“Yellow Earth” - Chen Kaige (1984)

The Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakimg was made possible by the ending of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the subsequent reopening of the Beijing Film Institute for study in 1978.  Among that first group of students graduating in 1982 were future leaders of the Fifth Generation movement: Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and Tian Zhuangzhuang. These young cineastes had ambitions to pursue new forms of cinematic expression in a Chinese context, and the first major film to emerge from this group was Yellow Earth (Huang tu di, 1984), which was directed by Chen Kaige and photographed by Zhang Yimou.

Upon its release, Yellow Earth was not a major hit in China, but it quickly attracted attention outside China [1].  Indeed, because the film abandoned the prevailing government censorial preference for socialist realism, it was probably fortunate that the film was even approved for release in China at all.  Nevertheless, the film did have an immediate impact on the filmmaking community in China.  In this connection, Tian Zhuangzhuang remarked in 1986 that [2]
“If it wasn’t for Yellow Earth, then there wouldn’t have been the whole debate about film aesthetics . . . [the film] represents the future of Chinese cinema now.”                     
And ever since then Yellow Earth has been, over the years, the subject of scrutiny concerning various aspects of its presentation and of multiple interpretations concerning its underlying meanings [3,4].  I will get to some of those interpretations later, but first I will give a basic picture of the film’s narrative, which can be considered to play out through five segments.

1.  Early Spring, 1939
In 1937 the opposing Kuomintang Nationalist Party (KMT) forces and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forces realized that they would have to cooperate in order to fight against the invading Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War.  By 1939 the KMT had recognized the autonomy of the CCP soldier to cross over the Shaanxi-Gansun-Ningxia border region.  In the early spring of that year, a soldier from the CCP’s Eighth Route Army, Gu Qing (played by Xue Bai), is shown to have travelled 200 miles from CCP-controlled Yan’an to the northern KMT-controlled area of Shaanxi, Shanbei.  His mission is to collect local peasants’ folk songs that the CCP soldiers can then sing and affirm their commonality with the local people.

In the opening shots, Gu is seen walking over the barren Loess Plateau of that region.  When he happens upon a peasant wedding procession, he takes out his notebook and prepares to record the festivities.  The people involved in the procession appear to be enjoying the party, but the red-hooded 13-year-old bride looks glum when briefly seen and clearly represents just an artefact, not a person, in this social setting.  Gu is invited to the wedding banquet, where the guests are served plates of wooden fish, because real fish are not available to these people. During the feast Gu jots down a wedding song he hears sung by a village crooner.
We next see another 13-year-old girl from the same village, Cuiqiao (Wang Xueqi), carrying out her routine task of walking three miles with buckets to the Yellow River in order to fetch water for her poor family.  Along the way, she sings a plaintive song:
“Among human beings, a girl’s life is the most pitiable. 
  Pity the poor girls, the poor girls.”   
2.  With Cuiqiao’s Family
Gu Qing decides to remain in that village to collect songs, and he winds up staying with Cuiqiao’s small family, which includes her widowed father (played by Tan Tuo) and her shy, almost mute, younger brother, Hanhan (Liu Quiang).  Gu starts out helping the family members with their plowing and chores, and he gradually gets to know them better.  Their conversations exhibit the contrasts between the modernist Communist and traditional peasant ways.  On one occasion Gu tells the father that in the Communist south, girls are liberated and free to choose their marriage partners.  In the south, Gu tells him, girls are not for sale.  Then they have the following exchange that tellingly reflects their contrasting perspectives:
Gu Qing:     “The world must change.  The south has changed. 
                      North China must change, too.”

The Father:  “We fathers have our own rules”
On another occasion when Cuiqiao mentions to Gu that noone in their village is literate, he  tells her that in the Communist-held south, all boys and girls are being taught how to read and write.  These positive comments, along with Gu’s general upbeat demeanor, seem to inspire both Cuiqiao and Hanhan and make them more cheerful.  Gu even gets Hanhan to talk and sing, which leads to the boy singing a bizarre bed-wetting song.  Gu responds to this by teaching the boy to sing an optimistic Communist song.

