The dialogic image of the Other

Oct 31st, 2013 | By | Category: Cultural Studies

The image of the Other in European films from 1980 to 2010

Misunderstandings appear to be one of those things which happen extremely often. We cannot judge our neighbour from across the street objectively, not to mention a stranger on the other side of the world. An objective judgment of a foreign culture seems impossible. Nonetheless, humanities scholars keep calling on us to overcome “Eurocentrism” and “Orientalism”. In most cases, however, this leads solely to the observation of how deeply Europeans have internalised this attitude. An equal dialogue between the cultures of the West and the East therefore hardly seems achievable. Following a thorough analysis of images of China and Tibet in European films from 1980 to 2010, I nevertheless found that an equal dialogue between the West and the East is not only possible but is also slowly being realised. The world does not stay still; Europe is changing. The research thus aimed to clarify in which direction the transformation of the European image of the Other is moving and to determine the new European attitude towards the Far East.

In my thesis I examine the images of China and Tibet at the levels of representation, function and the inner balance of power as well as the ideas which underlie these parameters. The medium of film is treated as art with a specific language of form. The films examined are The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, Seven Years in Tibet by Jean-Jacques Annaud and Chinaman by Danish film director Henrik Ruben Genz. The three films were produced in the 1980s and 1990s and at the beginning of the 21st century respectively. The selection was made on the basis of the following criteria. The films had to deal with China or Tibet and to display the general characteristics of similar films of their time. In addition, the three films needed to have a transnational awareness, so that they could be a part of the public discourse on East Asia. Besides these aspects, it was possible to draw a comparison between these three European films and three thematically similar Chinese films (The Last Empress 1985, Red River Valley 1996,, The contract 2005) whereby specifically European peculiarities have come to light.

One cannot explore the images of China and Tibet without referring to the Edward Said’s term “Orientalism”. Under “Orient” Said understands an imaginary place produced by the West, which exists as the absolute Other for the purpose of the self-positioning and self-satisfaction of the West. When speaking of Orient in his book Orientalism Said refers to the Near East. However, literary and cultural studies have since shown that Said’s theories are equally applicable to the understanding of the essence of European conceptions and to the representation of the Far East. At least until 1980, China and Tibet were deeply embedded in European orientalist discourse, in which they are mainly presented as the counterpart of Europe and must be understood as imaginary places, daydreams and isolated regions. Their representation sways between the idealised paradise (mysterious, romantic, Utopian) and the demonised hell (barbaric, despotic, backward). In both contexts, from the European perspective, China and Tibet do not have the sovereignty to think and to speak; they have no history and no individuality. They exist purely for the sake of the West.

This was the background to my research. By summarising the individual films, the following results can be perceived.

With regard to the image of China The Last Emperor shows the following peculiarities as compared to European films dealing with East Asia prior to 1980: (1) a more human depiction and attitude towards China rather than a stereotypical one; (2) most of the exotic elements are not functionalised as decorations or clichés, but serve as externalisations of psychic experiences and of the trauma of the protagonists; (3) Confucianism is vividly rather than dogmatically embedded in the film – it functions as an interpretation of the value and the hope of humankind; (4) an exceptionally high degree of identification with the Chinese protagonist is created so as to explain with a Chinese story the general nature of life and of human history.

The actual depiction of “China” in The Last Emperor is a differentiated one. In contrast to the Chinese film The Last Empress it does not criticise historical people or events, but treats them with understanding and sympathy. The tale from Chinese history delivers a message which is relevant for all people: life is a Sisyphean cycle; we are not masters of our own lives and strive persistently yet in vain towards our life goals; nevertheless, one should not give up on inner goodness. “China” functions in The Last Emperor as a miniature of the history of all mankind. It is neither a devil nor a sage for Europeans anymore; rather, as a representative of mankind it is shown as capable of symbolising the common destiny of humankind. Nonetheless, through the western character Johnston the film still suggests the European feeling of cultural superiority. The discourse on China retains its dualistic structure; Europe is the superior. On the narrative level, there is a linear conception of history; Chinese history is continuous. Beyond the narrative level, there is the ancient conception of history as a cycle. Although a trace of Eurocentrism can still be perceived in the film, the film suggests that Europe is beginning to rethink its self-conception and its world view.

The image of Tibet in Seven Years in Tibet is partially idealised, yet it differs significantly from other orientalist images of Tibet in the following aspects: (1) all supernatural and mysterious esoteric elements are abolished; (2) for the first time in the history of European film a European man is profoundly changed through his experience of Tibet; (3) Tibet has the right and ability to express itself; (4) the film implies a Taoist world view; (5) Tibet is no longer isolated. Rather, its culture is burgeoning throughout the world.

