Metamorpho-poetic Legending in 1950s Film: (1) Ashima


This gallery contains 15 photos.

Note to my small handful of readers as of Aug. 10, 2012: please accept my apologies for the non-linearity of this essay-in-progress and of course for the ridiculous number of typos. A lot of this narrative instability is caused by … Continue reading

Shaoxing Opera Goes to the Movies, 1948

Header Collage: (clockwise from upper left)

1. 1948 script book for “Sister Xianglin” film (Qimeng Studio), starring Yuan Xuefen
2. Illustration (frame take) from above movie
3. Film: Look at the Weather When the Rooster Crows (1948), starring Yuan Xuefen
4. Film “The Tragedy of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai” 1953, co-starring Yuan Xuefen

Going to tne movies ocrt 7 013

Below: Promotional Poster for “Look at the Weather…”, Qiming Studios 1948, starring Yuan Xuefen, 黄宗英 / 高博 / 罗兰 / 张伐

p2029561288 Look art sky when roostere cvros 2947


Street Angel (Malu Tianshi), 1937, I: Entrapment in the Neopolis of Back Alley Shanghai

Page 1

The iconic music+sound-film of Shanghai in the pre-War years is – I think all will agree – Mu Yuanzhi’s Street Angel (malutianshi), Mingxing Studios, 1937, semi-sound. Studies of pre-1949 Chinese film rarely appear with full filmscript and dialogue/lyrics in translation, but this one does. (By Andrew F. Jones, 2000, available at OSU’s MCLC Resource center ( That is no coincidence: It is that widely studied, and deservedly for the director’s skill in montaging or otherwise signalling double meanings is sans pareil.

Its subject or rather topos? The film’s opening titles – highlighted by a very slow pan down the side of a luxury art-deco highrise (for rich foreigners) and then a splendid montage of bar/hotel/dancehall neon lights (for dandified Chinese, taxi-dancers and whores)- prefigure what we shall see: a grim story of life in the Lower(st) Depths of the Shanghai Neopolis, what life is “like” for an admixture of street “professionals” chained to the entertainment + “leisure” industries (“food and fun”), and that is what we are shown. For-hire “Western-style” bugler, newspaper vendor, barber, saloon songstress, fruitseller, unemployed semi-mute, and prostitute. All under the hoof of downmarket victimizers: landlords/ladies, tavernkeepers, showbosses, brothel madams, and of course petty gangsters dealing in human souls and opium etc.

The Story.
This is how the Baike “encyclopedia” – probably the best source for Chinese film summaries – abbreviates the tale. (

“The story takes place in Shanghai in 1935.

(The [male lead etc characters are:
Chen (little Chen) a player (bugler) in a “fife and drum” (chuigu) corps
Wang (“old Wang”) a newspaper vendor
A (nameless) barber
A (stutterer who is) unemployed
A (fruit) hawker

It is the end of yet another day of scrambling for a livelihood along the paradeway/boulevard (malu) for these 5 gallant street-brothers who (are engaged to) “share in both hardship and blessing”, and they have returned to their cramped second-story digs in the Taiping (“Peaceful”) Quarter.

Selling Songs for Supper: The Cry of the Clapper or Abing in the Marketplace

Here I shall begin from the end and with a notated subject that i fear most of you will not read/hear/ even intuit from the script alone. There is a point to this, though. What we see (leave it at that) is a persistent but impossible to translate sequence module characteristic of most – just about all – stage or open-air “aria” song, usually as sung by fem-gendered voices, called (a confusing translation!) “tune-counter”, counter in the sense of marker or chip, or even a card, 牌 pai. A kind of label with internal hint (key, rhythm, BUT NOT MELODY) of the opening line of the song to come. For reasons no one has tried to explain, this mini-overture (never sung, always left to voice-mimetic instruments, mainly the 2-string “fiddle” or erhu) is almost always inserted as the “counter for xxyy” before XXYY is heard.

What is it, and what is its function?

Author’s Transcription of “Wuxi Lakeside Miniature” (xiaoxiao Wuxi jing) as recorded in film erquan yingyue (1979): “tune-counter” in msrs 1-6, much abbreviated.


To my excitement I learned yesterday that the new in-plan subject for the annual Sinomusicological “summit”, hosted by CHIME, will be “Sound, Noise and … Everyday Soundscapes in contemporary China” ( Aarhus University, Denmark / CHIME, 21-24 August, 2014).

