Published in Art Forum in 2003
At the 50th Venice Biennale, Shanghai-based artist Yang Fudong presented The Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest , 2003, the first part of his new filmic pentalogy, The Seven Intellectuals , an adaptation of the traditional Chinese stories known as “The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.” The first installment (shot in 35 mm black and white) begins the series’ exploration of the ambiguous position of intellectuals in contemporary China—their longing for individual freedom in the shifting context of an emerging capitalist economy. Yang, who was born in 1971 in Beijing and graduated from the China Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou, has shown an interest in the conundrums of idealism in his earlier works, such as the photographic triptych The First Intellectual , 2000, where he reflects on the difficulty of finding and adopting a rebellious and critical attitude in a society undergoing changes that are as rapid as they are profound. On other occasions, his approach has been poetic and nostalgic, showing stylistic references to Chinese films of the ’30s and ’40s, such as Yuan Muzhi’s Street Angel (1937) and Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948). Yang’s internationally praised first feature film, An Estranged Paradise (2002), tells the story of Zhuzi, a young intellectual befallen by a strange illness, a restlessness that arrives with the rainy season and disappears with its end. In Yang’s own words, the film stands as “a meditation on life,” in which nature seems intimately bound to psychology. It is a poignant convergence of mind and outside world that presages the first episode of The Seven Intellectuals.
In one of my earlier works, the photographic triptych The First Intellectual , I touched on a concept that still preoccupies me: One wants to accomplish big things, but in the end it doesn’t happen. Every educated Chinese person is very ambitious, and obviously there are obstacles— obstacles coming either from “out there,” meaning society or history, or from “inside,” from within oneself. In this work you could see that “the first intellectual” has been wounded. He has blood running down his face and wants to respond, but he doesn’t know at whom he should throw his brick; he doesn’t know if the problem stems from himself or society. Ideals and the way they distinguish people, but also the way that they can unite people and encourage them to form bands, partnerships, brotherhoods—this was something I wanted to investigate in more depth, taking my time to do so. When I eventually completed An Estranged Paradise , I started defining this new, vast project, which will unfold as five different films. Because I feel that this topic is extremely important to an understanding of China, both past and present, I wanted to articulate several temporalities together: one that is really ancient, the stories of “The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove”; another set during the ’50s and ’60s, when there was a profound questioning of the status and role of intellectuals (and so the films will have a clear ’50s, ’60s kind of New Cinema flavor); and, ultimately, one dealing with the concerns and ideals of today.
The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove were a group of Chinese scholars and poets who fled the troubles accompanying the transition between China’s Wei and Jin dynasties during the mid-third century. They assembled in a bamboo grove, where they forgot all of their worldly troubles, losing themselves in pure thought and discussion. This sort of retreat was typical of the Taoist-oriented ch’ing-t’an (“pure conversation”) movement, which advocated freedom of individual expression and hedonistic escape from extremely corrupt politics. Their ideal consisted of following their impulses and acting spontaneously, and being sensitive to the beauties of nature.
So the first film in this project stands for me like the beginning of a book, the preface; it’s an introduction of the story and the fate of these “new” seven intellectuals. “The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove” doesn’t exist as a book; there are legends, popular stories, hearsay knowledge, and, of course, what’s interesting is also the distortion, the fact that the stories have continually been adapted to changing contexts and times and to the intentions of different storytellers. That’s also something that I want to investigate, in light of contemporary China and its relationship to history—this state we’re in, which can be described as a moment when we have to negotiate our past while imagining our present.
The first film shows the intellectuals traveling to and dwelling on Huangshan, a very famous mountain situated in the southern part of Anhui Province. The landscape, the nature, is just beautiful there. The peaks rise one on top of another, and the pines and cypresses are luxuriantly green. There are almost a hundred big and small peaks and ridges, and plenty of lakes, brooks, deep pools: It’s a kind of dreamscape. I really like showing this sort of atmosphere—very calm, very beautiful, but with a strange, disturbing aspect, exactly like in a dream. Or like when you wake and you cannot accurately recall the dream. Still, a feeling lingers that you had a strange or even frightening dream, and you know if you try to describe it to someone else, that person just won’t be able to relate; you can only keep it inside you. In our real life, it seems that where we are heading is always the opposite of where we want to go. It is the same with the dream. We are dreaming we are somewhere, but when we wake up, we find that we are somewhere else. Perhaps this reflects the perfection of the dream.
My new film investigates how this dreamlike environment affects relationships and discussions among the intellectuals—as well as their solitary meditations on individuality and liberty. We need to pursue something, and then we have our spiritual sustenance and belief. In the subsequent films, the intellectuals will be shown living in a building, in a metropolis—say, Shanghai; in a village in the countryside in the company of peasants and villagers; and on a deserted island where they’ll start to invent a new world from scratch by defining new modalities of social life and interaction and a new distribution of labor. (Of course, the separation of material and immaterial labor and capital will be questioned.) And in the fifth and last part, eventually the intellectuals will return to the city—and so return to reality, confronting their contemporaries with their new experiences.