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‘Think Like an Archipelago’——Regarding the Japanese-Chinese Independent Film Culture Connections (1989-2020)

MA Ran

This inaugural issue of Chinese Independent Cinema Observer focuses on the interconnections between Chinese independent cinema and contemporary Japanese film culture. We seek to understand Chinese independent cinema, together with its historical trajectories, spaces, and transformations, by situating it within and alongside the cinematic-cultural interconnections between China and Japan of the recent three decades (1989-2020).1 Specifically, we turn to an assemblage of intertwined (historical) trajectories, discursive articulations, and practices from within and outside of Japanese academia, by also attending to voices and visions from film criticism as well as the interrelated sectors of film production, distribution, and exhibition (especially the festival network).

Within a relatively short period of time, we (the editorial team and all those who have participated and contributed to this issue in various ways) have been fortunate enough to gather a group of thinkers, witnesses, and practioners who are familiar with the Chinese and/or Japanese contexts so that this launch issue could demarcate the trajectories and tease out the clues (archival materials, pictures, and oral histories) of this relationship. However, this issue does not seek to provide a so-called ‘panoramic view’, the ‘truth’, and the ‘one and only’ historical narrative apropos Japanese-Chinese independent film connections. Rather, we use this platform as an entry point to demonstrate how complicated the interconnections are and how meaningful it would be to engage in these discussions. Hopefully what has been covered in this first issue will generate new exciting ways of considering ‘how (to study/examine) Chinese Independent Cinema’ (my italics), particularly from the perspective of critical transnational cinema studies.2

This introduction consists of two parts. In the first, as mentioned above, since this issue aims to suggest clues instead of offering panoramic views, to pose questions rather than provide conclusions, I would therefore like to briefly turn to the concept of ‘archipelagic thinking’ to tease out some possible directions apropos how to think about Sino-Japanese connections in independent cinema. As such, I may also engage with Akiyama Tamako’s contextualised, historical overview in the epilogue titled ‘When Currents Collide: Chinese Independent Cinema and Japan’. In the second, I will outline the structure of this issue.

In public discourses there is a cliché regarding how Japan and China are two good neighbours separated/ linked by ‘a strip of water’ (⼀⾐带⽔, originally from the History of the Southern Dynasties 南史). While we could understand this saying as a flattened, formulaic description of the intricacy of Sino-Japanese geopolitical relations in the Asia-Pacific region and globally, here we will use the ‘strip of water’ trope to (re)imagine the modes and possibilities of transnational, inter-Asian connectivity. Specifically, the metaphor of a ‘strip of water’ designates a zone of in-between-ness and uncertainty, illustrating how a clear-cut boundary between the islands (e.g., Japan consists of a group of islands) and the continent (e.g. China) can hardly be drawn and can be easily reconfigured by the flow of water.

To underpin this ‘in-between-ness’, therefore, we turn to archipelagic thought. In his imaginative book titled Aspects of Archipelagic World (Guntō-sekairon 群岛–世界论), cultural anthropologist Imafuku Ryūta 今福⻰太draws on French-Martinican writer Édouard Glissant’s 爱德华·格⾥桑understanding of ‘archipelago’ to unpack world literature, artistic and visual texts (including fiction, poetry, painting and maps) that are centred on the imaginaries of oceans, waters, islands, and so forth. Situating his own studies at the intersection of human geography and anthropology, historical studies, postcolonialism and modern intellectual history, Imafuku aspires to re-envision and re-map the world discursively (2008). According to film scholar Alexander Zahlten 亚历⼭⼤·萨尔顿, with Imafuku, archipelago concerns the dual function of designating ‘either the expanse of water or the islands that populate it’, therefore, islands inspire ‘a new way of figuring the world’, wherein the archipelago figures ‘a more heterogeneous assemblage full of potential links’. Namely, it constitutes a model of ‘unexpected links across time and imagined boundaries’ (Zahlten 2018, pp. 120-121). Meanwhile, as suggested by Joshua Neves 约书华·内维斯’ theorizing of the Asian media archipelago, to imagine the archipelago is a gesture that ‘seeks to move beyond the well-worn pairing of island and sea and island and mainland, bringing into relief significant and significantly neglected inter-Asian formations’ (2012, p. 232). That is to say, embodying a range of interrelations without centres, ‘archipelagos get at the marginal relationalities that operate at distinct global, regional, and local scales’, and namely, these edges too are vital hubs and networks for regional and global communication’ (Neves 2012, pp. 232–233).

