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Speaking Bitterness: History, Media and Nation in Twentieth Century China

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"Speaking bitterness" is the dominant narrative pattern of modern Chinese history. We argue here that it also structures historical fiction. "Speaking bitterness" transforms local stories of personal suffering into collective narratives of blood and tears. It is a discursive practice that may simultaneously construct Nation and Subject, blending individual stories into collective memory that claims – or counterclaims – to be "truth written in blood".

We focus on various "texts": four film versions of the Opium War, the trial of Jiang Qing as part of the Gang of Four, and Hou Hsiao-hsien's film, City of Sadness.

The films of the Opium War speak bitterness against Western imperialism in China. But there are significant differences in the four versions that relate to current Chinese politics and ideology: Eternal Flame (directed under Japanese occupation in China in 1943), Lin Zexu and the Opium War (directed by Zheng Junliu and Cen Fan in the PRC in 1959), The Opium War (directed by Li Quanxi in Taiwan in 1963) and The Opium War (directed by Xie Jin in the PRC to mark the 1997 handover of Hong Kong).

The trial of Jiang Qing was also a state-run media event. Televised excerpts of the court room drama, contemporary cartoons and published reminiscences all emphasized "past bitterness and present sweetness". The bitterness relates to the ten years of chaos during the Cultural Revolution; the sweetness refers to the opening-up of China under Deng Xiaoping. Whereas Jiang Qing is demonized in the trial and in public memory, her husband, Mao Zedong (who launched the Cultural Revolution) is variously remembered as a tyrant, god and hero. Finally, we turn to Hou Hsiao-hsien's 1989 film on the so-called February 28 Incident, City of Sadness. Unlike the previous examples, Hou's film serves as counter-history beyond the nation-state.

We conclude from these examples, that while a modern phenomenon, speaking bitterness retains traditional elements of history-fiction. As in traditional China, history and fiction interweave, narrating an intelligible and inherently moral universe. Yet there are fundamental changes. First, the form of history and "fiction" in most cases becomes linear, progressive and future-directed, not episodic and cyclic. Second, the primary audience is the citizenry as "people" or "masses", not a scholarly elite. Third, history is told using mass media suited to reaching these "people", such as cartoons, film, radio and television, none of which are literacy-dependent. Fourth, dominant historical narratives at any one time rely on media control by elites who have the capacity to block, blunt, blur or erase counter-narratives as national narratives. All these elites narrate the construction of China (and Taiwan) as a modern nation-state, characterized by a people bound by (amongst other things) a shared history and a sense of historical collective agency. That agency is often dependent on a "logic of the wound" , inscribed as cultural memory that both defines China as a nation and its motivation for future action.


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