Essay: National identity: an analysis

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  • Subject area(s): Media essays
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  • Published on: August 9, 2018
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National identity can be defined as one’s identity or sense of belonging to one state or to one nation in particular. The Oxford English Dictionary defines National Identity as the sense of a nation as a unified whole, as represented by distinguishing traditions, culture, language and politics. National Identity may refer to the subjective feeling one shares with a group of people about a nation, regardless of one’s legal citizenship status. National Identity is viewed in psychological terms as “an awareness of difference”, a “feeling and recognition of ‘we’ and ‘they’.” National Identity is therefore those distinct features that mark out an individual a nationality. In this essay, I will critically discuss how National Identity is represented in Jai Zhang-ke’s Xiao Wu (1997). This is a Chinese film therefore I will be discussing how Chinese National Identity is represented in this film.
The film was released and set in 1997 China at the point where the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had recently handed the reins of government to the third generation of leadership led by Jiang Zemin. During the mid-1990s, China had begun to experience exponential economic growth despite foreign trade embargoes. Jiang Zemin’s macroeconomic reforms fostered Deng’s vision for “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” However, at the same time of this economic growth, Jiang’s period saw an equivalent rise in social corruption in all spheres of life. Unemployment was at its peak as unprofitable state-owned businesses were shut down to make way for more competitive enterprises. The poorly managed social welfare system was put on a serious test. Lots of other events were occurring in China at this stage including scientific and technological advancements such as space travel. Massive infrastructural construction work was going on. This included the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and environmental pollution was for the first time becoming a serious issue in Beijing. In 1997 Hong Kong, which had been a colony of the United Kingdom for over a century and a half was returned to China with attendant fanfare. This was the setting for Jai Zhang-ke’s Xiao Wu (1997) which is the subject of this Essay.

Jai Zhang-ke’s film is based in Fen yang, a small provincial town said to be in the backwaters of Shanxi province. Jai Zhang-ke grew up in this small town. The lead character in the film Xiao Wu is a member of a gang of pickpockets in the area. As the film progresses he appears to become one of the older and more mature members of the gang as many of his colleagues move on to other things. One of his former pickpocket friends, Jin is getting married and chooses not to invite Xiao Wu to his wedding as he does not want to be associated with his former co-criminal friend. Xiao Wu floats around, unhappy about this betrayal, but makes no effort to change his ways as he still continues to go about with his pickpocketing lifestyle. He finds himself a girlfriend, a prostitute called Meimei who appears to be very interested in him but however drops him when she finds someone better. Xiao Wu then visits his poor family but ends up getting into an argument with his parents over their use of his ring which he had previously bought for Meimei as a gift to his brother’s fiancé. He gets kicked out of the family house and he threatens to never come back. At the end of the film he is arrested and the last we see of him is when he is handcuffed to the lamp post in the middle of the street with a condemning crowd observing him judgementally. At the beginning of the film, we have seen that there is an immense clampdown on crime in the area. It, therefore, follows that Xiao wu has a tough time ahead of him.

In the first scene of the film, we see random bystanders waiting for a bus in what seems like a documentary style of shooting. These characters represent the average citizens of China going along with their everyday lives. We then get the same shot, but however, this time it is of Xiao Wu standing at a bus stop waiting for a bus. We notice a factory which is in the background of the shot. During the 1990s the Chinese economy was expanding rapidly as a result of mass privatisations and capitalism and the opening of the country to foreign investments for the first time in modern times. Companies from other countries were rushing to build factories in China to take advantage of low labour and other production costs. As stated earlier at this time capitalism was being introduced to China after a long era of communism. In 1997, a lot of the Chinese population were low paid workers which informed their relative poverty. The film properly depicts the National Identity of China at this stage of the 1990s as shown by the poor lifestyle of the people in the midst of invigorated economic activity.

When Xiao Wu gets on the bus he refuses to pay the bus fare. He lies by insisting that he is a Policeman. At this point in China’s history being a Policeman carried a strong sense of authority and indeed invoked fear. We can see that though the Bus Conductor did not entirely believe Xiao Wu’s story about being a Policeman he would not take the chance of incurring the Policeman’s wrath if indeed Xiao Wu turned out to really be a Policeman. He, therefore, walks away and Xiao Wu gets away with not paying the fare. It is evident therefore that in the 1990s there would have been dire consequences following from offending a Police Officer. The Chinese society is structured on ‘Confucianism’. Confucianism is based on the teachings of the Chinese scholar Confucius who lived from 551BC – 479BC. ‘Confucius developed a system of inter-reliant relationships— a structure in which the lower level gives obedience to the higher (extending from the family level to the national). As a result, Chinese culture tends to give a considerable amount of reverence for authority and age (though not necessarily sincere, especially in a changing modern China).’ A very important element of Chinese National Identity is shown here as exemplified by the fear and awe of authority which had its roots in Confucianism.

In the bus, as Xiao Wu attempts to pickpocket the man that is sitting beside him, the camera switches to a little picture of Mao Zedong which is hanging from the rear-view mirror in front of the bus. This brings us to the fact that China in 1997 was yet adjusting to its new capitalist nature after the end of the Mao era. Mao Zedong in his many years of rule over

China had achieved a god-like stature in the eyes of the Chinese people. He was the supreme leader. Seeing therefore Xiao Wu in this scene stealing in the presence of Mao Zedong appears to be mocking the presence of chairman Mao especially at this time were the era of his rule had come to an end. This is not the only time in which Mao’s politics is mocked in the film. When Xiao Wu goes to visit his friend in his shop, his friend’s daughter is seen playing with a mango. This can be seen as the representation of ‘The Mango Fever’ – On the 4th of August 1968, Mao had been gifted with some mangoes by the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada in what was supposed to be a diplomatic gesture of friendship. Chairman Mao described the mangoes as a “spiritual time bomb”. Not too long after, Mao had had his assistant distribute them to the Mao Zedong Propaganda Teams throughout Beijing, beginning with the one started at Tsinghua University and thereafter an article was published in the People’s Daily. I Quote:

“In the afternoon of the fifth, when the great happy news of Chairman Mao giving mangoes to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team reached the Tsinghua University campus, people immediately gathered around the gift given by the Great Leader Chairman Mao. They cried out enthusiastically and sang with wild abandonment. Tears welled up in their eyes, and they again and again sincerely wished that our most beloved Great Leader lived then thousand years without bounds … They all made phone calls to their own work units to spread this happy news; and they also organised all kinds of celebratory activities all night long, and arrived at [the national leadership compound] Zhongnanhai despite the rain to report the good news, and to express their loyalty to the Great Leader Chairman Mao.”

This article shows how the mango became a symbolic fruit in China and the fact that a mango has been tactfully placed in the film also represents how politics in China has been represented in this film. Outside of the two scenes mentioned above depicting the Mao era we also see that throughout the film many people are dressed in Mao jackets. This also further exemplifies the National Identity of China in the 1990s.

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