According to the initial announcement, 4 of the (over many) possible topics include:

Sound and Music
Defining Urban Soundscapes
Defining Rural Soundscapes
Sound and the Everyday

At the most obvious level, I suspect what accounts for the qupai pre-announcement is (just as with the overture) the need to get audience attention, a kind of throat-clearing without overdoing it. It seems likely to me to be a technique that street-“musicians” of all stripes – before/without the tool of amperage-boosting megaphones – adopted to fashion any sort of recycling, messaged song (from hawker’s cry to what I shall call “begging-bowl opera/beggar’s ballad) to reach out to a consuming/buying open-air crowd. Which in turn makes it part of as well as a response to the noise (acoustical chaos) that always surrounds outdoor anything, most of all the public concert.


Enter the Bandits of the Hills: Mao in Jiangxi, 1927-34

One of the several border zones between “fact” and “memory” in Mo Yan is one that preoccupies orthodox (Maoist and after) historians to this day, and always has. What is the social “filling” from which the “bandit” is fashioned? Is there an intrinsic “class content” or empathy that guides his (and her’s) choice to join with or fight against the (orthodox meaning Part-organized) Partisans spun off from the 8th Route Army? Meaning: is there a staying power that can survive victory and keep the well-choosing “bandit” on the side of the Revolution? Or is it (his “innards”) mainly or only a matter of turf and honor, that quintessential feature of hill-mafia chiefs’ concerns?

In Mo Yan’s E. Shandong and perhaps more widely in the Henan-Hebei-Shandong conflict zone that was home to the Boxers then Red Spears, the local lore at least favors a portrait of the bandit as heroic and turf-protective individual (or heroically traitorous..). To somewhat oversimplify, the “greenwoods” chief (best personified in Mo Yan’s Yu Zhan’ao and Sima Ku) acts as an extension of privileged village society (the lineage and charitable estate such as the Sima clan and Felicity Manor in BBWH; or the 18-li Distillery and its Shan lineage-recruited worforce in RSF) in that he shares the village properties class’s view that protection and security and the priorities. For which of course martial arts prowess and a violent temper (charismatic overawing) are the most obvious assets. Typically, qua bandit, this kind of “hero” has a history of violent crime that has taken him away on and off away from “home” (where his kin reside). He is a kind of Houdini, knowing how to “hang out” and make jianghu (casual, drifter-world) connections well away from his birthplace village, then suddenly reappear on the news of crisis. In the latter scenario, he is logically the one to “train” the raw “yeoman” in the art of low-tech self-defense – a stunning portrayal of which is provided of course in Kurosawa’s 7 Samurai. Here he exoterric tie-ups help; often surfacing in the armature of banghui or “secret brotherhood”. But – and this is crucial – he neither can nor wants to enter a broader and impersonal organization. Which of course predicts an unhappy end: as we hear… “Heroes do not die in their beds”…

(for more on this see Re-enacting Revolution in Hakka-land (Jinggangshan, June 1 2013))

The film Dalu (Great Road, Trunk Road, 1934) in Neo-Magical Decode

Man vs Machine: Real vs Magic Roadbuilding

coolies 1kemna 3(continued from previous post, May 14 2013)

1. Wartime Machines and Wartime Marooning

The Film Dalu 大路 (Lianhua Studios, Shanghai, 1934, Dir. Sun Yu (1900-1980)) is incontrovertibly a B class film, using Hollywood borrowed sub-plots and role-playing to spin a yarn of Resist Japan, much earlier than the Resist Japan art film hit its stride (if it ever did).

But as if by accident it tells its tale in a distinctly Magic(al) Realist mode, this well before that genre was in play globally. It is “about” the isolation (sometimes poetic or freedom-tolerant, at other times demeaning or dangerous, an unwanted condition) of backwater China, a country of meager roads and dependence on river transport, though we do not get to see see to much it in “magical” construct, except where it links to freelarking and custom-defiant cavorting by the “Leonora” -Mo Li – the “plus” side of isolation, for a puckish figure of the sort she plays could scarcely be imagined or scripted in an urban setting.

