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Rethinking Fidelity, Adaptation, and Propaganda: Garden of Repose on Screen

Lu Xun (1881-1936), the founding father of modern Chinese literature, was a dedicated filmgoer and openly talked about films on multiple occasions. Adaptations based on world literary classics formed a relatively large proportion of the many films Lu Xun had watched and commented on.1 For instance, the United Artists production The Call of the Wild (1935) was an adaptation based on Jack London’s novel of the same name. After watching this film, Lu Xun wrote to a Japanese friend that “I was shocked to see it [the film adaptation] was so different from the original novel; in the future, I shall not expect to watch more adaptations” (376).2 To Chinese scholars and artists, written text was traditionally deemed paramount, which therefore substantially shaped their understanding of adaptations from literature to other art forms. Lu Xun’s observations, especially his self-evident endorsement of the superiority of literature over film, foreshadow the dominant mentality of early Chinese film critics and filmmakers. They widely subscribed to the principle of fidelity when it came to adapting literary classics, thus casting perpetual influence on future adaptation endeavors and the formation of adaptation theory in the Chinese context.

In an authoritarian state like the People’s Republic of China (1949- ), artistic works and even the principles of creation were inextricably linked to the dominant discourse, especially during the highly political Seventeen Years (1949-66) and the chaotic Cultural Revolution period (1966-76). Fidelity, conventionally considered “an evaluation of the aesthetic worth of an adaptation based on its adherence to the source” (Johnson, 89), was in no exception infiltrated with propagandistic messages and meant adherence not to a source but to the rigid political ideology. The notion of fidelity was first valued by the Chinese Communist cultural leaders and then further sustained with their orthodox adaptations. As one of the most authoritative and emblematic filmmakers in the history of Chinese cinema, Xia Yan (born Shen Naixi, 1900-1995) pioneered the realistic tradition of filmmaking, especially through his vast number of film adaptations based on May Fourth literary classics and many essays dedicated to issues revolving around adaptation.3 With a special focus on Xia Yan’s theorization and practice of fidelity in the cultural realm of the PRC, this essay looks at how the notion of fidelity was integrated into the socialist discourse to guide the production and reception of adaptations, and how adaptors strategically theorized and practiced fidelity and infidelity in adaptation to tactfully preserve their artistic independence. More importantly, this essay attempts to revisit and critically engage with the notion of fidelity outside the Anglophonic world, and unveil the cultural and political significance of fidelity to a nuanced understanding of adaptations and the socialist cinema as a whole.

Fidelity in the Western Context

A brief re-examination of fidelity in the Western settings is necessary before moving the discussion to the Chinese context. As Linda Hutcheon theorizes, an adaptation first represents a “formal entity or product” that is “an announced and extensive transposition of a particular work or works” (7). In this vein, when we refer to a work as an adaptation, we also acknowledge its evident relationships to prior works (6). When placed in a broad textual system, an adaptation also represents “a kind of intertextuality” (21), or as Robert Stam would prefer, “an intertextual dialogism” (81) that engages with texts in various forms. The “intertextual dialogism” often goes beyond textuality and extends to the “infinite and open-ended possibilities generated by all the discursive practices of a culture” and “the entire matrix of communicative utterances within which the artistic text is situated” (81). Therefore, an adaptation also demonstrates adaptors’ negotiations with the specific historical, cultural, and political contexts in which artistic works were produced, fashioned, and consumed.

Drawing from Bakhtin’s theory of intertextuality, Dennis Cutchins offers a “practical dialogic” approach to adaptation by noting that “adaptation is most often a way of looking at texts” (81). Cutchins first notes that what gets adapted is not only “the text” or “the essence of the text,” but also “a particular understanding of the text that is dialogized, or constantly negotiated along its boundaries” (80). In this manner, artists often need to actively engage with multiple factors, including their interpretations of the text, the specific social and cultural conventions, and audience expectations to finally carry out adaptations (81). Similarly, a Bakhtinian understanding and analysis of adaptations should aim to comprehend “neither the text nor the context, but the ways in which interrelated texts and contexts work together or against each other at their boundaries” (84). The transposition of Bakhtin’s theory of intertextuality effectively expands the artistic, historical, and cultural dimensions of adaptation all together and partly substantiates the “sociological turn” (Andrew, “Adaptation” 70) of adaptation studies.

