Understanding China and Mandarin with 7 Chinese film classics

It is said the best art comes from turmoil and hardship. This seems particularly true for Mainland Chinese cinema which for decades had gone practically unnoticed, but reemerged in the relatively liberal eighties and nineties, transforming long years of revolution, war and chaos into internationally acclaimed works of art.

If you’re only into the newest movies from China, you’d best stop reading here. This is a list of mostly older Mainland Chinese movies I’ve come to like and recommend to anyone interested in China.

Although the reality presented in these films may seem very different from the China we see today, these lived experiences continue to shape China. Since this blog is mainly about learning Mandarin I’ve added my estimation of the difficulty level for each film.

Included on my list:

  • Raise the Red Lantern – 大红灯笼高高挂 (1991)
  • To live – 活着 (1994)
  • Coming home – 归来 (2014)
  • Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)
  • The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)
  • Blind Shaft – (盲井) 2003
  • Hibiscus town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

Raise the Red Lantern – 大红灯笼高高挂 (1991)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

Concubines! Set in the 1920s, the film tells the story of a young woman (played by Gong Li) who is forced to become one of the concubines of a wealthy man during the Warlord Era. The four concubines “compete” with each other in order to be the master’s favorite taitai and gain the privileges that come with that status.

The movie can be read in many ways. In my eyes it’s mainly an condemnation of traditional patriarchal society and capitalism where women are sold as slaves. But Lantern can also be seen as a symbolic depiction of any power system or government that demands absolute of obedience of its subordinates by rewarding those who comply and punishing those who don’t. That’s how the system maintains itself and the master – whose face remains invisible – gets his way. Power and wealth will be shared only if you comply with its rules. North-Korea and other totalitarians regimes come to mind.

The film was directed by China’s most renowned filmmaker Zhang Yimou and has been banned for a certain period in China after it came out.

Hibiscus town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Hibiscus Town was directed by “third generation” Chinese filmmaker Xie Jin and probably the first film to look back upon the upheavals of the cultural revolution. Actually the story – which is set in a small Hunan village about sixty years ago – is still very relevant today as radical ideologies demanding absolute equality have all but disappeared.

Hibiscus Town tells the story about the kindhearted and pretty Hu Yuyin who successfully sells a local variety of bean curd made from rice. She works hard and together with her husband Guigui manages to save enough money to build an impressive new house. During the Four Cleanups Movement of 1964 however, they suddenly see themselves denounced as “new rich peasants” who have to undergo some kind of punishment for their “reactionary” thinking and behavior.

The film – typically classified as a “scar drama” – was well received in China when it came out, but internationally still is not that well-known.

To Live – 活着 (1994)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

“The little chickens will grow to be ducks, the ducks will become geese, and the geese will become oxen, and tomorrow will be better” – final line of Fugui.

I know of no other movie that gives a more lasting impression of China’s inner turmoil and life-changing revolutions in the past century than To Live. It’s yet another movie by Zhang Yimou. The storyline in one sentence: After Fugui and Jiazhen (played by Gong Li) lose their personal fortunes, they raise a family and survive difficult cultural changes during 1940s to 1970s China.

I was surprised to learn that the film was denied a theatrical release in mainland China by the authorities due to its “critical portrayal” of various policies and campaigns of the Communist government. Beautiful soundtrack by Zhao Jiping.

Coming home – 归来 (2014)

Full movie available here

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English / Chinese
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (clearly spoken Standard Chinese)

This is probably the most tragic film about the cultural revolution directed by Zhang Yimou (as if To Live wasn’t heart-wrenching enough). Coming Home is actually a love story, but not a happy one: Lu and Feng (played by Gong Li) are a devoted couple forced to separate when Lu is arrested and sent to a labor camp as a political prisoner during the cultural revolution. He finally returns home only to find that his beloved wife no longer recognizes him! Lu is determined not to give up and desperately tries to reawaken his wife’s memory.

Yellow Earth – 黄土地 (1984)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (Standard Chinese, songs can be difficult to understand, partly a “silent” movie)

This is a rather sombre and slow movie by Chen Kaige, another member of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. Yellow Earth focuses on the story of a communist soldier who is sent to the countryside to collect folk songs for the Communist Revolution. There he stays with a peasant family and learns that the happy songs he was sent to collect do not exist; the songs he finds are about hardship and suffering. He returns to the army, but promises to come back for the young girl, Cuiqiao, who has been spell-bound by his talk of the freedom women have under communist rule and who wants to join the Communist Army. The story relies on images more than on words.

The Story of Qiu Ju – 秋菊打官司 (1992)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
  • Subtitles: Chinese only
  • Difficulty: Advanced (partly non-standard Chinese)

Another one by Zhang Yimou starring his favorite actress Gong Li. The film tells the story about a desperate quest for justice. A peasant woman, Qiu Ju, who lives in a rural area of China. When her husband is kicked in the groin by the village head, Qiu Ju, despite her pregnancy, travels to a nearby town, and later a big city to deal with its bureaucrats and find justice. One thing that makes The Story of Qiu Ju stand out is the fact that many of the street scenes were filmed with a hidden camera which gives an authentic picture of daily life during the Deng Xiaoping era – a whole different approach compared to Zhang’s To Live and Raise the Red Lantern.

Blind Shaft – (盲井) 2003

Rating: 8 out of 10.

This rather bleak but internationally well received movie was directed by Li Yang who has been “controversial” in China for addressing China’s social problems in his highly realistic films.

Two Chinese coal miners have hit upon the perfect scam: murder one of their fellow mine workers, make the death look like an accident, and extort money from the boss to keep the incident hushed up. For their latest “mark,” they choose a naive teenager from a small village, and as they prepare to carry out their newest plan, things start to get complicated. The story literally takes place in the underworld where people do the most ruthless and evil things for money.

Maybe not very surprisingly since it highlights a dark side of Chinese society, Blind Shaft has not been approved for release in China.

This is merely short list of Mainland Chinese movies I’ve been wanting to share on my blog for some time. If you have any suggestions for Mainland Chinese films you missed in this list please let me know : )

For more Mainland Chinese films from the 80’s visit this page.

Still unbeaten: Journey to the West (1986, TV series)

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Journey to the West is one of the four great novels of Chinese literature. Over the years, countless TV-adaptations have been produced. Everything from decent to mediocre to barely watchable.

One of the oldest, the 1986 version, was so strong and convincing that it achieved classical status. It seems almost all mainland Chinese people grew up watching this CCTV-production of Journey to the West and it still can be seen on Chinese television today. (It’s one of those series Chinese national television just keeps repeating.)

From today’s perspective, the special effects are obsolete and bizarre. And the story evolves much slower and more long-winded than Netflix addicts are used to nowadays. The striking thing though: China and its film industry have developed so much since then, but they never quite managed to top the 1986-series! In terms of story line, costumes, portrayal of characters, it still is considered the most original and authentic rendition of the story. As a matter of fact, some of the newer adaptations are hardly more than imitations that fail to bring convincing interpretations to the plot and characters.

Key to understanding China

Most people who are serious about learning Chinese, watch or read Journey to the West at some point. There is just no way around it. The legendary journey of the Buddhist monk and his apprentices somehow is fundamental to Chinese culture. The adventures of the Monkey King have left their traces in the Chinese language. Journey to the West is a key to understanding China, although it leaves you with many new questions. About Chinese mythology and religions for example.

Still the best: 1986 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 1986
  • Year: 1986
  • Duration: 25 episodes X 45 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese and English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

The complete 1986-adaptation you can find on YouTube with English subtitles.

Reading Journey to the West

I wrote about Pleco’s e-book Journey to the West a while back. The online dictionary offers its own graded reader series for the Chinese Classics, suitable for non-native speakers. Pleco’s Journey to the West is an abridged version for intermediate learners which stays true to the original as far as I can tell. Watching the series and reading the story with its additional notes on places, monsters and demons together can be very helpful. If you have the time, that is! The story is meant for HSK 4 or 5 learners.

Other adaptations

Countless other adaptations have been made. I can’t guarantee this list is complete. It doesn’t include cartoons for example. Unfortunately, most of them lack quality. I found only one exception.

1996 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 1996
Disappointing

1999 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 1999
This is the second season of 86′ version.

2000 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2000
Disappointing

2010 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2010
Disappointing

2016 (Movie)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2016
Watchable. Famous actress Li Gong plays the “white bone demon”. The actor who plays Sun WuKong does a good job as well.

2018 (Movie)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2018
High budget, heavy on special effects, but not convincing.

2019 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2019
This seems to be a remake of the 1986 CCTV-adaptation.

Recommended: 1986 (TV series) on YouTube

This is the CCTV-version from 1986 with English subtitles.

Did I miss one of your favorite adaptations of Journey to the West or am I being too harsh? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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