Born in Beijing in 1971, Yang majored in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, now recognized as one of the best schools in the country for multimedia technologies. He is self taught as a film maker.
The following information is extracted from "Yang Fudong: the Foreigner and the Search for Poetic Truth" by Marcella Beccaria. Yang Fudong, Skira 2006 unless otherwise indicated.
One of Yang Fudong's first pieces was a performance during which he forced himself to forego all oral communication for 3 months. The work emerged from a desire to engage in new forms of art and was made in 1993 while Yang was studying painting. This act of negation was called 'Elsewhere' indicating the search for a place, another dimension, an introspective journey. If 'elsewhere' can be understood as an introduction to the artist's subsequent works , his return from this symbolic voyage brought with it a certain distance, and a new encounter, or clash, with reality.
The protagonists in Yang's later films, videos and photographs share a subtle existential discomfort and a difficult relationship with reality. Men and women in their twenties and thirties, they belong to an age group which is still shouldering the burden of choosing and defining its future. The setting that contextualizes their actions is China, sometimes poetically transfigured by the artist into a place outside time, on other occasions recognizable as contemporary China, the new economic giant that has recently entered the global culture of consumerism.
Yang cites the possible stylistic influence of Chinese cinema from the 1940s, films such as Baqianli lu yun he/Moon and Clouds over the Eight-Thousand-Mile Road (1947) by Shi Dongshan, Wuya yu maque/ Crow and Sparrow (1949) by Zheng Junli, or Fei Mu's Xiao Chen zhi chun / Spring Time in a Small Town (1948), one of his favorite films.
Western viewers tend to emphasize the visual beauty and sensual appeal of Yang Fudong's films: whereas a Chinese critic may perceive them somewhat differently by decoding the symbolism and by focusing more on the troubling elements of dissonance in their content.
"I feel like a foreigner in Shanghai and it's as if I'm trying to get things happening in a context where there are political pressures that might get in the way. Like all of us, I'm a bit like that 'first intellectual': one wants to accomplish big things but in the end it doesn't happen. Every educated Chinese person is very ambitious, and obviously there are obstacles coming either from society or from inside oneself.
Yang has often talked about his complex relationship with the city in which he has chosen to live, expressing his alienation from the urban context, observing that his uneasiness also seems palpable in many of his fellow citizens.
Fragmented editing and a predilection for non-linear narrative are recurrent elements in Yang's films and videos. These technical choices correspond to his aim to develop works that are open to various interpretations.
'It seems as though the younger generation has lost its ideals. I try not to make judgments about it, but in my work I go in search of what is left of them. 'Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest' sets out to investigate the anxieties of a new generation through a series of 5 discrete films.
"The idea of the project emerged between 2001 and 2002. I wanted to set my story in the contemporary world and I wanted the protagonists to be young. My intention was to give expression to their thoughts, their feelings, to try to understand their expectations for the future." As Sabine Folie has pointed out, 'they are self appointed intellectuals who have conferred the title upon themselves'.
Yang has said that he 'wanted to articulate several temporalities together: one that is really ancient, the stories of 'The Seven Sages' of the Bamboo Grove'; another set during the 50s and 60s, when there was a profound questioning of the status and role of intellectuals ; and ultimately, one dealing with the concerns and ideals of today."
The actors are Yang's friends, not professional actors, who undertook the film as a communal project, an exchange of thoughts and dreams. The films were a part of their lives and their lives were a part of the films.
The first part, completed in 2003, is located on the Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan), a well known site in Chinese painting and a popular tourist destination today. Enveloped in mist, the place described by Yang is a mysterious land, and its landscape of rocks, trees, vistas, and cliffs seems to be in a state of constant transition, following a tradition of classical Chinese art. Yang has said "for me, the first film in this project stands like the beginning to a book, the preface; it's an introduction to the story and the fate of these "new" seven intellectuals. "The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove" doesn't exist as a book: there are legends, popular stories, hearsay knowledge, and of course, what is also interesting is the distortion, the fact that the stories have continually been adapted to changing contexts and times and to the intentions of different storytellers. That is also something I want to investigate – in light of contemporary China and its relationship to history – this state we're in, which can be described as a moment when we have to negotiate our past while inventing our present."
In non linear fashion, the films describe the ascent of the mountain by a group of young people, two women and five men. In the prologue, the figures are seen nude, striking iconic poses, seated on the rocks. Their nudity, an element that has no place in the Chinese pictorial tradition, can be interpreted as a new beginning, a moment of spiritual rebirth and purification. Other elements in the film – the black and white blurry images, the outdated outfits, the absence of verbal exchanges – combine to emphasize the idea of detachment from reality.