“A Bakhtinian understanding of adaptation” (Cutchins 83) elucidates the complexities of adaptation and highlights how it is a cultural product and creative process that reflects the dialogues of various social, cultural, and artistic elements and contexts. Hence, the “intertextual dialogism” largely challenges the notion of fidelity, or to be more specific, the validity of fidelity-related discourse that has often been characterized with moralistic connotations and negative accusations, like “infidelity, betrayal, violation, vulgarization, and desecration” (Stam 74). Ever since its emergence in the 1950s, adaptation studies has constantly been pushing its boundaries and establishing its interdisciplinary discourse by adopting new theories and approaches, while remaining vigilant about the pitfalls of fidelity criticism. Early adaptation scholars, like George Bluestone and Brian MacFarlane, made explicit their desire to reject fidelity,4 but “vestiges of fidelity criticism still remain in reviewing practices, especially of films adapted from beloved novels” (Hutcheon xxvi). More often than not, scholars who deal with adaptations based on canonical works often find themselves dealing with some form of comparative analysis—and hence to some degree engaging with fidelity (Johnson 91).

The notion of fidelity/infidelity derives from a number of superimposed prejudices and essentialist ideas, which rendered the axiomatic superiority of literary art to film and further enhanced the categorical separation between film and literature (Cartmell and Whelehan 2). In this manner, adaptations were often derogatorily deemed as “‘violation,’ ‘vulgarization,’ and ‘betrayal’” of the “pure literary text” (3). Despite being labeled as “unquestionably the most frequent and most tiresome discussion of adaptation” (Andrew, Concepts 100) and widely disproved, fidelity is still one of the most important tenets that readers/audiences keep returning to. Admittedly, an adaptation’s proximity or fidelity to the source should not be the criterion of judgment. However, impressionist observations that “some adaptations are indeed better than others” and “some adaptations fail to ‘realize’ or substantiate that which we most appreciated in the source novels” are still voiced by audiences (Stam 75).

Arguably, fidelity has long been rejected or seen as a counterexample, “something held up as the opposite of a more sophisticated model that the critic intends to use” (Johnson 87-88). However, the discourse of fidelity also brings attention to the politically or culturally prescribed textual interconnectedness between the adapted texts and adaptations. This essay looks at the prevalence of fidelity as a principle and the operation of the principle in socialist China to elucidate the specific cultural, historical, and political contexts that cultivated adaptations in certain manners. In this essay, I argue that rather than merely being a tool of guidance or judgment of adaptations, fidelity can be refashioned into a culturally-loaded notion saturated with ideological and artistic contentions in the socialist settings. For instance, in the highly politicized socialist years, “showing fidelity to the original” was the state-promoted principle for the Soviet and Chinese artists to observe when dealing with literary classics. Hence, fidelity was employed by the socialist states as a tool to enforce artistic conformity. It was due to the fact that the so-called canonical literary adaptations in socialist countries were mainly for propaganda purposes, rather than for “vicarious edification” (Cartmell and Whelehan 25) in the Western context.5

Fidelity, Politics, and Socialist Adaptations

As Alexander Burry notes, for Russian writers and filmmakers, adaptation should be seen “in part as a political act, never simply an insulated aesthetic exercise, since these artists have so often striven to make their works politically relevant” (2-3). Similarly in the PRC, adaptations had long been incorporated into and controlled as part of the state apparatuses, which rendered political orientations the dominant principles of creations and criteria of judgment for adaptation works. Working under the strict Party censorship, filmmakers felt the imperative to comply with the regime through adaptation, which simultaneously “borrowed” from prestigious literary works to continually justify the legitimacy of the film genre and ease the shortage of screenplays in the mid-1950s.6 It was at this time that the discourse of fidelity started to gain momentum through Xia Yan’s reinterpretations, to guarantee that literary classics were carefully revised for film adaptation and seamlessly integrated into the socialist discourse. In part, “showing fidelity to the originals” was not merely an artistic choice of the artists, but also served as their responses to the political requirements of the state that was feverishly seeking artistic conformity.

