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  • Reading off the Screen:Toward Cinematic Il-literacy in Late 1950s Chinese Opera Film
  • Ling Hon Lam (bio)

Is There a Text in This Volume?

In the 1959 opera film Chasing the Fish Spirit (Zhui yu), directed by Ying Yunwei, a fish spirit, which transforms itself into a beautiful woman, sneaks into a scholar's study and sees him doze off with a book in his hands. Unaware of what is going on, the scholar wakes up and closes the door that the spirit left open. He turns around, only to find an attractive lady sitting where he was and reading his book. A medium shot, motivated by the man's perspective, reveals the woman toying with the tome, with its open pages obliquely exposed to the camera, as she stammers in answering why she came (fig. 1). The ever-sticky issue "What does the woman want?" remains open with the open volume: which is her actual object of desire, the man or the book? The latter possibility, which looks counterintuitive at first glance, turns out to be more pertinent to the history of Chinese opera film. The follow-up questions would be: Is there a text in this volume? If so, what text is it, exactly?

These questions might appear trivial to us. "Who cares?" seems to be a likely response. But in the late 1950s, filmmakers and spectators of Chinese opera film did care. Amid the frequent discussions about the alleged conflicts between realism and symbolism in Chinese opera film, there are different opinions over whether and how to represent a piece of writing on-screen. The operatic gesture of writing is meant to draw attention to the expressive bodily motion, so a realistic shot exposing what was actually written on paper strikes one critic as awkward intrusion. Others argue that just waving a brush in the air symbolically is no longer adequate, because cinemagoers would find a blank sheet of confession absurd. Underlying these contrasting positions and traversing the symbolism/realism split is the allure of reading incited by the cinematic apparatus. Spectators are enticed to steal a look at what the characters are reading, only to find the on-screen writing traces unreadable. The advent of opera film, I will argue, signifies a new economy of sensorial attraction taking the form of what I will call "cinematic il-literacy," which displaces any sociolinguistic definition of [End Page 291] literacy with the materiality of the illegible as the ultimate object of the spectator's optical desire. Chinese opera films in the late 1950s can therefore be regarded as a kind of cinematic vernacular turning against the very hegemony of the vernacular, right within the context of contemporary literacy campaigns and language standardization sanctioned by the nation-state.

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Figure 1.

"He wonders why I came to the study…" (Chasing the Fish Spirit, 1959).

Staining the Blank

During the 1950s, the issue of how to reconcile the film medium and traditional Chinese opera preoccupied filmmakers and critics.1 Incongruities between symbolic expressions in operatic acting on the one hand and realistic film sets and props on the other hand, for instance, were frequently cited as a chronic problem plaguing the hybrid genre of opera film.2 In the same line of thinking, the veteran critic and director Xu Suling (1910–97) introduced in late 1956 several principles to resolve this stylistic conflict. One of the principles is that the realistic mise-en-scène should never violate the symbolic nature of what he calls "expressive acts." The negative example he cites is another opera film directed by Ying Yunwei (in collaboration with Liu Qiong [1913–2002]), Song Shijie, which came out the same year:

Expressive acts onstage (by which I mean such acts as writing or drinking onstage that require the use of props and therefore differ from some other mimed acts that accompany no props at all. And yet, though using props, such acts as writing and drinking are not actually enacted; that is why I call them expressive acts [xieyi dongzuo], which can generally include other mimed acts): on the silver screen… when incoherent and inconsistent with the general artistic...


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pp. 291-315
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