Zhang Yimou: Breaking the Rules of Chinese Cinema

When people think about the work of Zhang Yimou, they primarily picture highly dramatic and cinematic works that are full of suspense and action. Some of these types of films include Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower. While these films are easily able to captivate the attention of international audiences due to their stunning visuals and outlandish storylines, Zhang Yimou has directed a few films that have an entirely different approach to storytelling. Two of these films in particular are To Live and Not One Less, which both revolve around the same theme of highlighting the adversity and perseverance of Chinese people who struggle with problems that are especially relatable to Chinese audiences.


American Promotion Poster for To Live

To Live depicts the life of a family in China, following their disheartening transformation in lifestyle. The story begins in the 1940s, as Fugui, his wife Jiazhen, and their daughter Fengxia live comfortably due to the wealth Fugui inherited from his father. As a compulsive gambler, Fugui bets and loses his property and entire fortune, causing his wife to leave him along with their daughter and unborn son, Youqing. Jiazhen ultimately allows Fugui to rejoin their family, but ends up being captured by the revolutionary army during the Chinese Civil War. When he is finally allowed to return home, he discovers that his daughter is now permanently mute and partially deaf due to a fever she had. The story then fast forwards ten years later to the Great Leap Forward. During this time, the family’s village is enlisted in gathering materials to produce weapons for the people’s government to help retake Taiwan.

“Are you sure we’re just townsfolk? Of course. Poor townspeople. It’s good to be poor. Nothing like it.”

One day, their nine-year-old son Youqing is exhausted from balancing this labor and school commitments, so he decides to take a nap against a wall. Later that evening, a few men run to Fugui to inform him that his son was killed by the District Chief’s Jeep that was accidentally left on and crashed into the wall, crushing Yoquing who was sleeping against it. The scene ends with Fugui yelling “wake up!” at his son’s bloodied body, Jiazhen in hysterics and being physically prevented from seeing her son’s body, and Fengxia remaining silent in the background, shocked by the death of her younger brother. The story moves another decade into the future to the height of the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s. Fengxia, now a young woman, gets engaged to a local military leader and becomes pregnant. Her parents and husband accompany her to the hospital as she goes into labor. During the birth, Fengxia starts to hemorrhage, causing her family to panic and demand the nurses to help her. The nurses admit that they do not know what to do because they are all only students and that the doctors were sent away to serve labor sentences for being over-educated. Fengxia dies from blood loss, but is still able to deliver a healthy child. The film ends six years later, as the family now only consists of Fugui and Jiazhen now in their sixties as well as their son-in-law and young grandson. After going to visit Fengxia and Youqing’s graves, Fugui tells his grandson that “life will get better and better,” which is the last line of the film.

“Little Bun won’t ride an ox, he’ll ride trains and planes and life will get better and better.”

Throughout the almost thirty-year period of the film, this family endures a string of severe misfortune that always takes place just as their lives seem to be getting better. They not only lose their home, status, and wealth, but most importantly their children. While having to endure such great losses in a relatively short time span is something that probably a very small portion of the audience has all experienced themselves, they are relatable situations that evoke empathy and compassion for this family. Having to lose all one’s money, getting forcibly enlisted in the army, and witnessing the death of multiple of one’s children are things few people are forced to experience all in the same lifetime. Yet, these problems hit closer to home and all audience members can relate to at least one on some level. Compared to the characters of Zhang Yimou’s action movies, these ones are more complex and are neither deemed good or evil. This ambiguity and room for interpretation was rare especially in Chinese cinema and thus heavily influenced and shaped its future development and also Chinese performance art in general.

American Promotion Poster for Not One Less

Not One Less focuses on a thirteen-year-old girl, Wei Minzhi who is moved to a rural village in China to become a substitute teacher for a permanent teacher who is called away by family business. With no formal teaching education let alone a high school education, he instructs her to simply copy his notes up on the board and having the students write them down in their books. Before leaving, he warns her that children have been leaving for the city, abandoning their education to start working. He incentivizes her to help prevent this any further by offering a ten yuan bonus if she can keep all his students in school. During her first few days on the job, all of the students are disrespectful towards her, screaming and running around the classroom instead of copying her notes. One student in particular, Zhang Huike leads the class in taunting her, insisting that she’s too young to be their teacher since the students are only two years younger than her. This behavior continues for the next few days.