To think like an archipelago, we focus on the heterogenous connectivity and contingent relationality; in an effort of counter-mapping, we envision how the formations that have been marginalized and the unaccounted for (e.g. films, person[a]s, objects and texts, and festivals/events) may strike back. On the one hand, we leverage ‘Chinese Independent Cinema’ as method, namely as a critical framing, to engage a highly diversified Japanese cinematic-cultural sphere consisting of human (e.g. film directors, programmers/ curators, critics and researchers, producers, audiences), non-human actors (e.g. film festivals, related official and grassroots organizations, groups, and cultural bodies and institutions), and their various networks that, while increasingly entrenched in the pessimism and anxiety about a declining (Japanese) national cinephiliac culture and film industry (the collapsing studio system since 1990s), is also irreversibly integrated with inter-Asian cultural flows and the global image regime (see Wada-Marciano 2012). It is worth pointing out that, as Akiyama Tamako emphasises in her epilogue, the discussion of the so-called Japanese cinematic-cultural sphere should not be narrowly framed within the context of ‘cinema’ (‘eiga’ 映画). Attention should be also directed to the interconnections between the transforming Japanese television industry, together with its media platforms, and Chinese independent cinema (image works).

On the other hand, we do not naively celebrate facile narratives about cross-cultural bonding, multiculturalism, and Sino-Japan friendship that may be easily utilized by Chinese or Japanese nationalist rhetoric, though often for different purposes. Instead, we simultaneously privilege (contemporary) Japanese cinema culture as a framework of reference and an interface of connectivity. In this way, arguably, our study of and observations about Chinese independent cinema will be somewhat liberated from the methodological nationalism that seems to always already presume Chinese (Han)-centrism and its (patriarchal) power structure without critical interrogation, and rarely takes inter-Asian connectivity into consideration. Also, the Japanese perspective will further complicate the interpretative lens of orientalism and postcolonialism apropos the politics of circulating, programming, and exhibiting Chinese independent works on the European-American film festival network. At the same time, we believe that such an effort could also facilitate a deeper understanding of Chinese independent film studies within Japanese academia.3

Importantly, currently, any consensual understanding of ‘being independent’ is invalidated and destabilised when previously established independent cinema-centred institutions and networks are disappearing and being reassembled, and when independent filmmaking itself has evolved and diversified throughout the process of institutionalization and commercialization in a global age. While it is not possible to provide an elaborate analysis, we can briefly turn to a few hints that may further contextualize the observations above. On the one hand, we may take the enforced closing-down of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 北京独⽴影像展 (organised by the Li Xianting Film Fund 栗宪庭电影基⾦ in Songzhuang, surburban Beijing) in 2014 and the violent confiscation of independent films (digital files) and related materials by the authorities as a figurative turning point (Davis 2020; BBC news 2014; also see Wang 2012)—the institutions and networks of Chinese independent cinema centering around China’s grassroots independent film festivals (e.g. those in Beijing, Nanjing, and Kunming) have rapidly reterritorialized ever since (see Berry 2017). Meanwhile, following the enactment of the Film Industry Promotion Law 电影产业促进法on 1 March 2017, negotiations between independently produced films, their institutions, and the variously-scaled censorship organs have continued at multiple levels. For example, according to several Japanese film festival curators who have contributed to this launch issue, the Promotion Law, and China’s film censorship more broadly (the criteria and procedures for issuing the public screening permits, or the dragon seal), has significantly impacted upon the ways Japanese film festivals programme Chinese independent and arthouse films today.

However, on the other hand, it should be emphasized that since its inception, the production, distribution, and exhibition of Chinese independent cinema, as well as the auteurist discourse and related film movements apropos independent cinema, have always been part of a regional (inter-Asian)/global network of image production, exhibition and distribution—Chinese independent cinema has never been an island. We should therefore examine the new topography of Chinese independent cinema, if such a claim is valid, within the context of the drastic growth, expansion, and globalisation of the Chinese film market, with particular attention paid to the rise of the privately-funded, China-based ‘arthouse’ 艺术电影 companies specializing in production, distribution, and exhibition. Therefore, with this issue, we aim to revamp the question regarding what is Chinese Independent Cinema into one regarding how (to study/examine) Chinese Independent Cinema, with which we hope to generate new visions, stimulate debates, and demonstrate new possibilities for critical engagement.