Both in the Soviet and socialist Chinese contexts, ideological correctness was the top criterion to decide whether certain works were appropriate for adaptations. For instance, Lenin required “propaganda films be tried out on ‘old Marxists and literary men’ so as not to repeat the sad mistakes that have occurred several times in the past, when propaganda achieves the opposite effect to that intended” (qtd. in Taylor and Christie 56). For adaptation specifically, Soviet adaptors adhered to the principle of “showing fidelity to the originals” after the establishment of Socialist Realism in the 1930s. “Fidelity” basically meant recapturing the adapted texts’ ideological and artistic features and then reproducing the contents, structures, and features of the original faithfully (Hong 186). However, in the late 1940s when the tight control of literature and art appeared with Zhdanov’s rule in the USSR, “fidelity” shifted to “being faithful to the spiritual essence of the original” and “criticizing the contents and flaws of the adapted texts based on ideology” (186). These shifting connotations of fidelity profoundly influenced Xia Yan’s understanding of this idea, which was sustained in his years of screenwriting practice and was subject to alterations due to changes in political circumstances.

Medium specificity, a variation on the theme of fidelity that “assumes that every medium is inherently ‘good at’ certain things and ‘bad at’ others” (Stam 78), was widely drawn by scholars like George Bluestone to consolidate the principles for what Thomas Leitch called “Adaptation Studies 1.0” (4).7 Equally as contentious and disproven as the notion of fidelity, medium specificity is still being reinscribed by scholars to substantiate their claims that certain literary works were “unfilmable” or unattainable in the medium of film. As Elliott observes, medium specificity is often “presented as a scientific, formal, objective, and cognitive body of fact” and reflected from “cultural values, ideologies, and agendas” (“Unfilmable Books” 102). Censorship laws have drawn theoretical support from medium specificity theory and further regulated adaptation to favor or sustain the theory (102-03). For instance, Xia Yan drew from medium specificity theory to define certain literary texts as “adaptable,” implying that others were “unadaptable” and thus incompatible with socialist cinema. Equally riddled with political connotations as the notion of fidelity, medium specificity theoretically sustained the state censorship, which effectively excluded certain literary works from being adapted and better regulated the socialist artistic creations.  

Xia Yan’s Adaptation Theory

Xia Yan’s screenplay writing reached maturity in the mid-1950s with the creation of The New Year’s Sacrifice (Zhufu, 1956) and The Lin Family Shop (Linjia Puzi, 1959), in which more elaborated scenes and narrations were added and more filmic techniques were employed. Simultaneously, more systematic and coherent adaptation theory was unfolding in a series of short essays that elaborated on the principles and methods of adaptation. Unsurprisingly, despite presenting themselves as casual exchange of creative experience, these essays in fact prescribed a predictable path for film, and even other forms of adaptations to observe in socialist China. Adaptation, to Xia Yan’s understanding, is a “thankless task” overall, especially when dealing with canonical works that had already achieved “established reputations and accepted opinions” (Xia Yan 374). Xia Yan also believes that adaptation “requires creative efforts” but could not necessarily be considered as artistic creation itself (374), and the making of adaptations is mostly for practical purposes, like enriching film productions with appropriate themes and stories or easing the script shortage (386). Besides offering practical suggestions to adaptors for how to deal with various types of adapted texts, Xia Yan also attempted to establish the “specificity and supremacy of film” over other art forms, especially when it came to its “expressive method and reproducibility” (Chan 57).

In his 1957 essay “Thoughts on Adaptation” (Zatan gaibian), Xia Yan established his basic adaptation principle as “ by all means being faithful to the original,” but only when the adapted texts are part of the literary canon, like “Tolstoy, Gorky, and Lu Xun’s masterpieces” (Xia Yan 378). This fidelity does not point to a mimicry of literary works and occasionally allows revisions of details that would not “go beyond or damage the overall message and unique style of the original” (378), while for less prestigious literary texts as sources, adaptors are given more liberty to make changes (378). Xia Yan further pointed out that “revisions should not harm their main themes and unique styles, especially when dealing with canonical works” (378). In “On Adaptation” (Mantan gaibian), Xia Yan redefined adaptation as concerning “not only the techniques in transposing materials from one genre to another,” but also the adaptors’ worldviews (387). Xia Yan further argued that:

Adaptation represents a type of creative and rather arduous effort … Adaptations should first by no means be faithful to the original, and also enhance, reform, and enrich the original; film adaptations should be more welcomed and loved than their original by the masses and be more educative. Hence, adaptors should be equipped with proficient skills and progressive worldviews. (387)


Xia Yan also proceeded to note that issues like the selection of specific texts for adaptation, the standpoints and perspectives employed for adaptation, and whether to show fidelity and the levels of faithfulness to the original, are first ideological problems and then a matter of skills (388). Operating as the guiding principle for socialist adaptations, “fidelity to the originals” was promoted to guarantee the political orientations of the adaptive endeavors, rather than to fulfill audiences’ expectations to witness how “the personally remembered or culturally widespread understanding of those beloved artifacts is reproduced or transformed in the new medium” (Kranz and Mellerski 2).

Xia Yan theorized adaptation both as a political and artistic transposition of the original and tied the fate of the film adaptation closely to the adaptors’ ideological awareness. Adaptors needed to be equipped with progressive worldviews and a firm proletarian stance to ideologically update the source texts and provide the audience with clear, appropriate, and definite messages in adaptations. Instead of merely promoting faithful representations of details, Xia Yan prioritized fidelity to the “themes and unique styles” of the source texts, which were already cautiously selected after scrutiny over their compatibility with the socialist discourse (Xia Yan 405). Revisions of details were only allowed if to adjust or strengthen the source texts’ themes for a better promulgation of Party lines. In this manner, the practice of fidelity was also projected to display faithfulness to the Party-approved content of the source texts or revise the problematic ideologies through adaptive strategies and filming techniques. Xia Yan carried out revisions to re-contextualize and popularize his adaptations while claiming to be faithful to the originals, rendering fidelity more of a symbolic gesture for socialist adaptors to show reverence towards the source texts on the surface but simultaneously make changes for propaganda purposes. In this manner, the issue of fidelity re-inscribed the axiomatic dominance of state policies on artistic creations and cast specific aesthetics and stereotypical projections on the celluloid.

By 1962, and reflecting the influence of the state on adaptation, Xia Yan’s ideas about fidelity toward ideology were becoming even more rigid. Xia Yan systematically laid out and summarized his adaptation theory again in his 1962 speeches, which were transcribed and later published as “Q&A on Adaptations: Lectures on Adaptation Courses” (Dui gaibian wenti dakewen---zai gaibian xunlianban de jianghua) in 1963. In these lectures, Xia Yan pointed out that adaptors, equipped with progressive worldviews, could adjust or amend the original through class analysis (Xia Yan 404). But these revisions should not go against the historical truthfulness of the story and the principle of “typical characters in a typical environment” (404-05). Therein Xia Yan prescribed that adaptors could show varying degrees of fidelity to the adapted texts based on their extent of ideological correctness and artistic sophistication (405). For instance, the extent of fidelity to Lu Xun’s The New Year’s Sacrifice and Rou Shi’s Early Spring (Er’yue, 1929) should be different since Rou Shi did not have a well-rounded proletarian worldview when he wrote the novella (406-07).

Aside from projecting the Soviet influence, the shift from “by no means being faithful to the original” to “showing varying degrees of fidelity to the original” in Xia Yan’s theorization of fidelity indicated the increasingly tightened political control over socialist artistic creations and demonstrated how adaptation was “appropriated” by the Communist authorities, from every possible angle to promulgate orthodox messages and educate the mass audiences. Ideally, the high artistic achievement and popularity of the May Fourth masterpieces rendered revisions, other than those carried out for better cinematic effects, redundant or even detrimental to the reception of the adaptations. However, the reality was that adaptations based on the May Fourth canonical texts were equally likely to be criticized if certain adjustments were not made to cater to the socialist reality and ideology. Arguably, scrutiny cast upon the ideological correctness of the source texts becomes necessary in the process of adaptation, during which the principle of fidelity functioned as a tool for the Communist authorities to take further control over film productions. The practice of fidelity was therefore ideologically, rather than artistically, guided to serve the state’s didactic needs. Hence, filmmakers were unable to adapt the May Fourth literary classics without any ideological interference. Xia Yan’s film adaptations The New Year’s Sacrifice and The Lin Family Shop were the apparent embodiments of this “fidelity” that didactic socialist cinema endorsed.

