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Chinese EcocinemaIn the Age of Environmental Challenge$

Sheldon H. Lu and Jiayan Mi

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9789622090866

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789622090866.001.0001

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Of Humans and Nature in Documentary: The Logic of Capital in West of the Tracks and Blind Shaft

Of Humans and Nature in Documentary: The Logic of Capital in West of the Tracks and Blind Shaft

(p.156) (p.157) 8 Of Humans and Nature in Documentary: The Logic of Capital in West of the Tracks and Blind Shaft
Chinese Ecocinema

Ban Wang

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on two films, West of the Tracks (2000) and Blind Shaft (2003), which exemplify China's problems in economic development and environmental degradation. It first examines the “creative destruction” of capital accumulation and the extraction of raw material from nature in the murder tale Blind Shaft. It then examines the cityscape of ruins in the Northeast (Dongbei), the former industrial heartland and present rust belt of socialist China, in the documentary film West of the Tracks.

Keywords:   West of the Tracks, Blind Shaft, economic development, environmental degradation, capital accumulation, documentary

The deteriorating natural environment in China has gripped the attention of social scientists, humanists, and observers. Some blame environmental disasters on China’s runaway economic growth, industrialization, and unregulated manufacturing practices. In the single-minded pursuit of growth and productivity, pollutants dumped into rivers and the air are causing egregious health and ecological consequences. In her book The Rivers Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China’s Future, Elizabeth Economy vividly portrays the ravages inflicted on the valley of the Huai River in Anhui Province. Criticizing the government’s failure to regulate the economy and to protect the environment, she tells a crisis story of “economic development run amok” along with the unfettered market and privatization.1 Other observers stress the increasingly global role that China is playing in protecting the environment on the planet and in preserving worldwide natural resources. Environmental issues are now linked to China’s drive to get on track with the world community. Still others trace the current environmental problems to a long-term developmental agenda of hasty modernization and industrialization already very much at work in Mao’s era. Judith Shapiro’s sensationally entitled book Mao’s War against Nature attempts to go further than the familiar attribution of China’s environmental problems to post-reform development and integration with the global economy. Shapiro traces the problems to Mao’s or the Chinese government’s erratic policy of development since the 1950s. Linking the arbitrary control of human beings with the assault on the environment, Shapiro seeks to show that the Maoists declared a war against nature, and that “coercive state behavior” such as forceful relocations, the suppression of political freedom, and ill-conceived social and natural engineering contributed to human suffering and environment degradation. The lessons from the negative examples of Mao’s era, Shapiro hopes, may help us understand the human-nature relationship in other periods and parts of the world.2

To reduce environmental degradation to capitalist destruction or the socialist war of industrialization against nature is to simplify China’s socialist past and the (p.158) ongoing tension between these two conflicting motifs: economic development and the curbing of over-development in the name of society. What the above commentators seem to miss is the long-term contradiction between hasty development for the nation’s wealth and power, which could be either capitalist or socialist or both, and the policy agenda to ensure the welfare and human development of the general population since the founding of the PRC. There has been a tug of war between development-driven policy orientations, often attributed to aggressive modernizers like Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, and the socialist agenda, which attended more to community, human relations, all-round prosperity, and nature. The community-based, nature-friendly elements are in a tradition of socialist culture, a legacy barely audible on the forum of environmental discussion. Socialist modernity, by promoting the common ownership of productive means and natural assets by a nation-people acting in concert, aspires to a form of the human-nature relation. This alternative modernity insists on a harmonious relationship between city and countryside, intellectuals and manual labor, industry and agriculture. The debates over these issues in the 1950s through the Cultural Revolution signaled an attempt to achieve sustainable development and harmonious society.

While history reveals tremendous gaps between reality and these ideals, these notions are no stranger to the Marxist understanding of humans and nature. Indeed, they informed some elements of the socialist agenda in Mao’s era. As John Foster demonstrates in his compelling study Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, Marx’s critique of capitalist production derives from an environmentally driven notion of “metabolism” between labor, human beings, and the earth. In Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Marx defines the labor process as “a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.”