The film is characterized by the camera's slow movements. Made up of drum beats and breaths, the musical accompaniment underlines the drama of certain shots of the landscape or the intense close ups of the protagonists. By turns, each of the young people becomes the narrator. In the form of brief confessions, each character voices his thoughts about past, present, future. Their sparse and carefully measured words alternate between childhood memories, anxiety about the present, and future aspirations. Intentionally lacking in specificity, the moment described by Yang is difficult to place historically; instead there is a stress on the universal quest undertaken by the group.
"This film is atemporal. The protagonists wear clothes from the 1940s, a bit like certain photos of French intellectuals that I remember having seen on book covers. But the language they use in contemporary Chinese. I want to leave a certain ambiguity, since every era has its young people". The films correspond to Yang's concept of 'abstract cinema' which he has defined as the poetic representation 'of images that are found in the depths of people's hearts and minds'.
Yang has said that his '7 Intellectuals' symbolize the future generation and their dreams.
The event to which Yang's title directly refers is also suspended between history and legend. Because of its political implications, the story known as the 'Seven Wise Men in a Bamboo Forest' (also sometimes referred to as 'Seven Sages in the Bamboo Grove' was a frequent subject in ancient Chinese painting. It focuses on a group of scholars, rebellious artists and poets, who according to tradition rejected the lessons of Confucianism, which taught that public commitment brought the attainment of virtue. Choosing not to belong to the bureaucratic elite, this group of sages preferred to lead a life of seclusion. They believed that wisdom could only be achieved by living a life of their own devising, and devoted themselves to the art of conversation, to poetry and music, and to an appreciation of the pleasures of food and wine.
In Part 2 of Yang's film, completed in 2004, the scene shifts to the interior of an urban apartment. Once again, the films begin with a metaphorical image, a new entry into the world by two of the protagonists, who are filmed as they awake, breathless, from a long sleep. Inside the house, each follows his or her own introspective quest. Love and sex, symbolic rites of passage, are important components of the journey. Alternating with moments of silence, dialogue between the characters punctuates the passing of the days.
The female dialogue in Part 2 was composed by Yang Fudong's wife, the writer Ling Yun, from interviews that she and Yang conducted over several weeks. The male dialogue was also extracted from these interviews.
That Part 2 seems to be a pause within their long voyage, one can deduce from the prologue, where two of the young people are filmed on the motor cycle, the camera focusing on the road they have already traveled.
In Part 3 the group leaves for the countryside and a life style which is completely alien to them. The trip is made in an ox-drawn cart. In the country, the young people live as peasants; they cultivate the land and tend the animals, for which they develop some feeling. In their free time, they read. Their days alternate between reading and the typical concerns of rural life. Love stories also emerge and unfold within this context. Country life offers the protagonists new experiences. The cruelty of the countryside is different from that of the city. For example, the ox they use to till the fields grows old. According to the logic of rural life, when an animal no longer has the strength to work, it is killed. This scene is a crucial moment in the film. Against their will, the protagonists acquire a new awareness, a different view of the rural world.
Part 4 is set on an island. 'In the common imagination, the island corresponds to a model of utopian life'. The intellectuals have to invent a new world from scratch by defining new modalities of social life and interaction and a new distribution of labour. The broad landscape intensifies the loneliness of the figures and each person is reliant on himself to find his own happiness.
In Part 5 the 7 Intellectuals return to the city – the place that they feel they know well.
However, now there are many new places which are new to them and they feel lost in the city. Many of the locations that Yang has chosen are reminiscent of the '20s, the golden era of Shanghai. A fashionable restaurant in Shanghai, where the film opens and closes, lends the films "a little bit of bourgeois extravagance". Part 5 represents a return to reality, confronting their contemporaries with their new experiences.
The 5 part film project is potentially a crucial analysis of today's China and the impact that the radical changes taking place there is having on individuals, and on their search for a role and an identity.
Yang belongs to a generation of artists who have chosen to remain in their country as opposed to moving to the West. Yang has said 'We are doing it for China'.
'To me, the great change that is happening today in society can be seen and perceived in various forms. This transformation relates to people's mental attitude, that many changes in their way of thinking and their ideology. Numerous factors come into play, which concern the loss of traditional values and even the concept of tradition. In this sense there is a loss. At the same time, the arrival and assertion of the new sometimes creates a sort of selfish existence, an existence that doesn't have much meaning. What is lost is the idea of living together, a collective search for a better way of life."