PROPAGANDA IN CHINESE AND AMERICAN FILM:
Politically Influenced Myth-Making and its Effect on Cinematic Content
HIST 334: Chinese Film and History
December 6, 2012
The film industry is a powerful vehicle that is often exploited to perpetuate cultural myths. The Western genre, the quintessential representation of American individualist ideology, had its golden age during a time when political paranoia had Hollywood filmmakers by the throat. The classic Western conventions of black-and-white morality and lone heroes served as a form of anti-communist propaganda during the McCarthy era in which any filmmaker who defied these conventions was in danger of being blacklisted. In this same midcentury decade, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong had the Chinese national film industry in a chokehold as he promoted socialist ideologies and communist practice. Although he initially encouraged scholars and artists to openly critique The Party without fear of punishment, he went back on his word and had them arrested or exiled for treason. In these ways, both countries exercised control within the realm of filmmaking so that the governments in power could ensure the preservation of their respective myths. The political and social messages in these films presented ideologies that refused to acknowledge the realities beneath their narratives.
The Western genre in America has been one of the most powerful instruments in the creation of the cowboy mythos. In the 1950s, the advent of television brought shows such as The Lone Ranger (1951) to America’s living rooms. Films like Shane (1953) and actors like John Wayne filled movie screens, bringing the American West to life with sweeping long shots of picturesque landscapes—the sun glinting off the barrel of a shotgun or a cowboy’s silver spurs. The narratives in these Western films often portrayed a heroic protagonist who would ride into town, solve whatever trauma the townspeople were experiencing, enjoy some romance with a beautiful, passive woman, and then ride off into the sunset on his noble steed. This fairytale notion of America’s westward expansion was enhanced through the one-sided nature of the Western’s portrayal of Native Americans, Mexicans, railroad barons, outlaws, and other enemies of the righteous hero, typically a morally-conscious cowboy or a law-abiding sheriff who came to rescue prairie settlers and homesteaders from destitution in America’s newborn West.
Because of its popularity during the 1950s and its long-standing mythos of a rugged, independent, and heroic country, the American Western became a mode of propaganda for a nation paralyzed with anti-Communist fear. Classic Westerns served as an allegory for the country’s need to reinforce its national ideology. Political viewpoints permeated Western films as capitalist cowboy protagonists looked with scorn on the communal “Indians.” Land ownership was seen as a mark of personal progress and independence as homesteaders settled on the open prairies. Morality was designated as black and white—“good guys” and “bad guys” that distinguished heroes from enemies, Communists from Americans. The fate of writer Carl Foreman, whose film High Noon (1952) was accused of perpetuating Communist messages, was one example of President Joseph McCarthy’s efforts to define and promote a strictly “American” character through the Hollywood film industry—perpetuating the Western cowboy fairytale of the nation’s skewed historical background.
Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the film portrays a newlywed sheriff hanging in the balance of two fates. The noon train will bring his enemy—a man that seeks revenge for his conviction—and will carry away his new wife should he decide to stay and fight this man. The film’s alleged Communist content stemmed from the sheriff’s dependency on the townspeople to help him fight the enemy rather than confronting him and his outlaw gang alone. There is a momentous scene of the sheriff casting his star into the dirt, signifying his disgust with the law. The most famous camera shot in the film shows the sheriff, miniature and completely abandoned, standing among the barren buildings and empty road as the clock strikes high noon. Some critics regarded the film as an allegory for liberals in Hollywood who were unable to stand up to the oppressive House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC). Because the film went against the American mythos as well as government institutions, Carl Foreman was labeled as a Communist and blacklisted.
This attempt to censor filmmaking liberties through blacklisting was an unprecedented mirror image of Communist actions in the People’s Republic of China during the Hundred Flowers Movement in the mid-1950s. During this period, Chairman Mao Zedong encouraged artists and intellectuals to criticize his vision for a socialist state in China—his policies and programs immediately fell under scrutiny and many articles pointed out flaws in his system. The initial benevolence of this movement ended in heavy-handed punishment. More than 300,000 intellectuals were “branded as rightists” by Mao’s government and their careers were demolished. Blacklisted intellectuals and writers in 1950s America did not reach nearly as drastic an amount, but the principles of the movements were similar. Both governments sought to silence creative voices that went against existing paradigms through tainting their careers, baiting and making an example of those who dared to speak out.
