1994, 120 minutes
directed by: Zhang Yimou
This is one of the most powerful, beautiful films I have ever seen.
It is the story of a small, Chinese family during the Cultural Revolution. It won the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Prize, Best Actor (You Ge), and was second only to Pulp Fiction for the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival the year it debuted. There may be no more powerful film than this one about a family caught in the wheels of history. Though the male lead, You Ge, won the Best Actor awards, the film is carried on the back of Gong Li, who projects a quiet strength that few other actresses can. The title of the film, to live (huozhe), “conceals a universe,” as Roger Ebert put it.
As China is currently experiencing incredible growth and expansion, it may well be worth remembering that the country has always grown in fits and spurts—conversely, it has also experienced periods of incredible backwardness. The idea of progress, inextricably tied to utopianism, has been used to justify all manner of political and social harm, of which the Cultural Revolution is but one recent example. It is a simple reminder of the evil that even good intentions can create.
I remember my first trip to China several years ago, and being enthralled, disappointed, and just dumbfounded by the magnificence and potential of this rough, barely kept together coalition of 1.2 billion people. At one point I was at a street fair, and this vendor was selling turtles, about the size of a thumbnail, from a plastic tray the size of a dinner place setting. And there were hundreds of these turtles in that plastic tray, and only one rock. And for some reason or another, every little turtle in that tray wanted to be on that rock. And so the entire tray was just this mess of turtles clawing and swimming and climbing as if for their lives, all desperately trying to get some time out of the water and on that rock. I sat there and watched, for maybe 10 full minutes, my head not so far from the turtles, as one turtle’s paw would use another turtle’s head as a leverage point; as a little turtle eye would seem to get poked out, as one turtle would flip and fall down into the water tumbling over other turtles. And in that mess of hundreds of beings fighting so fiercely for so little resources, I thought, wow, this is China. If only I had another rock.
In China, progress seemed to be measured quantitatively, as opposed to qualitatively. In Japan, progress seemed to be a matter of how a new product, experience, or service affected life. You could see it in each piece of sushi crafted by a chef, or by the music, film, video, and advertising that vied for your attention on the confident, strutting streets of Tokyo. But in China, there was no strutting, the people didn’t seem confident, and there were the quiet reminders of desperation that couldn’t be kept hidden (amputees and homeless single mothers begging on every corner). And yet the buildings are being built at what must be literal break-neck speed. And as Chinese companies are starting to appear on international markets–Chery, Lenovo–they do so not by virtue of their innovation or technology, but by their ability to just produce more, cheaper. It’s hard for me to imagine China becoming the next world power anytime soon because of the incredible lack of creativity and ingenuity that seems to be the result of the last generations’ Cultural Revolution. Because isn’t today’s most important export Culture? And it seems like it will take another government in another generation to reverse the astounding wrongs of the last.
As China experiences another one of its periods of intense growth, of which it has had similar periods before, it may be important to remember the power of our ideas, to question the role architects have in the built environment, and the families who are affected by it.
(originally written in 2008)