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Images of Aging and the Aesthetic of Actuality in Chinese Film

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2018/19 School of Chinese Research Seminar

Images of Aging and the Aesthetic of Actuality in Chinese Film

羅福林教授Professor Charles A. Laughlin
維吉尼亞大學University of Virginia

時間Time: 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Monday, September 24, 2018
地點Venue: Room 730, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus,
The University of Hong Kong
演講語言Language: 普通話Putonghua


A cultural symbolism of age was in evidence in early 20th century China, when the New Culture Movement of the 1920s institutionalized a fetishization of youth that accompanied revolutionary discourse for decades. Modern China’s revolution would attack the elderly representatives of cultural tradition while glorifying the purity and energy of youth. Since the turn of the 21st century, the meanings of both youth and old age have undergone a fundamental transformation: youth no longer signifies hope for the nation, but rather beauty, wealth, and ambition. Today’s elders, on the other hand, are the ones who experienced China’s tumultuous twentieth century. They were often precisely those virile youths who built the nation or witnessed its emergence, yet they now largely silent and invisible observers of an ironically unfamiliar and unwelcoming world.
Laughlin examines documentary and narrative films from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan over the past 20 years in which aging and dying are foregrounded (even when it is not the theme of these films). This evinces an aesthetic of actuality that has played a role in modern Chinese culture since the emergence of Chinese reportage literature in the 1930s, and which can be said to have been further developed visually in documentary filmmaking since the 1990s, which later had stylistic and thematic impact on narrative film as well. The aesthetic of actuality in all of these forms counteracts the socially anodyne effects of popular culture and mainstream narrative film, giving viewers a “reality check” that undercuts the ideology of the aesthetic and provides a corrective to mainstream discourses on aging and many related, sometimes sensitive, issues. At the same time, this study offers the opportunity to contrast the aesthetics of verbal reportage literature from the visual language of film, and how images of aging shed light on these differences.


Prof. Charles A. Laughlin is Weedon Chair Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. He received his PhD in Chinese literature from Columbia University in 1996. He has published extensively on modern Chinese literature, including Chinese Reportage: The Aesthetics of Historical Experience (Duke, 2002) and The Literature of Leisure and Chinese Modernity (Hawai’i, 2008). Most recently he co-edited By the River: Seven Contemporary Chinese Novellas (Oklahoma UP, 2016). His current research is on the engagement with desire in Chinese revolutionary and socialist literature, and on the meaning of images of aging in Chinese films of the 21st century.

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