Weihong Bao completed her PhD at the University of Chicago in 2006, and is now an Associate Professor in Chinese and Film Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include Chinese language cinema of all periods and regions, as well as transnational genre cinema, historical exhibition practices, and the history and theory of comparative media, all of which are on display in her monograph Fiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915-1945 (2015). As a result of this scholarship, she has been able to gain unique insight into the field of Chinese film studies, both as it exists in the West and in China. She has recently become one of the editors of The Journal for Chinese Cinemas.
* * *
DF: Perhaps we can start by talking about how your personal background, and how you fit into the field of Chinese film studies.
WB: The field of Chinese film studies has gone through quite some changes in terms of English language scholarship. I started out as an English literature major, and Steve Wurtzler (Electronic Sounds: Technological Changes and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media: [New York: Columbia UP, 2007), a film sound specialist who taught my first film classes, got me excited about film. I soon enrolled in Chicago in film studies and East Asian literature and ended up pursuing a joint PhD program with a full load of course work in both departments. At that time Chicago was considered a stronghold in early cinema with a thriving program. Miriam Hansen, Tom Gunning, Yuri Tsivian, and James Lastra opened up entirely new vistas in film studies by turning to the neglected history of early cinema. Their scholarship was rigorously historical but deeply informed by and in conversation with various strands of film theory, critical theory and philosophy. Each of them came from a particular cultural context (US, Germany, Russia) but was highly sensitive to the circulation of ideas, images, and practices. I remember Yuri used to draw a diagram about the intricate film relationship between US, Russia, and Germany, Miriam taught courses on German émigré filmmakers in Hollywood (Ophüls, Lubitsch, and Wilder), and Tom taught Japanese Cinema. Miriam also came from Germany as a revisionist of the Frankfurt school that injected the program with a particular critical rigor and open-mindedness. I was fortunate to have taken courses with all of them, and I worked closely with Miriam Hansen and Tom Gunning, which was certainly a transformative experience. Chicago also had a strong interdisciplinary climate that allowed me to take coursework in art history, social thought, English, and anthropology; conversations across the departments was an every day reality among faculty and students. It was a good moment to engage in Chinese film studies, because, at least in the English language countries, the first generation of Chinese film studies scholars were largely literature scholars with the exception of Chris Berry, who studied film first and worked in China’s film world in the 1980s. The approach was very interpretative, textual-oriented, with fine close readings, not unlike dominant approaches in film studies in an earlier decade. They covered different areas from the contemporary period, with a focus on fifth generation filmmakers, whose success abroad was very important for the emergence of this first generation of scholars. Rey Chow would be one prominent example, as well as scholars such as Eugene Wang, who is an art historian. Other pioneers, Zhang Yingjin, Wang Ban, and Yomi Braester were trained either in comparative literature or East Asian literature and cultures. These scholars took a strong interest in Chinese cinema, inspired by the global attention that fifth generation films raised. In that sense, there was a coincidence between the first group of Chinese scholars studying abroad, and international scholars taking an interest in Chinese cinema. The field has had a very strong mainland focus, with a particular interest in fifth generation films. It was initially less historical, but gradually it has started to become more historically focused.
Later generations began to develop a broader set of interests within the field of film studies and East Asian cultural studies. Zhang Zhen, for instance, was trained in Chicago before me and wrote a field changing monograph on early cinema in Shanghai (An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896-1937). She combines rigorous archival research and theoretical sophistication to situate Shanghai cinema in the city’s urban landscape and complex experience of colonial modernity. Written with a poetic panache, the book radically transforms the ways early cinema in China was approached and reimagined. Sheldon Lu sought to redefine the field by challenging fixed notions of identity in relation to geopolitics. He and Emilie Yeh co-edited the very influential volume Transnational Chinese Cinemas, where they think beyond mainland China proper in order to define the scope of the field, its geographical reach. They take into serious consideration films from Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as diasporic films. That constitutes a very important trend now in investigating the transnational and transregional traffic, and how a certain kind of culture and nation is defined precisely by going beyond one’s own boundaries in the realm of imagination. It continued to be an important and quite dominant trend.
So I immediately got assimilated into the Chicago tradition, which was very invested in film specificity, early cinema, but also issues of modernity which opened film up to a broader historical context. When I was doing my research, however, I encountered significant challenges: I was equipped with all this knowledge, but when I went to the Chinese archives, all of a sudden I discovered that things were different. In the sense that you can’t just assume that you can spend a whole book writing about one specific director or one specific period, as, for example, Tom Gunning did with D.W. Griffith’s Biograph work. That is quite impossible to do in China especially with early cinema. Largely because many of the films are not extant, not to mention the difficulty in accessing the films that are available. I was constantly dealing with the question of lost cinema. At the same time, when you’re not finding what you’re looking for, you can also be blind to things that are quite readily available. I looked at a lot of the print media, film journals, other kinds of journals, newspapers. Then you feel you are not looking at cinema in isolation. For instance, I had to look at film’s relation to architecture; early television popped up; theatre was very important in the early stages of film. So you really start to think about questions of symbiosis, and these kinds of interaction with film. It’s not just that they provide a context, but they’re at the heart of what cinema is. I had to step back and ask myself what was cinema in China, historically and theoretically, which was a hard question to ask when I was at Chicago. One of my mentors was saying: “Oh, your project is not film enough, you need to come back and focus on film.” I always felt I had to address this.
But then, while I was writing, especially when I was trying to turn the dissertation into a book, the field of film studies in general was changing. With the emergence of new media studies, film studies has taken more of a turn towards metacritical questions, raising issues about its object as well as its method. That also became a more optimal moment for my own project, so I could confront this question more assertively. The issue was not putting other media in the background, but thinking about how they interact with cinema, and how their parallel and convergent development with film was really at the heart of the cinema. The book ended up thinking deeply about film’s relationship with theatre, architecture, and wireless technology. But overall, I reach towards to a larger question, which goes beyond intermediality that runs the risk of reifying historical new media in relation to film as a kind of naturalised medium, as a given. I was rather conceptualising what constitutes the medium as such. Eventually the book becomes a question of how we define the medium per se. It has to accommodate considerations of the material and technological aspect but also the aesthetic and the cultural/discursive dimensions. I was very invested in the question of affect and how affect is not reduced to emotion or interiority but something that is artificially produced, largely constituted by media technology and aesthetics. I eventually arrive at the thesis of a mutual constitution of affect and medium in creating a mediating environment. So affect is not something that is in you, but it is something that is produced out there, and that played a very important role in Chinese modernity in the first half of the 20th century, to constitute commercial, as well as political and propagandistic public spheres. That’s how the book came into being, and I think the field really has transformed, with film embracing more closely the question of media studies, media archaeology, with interest in infrastructure studies, ecological approaches. There is an explosion in terms of scope and methods.
In Chinese film studies I think you can see an uneven development. On the one hand, there is definitely a much broader geographical reach. There are several interesting books on contemporary Taiwanese art cinema. Hong Guo-Juin’s book is important and made a thoughtful historical reach to pre-new wave cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. Song Hwee Lim’s book on Tsai Ming-liang and the question of queer cinema is the very first monograph devoted to that subject; Fran Martin from Australia also turned out a volume on Taiwanese queer cinema. Lim’s second book on the cinema of slowness is really beautiful, it focuses on Tsai Ming-liang again, but the book engages temporality in close conversation with a recent trend in global art cinema that reacts against speed and capitalist modes of consumption. The book’s rigorous analysis of film style and time makes it a venerable work in world cinema way beyond the China field. In terms of coverage, Taiwan has been brought to the centre of attention, so is Hong Kong cinema. There are now several edited volumes on Hong Kong cinema, action films and martial arts films. In terms of method, the directions are certainly plural. You have people who come from the earlier generation who are transforming themselves, their scholarship is evolving and catching up with changes in the field. Zhang Yingjin is a wonderful example, who has dealt with so many subjects from early cinema, film stardom and industry, Taiwanese dialect film, independent documentary, and metahistorical reflections, his recent work is moving into the world of moving images in contemporary art. Chris Berry, one of the pioneers in the field, not only works on diverse subjects but also travels nimbly across national borders (on Korean cinema, for instance), genre, and media. His more recent works have dealt with queerness and electronic media, public screen cultures, and film festivals. There are several people who are interested in media deeply informed by film theory and questions of technology. Jean Ma’s new book Sounding the Modern Woman: The Songstress in Chinese Cinema, a book on 1950s Hong Kong film culture, is focused on the figure of the songstress. She looks at film song and musical culture more broadly in the soundscape of the recording industry and postwar Hong Kong modernity. There are other approaches in English-speaking scholarship, mostly from people based in North America, Britain and Australia. There have been several books on early Chinese cinema that came out at around the same time as my book. In Britain, Huang Xuelei recently released a book focused on the early film industry, and I think it’s historically very well informed. And then there’s Victor Fan’s book on Chinese film, Cinema Approaching Reality, which I think is really wonderful, and goes into a lot of methodological questions interrogating Chinese film theory, in terms of Chineseness and the mediality of film. The ending was quite provocative in the way it opened up to digital media.
So you do see the geographical scope broadening, going beyond mainland China. One potential direction is to intensify the conversation with South-East Asian film studies, the way that films have circulated in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand. Paralleling this geographical horizon is the question of methodology. This is not going as quickly, but things are changing. So Jean Ma’s book focuses on sound technology in relation to gender in post-war Hong Kong, Victor’s book on film theory, my book is interrogating mediality, with an interest in archaeology and film and media theory. And now with the new generation there are several ongoing projects with an interest in projection histories, educational films, and so on. This is also something I realised in my own work, in relation to propaganda I had to make a radical shift from thinking about the content of film as something that’s there on the screen, to thinking about propaganda not as message and content, but in terms of a theory and practice of circulation. It gets tied up with infrastructure, mobile film projection, etc.
DF: You brought up Victor Fan’s work on Chinese film theory, and it plays a part in your book as well. This seems to be something very new: bringing these film theorists into a dialogue with contemporary film studies. Do you think that those theorists can provide a new angle for us to look at broader questions of cinema and media, beyond a nationally or historically specific context?
WB: Yes, definitely. Victor himself is also thinking along these lines. My first book is quite historical, but there’s also a lot of film theory in there. I’ve been thinking about teasing out some of the specific questions coming from Chinese writers in terms of their understanding of film. It definitely has some bearings on how we think about film and media. For example, some left-wing film theorists in the 1930s were exploring questions of montage, in conversation with Soviet, German and French film theories. One other thing that was intriguing for me to work through was during wartime there were people who were arguing about propaganda cinema, about how to make it work. It was dreadful at the beginning for me, and then it turned out to be so bizarre and so interesting. I couldn’t draw on any existing models to accommodate them. In a way they are inventing their own theories, and I have to invent my own theories to understand what consequence it has for our own contemporary situation. I stumbled upon this very strange piece on “The Infinite Cinema” which talked about film in relation to Brownian motion and telecommunications, and how you broadcast cinema. This theory is informed by a very different notion of film, as a broadcast medium, and how you think beyond the context of theatrical cinema in practice, but also a kind of propagandistic, utopian cinema, film with a cosmic dimension. The essay also deals with the question of the ether, which was central to my own theorisation. It was invested in how to promote the cinema not just in terms of individual screens and content, but how it surrounds us and permeates our environment, becomes this non-neutral environment that helps to mobilise the potential agents of action and transforms them into subjects. So I thought at that time I was interpreting, understanding and explaining those people, who don’t even come from film theory. They’re just writing these eccentric essayistic articles, but at the same time I was doing my theorisation as well, in conversation with what’s going on in the field. So I think that is the ongoing project. I don’t think we can find some kind of quintessential Chinese film theory – that would be a fraught project to start with. We need to be aware of the transnational conversation that took place historically, but we should also acknowledge our own inflection on that. It’s our interpretation in relation to our own contemporary concerns.
