In December 1978, the Chinese government formally laid out its economic reform policy, thereby marking the beginning of a new post-Mao era. As economic reform deepened around the mid-1980s, the state began to openly retreat from its former socialist commitments—including the institutionalized practice of class and gender equality—and new mainstream discourses began to endorse a universal modernity, disregarding sociopolitical consequences of the market. Zhang Nuanxin (张暖忻, 1941–95) emerged as a pioneer in both the theory and practice of early post-Mao new experimental cinema, but she was dismissed as nonessential to the advancement of post-Mao new cinema in the late 1980s. Post-Mao feminist film scholars have since expressed their disappointment with Zhang’s films due to their incomplete break from the socialist mainstream cinema of the Mao era. This article closely studies Zhang’s most representative film, Sacrificed Youth (青春祭, 1985), exploring its complicated negotiation with the socialist legacy and new post-Mao discourses. With a highly subjective and documentary experimental style, the film articulates a double critique of political and cultural uniformity during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and the socially detached and universal individualism, naturalized sexual difference, and essentialized female consciousness newly mainstreamed around the mid-1980s in China. The article argues that the dismissal of Zhang toward the end of the 1980s reveals both the transformation of Chinese culture into a depoliticized and male-centered masculine practice and Zhang’s insistence on sociopolitically engaged filmmaking as China moved toward a market economy.

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