3.  Upcoming Events
However, Cuiqiao, who was betrothed to an older man as a small child, learns that her future in-laws want the arranged marriage to take place soon, in April.  This is evidently alarming to her, and when she has a chance to speak with Gu alone, she asks him if his army needs any women who can sing.  (Gu answers in the affirmative.)  In fact all along, Cuiqiao has been shown singing beautiful songs when she is alone, often with lyrics that she has composed herself, and we know  that she is a good singer.  But the songs of these people tend to be sad songs, reflecting their generally fatalistic perspectives on life. 

Then Gu announces that it is time for him to leave the village and return to his army in the south.  When he departs, both Hanhan and Cuigiao separately sneak out to join him on the road and go with him.  Gu sends Hanhan back home, but when he meets Cuiqiao further on down the road, she tells him she wants to join his army (and thereby flee the grim servitude of a loveless marriage). Gu tells he is not allowed by his superiors to take her with him, but he will seek official permission from his unit and return for her later.  Cuiqiao asks him to promise to return by April, and then as he walks away, she sings an optimistic song for him.

4.  Departure
In April, Gu hasn’t arrived yet, and Cuiqiao is briefly shown being subjected to the traditional bride-demeaning wedding ceremony like that which we had seen at the beginning of the film.  Cuiqiao’s glum circumstances are contrasted with parallel scenes showing Gu back in Yan’an watching soldiers from the Eighth Route Army performing a vigorous coordinated dance celebrating their ferocity.  In the north it is all passivity, while in the south it is potency.
Shortly thereafter, Hanhan is seen carrying out the chore that used to be done by Cuiqiao, going to the Yellow River to fetch water.  At the river bank he sees Cuiqiao, who has sneaked over there with the intention of escaping by crossing the big river in a small boat and going to join the Eighth Route Army on her own.  Hanhan warns her that it is too dangerous to cross the big river on her own, but Cuiqiao can’t be deterred.  She gets into the boat and rows off into the river waters, singing an optimistic Communist song as she goes.  As she disappears into the evening dusk, Hanhan on the shore can still hear her singing, but her voice suddenly ceases in mid verse.  Hanhan calls out with alarm into the darkness

5.   Gu Qing Returns
In something of a coda to the film, Gu Qing is shown returning to the village and finding Cuiqiao’s home empty.  All the male peasants have gone out onto the loess hills to pray fervently to the Dragon Lord in the sky for rain.  The fanatical supplicants are all bare-chested and wearing ceremonial head wreaths of leaves.  Among the crowd is Hanhan, who turns his head and sees Gu Qing on a hill way in the back.  He tries to go back towards Gu, but he is unable to work his way through the swarming crowd that is sweeping everyone forward towards some unseen destination dictated by their superstitious ritual.  The final shot of the film shows the empty loess hills and Cuiqiao’s wistful voice in the background singing a verse of hope for a Communist future.

Thus the ending of Yellow Earth yields a somewhat problematic verdict concerning the efficacy of the Communist message on the stubborn peasants’ way of life.  Cuiqiao appears to have died trying to escape her confining circumstance and find imagined liberation with the Eighth Route Army.  And Hanhan seems unable to reunite with Gu at the end.  In fact the way those final shots are composed suggests that the image of Gu at the end may be only a mirage.  So the path to salvation is elusive here. 

Even Chen Kaige, himself, seems to have been, in retrospect, of two minds about the film’s message [5].  He had started with Ke Lan’s uncomplicated novel Echo in the Deep Valley, but after spending a month in northern Shaanxi in early 1984 researching the local way of life there, he made considerable adaptations to Ke Lan’s story [4].  And he added to the story a moody tone, which is reflected in the film’s evocative folk-song motif, the atmospheric soundtrack music by Jiping Zhao, and Zhang Yimou’s context-grounded cinematography.  In particular, Zhang Yimou’s many long shots giving considerable screen space in the foreground to the hilly and dusty loess terrain maintain a context and feeling of desolation throughout the film.

