Introduction and Context: (Up)Setting the Stage

image001“It was the mid-1970s,” reminisces a Chinese blogger, writing over three decades later in November 2009. “I was in my third year of primary school … in a small Jiangsu town. One afternoon, the teachers called the students of the neighbouring class to join ours —those who couldn’t fit ended up being sat in rows in the corridor — and we immediately thought oh, another rehearsal for our observed classes. Strangely, it actually turned out to be a music lesson. The teachers carefully moved the school organ into our classroom, the principal and the head supervisor seated themselves next to it, and then our star teacher, Teacher Shen, began to teach us a song. The novelty of the whole set-up made all of us children pretty excited. The song was  called Let’s Make Antonioni Mad (《气死安东尼奥尼》).” (1) One widely circulated version of the song referred to by the blogger, according to popular testimony, runs as follows:


Little red guards, heads up high,
We’ll build our socialist homeland right
Up with Marx and Lenin, down with Lin Biao,
Passionate revolutionary since I could count
Bright red scarf waving on my chest,
Listen to the Party, the Party knows best
Make that Antonioni oh so mad
The red flag flies from east to west

How did an Italian film director wind up rubbing shoulders with Marx, Lenin and the Chinese Communist Party in the lyrics of a children’s ditty? Even more peculiarly, why were Chinese children being mobilised en masse to —frankly speaking— piss him off? (2) How did Antonioni become such a high-priority target of national criticism? The answers involve one of the most fascinating side-stories of the Cultural Revolution, as well as what is emerging as one of the most precious records of twentieth-century China.

In 1972, renowned Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni was offered an extraordinary invitation: to visit ‘new Socialist China’ and film a documentary about it. The Chinese Communist Party, keen to establish itself as “the centre of world revolution,” had in the late 1960s begun experimenting with a more internationally oriented diplomatic stance. (3) The invitation extended to the reputedly left-wing auteur was an offshoot of newly restored Sino-Italian ties, as well as the Party’s desire to engage more ‘foreign friends’ (外国朋友) with its political goals. Thus, with the backing of both Chairman Mao and ‘mamma RAI’ —a popular nickname for the Italian state-owned television giant (4)— Antonioni set off for Beijing, bringing with him a modest crew and fantastical mental images of the inaccessible country he was about to see for the first time: “I … had in my mind a predetermined idea of China,” he recalls in an interview, “…the Yellow River; the Blue Desert; the place where there is so much salt that they make houses and streets out of salt, and therefore they are all white; the deserts; the mountains with animal shapes; the farmers dressed in fanciful clothes.” (5) These Orientalist fairytale images give vivid evidence of how little Antonioni knew of China. Yet they also show, alongside this exoticising bent, the affectionately poetic eye and sense of wonder that the European director would bring to his singular project.

After a whirlwind 22 days of shooting in Beijing, Henan Province, Suzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai, following an itinerary closely monitored and carefully chosen by the Party —a situation far from what the director would have preferred— Antonioni’s final cut of the film (which he named simply Chung Kuo, or Cina [China]) (6) racked up to an eyebrow-raising 220 minutes of footage. It was also, much to the astonishment of Antonioni, unequivocally detested by the Communist Party leaders, resulting in a scathing People’s Daily editorial in 1974. The editorial was followed by an elaborately orchestrated mass anti-Antonioni campaign, involving countless adults (who never even saw the film) writing fervent criticisms, and schoolchildren being given ‘music lessons’ of the kind previously mentioned. The campaign continued into 1975, and a 200-page compiled booklet —a sort of handpicked ‘Best of’ the criticisms— was even released, titled The Chinese People Will Not Stand for Being Denigrated: A Collection of Criticisms of Antonioni’s Anti-China film Cina [《中国人民不可侮——批判安东尼奥尼的反华影片<中国>文辑》]. (7) It is thus that the name ‘Antonioni’ still rings vaguely familiar for many Chinese today.

The People’s Daily editorial, entitled A Vicious Motive, Despicable Tricks [《恶毒的用心, 卑劣的手法》], attacked the film as replete with “inveterate hatred for China” and full of “viciously distorted scenes and shots.” (8) Particularly objectionable was Antonioni’s treatment of assorted hallowed sites of socialist China, such as the steel-wrought Nanjing bridge that spanned the width of the Yangtze River. “The camera,” the commentator writes, “was intentionally turned on this magnificent modern bridge from very bad angles.” (9) Now widely viewed as an artifact of an absurd political culture, the article provides present-day readers with plenty of fodder for incredulity at the excesses of its rhetoric, perhaps fairly described as a sort of hysterical-Maoist register. In filming a quaintly bustling Shanghai teahouse, for instance, Antonioni observes in his voiceover: “The recollections of the past mingle with confidence in the present” (10); the editorial singles this remark out for “implying that the Chinese people are forced to support the new society but do not do so sincerely or honestly.” (11) Elsewhere, the editorial is peppered with sentences such as “It is venom carried to the extreme!” and “Anyone who attempts to do so [turn the wheel back] is bound to be crushed by the wheel of history!” Such zealous, grandiose statements are representative of the kind of tone and logic employed throughout the piece.

Hysterical rhetoric aside, the divergence between what Antonioni had filmed and what the Party had assumed he would film was a truly serious and sincere divergence — sincere in that Mao, his wife Jiang Qing and co. were genuinely incensed by the end result, whilst Antonioni for his part genuinely thought he had filmed it “with love” (12) and affection for China and its people. Also worth remembering is that this enormous disparity occurred even though almost all the sites Antonioni visited had been carefully prescribed by the Party: “typical tourist attractions that testify to China’s ancient civilisation (the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Ming tombs, Suzhou’s gardens and temples)… Socialist China’s new iconic sites (Tian’anmen Square, Nanjing Bridge, Hongqi Canal in Henan, the founding site of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai)… schools and kindergartens, markets and restaurants, factories and hospitals… the homes of the ‘average’ workers and peasants… a puppet show and an acrobatic performance.” (13) (The Chinese leaders had, apparently, felt so assured about the sufficient preventative capabilities of the dictated itinerary that no-one even asked to view any of Antonioni’s footage before he left the country.) The resulting fallout —actively prevented against yet nevertheless ‘sincere’ and severe— begs analysis, then, and has intrigued thinkers as diverse as Umberto Eco and Susan Sontag.

For Eco, who wryly subtitled his article ‘The Difficulty of Being Marco Polo,’ the crux of the matter lay in the difference between the “symbolic superstructures” of China and that of a Western European director such as Antonioni. Antonioni’s taste for “the ingeniousness of bricolage”, his admiration for the simplicity and frugality he saw, and the pale realist colours of his footage, rather than the “extremely bright” ones of “a [Chinese ‘model opera’] film like Red Detachment of Women”; all these sentiments expressed in his voiceover and camera work, Eco pointed out, could be read radically differently, and understandably so, from a Chinese point of view — which would read ‘simple’ as ‘poor,’ cool tones as dowdy or reflective of a lack of ideological passion, and an emphasis on bricolage as barely veiled sniggering at a country of inferior means. (14)

To Sontag, the hullaballoo arose mainly from a collision between what she suggests were the vastly different roles of photography and film in China and industrialised countries. Categorising the Chinese mindset as typical of those “at the first stage of camera culture,” (15) Sontag describes this mindset as having rigid, “proper ways of photographing” in which only very particular things are appropriate as the subjects of photography, and in which those particular things must be shown from “the point of view of a single, ideally placed observer.” (16) Moreover, the taking of photographs is always ritualised or staged; if engaged in spontaneously, the act is seen as “some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimated looting of the personality or the culture…” (17) This is set up by Sontag in contrast to industrialised countries, whose inhabitants feel affirmed instead of threatened by having their picture taken (18); and where photography and film are valued for their ability to reveal something unexpected, rather than to record something already ‘known’ in its most iconic form. The Italian director, she argues, thus unwittingly violates all the above Chinese ‘principles’ of recording indexical images in his manner of framing, cutting, and selection of material.

