Socialist-era Feature Films
Morning Sun reviews the psychological terrain
of 1950s and 60s China in part by introducing some of the feature films
and documentaries that affected the Red Guard generations. Film viewing
was not merely a form of entertainment. Many of the films "quoted"
in Morning Sun were regarded as being educational, an integral
part of healthy political indoctrination. Students and workers were
regularly organized to see films with positive revolutionary content.
"Learning through entertainment" (yu jiao yu le) was a basic
element of the Party’s cultural policy.
Most of these films have become "socialist classics" and are
now screened regularly on Chinese TV. (For background information and
film clips, see Multimedia
and the Movie
section of Living Revolution.) Two films in particular
feature throughout Morning Sun. One is Chinese, the other from
the Soviet Union.
In Morning Sun the shifts in time work from the surreal (that
is more than real), spatio-temporal environment of the opening sequence
that employs edited material from The East is Red, to the documented
moments of real Party history when, for example, Mao, Liu Shaoqi and
Zhou Enlai meet with the performers of the show to announce the successful
detonation of China's first atomic device in 1964.
We use the historical materials to create a mythic time that is threaded
through our film via segments of The East is Red and the Russian
screen version of The Gadfly. Both films act as a framing and
commentary device, used both by our interview subjects, and our narrative
structure, to reflect on the actual progress of revolutionary time and
East is Red (1964), a film version of a musical extravaganza and
paean to the revolution, was produced for the fifteenth anniversary
of the founding of the People's Republic of China. The film was screened
across China as the Mao cult was sweeping the country. It featured Mao
as the unique, ever-victorious and unassailable leader of China's 20th-centrury
revolutionary struggle, eclipsing other leaders in its colorful narrative.
While it was being staged another revolution was getting underway. Young
audiences who watched The East is Red—and our interview-participants
speak of the profound impact it had on them—would go on to become
the first Red Guards. They wanted to re-enact the kind of revolution
that was depicted in The East is Red.
(1955), a Soviet film directed by Alexander Faintsimmer and based on
the novel of the same name by Ethel Lilian Voynich published in 1897.
The novel The Gadfly enjoyed an unrivalled place in the hearts
and minds of the young participants in the Cultural Revolution. A famed
bestseller in the socialist bloc for decades, when it was published
in China it became a favorite story—and an internalized narrative—for
a generation of youthful readers in the 1950s and 60s.
In our film The Gadfly acts as an extended filmic metaphor.
We acknowledge the profound influence of the novel and its tragic hero
on socialist youth culture, and focus on how our interview-participants
understand the changing significance of the Gadfly in their mental and
emotional lives over a number of decades.
The Gadfly was a novel (adapted for the screen in the Soviet
Union, and the version of the book that we use in Morning Sun)
that, anachronistically speaking, combined the combative mythology of
a Lord of the Rings with the beguiling élan of a Harry Potter.
Tales of individual revolutionary heroism inspired young people; that
the revolution had an Angst-ridden and romantic side as expressed in
The Gadfly multiplied its appeal many times over.
The complex and tortured figure of a hero like Arthur in The Gadfly
struck a profound chord with the adolescents of China. His personal
tragedy, his denial and betrayal, his final confrontation with his own
past and the father-authority of the cardinal, the story of his ultimate
heroic redemption, as well as the raffish humor and swashbuckling daring
that he displayed, the understated, even mawkish, dialogue—all
of this added to the careful balance of sentiment with steely resolve,
and it appealed strongly to the Cultural Revolution generations. Their
own youthful yearnings and frustrations, ideals and woolly heroism found
a cultural paragon in The Gadfly. For many—as we see
from the interview-participants in Morning Sun—the innocent
and wide-eyed romantic Arthur who became a battle-scarred vagabond was
a psychological exemplar, an idol whose deeds and words resonated with
their own actions during the Cultural Revolution itself.
We establish parallels between the Catholic Church (exemplified by the
cardinal Montanelli, the closeted and treacherous father of Arthur)
and the Communist Party (and the ultimate father figure of the Chinese
revolution, Mao Zedong). The search for meaning and the enterprise to
realized ideals through action motivates both the religious zealot and
the fervent revolutionary, in The Gadfly as well as in the
Cultural Revolution. One key element of Morning Sun is to trace
the parallel narrative of the personal and the cultural-political trajectories
of the Cultural Revolution era, and we do that by tracking the story
of The Gadfly and its changing role in the lives of our interview-participants.
For its ambiguity and complexity, readers of The Gadfly kept
returning to the story, reading and re-reading it, finding in it as
they grew and changed ever-new meanings and layers that they could relate
to in their own lives. This is also why the story still moves many Chinese
readers, why it is still often mentioned in the mass media, and also
why a new Chinese feature film is being made of it.
The Gadfly, by E. L.
Voynich - Available at Amazon.com
and online at Project