22. Deducing (gathering) possible cultural contexts via plausible ToM construction

Dynamics of cultural contexts ◆ Gathering cultural contexts ◆ Creating interpretive balance

 Key terms and concepts introduced in this chapter:

  • no new terms are introduced in this chapter

Key terms and concepts mentioned in this chapter that should now be familiar:

  • attractors
  • East Asian
  • horizons of expectation
  • interpretive projects
  • love
  • model reader / viewer
  • narrative
  • ToM
  • values

 22.1. Naming the “dynamics” of cultural contexts and their influence

My thinking on the dynamics between *authoritative thought systems, such as Daoism, and what I initially just termed “Western” cultural sensibilities, has evolved on multiple fronts. The formal title for this course was originally “Dynamics of Romantic Core Values in East Asian Premodern Literature and Modern Cinema.” I visualized “dynamics” as the tensions between traditional *East Asian *ethical values and imported Western *ethical values over the contested space of the meaning of a *narrative.  My interest in “core” *values was because, in the world of *love, some of our strongest feelings and convictions are invoked. I wanted to problematize overly facile interpretations of *love that derived from being unaware of the reality of the diversity of ideas around what *love is, or due to the interpreter being reluctant to make distance with *values perceived as “core” to her or his own views of *love.

In the early versions of the course, we read at length in premodern literature (with an emphasis on The Tale of Genji, Story of the Stone, Nine Cloud Dream or, some years, Chunhyang). This helped give substance to abstract assertions by me with regard to premodern *values and had the further advantage of providing challenging interpretive situations that helped bring into relief how easy it is to misapply one’s own assumptions as well as remain unaware of alternative ways of thinking about *love.

In the second half of the course we looked at contemporary *East Asian films and tried to take a measure of how viable traditional *values remained in them. I originally restricted students to cinema released after 2000 because of substantial improvements in the robustness of the South Korean film industry in the 1990s[1] including what is widely seen as a watershed moment with the success of Shiri in 1999[2] and, in the case of China, the overseas successes of “Chinese-language cinema” in the 1990s of Fifth Generation Beijing directors such as Zhang Yimou, Wang Kar-wai from Hong Kong, and Taiwan-born Ang Lee, as well as the complications of post-Tiananmen censorship, all which mark significant changes in film content[3] and target audiences.

Cinema was, in the early days, less prominent as a functional component of the course, one that was meant only to explore how traditional *values might alter when a director or marketing entity wished to distribute a film that would include an international audience. The assumption here was that films succeed in part when the *values of the audience are not unduly challenged and that, in the case of *East Asian films, directors are confronted with the conundrum of pleasing a domestic audience with one set of *values and international audiences with other cultural expectations. Frankly, I think internet culture (including the wide and illegal distribution of films) has flattened cultural differences among young people on the one hand and changed marketing strategies on the other. So, while this particular utilitarian reason has become less important, unexpectedly film narrative became central to the course because its rich, multimedia content proved best for *interpretive projects. It must be admitted, however, that the *values in films are often a hodge-podge collection of various *values of which the director may or may not be fully aware or spend much time thinking about. This complicates matters but it is wonderfully well aligned with realworld challenges in reading the cultural contexts of a situation.

While the above more or less describes the start point of the course in its original iteration, I began to create a set of terms around “dynamics” so we could better define what was going on. This was how terms became central to the course. As I worked out the “dynamics” of how cultural contexts did or did not influence someone at any given particular moment, I began to understand that it was the result of tension between the content and power of the context, on the one hand, and the willingness of the subject (person) to accept the influence, on the other. Questions arose: How much of a traditional value is really present with a film? This led to a category of descriptions under the idea of the heritage of a value to its original source (heritage status) and how it is treated within a narrative (narrative status). How can we bring some orderly thinking to what appears to be a jumble of possible cultural influences? This lead to a set of terms around how contexts are arrayed (from the perspective of the person confronted by them). We know that traditional *values are not the primary driving force in most decisions most of the time. What is? In other words, what is there that fades and reduces traditional *values? This led to various terms measuring the distance between a context and a subject (person) and identifying what in the environment was competing with traditional *values or just *values in general. I had already believed that the various influences on a subject was a complex affair (since in literary criticism we tend to shy away from identifying influences since we know that descriptions tend to fall so short of reality as to be almost facetious, unless they are just being used as a way to discuss various important issues). I did not realize just how complex the situation was.

Nevertheless, after years of teaching this course and reassessing its original premise, it remains my opinion that traditional *values are under-appreciated and deserve consideration even now.

22.2. Gathering cultural contexts

Our biggest challenge in this course, for all of us including me, is that it is nearly impossible to know exactly what it is we do not know. We know that there are some things we do not know. I hope we all have at least that much humility. But this does not help us identify the specific things that are unknown. How do we do that?

I would like to start with a simple assertion: Interpretation begins with curiosity. Interpretation is a turning over of a text or situation in one’s mind, considering various possible angles. This only happens when one wants to understand, or, rather, good questions come out of genuine curiosity. This, and discipline, are the key elements of analysis in my opinion.

