Revolutionary Cycles in Chinese
Cinema, 1951-1979

By Zhuoyi Wang

Reviewed by Jessica Ka Yee Chan
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2015)

Zhuoyi Wang, Revolutionary Cycles in Chinese Cinema, 1951-1979. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 292 pp. ISBN: 9781137378736 (Hardback: $95.00)

Zhuoyi Wang, Revolutionary Cycles in Chinese Cinema, 1951-1979. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 292 pp. ISBN: 9781137378736 (Hardback: $95.00)

Well researched and passionately written, Zhuoyi Wang’s Revolutionary Cycles in Chinese Cinema, 1951-1979 is the first book-length study (in English) on Chinese cinema in the Mao era (1949-1976).[1] In the last three decades, film scholars have begun to situate Chinese cinema since the silent era in an international context. However, vast territories of film history during the Seventeen Years (1949-1966) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) remain largely unexplored. As a pioneering study, Wang challenges the assumption of Chinese cinema in the Mao era as a homogenous body of film texts that were produced for an unthinking collective by a propagandistic machine. Wang is not alone in his effort to shed critical light on a cinema that has suffered from neglect and dismissal in English scholarship. Recent years have seen scholarly works that redefine the Mao era as a period of innovation and creativity.[2] What differentiates Wang’s work from other studies is his microscopic approach. Wang meticulously delineates the dramatic shifts in revolutionary campaigns, or what he calls “revolutionary cycles,” in order to reveal the diverse individual calculations and conflicting agendas of film artists, audiences, critics, bureaucrats, and Party authorities as they negotiated and competed for power and meaning. What emerges from the study is a “cacophony of competing and antagonistic voices” both within the film texts and in the critical discourses around them (8). Such a polyvocality is crucial in reconsidering cultural productions from the Mao era as discursive sites that are filled with tensions, contradictions, and even ambivalence, despite the seemingly monolithic revolutionary rhetoric of the Mao era.

In titling his work “revolutionary cyles,” Wang traces the tumultuous life of films as they were conceived, revised, distributed, condemned, and rehabilitated during various revolutionary campaigns that came to characterize the Mao era as a series of disturbance-order cycles. In structuring his histroical and visual analysis around revolutionary cycles, Wang offers “a new periodization” that is both chronological and cyclical (16). The book is divided into six chapters, each of which covers a revolutionary campaign or cycle, namely: the Nationalization Period (1951-1955), the Hundred Flowers Period (1956-1958), the Great Leap Forward Campaign (1958-1961), the Second Hundred Flowers Period (1961-1964), and the onset of the Cultural Revolution. The conclusion discusses the condemnation, re-examination, and rehabilitation of “poisonous” films duirng and after the Cultural Revolution from 1967 to 1979. On a micro-level, Wang’s chronology intimately follows the fate of films and film artists (such as Lü Ban, Shi Dongshan, Shi Hui, Sun Yu, Xia Yan, Zhao Dan, and Zheng Junli), whose careers were cut short or rebounded as they went through multiple revolutionary campaigns and cycles. On a macro-level, the revolutionary campaigns and historical turns that Wang discusses also signal a return to the past (such as the Shanghai filmmaking legacy) at different points during the Mao era. Wang succeeds in what he sets out to do: to capture revolutionary cycles as radical changes that nonetheless followed a cyclical pattern, therefore highlighting both historical continuity and discontinuity in the production, distribution, and reception of films in the Mao era.

After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, one of the immediate priorities of the Party was to nationalize the film industry. Chapter 1 begins with the first nationwide mass campaign against culture—the one against The Life of Wu Xun (Sun Yu, 1951). That campaign is often misunderstood as a manifestation of the ideological differences between Yan’an-trained artists and Shanghai-based filmmakers. Wang convincingly recasts the Yan’an-Shanghai ideological dichotomy in terms of the Party’s first and foremost economic priority: to target private film studio artists in nationalizing the film industry. The chapter proceeds to a discussion of the production and revision of Song Jingshi (Zheng Junli, 1957), which offered the previously-targeted private studio filmmakers such as Shi Hui, Sun Yu, and Zheng Junli an opportunity for “redemption”—co-opting and adapting to the Party line. Wang skillfully shows how film artists, members of the Wu Xun investigation team (Jiang Qing and Zhong Dianfei), and CCP authorities (including Mao) took part in the scriptwriting, revision, and condemnation of the films, which went through multiple revisions and became, in the end, contradictory and incoherent.

Chapter 2 follows the fate of the film Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon (Guo Wei, 1958), a cinematic adaptation of the novel Sanliwan Village (Zhao Shuli, 1955), during the Hundred Flowers Period. The most engaging part of this chapter is Wang’s visual analysis. Wang demonstrates how director Guo Wei, through elision, alteration, interpolation, and cinematic techniques, enhanced not only the story’s romance plotline, but also the “box-office value,” “political value,” and “artistic value” of the film (64). Wang aptly locates the bathing scene, which is present in the literary script and the shooting script but absent in the film and the original novel, as evidence of post-production censorship. Wang’s visual analysis is important because it is precisely the “formal beauty” of the mise-en-scene and the “sexual glamour of the female protagonist” that got the director into trouble (63). Wang concludes: “the twisted charges against both the commercial and the political elements of Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon epitomized the fundamental dilemma of the revolutionary cinema between political agenda and commercial appeal” (65). The binary tension that Wang sets up here comes up again in the succeeding chapters.

