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Columbia University

Publication Date

Fall 2007

Program Name

China: Yunnan Province – Language and Cultures


Cinematic representations of China’s ethnic minorities have been prominent in Chinese visual culture and collective memory since the 1950s. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party led campaigns to classify China’s diverse range of ethnic groups. These social experiments inspired a number of documentary and narrative films about the ostensibly “exotic” and “colorful” non-Han peoples of China. The audience for these depictions of minorities in visual culture varied considerably. Some early documentaries fueled the rise of Han nationalism and political agendas within the Communist Party. Several narrative films had large audiences in mainstream Chinese society and an enduring presence in China’s collective memory. In the ways that cultural identity and traditional customs are gradually fading from the Chinese social landscape – a process linked to a combination of modernization and various agencies within cultural communities – depictions of ethnic minorities in China’s visual culture face similar threats.

China’s ethnic minorities have long carried reputations for folk song, dance, colorful dress, and festive celebrations. These mythologized cultural elements of “colorful” minority peoples have been, unsurprisingly, the focus of many “minority films” in China. Scenes of song and dance from these films conjure vivid memories among members of Chinese society today. In many ways, minority film has not been as much an ethnographic tool as a “boundary-constructing” device that defines majority and minority status in China. Some scholars argue that these films represent “internal orientalism” and cultural imperialism, while others suggest milder forms of naïve romanticism.

In this article, the apparent lack of “authenticity” and the seemingly “exoticized” elements of these films will not be the central debate. Recent scholarly discourse on minority film argues within the rigid categories of post-colonial cultural theory. The influence of cultural theories like Edward Said’s Orientalism has led scholars to reject the legitimacy of minority films based on their seemingly backward and essentializing forms of representation. As a result, many fail to consider the aesthetic qualities of these films and their significance in visual culture. This article encourages a more sensitive critique of minority film, one that more thoroughly explores the motivations behind these films and their relationship to the rise of Han nationalism and the establishment of Han majority status. It is impossible to deny the inherent controversy surrounding representations of minorities in Chinese Cinema. The fact that many minority films linger in China’s collective memory suggests that these films warrant a closer look. The vivid images and sense of cultural nostalgia that minority films evoke reveal a great deal about what nationality represents in contemporary China.


Film and Media Studies | Inequality and Stratification | Race and Ethnicity


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