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National
identity can be defined as one’s identity or sense of belonging to one state or
to one nation in particular.1   The Oxford English Dictionary defines
National Identity as the sense of a nation as a unified whole, as represented
by distinguishing traditions, culture, language and politics. National Identity
may refer to the subjective feeling one shares with a group of people about a
nation, regardless of one’s legal citizenship status.2  National Identity is viewed in psychological
terms as “an awareness of difference”, a “feeling and
recognition of ‘we’ and ‘they’.”3  National Identity is therefore those distinct
features that mark out an individual a nationality. In this essay, I will
critically discuss how National Identity is represented in Jai Zhang-ke’s Xiao Wu (1997). This is a Chinese film therefore
I will be discussing how Chinese National Identity is represented in this film.

 

The
film was released and set in 1997 China at the point where the Chinese leader
Deng Xiaoping had recently handed the reins of government to the third
generation of leadership led by Jiang Zemin. During the mid-1990s, China had begun
to experience exponential economic growth despite foreign trade embargoes.
Jiang Zemin’s macroeconomic reforms fostered Deng’s vision for “Socialism
with Chinese Characteristics.” However, at the same time of this economic
growth, Jiang’s period saw an equivalent rise in social corruption in all spheres
of life. Unemployment was at its peak as unprofitable state-owned businesses
were shut down to make way for more competitive enterprises. The poorly managed
social welfare system was put on a serious test. Lots of other events were
occurring in China at this stage including scientific and technological
advancements such as space travel. Massive infrastructural construction work
was going on. This included the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and
environmental pollution was for the first time becoming a serious issue in
Beijing. In 1997 Hong Kong, which had been a colony of the United Kingdom for
over a century and a half was returned to China with attendant fanfare. This
was the setting for Jai Zhang-ke’s Xiao
Wu (1997) which is the subject of this Essay.4  

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Jai
Zhang-ke’s film is based in Fen yang, a small provincial town said to be in the
backwaters of Shanxi province. Jai Zhang-ke grew up in this small town.  The lead character in the film Xiao Wu is a
member of a gang of pickpockets in the area. 
As the film progresses he appears to become one of the older and more
mature members of the gang as many of his colleagues move on to other things.
One of his former pickpocket friends, Jin is getting married and chooses not to
invite Xiao Wu to his wedding as he does not want to be associated with his
former co-criminal friend. Xiao Wu floats around, unhappy about this betrayal,
but makes no effort to change his ways as he still continues to go about with
his pickpocketing lifestyle. He finds himself a girlfriend, a prostitute called
Meimei who appears to be very interested in him but however drops him when she
finds someone better. Xiao Wu then visits his poor family but ends up getting
into an argument with his parents over their use of his ring which he had
previously bought for Meimei as a gift to his brother’s fiancé. He gets kicked
out of the family house and he threatens to never come back. At the end of the
film he is arrested and the last we see of him is when he is handcuffed to the
lamp post in the middle of the street with a condemning crowd observing him
judgementally. At the beginning of the film, we have seen that there is an
immense clampdown on crime in the area. It, therefore, follows that Xiao wu has
a tough time ahead of him.  

 

In the
first scene of the film, we see random bystanders waiting for a bus in what
seems like a documentary style of shooting. These characters represent the
average citizens of China going along with their everyday lives. We then get
the same shot, but however, this time it is of Xiao Wu standing at a bus stop
waiting for a bus. We notice a factory which is in the background of the shot.
During the 1990s the Chinese economy was expanding rapidly as a result of mass
privatisations and capitalism and the opening of the country to foreign
investments for the first time in modern times. Companies from other countries
were rushing to build factories in China to take advantage of low labour and
other production costs. As stated earlier at this time capitalism was being
introduced to China after a long era of communism. In 1997, a lot of the
Chinese population were low paid workers which informed their relative poverty.
The film properly depicts the National
Identity of China at this stage of the 1990s as shown by the poor lifestyle of
the people in the midst of invigorated economic activity.