Sontag provides an illuminating explication of these differing roles of film and photography, but the conclusions she ultimately draws are dissatisfying to me. “The Chinese,” she declares in her article, “don’t want photographs to mean very much or to be very interesting.” (19) (At work here seems to be a conflation of the political concerns of a handful of top Chinese cadres into the proclivities of the entire country’s population.) Sontag also observes emphatically that in China “no space is left over from politics and moralism for expressions of aesthetic sensibility.” (20)

I think the film itself offers a challenge to such statements. As might be evident from Eco and Sontag’s responses, the political fuss and complex aftermath the film became embroiled in left little attention for the work itself on ‘its own terms.’ I suggest that a closer look at what Antonioni recorded in those 220 minutes shows a director interested precisely in seeking out the modest spaces ‘left over from politics and moralism’; and a director deeply fascinated with capturing staring encounters — exchanged between everyday Chinese citizens and himself, as well as between them and the eye of the camera — encounters often full of a very potent ‘interest’ on the part of the Chinese in the ‘meaning’ of a camera, the person behind it, and its image-making potential.

Stares: intense, prolonged; shy, smiling; wary, ill-at-ease; unflinching, curious… ‘Leftovers’: unchoreographed ‘everyday’ moments, snatches of time, a giggle and whisper exchanged among two factory girls, a baby slumbering on a grandfather’s shoulder, a card game between friends played in the shade. There is a lot at stake in the film, stakes in addition to the ones that the Communist Party, Eco or Sontag discuss.

Staring is a reaction that precedes rational categorisation or analysis: we stare, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, “as an ocular response to what we don’t expect to see,” when “ordinary seeing fails.” (21) As such, it falls outside of the regulated, the rehearsed. The emphasis upon the ‘everyday’ holds a related significance. According to Michel de Certeau, a close attention to everyday acts and how they are performed provide a means of revealing how the average person, enmeshed in the various larger structures and systems of society, from “the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, supermarkets, or museum sequences)” to “paradigmatic orders of space,” manage to nevertheless manipulate and evade them in tiny, ‘tactical’ ways, rather than being entirely passive or submissive to them. (22) When partnered with Siegfried Kracauer’s insight that film has the power to provide an entryway into “a repressed, alternative, undeveloped history” (23), to constitute “a challenge to historiographic practice and an opportunity for its transformation” (24), we can see how Antonioni’s film might also provide a valuable and moreover generative visual record focused on everyday people’s ‘tactical’ engagement with the routine tasks of daily life, thus constituting an alternative to the official, monumentalising histories of the era.

Much, indeed most, of the ado has been made over the film’s 1970s reception, but its ongoing ‘re-reception’ also deserves close attention. China was finally publicly shown for the first time in China in 2004 at the Beijing Film Academy, 32 years after its making. Together with the far greater accessibility to films (approved and otherwise) that the Internet allows, there is now a large body of personal responses to the film written by Chinese viewers available online. Generally in the form of blog posts or film reviews, their authors range from individuals who remember the film being denounced, to those from younger generations who were born after the 70’s. The 21st-century reception of China is thus increasingly relevant for exploring the significance of this work. For if it is “time or memory that enables the art of documentary” (25), then what has ‘happened’ to this film through an unfolding of four decades? The rich collection of contemporary responses largely affirms the film’s work in ‘reclaiming’ the everyday, and moreover its transformative potential for our understanding and ‘remembering’ aspects of daily life in 1970s China.

Through an attentive look, then, at the film itself and its emphases upon the ‘everyday’ and upon ‘staring’, in tandem with its 21st-century reception, I thus hope to show the significance of what I see as the precious work of reclamation that has been left to us in China.

The Everyday: Details, Moments, Tactics

The ‘everyday’ is an intriguingly, but also frustratingly, amorphous concept. Composed of innumerable actions usually viewed as mundane, trivial, unremarkable and thus un-remarked, the everyday in some way “lies outside the disciplines of knowledge” (26), situated “between the kinds of attention that would focus either on subjective experience or on the institutional frames of cultural life.” (27) As can be seen from these quotes, attempts to pin down everyday life often involve conceiving of it in spatial terms: it is almost always described as interstitial or residual, and as something that lies ‘outside’ the purview of organised and analytical study. For this reason, perhaps the everyday is most accessible through —in the words of Michael Taussig— “not sense so much as sensuousness,” through “peripheral vision, not studied contemplation”, through “a knowledge that is imageric and sensate rather than ideational.” (28)

This corresponds with an issue touched upon earlier in the introduction, that the truly significant in Antonioni’s film seeks to operate in a manner different from the heavy-handedly logical and functional, from analytical or ideological discourse. It can be said that China is ‘sensuous’ rather than ‘sensical’, ‘imageric’ rather than ‘ideational’, curious and seeking rather than knowledgeable and disseminating. This renders the task at hand, that of tackling such a film within the contexts and confines of an academic paper, especially delicate; one must take extra care to avoid ‘taming’ and ‘flattening’ the film’s poetics in the process of engaging with it analytically. Perhaps the deeper significance of such a film can only be derived from between what is written in a paper such as this one and the work itself.

Meanwhile, it is also helpful to consider the ‘everyday’ in contrast to the ‘monumental.’ The term ‘monument,’ Aleida Assmann observes, “usually refers to architecture, texts or works of art that have achieved an eminence that elevates them beyond their historical contexts.” (29) The word ‘elevate’ is key here, carrying a sense of something that rises ‘above’ and ‘beyond’ the ordinary. In his On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, Nietzsche writes of ‘monumental history’ as a process of extracting select events, while carefully forgetting others: “Whole tracts… are forgotten and despised; they flow away like a dark, unbroken river, with only a few gaily coloured islands of fact rising above it…” (30) As Assmann summarises, for Nietzsche the ‘monumental’ is a sort of “memory format,” in which ‘monumental’ happenings are “singled out from the uniform chains of events.” (31) Tang Xiaobing offers fascinating insights in a related vein regarding the Cultural Revolution. During the period, he suggests, everyday life “was something to be overcome by a heroic dedication to communal living” (32); indeed, “a collective desire to resist the inertia of everyday life was an integral part of the grand socialist movement in modern China.” (33) For Nietzsche, then, in a monumental formatting of the past, daily life ‘flowed away’ like a ‘dark, unbroken river’, leaving only the ‘gaily coloured’ monumental selections ‘rising above’; similarly, for Tang, daily life as conceived in the political rhetoric and social organisation of the Cultural Revolution was seen as un-heroic, that which must also be left behind, ‘resisted’, ‘overcome.’ These words carry distinct connotations of noble historical purpose, and Tang points out that this desire to ‘transcend’ everyday life was in fact “profoundly romantic in form and utopian in its vision.” (34)

With this in mind, no wonder Antonioni’s final piece was so at odds with what the Communist Party had envisioned. They had imagined a film showcasing above all the heroism of the Revolution and the socialist project, utopian in note, halcyon in tone. What Antonioni ended up filming must have seemed so startlingly un-romantic, so deliberately removed from the heroic. When the People’s Daily article blasted Antonioni for filming “a series of reactionary scenes,” it was really blasting Antonioni for filming everyday, mundane scenes. If one looks at some of the more specific criticisms lodged against him,  a pattern emerges: the film, the article complains, “seems to be a jumble of desultory shots pieced together at random”; shows “a boring succession of shots of fragmented plots, lonely old people, exhausted draught animals and dilapidated houses”; presents “in a grotesque way various expressions of people sitting in tea-houses and restaurants, pulling carts and strolling in the streets”; has “people blowing their noses and going to the toilet.” Even Tian’anmen Square, the article says indignantly, is filmed through the use of “long-shots…close-ups, sometimes from the front and sometimes from behind… throngs of heads… legs and feet moving helter-skelter”, making it “look like a boisterous market-place.” (35) All of these criticisms are related to the mundane nature of what Antonioni chose to record on camera, and the decidedly non-monumental (‘desultory’) way he chose to present the resulting footage. Instead of a grand, teleological narrative, in China one sees placed at the fore everyday people drinking tea, pulling carts, strolling in the streets. Their relationship to ‘heroic’ socialist China was perhaps dubious, but for Antonioni they were undoubtedly part of the everyday, unrehearsed fabric of China, which is what he wished to record. Thus his camera is interested in the famed Tian’anmen Square not as a triumphal political site of power, but as a space of leisure used by the tourists and locals who gather and socialise there. For Antonioni, rendering the great square rather like a ‘boisterous marketplace’ was if anything an affectionate and complimentary, rather than malicious, move.