Chapter 3 looks at the revival of comedies, a politically troubled genre because of its satirical potential. Wang argues that the revival of comedies signaled an artistic return to the pre-PRC Shanghai legacy and put an end to the marginalization of Shanghai film artists, including the ostracized slapstick star Lü Ban, who returned to the film industry and directed Before the New Bureau Chief Arrives (1956), The Man Unconcerned with Details (1956), and The Unfinished Comedies (1957). However, the comedic and satircal impulse to criticize bureaucratism and corruption was frowned upon by the Party and ended Lü’s career prematurely. The Unfinished Comedies became the first “poisonous weed” to be widely distributed to struggle sessions.

Chapter 4 turns to the Great Leap Forward Campaign, during which the abstract slogan “a combination of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism,” with its renewed emphasis on romanticism, encouraged filmmakers’ innovation. Wang argues that Nie Er (Zheng Junli, 1959) “marked the former private studio artists’ best adaptation to revolutionary film culture after nearly a decade of political vicissitudes” (112). Having learned their lessons and rebounded from the campaign against The Life of Wu Xun, Zhao Dan and Zheng Junli, at the pinnacle of their careers, took a cautious approach and “calculat[ed] the best move” (109). Wang goes on to show how the film, in line with revolutionary romanticism, succesfully turned the historical figure Nie Er from a petit-bourgeois intellectual into a proletarian revolutionary through a laborious and creative process of rewriting and revision.

Chapter 5 continues the thread on comedies and takes a closer look at the comedic turn after the Great Leap Forward. The year 1962 witnessed a revival of star culture and a new genre called “praising comedy” (歌颂性喜剧), a genre that avoids the pitfall of antagonists and relies on co-incidences and misunderstandings as sources of humor. Wang’s perceptive reading of cinematic techniques such as double exposure and point-of-view shots in Two Good Brothers (Yan Jizhou, 1962) demonstrates how filmmakers “perform[ed] a careful balancing act on a political highwire” through innovative techniques inherited from pre-PRC Shanghai cinema (137).

Chapter 6 tackles the mass mobilization against Early Spring in February (Xie Tieli, 1964) at the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Wang argues that the film paradoxically gained popularity because of the mass critique that Mao had initiated. Wang makes his best argumentative move as he uncovers unpublished materials, such as minutes of local level meetings to reveal how “the masses attended the viewing sessions for diverse purposes and watched the films in various ways, often to the dismay of the authorities” (151). The film was especially welcomed by young viewers, who were impressed with its cinematography, love story, and star power.

In his conclusion, Wang follows the fate of films and film artists during the Cultural Revolution (and beyond), departing from the conventional periodization that differentiates the Seventeen Years from the Cultural Revolution. He concludes that the negotiation between film artists, CCP authorities, critics, and audiences “led to dramatically diverse clashing ways to use revolutionary films, constantly generating new and contradictory meanings from the planning and scripting stage through distribution and reception” (169-170).

Wang is to be commended for making a daring move into uncharted territory and providing a much-needed comprehensive history of Chinese cinema during the Mao era. Future research on the subject could explore the cinema’s engagement with international film discourse and film practices, something that Wang provocatively touches on but dismisses as beyond the scope of his project. For instance, Wang points out the ironic fact that in the mid-1950s, “box office records of PRC films marked an embarrassing contrast to those of the films imported from outside the socialist camp,” including those from non-socialist national film festivals such as the French, Indian, Italian, and Japanese Film Weeks (78). The field of film studies at large would benefit from works that explore Chinese cinema’s engagement with world cinema, socialist internationalism, and anti-colonial solidarity with the Third World. A further exploration at the theoretical level of the nature of propaganda, which Wang has laid the groundwork for, would allow us to probe into its political, economic, and aesthetic efficacy. Wang has made an important intervention and expanded our vocabulary in discussing the production, distribution, and reception of films that are different from and yet similar to those produced in a capitalist system.

Jessica Ka Yee Chan
University of Richmond


[1] The book primarily focuses on the period from 1951 to 1966, with a conclusion that discusses the condemnation and rehabilitation of “poisonous” films from 1967 to 1979.

[2] See Alexander Cook, ed. Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Krista Van Fleit Hang, Literature the People Love: Reading Literature in the Early Maoist Period (1949-1966) (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Richard King, Milestones on a Golden Road: Writing for Chinese Socialism, 1945-80 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2013); Barbara Mittler, A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Asia Center Publications, 2012); Paul Clark, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).