This launch issue consists of six major parts or groups.

Following the Introduction 导⾔, we have a section titled Exhibiting Chinese Films in Japanese Film Festivals ⽇本影展与中国独⽴电影. While preparing for this issue, we saw how the connectivity between Chinese independent films and the Japanese socio-cultural sphere has found its most vibrant and diverse manifestation at variously scaled film festivals and continuously-run exhibition events. These connections take diverse forms and intersect with the sectors of film (and TV) production, criticism, distribution, curation, and exhibition. Therefore, this section consists of short essays written by several important stakeholders who have keenly followed and/or participated in the transformations of Chinese (independent) cinema via their work in research and criticism, production, curation, and programming. We have been lucky to receive contributions from Yamashita Koyo ⼭下宏洋 (Image Forum Film Festival), Ishizaka Kenji ⽯坂健治 (Tokyo International Film Festival), Uzu Ruriko 宇津留理⼦(Green Image Film Festival), Yano Kazuyuki ⽮野和之(Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival), Ichiyama Shozo 市⼭尚三(Tokyo FILMeX International Film Festival), Teruoka Sozo 晖峻创三(Osaka Asian Film Festival), Nakayama Hiroki (Chinese Independent Film Festival in Tokyo), Yamazaki Yutaka ⼭崎裕 (Za Koenji Documentary Film Festival), and essays by two university professors (Yoshikawa Tatsuo 吉川⻰⽣and Tsuchiya Masaaki ⼟屋昌明) who have been organizing long-running screening events of Chinese (independent) films on campus. To borrow the insights of Neves, these Japan-based, differently-scaled festivals and screening events can also ‘be understood as a clustering of sites or archipelagos that reframe the self-referential logic of Western media capitals’ (2012, 231).

The third section of this issue, Out of Yamagata ⾛出⼭形, focuses on the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF), envisioning the multiple trips between Yamagata in northeast Japan and China that have been made back and forth across the islands and sea. In doing so, we seek to offer the reader refreshing insights into the translocality of Chinese independent documentaries and the (somewhat-underestimated) cutting-edge efforts of YIDFF to configure and consolidate inter-Asian independent film (documentary) connections.

In this section, we have received contributions from independent documentary filmmakers Feng Yan 冯艳and Wu Wenguang 吴⽂光, who have maintained close ties with YIDFF and have been closely associated with the Japanese independent media and film (documentary) scene since the 1990s. In Feng Yan’s and Wu Wenguang’s highly personal and delicate accounts, although the influence of Ogawa Shinsuke ⼩川绅介can never be underestimated, especially when it comes to the works by Ogawa Production and Ogawa’s documentary methodology (including Ogawa’s book Harvesting Film, translated into Chinese by Feng Yan, and cited by several of our contributors and interviewees from China and Hong Kong), what we are reading here is not only simply the ‘legend’ of one Japanese documentary maestro.4

These sincere reflections have also presented us with a richer picture of the historically-specific cultural exchanges between Chinese and Japanese independent cinemas. Reading through the authors’ memoirs about their transgenerational, person-to-person connections, we are able to grasp how Chinese independent documentary filmmakers have been observing and engaging Japan’s heterogeneous and evolving documentary culture (e.g., Wu Wenguang’s reminiscences of his encounters with Hara Kazuo 原⼀男, an ‘anti-Ogawa’ auteur; and Feng Yan’s accounts of Sato Makoto 佐藤真’s documentary tenets). In these narratives, we see how Chinese independent documentarists leverage the platforms of festivals such as YIDFF to connect with a multilayered translocal image network, becoming active participants and contributors to these inter-Asian dialogues, and having their voices heard.