A more concrete counterpoint is the domestic art created during the Cultural Revolution, which Tang Xiaobing describes as “dominantly perspectival and panoramic.” (36) Providing as an example a 1974 painting created by a peasant titled New Look of a Village (below), he describes it as an embodiment of the political aesthetic vision of the time, which “valorises completeness and transcendence”, and is “derived from an aesthetics of scale rather than of detail, for immediacy and particularity would only swamp any effort to overcome the daily routine.” (37) The painting is done in a way so that the viewer’s eye is drawn immediately to the broad central avenue, tidily lined by robust trees and eventually fading off into innumerable paddy-fields in the horizon.

image003   image005

Though there are human figures to be seen, they are very small and no individual expressions are delineated; the visual emphasis is very much upon scale, upon a structured laying-out of communal abundance. One can again see in such a painting the Party’s expectations for Antonioni’s film to be something ‘panoramic’, ‘transcendent’, and ‘complete,’ something that ‘overcame’ the prosaic particularities of daily routine; it also confirms Sontag’s insight on the importance in such art of a ‘single ideally placed observer’. A comparison can be made with Antonioni’s treatment of the pedestrian avenue of Wangfujing, one of the grandest and most bustling thoroughfares in Beijing. Rather than showing sweeping views of the avenue more in line with the perspectival or aesthetic spirit of New Look of a Village, for example, he chooses to hone in for a close-up on several people sitting on the sidewalks enjoying ice lollies.


Sharing an ice lolly at Wangfujing (China, 1972)

To take particular items, Ben Highmore writes, which are usually “given only the most cursory of attention in daily life, and employ them for the business of art … might be understood as an act of salvation: to save the mundane from the negligence that surrounds it.” (38) The same could be said for Antonioni’s captured moments. One feels, watching these people sitting on the curb of the sidewalk, relaxing in the shade of leafy trees, chatting and sharing the simplest of summer treats with one another, that one is looking at something ‘salvaged’, something that almost shouldn’t have ‘made it’.

Antonioni’s film is replete with scenes that show this emphasis on the everyday over the monumental, the detail over the panorama, the small and ephemeral over the grand and ‘immortalised’. Whether filming at imperial-era monuments or representative sites of socialist China, Antonioni never focuses for long (if at all) on the majesty and splendour of the structures themselves, but rather is always more captivated by the gestures and interactions of the everyday folk visiting them. At the Forbidden City, for instance, the camera concentrates on people taking photographs at ‘photograph stands’; briefly alights on a couple sharing a quiet, romantic moment; observes children posing playfully with the animal sculptures. At the Great Wall, he records youths resting from their hike, drinking from water gourds; a man playing with kongzhu [空竹], a type of Chinese yo-yo; and an artist who sits painting. When he visits a cotton factory, besides panning to show us the impressive scale and industry of the enterprise, he also catches a giggle and a whisper shared between two factory girls. Walking in the streets of Nanjing, he zooms in on a baby asleep on his father’s shoulder. Visiting a worker’s home, the camera carefully picks out, besides various Mao portraits, a brightly coloured kite and pair of worn badminton rackets hung carefully on the wall as additional décor. At a popular restaurant in Suzhou, he films a heartwarming family scene in which adults affectionately coax a child to eat his meal. At a Shanghai teahouse, Antonioni seems to revel in conveying the relaxed, conversational atmosphere he finds himself in the midst of. All sorts of miscellaneous moments belonging to the fabric of everyday life find their way into the film: two boys playing ping-pong, young children cheerily shepherding ducks, people driving heavy carts overwhelmed by produce and so on.

These moments are miscellaneous, mundane — and mesmerising. They are the kinds of shots that would never be part of official histories, and this, in the context of 1970s China, meant that for the most part they would never enter any sort of material visual history: a common man who on his holiday visits the Forbidden City and takes a photograph as a souvenir; factory workers on their lunch break; ephemeral exchanges of affection, episodes of leisure.


The young and the very young taking a break on the Great Wall (China, 1972)


A couple share a quiet moment in the Forbidden City (China, 1972)


Sleeping baby in Nanjing (China, 1972)


Two factory workers sharing a laugh (China, 1972)


Man painting on the Great Wall (China, 1972)


Inside a popular restaurant in Suzhou (China, 1972)


Shanghai teahouse (China, 1972)


Ping-pong match (China, 1972)


Little ‘duck-herds’ on village road (China, 1972)


Workers having lunch (China, 1972)


Theatre-goer having an ice-lolly (China, 1972)

Ironically, considering the Party’s disparagement of the mundane at the time, it is now precisely this sort of footage that many contemporary Chinese viewers find moving, even incredible in its indexicality and its very everyday-ness. Among the over 1500 short reviews of China posted on the popular Chinese social networking site Douban [豆瓣网] (39), a feeling of finally having seen something ‘real’ is common, for instance as expressed in the following review: “Astounding! Tells the truth! Goosebumps!” [很震撼! 真实! 鸡皮疙瘩!]  (40). Quite a few reviews even mention the film making them cry: “I actually started crying not even 20 minutes in,” [居然不到20min就看哭了我] (41) says one; another states: “Our fathers’ generation had the right to criticise the film, but not the right to watch it. Nowadays, we at least can see a dynamic early 70’s China, full of the everyday; we see one ordinary Chinese face after another, and the tears can’t help but flow.” [父辈的记忆里只有批判的权利没有观看的权利。在今世, 我们至少看到的是一个生动而充满日常的70年代初的中国, 看到一张张普通中国人的面孔时, 很自然地流泪了] (42). Yet another writes: “I am sure that there are others who, like me, have experienced the emotional earthquake of watching this work of old Antonioni’s.” [我相信, 有人和我一样经受了安老这部作品带来的心灵地震] (43). Tears, goosebumps, emotional earthquakes; these are words most often used to describe responses to films of drama and tragedy, horror and suspense. If Antonioni’s China is a film so far removed from any of those registers —indeed disliked by both Chinese and Western critics for being so evenly focused on the mundane— then how is it that it leads many 21st-century Chinese viewers to have such strong psychological and physiological reactions — leads one’s eyes to secrete tears, the hairs on one’s skin stand up? This relates to both the power of the indexical image —material images of actual people and actual places— and again, an almost overpowering sensation as one watches them that these images barely survived, that they are there for us to see and remember through a kind of act of grace.

Part of the film’s power also lies in its ability, through this emphasis on the everyday, to provide entryways for contemporary viewers to evaluate the continuities and discontinuities between China-then and China-now. One such recurring strand in the reviews pertains to the experience of being a schoolchild. “Twenty years later,” writes Douban user ‘Big Bear’ [大熊], “we still play the game Eagle-catch-chicken in kindergarten, we still sing We Love Beijing Tian’anmen.” [20年后, 我们在幼儿园里玩的还是老鹰捉小鸡, 唱的还是我爱北京天安们] (44). (The popular schoolyard game is shown being played by schoolchildren during recess in the film; the song is a musical refrain throughout China, and is sung by kindergarteners in one of the scenes.) User ‘gudong’ would agree: “Many shots bring me back to my childhood, such as those of the kindergarten and schools — the children performing; students doing running exercises, relay races, including the very line formation has even stayed the same up till now…” [很多镜头将我带回童年, 比如幼儿园和学校的情景 —— 孩子们表演节目; 学生们晨跑, 接力赛, 包括那熟悉的队形排列竟然都一直延续着…] (45). Another popular focal point is in reference to when Antonioni, visiting a worker’s home, informs the viewer of a Chinese regulation: “Rent cannot exceed 5% of the salary.” One reviewer writes agitatedly (and his response is not atypical): “Back then Beijing’s workers all had houses to live in, and the rent was really cheap, because there was a law that housing rents could not exceed 5% of one’s income! Fuck!! How come we don’t have that law anymore?!” [那时候北京的工人都有房子住, 租金很便宜, 因为有法律规定房屋的租金不能超过工资的5%! 我操!! 现在怎么没有这条法律了?!] (46). The same blogger also observes: “In Part Three we come to the countryside, a place in Henan Province called Lin County. The images and scenes in the film seem also very familiar; they look the same as I remember the countryside growing up as a child. Can it be true that China’s countryside, like its education system, has not changed — in 20 years?” [Part Three来到了农村, 河南一个叫林县的地方, 片中的画面同样让我感到熟悉, 和我小时候记忆中的农村差不多, 难道中国农村和教育一样——20年不变] (47) and even expresses disappointment for there not being enough of the daily life of peasants recorded: “The film crew wasn’t able to explore more deeply the daily lives of people in rural China, which was very disappointing to me.”[摄制组没能够继续探索中国的农村生活, 让我很失望] (48), Some viewers are particularly attentive to details that correspond to their current concerns as Chinese citizens: “One good thing at least about back then was people all carried their own string-bag or woven basket to go grocery shopping. There also weren’t so many food safety problems like there are now.” [当时至少有一点好, 上街买菜都是自带网兜或编织篮。食品也没有这么多的安全问题] (49). From these reactions, one sees how the 1972 documentary becomes a prism from which to reflect upon and critique present-day life in Chinese society, from housing to food issues to rural development. Viewers constantly seem to ask themselves: what is different? What has remained constant? (And they are not always pleased by the answers.)

There are also points in the film where what unfolds is a moment particularly lyrical or arresting, unexpected and unplanned, which do not fall easily into any category of comparison or analysis. In order to grapple with such expressive yet somehow inexpressible moments, in her analysis of China, Jie Li brings in Christian Keathley’s concept of the ‘cinephiliac moment’, defined as “the fetishising of fragments of a film, either individual shots or marginal (often unintentional) details in the image, especially those that appear only for a moment.” (50) The cinephiliac moment is “a celebration of the spectator’s subjective encounter with ‘fleeting, evanescent’ moments’ in the film experience” (51), and “escapes existing networks of critical discourse and theoretical frameworks” (52); it is a moment “not choreographed for you to see.” (53) Li’s example is that of a man who performs a graceful, impromptu taichi sequence as he glides hands-free down a Beijing road on his bicycle, which the camera, obviously enchanted or intrigued by, follows jauntingly from the rolled-down window of a car for as long as possible.

Fig 17. Image sequence via Li Jie, “A cinephiliac moment in Chung Kuo” from‘Just Images’ of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: Antonioni’s Chung Kuo and Ivens’s How Yukong Moved the Mountain, 41

Image sequence via Li Jie, “A cinephiliac moment in Chung Kuo” from‘Just Images’ of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: Antonioni’s Chung Kuo and Ivens’s How Yukong Moved the Mountain, 41

A very short section from Antonioni’s film —no more than three or four seconds long— is for me also a quintessential ‘cinephiliac moment’. The section opens with a long shot of a line of pigs snoozing in the midday sun. Suddenly, as the opening notes of a model opera ring out through a nearby loudspeaker, one of the pigs jerks awake, and we are given a close-up of the pig shocked into full consciousness by the clashing cymbals of the revolutionary opera before it relaxes back into sleep again moments later. This micro-episode was, predictably, to result in its own mini-furor. “The aria ‘Raise your head, expand your chest’ sung by Chiang Shui-ying in the Song of the Dragon River,” fumed the People’s Daily, “is used in the film to accompany the scene of a swine shaking its head.” (54) Later, when the film was screened publicly in Washington, the Chinese ambassador upon seeing this sequence led his staff in a walkout. (55) Later, Antonioni’s crew responded to this particular criticism, saying that they had misunderstood the nature of the music being played and regretted the resulting unfortunate effect. (56)

Upon first viewing I was taken by surprise by the brief sequence, by the sudden entry of comic coincidence. For me the episode is a wonderful example of an unplanned, unexpected, truly ‘everyday’ moment being captured on film, wholly un-intentioned by either the director or those in charge of the site being filmed. Quite simply, on the transcendent heroic plane of socialist achievement and artistic vision, some unwritten aesthetic law would have it that no slumbering pigs are ever awoken by rousing revolutionary songs; meanwhile, on the everyday plane of China, it just so happened that during the Cultural Revolution a slumbering pig was jolted awake by the blaring first bar of a model opera. As such, the captured moment “escapes existing networks of critical discourse and theoretical frameworks” (57), and resists any sort of easy categorisation (despite the Party’s efforts). It is the most banal of moments, the most comic of moments, the most lyrical of moments, and the rarest of moments, the very instant of a pig being awoken by revolutionary music in 1972 China, captured on film.

“The pig being shocked awake by the model opera is truly an interesting moment,” writes ‘Trailleo’, another Douban commenter. (58) Likewise, many users bring up the moment of the taichi-bicycle-rider: “My deepest impression from the film is of the elderly fellow riding his bicycle while performing taichi on Chang’an Avenue.” (59) Something about cinephiliac moments sticks in one’s mind, gives one a frisson of impulsive, yet enduring, fascination. Part of their ‘magic’ is that they are un-intentioned even by the director him/herself. “The cinephiliac moment is produced en plus,” writes Keathley, “in excess or addition, almost involuntarily.” (60) They occur in excess of the careful staging, planning and rehearsing of the Communist Party for Antonioni’s film crew. This brings us to another intriguing aspect of the ‘everyday’ that is prevalent in this film: that of its ‘tactical’ nature, the ways in which it very subtly subverts larger structures of the staged and the planned, to manifest “that resistive or evasive creativity that takes place in the tears in the fabric of power.” (61)

It was Michel de Certeau, one of the pre-eminent admirers and intellectual champions of the ‘everyday’, who first parsed out this idea of the ‘tactical,’ as well as its significance. “If it is true that the grid of ‘discipline’ is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive,” he says, “it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it.” (62) As a 20th-century Frenchman, de Certeau was writing ­–in his distinct poetic-philosophic style– about the specific context of western European capitalist society, but his insights regarding the individual ‘user’ navigating larger frameworks of power are flexible and general enough to be fruitful in a Communist Chinese context. In many ways, his insights often find even more overt counterparts in Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution.

De Certeau was most interested in how the everyday ‘user’, or common individual, ‘operated,’ even while “assumed to be passive and guided by established rules.” (63) “In the technocratically constructed, written, and functionalised space” in which users operate, he writes, users must navigate and make their own meanings “composed with the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, supermarkets, or museum sequences) and although they remain subordinated to the prescribed syntactical forms (temporal modes of schedules, paradigmatic orders of spaces, etc.).” Despite this however, and this is what is crucial for him: users “trace out ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they develop.” (64)

De Certeau’s work helps us see the temporary, superficial parallels between Antonioni’s situation during his time in China, and that of the average Chinese citizen. Though of course under a circumscription very different in kind, Antonioni was nevertheless also ‘subordinated’ to ‘prescribed syntactical forms’, to ‘temporal modes of schedules’ and ‘paradigmatic orders of spaces,’ within which he had to find little ways to ‘trace out’ the ‘ruses of his interests and desires.’ These tiny operations exerted by everyday users are what de Certeau termed ‘tactics’, actions that “must be seized on the wing.” (65)

Over the course of the film and its production process, Antonioni engages in various kinds of ‘tactics’ in order to both evade and resist the restrictions placed on him. The most obvious one at his disposal is self-reflexivity. As a means of showing up the staging and making the viewer aware of his restricted situation, China is sprinkled throughout with statements that explicitly refer to various sanctions placed on him and his crew. We hear sentences such as “our guides’ unflinching persistence keep us from taking a step away from the prescribed itineraries”; or “we ask our guides to stop the car, but they pretend they don’t understand us.” There are cheekier moments: “Suddenly, the car driver tells us we cannot film here,” says Antonioni at one point, as their car drives past the Beijing residence of top Party cadres, then follows it with: “Oops, we’ve filmed this, as you can see.” (Another sore point for the Party: “He openly boasts in the film’s narration of how he took sneak shots of many scenes in the film like a spy.”) (66) Much of his most interesting footage is, in fact, ‘seized on the wing.’ Antonioni even recalls times when, so disinterested was he in a scene that he knew was being carefully staged for the camera that he would only pretend to be recording, whilst his camera was in fact devoid of film. (67) Thus he himself sometimes had to ‘stage’ his act of filming, as a means of both co-operating with, as well as tactically subverting, the larger work of staging that he was obliged to ‘go along with’.

There are interesting correspondences to be found between these little tactics of Antonioni’s, and the daily tactics employed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution which this film offers us a glimpse into. For example, a blogger named Hao Jian recalls his own particular mode of co-operating with the authorities who asked him to criticise Antonioni’s film. “Back then,” writes Hao, “goodness knows how many primary and middle school students, soldiers and workers —none of them having seen the film at all, or at most seen parts of it— wrote up vehement denunciatory critiques of the film. I was one of them.” […当时全国不知多少中小学生和工农兵都是压根没看过或者没完整看过这部电影就写了慷慨激昂的大批判影评, 我也是其中一个] (68). He goes on to recall: “In 1974, at the time of the mass anti-China campaign, I had a reputation as one of the ‘wordsmiths’ of the factory. I remember only those who had been carefully selected could become part of the ‘backbone of critiquers’ and watch an adulterated version of the film. The version had a voiceover critique added to it, which went something like this: ‘Please watch carefully…. Please watch carefully… how Antonioni portrays the Chinese people as ignorant, backwards and isolated… It is thus that he vilifies the Chinese people… He schemes and plots and racks his brains in order to….’ I was very happy at the time to do these critiques of the film, because if the factory picked me out to write them, I could get out of work for two days.” [1974年对《中国》搞大批判时, 我在工厂里被人称为‘文豪’之一。我记得, 当时是经过选择的批判骨干才可以去看这部影片经过剪辑的版本, 而且我们看到的剪辑片段是配上了旁白批判词的, 批判词大概是这一类的: 请看…… 请看…… 安东尼奥尼却把中国人民描绘成愚昧无知, 与世隔绝…… 她就是这样丑化中国人民……他挖空心思、处心积虑…… 我那时很高兴写批判文章, 因为厂里把我抽出来去写骂《中国》的文章我就可以有两天不干活。] (69). Thus, even as Hao adhered to the Party line to denounce a film he had not seen much of, nor had any strong feelings against, he was in fact driven by a private motivation quite at odds with the central virtue of communism: to escape work, to get out of labouring for a period of time. In this way, Hao ‘staged’ an impassioned hatred for the film in what he said and wrote verbally, using the ‘vocabularies of established languages’ and ‘prescribed syntactical forms’ —with the style of rhetoric employed in critiques at the time so distinct and template-like that Hao still remembers certain phrasings decades later— even as he harboured ‘ruses of his interests and desires’ counter to those ‘paradigmatic orders’ and systems.

One can imagine, then, that an intuition for the ‘staged’ —what to ‘perform’ and what not to, and in turn what was a ‘performance’ and what wasn’t— became particularly fine-tuned in an era that so greatly emphasised politically dictated and publicly performed ideologies. (The opening anecdote of this essay shows, for instance, that a third-grader was already acutely aware of the ‘rehearsed’ nature of classes intended for a later ‘performance’ in front of observers.) With an intuition honed to a point far more sensitive than what an Italian visitor could pick up on a 22-day trip to the country, viewers from that generation (as well as the present one) often comment on where Antonioni may have tripped up and mistaken ‘staged’ for ‘un-staged’.

One such instance is a scene filmed at a Beijing market which offers rather prodigious (and aesthetically stacked) displays of fruit, vegetables, fish and meat for sale.

Fig 18. Market in Beijing (China, 1972)

Market in Beijing (China, 1972)

Antonioni remarks in the accompanying voiceover: “The prices are low. The abundance is accessible to all.” One user says in response to watching the scene: “This is such a glorification of the actual situation at the time. All the elderly people I’ve asked say that the markets in Beijing were nothing like that. Probably only the elites and their families could access that kind of abundance…”  [太美化当时情况了, 偶问的老人都说当时北京的菜市场根本没那么丰盛, 只有高干子弟才能吃到那些吧…] (70). This response is supported by Hanchao Lu’s findings. In her study of the material conditions of everyday life during the Cultural Revolution, she concludes that “virtually all basic daily necessities were strictly rationed —many at a level below subsistence needs”; that under Mao’s governance there was a severe lack of some common foods such as tofu that was “particularly startling —even offensive— to the common people”; and that there was also a “general scarcity of cooking oil nationwide,” even leading to the use of eye-drop bottles as cooking-oil dispensers. (71)

Fig 19. Choosing cucumbers in Beijing market (China, 1972)

Choosing cucumbers in Beijing market (China, 1972)

Fig 20. ‘Fishing’ in a Beijing market (China, 1972)

‘Fishing’ in a Beijing market (China, 1972)

When one sees these images, then, of throngs of people selecting from tall heaps of ripe vegetables, even grasping for their ideal pick directly from a trough of water teeming with live fish, one cannot help but wonder: if this scene was most likely staged, how exactly was it organised? What were the roles of the ‘performers’, the shoppers and the vendors? Why is there such a lack of artifice in their mannerisms and the matter-of-fact way in which they go about the shopping? In this sense one of the most intriguing scenes in the film, its exact ‘workings’ will probably remain an enigma for a long time to come. It also reminds us —especially when Antonioni expresses confidence in the market’s representativeness of daily life in Beijing, even given his sensitivity towards the over-staged — of the sophistication of the intuition for the performative that became second-nature for Chinese of that era. On a similar note, one online post remarks: “It is likely that the younger generation cannot tell anymore what is staged and what isn’t in this film.”

From the film we can also glean the deployment of other everyday tactics. Through Antonioni’s concentration upon the leisure-taking of the Chinese people he sees around him, as mentioned earlier, we see how sites of power are transformed into places of rest and enjoyment by their ‘users.’ “A visit to the tombs,” Antonioni observes, as he films several youths playing cards in shade previously enjoyed only by a cloistered imperial elite, “is a festive occasion.” “Everyday life invents itself,” says de Certeau, through “poaching itself in countless ways” (72), through the combining of “heterogeneous elements.” (73) Leisure as captured in Antonioni’s film can also take the form of a ‘poached’, creatively pieced-together affair. If we return to the ping-pong game that he records briefly, for instance, the table is composed of one overly narrow, long plank of wood propped up on two other blocks of wood; the ‘net’ is another, smaller, appropriately-sized wood block. Thus the boys create a ping-pong table out of the limited materials available to them, displaying exactly the spirit of the tactical so admired by de Certeau.

At one point, Antonioni’s directorial tactics ‘coincide’ (or collide) with those of the Chinese he films, when he by chance comes across a ‘private market’ in the countryside. An event frowned upon by officials but evidently popular among residents, it provides a supplementary means of obtaining things otherwise difficult to come by under the tightly controlled and rationed system. Urgently told to stop filming this instance of a ‘lapse’ in Party authority or ‘pure’ socialism, Antonioni goes on recording anyway, much to the chagrin of his guide. It is thus that we are given another sampling of the tactical aspect of daily life in early 1970s China. We are afforded a brief view of how people sought to ‘poach’ their own distribution systems within the larger, dictated economic structures in order to fulfil various modest needs and desires, and how, in the process, they could create a sort of additional social space as well. As we watch this unexpected sequence, we see dozens of people milling about in a relaxed manner, chatting with one another, in groups of friends perhaps discussing their latest exchanges, bargains and goings-on. A close-up of an elderly man tenderly cradling a piglet at this unapproved market, for example, while talking to what seems like two old chums of his, is another of those brief episodes in China where one feels another distinct frisson from its prosaic-yet-poetic qualities, from one’s keen sense of this-image-should-never-have-made-it.

Fig 21. Chatting at a private market (China, 1972)

Chatting at a private market (China, 1972)

Subtly subversive modes of cooperative ‘staging’; the necessity of being ‘staging-savvy’ and learning how to ‘read’ texts, images, and situations with that savviness; modest forms of leisure; makeshift and creative ‘poaching’; these are all forms of the tactical everyday that China offers us glimpses of. It is telling that Antonioni’s film and de Certeau’s work have similar dedications. The Italian director states firmly: “It is them, the Chinese, who are the protagonists of our motion picture”; whilst the French philosopher addresses his book “to the ordinary man”, “a common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands on the streets.” (74)


John Ellis writes thus on the function of narrative in documentary: “it tells the viewer what to believe”; it is “not only a structuring of events towards a conclusion, but also a structuring of judgement.” (75) The criticisms launched against China for being a ‘desultory jumble’ point to an absence in the film of the sort of clear narrative presence that Ellis speaks of. Consistent with its capturing of everyday moments and tactics over monumental sites and panoramas, the film deliberately evades any grand overarching narrative, overt rationalist teleology, or structure that could serve as the framing of some more-or-less clear-cut ‘conclusion’ or ‘judgement.’ As Sam Rohdie writes, “Chung Kuo Cina is a film about a China seen but not known, observed, but not explained, and that is its wonderful power and its secret happiness.” (76)

A lot of this ‘wonderful power’ and ‘secret happiness’ —along with some other more problematic, complex undertones— are, I think, situated in the remarkable amount of staring that goes on in China. Famous for his style of slow-paced long takes, Antonioni’s style of filming itself could be described as a sort of ‘staring.’ Meanwhile, these staring encounters are even more fascinating due to the particular historical moment in which they were recorded. The Italian director constitutes a sort of mobile ‘contact zone’ in himself, as both foreigners and cameras were a rare sight at the time in China, while at the same time, Antonioni is in China —a place hitherto so mysterious and inaccessible to him— for the first time. Created under these potent conditions, China is populated with dozens of these visual encounters: of Antonioni and the camera ‘staring’ at an individual or a group; and that person or group staring back.