So although a straightforward interpretation of Yellow Earth might see the film as just a stark confrontation between modern thinking and backwardness, when we watch the film we can see that it is not quite that simple.  In fact we might say that there are two main perspectives that are present in the film [4]:
  • Sympathy for the authentic integrity of the native people and their connection to the Chinese essence.
  • Categorical, reductionist judgement of the native peasants’ backwardness and need of reform.
And critics suggest that both perspectives are present here at the same time.  Commenting in this regard, W. K. Cheng has said [4]:
“‘Yellow Earth’, therefore, is courageous, not just in the sense that it shuns the comfort of certainty by shirking the socialist formula, but also because in doing so, it exposes itself to the nether world of ambiguities, incongruities, uncertainties and anguish that has accompanied the Chinese quest for modern nationhood in resalable memory.  What makes ‘Yellow Earth’ so intriguing and, for many, emotionally arresting is not that it restores certainty to the Chinese collective identity, quite the contrary to Chen Kaige’s apparent intent, but rather that the film’s symbolic intensity reenacts the internal tensions in the modern predicament of national reconstruction.”
Other critics have looked at the film, from a postmodernist perspective, as a piece of abstract text to be analysed [6,7].  In this connection Esther Yau has mulled over the curious fact that two of the most dramatic elements in the narrative – Cuiqiao’s grim marriage ceremony and Cuiqiao’s ultimate disappearance in the water – are glossed over and barely covered in the cinematic presentation [7].  Hence apparently to her, the hidden meaning of the film must be found elsewhere.

But I think perhaps the most fruitful critical path to follow lies in the Daoist direction.  Along this line of thinking, the modernist Communist and traditionalist peasant perspectives can be considered to be embodiments of the Daoist yin-yang polarity [8,9].  According to this formulation,
  • yin symbolically suggests the notions of femininity, dark, wetness, cold, passivity, disintegration, etc.
  • yang symbolically suggests the notions of masculinity, light, warmth, dryness, activity, etc.
According to this way of seeing things, the peasant, traditionalist perspective embodies the yin principle, and the Communist, modernist perspective embodies the yang principle.  But it is not as though one should choose one of these to the exclusion of the other.  Both yin and yang are needed and must be maintained in the proper balance.  In this connection Mary Ann Farquhar has remarked [9]:
“A Daoist reading of Yellow Earth gives a meaning that is seen and felt directly, a meaning beyond the images and words. The complexity and depth of the human lives are rendered in stark images against the vast backdrop of the natural world. Minimalized tone, colour and composition are reminiscent of the restraint of classical Chinese painting. Songs and silence overlay the imagery and evoke the lyricism and elusiveness of traditional Chinese poetry.“
Anyway, whatever take you want to adopt, Yellow Earth offers a fascinating view of the complex Chinese society undergoing dramatic change.

  1. Walter Goodman, “China’s ‘Yellow Earth’", The New York Times,  (11 April 1986).   
  2. Yang Ping, “A Director Who is Trying to Change the Audience; A Chat with Young Director, Tian Zhuangzhuang”, in Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, (ed. and trans. by Chris Berry), British Film Institute”, (1991), p. 127.
  3. Dan Edwards, “Framing the Heavy Weight of History: Yellow Earth”, Senses of Cinema, (May 2015).       
  4. W. K. Cheng, “Imagining the People: ‘Yellow Earth’ and the Enigma of Nationalist Consciousness”, The China Review, vol. 2, no. 2, (Fall 2002), pp. 37-63.  
  5. Chen Kaige, “Quanli zou Shaanbei” (“Trekking Northern Shaanxi for a Thousand li”), Dianying Yishu, no. 4, (1985).
  6. Chris Berry, “Neither One Thing nor Another: Toward a Study of the Viewing Subject and Chinese Cinema in the 1980s”, New Chinese Cinemas, (ed. by Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, Esther Yau), Cambridge University Press, (1994), pp. 88-113.
  7. Esther C. M. Yau, “‘Yellow Earth’: Western Analysis and a Non-western Text”, in Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, (ed. by C. Berry), British Film Institute, (1991), pp. 22-33.
  8. Roy Stafford, “Yellow Earth (China 1984)”, The Case for Global Film, (3 May 2007).    
  9. Mary Ann Farquhar, “The ‘hidden’ gender in ‘Yellow Earth’”, Screen, volume 33, issue 2, (1 July 1992).

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