Yet, as orthodox and ideological as they were, Xia Yan’s adaptations did not cancel the unique features of the source texts through over-emphasis on ideological messages. It is also pivotal to note that Xia Yan’s adaptation practice was not always aligned with his systematically laid-out theories. The discrepancies are more meaningful than merely being the gaps between theory and practice in general, but simultaneously attest to the precarious social-political contexts that incubated these inconsistencies. To illustrate this point, an examination of a particularly interesting adaptation made for the Hong Kong context, Garden of Repose, reveals how different Xia Yan’s adaptation practice could be outside of mainland China, especially when his screenplay was adapted by a director catering to Hong Kong audiences, suggesting just how much influence the Chinese authorities had on Xia Yan’s approach to adaptation in mainland China. Furthermore, it reveals that, at least in this one case, Xia Yan’s aesthetic ambitions could at times overtake his obligations to propagandize for the state.

Garden of Repose on Screen

Ba Jin’s novella Garden of Repose (Qiyuan, 1942) centers on the family tragedies of the deprived and fallen aristocracy to criticize the feudal family system and educate people to pass down virtue instead of fortunes to their children. The story takes place at and revolves around a family-inherited estate named “Garden of Repose,” which initially belonged to the once wealthy Yang family. The protagonist Yang Mengchi was spoiled by his father and developed bad habits like gambling, drug use, and using prostitutes that soon caused him to lose all his fortune and disappoint his wife and children. After they were forced to sell the estate to the Yao family, Mengchi’s younger son Han’er would still occasionally sneak into the garden and pick flowers to console his father, who was currently living alone in a run-down temple and later died miserably in prison. This tragedy left the new owners Yao Guodong and his new wife Wan Zhaohua to rethink the education of their son Xiaohu, who was also pampered and picked up bad habits. But it is already too late since Xiaohu later unfortunately drowned, rendering the couple heartbroken. Ba Jin wrote this story to reflect on how the feudal family corrupted young people’s minds and even took their lives.

Xia Yan adapted Garden of Repose for Hong Kong cinema in 1962, when class struggle was sweeping through the mainland and would soon become one of the dominant and concurrent themes in artistic creations. Interestingly, the author Ba Jin was already subject to criticism in 1958 for his “lack of class analysis and excessive sympathy towards the landlord class” in Garden of Repose, which “incubated the author’s remembrance of the past and advocation of the bourgeoisie humanity” (Wang 49). Aside from the “ambiguous” ideology of the original and the author’s “problematic” worldview, this adaptation also contradicts Xia Yan’s established adaptation principles and practice by adhering closely to the source without further ideological intrusions.

With the frequent exchange of film talent, techniques, and capital since the 1930s, Shanghai and Hong Kong cinemas became increasingly intertwined and complementary. This connection became even more evident in the 1950s when Hong Kong cinema embraced a wide range of film adaptations based on mainland literary classics.8 And yet a closer look at Garden of Repose shows a vastly different approach in Hong Kong. Hong Kong film companies, despite their disparate political orientations, were heavily driven by profit and were programmed to cater to the mass audiences’ tastes. Therefore, mainland literary classics could face the risk of being consciously altered by Hong Kong filmmakers for commercial purposes. Meanwhile, the relatively liberal political and cultural environment in Hong Kong also rendered it less crucial for films to be equipped with “impeccable” ideologies and accordingly empowered filmmakers with more freedom. The unique geographic location and distinct cultural landscape caused by the Cold War contributed to Hong Kong’s status as a site where traditional and modern elements clashed, and Communist and Western ideologies conflicted. Contrary to the socialist cultural landscape in which May Fourth literary works experienced specific barriers that made it less easy for adaptations to be brought to the screen, In this vein, Garden of Repose managed to make its way to Hong Kong cinema but was inevitably subject to changes.