Our challenge is, in recognition of the necessity to allow and manage a complex collection of cultural contexts, contextual pluralities, to gather a great deal but not just anything and not too much. So, where to go to identify (gather) potential cultural contexts to consider and how to decide what to include and what to leave aside? The goal certainly is not to make as long a list as possible. On the other hand, the goal is, indeed, not to overlook something important and since we cannot truly know, ultimately, what will turn out to be useful, we need to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion. In other words, we should avoid burying ourselves with possibilities but also avoid becoming satisfied with our collect too soon because often the most important contexts, or the most interesting ones, are those that tend to be overlooked. We have no need of identifying then considering contexts that are already obvious to everyone. We are chasing more agile and slippery creatures.

I have tried to create an environment for the discovery of cultural differences (unidentified cultural contexts that are informing a situation) along these lines: convincing us of our blindness (“*horizons of expectation”), identifying a process that inserts blindness where there could be discovery (*attractors), trying to ameliorate the degree of lack of knowledge by leveraging the diverse cultural knowledge of groups through dialogue and bounded dialogue, and creating a “red flag” system where, when something about a narrative does not “make sense” it might be an indicator of missing or ineptly applied knowledge.

With these things in mind, we gather cultural contexts and refine their content. Our approach is, essential, two-pronged.

22.2.1. Developing a list of potential cultural contexts: Film-based, deductive and tentative working hypotheses

Based on a careful viewing of the film in all of its aspects — what messages are possibly being conveyed by style and content (both) of sound, image, word, story, and actor performance—we puzzle over the worldviews and values that seem to be invoked by these. We construct *ToM for narrative figures and think of what they are thinking and feeling and why they are thinking and feeling those things. We consider their actions and reactions and wonder, too, what these might suggest of cultural contexts. We consider carefully the course of events: what seems to be emphasized, what might be the meaning of certain turns of events, and ultimate plot outcome. We research the director and develop as best we can what might be her or his own worldviews and values, since these will be a significant influence across the film. We research the reception of the film through box-office results and reviews, to get a sense as to what might be the *worldviews and *values of the target audience (*model reader / audience). These can definitely help us make credible assertions about the *worldviews and *values of the film in one way or another.

In sum, we “read” (view, consume, ponder) the film with care and engage in research as necessary. This work itself would be endless so we keep “reasonable effort” in mind, but hope to unearth interesting, relevant observations that have perhaps gone unnoticed and are hopefully useful to others in the course.

22.2.2. Developing a list of potential cultural contexts: Deployment of independent (not “this film”-related) knowledge

There is, for all of us, a lot we do not know about the various cultural groups of our three *East Asian countries. Since the focus of our analysis for this course is *traditional *worldviews and *values, this is particularly the case. How do we learn? Where are the sources of information?

  1. This book and in-class comments by me outline some of the points I would like students to consider as they think about what contexts are worth bringing into the discussion.
  2. Your own cultural knowledge is immeasurably important. It is important to you, but it is important to your group members, too. Share it, please. Just one note of caution, it is surprisingly easy to err when characterizing your own culture. The confidence level can be too high. Double-check yourself and proceed with caution.
  3. The cultural knowledge of others in the group. This course was designed because this is Berkeley with a incredible level of cultural diversity among a collection of intelligent, articulate people—all in the room at the same time. It is the catnip of the course. Make full use of it.
  4. The cultural knowledge of still others. If you have friends or family, ask them questions, Your parents might tell you things you never expected to hear. (This happens more often than you would think.) You probably know others with extensive experience in Asia. Please remember that it is not just natives of a country that know things about a country. Non-natives who have lived in a country see it will special eyes and can notice things natives might miss.
  5. Research. If you do not know what Korean han is, or Chinese qing, or Japanese amae, and it has not been discussed in class, go find out. Or find out more if what is mentioned in class was unclear or insufficient. Read about cultures. Admittedly, given the indistinct nature of our topic, and the frustrating reality that we often do not know what we do not know, it is challenging to do this research. (I was once told by. reference librarian here that she was flummoxed one day when a small crowd of students came to her desk and said they wanted a “book about love.”) On the other hand, how fantastic for your group that you almost surely have among your group members the ability to read research in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, or perhaps two of these three.

22.2.3. Not going overboard in the process of gathering

We will revisit this point below but perhaps it is wise to briefly note it here: In recognition of the complexity of the task, and wanting results that are useful and interesting to everyone, we limit very sharply the scope of what we need to find cultural contexts for through a series of filters: we consider films not the plethora of complicated events in the real world, we identify a specific instance within the film, we further insist that it be relevant to a single ToM within that instance, and we further limit it by fashioning a *narrowly defined discussion topic. These limiters help but, in truth, the task remains challenging in many cases.

We begin the work of gathering cultural contexts in this course once Part Four becomes the topic of the class sessions. For now, I would like to set out what we do with all the many interesting things we harvest, that is, how do we decide what of this harvest has practical value for us?


  1. Jimmyn Parc, "The effects of protection in cultural industries: the case of the Korean film policies," International Journal of Cultural Policy 23, no. 5 (January 2016): 618-633, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10286632.2015.1116526.
  2. Jennifer Rousse-Marquet, "The Unique Story of the South Korean Film Industry," published September 30, 2013, updated July 10, 2013, http://www.inaglobal.fr/en/cinema/article/unique-story-south-korean-film-industry.
  3. James Wicks, "Cinema Diànyǐngyuàn 电影院," in Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, ed. Linsun Cheng (Minneapolis: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2009), http://www.academia.edu/8940906/Cinema_in_China_A_Brief_History.


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Interpreting Love Narratives in East Asian Literature and Film Copyright © 2019 by John R Wallace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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