This article analyzes scenes of media and redemption in Zhang Yimou’s 张艺谋 film Qianli zou danqi 千里走单骑 (Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, 2005) as a critique of Romantic Orientalism. Whereas in Western Romantic poetry, the themes of retreating to nature and journeying abroad are strengthened by imagining the Orient and appropriating the local voice, Riding Alone negates that motif by depicting the divided subjectivities of Kenichi, a historian of Oriental Art at Tokyo University, and his failed redemption during his journey to China. The film offers his father Takata’s alternative journey, which involves the foreign traveler losing his subject position before asserting his own, leading to the revival of the Lord Guan story. Much of the historical myth-making of Lord Guan in Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian religious practices involves a reinvention of a cultural tradition as a response to foreign threat; all share the features of what Prasenjit Duara calls “the apotheosization of a hero and his role as guardian” in a process of the “superscription of symbols.” By contrast, Riding Alone is secular and forward-thinking while reenacting several meanings of the Lord Guan myth such as repentance, sacrifice, redemption, and guardianship. The film interpolates the Japanese into a new “Oriental” subject position that has to lose its Western Orientalism as well as the negative impact of industrialism while retaining democratic subjectivity, and the Chinese into a new democratic subject position that maintains autonomy.
Myth Superscription in Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles