Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy

The Genesis of China’s Fifth Generation

Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy

Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society

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Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: 88 b&w photos Published: January 2003

Author: Zhen Ni

Translator: Chris Berry

Asian Studies > East Asia, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs, Media Studies > Film

After graduating from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982, directors like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou transformed Chinese cinema with Farewell My Concubine, Yellow Earth, Raise the Red Lantern, and other international successes. Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy tells the riveting story of this class of 1982, China’s famous "Fifth Generation" of filmmakers. It is the first insider’s account of this renowned cohort to appear in English. Covering these directors’ formative experiences during China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution and later at the Beijing Film Academy, Ni Zhen—who was both their screenwriter and teacher—provides unique insights into the origins of the Fifth Generation’s creativity. Drawing on his personal knowledge and interviews conducted especially for this volume, Ni Zhen demonstrates the diversity of the Fifth Generation. He comments on the breadth of styles and themes explored by its members and introduces a range of male and female directors, cinematographers, and production designers famous in China but less well-known internationally. The book contains vivid descriptions of the production processes of two pioneering films—One and Eight and Yellow Earth.


Memoirs From the Beijing Film Academy is a story about a school, a cinematic collective, and a group of artists living in a new historical era where suddenly anything seemed possible. The rise of the Fifth Generation signaled a fundamental change in Chinese cinematic history and, through the power of the moving image, helped further transform a society already in transition; Ni Zhen has provided an insightful testament to that transformation that will ultimately redefine our own understanding of one of the greatest movements in Chinese film history.” — Michael Berry, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture

“Readers need not be familiar with Chinese film and history; via the fascinating and often amusing tales of their youth and academy exploits, they will be engaged. An excellent introduction to the Fifth Generation . . . .” — Rie Sheridan , Library Journal

"[A] rich compendium of information to be found nowhere else. . . . The book-an indispensable guide for the Western student of contemporary Chinese cinema-also includes character lists for Chinese names and film titles, as well as full notes and index." — Donald Richie , Times Higher Education

"[A] welcome account . . . [with] a wealth of historical detail provided on what is, in the English language, an underdocumented group of filmmakers." — Richard James Havis, Cineaste

"[An] accessible and entertaining account of the backgrounds of these young filmmakers whose lives were altered by the Cultural Revolution." — Stephanie DeBoer , The China Journal

"[F]ascinating. . . . [A]n insider's view of the 'pre-history' of the most important development in Chinese cinema since the 1930s. Ni Zhen and Chris Berry should be congratulated on bringing this fascinating story to wider attention." — Paul Clark , China Review

"Ni Zhen's book provides us with an important document in studying the emergence of a movement whose historical significance will surely endure. . . ." — Mike Walsh , Metro Magazine

"Ni's detailed recollections of the early days offer illuminating insight into the foundations of Fifth Generation cinema and the beginnings of an artistic paradigm shift in China's fledgling post-Mao era." — Matthew Plouffe , Film Comment

"Sometimes poignant, sometimes sentimental, but ultimately triumphant, this colorfully written and elegantly translated book tells the stories of how the now famous Fifth Generation filmmakers began their respective journeys at the Beijing Film Academy (BFA). It bears witness to a crucial time of changes, transitions, and opportunities in recent Chinese history. It also eloquently frames this groundbreaking film movement in its political, cultural, and aesthetic contexts. . . . Ni Zhen's writing is highly charged, engaging, personal, moving, and compelling." — Shujen Wang , Film Quarterly

"The author's involvement in the process (the translator also worked in the Beijing film industry in the 1980s), his knowledge of the aesthetic politics of student shoots, his willingness to share detail, and his absolute support for the people involved commend the writing and the nature of this book."

— Stephanie Hemelryk Donald , Asian Studies Review

"This English translation of Ni's Memoirs is therefore a rich and much needed addition to the English-language field which, until now, has lacked a monograph on the Fifth Generation. . . . Ni Zhen's unique memoirs are matched by a masterly translation. The translator, Chris Berry, is an outstanding western scholar of the Chinese cinema. [H]is translation . . . communicates the readability, accessibility, accuracy and scholarship of the original. . . . Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy is mandatory reading for Chinese film scholars and students of the West and recommended reading for anyone interested in the field." — Mary Farquhar, Screening the Past

“Memoirs of the Beijing Film Academy is about an untold history, about why and how a generation of young men and women were able to produce an impressive repertoire. The book is delightful and informative; Ni Zhen tells the story as if it were about his own children and friends. The translator of the book, Chris Berry, is a well-known scholar of new Chinese cinema who spent several years in China as a translator for China Screen before teaching in Australia and then at Berkeley. It is obvious that the pleasure he gleaned from reading the book carried over into his translation, for he has made the English version as enchanting as the Chinese original.” — S. Louisa Wei , Persimmon

“Ni Zhen was himself one of the educators of the Fifth Generation, so he has been able to give a full and accurate account of what happened then on the basis of his own first-hand evidence. He also gives a detailed scholarly analysis of the origins of the Fifth Generation and the particular conditions that produced this art movement. Reading his book not only gave me intellectual pleasure, but also took me back to those unforgettable times.” — Chen Kaige, director of Farewell My Concubine

“Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Origins of China’s Fifth Generation Filmmakers brings back memories for me. It tells the true story of how I moved from ignorance to full maturity along with a group of my peers. Everyone faces challenges of some sort in their youth. They become life’s most beautiful memories. That means this is not just a book about film, but also a book about human life. Once youth is over it never returns, and so we treasure it in our hearts. Thank you, Professor Ni Zhen, for writing this inspiring book.” — Zhang Yimou, director of Raise the Red Lantern


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ni Zhen is a consultant to the Shanghai Film & TV Company and Visiting Professor at the Shanghai Theater Academy. He was Professor of Art Direction and Professor of Film Theory at the Beijing Film Academy, where he taught from 1980 to 2000. He has written screenplays for films including Raise the Red Lantern and Blush.
Chris Berry is Associate Professor in the Program in Film Studies and the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Table of Contents

Translator’s Introduction vii

Preface to the English Edition xiii

1. Admission 1

2. Noses to the Grindstone 51

3. First Steps 113

4. Graduation 147

Postscript 192

Character List for Chinese Names 201

Chinese Film Title List 207

Notes 213

Index 225
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2970-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2956-5
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