Contrary to the view that the productionism of campaigns against nature in the Mao era was anthropomorphic and arbitrary at the expense of external nature, genuine production is based on non-exploitive relations between human beings and between humans and nature.3 Inherent in the Marxist conceptions of humans-nature relationship, this notion is crystallized in the dream image proposed by the French socialist thinker Charles Fourier. Fourier’s social theory implied a utopian, environmentalist sensibility. In working on nature to produce goods, exploitation of nature is the direct result of the exploitation of humans by the proft-driving economy and production. It is true that human production and consumption persisted for centuries before capitalist economy and this process necessarily drew on and consumed natural resources. But production itself is not the problem. Rather it is a mode of society and the related economic organization of that society based on exploitation and profit motives that initiated the destructive process against nature. If humans are not exploited for surplus value, the value of consumer goods will not rest on the extraction of surplus value and exploitation of human labor. If humans do (p.159) not exploit other humans for extra gains at the laborers’ expense, human labor will focus on producing use value for satisfying the needs of survival and community. A number of aesthetic thinkers touched on this utopian image, which readily entails a concept of humans closely in tune with the environment. In his critique of the capitalist production of images and the dreamy consumerist world, Walter Benjamin proposed the genuine dream of children’s play as a model of humans’ relation with nature. In the harmony between man and nature, “human labor will then proceed in accord with the model of children’s play, which in Fourier is the basis of the travail passionné [passionate labor] of the harmoniens [dwellers in his utopian communities]”:

Labor thus animated by play aims not at the production of value, but at an improved nature. And Fourier’s utopia presents a model for it, one that can in fact be found realized in children’s play. It is the image of an earth on which all places have become Wirtschaften [economy]. The double meaning of the word [economy/labor] blossoms here: All places are cultivated by human beings, made useful and beautiful by them; all, however, stand like a roadside inn, open to everyone.4

What has created exploitive relations between humans and nature is the modern system of profit-driven production. The capitalist relations of production produce an “irreparable rift” that constantly breaks apart this organic, natural metabolism. Exploitive, profit-driven production cynically and cyclically destroys the organic metabolism between human beings, labor, and nature. The extraction of surplus value from the producer gives rise to the antagonistic separation between capital and labor. The extraction of ground rent through the large-scale industrialization of agriculture results in the impoverishment of land and the nurturing environment.5

In the early industrial era, profit-driven production led to a drastic divide between the city as manufacturing center and the countryside as ghost towns and deserted wasteland. In the contemporary era of global capital expansion it has created a new divide between the metropolitan financial centers of the north and the desolate landscape of raw material and cheap labor in the south. Marx showed that the large scale concentration of agricultural capital “reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws itself.”6 In the historical case of England, the proft-driven, large-scale industrialization of agriculture destroyed small farmers and gave rise to a vast degrading of both laborers and materials for reproduction of life. It wrought havoc with labor power and thus the natural power of man and did damage to the reproductive power of the soil. The industrial system “applied to agriculture also enervates the workers there, while industry and trade for their part provide agriculture with the means of exhausting the soil.”7

(p.160) This irreparable rift recurs as a chronic cancer of capitalism production. It not only happens within industrialized countries but has also spread to developing nations. This is what happened in China’s initial encounter with the capitalist mode of production at the turn of the twentieth century and is happening rapidly in the twenty-first. The combined social and environmental consequences were in part what prompted China’s pursuit of alternative modernity in the Chinese Revolution and its socialist experience. Addressing the social and environmental ills of capitalist modernity, the socialist goals were to abridge the gaps between city and countryside, industry and agriculture, mental and manual workers. Although socialism, in its Enlightenment emphasis on productionism and conquest of nature, also yielded dire ecological and social consequences, the utopian goals draw energy and idealism from the notion of natural and social metabolism. Since the reforms of the 1980s, the socialist goals have been discredited in public debate and China has been moving ever closer to a capitalist mode of production. The result is a newly created, ever aggravated rift in natural metabolism and environmental and social consequences.

