No Such Thing as True Heroism: An Analysis of the Underdogs in 芳华 Youth (2017)
Bi-College (Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges). Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
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China during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) represented a period in which principles of government, education, and even day-to-day living were challenged. Heroism and virtue were not free from scrutiny. These two concepts only became more relevant and complicated during a time in which self-preservation was not guaranteed. For some Chinese citizens, heroism and virtue served as the sole pathway of achieving self-preservation. The promotion of individual and collective goodness, or virtue, became the formula for model citizenship under Chairman Mao Zedong (1893–1976) and the Chinese Communist Party. A person's devotion and subservience to the government could render them a Revolutionary hero, as shown through the immortalization of nationalist icon Lei Feng (1940–1962). However, modern filmmakers focusing on the Maoist era (1949–1976) have their own ideas of what heroism is and are unafraid of expressing anti-Party sentiment by using humble characters that live tragic storylines. These films focus on the hardship and survival of more unconventional heroes that would not have been recognized by the Party. For directors like Zhang Yimou (b. 1950) and Feng Xiaogang (b. 1958), heroes can be ordinary people simply trying to survive the difficulties of their own lives, and they do not have to agree with the government. In my examination of Feng Xiaogang's 2017 film Youth, I argue that true heroism is not possible during a time in which morality was fragile, suffering was rampant, and self-interest was compromised. In my analysis of Party-backed heroism versus Feng's discourse on heroism I contend that the heroism achieved by the film's protagonists is devoid of meaning relative to the amount of suffering they experience. I also discuss the film's reception and issues regarding modern China's societal struggle with the Communist Party government, and how today's youth also struggle with self-preservation, virtue, and heroism.
Jessie Chen was a Bryn Mawr College student.