To start: where are we? Again in Magical Realist mode, in a static nowhere land: perhaps in the Huai basin (Anhui)- [in the heartbreaking “documentaries” of flood victims, shown as Li Lili sings of Fengyang, in the Huai catchment, where Good Earth is also set]; perhaps along the Zhejiang/Anhui border where the Huling Pass (terminus of the road) is actually located; but certainly divorced from the metrocenter of Shanghai. The DEPARTURE from which is the story told in part 5 (20:00 ff) of the film, and even set to its own diegetic harmonica music. (An instrumental pre-quote of the song “Songstress under the Boot” 铁蹄下的歌女, “themesong” of 风云儿女 (1935), also composed by Nie Er, an “aria” of/for an extra-urban wandering female musician).

“Heroes of the Marshes” (caomang yingxiong) and – or “Life on the Run” (jianghu liumang)in Moyan-land

In post-1930s Sino-cinematia, the bandit-hoodlum of chuanqi folk literature changes faces and becomes a martial arts expert – better, virtuoso. Without whose presence and performance skills the kungfu film would never have gained its current massive following. Or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger filmed. Or Bruce Lee a first “Chinese” then global sensation.

Of course there never was such a thing as a stock-character tough or hoodlum: the category includes grades of evil running (on the sadistic end) from jailers and torturers wearing heavy silver-studded belts and no shirts, to, on the more sympathetic side, the self-employed freebooter, who tends to make his living by kidnapping and ransom – ideally a bloodless crime victimizing the rich (thus in a sense a punishment for slack patriarchies).

Even more positive is the culture of the wuxia “knight-errant”, whose star seems if anything to be rising as a idealized alternative to the totally amoral world of wealth and power in the new “open” China, where (even if corrupted) class justice had originally offered a degree of resistance to sheer brutality, a culture of greed unstemmed.

But these “takes” are or have been based on abstract, film-enacted roles, and take up tales from wuxia fiction which are ultimately (by intent) surreal or magical.

One of the more remarkable features of Mo Yan’s fictional chronicles is that this modal personality is historically real, not simply the stuff of storytellers: he moves front stage and is anchored within the bounds of a rural underclass occasionally even rising to community organizer in chief This at the same time that the best known of these heroic predators (so-called) were it seems ALWAYS on the run or in hiding, even or especially when they drifted back to the villages that had spawned them. Though that is not as much a contradiction as it might seem: for though brother of the (same) soil could rise further in their native places (where they were best known and respected) than elsewhere, the connectedness of being (back) among neighbors and kin also made them that much more vulnerable to betrayal for cash, or by members of rival gangs or even patrilineages. Mo Yan’s lengthy NE Gaomi chronicles (RSF and BBWH) richly characterize 2 such “star” wanderers-cum-local-heroes: Yu Zhanao (b. ca 1900, place unknown) and Sima Ku (b. ca 1910, Dalan) with seeming admiration for their ability to disappear for very lengthy periods of time (Yu is supposed to have retreated into a family cellar on the eve of the Rev and not re-emerged until 1957).

Mo Yan’s Folkhistorical Chronicle of NE Gaomi (1) : The (Real-life) Bandit-heroes of Red Sorghum Family

rEsd sorgh collage apr 9 2013

Header Illustrations: (upper right clockwise)
1. 江湖郎中的“祖传神方江湖郎中的“祖传神方
“mountebank” in marketplace, often a guerrilla spy (ditto for street martial arts entertainers and wedding/funeral “escorts”, monks and litter-bearers)
2. Chinese (Daoist) God of Intoxication, Dukang (+/- Bacchus). Sometimes claimed as the inventor of “alcohol”
3. Japanese truck-bearing bridge over 蛟龙河 Flood Dragon River: aka Sunjiakou Crossing 14-arch Bridge/Qingshakou (roadway)
built 1937-8
4. Japanese truck-bearing bridge over 蛟龙河 Flood Dragon River: aka Sunjiakou 14-arch Bridge, side view
5. Dukang (“wine god”, vendor’s advertisement)


