Happy Chinese New Year! Though I still have yet to set foot in China, I have long been fascinated by its art, culture and writing. I have chosen a Chinese book and film to share with you to celebrate the start of the Year of the Horse (though I can’t promise a great many horses are involved), both of which piqued my interest in world film and literature when I was at an impressionable age.
I am very much fond of the idea of a new year at the end of January – after a long and dreary post-Christmas month, with dark mornings and darker evenings, it is a welcome relief to arrive at the start of February, knowing that Spring is not so very far away. Plus, if the best-laid resolutions of January went wrong in week one, this is another chance of renewal. 2014 is the year of the Horse, which apparently brings with it prosperity, good fortune and fiery energy – which sounds good to me!
Until the first buds of Spring do appear, this seems like a very appropriate time to curl up with a Chinese book and film to get through these last winter nights.
Book: Chinese Cinderella
Whenever I went to stay with my Grandma as a child, she would take me to the local bookshop and let me choose a book. I built up quite a library this way, and on one occasion, when I was 11 or 12, I chose Chinese Cinderella from the shelves. I know they say to never judge a book by its cover, but I’m sure that it was the haunting black-and-white image of a sombre little girl and the Chinese flower pattern on the front which drew me in.
It was one of those books which stays with you for a long time – almost impossible to forget. It is the memoir of Adeline Yen Mah, who grew up in Shanghai with her father and stepmother, a girl blamed from her first moments for the death of her mother in childbirth. She is treated like a second-rate citizen by her father compared to her siblings. Worse is the treatment from her stepmother, who despises Adeline, is disdainful of her brothers and sister, yet spoils and pampers her own children. Adeline seeks solace in the company of her beloved grandfather – who shares with her a deep love of literature – and in her school work, two things which seem to give her the courage to cope and eventually triumph.
It is in many ways a harrowing read, but written with touching simplicity – it is a book primarily aimed at children and young adults, after all – and a great sense of hope. Adeline Yen Mah also provides illuminating insights into Chinese life and culture during the 1940s and 50s, from school routines to the written Chinese characters. She explains the meaning behind some basic characters and I remember becoming obsessed with them, spending hours tracing the characters, examining them closely, trying to understand the deft artistry that led that particular collection of lines to mean a word. The more I did, the more I could see people, places, stories, in each one – and even though the language, written and spoken remains a rather tantalising mystery, it made me appreciate the beauty that Yen Mah and her grandfather saw in it.
Film: House of Flying Daggers
This film came out when I was a bit older, maybe 16, and it was one of the first foreign-language films I ever watched – before I decided to study languages.
The House of Flying Daggers, by director Zhang Yimou, is a blend of folktale, romance and martial art genres, and tells the story of a beautiful blind girl, Xia0 Mei (Zhang Ziyi) purported to be the daughter of the former head of a strong rebel group – the House of Flying Daggers. She is arrested by two officers of the Tang dynasty, Jin and Liu, who then arrange to set her free, in the hope that she will lead them to the rebels. But all is not what it seems on the surface, and in the depths of the bamboo forests, true identities and feelings are as well-disguised as the flying daggers themselves.
The story, in many ways, is a timeless and oft-repeated one of doomed romance, but the cinematography of this film lifts it into another dimension. Every scene is exquisite, painted in a luminous palette of colours, and with no detail too small to be focussed on, brought out from its ordinariness and made extraordinary. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch this film, its sheer beauty leaves me in awe every time. The first time we meet Mei, she is brought out to show off her supreme dance talents at the brothel she is seeking refuge in. She stands in a circle of drums, and a bean is flicked at one of the drums. Using just her hearing, Mei flicks out a swathe of ribbon and hits the same drum. The sequence builds until she is a whirlwind, following the pattern of the bean, striking every drum with flawless accuracy. It is a simple scene, but it creates an incredible tension and is visually stunning. This sets the tone for the rest of the film.
This film helped me to fall in love with world cinema, and encouraged me to explore a far wider range than the Hollywood productions I’d generally watched until that point. I couldn’t have imagined then that I would, years later, review foreign-language films, but it sparked that passion.