|Abstract:||My dissertation examines dubbed foreign films, which were the Chinese people’s “window to the outside world” during the Cold War era. Between 1949 and 1994, when Hollywood’s path to China was blocked by Cold War politics, the Chinese Communist Party dubbed and screened over one thousand films from the Soviet bloc, Western Europe, and beyond. These foreign films made up close to one half of all films screened in China and were more popular and profitable than domestic Chinese films. Despite their immense popularity and lasting impact, no comprehensive study on these films has emerged. I argue that dubbed foreign films disrupt the familiar narratives of Chinese cultural history, by showing that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) never achieved full control over its cinema, and its ideological indoctrination was always confined by its technology.
I use government documents, film companies’ internal publications, and audience memoirs to construct a history of the PRC’s foreign film import and exhibition. I demonstrate that the CCP used foreign films to fulfill three functions: as ideological textbooks, as diplomatic tokens, and as program fillers and revenue earners to supplement China’s meager domestic film output. Much as the CCP wished to regulate the content of foreign films, pragmatic concerns such as diplomatic relationships and the demands of the film exhibition industry compelled them to screen foreign films that were not up to their ideological standards. As a result, foreign films were relatively free from the notoriously severe censorship imposed on domestic films. At times, dubbed films could even betray their propagandist purpose and constitute a legitimate space of mild dissent against mainstream aesthetics and ideology.
I also examine the impact that decades of foreign film dubbing as opposed to subtitling had on the Chinese audience. The Chinese dubbing practice, with its emphasis on synchrony or “matching voices,” carried with itself an ideology that unwittingly subverted the CCP’s nationalism and authoritarianism. Dubbing obscured the boundary between the Chinese and the foreign. The foreign body and milieu, socialist or capitalist, acquired a degree of immediacy and Chinese identity through the accompanying Chinese voice. The Chinese voice, bent by the imperative to adhere to the foreign lips and body, acquired a “foreign accent” as it departed in unobtrusive yet substantial ways from the linguistic and vocal norms of the time. In short, instead of simply grafting a Chinese voice onto a foreign figure, dubbing turned the foreign figure Chinese and the Chinese voice foreign. Furthermore, the dubbing voice was subversive not only because it had a foreign accent, but also because its mission – to become one with the body on the screen – made it unsuitable as a mouthpiece of the CCP and distinguished it from mainstream voices that were dedicated to single-minded propaganda.
In sum, my dissertation demonstrates how dubbed foreign films that were imported, dubbed, and exhibited by the CCP subverted the party’s own ideology due to stubborn, pragmatic circumstances. Revising Xiaomei Chen’s theory that emphasizes “counter-discourse” and the binary between official and unofficial Occidentalism, my research reveals that subversion occurred inadvertently and from within the system.