Environmental concerns might not be explicit in cultural scenes, but in retrospect we can discern their presence in the emergent socialist new culture of the 1950s through to the 1970s. Take Chinese films for example. Films depicting collective endeavors for mastering nature and building a livable socialist countryside evince a deep rationale about the interdependence between humans and nature. Young People in Our Village (Women cunli de nianqing ren, 1959) depicts how a small village in Shanxi Province modifes the natural environment, channels water resources, and solves the perennial problem of water shortage in agriculture. On the face of it, the whole endeavor to change the village’s barren landscape may look like any routine modern project to conquer nature. Young village people educated in the city, the self-taught village engineer, and the revolutionary soldier from the army form an entrepreneurial vanguard, combating oppositions from different quarters. One typical opposition is the claim that the water source belongs to the Dragon — a superstition that the modern scientific project seeks to dismantle. The young people apply modern knowledge to investigating the local terrain and analyzing the feasibility of their water-channeling project. But the question for us is whether this constitutes a war against nature or a modification of nature for human needs. The film addresses this question by depicting how the organic relationship between humans and nature plays out, and how the collective implementation of the project proves vital to the human “improvement” of nature — not at the cost of depleting nature but for achieving a balanced form of resonance between human life and the environment. Since the project is conducted by the village as a collective, based on collective wisdom, it aims at altering nature for the common good and for the village’s continued survival. Water is a gift from nature for nourishing and producing agricultural goods for villagers. The villagers’ continued production relies on nature’s bounty (water), which does not fow without help from science (p.161) and engineering. But making improvements on nature enhances the cohesiveness of the community, creating the image of social metabolism or interdependence between humans and between humans and their natural habitat. This is one reason why any departure from the community-centered agenda, such as a desire for city life and consumer luxury, is portrayed as unethical in the narrative. On the other hand, as the film’s theme song lyrics go, “after hard work the barren village will be in full bloom.” This socialist image contracts sharply with the buying and selling of land, labor, and nature — what Karl Polanyi calls the “sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment.”8 Profit-seeking practices premised on the commodity conceptions of labor, land, and money in capitalist economy result in the demolition of community and the decay of nature.

The socialist model of human-nature relations is premised on the collective ownership of natural assets and on farmers as co-producers of a human habitat in tune with the natural environment. The powerful sway of profit economy and development in the last few decades, however, threatens to create a lopsided relation in which one group of humans mercilessly exploits other humans while relentlessly plundering nature. I will use two recent films to discuss the environmental and human costs of unfettered economic development. West of the Tracks (Tiexi qu, 2000) is a documentary film and Blind Shaft (Mang jing, 2003) is a feature film with powerful documentary effects. Both take a strong “objective” stance and depict Chinese reality in an unadorned fashion. The link between environmentalist consciousness and documentary refects a growing trend, in China and in other parts of the world, to tell the inconvenient truth in documentary style. This may not be as surprising as it first seems. From a long historical perspective of representing reality, the drive to document a condition truthful to certain groups of people and to a certain historical era implies a materialist conception of history. And the materialist conception of history is grounded in an organic, ecological understanding of human beings deeply in touch with nature — humans as producers of their community in harmony with natural settings. Documentary is an effective medium in airing these concerns. In a runaway economy with over 10 percent annual growth for almost two decades, amid the growing appetite for fuel and in the euphoria for cars and big houses in suburbia, who are the visionaries telling the inconvenient truths about reckless development, damage to living conditions, and the depletion of rural communities? Documentary filmmaking is about telling the truth. In China’s visual landscape, dominated by billboards, glamorous stars, gloried images of the nouveaux riches, what small territory can documentary stake out? What social and environmental conditions make documentary a hot topic? How does the documentary impulse impinge on feature films? To address these questions, it may be helpful to look at two documentary texts reminiscent of Marx’s critique of capitalist accumulation.

