China Redux: The Central Frontiers of the Modern Nation in Chinese Cinema

China Redux: The Central Frontiers of the Modern Nation in Chinese Cinema
Jiyu Zhang


Toward a nuanced understanding of Chinese cinema, this project explores how cinema—a modern invention imported from the West—has shaped China’s sociopolitical transition from a dynastic empire to a nation-state. It is argued that, the concurrence of motion picture’s arrival and nation-state’s advent in China at the turn of the twentieth century, is not to be considered as unrelated threads, but rather as a dialectical dynamism in which the imagined community of modern China has largely relied on cinema for its symbolic construction, and yet encountered constant resistance from cinematic representation.

The cinematic configuration of the Chinese nation-state, in particular after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, has rested upon a multifocal and intersectional vision of society, featuring characters such as children, women, ethnic minorities, and diaspora. Although portrayals of these groups have been integral to the symbolic construction of the Chinese nation-state on screen, in reality they have been relegated to the margins of China’s culture, society, and territory. This study, so to speak, begins from the recognition of this paradox, in which this range of demographics is marginal in reality but central in imaginary. As such, it sets out to explore the contingencies and contradictions of the collective formation of modern China by delving into the ambiguous relationship between the national and the cinematic. This fraught relationship has been mediated through a series of politically charged social figures, which span a wide range of locations, periods, and dialects in the Sinophone world.

On the one hand, Chinese cinema provides a vantage point from which we can observe how China has ventured into modernity by way of continual negotiations among cultures, languages, and ideologies, drawn from both China and the West. On the other hand, cinema functions as a contested site of discursive formulation. In cinema, schisms between tradition and modernity, the vernacular and the foreign, the political and the personal are articulated formally—in images, sounds, and narratives. If cinematic images, sounds, and narratives encapsulate the ways in which China has reimagined itself, then, I argue, Chinese cinema can be understood as a vibrant field of signifying practices. Together, these practices have redefined the meaning of China under the auspices of modern technology and institutions. In this sense, the emergence of Chinese cinema not only coincides with the birth of the Chinese nation, but also contributes to how China is conceptualized today.

While situating filmic texts in the context of cross-cultural dialogues between China and the West, this study takes issue with cinematic embodiment against the backdrop of China’s nation-building and modernization project. For this purpose, my textual and contextual analyses of selected films foreground a distinct synergy between different forms of cinematic semiosis. Through this synergy, a unified national image emerges from multiple loci of representation. Often dismissed as a complicity between motion picture and the nation, I contend, such symbolization on an extensive scale is much less a coercive measure of state ideology apparatus to interpellate individuals into a political consciousness or a national identity, than an engaged arena where the collective and the individual confront one another. Focusing on this perennial tension between ideological indoctrination and individual expression, my approach endeavors to demonstrate how Chinese cinema has disseminated and propagated the idea of nation, an idea that brackets discrete groups of people while crisscrossing geographical, cultural, and lingual boundaries.

Although Chinese cinema has emerged in resonance with the Chinese nation on various occasions—especially during the socialist era—it is by no means consistent with the authorities’ ideological agenda. In fact, on numerous occasions Chinese cinema has directly opposed the governing view of the imagined community, primarily by asserting ordinary people’s quotidian experiences. This project, then, intends to unveil Chinese cinema’s resilience and resistance in the face of nationalist sentiments. Each of them revolving around a central theme in the symbolic construction of a homogeneous modern nation-state, the constitutive chapters are meant to pry open the veneer of uniformity and lay bare diverse voices and perspectives emerged in Chinese cinema. More importantly, by exposing subversive tendencies emanated from these integral parts, those private moments and intimate encounters will show how the very process of cinematic signification in the name of the nation can be turned against itself. This study aims to pinpoint the intrinsic, structural fragility of the Chinese nation through the lens of cinema.

Last but not least, my interpretations of Chinese films also involve reflections on the discipline of Chinese cinema studies itself. Through these meditations, I undertake a broad consideration of how these films speak to ideological disparities among contemporary scholars aligned with different geopolitical entities and cultural values. For decades, the discipline has been plagued by ideological confusion and disputes, not least over the definition of Chinese cinema. Scholars remain divided on fundamental issues, such as where to draw the boundaries of Chinese cinema, what kind of film qualifies as a Chinese production, and ultimately what the word “Chinese” stands for. To be sure, the disarray of Chinese cinema studies is more than a competition among conceptual frameworks, but a consequence of realpolitik among Sinophone communities across the globe. It is the power dynamics between China as a centripetal heartland, and other places including Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet as centrifugal borderlands, that perpetuates and extends the dilemmas of the Chinese nation-state into the academic world.


Jiyu Zhang

Defended in


PhD defended at

Leiden University, Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society




East Asia
Hong Kong


National politics
Art and Culture