This ‘staring back’ is crucial, for the reciprocity is partly what makes the stare distinct from the one-sided, often disciplinary or hierarchical ‘gaze’. The stare, according to Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is far more “generative”, and often full of a sense of wonder: “we may gaze at what we desire,” she writes, “but we stare at what astonishes us.” (77) It is an act “both simple and complex, natural and cultural” (78), and can be defined as “in its pure and simple essence… the time required by the brain to make sense of the unexpected.” (79) A certain kind of staring, called ‘baroque staring’, according to Garland-Thomson, is in particular “a giving over to the marvelous: it entangles viewer and viewed in an urgent exchange that refines both … provokes bewilderment and confusion in both parties” (80) and “opens up toward new knowledge”; for if ‘mastery’ “dominates stares,” then “wonder places starer and staree in dynamic relation.” (81)

This is a framework that I think unfolds what is going on in China far more productively than the conclusion of Sontag’s that I mentioned earlier, in which she describes China as a typical ‘first stage’ of camera culture. To briefly reiterate Sontag’s discussion, at this ‘first stage’, the spontaneous act of photo-taking or filming is seen as “some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimated looting of the personality or the culture…” (82); in contrast to industrialised countries, whose inhabitants feel affirmed instead of threatened by having their picture taken. (83) Firstly, there is something troubling to me in Sontag’s outright hierarchical classification of China as being in the ‘first stage’ of camera culture, as if the Antonioni incident hinges largely on China being a sort of ‘Third World Photography Nation’ in which everyone’s reaction to image-taking is of uniform repulsion, self-defence and evasion. For some reason, Sontag chose not to complicate her conclusions with a closer discussion of the very wide range of stares we see in China, a small number of them guarded and defensive, but many of them curious, interested, quizzical, obviously ‘trying to make sense of the unexpected,’ and many of them too overtly warm, expressive, delighted or tickled in some way by the encounter. I think the following stills demonstrate sufficiently the range I speak of.

Fig 22.  Group travelling aboard a truck (China, 1972)

Group travelling aboard a truck (China, 1972)

Fig. 23 Truck of PLA soldiers (China, 1972)

Truck of PLA soldiers (China, 1972)

Fig 24. Girls smile when they spot Antonioni and his camera from upper-storey windows (China, 1972)

Girls smile when they spot Antonioni and his camera from upper-storey windows (China, 1972)

Red Guard stares from her seat in a theatre (China, 1972)

Red Guard stares from her seat in a theatre (China, 1972)

Girl at the market grins upon discovering presence of the camera (China, 1972)

Girl at the market grins upon discovering presence of the camera (China, 1972)

Man begins ‘staring contest’ with Antonioni’s camera (China, 1972)

Man begins ‘staring contest’ with Antonioni’s camera (China, 1972)

These images provide but a sampling of the large repertoire of stares in China. Yet from these we can already get a sense of its diversity: we see those who are intensely quizzical, who stare back for as long as possible; those who smile shyly; those who grin broadly; those who stare back, curious but calm. Despite this diversity they almost all share something visceral and fundamental in common: the impulse to stare at another human face (albeit one behind a hand-held camera), “to search the countenance for revelation” (84); and an intense initial reaction to something wholly unexpected and unfamiliar, be it the foreignness of Antonioni and his crew or their technological apparatus. Stares, Garland-Thomson suggests, can be seen as “urgent efforts to make the unknown known, to render legible something that seems at first glance incomprehensible.” (85) There is a ‘baroque’ quality to many of them, in that there is a sense of wonder: What is this? Who is this?  A stare is an embodied event that, in its rawest, most unchoreographed form, can exist only in a fragile, fleeting luminal zone before sense is ‘made’, before one’s mind rationalizes, categorises and re-contextualises whatever it is that one is staring at.

As  ‘second-hand starers’, seeing the faces of these different individuals look out directly at us carries anintensity in its own right. “The rawest and most fundamental form of staring is a face-to-face encounter,” writes Garland-Thomson. (86) When presented with their searching looks, though we are removed in time and space from the original objects and subjects of those stares, we still feel the potency and directness of that exchange, which is part of the indexical allure and capabilities of film. “Films,” for David MacDougall, “allow us to go beyond culturally prescribed limits and glimpse the possibility of being more than we are”; they are able to “stretch the boundaries of our consciousness and create affinities with bodies other than our own.” (87) Between the work of MacDougall and Garland-Thomson, it becomes clearer why Sontag’s explication of the film becomes unsatisfying, especially in relation to the remarkable prevalence accorded to staring recorded in the film. MacDougall and Garland-Thomson both analyse the act from an angle that allows for the communicative, even revelatory, potential of the stare. Because Sontag focuses her analysis on more strictly demarcated, divisive categories of the ‘industrialised’ versus the ‘non-industrialised’, nation contra nation, she seems to miss out on one of the most precious and potentially generative things the film has to offer us. The former two thinkers, on the other hand, focus on the ontological, existential and physiological qualities inherent to this ‘simple but complex’ act. Their work thus deals more profoundly with the process of contact, the sense of both collision and expansion that results between the eyes of one human being meeting another; and thus helps us grapple with the singular, difficult-to-express emotional and visual impact of many such episodes in China.

As a movie camera-wielding Italian visiting China in the 1970s, however, the danger of a mutual baroque-type ‘stare’, full of wonder and marvel, slipping into a more condescending, judging ‘gaze’ was always present. For most viewers, that danger is most concrete when Antonioni makes an unplanned venture, the only major departure from his itinerary, into a small village in Lin County, Henan Province. This scene is one of the most complex in the film: Antonioni and his crew show up; alarm the village head who is not happy about this sudden intrusion, but does his best to make the village as ‘presentable’ as possible (by which he means asking older and more poorly-dressed people to try and stay out of sight); Antonioni explores the village a bit with his camera; nearly every villager who sees him stands and stares back at him and his equipment. It is also during this scene that Antonioni gives us his most ‘in-depth’, self-reflecting voiceover, particularly concerning his thoughts on being a European filming in China. This corresponds beautifully with Garland-Thomson’s suggestion that staring “ignites in the starer…an unsettling awareness of our own embodiment” (88), that the act itself can cause “a radical besiegement of the subject.” (89)

The latter phrase is apt indeed in describing Antonioni’s thoughts, shared via voiceover, during his time in the village: “These Chinese have never seen a Westerner…” he begins to muse. “Amazed, a bit scared and curious, they can’t resist the temptation to stare at us…. But soon, we realize that it’s us who are peculiar and foreign…. For the people on the other side of the camera, we’re completely unknown… and perhaps a bit ridiculous. A hard blow against our European arrogance.” He soon goes on to add: “For one fourth of the world’s population, we’re so unfamiliar that it fills us with awe. Our big eyes, curly hair, big long noses….pale skin, extravagant gestures, outlandish costumes…” Being stared at by so many people so intensely, especially in a place where he feels he perhaps should not be in, it seems that Antonioni feels immediately not only more self-conscious, but more questioning of his identity and the identity of those he is filming. This voiceover also betrays the fact that, even while being poetic and reflective, Antonioni’s outlook toward the Chinese could be naïve and border on the condescending. This is also a common complaint among viewers of the film today; the term ‘猎奇’ (literally ‘hunting the strange’, but translatable more loosely as ‘exoticising’) crops up especially often, as does ‘窥探’ (‘spy’) , to a lesser extent.

It is true that, even besides the Lin County village episode, there are sections of the film which are uncomfortable to watch due to the manner in which the camera ‘looks’. One notable scene —in fact perhaps the most noted in the entire film— is one in which Antonioni visits a gynecology hospital and films a factory-worker undergoing a Caesarian-section, anaesthetised solely using acupuncture needles. The episode is shockingly graphic: flesh, blood, needles and all. The ‘stare’ of the camera seems particularly long and hard in this scene, and due to the woman being unable to reciprocate visually for the most part (not to mention the fact that the camera is trained on her body parts being operated on), it feels much more like a prying ‘gaze.’ Interestingly enough, Antonioni mentions at one point later in the film that they requested to see a funeral, and were denied, the reason being given that “it was too private an occasion.” By this rubric, it seems that the body of a woman, including her very innards, in the act of childbirth was not seen as particularly ‘private’ by the Party; the nagging discomfort experienced at that scene is, if anything, piqued by this later piece of information.