The documentary West of the Tracks (Tiexiqu, 2000, dir. Wang Bing) begins with a long tracking shot, in which a moving train reveals a snow-covered landscape (p.162) and deserted factory compounds. Under the desolate sky, human figures in the frame move around like tiny, ghostly scraps. The landscape lies in ruins and waste. The film’s first part is titled “Gongchang” (factory) in Chinese but is translated into “Rust” in English, signifying the rusty remnants of the declining industrial infrastructure in northeast China. Located in the city of Shenyang, Liaoning Province, the industrial area had been China’s longest-standing manufacturing center, dating back to Japan’s colonizing drives in Manchuria in the 1930s. Following the model of Soviet-style heavy industry after 1949, the area became the pillar of China’s centralized economy. While the film focuses on the aged steel plants on their last legs at the turn of the twentieth-first century, it also offers numerous shots of the workers scraping out a beastly, barbarous existence. These are directed at acts, at their crudest, of eating, chatting, cursing, talking dirty, taking showers, and watching pornographic videos. There is no proud socialist working class of the old days, but a disturbing series of gross animalism that lays bare showering bodies in front of the camera, with penises visible, completely empty of civilizational fig leaves or erotic touch. The body parts and genitals come across as crumbled pieces of human flesh, as boring as the pornography the workers are watching. The bodies are withering away, like the rotting factories, like waste products, in the midst of the gigantic machines and under the crushing weight of the unknown forces of global modernity.

In Lü Xinyu’s analysis, this film registers lingering traces of China’s earlier drive in building a national industrial base as part of the aggressive industrialization campaign during the Cold War era. But as globalization and market economy gained momentum in the early 1990s, the state-owned heavy industry gave way to privatization and the quick infux of global capital drew economic activity to the coastlines and the south. The once proud industrial base in the northeast started falling apart (Lü, 2004).

The film tells a tragic story of how uneven development in global capitalism erodes the national industry base, which gives way to capital-intensive, trade-oriented, information-related economic trends. This familiar advance of the “creative destruction” of capital accumulation and expansion leaves in its trail human victims and ruined landscapes. If they are not destroyed, the victims survive in sheer animality and beastliness, without hope or enough food.

The tracking shot of West of the Tracks is reminiscent of another documentary tracking shot, a text written more than a century and a half ago about the beastly conditions of industrial workers and the decayed environment where they lived. In his The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Friedrich Engels offered an eyewitness account of the miserable and bestial conditions of workers’ living quarters in Manchester and other cities in Britain during the high industrial era. The historical conditions of England may be far removed from contemporary China. But the similar logic of the proft-driven creative destruction of people and the environment is taking a similar toll across the centuries. The debasing of workers (p.163) happened within the factory town of Manchester, while in China manufacturing workers lose their dignity by losing out to the trade centers of global capital. In human terms, the debasement and alienation are uncannily identical. Engels went to England in 1842, at the age of twenty-one, to learn the textile business. During the twenty-one months of his stay there, he turned himself into a “documentary” eyewitness and reporter. Taking numerous trips through the neighborhoods of “the helots of modern society,” and through intimate conversations with workers, he documented the wretched conditions of the industrial slums and shanty residences, seeking to discover every nook and cranny of human misery. Packed with documentary details and a photographic language, supplemented with drawings of the city’s layouts and voiced in an objective tone that scarcely hides mounting moral outrage, Engels’s book offers a stark image of shaky houses, the suffocating density of living space, the residential tangles in which one house was crowded literarily one upon the other.9 Reading Engels’s book is like experiencing a long tracking shot carried out by a handheld camera as it penetrates into the winding alleys and obscure corners of a grimy maze of slums. At the entrance of many residential “courts,” as the camera eye pinpoints, there is a toilet without a door, “so dirty that the inhabitants can only enter and leave the court if they are prepared to wade through puddles of stale urine and excrement” (58). In the communities of factory workers “there are several tanneries which fill the whole neighborhood with the stench of animal putrefaction” (58). A high-angle “shot” from a bridge above a shanty neighborhood by the river gives an overview of the Irk, a narrow, black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse, which were deposited on the banks, “creating a string of the most disgusting blackish-green slime pools” (60).

In West of the Tracks and Engels’s book, the documentary stance reveals the waste products of reckless industrialization and capitalist modernity that keep piling up wreckage upon wreckage of wasted humanity and so expanding the wastelands. The film discloses a field of ruins strewn with scraps of body parts and withered penises, which in their sheer, unspeakable corporeality are stripped naked of dignity, humanity, community, and culture.