At the same time, in their own takes, American scholar Markus Nornes and Akiyama Tamako offer us the ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories of Chinese independent filmmakers and YIDFF. Nornes’ and Akiyama’s narratives draw our attention to the curatorial vision and positioning of YIDFF within the regional and global network of film festivals. Leveraging the idea of ‘Asian media archipelago’, as suggested by Neves, we should turn to Asian film festivals as fertile terrain for the study of ‘Asia-Asia correspondences and becomings’ and therefore to encourage more in-depth case studies such as those based on the YIDFF (Neves 2012, p. 234).5

In addition, in this section, we are fortunate enough to have secured the permission (including pictures) from Tsuchimoto Noriko, wife of the late Japanese documentary master Tsuchimoto Noriaki, to render an English translation of the filmmaker’s recollections about his visit to Kunming for the 2005 Yunnan Multicultural Visual Festival 云之南记录影像展. Tsuchimoto’s accounts themselves speak to other contributors’ recollections about Yamagata, configuring a valuable and indispensable archival document for us to approach the connectivity of inter-Asian (independent) cinema cultures.

The third part of this issue, Articles 学术视野, brings together two interdisciplinary academic papers. As a veteran subtitle translator and scholar of Chinese cinema, Akiyama Tamako looks at her own experience subtitling Wang Bing’s 王兵 daring documentary Fengming: A Chinese Memoir 和凤鸣 (2007) into Japanese, as a case study intersecting Chinese independent film studies and translation studies. Not only she has highlighted the challenges faced by subtitle translators when negotiating with the constrains of film subtitle translation within the Japanese context, and illustrated her own highly inspiring solutions, but her case study also provides a rare insight into the broader issue of Sino-Japan (inter)cultural translation.

Echoing the aforementioned emphasis on inter-Asian framing, Yu Ning 于宁leverages the idea of ‘queer transnationalism’ and uses the Japanese queer visual sphere, particularly the platform of queer film festivals, as an entry point for a contextualised review of the cultural ecology and circulatory politics of Chinese independent queer images (films and videos) in the new millennium. Particularly important is Yu’s focus on the film and video works from mainland China created by queer communities for activist agendas, particularly regarding the challenges facing the transnational exhibition and circulation of these community/ activism-based images. Specifically, Yu’s paper interrogates the Euro-America-centrism which has dominated the cultural exchange of queer films between China and Japan.

The fourth section, Interviews 访谈, is a collection of interviews and symposium discussions. In an in-depth interview between Tsuchiya Masaaki and veteran Japanese media practitioner Nonaka Akihiro, we learn more about Nonaka’s experience working with Ji Dan 季丹, Feng Yan, and Hu Jie 胡杰 in the 1990s through Asia Press International, a Japan-based, Asia-oriented organization of freelance photo-video journalists,6 and especially regarding the Chinese filmmakers’ collaborations with Japanese television on documentary works ‘reporting’ about China. In Nonaka’s sincere accounts, not only we can locate evidence that Chinese independent cinema (documentary) has ‘never been an island’—a thread that has been long ignored in the study of Chinese independent documentary—but Nonaka’s experiences working with and influencing these Chinese documentary filmmakers in the early stage of their careers, as their mentor, friend, and supporter, constitute a moving testimony to inter-Asian archipelagic connectivity.

The second part of this section is a transcript of a symposium on Chinese independent cinema moderated by Yoshikawa Tatsuo in 2018, focusing on the filmmaking trajectories of Huang Ji ⻩骥, an independent film auteur from Hunan, and Otsuka Ryuji ⼤塚⻰治, a filmmaker from Japan who studied at the Beijing Film Academy. Huang and Otsuka are partners in work and life. During the symposium, in which several scholars also participated, Huang and Otsuka offered fresh perspectives on Sino-Japanese image connections, reminiscing of their early experiences working on documentary features for Japanese TV programmes. In the second part, Huang and Otsuka discussed the ‘future’ of independent cinema with the other participants, their dialogue covering issues such as the technical development of Chinese independent cinema, the cultivation of young talent, and the so-called ‘independent spirit’.

The third part of the section consists of several sets of interviews. Li Tiecheng 李铁成, who teaches documentary filmmaking at the Chinese University of Hong Kong ⾹港中⽂⼤学, talks with younger generation Hong Kong documentary filmmakers, activists, and curators about the significance of introducing/screening Ogawa Shinsuke’s documentaries to Hong Kong, especially within the context of the current cultural-political movements and the trajectory of local independent documentary filmmaking. These conversations themselves usefully complement and respond to the theme of this issue. It is worth noting that, as we have stressed before, archipelagic thinking is one of decentralization. Through Li’s group interview we also notice that, instead of narratives of a one-way ‘influence’ (from Ogawa), the most interesting part of the connections between Hong Kong-based filmmakers and activists and Ogawa concerns how the former work through their own local experiences, and how their creative acts are not standardized to any ‘universal’ discourse about resistance.