In Seven Years in Tibet, Tibet is portrayed in a very down-to-earth, human way. In contrast to the Chinese film Red River Valley particular attention is drawn to the natural rationality and the subjective consciousness of the Tibetans. Thus the ability to think rationally, the right to speak and the ability to express themselves are conceded to the Tibetans. Through these moments the image of Tibet in Seven Years in Tibet differs significantly from the traditional and stereotypical image of the country. In this film “Tibet” functions as a medicine, which heals and changes a “sick” European. However, this “treatment” is no longer mysterious and incomprehensible, but is instead reasonable and comprehensible. The balance of power between Tibet and Europe is reversed, with Tibet gaining a superior position. The film reveals the pessimistic worries of the Europeans in the face of their own deficiencies and limitations as well as the desire to overcome the problems and difficulties of the European system of thought by means of a different system. On the narrative level, the film deals with Buddhism, while a Taoist-like concept of nature regulates the construction of the film. This concept of nature advocates the rationality of nature and functions as the most convincing argument against the cultural mainstream of Europe, which reveres the reason of humankind.

The film Chinaman is particularly remarkable for the following: (1) it provides an overview of various European images of China and a critical review of the history of contact with China; (2) the stereotypes underlying the image of China are deconstructed in the film; (3) the appropriateness of the European passion for China is fully denied; (4) the film posits the idea of equal cooperation.

In Chinaman the typical yet complex traits of Chinese people are shown. As the film demonstrates, both Chinese and Europeans are human beings with strengths and weaknesses. In contrast to the Chinese film The contract we can see a more open and serious attitude towards the Other on the part of the Europeans. “China” plays the role of a partner of cooperation for Europe, which together with the Europeans struggles against the common difficulties of life. Thus the relationship between China and Europe is based on an equal footing. The film negates not only the conflict of cultures but also the assimilation of these same cultures. It advocates instead dialogical contact and cooperation between different cultures. On the narrative level, the Chinese sense of family exerts influence on the European. Beyond the narrative level, the director dissolves the dualistic relationship between China and Europe through the deconstruction of stereotypes.

As Greenblatt points out, the relationship between a work of art and the dominant ideology of the time in which it is produced is ambiguous. As becomes clear in the case of the three European films from the period of 1980 to 2010, an orientalist colouring remains at the manifest level of cinematic texts. However, beyond this a creative rebellion is to be found on the latent level of the films. This creative rebellion is not a unique feature of these three films, but exists, as I demonstrate in my study, in most films of this era. This observation provides the basis for my thesis that a new tendency has emerged in the European image of China and Tibet.

It is undisputable that the image of the Other fulfils an important function in a society: it enables the production of self-identification through differentiation. Such self-identification of a cultural group or a nation works on the principle that, “We are we because we are unlike the others”. This mechanism provides the main function of images of China and Tibet prior to the 80s. However, the image of China and Tibet in European films of the last thirty years functions differently. Generally, the differences between the cultures do not come to the fore in these films so much as the hidden commonalities and universality do. The “differences” between cultures in these films are not based on ethnic differences (such as skin colour, clothing, nation, etc.), but on the fact that both the Chinese and the Europeans offer their own solutions to the difficulties of life. “The hidden commonality and universality” do not refer simply to biological and social universals of humankind (such as death, birth, pain, marriage, work, dying), but rather the insight that solutions, which have been developed by different cultures for their own specific problems, are actually accessible for the respective Other. Both cultural groups can use them and be affected by them. The fact that Europeans identify with this commonality and universality today shows not only that Europe wants to accept the Other, but also that Europe, too, becomes accepted by the Other in the realm of the imaginary. In other words, the basic function of the image of the Other in these films is not to allow Europe to become distinguished from the Other, but to build up a wide “imaginary community” of several cultures.

In brief it can be said that the representation of the image of China and Tibet on the latent level of European films turns from an imaginary into a real one, while its function shifts from that of an inferior to an equal partner, and the internal balance of power moves from inequality to equality. The basic idea of the films shifts from Eurocentrism to deconstruction. In a word, European films between 1980 and 2010 break the traditional position of power in the European discourse of China and Tibet and establish a dialogic image of the Other. In the diversity and complexity of cultures “Europe” and “China” regain a polysemous and productive meaning for one another.

Dr. Xiaojing Wang, Universität Göttingen


Translation from German by Jahangir Bashirov and Annie Rutherford

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