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(Re)Inventing China’s “Seventeen Years” on Film at the 2009 New York Film Festival

by Ma Laohan 马老汉 | 20 March 2010 | 8 Comments | Last modified: 25 Oct 5:01 am

(Re)Inventing China’s “Seventeen Years” on Film at the 2009 New York Film Festival
By Ma Laohan 马老汉

During the 2009 New York Film Festival, the Film Society of the Lincoln Center screened an unprecedented series called “(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949-1966.” Mainland Chinese works of art from this “Seventeen Years” period have been routinely dismissed as propaganda by the same Western scholars and critics who periodically “discover” and celebrate masterpieces of Chinese cinema from the preceding Republican era or the later post-Mao era. Given such widespread neglect, the very existence of such a film series—hosted by so prominent a venue as the Lincoln Center under the label “NYFF Masterworks,” no less—potentially represents a major step forward to those of us who feel that this period demands a great deal more serious work by scholars and appreciation by film buffs alike. With twenty well-chosen works, the program included a wide range of genres and styles and featured many films that have long been considered classics in China.

The event had its share of disappointments. Several of the films proved to be unavailable in 35-millimeter prints (due partly to the baffling reluctance of the China Film Archives to share its holdings even with world-class cultural institutions such as the Lincoln Center), so that many of them had to be projected on video rather than screened in their original format. Also disappointing was the relatively low attendance for most of the films. The audience seemed to consist of more sinophiles than cinephiles, the latter of which were busy attending the NYFF’s other offerings in much higher numbers.

The relative lack of interest in the series no doubt results at least in part from the ongoing domination of Western discourse on modern China by Cold War ideology. Under the suffocating and simplistic moral (pre)judgments of this viewpoint, any artwork from the Mao era is not only suspect but is confidently assumed to be either a throwaway bit of laughable revolutionary kitsch or a dangerous work of insidious propaganda that inculcated the brainwashed Maoist hordes of Western ideological fantasy. By way of discussing the film series, then, below are listed a few of the erroneous assumptions underlying the indifference with which these films are regarded by the general public and the hostility that has long been directed at them by sinologists in the Western academy.

Mao-era Chinese films sacrifice art for the sake of politics.

The very framing of this as a dilemma results from ideological assumptions that are rejected by cinema of the Mao era. The idea that politics and aesthetics are two fundamentally separable spheres, each of which somehow loses its integrity insofar as it loses autonomy to the other, is a dogma unique to capitalist modernity, and one not shared by filmmakers of this period. The best films of the Mao era were often masterpieces of cinematography, editing, and mise-en-scene, and this was as likely to be the case for the more explicitly didactic of them as it was for the least political among them, so that the idea that there is necessarily a trade-off between art and politics is exposed by these films as a fiction.

In his “Talks at the Yanan Forum on Literature and Art,” Mao asserted that “what we demand is a unity of politics and art, a unity of content and form, a unity of revolutionary political content and the highest possible artistic form. Works of art that lack artistic quality are ineffective, however politically progressive they may be.” Western scholars or critics who dismiss this demand as disingenuous reveal more about their own ingrained ideological assumptions than about any actual negligence of artistic quality by Communist artists.

Mao-era Chinese films are univocal, tedious, and thematically homogeneous.

This rarely questioned truism could only be asserted by the ill-informed, and its widespread acceptance reveals how common is the ignorance of this period of Chinese film history. The cinema of this period includes comedies, musicals, dramas, animation, war epics, historical sagas, traditional operas, children’s films, and spy thrillers. Even within the relatively narrow generic category of the revolutionary melodrama—which tends to be the sole focus of people who make claims like the above, as if they are perversely drawn to pay attention only to that which they claim to find boring—there is great variety in tone and technique just in the decade between, say, Bai mao nü (The white-haired girl, 1950; not shown in the festival) and Hongse niangzi jun (Red detachment of women, 1961). More importantly, to focus only on such films glorifying the revolution is to ignore everything from a comedy such as Nü lifashi (Woman hairdresser, 1962), which spoofs hypocrisy and lingering sexism within the bureaucratic Communist economy, to the opera film Zhui yu (Chasing the fish spirit, 1959; not shown in the festival), in which the deus ex machina turns out to be the Buddhist goddess Guanyin descending from the heavens to set everything aright—hardly the stuff of Maoist sloganeering. The sheer variety of cinema of this era is astounding and deserving of much more attention and study than it has yet received, even within China. Indeed, such is the diversity within this body of work that one doubts whether any blanket statements at all can be made about it, and the category of cinema of the “Seventeen Years” begs to be broken down for analysis into smaller segments by historical sub-period, genre, studio, director, and so on in order to come to any closer understanding.

