Understanding China: Five films

Watching five Chinese films won’t make you an expert on China, but
neither will reading the latest business press book on the topic.
Watching these five films will offer you some insights into China that
you won’t find elsewhere however.

To Live
Chungking Express
Pushing Hands
Still Life

Outsiders have struggled to understand China since (at least) Marco Polo. The western appetite for information on China now exceeds the demand for Chinese food; sometimes it seems a new book promising to unlock the mysteries of China’s surging economy, political system, or society appears daily. Anyone doing business with or in China can devote as much time as she wishes to, absorbing this vast and growing literature.

A neglected way to gain insights into China today is through films. Dating back to the 1910s, Chinese-language cinema has a rich and complex history that includes many different genres, subject matters, and dialects produced in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The kung fu action films many foreigners still associate with Chinese cinema was actually only a small part of it.

Beginning in the 1980s, Chinese-language cinema became world class in every sense, producing some of the best cinematographers, directors, and actors working anywhere. Chinese films are increasingly winning international recognition as many Chinese film artist professionals like Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai won prestigious prizes and those like Ang Lee and John Woo have made commercially successful films in Hollywood.

Film provides a unique, intimate introduction to the sweeping changes in Chinese society since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, to the ways ordinary people are responding to those changes, and to capture where China is going. Here we’ve focused on five widely acclaimed contemporary films from the last 25 years that illuminate key themes relating to the recent developments of China.

As China shifts from the closed, autarkic, centrally planned society of the 1960s and 1970s to an economic powerhouse growing by an unprecedented 8 per cent or more per year, with major population shifts from the countryside to the cities, a booming and increasingly internationalised middle class and an increasingly self-confident presence on the world stage, modern Chinese cinema offers a window onto how the Chinese are coming to terms with these rapid changes. All of the filmmakers here are wrestling with fundamental issues of rapidly changing cultural identity and social relationship in China today.

Previous articleThe Relentless Revolution: A history of capitalism
Next articleInfrastructure a key to success
Andrew P. Morriss

Andrew P. Morriss, Chairman, is the D. Paul Jones, Jr. & Charlene Angelich Jones – Compass Bank Endowed Chair of Law at the University of Alabama School of Law. He was formerly the H. Ross & Helen Workman Professor of Law and Business at the University of Illinois,Urbana-Champaign. He received his A.B. from Princeton University, his J.D. and M.Pub.Aff. from the University of Texas at Austin, and his Ph.D. (Economics) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a Research Fellow of the N.Y.U. Center for Labor and Employment Law,and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Energy Research, Washington,D.C., as well as a regular visiting faculty memberat the Universidad Francisco Marroquín,Guatemala. He is the author or coauthor of more than 50 scholarly articles, books, and bookchapters, including Regulation by Litigation (Yale Univ. Press 2008) (with Bruce Yandle and Andrew Dorchak), and is the editor of Offshore Financial Centers and Regulatory Competition (American Enterprise Institute Press 2010).

T. +1 (216) 272 9187
    +1 (217) 244 3449
E. [email protected] 

LinkedIn: Andrew Morriss
Twitter: @andy_morriss
Research: See my research on SSRN
Blog: Offshore Green

Poshek Fu

Poshek Fu is Professor of history, East Asian languages and culture, and cinema studies. He has a PhD from Stanford University. His research focuses on the intersection between social and cultural history and Chinese and Hong Kong cinemas. His current edited volume of China Forever: The Diasporic Cinema of Shaw Brothers is forthcoming from University of Illinois Press and Hong Kong University Press.

Poshek Fu
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
2090A Foreign Languages Building
707 S. Mathews, Urbana IL 61801

T: + 1 (217) 244 2089
E: [email protected]  

University of Alabama

The University of Alabama is a student-centered research university and an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.

Founded in 1831 as Alabama's first public college, The University of Alabama is dedicated to excellence in teaching, research and service. We provide a creative, nurturing campus environment where our students can become the best individuals possible, can learn from the best and brightest faculty, and can make a positive difference in the community, the state and the world.

The University of Alabama family has always expected great things. After all, we are our state’s flagship university — the Capstone of higher education.

The University of Alabama will be the university of choice for the best and brightest students in Alabama and a university of choice for all other students who seek exceptional educational opportunities. The University of Alabama will be a student-centered research university and an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.


The University of Alabama School of Law
101 Paul W. Bryant Drive
East Tuscaloosa,
AL 35487

T: +1 (216) 272 9187, +1 (217) 244 3449
E: [email protected]
W: www.law.ua.edu