Against such an uncanny juxtaposition of two historical images, it seems no longer urgent to argue about the epistemological accuracy of documentary. If such beastly conditions are the chronic cancer of capitalist production and if documentary seems to be the sharpest diagnosis around, would it be useful to ponder the question of whether a documentary comes close to the reality that it aims to capture? Would it be leading anywhere to haggle over whether documentary authenticity is a matter of style, image, or narrative?10 In the ceaseless shocks of these two “tracking shots,” the controversy over whether documentary is itself fiction becomes so disingenuous as to be a defensive protection to divert the eye from the catastrophe or an attempt to dissolve the ugly referent into another feel-good simulacrum. Turning a foul-smelling reality into another sanitized image, the documentary-as-fiction thesis plays into the (p.164) hand of the culture industry’s image-making process that liquidates the reality of how the other half lives off-screen and shuts out the traces of devastated humanity from the private comforts of the living room equipped with the latest multimedia and soft drinks.

Engels already noted this habitual visual denial in the urban layout of Manchester. In the bourgeois thoroughfares and fashionable districts, the shop fronts served to hide from “the eyes of wealthy ladies and gentlemen with strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and squalor which are part and parcel of their own riches and luxury” (55). In the era of globalization, capital accumulation crystallizes into palatable images around the world for proftable attentiveness and entertainment, melting the harsh reality of poverty and underdevelopment into thin air.11

Against this denial, documentary filmmakers are realists who are furious about such diverting of eyes and such media falsehood. True, documentary films are made with subjective intentions and designs, but they are not fiction and fantasy. Documentary filmmakers believe that all stories are as much constructed as they are found, but true stories must be constructed from scratch, not from the ossified and glamorous convention of the global visual regime, but by ordinary people on ground zero, living their lives and their stories as if they were acting out their own scripts and dramas in a given environment. Documentary involves different degrees of constructedness, a zero degree as it were, that is embedded in daily living and works at the grassroots level. This is the key to understanding the emergent documentary movement in contemporary China. As the visual field is increasingly dominated by fantastic representations promulgated by the transnational industry and Hollywood’s dream factory, documentary arises as a wake-up jolt to the self-indulgence in dreamy self-denial and visual whitewashing. Documentary runs counter to cultural relativism and nihilism inherent in the view that “anything is a style or fabrication.” It insists on a solid reality, not so much as a block of ontological substance or certainty, but as a risky experimental process and an earnest mode of engagement with social problems and lived experiences — engagements that have not been whitewashed into the visual spectacles of Hollywood or transnational media fantasies.

Documentary filmmaking in China presents a challenge to the newfangled mystifications in the atmosphere of global image production. The offcial media join commercial enterprises in promoting the triumphant prospects of development, prosperity, and a middle-class, consumerist lifestyle. Mainstream cinema turns Chinese history into a consumable spectacle and paints the current reality as nothing more than an endless stream of soaps, melodrama, and phantasmagoric visual stunts. Socially engaged filmmakers are aware that fast-paced modernization has given rise to new traumas of disintegration, displacement, loss, and life-and-death consequences. Yet, these disturbing developments are constantly belied by the smooth shining surface of new narratives and images. The documentary impulse aims at cutting through the veneer of fantastic lies to get at the hidden strata of reality.12

