Introduction: Writing about Chinese documentaries
The current popularity of Chinese cinema in the West has been sparked in the main by the fiction films of such directors as Zhang Yimuo, Chen Kaige, Feng Xiaoning, Zhang Yang or Feng Xiaogang. However, their movies constitute only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger volume of Chinese cinema the vast bulk of which is made up of documentary films. Relatively little has been written in English about Chinese documentary cinema in any comprehensive sense. This is a gap which I wish to fill at least partially in presenting Chinese Documentaries to the reading public. In China, on the other hand, there is now a burgeoning industry of critical literature on documentary film and television programmes. A secondary aim then is to bring some of that literature to the attention of the Anglophone readership. A third aim is to redress an imbalance in many Western analyses of contemporary Chinese media. I have been struck by a certain asymmetry in at least some of that literature where a relatively small body of data serves as illustrative material for the exposition of approaches informed by a lively theoretical debate in such fields as politics, media research, and film studies. Useful as many of these theories are in lending the debate about the current state of the media in China a higher degree of precision, when the data are overwhelmed by theorisation what we are able to learn about China can be jeopardised. Accordingly, my investigation is informed foremost by a respect for the data as much as has been possible, without falling into the trap of assuming that data can stand on their own or that they contain their own theorisation. With this caution in mind I propose a modest kind of conceptualisation throughout the book, looking at documentary cinema from the 1920s to the present from the perspective of a loosely conceived spectrum stretching between the poles of highly constrained and dogmatic film making at one end of the scale and a multi-voiced or polyphonic form of cinema, at the other. I will return to these terms for clarification in Chapter 1.