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Learning on the Fly: Yolanda “Yoyo” Yang and Savannah Kimble

“In an odd way, I felt like I had jumped into the future. From what I saw, China is a country that brings together the past and the future.”

— Savannah Kimble

Eight Washington and Lee University students spent a portion of summer 2016 overseas in a collaboration that pairs American and international students for projects and service work in the international students’ home countries.

The program, which is funded by part of a $219,000 grant from the Endeavor Foundation (formerly known as the Christian A. Johnson Foundation) is in its second year. This year found students working with refugees in Greece and Germany, and studying the culture of food and film in China.

Yolanda Yang ’18 and Savannah Kimble ’18 chose a project titled “The Chinese Cinematography Experience: Observing American and Chinese Films from Political, Psychological and Artistic Angles.”

What inspired you to focus on your theme?

Savannah: During our freshman year, Yoyo and I went to see “Kingsman: The Secret Service” at the theater. Some time later, we were talking about movies when she told me that in China, one of the most violent scenes in the movie had been cut (we watched the Chinese version during our time in China and saw the proof with our own eyes!). We thought that this was an interesting point of cultural difference, and months later that conversation turned into the idea for our project!

Yoyo: We watched the movie “Kingsman: The Secret Service” on a random Friday night freshman year. The next week, I chatted with one of my friends back in China, and he told me that he watched the Kingsman movie in a Chinese theater as well, but the famous “church massacre” scene was cut (almost four minutes long). I brought it up to Savannah, and both of us found it very interesting. This became our inspiration to do a good project that combines many of our interests (politics, literature, psychology, culture and film).

How did you go about conducting the project when you got to China?

Savannah: Before leaving for China, we downloaded the American versions of several movies on iTunes, and when we arrived in China, we found the Chinese versions. We then compared them scene  by scene. We also saw two of the most recent Hollywood movies in theaters, “Now You See Me 2” and “Independence Day: Resurgence,” and traveled to many cultural locations throughout China in Tianjin, Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an.

Yoyo: We also visited Professor Zhenping Wang, the film studies professor in Beijing Foreign Languages University. We conducted a casual interview with her, gaining more in-depth knowledge of the value conflicts in movies (traditional Chinese perspectives versus Hollywood values).

Additionally, other than my hometown of Tianjin, we visited Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an. As the most representative cities in China, those three cities are also well-known movie shooting sites. We visited many famous sites. We also visited the movie museum in Shanghai.

How would you summarize your findings?

Savannah: I would say that it was both what I expected and surprising! Many films were cut, as we expected, but some parts of the project didn’t go quite as we planned because there weren’t any cuts made to some of the films we had selected. However, that fact itself teaches us something important about the shift in Chinese cultural values over the years and censors becoming more lenient. Hollywood also seems to be catering some of its films toward the huge Chinese box-office base by including Chinese dialogue and cultural references, which was an interesting element that we hadn’t anticipated.

Yoyo: By contrasting the films (legal copies), we proved that film clipping is quite common.

We looked into the main reasons of the censorship policy, such as: Chinese film industry lacks the rating system; Chinese government keeps high sensitivity in political material; traditional Chinese culture is more conservative than Western culture.

What’s more, we also found that the growth of Chinese economy reflected on film industry. For instance, Chinese elements are thrown in many Hollywood box-office based movies.

Film industry also has grown into an important business in China. The Chinese Administration of Radio Film and Television clips movies because shortened movies allow for more screenings per day for increasing cinemas’ incomes.

Did anything about your findings surprise you?

Savannah: The financial aspect definitely surprised me! I remember sitting in a Shanghai movie theater watching “Now You See Me 2” with English dialogue and Chinese subtitles. The characters found themselves in Macau, described in the movie as “China’s Las Vegas,” and suddenly there was Chinese dialogue with English subtitles! It was an extraordinary reversal. Later on, two of the main characters teased one another about their Mandarin, and everyone in the audience laughed in delight. If, as Yoyo and I suspect, Hollywood is cashing in on the Chinese fan base, they’re doing a great job!

Yoyo: I never realized how many Chinese elements could be casually thrown in a Hollywood movie! Both of the films we saw were popular in China for a reason. Many actors and actresses are from China, which surely attracted many Chinese fans. Even knowing that Hollywood works hard on the financial aspect, I was still surprised to see how much they had been specifically focusing on China. After all, I had to admit that they had done a pretty good job considering the amount of Chinese audiences huddled in the movie theatres for seeing Jay Chou (in “Now You See Me 2”) or Angelababy (in “Independence Day”).

What is the next stage for your project? Did you create a paper or a video or anything? Do you plan to give any presentations about it on campus?

Savannah: We created a PowerPoint with our findings that we hope Yoyo will be able to present at Science, Society and the Arts in the spring. Unfortunately, I will be abroad in England next semester. We’re definitely open to other ideas as well!

Savannah, was this your first time in China? What were your impressions?

This was my first time out of the country, let alone in China! My first impression was that it was massive. In an odd way, I felt like I had jumped into the future. From what I saw, China is a country that brings together the past and the future. In a 10-minute car ride, you can travel from a mall the size of an airport to an area where chickens peck past stalls selling cheap clothing and ice cream on dirt roads. In the places I traveled, it feels like a country that has experienced huge economic growth and globalization in a very short amount of time, and the remnants of an agricultural society are still visible in the middle of modern cities.

Yoyo, what was it like to introduce a newcomer to your native land?

On one hand, after several years of traveling away from home, introducing Savannah to my home and my homeland gave me a chance to look into my cultural identity again with a more comprehensive and mature view.

On the other hand, although I had spent 17 years in China before I came to the U.S., I felt surprisingly ignorant about my own country and culture during this trip. I felt like a tourist sometimes! Almost every time I tried to explain to Savannah about a historical event, a cultural holiday, or a character in ancient legend, I found that I knew so much less than I thought I did. I will have to learn more about my own culture!

I have always enjoyed embracing new cultures, but now I am also motivated to introduce my own culture to others.

Favorite experience of the trip?

Savannah: I have so many favorite moments, and Yoyo is in every single one of them! I really loved getting to see her country and meeting her family and friends. Some of my favorite memories are Yoyo’s grandparents and mom teaching us how to make dumplings, eating the best sushi I’ve ever had with Yoyo and her mom, and her parents buying us ice cream as we trudged through blistering streets in the Xi’an summer. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to see the Summer Palace, the Oriental Pearl and the Terracotta Warriors, and I’m lucky to count the experience of walking the Great Wall among my memories. But for me, the thing that made it really special was doing it all with one of my very best friends!

Yoyo: There are so many unforgettable moments during this trip so it’s hard to pick. I loved our afternoon tea time in an ancient water town in Shanghai when it was pouring outside. I loved us strolling down the riverside in Tianjin in the evenings after eating too many dumplings at my grandparents’ home. I even loved teaching Savannah to push through the thousands of tourists at the Terracotta Warriors exhibition, with ice cream in our hands.

One of my favorite experiences was our visit to the Summer Palace in Beijing. We were walking around the lake, and through the willows we saw the most beautiful sunset. That was a moment that I felt I was living in a postcard — being in my beloved homeland, watching beautiful scenes with my best friend. All the things I love made that afternoon perfect!

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