The Film Reviews 影评section has resulted from our collaboration with a group of younger researchers and film critics. Here, we have mostly highlighted the documentaries directed by Chinese (diasporic) filmmakers (who live/d) in Japan, and/or those that are made possible owing to Sino-Japanese collaborations. Our lineup is not meant to be exhaustive/representative and the selection is made mainly for very practical reasons: taking account of the conditions under which Chinese citizens travel to Japan (e.g. to study, work, and migrate), and the translocal trajectory of Chinese independent cinema, the production and visibility of documentaries (including documentary features for TV programmes) indeed overshadows that of feature films.7 At the same time, there is no lack of academic monographs in English and Japanese on cultural exchange between Chinese and Japanese cinema in a broader sense. We hope these reviews of lesser-known works can shed light on the long-overlooked threads and clues to the connections between Chinese independent cinema and Japanese film culture, such as documentaries on the comfort women issue, and work on LGBTQ subjects.

The final part, Research Archive 研究档案, consists of four interconnected lists, compiled by the founder of the Tokyo Chinese Independent Film Festival, Nakayama Hiroki. We think this is the first attempt to compile and present a list of Chinese independent film titles (excluding short films) that have been released, screened, and exhibited in Japan. We believe that these lists are highly valuable in their own right for researchers and stakeholders alike. However, in keeping up with the editorial spirit mentioned at the beginning of the introduction, the lists are shared not because they are the ‘one and only, ‘most comprehensive’, or the ‘most authoritative’. Rather, we hope that the lists (especially the entries that are not included and those that are controversial) will inspire more questions to guide our research and thinking in the future.

The Epilogue 后记, When Currents Collide: Chinese Independent Cinema and Japan, is written by Akiyama Tamako, the guest editor of this inaugural issue. The detailed and intertwined historical and socio-cultural contexts outlined in this text have also greatly enhanced the theme of this inaugural issue. As a researcher and film subtitle translator, Akiyama has also been an important witness, participant, and mover apropos the cinema and image connections between Chinese and Japanese (independent) cinema during the last thirty years. The Japanese concept of shiozakai 潮境 refers to the front where cold and warm currents meet in ocean meteorology. Akiyama leverages this idea to offer us a macroscopic view regarding not only how the socio-economic developments of the PRC and Japan, but also the transforming Sino-Japanese relations of the past thirty years (including changing diplomacy and cultural policy frameworks), could be approached in their complexity and dynamics, so that we may better contextualise Sino-Japanese film and image (TV) connectivity historically. Akiyama also provides an enlightening discussion and testimony on the translocal exchanges of (independent) filmmakers, especially from the perspective of film festivals and similar institutions and organizations (including Japanese television) as a front/interface of cultural encounters, to grasp the aesthetic significance and politics of Sino-Japanese film and image connectivity over the decades. A valuable and indispensable contribution to this inaugural issue, this essay will definitely boost further related discussions and stimulate exciting future research projects.


This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number 18K12263; 20H01219 (Co-investigator). Part of the editorial and proofread work of this inaugural issue (in Chinese, English, and Japanese) was also supported by the two grants.