As stated in the epilogue of Garden of Repose: A Cinematic Literary Script (Qiyuan: dianying wenxue juben, 1983), Xia Yan asked Ba Jin’s permission before the adaptation and then planned to carry out this adaptation faithfully (66). This adherence to the source text was first due to the special status of leftist Hong Kong cinema, with which “the idea of May Fourth enlightenment” and “the popularity and accessibility” of Ba Jin’s works were a perfect fit (Wang 50). More importantly, this adaptation indicates Xia Yan’s brief retreat from the increasingly politicized cultural sphere in the mainland and a revisiting of his earlier ambitions in adaptation, which was less influenced by the Communist ideology. Titled “I Took a Great Risk—Adapting Resurrection” (Wo maole yici daxian--- gaibian Fuhuo houji), the 1943 essay articulates the reasons that led to Xia Yan’s stage adaptation of Tolstoy’s 1899 novel Resurrection and reflects on the process and outcome of this adaptation. Xia Yan noted that instead of presenting a melancholic love story or adopting a social critique like the author Tolstoy endorsed, he chose to focus on the “struggles, traumas, regret, love and hate” of people who have different “origins, upbringings, and personalities” (Xia Yan 56). For a literary masterpiece with such depth and complexity, Xia Yan chose to focus on a thread he believed to be the most “akin to people” (56), rather than playing on the didactic or ideological elements that were readily available from the novel. In this manner, Xia Yan’s adaptation of Garden of Repose could be deemed as his brief return to early adaptation experience by also depicting people’s struggles, tears, and laughter, in contrast to his orthodox adaptations for the prescribed spectatorship under the socialist regime.

This adaptation keeps major characters and plots from the novella and even retains its melancholic atmosphere through carefully designed mise-en-scènes. Xia Yan further abandoned his often deployed adaptation strategies for the socialist cinema, like omniscient voiceovers and educative intertitles, to refrain from any unnecessary interventions to the source text. Compared with the ideological enhancements or worldview adjustments often carried out on source texts in his socialist adaptations, the “technical and structural changes” of the novella in this screenplay were mainly based on artistic considerations to better serve the new medium and to cater to Hong Kong’s specific contexts (Garden of Repose 67).

Instead of telling the story in flashbacks like in the novella, Xia Yan chronologically narrates the story to give the film a new sense of clarity and to cater better to the preferences of Chinese audiences in general, who were more used to a linear narrative. To depict as many and deliver as detailed descriptions of the characters from the novella given the film’s limited time frame, the original story narrator Mr. Li was omitted from the adaptation and his role of storyteller was then placed on the protagonist Wan Zhaohua. As one of Xia Yan’s most frequently invoked strategies to deal with source texts with multiple story threads, this arrangement efficiently limited the number of characters on screen and enabled more concentrated depictions of the story’s central figures. The other significant change was the gender shift of Han’er from a boy in the novella to a girl in the script, since Xia Yan believes that, compared to boys, girls are more likely to form the special bond with their fathers as Ba Jin suggested in the novella (Wang 53).

Directing Xia Yan’s screenplay was Zhu Shilin, whose approach to the screenplay would move even further away from anything resembling the more typical Communist values found in mainland films. As a veteran filmmaker whose career straddled Shanghai and Hong Kong, Zhu Shilin was known for his skilled mastery of film language and unique directing style since his first engagement with the Shanghai film industry in 1930. After leaving Shanghai in the 1940s, Zhu Shilin had been widely invested in the rejuvenation and thriving of Hong Kong cinema, which was substantially destroyed by the continuous wars and the resulting social turbulence. In 1964, Zhu directed this film adaptation based on Xia Yan’s screenplay and re-named it Spring Dream in the Old Garden (Guyuan chunmeng). Rather than faithfully “transcribing” the screenplay to screen as his mainland counterparts, Zhu practiced his philosophies of filmmaking by introducing several major changes.9 These alterations are mainly additions or deletions of content to popularize the film and enhance its dramatic appeal (Wang 50). Additionally, certain emphasis was put on the pedagogical values of the film by inserting and directly verbalizing doctrines, like “it is futile to leave wealth to the children if not accompanied by moral values” and “money is not versatile” to influence and educate the audiences with clear messages. This design aligned the film with other 1950s and 60s Hong Kong leftist film productions, which usually struck audiences with “fixed patterns and stereotypes” (51) to promulgate moral doctrines rather than openly advocate the Communist ideology.

Ba Jin’s novella ends with the tragedy that Xiaohu’s drowning body is nowhere to be found. Yao Guodong is drinking with Mr. Li, miserable and heartbroken. The story concludes in quite a bleak note, which was largely retained in Xia Yan’s screenplay. However, Zhu Shilin’s film adaptation adopts a slightly more optimistic ending than that in the screenplay and in the adapted text, through arranging the couple to console each other with a promising future ahead, instead of painfully mourning for the loss of Xiaohu (see Figure 1). This high degree of narrative resolution, as Lu Jinghua observes, is “a triumph of the nuclear family over the feudal family” (69). Aside from the ending, this adaptation also adopted different depictions of main characters. In Ba Jin’s original work, Wan Zhaohua is a modern and open-minded woman under the influence of May Fourth culture but marries into a family with feudal affiliations. Xia Yan’s screenplay also portrays her painstaking yet unsuccessful self-exploration after witnessing a series of family tragedies. In the film, Zhu Shilin infused his ongoing sympathy for women and concerns about issues like “gender equality and women’s status in a domestic and social context” (Liu 55) into his characterization of Wan, who was therefore shaped as a stereotypical female figure caught between her domestic roles as a good stepmother and a dedicated wife. In this manner, Wan was stripped of the inner richness and complexity that originally contributed to the appeal of this character in the novella and the screenplay, but were not popular among Hong Kong audiences.

Rethinking Fidelity, Adaptation, and Propaganda: Garden of Repose on Screen, Li Yi, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1. The final scene featuring the couple consoling each other after the loss of Xiaohu. Spring Dream in the Old Garden, directed by Zhu Shilin, 1964.

In Maoist China, a period teeming with social turmoil and ideological conflicts, artists often felt the pressure to conform while striving to retain their artistic integrity. The revisions or alterations of the sources carried out by filmmakers were often, as Jessica Ka Yee Chan argues, “in the name of fidelity” (81). Consequently, Xia Yan’s different levels of faithfulness to the sources showcases his struggles to balance the Party’s propaganda needs and his artistic integrity, while attesting to the flexible connotations attached to the principle of fidelity to either embody political conformity or artistic integrity. On the one hand, Xia Yan prescribed that film adaptation was first “an issue of political thought” and then “a matter of techniques” (Xia Yan 388); on the other, Xia Yan adapted Garden of Repose to showcase that adaptation, especially those across cultural and ideological borders, could serve as a middle ground for artists to preserve some distance from or take an aesthetic break from the dominant discourse. The juxtaposition of Xia Yan’s mainland and Hong Kong adaptations sheds light on the institutional differences between the two cinemas and further serves as a critical reference to the evaluation of the aesthetic limits of both cinemas.  

As a cultural leader who had years of experience in filmmaking in the 1940s Hong Kong and was still actively involved with Hong Kong leftist cinema after returning to the mainland, Xia Yan was not unaware of the cultural context and artistic traditions of Hong Kong films, or to be specific, its profit-driven film industry. Hence, Zhu Shilin’s revisions of the screenplay for a better cinematic effect indicate his personal preferences, and further attest to the distance between Xia Yan’s screenplay and those already garnered popularities among Hong Kong audiences. Out of the dominance of the socialist ideology, Xia Yan maintained the utmost fidelity to a literary text that was considered “suspicious” by the Communist cultural leaders and also kept his distance to the commercialized cinema. In this case, what remains unaltered, rather than those changes in Xia Yan’s adaptation, that harbours his artistic integrity and independence that was stifled in the socialist context. This subversive dimension of adaptation was achieved through continually returning to and reinvigorating fidelity to elucidate the state–artist tensions rendered by adaptation but without indicating any direct rebellion against the established artistic principles or political order.