DF: Does the period you work on have a privileged relationship with the contemporary era? Is there a way in which it particularly informs questions we are thinking about today? This seems to be one of the hallmarks of Miriam Hansen and Tom Gunning’s work: they speak about the present day through the prism of their historical work.
WB: I think it’s unavoidable, for anybody who claims to be a historian. If you’re doing any kind of historical work, it’s always the case. We are the products of the present, and it’s an ongoing, evolving present. It’s impossible to pretend that you’re entirely divorced from this context and that you’re doing some kind of hardcore archival research. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the strangeness and otherness of a historical moment, and this is what allows it to throw a different light on the contemporary moment, it’s not just conforming to the present moment, a lot of the time it’s thinking about asking new questions, making things that were old new in different ways, not just a matter of bringing them up to the present, but more importantly bringing the things that were not resolved historically in conversation with what’s going on now, what we took for granted as the dominant trends. That’s also the legacy of the Frankfurt school: for example Kracauer and Benjamin’s notion of history, the sense of a forgotten past, pastness as a kind of alternative future, this is really important. I think the more interesting group of media archaeologists who are doing this are more reflexive in thinking about exactly what they are doing, bringing back this forgotten history to think about whether it has any bearing for today, instead of arguing its historical distinctness. In the age of new media, it’s important to think about what we have to bring back to the present in terms of historical new media. Even though many people are gesturing towards uncovering a strangeness in the past, potentially it’s also conforming to an alternative genealogy of film. Thomas Elsaesser has written quite eloquently about this as well. So I think we all need to be mindful of this, and we can easily fall into this trap. It’s a constant reminder of how to keep this balance.
DF: To return to more specific questions of Chinese film studies: what is the relationship today between English-language scholarship on Chinese cinema, and the field in China itself?
WB: It’s rather complex. There’s a sizable gap in terms of terminology. I received my education in the US, and acquired my critical vocabulary here, so I often have to translate it back into Chinese. That being said, film academia in China is really thriving. There are a lot more programs being built in China. There’s a staggering number of PhD and MA students concentrating on film, and this parallels the development of the film industry in China. The film industry is booming, and film exhibition is rapidly expanding in China, in contrast to the dwindling of film exhibition in some other national contexts. That helps in the development of the discipline. There are several film journals in China, such as Film Art and Contemporary Cinema. They’re publishing important work, and are in touch with overseas scholars. I translated Miriam Hansen’s essay on film as vernacular modernism in Chinese. So there’s definitely that conversation. In earlier eras there was an embrace of Western film theory, so there was a strong sense of imported modernity: people were interested in new concepts and new methods and testing them in the Chinese context. There are ongoing translation projects. People are very in tune now with current trends, especially thanks to online media. The earlier pioneers of Chinese film study abroad are now regularly going back to China, giving lectures, publishing and translating their articles into Chinese. Last year I tried to put together a conference in Shanghai on film theory and media history. It was an interesting experience, and it was a test ground for the extent to which this conversation can happen. I was in charge of the people from North America and Europe, but I had no clue who was invited on the Chinese side. When the conference program was put together it very much transformed my original vision. And yet there was some coherence in terms of people from abroad thinking about new directions in film studies. On the Chinese side it was very heterogeneous. There were people steeped in Chinese film history, but also others interested in contemporary Chinese cinema, to the point that they had become advocates of the Chinese film industry. And there were film- and media-philosophical approaches, people interested in Deleuze, McLuhan, etc. That was one of my rare exposures to Chinese academic culture. Since then I’ve given a few lectures in China, but they have questioned me about whether my project was filmic enough! It was also an interesting challenge for me to translate my own work into a Chinese vocabulary. Yomi Braester and I have just assumed the editorship of the Journal for Chinese Cinemas, which thanks to its founding editors Song Hwee Lim and Julian Ward has run successfully for ten years, and is the only print journal devoted to Chinese cinemas (in the plural). We started in January, and we’re still learning the process. We’re having several conversations: one is in terms of scope and method, how to incorporate the media aspect, and the other is geographical reach, not just in terms of broadening Chinese language cinema horizon, but how to enter into dialogue with other people working on world cinema. We’re hoping to have special issues with people involved in this topic but not focused on China. We’re also asking people who are familiar faces in film studies to contribute articles so as to have a conversation with Chinese film scholars. So those are the new directions we’re trying to move into.