Mao-era Chinese films are excessively ideological and oppressively obvious, bludgeoning the viewer with blatant political propaganda.

Just addressing the films in the recent series at the Lincoln Center, it is striking how few of them come close to fitting the above description. Even among those dealing explicitly with the history of the Communist revolution, only Hong qi pu (Keep the red flag flying, 1960) struck this viewer as an excruciating exercise, in which the actions of a group of spontaneously revolutionary peasants track all too painstakingly close to the national revolutionary master narrative. Other revolutionary films are often full of subtleties that enrich and complicate the overall message. Red Detachment of Women, for example, is a masterpiece of timing and characterization, with an implied romance that gives a libidinal charge to the growing attachment of the heroine to the collective struggle that she eventually helps to lead.

Da Li, xiao Li he lao Li (Big Li, little Li and old Li, 1962) is an engaging comedy about how a physical education campaign plays out in a meatpacking plant. A kneejerk Cold-War reading, perhaps bolstered by a facile Foucauldianism, would point out how the film advocates the disciplining of bodies to serve the causes of Communism and nationalism. Even momentarily accepting this framework, however, it would be easy enough to point out ambiguities in the film’s message. The hilarious spoofing of group exercise routines could well be read as a critique of homogenized mass culture, for example, and the film’s celebration not just of healthy bodies in general but in particular that of Xiao Li, a strapping youth with almost Elvis-like qualities, may well have gratified a generation of repressed Chinese gay men and straight women in ways that have nothing to do with nationalism. More important, though, it should be noted that the film script never once even mentions words such as “socialism,” “patriotism,” or even “China.” Such master narratives must be provided by the audience or critic if they are there at all, and one thus wonders who exactly is doing the ideological bludgeoning here.

Finally, there is the spectacular comedy Qishi’er jia fangke (Seventy-two tenants, 1963), which has nary a trace of heavy-handed revolutionary propaganda. It could have been made in Hong Kong, where it was in fact coproduced and then remade by the Shaw Brothers a few years later. No reference is made to party, socialism, or revolution; it simply employs the sort of poor-versus-rich populism that one finds in many Hollywood films. Seventy-Two Tenants also can be traced directly back to Republican-era classics like Wuya yu maque (Crows and sparrows, 1949) and forward to Stephen Chow’s Gongfu (Kung fu hustle, 2004)—making it one of many films in this series that strongly suggest that the Mao era should no longer be bracketed off as inherently discontinuous from the rest of Chinese film history.

(Something like the opposite of the above) Mao-era Chinese films are insidious, subtly manipulating the viewer with their hidden messages, smuggled political programming, and ideological sleights of hand.

In fact, those films that do have a clear political or ideological message tend to deliver it in a very straightforward, self-conscious way. If one takes the films on their own terms, rather than insisting on seeing them through the ideological lens of liberal capitalism, one is struck by neither the insidiousness nor the obviousness of their political agenda, but rather by the ways that agenda is pursued with both clarity and some complexity. Take for example Nihongdeng xia de shao (Sentries under neon lights, 1964), which depicts veteran combat soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army who are stationed on the newly liberated Nanjing Road in Shanghai in 1950. There, on what had essentially been ground zero of semicolonial capitalism in Nationalist China, the soldiers must cope with the temptations of bourgeois individualism. Far from being a totalitarian Maoist diatribe, the film has a light touch, much humor, inventive camerawork, and a host of “middle characters” who are basically good-hearted but subject to various weaknesses. The film is completely upfront about the terms of its ideological intervention—basically, the individualist and hedonistic values of capitalism are confronted with the collectivist and ascetic values of the Red Army—and it is in fact a great example of how the problematic legacy of Shanghai modernity is dealt with directly in PRC discourse after liberation.

One final example is Liehuo zhong yongsheng (Living forever in burning flames, 1965), a tale of a group of underground revolutionaries who are captured in Chongqing and then must survive torture, hunger strikes, and so on in a Nationalist prison camp. One would think that such a revolutionary melodrama would be straightforward propaganda, and indeed some elements, such as the sequence in which the two main protagonists are taken off to be executed just hours before Chongqing itself is liberated by the approaching Communists, provide paradigmatic examples of the genre’s conventions. Then again, most of the film is not all that different from Hollywood films with prison camp protagonists, such as The Great Escape (1963) or The Hanoi Hilton (1987). Indeed, in terms of the unquestioned presumptions regarding the goodness of the captives, the evil of their captors, the ultimate justice of the heroes’ cause, or the emotional appeal to the film audience witnessing their travails, it would be very difficult to make a case for Living Forever in Burning Flames as being one bit more ideological or manipulative than those Hollywood films.