 

When
Xiao Wu gets on the bus he refuses to pay the bus fare. He lies by insisting
that he is a Policeman. At this point in China’s history being a Policeman
carried a strong sense of authority and indeed invoked fear. We can see that
though the Bus Conductor did not entirely believe Xiao Wu’s story about being a
Policeman he would not take the chance of incurring the Policeman’s wrath if
indeed Xiao Wu turned out to really be a Policeman. He, therefore, walks away
and Xiao Wu gets away with not paying the fare. It is evident therefore that in
the 1990s there would have been dire consequences following from offending a Police
Officer. The Chinese society is structured on ‘Confucianism’. Confucianism is
based on the teachings of the Chinese scholar Confucius who lived from 551BC –
479BC. ‘Confucius developed a system of inter-reliant relationships— a
structure in which the lower level gives obedience to the higher (extending
from the family level to the national). As a result, Chinese culture tends to
give a considerable amount of reverence for authority and age (though not
necessarily sincere, especially in a changing modern China).’5  A very important element of Chinese National
Identity is shown here as exemplified by the fear and awe of authority which
had its roots in Confucianism.

 

In the
bus, as Xiao Wu attempts to pickpocket the man that is sitting beside him, the
camera switches to a little picture of Mao Zedong which is hanging from the
rear-view mirror in front of the bus. This brings us to the fact that China in
1997 was yet adjusting to its new capitalist nature after the end of the Mao
era. Mao Zedong in his many years of rule over

China
had achieved a god-like stature in the eyes of the Chinese people. He was the
supreme leader. Seeing therefore Xiao Wu in this scene stealing in the presence
of Mao Zedong appears to be mocking the presence of chairman Mao especially at
this time were the era of his rule had come to an end. This is not the only
time in which Mao’s politics is mocked in the film. When Xiao Wu goes to visit
his friend in his shop, his friend’s daughter is seen playing with a mango.
This can be seen as the representation of ‘The Mango Fever’ –  On the 4th of August 1968, Mao had been
gifted with some mangoes by the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Syed Sharifuddin
Pirzada in what was supposed to be a diplomatic gesture of friendship.6  Chairman Mao described the mangoes as a
“spiritual time bomb”.7
Not too long after, Mao had had his assistant distribute them to the Mao Zedong
Propaganda Teams throughout Beijing, beginning with the one started at Tsinghua
University and thereafter an article was published in the People’s Daily. I
Quote:

“In
the afternoon of the fifth, when the great happy news of Chairman Mao giving
mangoes to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team
reached the Tsinghua University campus, people immediately gathered around the
gift given by the Great Leader Chairman Mao. They cried out enthusiastically
and sang with wild abandonment. Tears welled up in their eyes, and they again
and again sincerely wished that our most beloved Great Leader lived then
thousand years without bounds … They all made phone calls to their own work
units to spread this happy news; and they also organised all kinds of
celebratory activities all night long, and arrived at the national leadership
compound Zhongnanhai despite the rain to report the good news, and to express
their loyalty to the Great Leader Chairman Mao.”8 

This article shows how the mango became a
symbolic fruit in China and the fact that a mango has been tactfully placed in
the film also represents how politics in China has been represented in this
film. Outside of the two scenes mentioned above depicting the Mao era we also
see that throughout the film many people are dressed in Mao jackets. This also
further exemplifies the National Identity of China in the 1990s.