One day, a sports recruiter comes to take one of the students to a special athletic training school and Wei unsuccessfully attempts to stop it. A few weeks later, she discovers that Zhang, the class clown, has left for the city to go find work. Frustrated and eager to keep as many students in school, Wei enlists her students to help earn enough money to buy a bus ticket, so she can bring Zhang back home. Through this, her relationship with the students vastly improves. Unable to make enough money for a ticket, Wei ends up walking to the city. She runs around trying to ask people for help and most of them ignore her. The only person who takes interest in her story is a TV station manager who decides to run a feature on Wei and the boy she’s trying to bring back home. During her time on the air, she publicly pleads for Zhang to come back to school and discusses rural education. Wei and Zhang are reunited and they return back home in a truck filled with new school supplies donated by the station manager. The film ends with a closing statement about the current problem of poverty and mismanagement of rural education in present-day China.

Roger Ebert Reviews Not One Less

What was particularly unique and innovative about Not One Less was that Zhang Yimou did not hire any professional actors for the movie. Instead, he decided to hire people who actually had similar backgrounds and occupations as the characters they portray in the film. He also let these non-professional actors use their real names for the characters they played. In contrast from the majority of his films, Zhang Yimou also filmed this movie in a documentary-style, further blurring the boundaries between drama and reality (Columbia).

Zhang Yimou on the set of Not One Less with thirteen-year-old Wei Minzhi

Both To Live and Not One Less are bold films that have openly commented on and criticized aspects of the People’s Republic of China. Zhang Yimou’s realistic films evoke very polarized responses from his audience members. To Live was banned in China as well as Zhang Yimou himself was from making films for two years while Not One Less was surprisingly the first film of his that pleased Chinese government censors (Cardullo). While he can be seen as a rebellious artist in China, I believe that his goal is not to actively provoke or go against any of his viewers’ beliefs, but rather simply portray his personal beliefs and concerns with a level of candidness that has rarely been explored in Chinese cinema and performance art as a whole. With this, he encourages his viewers to think for themselves and independently interpret and analyze his work. Thus, through these two films in particular, Zhang Yimou has also encouraged more individual expression in the works of rising artists of the Sixth Generation. He has paved a path for these future artists to further explore realism, deviate from the standard, highly dramatic genres that have continued to dominate Chinese performances, and inspired them to be more vocal and critical about the world that personally surrounds them.

One of the most interesting aspects about these two movies is that there are no clearly defined heroes or villains. The man who kills Fugui and Jiazhen’s son was actually a family friend who does so by accident and is unable to forgive himself. While Wei Minzhi may seem like the obvious hero of the movie as a teenager who is able to handle such a challenge, it is clear that throughout the film, her main motivation for her all actions seem to be her desire to receive the 10 yuan bonus offered by the permanent teacher. At one point, she actually tries to hide the student who was being recruited by the athletic academy. The opportunity for a village to send of a possible world-class athlete would be a great source of pride and have an elite education would probably offer the student a better life than remaining in the small village, but Wei seems to be so focused on the only criteria of earning her bonus. From this, while Wei’s ambition and endurance is admirable, she’s such a complex character with multiple motivations that we can’t simply just label her a “good” person. This more accurately reflects true human nature because human beings are not only all good or all bad and lets audience members more closely analyze the characters.

At the core, humans are self-centered and pursue things out of self-interest. Actually showing how this plays out in a film makes characters more relatable and is able to pull audiences into the story because of the realism. Many Westerners believe that Not One Less was Zhang Yimou’s method of expressing his concern over the negative impact of Communist China’s capitalist practices (Bert). While the film centers around Wei Minzhi, everyone in it seems to have the singular end goal of earning money. The Chinese government had a very different reaction, interpreting it as commentary on the perseverance of Chinese people (Columbia). These complex character dynamics are ones that rarely come up in Chinese performance art, as it requires more involvement from audience members and challenges them to deal with ambiguous situations. These films are more realistic because of their characters more than anything else and it offers a lot open for interpretation. Creating characters that actively avoid being slotted into the common role types of Chinese performances pushes future artists to also create outside this system and feel encouraged to tell stories that may not be as visually grand in nature, but just as if not more impactful on audiences.

Another theme shared by To Live and Not One Less is the emphasis on strong female characters whose storyline does not rely on or center around a man. In fact, out of all characters in their respective movies, Jiazhen and Wei come out as the strongest in the end. In especially Chinese theatre and film, women are portrayed as people who are not as powerful or in control as male protagonists. Their actions are also usually driven by their relationship with a man and thus are treated as supporting characters to the typical male archetype’s storyline. In both these movies, Zhang Yimou breaks this stereotype, as his goal is to reflect what society truly looks like. Being able to see this more honest representation of female characters adds even more complexity to the stories, but it is a more accurate depiction of a gender that has been shortchanged not only in Chinese performances, but commercialized Western cinema as well. Through these movies, Zhang Yimou has brought awareness to the lack of adequate representation for females in film, proving that he is not only ahead of his time in China but the film industry as a whole. While Hollywood continue to be male-dominated, Zhang Yimou proves that stories about women are just as important to tell and just as profitable.

