Chinese Culture on the Global Stage: Zhang Yimou and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
The ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts
In his early career, Zhang Yimou's films-Red Sorghum 《红高粱》(1987), Judou 《菊豆》(1990), and Raise High the Red Lantern 《大红灯笼高高挂》(1991) -positioned him as an influential interlocutor, launching Chinese cinema onto the global screen and capturing the attention of a world audience, especially those watching from the West. Yet it did not take long for Zhang to become suspicious about the value of identifying and displaying Chinese aesthetic, ideological, philosophical, and thematic elements in his
... lements in his films, and to question his previous strategy's efficacy in gaining space for Chinese culture on the global stage. Soon he moved away from his early assumptions and their colorful expressions of a troubled (and thus potentially modern) Chinese heritage, instead incorporating the question of cultural representation and its relationship to political power directly into the substance of his films. Thus moving from adherent to skeptic, Zhang fashioned his later projects as theoretical inquiries regarding the demand-built into the nation-state political structure-that native culture in the broad sense be identified and "performed" (Penrose 1995). Zhang's later films suggest that relationships which determine who performs for whom, and the realities of who influences versus who is influenced, establish a hidden hierarchy. Despite ongoing globalization, Zhang implies, this pecking order is nationally based and ultimately allows the cultures and languages of politically stronger nations to flourish. Thus, although hope for recognition as equals among the world's great cultures sustains a tremendous investment of funds and energy in China, parity seems impossible to reach, even with modifications designed to make China's cultural products more approachable to foreigners. Also, when performed on the global stage, national, regional, or local culture is inevitably mediated and reworked, and therefore sacrifices immediacy, directness, and authenticity, losing reality for Abstract: As opposed to Zhang Yimou's 张艺谋 much-criticized film Hero《英 雄》(2002), which addresses the relationship between culture and political power, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles《千里走单骑》 (2005) asks the question of whether, under the conditions of globalization, any performance between cultures can contain truth value, be authentic, or represent something real. Although a key scene acted by Japanese star Ken Takakura effectively expresses his true despair and thus seems to indicate a positive response, Zhang Yimou persistently inserts into the film queries about the validity of performance across cultural and linguistic borders, and the complex trail of conflicting desires that motivate it. Riding Alone is one example of Zhang's complex filmic investigation into the relationship between culture and political power under the developing conditions of a border-crossing global world.