(p.165) When the documentary shines a penetrating light into the obscure strata of reality, it produces a haunting effect. In reading West of the Tracks together with Engels’s book, the fate of the workers in the steel plants in northeast China at the turn of the twenty-first century is haunted by the ghosts of textile workers in England in the 1840s. In Jia Zhangke’s “documentary” feature film Platform (Zhantai, 2000), the ghosts come back to haunt a peasant who sells his body and soul to a local mining business that has total monopoly over his labor capacity as commodity. In an unforgettable episode, the peasant, apparently dim-witted and illiterate, signs a contract with the mining business without understanding a word of it. With the written contract pronouncing that his life and death are all in the hands of Heaven, the mining company is freed from any responsibility for his life and safety, thus permitting them to treat him worse than an indentured slave. Like millions of peasants uprooted from the land and village, this character is a foating labor particle, a victim of the unregulated market in league with political power. Unregulated and reckless in labor safety and workers’ rights, the mining business offers an uncanny image of the exploitive practice and ruthless accumulation of capital reminiscent of the nineteenth-century industrial era. In large-scale industrialization, competition for accumulation of capital pushed capitalists to draw cheap laborers from the countryside and to inflict daily violence upon the workers. The ceaseless drive to gain surplus value beyond the value of labor power squeezes the last drop of blood and life from the worker. This process “devalues and depreciates labor power, to say nothing of the loss of dignity, of the sense of control over the work process, of the perpetual harassment by overseers and the necessity to conform to the dictates of the machine.”13 The history of capital accumulation “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire,”14 and of the uprooting of peasants from the land and the reducing of their bodies into mere appendage to the machine, is repeating itself in China. In Jia Zhangke’s Platform, a realist documentary camera seeks to dwell on this condition by taking a look at this uprooted job-hunting peasant, who sells his body and soul. The camera attempts to look into the brutal exploitation embedded in the unfair contract, and its many baffled long takes on this peasant intensify the enigma of a larger reality. The camera doggedly follows the peasant, gazing at his back for an agonizing stretch of time, as he walks towards to the mine, as if wondering about his unknown fate.

Though not a documentary film, Platform evinces an evident neorealist approach and inventiveness, which makes common cause with the contemporary documentary drive. Inspired by the legacy of Italian neorealism of the 1950s, Chinese critics and filmmakers have recently sought to apply realistic scrutiny to social and political problems and to delve into the grassroots life of the marginalized workers and peasants. Following the slogan “Carrying the camera to the streets,” both neorealism and documentary seek to unearth a harsh and unwieldy reality. Compared with the straight genre of documentary, a neorealist feature film may (p.166) be more effective in revealing the harsh truth. Although a documentary film may present the viewer with myriad facts and loosely connected scenes, it often loses the grip on the meaning of the facts and the attention of the viewer, often incapable of creating strong emotional resonance. The documented facts may be compelling, but they would be more compelling if the facts were interpreted or re-organized by virtue of an explorative, dramatic structure of narrative. It is in this mixture of documentary and creativity that John Grierson calls documentary film “a creative treatment of actuality,” and that Pare Lorentz designates it as “a factual film which is dramatic.”15 In this light I would suggest that a feature film, endowed with the documentary’s aesthetic and social message, makes a better documentary in the broad socio-historical sense as a witness to history, to the current landscape as well as mindscape. The French New Wave, Italian neorealism, and feature films by Jia Zhangke, Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and others can be described as film practices premised on this twofold genre of drama and documentary.16

The film Blind Shaft (2003), directed by Li Yang and adapted from the novella Sacred Woods (Shenmu) by Liu Qingbang, fits very well into this mixed genre. Trained and employed as a documentary filmmaker in Germany, Li infuses into this film documentary, images, and aesthetics deploying familiar documentary and neorealist devices and weaving a seamless interface between documentary and feature film. These include shooting on location, firsthand experience of associating with the coalminers, going down the dangerous mine shaft to do real mining work, the use of nonprofessionals, the handheld camera, the scarce use of artificial lighting, eye-level shooting, and so on. There is absolutely no music throughout Blind Shaft to suggest any sentimental touch or drama. The director intended this film to be documentary in style.17

Although these features may produce a “reality” effect, they alone will not be effective in unraveling and tackling China’s acute problems in economic development and environmental degradation. It is, rather, the film’s social critique and political messages that make it “a factual film which is dramatic.” Through documentary devices, the director aims to invite the audience to take a long, hard look at the impoverished survival of the workers, at the wretchedness of the earth, at the lingering residue of morality, at the traditional human relations swept away by the logic of capital, and at the natural environment mutilated by the obsession with growth. To do this, unfolding a narrative that lays bare human relations and strips them naked under the spell of money worship becomes an aesthetically powerful strategy.

