanhee Lee
The “Confusion Ethics” of Raise the Red Lantern by David Neo
Compiled by the author and Michelle Carey
Woman as spectacle in Zhang Yimou’s ‘Theatre of Punishments’
Article by Jeanette Delamoir for Screening the Past.
Features links, posters, biography and an essay in appreciation of Gong Li.
Interview Hou Yong: Zhang Yimou’s cinematographer
An informative interview with Zhang’s close collaborator. By Cynthia Wu. Also featured in Gateward, Frances. Ed. Zhang Yimou Interviews (cited above). 127-132.
Zhang Yimou: Shanghai Triad
Introductory page which has a good outline of the film but not too much else.
Features some lovely stills and posters.
Excellent site focusing on Zhang circa Shanghai Triad. Features articles by Tony Rayns, Chris Berry, Li Erwai and others. These articles were featured in the Cinemaya 30 (1995) to celebrate Zhang Yimou’s Vision in Film Award at the 1995 Hawaii International Film Festival.
Fabianweb: Zhang Yimou Essay
An essay exploring Zhang’s cinema. This page also includes links to other articles and an essay on the Fifth Generation filmmakers (a generation that Zhang is generally thought to be part of).
Allegory and ambiguity in Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad
Article by Shelly Kraicer.
Click here to search for Zhang Yimou DVDs, videos and books at
- Sources have Zhang Yimou’s year of birth as both 1950 and 1951 but authoritative Chinese sources prefer 1951. For example, Lun Zhang Yimou (On Zhang Yimou), Ed., Zhongguo dianying chubanshe Zhongguo dianying yishu bianjishe (Film Art Editorial group of The Chinese Film Publishing House). Beijing: Zhongguo dianying chubanshe, 1994. Front cover.
- Li Erwei, “Magician of the Chinese Cinema”. Cinemaya 30 (1995). No pagination.
- Rayns, Tony. “Chinese Vocabulary, An Introduction to King of the Children and the New Chinese Cinema”, Chen Kaige and Rayns, Tony. King of the Children and the New Chinese Cinema, London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989. 49.
- Lu, Sheldon Hsiao-peng. “National Cinema, Cultural Critique, Transnational Capital, The Films of Zhang Yimou”. Transnational Chinese Cinemas, Identity, Nationhood, Gender, Ed. Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu. Honolulu: Hawaii UP, 1997. 107.
- Zhang Yimou, Interview with Mary Farquhar, Hawaii International Film Festival, Honolulu, 1995. Acknowledgements to Zhang Yimou and to Paul Clark for arranging this interview. All other citations of Zhang Yimou come from this unpublished interview, unless otherwise stated.
- For example, Rayns, Tony. “Propositions and Questions relating to an Instinctively rebellious Filmmaker with Chinese Characteristics”. Cinemaya 30 (1995). No pagination.
- “Yige he Bage” (One and Eight, full script). A Collection of Exploratory Films (Tansuo dianyingji). Shanghai: Shanghai Art Publishing House, 1987. 80-81.
- Berry, Chris and Farquhar, Mary Ann. “Post-Socialist Strategies: An Analysis of Yellow Earth and Black Cannon Incident“. Cinematic Landscapes, Observations on the Visual Arts and Cinema of China and Japan, Ed. Linda C. Erlich and David Desser. Austin: Texas UP, 1994. 84-100.
- Chow, Rey. Primitive Passions. New York: Columbia UP, 1995, 147-149 and “We Endure, Therefore We Are: Survival, Governance, and Zhang Yimou’s To Live“. The South Atlantic Quarterly 95.4 (1996): 1039-64.
- The earliest Chinese essay on this theme was Ma, Junxiang. “Cong Hong gaoliang dao Ju Dou” (From Red Sorghum to Judou). Ershi shiji (Twentieth Century) 7 (1991): 123-32. The earliest English essay was Farquhar, Mary Ann. “Oedipality in Red Sorghum and Judou“. Cinéma 3.2-3 (1993): 60-86. This is now established in the Western literature with Rey Chow (supra, 1995) extending the argument across the trilogy and Sheldon Lu (supra, 1997) further extending the argument to later films.