DF: Do you find broader institutional issues affecting the pursuit of scholarship? I can think of two directions. On the one hand, there is the push from Western universities to establish themselves in China, and then on the other hand, the push by Chinese universities and even the Chinese government to develop an endogenous academic culture.
WB: There has been some criticism coming from China of overseas Chinese film scholars who are supposedly expanding a colonial project, using Western film theory to colonise the study of Chinese film. There have been quite a few debates, but I haven’t read much of them. This is an ongoing issue that has to do with the emergence of China as a geopolitical power. That voice is strengthening. It has its merit, in terms of being reflective and critical in thinking about what China has to offer in reflection on film and film history – although this criticism often comes from people who are not very theoretically informed. We have a lot of conversations about overseas scholars. But some of us are also involved in collaborations with Chinese institutions. Sometimes such collaborations would result in publications overseas. So that’s something we have to consider because the publications would definitely need to go through the US peer review process. How should we deal with institutional forces? How do we negotiate with forces that may have potential conflicts of interest or strings attached? It’s something for which we need to strike a balance between caution and enthusiasm.
DF: The “Chicago school” of film studies has traditionally been interested in the link between cinema and processes of modernisation. Do you think that looking at earlier periods of modernisation in Western countries, or in Asia, can inform what’s going on in China right now?
WB: It’s quite different. It’s funny because a lot of books published in the 1990s and 2000s on China have the word “modern” in their titles. It was an obsession. For over a decade, modernity was a lens through which people saw China. But it’s also a huge question. For my own project you have the issue of colonial modernity, which is quite different from the modernity project that Tom Gunning and Miriam Hansen were invested in, and then within the notion of colonial modernity in the first half of the 20th century, there are different moments and different regions. For example, the 1920s and 1930s are very different. That’s why when I was looking at left-wing cinema I felt I had to negotiate with the model of vernacular modernism, largely because I felt that the political agency of different social groups has to be articulated. The modernity thesis becomes inadequate in that context, not to mention later on the question of propaganda. That quite departed from the Chicago approach. It inherited some of its merits, but is also distant from it. Coming into the contemporary moment, there’s such a substantial transformation. And we’re leaving aside the hugely complex middle part of the century, in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China.
So I think the question of modernity would be a difficult question to translate and transport, in terms of its internal complexity, its certain degree of inadequacy in addressing different historical moments, the heterogeneity within society, and moving towards the contemporary, there’s such a major transformation. In the 1980s and 1990s, during the immense commercial boom in China, there was a nostalgic turn towards colonial Shanghai as an idealised image of this flourishing zone of free interaction, and so there’s an interesting historical longing for the past. That was also the high time of “Shanghai modern”, with so many books invested in that period and culture. I think it has moved beyond that and China has moved to a different moment, from a neoliberal model to an attempt to strengthen authoritarian control of the whole society, while at the same time continuing the economic boom, the infrastructural transformation of the country. All of this makes it hard to predict where China is going, and how that relates to film. Film and media culture is an integral part of it. I think the Chinese government will continue to be very involved in film culture, and censorship is still really strong. Personally, I haven’t thought very deeply about whether the early moment in terms of this complex manifestation of film and culture has any bearing on the present situation. The history of censorship and propaganda is deep and long. There is some connection. Especially now, the current regime is tapping into the Maoist period in terms of film culture and popular culture. I don’t think it’s working very well, but they’re still invested in it. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen.
Interviewed by Daniel Fairfax