The Weatherhead East Asian Institute welcomes Ying Qian, assistant professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, to the Columbia faculty. Professor Qian, who earned her PhD from Harvard University, studies Chinese film, literature, and media. Her current research focus is on Chinese documentary cinema. In the following Q & A, Professor Qian discusses her scholarship and teaching interests.
How did you become interested in Chinese documentary cinema?
I have been interested in cinema ever since when I was small. I grew up in Shanghai, a city with a long history of filmmaking since the early 20th century. As a child I performed in the children’s dance and drama troupes at the city’s Children’s Palace, which was a socialist-era establishment. Film directors would often come to our rehearsals to select actors for their films. I acted minor roles in a few TV plays and one film, and did voice-acting for cartoons at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, the oldest animation studio in the country. These close encounters with cinema left deep impressions on me. My interest in Chinese documentary film came about in the early 2000s, when I was working as an assistant for The Washington Post in Shanghai and started experimenting with video-making. Through friends I got some indie Chinese documentary films on VCD – they were at the time circulating on disks from hand to hand in a Samizdat fashion – and after watching them, I realized documentary films could be more exciting than feature films. Indeed Chinese independent documentary has been one of the most exciting developments in China’s visual culture in the past few decades.
What led you to start making and studying films?
I didn’t have much training when I started making films. Working in journalism in China, I got to meet many people and hear many stories everyday. They inspired me to be a storyteller and so I wrote stories for a number of English and Chinese language magazines. But in the end, I became increasingly attracted to digital video as a versatile medium to document and understand the rapid changes in the society. I saved up, bought a camera and began to experiment. My first documentary A Village Across the World, made together with Jie Li, followed a group of international volunteers into a mountain village in China’s Anhui Province. It was a story about people from very different backgrounds and with very different life prospects encountering each other and reflecting together on the fruits and dilemmas of intercultural contact and economic development. Now looking back, I see that my interest in cinema has always been tied with a wish to understand people’s experiences, struggles and reflections in a changing society full of contradictions, uncertainties but also potentials for positive transformation.
When I entered the doctoral program at Harvard in East Asian Studies, I had interests in literature, history and anthropology, and it occurred to me that by studying documentary cinema, I could combine these interests in an interdisciplinary way. Documentary films construct historical narratives. They are often inter-cultural, having affinities with ethnography. Finally, documentary films are texts full of rhetorical and aesthetic strategies, which literary theory could help us unpack.
Initially I focused on contemporary Chinese independent documentaries. Three PhD students at the time, Jie Li, JP Sniadecki and I, curated a film program called “Emergent Visions: New Independent Documentaries.” That program very much nurtured us: it allowed us to see many new films coming out of China and bring exciting filmmakers to visit.
While contemporary documentary continues to be one of my interests, for my dissertation, I ended up spending more time studying documentaries made in the earlier historical period of the Mao-era. In China, there have been heated debates on Mao-era history. Evaluation of the Mao-era is important in deciding what lessons to learn from the past, and in which direction to go in the future. However, we can’t evaluate the Mao-era if we don’t understand how the Mao-era has been mediated to us and to people living at the time. Documentary film was an important media at the time. It was often screened outside conventional cinemas, and figured into many aspects of social and political life. It provided industrial training and scientific education, facilitated diplomatic exchanges, and served as visible evidence at legal trials. The whole practice of mobilizing the visible for the visionary, of organizing people to act and watch themselves, is very interesting to me.
What challenges did you face in tracking down those Maoist films?
Initially it was difficult to find these films. The film archive in Beijing has many of them but most are inaccessible to researchers. I wound up getting support from private collectors because many of these documentary films were put on 16mm and sent to industrial sites and to the countryside. Many of the reels have fallen into the hands of private collectors, some of whom now own thousands of films and have made digital copies of them. In the end, I had more films from these collectors than I could handle.
Are there certain themes you traced in studying these films?
One theme that manifested itself during my research was cinema’s omnipresence in the social history of the Mao-era. This is particularly the case if we look into non-fiction films. Writers, artists and dramatists tend to work on fictional films. For non-fiction filmmaking, such as documentary, a whole different group of people are involved: scientists, engineers, educators, entrepreneurs, social workers. Documentaries are often screened outside the movie theater and outside the context of entertainment. By tracing documentary’s production and exhibition, I discover that many aspects of social life, which we traditionally think of as separate from cinema, are actually mediated by cinema.
For example, documentary cinema trained industrial workers and propagated new and often fraudulent technologies during the Great Leap Forward. It also mediated diplomatic relations, serving as gifts of exchange in state diplomacy while educating the audience about international affairs. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, when historical narratives had to be rewritten, documentary footage was mobilized as evidence during the trial of the “Gang of Four” and in biographic films to rehabilitate persecuted cadres. I also look at how documentary films re-organized history and brought innovations to historiography in the 1980s.
Now as I revise my manuscript for publication, I am adding a lot of new material looking at how documentary films participated in war mobilization during the early and mid 20th century, and in colonial expansion to make new subjects out of people with ethnic minority backgrounds. I also examine how production of documentary films interacted with the productions of science and technology in the society. Overall, I am interested in tracing “cinema” as a mediating technology that cuts through many aspects of the society, and move cinema studies closer to social history.
What will you be teaching this year at Columbia?
Next semester (spring 2016) I am teaching a 4000-level course for both advanced undergraduates and graduate students on “Chinese Documentary Cinema” and a graduate seminar on the “History of Chinese Cinema and Photography.” The graduate seminar will guide students to examine understudied topics in Chinese film studies. The “Chinese Documentary Cinema” course will focus on Chinese independent films from the contemporary period—the films that inspired me. I hope that they, in turn, will inspire my new students at Columbia.