Despite the new cultural freedoms in China, many artists remain skeptical of government's openness

October 12, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING — All of a sudden, Zhang Yimou is hot -- a sign of a renewed cultural relaxation here that China's oft-burned artists, writers and intellectuals are welcoming very warily.

China's most accomplished filmmaker, Mr. Zhang has been nominated twice for an Academy Award in recent years and has received a slew of other honors abroad. But in the severe political crackdown that followed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, his highly naturalistic, at times steamy, films were banned in China.

Lately, however, Mr. Zhang is the toast of the Chinese capital.

Two of his banned films -- "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Judou" -- opened for the first time in Beijing theaters last month. His most recent film, "Qiuju Goes to Court," has been screened privately by top leaders. Hardly a day passes without China's state media heaping more praise on the 42-year-old director.

The sudden acceptance of his films here may have as much to do with money as politics. Having churned out moralistic, historical epics the past few years, China's film industry is in bad financial shape.

And Mr. Zhang, who last week flew off to yet another international film festival in Europe and was not available for comment here, has carefully refused to acknowledge political innuendo in his work. "My intent has been to tell human stories first," he recently told a Beijing newspaper. "We should not talk about politics in everything."

His films have been viewed dimly by authorities for their vivid portrayal of China's rural poverty earlier in this century and their gritty, tragic view of Chinese relationships. He was accused of focusing on China's feudal ways to conform with foreigners' supposed expectations.

So Mr. Zhang first turned to Japanese investors to finance

"Judou," which won a top award at the Cannes Film Festival; to Taiwan to produce "Raise the Red Lantern," honored at the Venice Film Festival, and to Hong Kong to make "Qiuju Goes to Court," also honored in Venice.

Put simply, the three films explore the themes of oppressive tradition, youthful desire and injustice -- themes very much alive in China. But only "Qiuju" is set in present times.

Even if his films are not adeptly veiled political statements -- as he maintains -- Mr. Zhang himself certainly has mastered along the way this particularly Chinese art.

"I am a filmmaker, and I will still make films even if the sky falls down, so long as it does not break my hands and smash my body," he said in the newspaper interview. "Fortunately, the sky has not fallen yet."

Quite the opposite for the moment, the long-delayed opening of his films here actually appears to be part of a much broader loosening of the reins on China's artists and writers in the wake of Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping's campaign this year to free China's economy from the shackles of central controls.

Concrete signs of this relaxation abound these days.

They range from the staging in Shanghai of China's first adults-only play, Harold Pinter's "The Lover," to the display of 10,000 red and blue umbrellas on a suburban Beijing hillside in the first large-scale, Chinese conceptual-art project.

Perhaps more substantively, new regulations have given state publishing houses more authority to determine what they print. Exit controls have been simplified to make it easier for academics and technical experts to go overseas for conferences and research.

There even have been bold calls in a few state newspapers for greater press freedoms, an issue of great political sensitivity here. A just-released, internal directive from the Communist Party's leadership reportedly backs these calls with orders to reduce the strict censorship of journalists, as long as they do not write anything opposing the party's policies.

This relative loosening of the state's iron grip on cultural affairswas given impetus in August from comments by Li Ruihuan, the top Chinese leader in charge of ideological matters.

"Some comrades have a fragmentary understanding of the functions and aims of literature and art," Mr. Li said. "They always wish to make the best of every piece of literary and artistic work -- ideologically, politically and educationally -- which, in practice, is impossible. We should not flagrantly interfere in literary and artistic works, as long as they do not violate the state's constitution and laws."

Mr. Li's statements evoked Mao Tse-tung's "Hundred Flowers" campaign in the late 1950s, in which Mao called for multiple schools of thought to blossom and contend with each other in China.

Over the decades, Chinese communism's official policy on culture has frequently swung between that line and Mao's renowned 1942 speeches demanding that art strictly serve political ends.

Beginning with Mao's "Hundred Flowers" campaign, virtually every period of loosening ultimately has proved disastrous for Chinese artists and intellectuals. Once lured to speak out, they then have found themselves targeted, punished and even jailed in the next cultural crackdown.

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