How can Feng Xiaogang’s Youth (2017) contribute to current debate about China affairs?

In the last half decade there has been a growing anti-China sentiment in the Western world, most recently exacerbated by the Trump administration and how it used the emergence of Covid-19 to imbue a distrust of China on a global scale. The drastic rise in hate crime directed at Asian communities is alarming, and we need to address this humanitarian crisis and explore solutions to quell the xenophobia boiling up in the dark corners of our society. One possible solution, small and niche as it may be, is the reconciliatory powers of film.

China is only becoming more alienated from Britain; its reception within the mainstream press having undoubtedly given some with the ammunition to torment and dehumanise people of Chinese and Asian origin. Film is one of many avenues to explore when attempting to reconnect British people with Chinese culture and affairs, as its accessibility will enable a more diverse debate on the subject.

In this instance I will be taking a dive into Feng Xiaogang’s epic melodrama “Youth” (2017), commenting on poverty and its influence on the plot. Perhaps through international cinema and collaboration in the arts, we can encourage a more diverse debate on China.

Class prejudice shown in Feng Xiaogang’s “Youth (2017)”

Poverty and inter-class tensions play a large part in “Youth”, each largely influencing each character’s narratological arc. Its reception among the characters reflects on China’s desperate struggle to shake itself free from the shackles of socio-economic depravity. But we must ask, at what cost?

Xiaoping, the lead female protagonist, joins the army’s dance troupe from humble (penurious) beginnings. Having been sent to a ‘re-education’ camp, Xiaoping’s father had brought shame on their family. This left his daughter with few options. From the first opportunity her comrades set to work on victimising Xiaoping, mocking her general lack of sophistication. Her social status heavily influences her misfortunes throughout the film, and so we are set on rooting for the vindication of this sympathetic character.

Likewise, the honourable Liu Feng, the lead male role, follows a similar fate. Being the son of a carpenter, his hardships are exacerbated by his lowly status despite being the most righteous and selfless character in the story. Presented in stark opposition you have the troupe’s darling vocalist, Dingding, a fickle character with clear intent to move up the social ladder.

Feng Xiaogang’s juxtaposition of Xiaoping and Liu Feng with Dingding is emblematic of China’s internal struggle with poverty and morality: climbing up the greasy pole will grant power and reputation, but at the cost of one’s moral judgement. On the other hand, remaining humble will earn one respect from their immediate peers, but their relevance will quickly evaporate in a developing world.

The past, the present, the future

A pivotal moment in China’s dealings with mass poverty began with The Great Leap Forward (1958-62), a socio-economic campaign spearheaded by Mao to nationalise farming and boost domestic industry, with the intent of carving out China’s place on the global stage. It is no secret that the campaign was responsible for mass famine and a death toll in the tens of millions. Mao’s endeavours to regain favour and cement his rule manifested in the Cultural Revolution, in which his cult of personality was solidified, and the people of China were propelled into an epoch of suspicion and frenzied loyalty to the party.

China’s war on poverty began after the death of Mao with the market reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, where the country slowly began to open up to the world and employ Western techniques of economic development. This period is marked in the film with the appearance of American cultural totems, i.e., Coca Cola, jeans, pop music and so on.

Despite China’s golden age of economic growth sparked by the market reforms, an estimated 100 million people were still living in poverty at the start of Xi Jinping’s presidency in 2012. Xi’s campaigns to quash poverty in China have been considerably successful, signalling the end of an era of mass destitution brought about by the Great Leap Forward. The battle may nearly be won, but the scars of the war have undoubtably shaped modern China.

Feng’s film is not a homage to the CCP nor the People’s Liberation Army. His goal was to shed light on individual experiences in a time of unprecedented change. Fictitious as it may be, it has a poignant message: as the CCP bulldozed its way through second half of the 20th century, the people of China were engulfed in unrelenting waves of political upheaval. If they could not adapt and stay afloat, they were to drown under the seismic shifts of socio-economic development.

By engaging with Feng Xiaogang’s commentary on poverty in the film, we are diversifying our understanding of China’s tumultuous past. As a result, I believe we can establish a more sympathetic view of the country’s current affairs. The prominence of inter-class tensions in “Youth” draws attention to how affected China still is by poverty, thus making the film a useful tool in broadening the debate on Chinese politics and history.

View reflected in this article is independent from UK-China Film Collab.

Youth (2017) is current showing at Chinese Cinema Season until May 12.