In Blind Shaft, the figuration of the human body registers how the logic of capital accumulation, characteristic of the barbarous nineteenth-century industrialization and still rampant in the sweatshops of the metropolitan centers in the West, has penetrated into traditional human relations in China, reducing the human person to a thing. The mine workers and the prostitutes are pawns in a dehumanizing money- (p.167) grabbing game. This situation need not be attributed to the corruptive power of money or psychologized into a greedy personality. Rather it is a structural problem that engulfs the whole population to varying degrees. In producing products for proft, the human body is reduced to a vehicle for making money and becomes a commodity. The workers use their muscles as a commodity to make money for the coalmines, but they only get back a tiny fraction of output value in order to keep body and soul together for another round of production, hence, the surplus value and the bare condition of subsistence in the mining camps.

The penetrating insight of the film reveals that the two miners, as main characters, work the reifying logic of capital to its grotesque, lethal extreme. Like other uprooted and dislocated peasants, they have to sell their labor power to obtain a living for themselves and their families back in the village, but that is a small-time operation for the minimum wage. How about becoming a capitalist in the image of the mine owner? How about using other human beings as a source of capital that can yield quick returns? The two men have a capital concept: they set up cave-in accidents in the mineshaft that kills the victim they claim to be their relative, and thus make bogus claims to the mining company to get compensation payment. The company usually complies, because cheating people of their lives is precisely what the company does in a lawful, contractual disguise. Co-partners in starting up what may well be called the business of death, using the raw material of human life, the two miners transform themselves from laborers into “business” owners in accordance with the logic of capital accumulation. Are not workers dying anyway in the mine due to frequent accidents and ruthless exploitation? The two workers-turned-con-artists know the secret and undertake to hasten certain fellow workers’ deaths, gaining proft into the bargain. Their “business” operation is a truthful image of what the logic of capital encourages them to see: human beings as mere things. Workers are doomed in the grind of proft, and are disposable as means of capital.

The thing-like notion of human beings accounts for the film’s dehumanized, zero-degree portrayal of working and living conditions. The opening of the film’s narrative gives a striking example: under a leaden sky in the early morning, shivering in chilly winds and sharing a cigarette to warm up, the ghostly miners emerge out of the low cave dwellings and, in eerie silence, file in to the company offce in order to go down the shaft. The shot of their descent into the “hell” down the shaft is visceral and symbolic. These stark shots, recalling Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s desolate urban industrial scenes, turn the miners into prisoners trapped in a bare, vast, hostile landscape. The stripped-down human beings as things are consistent with the equally stripped-down landscape that looms large all around, threatening to swallow up the tiny crawling human animals. While the workers are maimed, the landscape, the whole physicality of nature indeed, is being mutilated, disemboweled, and crisscrossed by roaring trucks and machines.

(p.168) Nothing illustrates the reifying logic more powerfully than the episode of murder down in the mine toward the ending. When a miner notices that the two murderous miners are up to something strange, Tang, the more “villainous” one, strikes him dead in an offhand manner. When Song, his partner, protests that no profit can come from such wanton killing, Tang replies, “Whoever stands in the way of my fortune will be eliminated.” A supplement to this remark, often cited by the American press, is the observation by a mine owner that China lacks everything, but never lacks human beings. This view assumes that human life is disposable and cheap because of the huge size of the wretched, dislocated rural population. This quantitative measurement of the worth of human life is entirely complicit with the reifying logic of capital. The truth, indeed, is that the pervasive logic of capital already condemns human bodies, human integrity, and dignity as junk, whose value is to be measured only by the returns on their deaths, the majority of people being the means to the end of producing profit. This deadening logic is the structural principle embodied by the “villainous” character and the “lawful” owners of the coalmine who would not hesitate to cover up the villainy of business by paying off the murderers.

The naked logic of capital evidently seeps into the scenes involving nudity, which are glaring not because of their bold exposure, but because the logic of money has stripped everything naked in the first place. Only a while ago nudity in Chinese cinema was hailed as subversive and transgressive. Now the nudity in this film is banal, deadpan, and desexualized, as in a B movie; the human body is presented as a piece of meat. The two miners have sex as if they were eating an insipid meal, and Tang is put off by Song’s complaint about not getting his money’s worth. Sexual life becomes animalistic, indeed more debased than animal life: it is a discharge, like going to the bathroom, and Song could very well use sex toys rather than spend money on the girls. The transactions in the brothel are a mirror image of the way coalmines operate: like the miners, the prostitutes are nothing but a means of money-making. In a conversation between the two miners and the brothel girls, Song says women make money easily by spreading their legs, but men have to do hard work. One prostitute protests, but, as the brothel owner replies, the question as to why women sell their bodies and men sell their muscles, and women seem to have “easier” time, is for Heaven to decide.

