America vs China: the Movies (Cultural study Activities Autumn Winter 2019-20)

 Dear students,

welcome to the course.

We’re going learn about American culture by watching and discussing American movies and comparing them with Chinese movies. To inform our discussions, we’ll draw on the some of the key categories of cultural studies analysis, equality, ‘race’, class, and gender, as well as rural/urban divisions.

So, we will be learning and practicing  a little bit of the craft of movie reviewing, and a little bit of theory and method of cultural studies.

Each week I will give several movies to watch (you can copy them week by week). So, next week, can some of you bring your usbs? Then maybe the class can share on qq.

Some weeks I will give you some short readings and we will have in class quizzes on these, and on your knowledge of the films.

So I can share the lessons and materials with you, let’s make a wechat group.

Course aims:

The main purpose of this course is to strengthen your cultural, language communication and thinking competence.

The core of this course will contain a lot of practical work which will require you to speak thoughtfully, to use cultural study concepts in discussions [like culture, gender, race], and demonstrate your knowledge and understanding. 

Learning process:

The main objectives of the course are to facilitate the students in gaining further language-and-cultural knowledge thought a series of linked activities including English language (American) movie watching, class and group discussions, quizzes and tests etc.

You will learn to make informed and reasonable spoken word comparisons between Chinese and American cultural texts. In doing so, you will have the opportunity to speak more fluently and accurately, expressing your  ideas and opinions in a culturally informed and thoughtful manner.

Study Materials:

[1] American and Chinese film texts relating to issues of gender, race and rural/urban divisions.

[2] select readings


This course will focus on careful viewing of the films, small group and class discussions, and demonstration of understanding via quizzes and tests. Students are expected to come to class prepared to talk. To succeed in this class, you will be expected to do the following things:

  • Participate actively in speaking activities including group and class discussion.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the film texts and short conceptual readings.
  • Develop their ability to speak thoughtfully, demonstrating sound observation and reasoning skills.

Grade Breakdown

Full score 100%

  • Class participation 10%                               
  • Final Assignment  90%

There will be one test that will examine your knowledge and understanding of the films we have watched and the concepts we have used to understand them. The test will be worth 90%.

There will be assessment for attendance and participation as well (10%)

Note. Students are expected to attend all classes unless there are exceptional circumstances, to inform the teacher of the reasons for any absences and provide documentation when required. Failure to do so will result penalties against the grade.


The course will have five parts.

Part 1. Introduction: Culture and film, American college

An introduction to the concept of culture, and the craft of movie reviewing.

Lady Bird

Part 2. American and Chinese Heroes and Gender

The Wandering Earth, Hero, Wolf Warrior 1, Wolf Warrior 2Captain Marvel, Superman, the Movie, and other superhero movies

Part 3. American Race/racism.

12 Years a Slave, Do the Right Thing,

On Beale Street, The Hate You Give

Part 4. America and immigrants

Crazy Rich Asians, Roma, The Immigrant, The Farewell

Part 5. Chinese and American rural/urban culture

Blind Mountain, An Elephant Sitting Still.

(Note, films subject to change)


Brief readings on the cultural studies concepts (for example, racism, gender) will be given as homework throughout the semester.

Defining Culture

‘Culture’ is one of the most difficult concepts in the human and social sciences
and there are many different ways of defining it.

In more traditional definitions of the term, culture is said to embody the ‘best that has been thought and said’ in a society. It is the sum of the great ideas, as represented in the classic works of literature, painting, music and philosophy- the ‘high culture· of an age.

Belonging to the same frame of reference, but more ‘modern’ in its associations, is the use of ‘culture’ to refer to the widely distributed forms of popular music, publishing, art, design and literature, or the activities of leisure-time and entertainment. which make up the everyday lives of the majority of ‘ordinary people’- what is called the ‘mass culture’ or the ‘popular culture’ of an age.

High culture versus popular culture was, for many years, the classic way of framing the debate about culture- the terms carrying a powerfully evaluative charge (roughly, high= good: popular= debased).

Quick Discussion question

Can you think of some examples of high culture?

What about low/popular culture?

In a more ·social science’ context, the word ‘culture’ is used to refer to whatever is distinctive about the ‘way of life’ of a people, community, nation or social group) – the ‘anthropological’ definition.

Alternatively. the word can be used to describe the ‘shared values’ of a group or of society (like the anthropological definition. only with a more sociological emphasis).

We can think of Culture as a set of things – novels and paintings or
TV programmes and comics.

But we can also speak of culture as a process. a set of practices and beliefs. In this sense, culture is concerned with the production and the exchange of meanings – the ‘giving and taking of meaning’- between the members of a society or group.

Quick discussion question

What are some common Chinese cultural practices?

What are some common American cultural practices?

Things ‘in themselves’ rarely have any one, single, fixed and unchanging meaning. Even something as obvious as a stone can be a stone, a boundary marker or a piece of sculpture, depending on what it means within a certain context of use.

It is participants in a culture who give meaning to people, objects and events. It is by our use of things, and what we say, think and feel about them – how we represent them – that we give them a meaning. In part, we give objects, people and events meaning by the frameworks of interpretation which we bring to them.

