Scholar of Chinese culture new director of Center for Chinese Studies

Photo for Scholar of Chinese culture new

UCLA Professor Michael Berry. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)


Michael Berry is an expert on modern Chinese fiction and cinema, as well as a prolific translator.

UCLA International Institute, October 21, 2019Michael Berry, a professor of contemporary Chinese culture at UCLA, became the new director of the Center for Chinese Studies in July 2019. Berry assumed the post from anthropologist Yunxiang Yan, who stepped down after leading the center for 14 years.

Berry’s explorations of Chinese culture span fiction, film and history, as well as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Hong Kong, Taiwan and diverse Chinese diasporas. He has translated five Chinese novels and written a number of studies on modern fiction, cinema, individual filmmakers and the impact of trauma on modern Chinese sensibility and memory.

His scholarly publications include “Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers” (Columbia, 2005), “A History of Pain: Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film” (Columbia, 2008), “Jia Zhang-ke’s Hometown Trilogy” (BFI/ Bloomsbury, 2009), “Boiling the Sea: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Memories of Shadows and Light” (in Chinese, 2014) and the co-edited volumes “Divided Lenses: Screen Memories of War in East Asia” (with Chiho Sawada, University of Hawaii, 2016) and “Modernism Revisited: Pai Hsien-yung and the Taiwan Literary Modernism Movement” (with Tsai Chien-hsin, in Chinese, 2016).

The UCLA professor has deep connections to the Chinese literary and film worlds. He has served as an interpreter for legions of Chinese directors visiting the United States and has been a juror for a decade (and counting) for the Dream of the Red Chamber Award, the prestigious Hong Kong–based honor awarded biennially to the single best long-form work of fiction written in Chinese. He has also served on the jury for numerous international film festivals, including what is often referred to as the “Chinese Academy Awards,” the Golden Horse International Film Festival (in 2010 and 2018).

Berry joined the UCLA faculty three years ago after 13 years at UC Santa Barbara. He is based in the department of Asian languages and cultures, with an affiliate appointment in the department of film, television, and digital media. Among the courses he offers at UCLA are a highly popular undergraduate survey course of modern Chinese culture (complete with guest appearances by writers, musicians and filmmakers), together with undergraduate and graduate courses in literature, film and literary translation.

Reaching a broader audience

In addition to his scholarly work, Berry is committed to making contemporary Chinese culture more accessible to Americans. That commitment informs both his translations of modern authors — “It's one area where I feel I can have greater impact than an academic article,” he says — and regular print and video interviews with such media outlets as The Wall Street Journal, CNN, film journals and PRI’s GlobalPost.

Berry’s efforts in this direction are driven by in part the paucity of general American knowledge about China. “Right now everyone is talking about the trade war, but I’ve always felt the cultural imbalance between our two countries is much more severe,” he says.

“If you go to any Chinese university campus and ask students about Abraham Lincoln, George Washington or Mark Twain, they could all tell you who those people are,” he explains. “But if you walk around an American campus and ask about Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature, or Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern Chinese politics, nobody knows them.”

Expanding impact and outreach

As the new director of the Center for Chinese Studies (CCS), Berry seeks to enhance its impact through new initiatives and enhanced attention to the transnational nature of Chinese culture. “One of the beauties of Chinese culture is its diasporic aspect, which creates different iterations of what Chinese-ness means,” he remarks.

A new CCS Scholars Forum will invite members of the UCLA community involved in research on China to present their recently works to other members of the community. The aim, explains Berry, is to facilitate better dialogue, improve understanding of the research being done on campus and foster greater collaboration.

By contrast, Teach-Ins will address world events and trends related to China that are happening in the moment. “Since June, the Hong Kong protests have been making headlines all over the world,” says Berry, “but how many of our undergraduates really understand the dynamics of what's taking place, what the implications are, how they are pinned to colonial history and the political dynamics of contemporary China?”

“I see an imperative for the center to step in, not to take a stance on these developments, but to educate the campus community by bringing together informed scholars to break down what's happening,” he explains. After teaching students from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the U.S. in the same classroom for 20 years, the UCLA professor certainly has the required skill set for such discussions.