The documentary thrust of Blind Shaft reproduces an authentic, earthy atmosphere in the confusion and chaos of the streets and market. Recording scenes of the runaway market economy, the documentary camera scrambles everything that is familiar and immerses the viewer into a giddy Chinese reality. On the other hand, the dramatic part of the film presents human agency and desire in tension with the naked logic of capital. The two murderous miners send money home and care about their families, like everybody else. Song, the “gentler” one of the pair, continuously defers the killing of the kid, their targeted victim, precisely because of his awareness (p.169) that the kid is a human being like his own kid, having his dreams of education and providing for his family. The mixture of human drama and documentary serves to reveal more meaningfully and sharply the tensions and contradictions as Song tries to hold on to the last remnants of humanity. Documentary may lay bare a dark reality dominated by the logic of capital, but the light that illuminates the darkness comes from the lingering desire to be a human being entitled to dignity, education, and community.

Documentary and neorealism, exemplified by West of the Tracks and Blind Shaft, are two voices that participate in the cultural debate about environmental, social, and human consequences in China’s fast development. In the rush to industrialization and urbanization and in its quest of new wealth and power, the questions of community, human dignity, equality, nature, and human habitat are thrown to the winds. The realistic cinematic approach intervenes by retrieving the forgotten motifis of socialist utopia, and attempts to give pause to the runaway development. Politically, the warnings of documentary and neorealist films alert the public and the government to the consequences of the blind faith in the global capitalist market.


(1.) Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future (Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 2004), 10

(2.) Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and Environment in Revolutionary China (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), xii

(3.) homo oeconomicusAndrew Janos, “Paradigms Revisited: Productionism, Globality, and Postmodernity in Comparative Politics,” World Politics 50.1 (1997): 118–149

(4.) Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1989), 276

(5.) John Bellamy Forster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Press, 2000), 141–142

(6.) Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 3 (New York: Vintage, 1976), 949–950

(7.) Ibid

(8.) Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon, 2001), 76

(9.) Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, trans. W. O Henderson and W. H. Chaloner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1958), 57

(10.) Chinese critics debate whether through standard documentary conventions, such as long shots, long takes, interviews, and synchronic sounds, etc., the documentary film can address the question of what is real. This debate, centering on the medium, inevitably leads to the questions of content, to the obscured layers of Chinese society in terms of socio-economic status. The debate becomes a socio-historical enquiry into the current circumstances in a time of confusion and change. See Lü Xinyu, “West of the Tracks: History and Class Consciousness” (Tiexiqu: lishi yu jieji yishi), Dushu (book review) 1 (January 2004): 3–15.

(11.) Jonathan Beller, “Capital/Cinema,” in Deleuze and Guattari: New Mappings in Politics, Philosophy, and Culture, ed. Eleanor Kaufman and Kevin J. Heller (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 77–95

(12.) (p.311) For an excellent account of Chinese documentary, see Lü Xinyu, Recording China: Contemporary Documentary Movements (Jilu Zhongguo: dangdai zhongguo xin jilu yundong) (Beijing: Sanlian, 2003). Also see Cheng Qingsong and Huang Ou, eds., My Camera Does Not Lie (Wode sheying ji bu sahuang) (Beijing: Zhongguo youyi chuban gongsi, 2002).

(13.) David Harvey, The Limits to Capital (London: Verso 1999), 32

(14.) Quoted in David Harvey, 414. This is Karl Marx’s phrase for the bloody process of primitive accumulation of capital.

(15.) Richard M. Barsam, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History (New York: Dutton, 1973), 2

(16.) Ban Wang, Illuminations from the Past (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004)Chapter 8

(17.) Stephen Teo, “There Is No Sixth Generation”: Director Li Yang on Blind Shaft and His Place in Chinese Cinema,” Senses of Cinema (June 2003), available online at http://www.archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/27/li_yang.html.