1. ‘1989’ is used here to indicate the year of the Tian’anmen Square Democracy Movement, instead of the specific production year of any independent film work. In doing so, I also want to situate our examination of Chinese independent cinema (as a film movement) at the intersection of the social and democracy movements and transformations across East Asian and Southeast Asian societies, specifically those that have taken place since the region’s post-Cold War transformations in the late 1980s, and the multifarious, multi-sited, local and national-level artmaking and filmmaking undercurrents and movements. Here I am not highlighting the cause-and-effect connections between the social movements and the new waves of artmaking and filmmaking, or simply emphasizing art activism and political filmmaking, although they are not irrelevant topics. Rancière hints at the interconnections between modern democracy and revolution and the ‘new distribution of the sensible that delineates a specific space for art, a specific feeling called aesthetic feeling’ (2011, p. 8). I thereby propose that when the partage du sensible of a specific society is disrupted, specific sphere(s) of experience might emerge, and a certain ‘aesthetic feeling’ might find its space and time of appearance in the avant-garde and independent artmaking and filmmaking movements. Wu Wenguang’s 吴⽂光 documentary In italics 流浪北京—最后的梦想者 (1990) and Zhang Yuan’s 张元 semi-fictional Mama 妈妈 (1990) are often considered the ‘first wave’ of Chinese independent film works. Both were released in the aftermath of the 1989 Democracy Movement, and they may not have responded to the 1989 movement per se. But they became possible because the seismic transformation of Chinese society brought about by Reform and Opening 改⾰开放since 1978, together with the emergence of various underground and alternative cultural genres in Chinese urban centres in the relatively liberalized 1980s, introduced a dissensuality to dispute and redistribute the sensible fabrics configured by the rigid, ideological laden, yet gradually weakening centralized cultural system and socialist visual regime. Therefore, the ‘birth’ of Chinese indie cinema indeed commented on and connected with (if not necessarily carried on) the political energies of the doomed Tian’anmen Movement (Ma 2019, p. 29).

2. In Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim’s illuminating thesis calling for a ‘critical transnationalism’ in film studies, they stress that the conceptualization of ‘transnational cinema’ itself ‘risks celebrating the supranational flow or transnational exchange of peoples, images, and cultures at the expense of the specific cultural, historical, or ideological context in which these exchanges take place’ (2010, p.12).

3. For instance, in his study ‘Chinese cinema studies in Japan’, sociologist Nakajima Seio 中岛圣雄 illustrates how ‘academic discussions on Chinese cinema resumed and flourished in the 1980s and the 1990s’, and in the 2000s, ‘interesting new trends in studies of Chinese cinema in Japan are emerging that include more transnational and comparative approaches, focusing not only on film text but the context of production, distribution, and exhibition’ (Nakajima, forthcoming). Our issue may be a timely addition to Nakajima’s observations.

4. As I have indicated elsewhere, Ogawa Shinsuke and his documentary filmmaking collective, Ogawa Collective, relocated to Magino Village in Kaminoyama in the remote Yamagata prefecture of Tohoku in 1975. The city of Yamagata (the capital city of Yamagata prefecture) was brainstorming for event ideas to celebrate the 1989 centennial anniversary of its founding when Ogawa proposed the ideas of establishing a documentary film festival. I believe that ‘the event became possible because Ogawa and other Pro members had recruited help from within the Japanese film circle and the international festival community. Furthermore, his initiative was supported by Yamagata city, which continued to finance the festival even after its restructuring as a nonprofit organization in 2007’ (Ma 2017, p. 169).

5. Also see my take on Asian documentary connections in Ma 2017.

6. According to the official site of Asia Press International (API): ‘API was established in Tokyo on October 1, 1987…While the spirit of journalism in the big media networks is beginning to fade, API journalists, as expressionists, have been trying to be independent and creative. We strive to be free from any dependence on capital and authority. To realize this, we try to keep on developing our capabilities and spirit as recorders of the times. In addition, we continue to expand our network by joining hands with Asian peoples, regardless of differences in race and culture’. Nonaka is one of the founders of API. Visit their official site: https://

7. In my discussions on ‘Chinese-in-Japan’ filmmakers elsewhere, I have highlighted documentary filmmaker Li Ying 李缨, who came to Japan in the late 1980s, and set up his own Dragon Films in 1993, having produced documentaries such as 2H (2000), Aji 味 (2003), and Yasukuni 靖国神社 (2007). We could have turned to several contemporary film and media works by Chinese-in-Japan filmmakers who have arrived in Japan since the mid-1980—such as Ban Zhongyi 班忠义, Ren Shujian 任书剑, and Zhang Liling 张丽玲, all of whom were from the PRC, as well as Lim Kah-Wai (Lin Jiawei 林家威) from Malaysia (to name some of the more active and well-known filmmakers)—and interrogate whether it is possible to envision a ‘Chinese-in-Japan cinema’ (2019, p. 132). Works by Ban and Ren are both reviewed in this launch issue.


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