China Conversations

Wu Wenguang: Capturing China on Film

A documentary filmmaker speaks with Jonathan Chatwin

Wu Wenguang is an independent filmmaker, known internationally as one of the founders of the Chinese documentary movement. Born in Yunnan in 1956, his breakthrough film was Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers, which offered an intimate portrait of a group of struggling artists in late 1980s Beijing. His other films include 1966: My Time in the Red Guards (1993) and Jiang Hu: On the Road (1999). In 2010, Wu founded the Memory Project to encourage the preservation of personal stories of China’s history; since then, hundreds of film makers have returned to their towns and villages as part of the project to interview elders who lived through the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and other traumatic events from the country’s recent past. 

When did you decide that you wanted to be a documentary filmmaker?

I actually hadn’t made a decision to be a documentary filmmaker before I made my first film. In truth, I had no idea about documentary film at the end of 1980s. In China at that time, nobody really talked about or watched documentaries. 

Essays

A Forgotten Himalayan Love Gospel

Jonathan Keir on translating a little-known classic by Tang Junyi

The Western reader stands before the untranslated continent of Chinese literature like Columbus in 1492: take me to the treasure! There is far more, of course, than one can ever hope to load back onto the boat. An egregious recent case of neglect, to cite but one example, is the great Chinese translator of Don Quijote, Yang Jiang (杨绛 1911-2016), whose late masterpiece Reaching the Brink of Life (走到人生边上) has not yet been rendered in English (the same cannot, fortunately, be said for her husband Qian Zhongshu’s equally deserving Fortress Besieged). 

Another shamefully forgotten giant of 20th century Chinese letters is Tang Junyi (唐君毅 1909-1978).

Bangdong

Housework and Homecoming

Renovating a mud house in rural China – Matt Chitwood

I first visited the Old House on a crisp December afternoon. Only two such buildings were left standing in the village and the mayor thought I might be interested in renting it during my two years here. We took a small dirt path past a neighbor’s outhouse and followed it along a rock wall, tiptoeing between beer bottles and candy wrappers that Neighbor Li had tossed from above. To our right, a chayote tree grew up and over the trail, its vines eclipsing the blue sky. We ducked underneath and followed the path up a small embankment to where the Old House stood.

Q&A

The Ghosts Inside

Matilda Colarossi talks to Lindsay Wong, author of The Woo-Woo

Lindsey Wong’s memoir The Woo-Woo relates the journey from childhood to young adulthood of a first generation Chinese-Canadian and her “crazy” family. Crazy is a word that appears often in the text, but not in the sense we might use it, of mental health. For the Wong family, crazy means possession by the Woo-Woo ghosts: ancestors who can occupy any individual at any time, at the least sign of weakness.

So the Wongs must be strong, for the Woo-Woo – the source of evil, hallucinations, blemishes, outbursts, bad marks and suicide attempts – are always lying in wait. Everything that goes wrong in life is the fault of the Woo-Woo, and every member of the Wong family tries to run from the ghosts as best they can. They do so by camping out for days in a food court in the mall, or by going to the bathroom (were one is vulnerable) in groups. Or, like Lindsay, by going away to university.

The memoir begins with Lindsay suffering from an extreme case of vertigo while she is in college, far from home (and, she had hoped, the Woo-Woo). Her greatest fears seem to become reality, but she gets a surprise, and we start on a joy-ride that we wish would never stop. We laugh, cry and worry about Lindsay as she tries to integrate into a new world, but does not know how to leave the weight of old ghosts behind.

Dispatches

Flower Town

The rise and fall of a Sichuan village – Sascha Matuszak

I remember when I learned my house was getting torn down. It was June 11, 2008, an exceptionally hot summer day. Flies were buzzing lazily around my head, and the shadows were as sharp as knives. The women of the village, normally a chattering bunch, were conspicuously silent around the corner from my country home, hidden from view by the plum trees. I shuffled over to see what was going on, when a flimsy blue Chery QQ flew around the corner and forced me back.