Jian Ping weaves past and present with a documentary based on her memoir about growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution.
In 2009 Jian Ping, CER’07, CER’10, published Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China (MoraQuest, 2009), about growing up in a small Chinese town during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s. Her father, a high-ranking government official, was declared a traitor, and her mother was imprisoned by the Red Guards and pressured to divorce him. Jian, her siblings, and grandmother, whom she calls Nainai, were forced to live in a mud house in the remote town of Baicheng, without heating, water, or indoor plumbing. Jian moved to the United States in 1986 for graduate school and never left.
She wrote the book for her daughter, Lisa, now 26, who grew up in the United States and always considered herself American. The tension between an immigrant mother and a daughter who hasn’t considered her family’s past is at the center of a documentary based on Jian’s memoir, which premiered October 16, 2011, at the Heartland Film Festival.
Jian spoke with the Magazine about turning her life story into a film.
The film seems to have a lot of moving parts—was it hard to weave them all into a narrative?
Director Susan Morgan Cooper did a wonderful job weaving various moving parts in the book into a condensed narrative, using the disconnect between my daughter, Lisa Xia, and me as the arc. Since it’s a documentary film, the story line evolved with the progress of the film production, and the crew came to Chicago three times to interview Lisa and me. They caught many episodes of our interaction in real life on camera and used some in the film, such as the watermelon scene at the beginning. We also went to China to interview my mother and my siblings and to film the small town where I grew up. It was a lot of hard work for the entire crew and cast.
Tell me more about the watermelon scene.
I served Lisa pieces of watermelon during one of her rare visits home, and we argued about her infrequent visits, with me requesting her to come home more often and her fighting against it. It revealed our differences on family, sense of home, and belonging. I was terrified when I watched the film for the first time and begged my director to cut that scene in half, to no avail. Viewers of the film, however, got the message loud and clear at every screening. To this day, when Lisa and I attend screenings of the film, we both stay out of the theater for that scene—it’s still hard for us to watch.
Why did you decide to make the documentary in addition to writing the memoir?
I had the good fortune of having my book introduced to Susan at a film festival, where her film An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adam Story (2008) was being shown. After reading the book, Susan was enthusiastic about developing it into a feature-length documentary. I wanted it to happen so more people would have the opportunity to learn about my family story and, through it, a part of recent Chinese history.
How has the documentary process been different from writing the book?
It’s a very different process. Writing the book is a personal and, in many ways, a self-healing journey. It was my reflection on the past and my coming to terms with the events that helped shape who I am today. The filmmaking process was much more challenging since it not only involved a team of people but also expanded to include my life today—especially my relationship with my daughter, who largely grew up in the United States. Putting our lives—in particular, the conflicts in our lives—honestly out there on a large screen is quite mortifying.
What was it like to cast Little Jian and your family?
A lot of hard work! It took us several months to cast Little Jian and Nainai, my grandmother. Susan insisted on not using any professional actors, so she went to many Chinese-language schools in Los Angeles to look for Little Jian and the rest of the family members. She also visited Chinatown many times to search for an older woman without teeth to play Nainai. I mobilized all my friends in Los Angeles and in Chicago to get us referrals. In the end, we were lucky to find the cast through the help of friends, as each of them did a wonderful job, especially Little Jian and Nainai.
How has making the film affected your relationship with your daughter?
There is a “disconnect” between my daughter, Lisa, and me, to quote my director, Susan. Our differences stemmed from our cultural and generational gaps, which continued to evolve. Lisa was a very reluctant participant in the film, which made the filmmaking more difficult for me. Fortunately, after the film was released, Lisa changed. Seeing the audiences’ reactions and the understanding they gave her, she gradually turned to embrace the project. Many of the in-depth questions raised by the audience also helped us both to reflect on the roles we each played in our relationship. I’m thrilled to say that the film has turned out to be a vehicle that helped bring us closer.
What has been the response to the film?
The responses to both the film and book have been overwhelmingly positive and touching. For the book, people were resonating with the resilience of my family facing political persecution and deprivation, the unconditional love of my grandmother, and the support my family members gave to one another. The response to the film was more than that—many people connected with the universal theme of mother-daughter relationship and the immigrant story. At the Q&A session after each screening at film festivals and commercial theaters, many people in the audience became very emotional and sometimes gave us a standing ovation. They thanked us for sharing our story and related their own similar experiences, despite their different ethnic backgrounds. One viewer in Chicago wrote to me after seeing the film: “Your story jumps across all racial and ethnic boundaries—that is my definition of a classic.”