Revolutionary Becomings: Documentary Media in Twentieth Century China

Event time: 
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 - 4:00pm to 5:30pm
Henry R. Luce Hall (LUCE ), 203 See map
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 

From the toppling of the Qing Empire in 1911 to the political campaigns and mass protests in the Mao and post-Mao eras, revolutionary upheavals characterized China’s twentieth century. In this talk, Ying Qian draws from her forthcoming book to discuss documentary as deeply embedded in these upheavals and as a prism to investigate the entwined histories of media and China’s revolutionary movements.

Situating cinema’s invention in 1895 in the East Asian context of colonial warfare and revolutionary agitation, this talk discusses documentary’s emergence in transnational revolutionary activism in China, Japan and Southeast Asia at the turn of the 20th century, and traces its development in the political contestations of the 1920s and 1930s, and wartime propaganda of the 1930s and 1940s. It further examines documentary’s position as the “vanguard cinema” in the Chinese communist revolution, analyzing its multifarious productivity from inculcating industrial time and spreading vernacular technologies during the Great Leap Forward, to manufacturing “class struggles” in the years leading to Cultural Revolution, and to rehabilitation efforts in the immediate years after the Cultural Revolution.

With this long narrative arch supported by meticulous historical research, this talk explores documentary as “eventful media” around which the dialectical relationship between media practice, political relationality and revolutionary epistemology can be examined. What kinds of relationships come into being around and across the camera? Whose visions, scripts and directions are followed, and what are inclusions and exclusions involved? How does documentary – and other media – contribute to knowledge formation attuned to the emergent and nameless when categories of meaning and fields of action go through upheaval, and how can media help with - or fail at - navigating risks and failure inherent to revolutions as radical experiments? Intervening into key issues in documentary studies from documentary dramaturgy to propaganda, Qian moves beyond documentary to ask broader questions on how media and revolutions mutually constitute each other: how revolutionary movements give rise to specific media practices, and how these media practices in turn contribute to the specific paths of revolution’s actualization: its energies, entropies, crises and reckonings.

Ying Qian is associate professor in Chinese Cinema and Media at the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. Her first book, Revolutionary Becomings: Documentary Cinema in 20th Century China (Columbia University Press, forthcoming in February 2024) studies the making of documentary cinema – broadly defined to include newsreels, educational, industrial and scientific films – in 20th century China, treating it as a prism to examine the entwined histories of media and revolutionary movements. She’s now working on a new monograph on media and the ecologies of knowledge in China’s reform and opening. Ying’s articles have appeared in Critical Inquiry, New Left Review, China Perspectives, New Literary History of Modern China, Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinemas, and other journals, volumes and websites. She’s recently co-edited (with anthropologist Nicholas Bartlett) a journal special issue, “Neng and China’s Long 1980s: A Re-evaluation.” Currently under review, this interdisciplinary special issue reconsiders China’s decade of reform and opening in terms of resource (nengyuan), energy (nengliang) and capacity (nengli). At Columbia, Ying teaches classes in Chinese media cultures, documentary media, East Asian Cinema, and comparative media theory and history. Drawing from her experiences in filmmaking, she has incorporated creative assignments in her classes, guiding students to try their hands on film and video production.

Ying Qian - Associate Professor in Chinese Cinema and Media, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University