There are also several times when it is obvious that a person, having discovered they are being filmed, immediately becomes self-conscious, even ill at ease. One such person, for example, was a shirtless cart-puller in Nanjing who, upon noticing Antonioni filming him, endeavours to put a jacket on. Likewise, another person suddenly dismounts from his bicycle upon realising he is being filmed; there are mothers with children who move away from the camera as well; and a man who slows down his gait self-consciously after seeing he is being filmed. There are times when the camera follows someone so closely that, more than ‘staring’ or ‘glancing,’ it feels more like a sort of ‘stalking.’

“[B]efore films are a form of representing or communicating,” says MacDougall, “they are a form of looking.” (90) Antonioni would have agreed, for the way he presents his time and his project in China are so often mediated through tropes of seeing. Seeking to emphasise how little his documentary was intended to provide ‘knowledge’ and ‘facts’ about China, he loved to say, “We’ve given it but a single glance.” Antonioni chooses to close the entire film’s voiceover, in fact, using a Chinese saying regarding the limitations of vision in reaching understanding: “You can depict a tiger’s skin, but not his bones. You can depict people’s faces, but not their hearts.”

Conclusion: Afterthoughts

“The meal in the firkin, the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and gait of the body…” These things, for Ralph Waldo Emerson, held the quintessence of the everyday, the “near, the low, the common.” (91) For Antonioni, they were what he wished to capture of China, in place of grand, triumphal scenes and architecture. This turned out to be radically divergent from the mindset of the Communist Party, whose focus at that point in time was to show the success of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and the heroic ability of the Party to ‘改造人的灵魂’ (gaizao ren de linghun), or to ‘remake a person’s soul.’ As Tang Xiaobing points out, this was not a time to focus on the mundane trivialities of everyday life; this was when people were supposed to be reborn, when grand gestures, revolution, and that level of heroism were to replace the old ‘everyday’.

Now, however, it tends to be the very everyday details captured by Antonioni that delight and move viewers. Many comments touch upon the ‘inter-generational’ value of viewing the film. “Mom borrowed this film from a colleague at work, with only English subtitles. What precious images it contains. It started up an intense family discussion.” [妈妈从学院同事那借来的片子, 只有英语字幕。好珍贵的影像。引发了一场激烈的家庭大讨论。] (92). “A difficult-to-find documentary. My father watched it with me and explained everything each step of the way.” [难得一见的纪录片, 老爸全程陪同讲解] (93). “Our parents’ generation should watch this film” [要给爸爸妈妈那一代人看] (94). Or express joy in a particular detail, such as the plaits of the girls, the games the children play, how pretty the girls in Suzhou look.

As I have argued, Antonioni went to great lengths to avoid following any sort of functionalist rationalist thread structuring his documentary. His emphasis on both staring as well as the moments and tactics inherent in everyday life were both part of a larger strategy that did not want to be incorporated into a historical discourse that is “marked by linearity, emplotment, clear cause-and-effect relationships, distinction between major and minor issues or events…” (95)

The film’s own open-endedness has given space for many viewers to re-evaluate their impressions of the Cultural Revolution, and the recording of China’s history, in various differing ways. The work of ‘sense-making’ has taken the form of various different strands.

One is a sense of surprise at seeing a very different side of the Cultural Revolution. One commenter remarks: “The thing that surprised me most was that the lives of people at that time were actually not entirely occupied by politics” [最让我惊奇的是那个年代的人 生活其实没有被政治占领] (96); while another says, “…the good thing is it shows that the Cultural Revolution was not all darkness as the history books say, in fact the daily lives of the masses were very normal.” [不过好处在于让我们知道文革期间不是历史书里说的那样暗无天日,群众生活很正常] (97). An offshoot of this is a sense of nostalgia for a ‘purer’ past: “China at that time was so pure, so beautiful. That kind of warm but curious look in the eyes no longer exists.” [那时的中国真纯, 真美。那种温暖好奇眼神再也找不到了。] (98). On the other hand, there are those who see Antonioni as naively aestheticising the time, irresponsibly glossing over the turmoil of the time, blinded by his own political visions.

Another strand of sense-making is justifying and understanding the Party’s extreme reaction at the time to the film (extreme enough to compile a 200-plus page booklet of anti-China critiques). For some, it is still easy to side with the Party; they see the film as ‘hunting the strange’ and portraying China in an unflattering light. The critique of this viewpoint brings up a parallel between modern-day North Korea and ‘70s China: “If we were to film a movie titled ‘North Korea’, the visuals and tone would probably be about the same, right.”  [如果拍<朝鲜>也会是这样的视觉和口吻吧] (99).

There is also a minority who, while appreciating the film for its merits, still tries to comprehend the Party’s response. One particularly creative blogger came up with a ‘wedding analogy’ as a means of making sense of the Party’s extreme reaction: it’s as if, the blogger argues, a young couple hears of a talented photographer and asks him to come and take their wedding pictures, only to discover later that, instead of recording pictures of the beautifully made-up bride and groom and decorations, he went off and took portraits of drunken guests, the toilet, and so on. (100) This analogy was generally well received by other Douban users.

To return to Highmore, “reclamation… suggests that the everyday is what often gets suppressed in presentations of the past and the present… reading the archive is never simply a matter of transferring snippets of knowledge into understandable stories, but of reading the archive against the grain (so to speak), against the interests of those that orchestrated them.” (101) Antonioni can be said to be doing that in China. One of the more standout anecdotes concerns a woman who, 32 years ago, was working at a textile factory in Beijing, when her factory organised a trip to the Great Wall. It was there that she encountered the camera-holding Antonioni, and she said she remembered being delighted by how he began to film her and her friend. Later on, when the film was being criticized, her factory head sought her out and she was made to write a serious self-critique for having appeared in it. At the 2007 screening (the ticket for which her son had procured for her), when she saw herself on screen, she “couldn’t hold her excitement in, didn’t care about what the audience around her thought, and like a child, pointed at the screen and shouted: ‘That’s me, that’s me!’” (102) For that woman at that point in time, she must have truly felt that something of hers had been ‘reclaimed.

Once an image or sequence is recorded, writes Sontag, it “becomes part of a system of information, fitted into schemes of classification and storage… Reality as such is redefined—as an item for exhibition, as a record for scrutiny, as a target for surveillance.” (103) It is out of such mnemonic mechanisms of scrutiny and classification that a particular sense of concern has grown among present-day viewers: the fact that such a precious record of 1970s China, nearly the only one of its kind, was filmed by a foreigner, one who spent only 22 days in the country. The sentiment that ‘our history has had to rely on outsiders to be recorded’ is in fact one of the most commonly expressed in response to having seen China. There is more at work here than an active sense of nationalism. If China reminds us both of a great loss and suppression of history, as well as gifts us the reclamation of a fraction of that history, it also sparks a certain anguish and realisation that so much of the ‘ordinary’ past is lost, and that ‘ownership’ cannot be claimed over even the few records that remain.

Beyond the lively discussion, debate, re-remembering and re-evaluating that Antonioni’s China is generating among its 21st-century viewers, there have also been intriguingly exploratory projects inspired by the film. One is an interpretive dance sequence currently being choreographed by Henan-born dancer Yin Mei and her dance troupe, with the working title ‘Antonioni in China’. Remembering her own participation as a child in the criticism campaign against the film, Yin Mei describes her work-in-progress as a conversation with the director’s work. Another example is the film Mask Changing: A Letter to Antonioni, a 2004 film directed by Pan Jun that re-visits the sites in China. These adventurously intertextual projects are a testament to both the richness and expressiveness of the reclamation and poetics at work in Antonioni’s film; and also provide hope and new directions for the future work of reclamation to be carried out by generations of Chinese into their own histories.


