A videograb from the movie Still Life (2006) | Photo: YouTube
A videograb from the movie Still Life (2006) | Photo: YouTube

I’ve long believed that the Chinese and Americans share more in temperament than received wisdom would have it.

Geo-strategic punditry tends to focus on China-US rivalry framed as irreconcilable differences: the individualistic versus the communitarian; the liberal market-economy versus state-led capitalism.

A few months ago, I read an article claiming that the American and Chinese systems were like, “computers running on different operating systems.” But as someone who has lived in both countries, what struck me was their similarities.

The Chinese, I have long argued, are the Americans of Asia. As players on the international stage, the United States and China are both goal-oriented and able to act decisively in their national interest. Despite the existence of internal divisions, they are coherent entities that speak with a unified voice. Backed by hard power, their strategic planners take a long-term view of evolving rivalries and alliances.

Both Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland and many of the movies of China’s sixth generation explore two side of the same phenomenon: economic globalisation

In contrast, the Indians are the Europeans of Asia. Both are notable for the glacial pace of their decision-making. Constrained by the workings of coalition politics, both the 27-member EU and India valorise plurality and argumentation over actual outcomes and performance. They often appear unable to articulate a clear vision of their core interests, with internal factiousness hijacking unified, long-term agendas.

My favourite American writer on China is Peter Hessler, someone who eschews the hyperbole and thunder of strategic analysts for a more empirical and empathetic narrative. Hessler has lived in China off and on since the late 1990s. Here is what he has to say on the subject:

“Americans and Chinese shared a number of characteristics: they were pragmatic and informal, and they had an easy sense of humour. In both nations, people tended to be optimistic, sometimes to a fault. They worked hard — business success came naturally, and so did materialism. They were deeply patriotic, but it was a patriotism based on faith rather than experience: relatively few people had spent much time abroad, but they still loved their country deeply.

“When they did leave, they tended to be bad travellers — quick to complain, slow to adjust. Their first question about a foreign country was usually: What do they think of us?”

I first made the parallels while living in China and realising how much the Chinese liked big stuff: big cars, big portions at meals, big highways. They also shared a sense of exceptionalism about their countries, as well as a heightened patriotism, coupled with an enthusiastic embrace of consumerism.

Nomadland

Employees wearing masks work on a production line manufacturing display monitors at a TPV factory in Wuhan Hubei province in China | Photo: China Daily via Reuters File Photo
Employees wearing masks work on a production line manufacturing display monitors at a TPV factory in Wuhan Hubei province in China | Photo: China Daily via Reuters File Photo

The Chinese-ness of the United States was driven home to me once again, when I watched this year’s big Oscar winner — Nomadland.

As expected from the reviews, it was a cinematic ballad: quietly powerful, elegiac. A rambling, almost documentary-like look at America’s modern nomads. These are people who live in camper vans, work as daily wagers in an assortment of physically demanding jobs, migrate like elks with the weather and their mood.

It was also, as expected, deeply rooted in mid-western America. The landscape is an actor in the movie as much as Frances McDormand. And the film is an iteration of a long-established American tradition of movie-making. Critics have called it a Western for contemporary times.

So, what surprised me most was how through the movie-watching experience I found myself repeatedly thinking what a Chinese movie it was. This wasn’t because the director, Chloe Zhao, is Chinese born, although her awareness of Chinese cinema has no doubt been an influence on Nomadland. It was because the subject matter, so American, was at once so Chinese.

Nomadland begins and ends in a ghost-town, Empire, Nevada. Empire is an abandoned company town in its death throes, following the closing down of a gypsum mining plant, its economic lifeline.

Jia Zhangke and the sixth generation

It immediately put me in mind of the films of China’s so-called “sixth generation” of filmmakers, who have become known for their low-budget, individualistic, documentary-style films on contemporary urban life and its disorientating effects on workers, as the state gives way to market forces.

The best known of these filmmakers is Jia Zhangke, who is somewhat of a darling of the international film circuit. His 2006, Still Life, won the Venice Film Festival’s top award, the Golden Lion.

Still Life was set in a town about to be flooded by construction of the Three Gorges Dam, and shared the themes of physical and emotional loss, and inexorable change in the name of economic development, all of which underly Nomadland.

In another Jia movie, 24-city, the lens is focused on displaced workers in the southwestern city of Chengdu, when a state-owned munitions factory gives way to a real estate development. Nevada and Chengdu might seem poles apart, but Nomadland and 24-city demonstrate how people in both these far-flung parts of the world experience visceral abandonment in the face of redundancies.

Two sides of the same coin

Ultimately both Nomadland and many of the movies of China’s sixth generation explore two sides of the same phenomenon: economic globalisation. The scenes in Nomadland of casual workers, moving from assembly-line to assembly-line, could have been substituted with migrant workers in China, working for many of the same factory brands. Amazon is prominently featured in Nomadland, for example.

The closure of factories in the US and the legions of migrants in China, who have left their villages to become factory workers in the country’s growing urban sprawls, are part of the same economic mechanism that binds the US and China in a consumerist grip.

The new American nomads of Nomadland are described, both by a character in the movie itself, and by several critics, as a modern avatar of the American pioneers, making their individualistic way through the rugged wild of the West.

To me they seemed closer to economically better-off versions of China’s migrant workers.

Nomadland’s protagonists, their faces all weathered lines and set lips, walk a tightrope between being masters of their own destiny and victims of circumstances outside their control. They choose to focus on the present because the future is unpredictable. There could be few better summaries of contemporary lives in China.

— By arrangement with The Wire, India

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 21st, 2021

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