In his exemplary adaptations for socialist cinema in the 1960s, like A Revolutionary Family (Geming jiating, 1960) and Eternity in Flames(Liehuozhong yongsheng, 1965), Xia Yan still adhered to his already well-established adaptation principles and made revisions accordingly to cater to the dominant discourse. Hence, his faithful rendition of Garden of Repose for Hong Kong cinema and the contrast with his orthodox adaptations was even more meaningful to our understanding of how the practice of fidelity could be strategically employed to serve various cultural, artistic, and political agendas. The evolution and maturity of Xia Yan’s adaptation theories and practice was inevitably influenced by the political upheavals that had cast heavy influence on socialist filmmaking. His ideas on selecting and dealing with source texts had an authoritative impact on Chinese film adaptations for decades. Despite his shifting attitudes towards the extent of faithfulness, Xia Yan’s steadfast insistence on fidelity indicates his reverence for the source texts and, more importantly, his relentless efforts to achieve artistic integrity through maintaining the commitment to the sources. In this manner, the issue of fidelity serves as an entry to a fuller understanding of the tensions between artistic creations and political control in Mao’s China.

For a long time, “fidelity criticism” had been the critical orthodoxy in Chinese adaptation studies, especially when dealing with canonical works authored by Lu Xun and Ba Jin. Spanning the period from 1942 when new rules for artistic creation were first laid down, to the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, fidelity discourse dominated the production and criticism of film adaptations in China. When political control was gradually easing in the mainland cultural sphere, filmmakers were beginning to make a connection with audiences and their needs, thus casting aside the principle of fidelity at last. Caught between audiences’ growing influence on film productions and filmmakers’ regaining of artistic autonomy, film adaptations undeniably began to bear the influence of these factors, rather than being predominately driven by political needs. It was not until the rise of the Fifth Generation directors in the mid-1980s, represented by Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, that Chinese film adaptations and criticism finally took the drastic turn to finally consider “adaptations as adaptations”(Hutcheon 6), thus introducing a new Chinese cinema all together.


1  See Li and Ding 327-28, 349.

2  Unless otherwise stated, all translations are by me.

3  Originating from student demonstrations against the weak Chinese government in Beijing on May 4, 1919, the incident gradually developed into a nationwide cultural enlightenment movement, which nourished a wide range of literary works that were generally Westernised, critical of the established order, and called for social reform. These May Fourth literary works also indicate the start of modern Chinese literature.

4  For instance, see George Bluestone’s 1957 study Novels into Film and Brian MacFarlane’s 1996 study Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation.

5  In the Soviet Union, adaptations of literary classics were generally used for the legitimization and construction of the state myth. In the German Democratic Republic, even adaptations of children’s literature was employed to promulgate Communist ideas to young audiences. For a detailed discussion, see Q. Shen 70-95.

6  Being a Western-imported, technology and capital oriented, and urban audience-based art form, film was considered inferior to other forms of art and did not emerge as a Party-preferred medium of propaganda in the early years.

7  According to Leitch, adaptation studies has undergone three stages ever since its inception. Adaptation Studies 1.0 presented case studies and advocated medium specificity, while Adaptation Studies 2.0 has been more emphatic in its rejection of fidelity criticism and medium specificity than in its embrace of Bakhtin and Kristeva. Adaptation Studies 3.0 is witnessing the rising of digital technologies and suspicion of the limits of intertextuality as a methodological framework. See Leitch, “Introduction” 1-22.

8  For a detailed discussion, see Y. Li 311-33.

9  Due to the strict film censorship system established in 1950 prescribing that studios should shoot strictly according to the approved screenplays without any unauthorized changes, screenplay writers often led a more prominent role than directors in socialist China. See Clark 94. In contrast, screenplay writers in Hong Kong remained in obscurity when compared to directors, who often had the absolute power in filmmaking.

Works Cited

Andrew, Dudley. “Adaptation.” Corrigan, pp. 65-73.

---. Concepts in film theory. Oxford UP, 1984.

Bluestone, George. Novels into Film. U of California P, 1957.

Burry, Alexander. “Introduction: Filming Russian Classics --- Challenges and Opportunities” in Border Crossing: Russian Literature into Film, edited by Alexander Burry and Frederick White, Edinburgh UP, 2016, pp. 1-16.

Cartmell, Deborah, and Imelda Whelehan. Screen adaptation: Impure cinema. Macmillan International Higher Education, 2010.

Chan, Jessica Ka Yee. Chinese Revolutionary Cinema: Propaganda, Aesthetics and Internationalism 1949–1966. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Clark, Paul. Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949. Cambridge UP, 1987.

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