Revolutionary Becomings: Documentary Media in Twentieth-Century China

From the toppling of the Qing Empire in 1911 to the political campaigns and mass protests in the Mao and post-Mao eras, revolutionary upheavals characterized China’s twentieth century. In this talk, Ying Qian draws from her newly published book to discuss documentary as deeply embedded in these upheavals and as a prism to investigate the entwined histories of media and China’s revolutionary movements. Situating cinema’s invention in 1895 in the East Asian context of colonial warfare and revolutionary agitation, this talk excavates the documentary’s emergence in transnational activism at the turn of the 20th century, traces its development in political contestation and war propaganda between 1920s and 1940s, and reflects on documentary’s productivity and crisis during the Mao-era and its reorientation in the post-Mao decade. Arguing that there is no universal ‘documentary’, but the historical materialization of its potentials, the talk proposes a method to engage with documentary as an ‘eventful medium’, around which the dialectical relationship between media practice, political relationality and revolutionary epistemology can be examined.

Ying Qian is an associate professor in Chinese Cinema and Media at the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. Her first book, Revolutionary Becomings: Documentary Media in Twentieth-Century China (Columbia University Press, 2024), excavates documentary’s multi-faceted productivities in China’s revolutionary movements. She is now working on a new monograph on media and the ecologies of knowledge in China’s reform and opening. Ying Qian’s articles have appeared in Critical Inquiry, New Left Review, China Perspectives, New Literary History of Modern China, Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinemas, and other journals and websites. At Columbia, she teaches classes on East Asian cinema, Chinese media cultures, documentary media, media of science and technology, and comparative media theory and history. Drawing from her experiences in filmmaking, she has incorporated creative assignments in her classes, guiding students to try their hands on media production. She is currently a senior core fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at the Central European University.