Indeed, to any who may have avoided the “(Re)Inventing China” film series at the Lincoln Center on the assumption that these were “only” propaganda films, I would suggest the following: Chinese films of the “Seventeen Years” were not one bit more ideological than typical Hollywood films of the same era. Furthermore, virtually all films are in some sense propaganda; we just do not call them as such unless we happen to have been provided with fundamentally different ideological assumptions. More important, to scholars and critics of Chinese culture, it is high time that we walked out of the Cold-War shadow over both area studies and the wider public discourse on modern China and began to deal with Mao-era culture with the level of intelligence, subtlety, and complexity that we in fact find in it.

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8 comments on “(Re)Inventing China’s “Seventeen Years” on Film at the 2009 New York Film Festival

  1. Pingback: china study group » Blog Archive » (Re)Inventing China's … | I Film Channel

  2. Great writeup - and your last point about ideological parity in both Hollywood and Chinese films of that era is well taken.

    You might be interested in a video I made about the films in the NYFF series:

    Best Regards,


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  4. Pingback: Latest China history news - Google’s Tortured History With China - John Battelle’s Searchblog

  5. I will try to be nice. I only have one comment. This is the junk: it’s apologism for totalitarianism brainwashing. Our axioms are clearly different, but all of the “artwork” created during the Maoist era was in the climate of violence and intimidation. This isn’t just an ideological exercise. Many experienced it as prison, brainwashing, torture, etc. Some suggested reading:

    anything by Pierre Ryckmanns
    anything by Anne-Marie Brady
    Prisoner of Mao by Jean Pasqualini
    Captive Spirits by Yang Xiguang

    There’s just so much information available on this that if you don’t read it you’re complicit in these crimes. No more to say.

    UPDATE: I edit the remark to add one thing. I appreciate that you have provided an intelligent and well-written synopsis of films of the era, and it imparts some knowledge. But I am looking at the overall context in which these ideas exist, and in that light the above is nothing but apologism for brutality and domination. Oh, and Paul Hollander is someone you should read.

  6. OK, you have read a few dissidents’ accounts about the Cultural Revolution, and you come to the conclusion that the Maoist years was an era of totalitarianism. Do you know what it is totalitarianism? You used China as an example of totalitarianism showed that you have been brainwashed without your realization. Why do not you also read a few positive accountw about life experience the overwhelming majorities on Chinese working class’s experienced during the Cultural Revolution?
    Anything by Maurice Meisner
    Anything by William Hinton
    Anything by Mobo Gao
    Anything by Dongping Han
    Anything by Han Suyin
    Anything by major Western Scholars written during the Cultural Revolution years, not after the Chinese Government changed its position on Cultural Revolution.
    Let me also share with you something that you apparently do not know.
    Chinese people’s life expectancy extended from 35 years in 1952 to 69 years in 1976, almost doubled in less than thirty years, never happened in human history, twenty years longer than India with similar starting social economic conditions in 1952.
    Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution years eliminated some of the most persistent social vices, like prostitution, drug addictions, unemployment, homelessness, and human trafficking. Crimes and official corruptions were kept minimal in Chinese and world history. China had fewer officers than most other societies in the world at the time. Chinese prisons had fewer prisoners than any other society. Chinese people built one of the most egalitarian society in Chinese and world history. Chinese officials often worked in the fields and factories with the working class, because the Chinese people demanded and Mao encouraged it.
    During the Cultural Revolution years, medical care and eduction had expanded greatly in the Chinese countryside. By the end of the Cultural Revolution high school education was extended to everyone in the countryside. In my hometown, there was only one high school in 1966; by the end of 1976, we had 89 high schools. In 1966, we had seven middle schools; by 1976, we had 249 middle schools. During the Cultural Revolution years, every village in my home town had built a clinic staffed with three or four barefoot doctors. Because of China’s accomplishments during the Cultural Revolution years, the UN experts referred to China as the example of the whole third world, and the hope of human race, partly because China had practiced a very environmentally friendly model of development, while the west was engaged in consumerism which had damaging environmental impact.

  7. Shandong: you make some very interesting points. I am Hong Kong chinese. My wife was born in 1966 in a very poor village in Guangdong. It was poor materially and by way of consumer goods, but she remembers a very happy childhoold - right through the cultural revolution.

    She had free medical care, free education, and she and all her friends are fully literate and numerate. She still has her old vaccination certificate.

    China of course was very poor at the time - yet only 17 years after the communist takeover (in 1949 life expectancy was about 32 to 35), even in a village as poor as my wife’s, she managed to get an education that many in India, even today can only dream of.

    The fact is although there was crazy excesses during the CR, not everything was bad. The fact is by the time Mao died in 1976, he had raised China’s life expectancy (64.9) to higher than India’s today (63.7)! And literacy of course vastly improved under Mao (I don’t have the exact figures at hand).

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