The Oscar-winning Chinese American Director Chloé Zhao

Chloé Zhao’s 2021 Oscar wins were historic. At the ceremony she became the first non-white woman and the second woman ever to win to the award for Best Director, and her film Nomadland was honored as Best Picture. Katheryn Bigelow is the only other woman in history to take home the Oscar for Best Director for her work on 2010’s The Hurt Locker.  


Nomadland has nothing to do with China. It deals, in the words of an advertisement, “with a woman in her sixties who, after losing everything during the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad”. Ms. Zhao reminds of the Taiwan-born director Ang Lee, who grew up in Taiwan and is culturally Chinese, but has nevertheless created masterpieces that have nothing directly to do with Chinese culture, such as Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012), for which he received Academy Awards for best director. As we know, Ang Lee has also made movies with Chinese subject matter, such as Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Lust, Caution (2007).

Nomadland is Chloé Zhao’s third film. Her first two films also dealt with American themes. Songs My Brothers Taught Me from 2015 explores the relationship between a teen Lakota boy and his kid sister. 2017’s The Rider is a contemporary Western movie, based on a true story that depicts a young cowboy’s journey of self-discovery after a near-fatal accident that nearly ended his professional riding career. Thus, none of her films so far have had a Chinese theme, but it would not be surprising if she chooses a Chinese topic for a future film.

Her three films have all been widely acclaimed. Her first two were both shown at the Cannes Film Festival, and The Rider even won her the first Bonnie Award, named after the woman pilot Bonnie Tiburzi. Before receiving her Oscar, Zhao won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Best Motion Picture – Drama at the Golden Globe Awards for Nomadland. In February 2021 Variety reported that with thirty-four awards for directing, thirteen for screenplay, and nine for editing, Zhao had surpassed Alexander Payne as the most decorated individual in a single awards season.

Cross Cultural Fertilization

Ms. Zhao was born in 1982 and grew up in Beijing, the daughter of a Chinese industrialist. When she was 15 her parents sent her to Brighton College, a private boarding school in the UK. From there she moved on to Los Angeles to finish high school. Later, she enrolled at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she received a B.A. in political science, and then went on to Tisch School of the Arts at New York University to study film production.

Chloé Zhao’s films, just like those made by Ang Lee, are wonderful examples of cross-cultural fertilization. Even though the content of Nomadland has nothing to do with China, Zhao is still able to draw on her Chinese cultural roots as a filmmaker. In her Oscar acceptance speech, Zhao shared she believes her ability to persevere when things get difficult stems from experiences she had as a child. Growing up, Zhao and her father enjoyed memorizing classical Chinese poems and texts to recite them to each other and try to finish each other’s sentences. In particular, she recalled the first phrase of the Three Character Classic, which she quoted in Chinese 人之初, 性本善 and then translated as “People at birth are inherently good”. She said these words had a great impact on her and added, “I still truly believe them today even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true. But I have always found goodness in the people I met everywhere I went in the world.”

The Three Character Classic (三字经) was composed in the thirteenth century and was used as the first Chinese textbook for small Chinese children until the late nineteenth century. Its content expressed the gist of Confucian philosophy, and the phrase Ms. Zhao quoted closely echoes the philosopher Mencius, who taught goodness is innate in human nature.

There is no doubt Ms. Zhao has roots in Chinese culture while at the same time being American and as much part of Western culture as anyone. We can be sure that Zhao’s win and reference to Chinese culture in her acceptance speech made many Chinese happy and proud of the award she received. Sadly, the Chinese Government seems unable to share in the joy over her success. Rather, it chose to prevent Chinese viewers from watching the Oscar ceremony and even resorted to deleting all favorable references to Ms. Zhao and her films on the internet. Apparently, government leaders believe she is unpatriotic for criticizing the Communist Party in the past. But how can unquestioning loyalty to a political party be the decisive criterion of patriotism?

Chloé Zhao is an artist who has overcome cultural boundaries between China and the West to create films that are part of contemporary world culture.