Zhang Yimou is a director who has the unique ability to tell very different stories equally well. While Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower are period epics that employ martial arts, royal families, and pop culture icons like Jet Li and Jay Chou as their male leads, Zhang Yimou’s more realistic films that are more subtly dramatic are able to attract the same level of national and international attention. To Live was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival while Not One Less won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It is also interesting to compare these films to his direction of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremonies, as the film performances are so different from the ceremony that it would be difficult to see that they were all directed by the same person if we had no prior knowledge.

Fou Drumming Sequence of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony

Another major contrast between the two types of work was that the opening ceremony was specifically instructed to be a performance that positively represented China on the international stage while these movies were quite critical of Chinese government practices. Zhang Yimou is able to showcase China’s achievements and convey a strong sense of national pride as well as also express his views on the shortcomings of its government. He has equal passion for both messages, which makes him incredibly introspective at his core, as he his able to look at situations objectively and identify both the positive and negative aspects. Although some think that his popularity was somewhat driven by his reputation in the West for only creating work that was “banned in China” and was even seen as a director that was primarily catering to Western tastes, Zhang Yimou’s first and foremost goal is to display the world that he sees, including both the good and the bad (Brownwell). His openness as an artist is rare because of the limitations the Chinese government is able to put on artists, but Zhang Yimou prioritizes honest storytelling before his concerns of only pleasing others whether they are Westerners or Chinese. There always seems to be an argument over his works, claiming that a performance is more geared towards pleasing Westerners or the government, etc. While people can argue for one over the other, I do not think his intention is to exclude or cater towards one over the other. One just has to watch the opening ceremonies and one of his films like To Live or Not One Less to understand that he produces performances that reflect his interpretation of what is happening in the real world around him.

As a fifth generation filmmaker, Zhang Yimou stands out from his peers because of his desire to produce films that are grounded in reality. There are however a number of Chinese playwrights who have also chosen to focus their work on these dramas such as Stan Lai. Through his works like Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, Strange Tales from Taiawan, and I Me He Him, Lai comments on the relationship between China and Taiwan from his perspective and experience. The stage setup of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land in particular further demands audience participation, which heightens the play’s sense of realism. Audience members occupy the same space as the theatre that is being performed around them. Their seats have the ability to rotate full circle, allowing audience members to focus on whatever certain aspects that are taking place all at the same time (Braester). While immersing an audience into a story is easier in the medium of theatre, as Lai was also able to physically immerse his viewers in the same space as the actors, I believe that Zhang Yimou has this similar desire to pull in audience members into his films and also have them interpret what the film’s message is based on the aspects that stood out most to them combined with their own beliefs and experiences. He does not wish to spoon feed the purpose of his films, which shows that the strong reactions in response to works like To Live and Not One Less stem from an uncomfortableness with ambiguity more than anything else.

Zhang Yimou is arguably China’s most successful director, as he has consistently been able to attain an international reach and acclaim for both his action and drama films. While others may think his popularity is derived from being blatantly rebellious, he is just an artist that has explored topics that were untouched in the viral medium of film. Through his work, Zhang Yimou has challenged the status quo by simply leaving room for interpretation. He wants his viewers to participate in shaping the film as well and this has created such strong responses because no filmmaker before him has been able to complete it at such a level. Zhang Yimou is an innovator of not only the film industry but also of Chinese Performance Culture and he has inspired a new generation of Chinese and non-Chinese artists to tell stories about current events and problems in the world in order to cover topics that are truly significant and deserving of conversation.






Braester, Yomi. 2008. “In Search of History Point Zero: Stan Lai’s drama and Taiwan’s doubled identities.” Journal of Contemporary China.

Brownwell, Susan. 2009. “The Beijing Olympics as a Turning Point? China’s First Olympics in East Asian Perspective” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 23-4-09.

Cardullo, Bert. 2008. Out of Asia : The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Abbas Kiraostami, and Zhang Yimou; Essays and Interviews. Newcastle upon Tyne, GBR: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Not One Less. 2012. Columbia University. Retrieved from www.columbia.edu. 2016.

Zhang, Yimou. Not One Less. China. Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/not-one-less/id322172451.

Zhang, Yimou. To Live. China. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZB7HYhUpDz8.