Between Politics and Aesthetics: Red China through the Lens of Western Leftist Filmmakers





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This dissertation is a cross-cultural study of Western leftist filmmakers’ portrayals of communist China. It focuses on four movies: Chris Marker’s Sunday in Peking (1956), Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo (1972), and Joris Ivens’s How Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976). I have chosen these works because they reveal an intriguing matrix in which the Western self represents the Chinese other in two ways. On the one hand, China has been a geographical other for the West down through the ages. As a result, the European filmmakers tended to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the successor of ancient China and project their Marcopoloesque sentiment onto its cultural image. On the other hand, the emergence of Chinese communism set China apart from the West in political ideology, socio-economic operation, and cultural practice, which were diametrically different from those of capitalism. Because of this dual otherness, Red China appeared as a romanticized utopia in the eyes of Marker, Godard, Antonioni, and Ivens. In their search for an alternative to bourgeois society, the PRC served as a desirable other in accordance with the political and cultural (un)conscious of European leftists.

In the dynamic interaction between self and other, Western leftist filmmakers produced a series of visual representations of Chinese communism informed by an intricate relationship between left-wing politics and left-wing aesthetics. On the theoretical level, progressive politics and progressive art share a cultural gene of radical transformation. Driven by a dialectical interplay between self and other, politics and aesthetics, Western leftist filmmakers found in Red China what they had yearned for in replacement of capitalist society. However, the former’s ideal of “art for the sake of revolution” fundamentally conflicted with the latter’s principle of “art in the service of revolution.” It was this inner divergence that planted seeds for the ideological tension between Western leftist aesthetics and Chinese leftist politics. In my dissertation, this tension is embodied in the striking contrast between the critical reception of Antonioni’s Chung Kuo and the favorable reception of Ivens’s How Yukong Moved the Mountains in China.



Marker, Chris, 1921-2012, Godard, Jean-Luc, 1930-, Antonioni, Michelangelo, Ivens, Joris, 1898-1989, Right and left (Political science), Communism—China, Cross-cultural studies, China—In motion pictures


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