Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter May 16, 2022

Reforging the Rust Belt: China’s Northeast on the Silver Screen

Dorothee Xiaolong Hou ORCID logo


In the 1990s, China’s northeast including Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces, the bastion of state-owned heavy industry, underwent a massive state-owned enterprise (SOE) reform engineered by Deng Xiaoping as part of the “Reform and Opening-up Policy,” which resulted in large-scale SOE bankruptcies and some 30 million blue-collar workers being laid off. 20 years after the reform, China’s northeast, once among the most urbanized regions in the country, has effectively become China’s “Rust Belt.” This article examines the cinematic representations of China’s Rust Belt, specifically in China’s northeast, arguing that cinema plays a crucial role in both capturing and interrogating the emergence of new urban spaces and urban subjects amidst the spatial and ideological reorientations of the reform era. It also investigates the ways in which cinematic representations, through a shifting “system of symbols,” mediate the contradictions in the production of urban spaces, cultural norms, and social identities.

Corresponding author: Dorothee Xiaolong Hou, Modern Languages and Literatures, Moravian College, 1200 Main St., Bethlehem, PA 18018, USA, E-mail:


Benjamin, W. 1969. Illuminations, edited by H. Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.Search in Google Scholar

Bradsher, K. 2001. At Least 87 Died in Chinese Mine Explosion. November 22, 2009. New York Times. Also available at in Google Scholar

Cai, F., A. Park, and Y. Zhao. 2008. “The Chinese Labor Market in the Reform Era.” In China’s Great Economic Transformation, edited by L. Brandt, and T. G. Rawski, 167–214. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9780511754234.007Search in Google Scholar

Chen, Xiaoyun 陈晓云 2008. “Dian ying cheng shi dang dai Zhongguo de cheng shi xiang xiang” 电影城市: 当代中国电影的城市想象 [The Cinematic City: Urban Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Cinema]. Dang dai dian ying 当代电影 12: 45–50.Search in Google Scholar

Dai, Jinhua 戴锦华 2012. “Gang de qin jie ji huo yi fu zhi ming” 钢的琴:阶级,或以父之名 [Piano in a Factory: Class, or in the Name of the Father].” Chaoxing ming shi jiang tan, episode 364 超星名师讲坛第 364 期. June 2, 2012. (accessed August 1, 2020).Search in Google Scholar

De Certeau, M. 1988. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Oakland: University of California Press.Search in Google Scholar

Donald, J. 1995. “The City, the Cinema: Modern Spaces.” In Visual Culture, edited by Chris Jenks, 77–95. Milton Park: Routledge.10.4324/9781315084244-5Search in Google Scholar

Dorrian, M. 2007. “The Aerial View: Notes for a Cultural History.” Strates: Matériaux pour la Recherche en Sciences Sociales 13 (1): 1–17, in Google Scholar

Farquhar, J. 2002. Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China. Durham: Duke University Press.10.2307/j.ctv11sn3f5Search in Google Scholar

Foundas, S. 2014. Film Review: ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’. Variety. February 13, 2014. Also available at in Google Scholar

Gaudiano, A. 2014. Enter a World of Chinese Film Noir. GB Times. July 14, 2014. Also available at in Google Scholar

Harvey, D. 2001. Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography. Oxfordshire: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Honeycutt, K. 2010. The Piano in a Factory—Film Review. The Hollywood Reporter. October 24, 2010. Also available at in Google Scholar

Huang, X. 黄小河 2014. An Interview with Geng Jun. Pengpai xinwen 澎湃新闻. April 17, 2014. Also available at in Google Scholar

Kuoshu, H. H. 2011. Metro Movies: Cinematic Urbanism in Post-Mao China. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Lee, H.-J., and H. Lee. 2016. “Study of Non-Dailiness in Japanese Plays After the 3·11 Great Earthquake.” Journal of Korean Dance 35: 139–58, in Google Scholar

Lefebvre, H. 1992. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.Search in Google Scholar

Liu, S. 刘士林 2015. Du shi mei xue 都市美学 [Urban Aesthetics]. Shanghai: Shanghai jiao tong chu ban she.Search in Google Scholar

Liu, Y. 刘岩 2016. Li shi ji yi sheng chan Dongbei lao gong ye ji di wen hua yan jiu 历史·记忆·生产:东北老工业基地文化研究 [History, Memory, Production: A Cultural Study of the Old Northeastern Industrial Base]. Beijing: Yanshi chu ban she. Kindle.Search in Google Scholar

Lü, X. 2010. “West of the Tracks: History and Class-Consciousness.” translated by J. X. Zhang. In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record, edited by C. Berry, and X. Lü, 57–76. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.10.5790/hongkong/9789888028528.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Powell, B. 1975. “Japan’s First Modern Theater: The Tsukiji Shogekijo and Its Company, 1924–26.” Monumenta Nipponica 30 (1): 69–85, in Google Scholar

Ramos-Martínez, M. 2015. “The Oxidation of the Documentary: The Politics of Rust in Wang Bing’s Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks.” Third Text 29 (1–2): 1–13.10.1080/09528822.2015.1036579Search in Google Scholar

Xu, H. 2021. Documentary Filmmaker Wang Bing (1): Behind the Scenes of the Nine-Hour Long West of the Tracks. Pengpai xinwen 澎湃新闻. November 14, 2021. Also available at in Google Scholar

Xue, T. 1995. A Political Economy Analysis of Chinese Films (1979–1994). Chinese University of Hong Kong PhD dissertation.Search in Google Scholar

Young, D. 2014. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo): Berlin Review. The Hollywood Reporter. February 12, 2014. Also available at in Google Scholar

Zhang, E. Y. 2007a. “The Birth of Nanke (Men’s Medicine) in China: The Making of the Subject of Desire.” American Ethnologist 34 (3): 491–508, in Google Scholar

Zhang, Z. 2007b. “Bearing Witness: Chinese Urban Cinema of the Era of ‘Transformation’ (Zhuanxing).” In The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, edited by Z. Zhang, 1–45. Durham: Duke University Press.10.2307/j.ctv11smskf.4Search in Google Scholar

Zhang, L. 2011. How The Piano in a Factory was Tempered. Nanfang dushibao 南方都市报. June 18. Also available at in Google Scholar

Zhang, X. 2014. Black Coal Thin Ice took the Golden Bear and Received Unanimous Acclaim from Critics. Yangcheng wanbao 羊城晚报. February 17, 2014. Also available at in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2022-05-16
Published in Print: 2022-05-25

© 2022 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Scroll Up Arrow