Political attitudes and ideologies were integral to films in China as well as Western films in America. Under Mao Zedong’s regime, the Chinese film industry became a state-owned enterprise. Suspicious of filmmakers and their ideologies, Mao mandated that all film studios would be nationalized by 1952. Films produced during this era sought to indoctrinate the Chinese population with Communist ideology and present a socialist view of China’s national history—framing the film content around revolutionary ideas and perpetuating the mythos of Mao Zedong as a glorified savior of the oppressed masses. Two state-funded Chinese films produced during Mao’s regime that exemplify China’s new revolutionary identity are Women of the Great Leap Forward (1959) and Breaking Away with Old Ideas (1975). While each film reflects the historical implementation of Mao’s socialist national policies, their propagandist perspectives fail to represent the internal disasters that occurred during these decades.
Women of the Great Leap Forward forces an overly optimistic view of Mao’s policy push to quickly industrialize China and use socialist practices to achieve a more productive, unified nation. The film portrays a group of women living in a commune with their families—the new social model itself establishes an indoctrination of Mao’s ideas. The motivation for all productivity within the commune is for “the good of The Party” as the women work together making toys and clothing to export. Selfish behaviors among the characters are coaxed into cooperative mindsets; productivity becomes synonymous with national unity as the women in the film put the state before their families and personal interests. In one scene, the characters turn to smile at a portrait of Mao, which hangs above their workstation. The dramatic camera pan and glowing praise in the dialogue emphasize Mao as the godlike savior of China, flawless in his leadership and campaign for China’s progress.
One of the most significant characters in this film is Mama Dai, who represents a new archetype in the Mao era of Chinese film—the Revolutionary. In the same way that the American Western used the archetype of the heroic cowboy to form and validate the country’s national identity, this archetype served as a symbol for Mao’s idea population in the PRC—one that put faith in The Party and worked tirelessly to help China move toward its socialist goals, encouraging any wavering characters to cast off oppression and be revolutionaries as well. Throughout the film, she supervises the women in the commune and gently pushes them toward “correct” behavior that satisfies the ideal image of Mao’s vision for China.
This archetype is also prevalent in Breaking Away with Old Ideas, which features a humble principal who founds a labor college that seeks to educate the peasant masses with a setting and curriculum that fits their educational needs. Principal Long acts as an advocate for the peasant students, who face oppression from the administrators who initially denied them admittance to the school. An embodiment of the Revolutionary archetype, he encourages the students to openly criticize the administrators, turn away from capitalist pursuits, and value education as a way to help liberate the peasant communities where they live. In this manner, the propaganda campaigns in Chinese cinema reflected Mao’s revolutionary policies through plot and character and the implicit messages within the films. However, the content of these films refused to acknowledge the realities within Mao’s People’s Republic of China.
While Women of the Great Leap Forward shows an idealized version of the Great Leap Forward movement, its true history was detrimental to the peasant population. In 1958, the term “people’s commune” replaced the notion of private plots of land and individual ownership. The state designated collective groups of households that would work together to improve China’s economy, adopting the mantra “more, faster, better, cheaper” (Spence 1999, 548). The huge flood of agricultural and industrial production resulted in famine and peasant starvation as China exported more commodities and products than it could afford in order to maintain its population. In 1959, the same year the film was released, grain availability in the countryside dropped to disastrous levels. Many young people died because of the subsequent famine; in 1963, half of the deaths in China were children under ten years old. The rosy world painted in the film does present the truth of women’s liberation under Mao’s regime, but it severely overlooks the consequences of rapid progress during the Great Leap Forward.
Even after the social and economic hardships throughout the following years in China, many people still revered Mao Zedong as a sage leader. His “Little Red Book” of philosophies plays a large part in the film Breaking Away with Old Ideas, which was produced only a year before Mao’s death. The Revolutionary archetypical character of Principal Long reads and studies Mao’s book, putting his teachings into practice throughout the film’s optimistic, propagandist narrative. The historical movement that the film portrays was known as the “Cultural Revolution”—a time in which Mao issued a directive to form schools that would combine agricultural labor with self-evaluation and study of Mao’s works (582). Ideally, these schools would help to educate students in the philosophies of the socialist revolution, liberating the masses and empowering them to overthrow their oppressors. The film’s final scenes show Principal Long meeting Mao, whose teachings guided his decisions to affect change in the education system. This momentous occasion reflects the beaming smiles at Mao’s portrait in Women of the Great Leap Forward—idolizing their Party Chairman.