  1. Nanyuan [南园]. “Things of the past — Making Antonioni Mad [往事——气死安东尼奥尼].” Nanyuan de weiyangge’s Blog [南园的未央歌BLOG] (22 Nov. 2009. Sina Blogs. Accessed: 15 Dec. 2011) <http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_538c6c730100g837.html>.  [Original text: 那是七十年代中期,我上小学三年级,那时……在一个江南小镇读书。有一天下午,老师把三<1>班的学生全都并到我们三<2>班来,挤不下的就并排坐在走廊里——我们知道,又要为公开课彩排了。奇怪的是这次的公开课居然是音乐课,老师们将学校惟一的风琴小心地抬到教室里来,校长、教导主任都坐在风琴旁边,由我们的王牌老师沈老师亲自教我们唱。几十个孩子被这个前所未有的架势激动了。]
  2. This rendition, ‘to piss somebody off’, is the closest English equivalent I can think of that captures the gist of the Chinese phrase, to ‘气死’ somebody, though the Chinese is slightly less vulgar.
  3. Brady, Anne-marie. “Red and Expert: China’s ‘Foreign Friends’ in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966-69,” in China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Master Narratives and Post-Mao Counternarratives. Ed. Woei Lien Chong (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002), 93.
  4. Lane, John Francis. “Antonioni Discovers China.” Review. Sight and Sound, Spring 1973, VOL. XLII nr. 2: 86. Cinefiles. University of California at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. (Accessed 15 Dec. 2011) <http://cinefiles.bampfa.berkeley.edu/cinefiles/DocDetail?docId=37591>..
  5. Antonioni, Michelangelo, Carlo Carlo. Di, and Marga Cottino-Jones. The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema (New York: Marsilio, 1996) 108.
  6. For simplicity’s sake the film will be referred to throughout the rest of this paper as China.
  7. Hao, Jian [郝建]. “A Well-Known Scientist’s Little-known Actions: Why Yang Zhenning Told on Antonioni [大科学家打小报告:杨振宁为何状告安东尼奥尼].” Web log post. Hao Jian’s Blog [郝建的BLOG]. (7 Aug. 2007. Accessed: 14 Dec. 2011) <http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4ccd4d48010009qm.html>.
  8. People’s Daily commentator. “A Vicious Motive, Despicable Tricks — A Criticism of M. Antonioni’s Anti-China Film ‘China'” Editorial. Peking Review (北京周报) [Beijing] 1 Feb. 1974, Vol 17 ed., #5 sec.: 7-10. [This article is the ‘official’ translated version of the original People’s Daily editorial, which was published Jan 30, 1974 in said newspaper.] <http://www.massline.org/PekingReview/PR1974/PR1974-05h.htm>.
  9. Ibid.
  10. As I (unfortunately!) do not speak Italian, I have relied upon the English subtitles of the  DVD version for all voiceover quotes.
  11. Op cit., People’s Daily editorial.
  12. Bachmann, Gideon. “Antonioni after China: Art and Science.” Michelangelo Antonioni: Interviews. Ed. Bert Cardullo (Jackson: University P of Mississippi, 2008) 122.
  13. Li, Jie. “’Just Images’ of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: Antonioni’s Chung Kuo and Ivens’s How Yukong Moved the Mountain,” (Harvard University, unpublished manuscript) 6.
  14. Eco, Umberto. “De Interpretatione, or the Difficulty of Being Marco Polo (On the Occasion of Antonioni’s China Film).” Trans. Christine Leefeldt. Film Quarterly 30.4 (1977): 8-12.
  15. Sontag, Susan. “The Image-World.” On Photography (New York: Dell Publ, 1977) 171.
  16. Ibid., 170
  17. Ibid., 161
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 177
  21. Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009) 3.
  22. De Certeau, Michel. The Everyday Life Reader. Ed. Ben Highmore (London: Routledge, 2002. 1980) 64-73
  23. Keathley, Christian. Cinephilia and History (or The Wind in the Trees). (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2006) 9
  24. Ibid.
  25. Cowie, Elizabeth. Recording Reality, Desiring the Real, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 2011) 6.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid., 31
  28. Ibid., 19
  29. Assmann, Aleida. “”Plunging into Nothingness”: The Politics of Cultural Memory.” Moment To Monument: The Making and Unmaking of Cultural Significance. Eds. Ladina Bezzola Lambert and Andrea Ochsner (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2009) 37.
  30. Ibid., 38
  31. Ibid.
  32. Tang, Xiaobing. “The Anxiety of Everyday Life in Post-Revolutionary China.” The Everyday Life Reader. Ed. Ben Highmore (London: Routledge, 2002) 125.
  33. Ibid., 127
  34. Ibid., 128.
  35. People’s Daily commentator
  36. Tang, 128.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Highmore, 24.
  39. Since I draw upon a very large number of short reviews from the Douban China page, footnotes to reviews from this site will simply state username and date. The URL of this page, where all the reviews I draw upon are found, is <http://movie.douban.com/subject/1292327/>
  40. Posted by now-deleted user, Douban, 2007-04-19
  41. Posted by user ‘purple.land’, Douban, 2009-03-21
  42. Posted by user ‘有用春光光’, Douban, 2008-04-18
  43. Posted by user’誰|ぼくちやん’, Douban,  2010-08-01
  44. Posted by user ‘大熊’, Douban, 2010-02-26
  45. Posted by user ‘gudong’, Douban, 2009-04-24
  46.   ‘Xinggan nongmin’ [性感农民]. “Antonioni’s ‘Cina’ — Why has Our History been Recorded for Us by Foreigners [安东尼奥尼《中国》——历史为什么由外国人来记录].” Web log post. FIFID 非非共享界. 24 Jan. 2007. Accessed:14 Dec. 2011 <http://fifid.com/review/1007299>.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Posted by user ‘十月’, Douban, 2011-04-30
  50. Li, 40
  51. Keathley, 7
  52. Ibid., 9
  53. Ibid., 30
  54. People’s Daily commentator
  55. ‘keepwalking’, “Returning to China in the 70’s: Antonioni’s ‘Cina’ [重返70年代:安东尼奥尼《中国》].” Suxin Studio [苏辛工作室]. (28 May 2007. Accessed: 14 Dec. 2011) <http://suxin.crtvu.edu.cn/bbs/viewthread.php?action=printable&tid=861>.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Keathley, 30
  58. Posted by ‘Trailleo’, Douban, 2006-07-19
  59. Posted by ‘PsYBrit^Reveer’, Douban, 2008-10-21
  60. Keathly, 30
  61. Goffman, Erving. “The Front and Back Regions of Everyday Life.” The Everyday Life Reader. Ed. Ben Highmore. (London: Routledge, 2002. 1959) 51.
  62. De Certeau, 66
  63. Ibid., 64
  64. Ibid., 69
  65. Ibid., 70
  66. People’s Daily commentator
  67. Hao
  68. Ibid.
  69. Ibid.
  70. Posted by ‘edph’, Douban, 2009-04-17
  71. Lu, Hanchao. “Out of the Ordinary: Implications of Material Culture and Daily Life in China.” Everyday Modernity in China. Ed. Madeleine Yue Dong and Joshua L. Goldstein (Seattle: University of Washington P, 2006) 32-3.
  72. De Certeau, 64
  73. Ibid., 69
  74. Ibid.
  75. Ellis, John. Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012) 70.
  76. Quandt, James. “Film Programs: “Modernist Master: Michelangelo Antonioni”” University of California at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (2007. Accessed 15 Dec. 2011) <http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/film/FN16353>.
  77. Garland-Thomson, 13
  78. Ibid., 13
  79. Ibid., 12
  80. Ibid., 50
  81. Ibid,. 51
  82. Sontag., 161
  83. Ibid.
  84. Garland-Thomson, 99
  85. Ibid., 15
  86. Ibid., 14
  87. MacDougall, David. The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2006) 16-7.
  88. Garland-Thomson, 58
  89. Ibid.
  90. MacDougall, 6
  91. Abrahams, Roger D. Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania P, 2005) 1-2.
  92. Posted by user ‘小美Cami’ on 2010-03-06
  93. User ‘PassiveSerial’, Douban, 2009-07-26
  94. User ‘一一道来’, Douban, 2010-08-17
  95. MacDougall, 5
  96. Posted by user ‘外面的世界’, Douban, 2010-04-19
  97. Posted by user ‘虎宝宝’, Douban, 2011-06-24
  98. Posted by user ‘Joker’, Douban, 2011-08-20
  99. User ‘上官璎珞’, Douban, 2009-12-29
  100. Posted by user ‘echohead’, Douban, 2007-09-04
  101. Highmore, 224
  102. Beitaixi [北太西]. “Antonioni’s ‘Cina’: A Screening 32 Years Late [安东尼奥尼的《中国》: 迟到了32年的放映》.” People’s Web [人民网] (09 Aug. 2007. Accessed 15 Dec. 2011] <http://culture.people.com.cn/GB/40462/40463/6090473.html#>.
  103. Sontag, 156

About The Author

Alice Xiang is a Doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. She generally divides her time between Boston, Beijing, and a handful of other favourite cities.

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