 

When
Xiao Wu visits his friend, they have a discussion about the construction that
is going on all around the town and how the building in which his friends’ shop
is located is going to be torn down. This shows the economic transformation
that was occurring in China at that time and its effect on the Chinese
landscape as well as the ongoing industrialisation in the various provinces of
China. Most of the redevelopments that were going on in various scenes in the
film were as a result of the United Kingdom’s return of Hong Kong to China in
1997. At midnight on June 30 to July 1 in 1997 which is the year in which this
film was released, the crown colony of Hong Kong was officially returned to
China bringing an end to 156 years of British occupation and rule. After an
official handover ceremony on the 1st of July, the colony became the Hong Kong
special administrative region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China.9  The information of the return of China was
announced over the towns loudspeakers for the town to hear. Xiao wu hears of
this when he goes to visit his parents. National
identity is once again shown through the events of the transfer of Hong Kong
from the United Kingdom to China.

 

When looking at how the film represents
National Identity in terms of customs and traditions, Xiao Wu’s friend’s
wedding is a very good example. This is because it shows us
how weddings are traditionally done in China. In preparation for a Chinese
wedding the groom is responsible for all the costs of the wedding and this is
what we witness when Xiao Wu goes to visit his friend to inquire about why he
had not received a wedding invitation. In this scene, we see the staff
preparing various Chinese traditional dishes required for the wedding ceremony
and all the different drinks and refreshments that will be served to the
wedding guests the following day. It is important that we observe that the
bride is not present and that the groom is overseeing all the work put into the
preparations for the wedding. This film
represents the vast explorations of various genres of Chinese traditional music
which is played throughout the film – A good example of National Identity.

 

The
film highlights the apparent poverty among the lower classes in China of the
1990s. When Xiao Wu accompanies Meimei to make a long-distance call to her
mother, it is revealed that Meimei was sent by her family to school in Beijing
but because of the pervasive poverty, she is unable to pay her fees and
therefore begins to work as a prostitute in a small Hostess Bar in Fen
yang.  From this illicit work, she is
able to scrape funds together to make a living for herself and to meet the most
important needs of her family. However, she lies to her mother saying she is at
school. Her drive to make money to feed her family could be the main reason why
she was quick to leave Xiao Wu when she meets a more affluent person. Meimei’s family is representative of the
excruciating poverty experienced by the lower-class Chinese.

 

This
film further provides a peak into a lower-class Chinese household and allows us
to see the way they go about with their daily lives. In the scene were Xiao Wu
goes to visit his family the father calls all the children together and asks
them to contribute money for the elder son’s wedding. This reminds us that in
Chinese marriages the groom’s family bares the entire costs of the wedding.
Xiao Wu’s family is poor and struggles to put the funds together. No member of
the family is forthcoming in making contributions. This angers his father
especially as Xiao Wu is also making a big issue over his mother re-gifting the
ring that he gave her to his brother’s bride. This is the ring that was
previously Xiao Wu’s gift to Meimei before she jilted him.  An argument ensues over Xiao Wu’s lack of
‘Filial piety’. In China, Filial piety mandates that the parents are to be
provided for by their children. The pillar of the Chinese family structure is
the concept of Filial piety. Filial piety is a central value in traditional
Chinese culture. Its importance goes far beyond that of the biblical
commandment “Honour thy mother and thy father”. Filial piety was and still is a
value based on strict principles of hierarchy, obligation, and obedience.10  This
is a classic example of Chinese National identity as shown in the film.

 

At the
end of the film, Xiao Wu is made to suffer public disgrace as he is handcuffed
to a lamppost in the middle of the town because he had finally been caught
stealing. This form of justice was very common in China from times past. It
must be borne in mind that this largely symbolic punishment of being handcuffed
to a lamppost in the middle of the town is only for a short time. This is
because Xiao Wu is a notorious criminal and therefore is likely to face a
stiffer penalty upon conviction for his crimes. Xiao Wu’s punishment, especially in the handcuffing to the public
lamppost, is another example of National Identity being brought into play.
Essentially this shows the Chinese criminal justice system.

 

In
conclusion, National Identity of the Chinese is portrayed significantly in
several places in the film. National identity is represented in the culture; in
their traditions; in the history of the people; in their values; in their
politics; in the music; in the justice system; in the economy and in other
areas mentioned above.

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