Folk-history as Dream and Nightmare: Origin of the Red Sorghum Quintet

Mo Yan’s Nobel-crowned success – or impress – as a writer of metafiction (abstract or symbolic philosophical discourse embedded in subjective fictional narrative – my own term) – has moved critical interest away from his first success d’estime, Red Sorghum Family (Taiwan ed. 1988). A work which is unmistakably historically sequenced narrative, as is also its companion novel, Big Breasts and Wide Hips. (1996). Though the recurrent return to “NE Gaomi” (i.e. Dalan township) – reminiscent of Faulkneresque Yoknapatawpha County- creates and expands a fictional space about which more and more detail accumulates, the sense of intermittent superhumanity and magic embedded in the “NE Gaomi” chronicles drops away with the (clearly defined) mid-life coming-into- adulthood of the subject-narrator, Sima Jintong (GB 459, age “42” upon return to 76-8 Dalan), a place literally ploughed over for the construction of a hideous “new town” of ferroconcrete by typical “Deng” era predator capitalists. Though surreality and grotesqueness – what I shall call “graffiti” realism – persist across the divide (time-in-motion vs time-as-present), and the stageset remains Dalan (fictionalized “Northeast Gaomi County”), a major change in shape nevertheless occurs. Bloodline history simply ceases: the events first capturing attention, starting more or less in 1938 when the tides of guerrilla war first (literally) overflow the terrain, come to an abrupt halt with the 1993 (un-calendered) death of the writer/narrator’s mother, the super-stalwart Shangguan Lu, the novel’s unmistakable (and Christianity-converted) hero. We are at the very end left with a stage populated by two extra-maritally conceived stepbrothers, both fathered by a “Swedish” missionary-priest (Mallory). Leaving the door open to Deng Xiaoping-era capitalists to run wild and eradicate all still extant markers of the town itself.

Mo Yan’s “Big Breasts”: End of the NE Gaomi Folk-history Chronicles and of Patriline Magic

Header Illustration: 晋察冀边区爆炸大王、民兵英雄李勇。影片“地雷战”中的原型人物
Sketch of Li Yong, Partisan Heroine of the Jinchaji (Henan-Chahar-Hebei) Soviet, model for lead character in “Land Mine Warfare” (1962: Bayi studio, dir 唐英奇、徐达、吴健海)

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Above, Figs 1a-b
Mo ^Yan, Red Sorghum Family (1984), 狗皮 (tr, Goldblatt) Chapt 4, Strange Death, p. 334. (edited to end p 16 filmclip)

bc305bbef94411e615c241 BrHipcover w priitiv

Above, Fig. 2
(above) Cover Illustration for (1993) “Big Breasts and Wide Hips”

The Legend of Ashima and its Cinematic Translation

Can Legend-as-Genre be Saved, and can Film Help?

Legend (as a oral-narrative story “about” greater-than-life humans) and its cousin, myth (which makes divinities the center of the tale), are two interrelated genres which share a common attribute, or rather problem. In aftermath of declericization and rationalism’s indictment of superstition, and call for the substitution of so-called realism, their episteme and hence their appeal to a “secular” public has shrunk away, to the point where even the articulating of religio-instructive episodes has had to solicit revivalist frenzy in support of obedience. A retreat perhaps to the shamanic kernel of all legends, but nonetheless a setback in terms of stature in the world of art(s).

For public (“mass-consumed”) secular storying, especially in cinema, this demotion of the miraculous and of immortal heroism has consigned the telling and showing very largely into a form of special effects. To see Sindbad or Jason or even Ulysses and Luke Skywalker in action, you must be able to tolerate techno-legerdemain – an extension of Disneyan cartoon-film into stop-action and CGI – or actually be impressed by it in isolo -so much so that the true enthrallment, the rhapsodic state within which symbolic meanings can speak, is discarded, unattainable. (viz the Thirteenth Man, Fast Runner, and many more). The burden has thus fallen to opera (as earlier to oratorio) to thus entrance and speak, using music as the subaltern hypnotic tool.

But of course opera is an elite, small-audience mode of entertainment, even with the Toll Brothers’s clever Closed Circuit simulcasting of recent years.

But though art cinema of course has the potential to widen this appeal: and indeed runs a close second to opera seria in its concern to show/tell myth/legend in one form or another, it has tended to cling to historical melodrama – a bastard hybrid of supposed realism with inflation of putative greatness of character: it is not “sung” or otherwise enthralling- but comes close usually to hagiography, which is NOT what we are considering. Founder-hero stories or films about Jesus are subject to the test of credibility no matter their grand stature within the surrounding culture. Legends, in my sense, are not and cannot be.

And of course such tributes to Great Men demand in the telling that place, time, and even outcome be known or signalled. This is not the diction of legending, which of course demands a “once upon a time” “in a far off land unnamed” bookending, and refuses to be harnessed to any kind of posterior legitimizing.