Berry’s most ambitious new initiative is for an CCS Artists Series, which will engage Chinese writers, filmmakers, artists, musicians, practitioners and perhaps entrepreneurs in conversations about their lives. “They’ll come to share with these 18-year-old college kids what they wish they had known when they were 18,” he elaborates. He hopes to use the series to involve UCLA faculty — and their students — from departments and schools throughout campus, perhaps making such events part of their curricula in a given quarter.

Tracking the arc of liberalization…

Berry’s career has tracked a unique period of cultural liberalization in communist China. Following the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao in 1976, Deng Xiaoping launched major economic reforms that laid the foundation for the spectacular economic growth of China over the past four decades.

China consequently experienced a cultural renaissance, starting roughly in the 1980s and extending into the early years of the 2000s. Artists across Taiwan, Hong Kong and various Chinese diasporas became integrated via professional networks, film and literary festivals, film production houses and publishing efforts, yielding a multidimensional conversation about modern Chinese culture. And, as the Chinese film market became one of the largest and most lucrative in the world, Hong Kong and Taiwanese filmmakers alike decamped to the PRC to make films.

This profusion of creativity in China is the principal focus of Berry’s work. The mainland Chinese novelists he has translated — Ye Zhaoyan (“Nanjing 1937: A Love Story,” 2002), Yu Hua (“To Life,” 2003), and Wang Anyi (“The Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” co-translated with Susan Chan Egan, 2008) — and most of the mainland filmmakers about whom he has written (including Zhang Yimou, Jia Zhangke and Chen Kaige) form a distinct generation that lived through the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, followed by a period of liberalization and lightening-speed change.*

“On one hand, there is the socialist experience and memory of growing up under Mao and the terrible suffering that they went through,” explains Berry. “On the other, they are coming of age in this incredible reform era where, after being closed off for four decades, all of a sudden the floodgates open.

“You have ‘100 Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel García Márquez and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA,’ and Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and Wham and Michael Jackson and rock and roll,” he continues. “All these things arrived, twisted together, unleashed. At the same moment, Confucianism, Taosism, Tai Chi and the martial arts come back as well.

“Many of the writers and filmmakers of this generation were inspired by the contradictions of moving from a socialist world to a liberal, capitalistic universe,” remarks Berry. “They straddle the two and within those contradictions and tensions, created and continue to create some really incredible art.” Even the films of the younger director Jia Zhangke (born in 1970), notes the scholar, highlight the impacts of this dramatic transition on everyday people.

… back to heightened control

In the past several years, China has entered a period of more restricted, inward-looking cultural expression. Tightened censorship and self-censorship, greater limits on acceptable subjects and increased demands for ideological conformity have become the new reality.

Celebrated authors such as Yan Lianke, winner of the Kafka Prize, have seen their previously published works partially banned, while others, such as Nobel Prize–winner Mo Yan, have seen their status in public culture rudely downgraded (in Mo’s case, via the destruction of an amusement park dedicated to his masterpiece, “Red Sorghum”).

“There used to be a liminal space where Chinese artists could still create somewhat experimental works, using allegory to challenge certain political issues, but that space is becoming smaller and smaller,” comments Berry. As a result, filmmakers are having their films and/or subject matter banned and some have chosen to leave the country altogether, including independent distributor and director Zhu Rikun, and queer filmmakers Cui Zi’en and Fan Popo.

Despite the narrowing of cultural expression, Berry points out that most Chinese prefer their country’s current relative stability to the historical traumas experienced in the 20th century. This understandable preference informs a society where the young generation no longer has direct experience of communism under Mao and where historical memory is shaped by the absence of knowledge.

Parents and grandparents, for example, are not likely to share their experience of events such as the Cultural Revolution, or what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989. And exile, together with internet and social media controls, manage to render invisible people and accounts of historic events that counter official state history.

“I always tell my students, if you want to get a deep understanding of contemporary China, watch CCTV, but also watch those independent, underground documentaries. Somewhere in the middle, you come to your own understanding as you piece together what reality really looks like,” concludes Berry.

*Authors and directors from Taiwan and Hong Kong have also been an essential component of Berry’s work on modern Chinese culture. For example, he has translated the works of two Taiwanese novelists, Chang Ta-chun (“Wild Kids: Two Novels about Growing Up,” 2000) and Wu He (“Remains of Life,” 2017). His analyses of the work of filmmakers Stanley Kwan, Tsai Ming-Liang, Edward Yang, and Hou Hsiao-hsien also figure large in his publications on modern Chinese cinema.

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Published: Monday, October 21, 2019