In reality, however, the Cultural Revolution in China placed even more restrictions on those it intended to help. Spence compares the “May Seventh Cadre Schools” to prisons, stating that the students’ freedom to move around or utilize one’s own time was “severely restricted.” The schools separated families, had harsh living and working conditions, and limited food allowances (582). Although the film portrays the education content of these agricultural schools as useful to peasant workers, Spence argues that most of the lessons were “pointless” and in spite of the schools’ efforts to indoctrinate students with socialist philosophies, “few had their thinking fundamentally changed” (582). The optimistic propaganda that promoted Mao’s ideology did, however, use the myth-making influence of film to perpetuate a “Mao Cult” that eventually placed him alongside other elements and figures of Chinese pop culture. The film The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) shows Mao’s portrait, the same one that the women of the Great Leap Forward gazed at so adoringly, pasted against a collage of celebrities, advertisements, artwork, and other images. His persona remains legendary, but his socialist influence eventually eroded after his programs dissipated as capitalism and other Western ideas pervaded China.
In much the same fashion, the Cowboy Hero of 1950s-era Western films fell into the realm of mystic remembrance. The Vietnam and Korean wars shook the foundations of America’s trust—severely diminishing the ethos of classic Westerns and making way for a revised hero, one characterized by self-doubt, confusion, and a sense of displacement. This new sort of anti-hero is evident in later American Westerns such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969), both of which display cowboys, rendered irrelevant with the onset of technology in the West, search for meaning in their lives or grasp at old glories. The mythos of the Cowboy Hero, just like the mythos of Mao Zedong, made a lasting impression on both America and China, respectively.
Both countries attempted to exercise control of creative content during their the golden age of these figures through their representation in films—painting a one-sided view of political situations and making clear the acceptable ideologies of the time. Propaganda is not just a practice that should be associated with Soviet and Communist countries. Even America, who touts freedom as one of her defining characteristics, sought to influence the population’s mindset through promoting a very specific mindset in its most well recognized genre. McCarthy’s government punished those who defied the accepted paradigm; even though Hollywood was a privatized industry and Chinese cinema was state-controlled, the American government undeniably stepped in to ensure that the messages within films would not stir up Communist sentiments among the country’s population. Filmmaking, then, is a powerful vehicle for opinion and has the ability to influence the audience through the manufacturing of myths—selecting which narratives are heard and which are silenced.
Hill, George Roy. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Film. Performed by Paul Newman.
1969. United Staes: 20th Century Fox.
Peckinpah, Sam. The Wild Bunch. Film. Performed by William Holden. 1969. United States:
Warner Bros-Seven Arts.
Shen, Fu. Women of the Great Leap Forward. Film. 1959. China: Beijing Film Studio, 2005.
Spence, Jonathan. The Search for Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.
Stevens, George. Shane. Film. Performed by Alan Ladd. 1953. United States: Paramount
Trendle, George W. The Lone Ranger. Television. Performed by Clayton Moore and John Hart.
1949-1957. United States: ABC.
Wenhua, Li. Breaking Away with Old Ideas. Film. Performed by Guo Zhenging. 1975. China:
Beijing Film Studio.
Yimou, Zhang. The Story of Qiu Ju. Film. Performed by Gong Li. 1992. China: Sony Pictures
Classics, 1993. VHS.
Zhang, Yingiin. Chinese National Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Zinnemann, Fred. High Noon. Film. Performed by Gary Cooper. 1952. United States: Stanley
 George W. Trendle, The Lone Ranger, Television, performed by Clayton Moore and John Hart (1949-1957. United States: ABC.)
 George Stevens, Shane, Film, performed by Alan Ladd (1953. United States: Paramount Pictures.)
 Fred Zinnemann, High Noon, Film, performed by Gary Cooper (1952, United States: Stanley Kramer Productions.)
 Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999), 542.
 Ibid, 543.
 Yingiin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2004), 189.
 Fu Shen, Women of the Great Leap Forward, Film (1959; China: Beijing Film Studio, 2005.) VHS.
 Li Wenhua, Breaking Away with Old Ideas, Film, performed by Guo Zhenging (1975; China: Beijing Film Studio.)
 Zhang Yimou, The Story of Qiu Ju, Film, performed by Gong Li (1992; China, Sony Pictures Classics, 1993.) VHS.
 George Roy Hill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Film, performed by Paul Newman (1969; United States, 20th Century Fox.)
 Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch, Film, performed by William Holden (1969; United States, Warner Bros-Seven Arts.)