Members of the same culture must share sets of concepts, images and ideas which enable them to think and feel about the world, and thus to interpret the world, in roughly similar ways. They must share, broadly speaking, the same ‘cultural codes.

In this sense, thinking and feeling are ‘systems of representation’, in which our concepts, images and emotions ‘stand for’ or represent, in our mental life, things which are or may be ‘out there’ in the world.

How things/people are represented

  • To represent something is to show it, to portray it, to communicate it, through some kind of “language” (there are many kinds of languages).
  • To talk about how something is represented is to talk about how it is shown, portrayed, or communicated.

Lets have a quick look at a few examples …

  1. Traffic commands represented by traffic lights.

Traffic commands like stop, wait, get ready, go, slow down are basically represented by three colored lights (red, green, amber).

There are more commands than lights, but the three lights are sufficient to communicate the commands because of the way they are used (the how of their representation).

If we were to talk about how the lights represent a range of traffic commands, we could explain that their organization on the basis of the principles of difference and sequence makes their commands intelligible.

For example,

  • red represents stop because it is different from green and amber.
  • amber following green is a sequence indicating it is time to slow down.

Altogether we can say that the lights have been coded by the logic of traffic management which requires that people obey a range of commands. The way they have been coded is through the principles of difference and sequence.

If we wanted to take this example further, we could argue that the representation of traffic commands has become increasingly helpful. In China, many traffic lights now provide a numbered countdown (from ninety to zero), so people know how long they have to wait, and can prepare to get ready. This extra sequence feels very helpful if you are waiting at the lights (if you just had a red light instead, you wouldn’t know how long you have to wait).

Shenzhen traffic offense display screen

But we might also talk about the way that representations related to traffic commands have also become more punitive and inescapable. For example, in some cities there are now large video screens showing images of people who have broken the traffic rules. This kind of representation works to shame people into obeying the commands.

2. Foreigners and national selves represented by political discourse (for example, the words of Donald Trump).

We might talk about the way that discourse (way of talking) of Donald Trump is full of negative representations of foreigners and positive representations of Americans.

In Trump’s political discourse, bad foreigners are represented as posing a serious threat to good American citizens.

His dichotomy between bad foreigners and good Americans works to associate particular characteristics as negative threats to an imagined American way of life.


This political discourse is coded by the principle of difference. The kind of difference being used to organize the opposite terms is cultural racism.

So if Donald Trump’s discourse was the subject of one of our discussions, we could first describe what the discourse is and how it works (as above).

Then, if we were to discuss this discourse further, we could talk about its effects. We might discuss policy effects, including nationalist and protectionist policies like migrant-exclusion and trade wars.

Or we might talk about social effects like the rise of racist discrimination and violence, including the great increase in the number of hate crimes. We might talk about the way that racist coding has become part of popular talking among some American social groups, and how this is being opposed by different forms of counter-discourse.

We might talk about why (or even whether) it matters:

Q. Why would we, as English major students, do any of this (analyzing Trump’s culturally racist representations)?

A. Well, one answer would be to argue that language does not exist independently of the culture it is used in, and if we are studying American English, for example, we can’t claim to understand the language if we don’t understand the culture it is embedded in, and the way that culture is contested and changing over time.


Betty Page, American pin-up
Tai hao le.

3. American femininity represented by barbie dolls, pin ups, and advertising photos of good housewives

Children’s toys, pin-up photos and pictures, and adverts featuring housewives have all been key representations of femininity in popular American culture.

Barbie dolls represent womanhood as something associated with the colour pink, with prettiness, something like a present, something ‘princessy’. Feminists argue that the dolls are representations that encourage little girls to aspire to a model of womanhood in which they are pretty, a present for their man, and a princess towards their father figure. Pin-ups are representations encouraging people (men and women) to value women to the extent that they are desirable sex objects. Housewife adverts are representations that reinforce the idea that a woman’s place is in the home, where she should be happily subservient.

Each of these forms of representation was key to 20th century American popular culture, and together they worked to reinforce particular ideals of what femininity or womanhood should mean or be.These representations are coded according to sexist and sexualizing principles.

So, if this was a topic for discussion, we would start with something like this description of what the representations of femininity are, and how they work (the principles they are organized/coded by).

If we were to talk about this further, we could discuss the way the representations related to social practices, the way they have been contested by feminists, and then how those contests have in turn been contested again (for example, by modern misogynists, or by post-feminists).

We could do that by looking at their representations in, for example, political discourse, or art, or movies, fiction etc.Think, for example, of the more recent (21st century) representations of women given in the movie Atomic Blonde, or Captain Marvel and other recent superhero movies.

We are amateur movie reviewers


Movie discussion elements

  • title, topic, release date
  • Story, plot, genre, style.
  • Social themes and significance; historical context
  • Creative craft elements (including, for example, quality of script, direction and performances, visual design and cinematography,  lighting, set design, costume, hair, make-up, special effects, sound, music, editing.

When we think and talk about movies:

  • Reasoning with evidence. You will have given your opinions and reasons throughout, try to make sure you talk logically with enough and appropriate evidence to support your point of view.




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