The Chinese cultural revolution – in 10 movie classics

Film is not only a superb medium for immersing yourself in a language, but also for better understanding the history of a country. This also applies to Chinese and the cultural revolution that took place in China between 1966 and 1976. In this blog, I recommend 10 must-see films about (or made during) the Chinese cultural revolution, complete with indication of subtitles and difficulty level.

Breaking with Old Ideas – 谁说我不在乎 (1975)

  • Subtitles: –
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (standard Chinese)
  • IMDB Score: 7.2/10
  • Douban Score: 8.1/10

This might be an unusual pick, since this is not only a movie ABOUT, but also directly from the cultural revolution. “Breaking with Old Ideas” is set during the early stages of the cultural revolution and follows the life of a young woman, Lin Zexu, who becomes a model revolutionary after breaking with her family’s traditional values.

In my eyes, it’s mostly a propaganda piece with actors behaving like they were on a theater stage – unnatural and overdone. The fact that the protagonists don’t seem to have any personal features makes identification with anyone of the main characters almost impossible, however, the film does give a taste of the ideological madness which was essential to the cultural revolution. Two hours might be overkill for most people though. (It’s also one of the few occasions where these old Chinese textbooks from the Mao era come in handy).

The Blue Kite – 蓝风筝 (1993)

  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (standard Chinese)
  • IMDB Score: 7.6/10
  • Douban Score: 8.9/10

Tian Zhuang Zhuang’s “The Blue Kite” depicts the life of a young boy named Tietou and his family in Beijing. The film is a disturbing drama about his childhood and youth – at a time when China was experiencing three major upheavals: the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957), “The Great Leap Forward” (1959-1960) and the cultural revolution (1966-1976). Each of these campaigns brings a new man and a new father figure into the lives of Tietou’s mother and her son – and takes him away from them.

For his film, director Tian Zhuang Zhuang was banned from directing for many years in China – yet he won numerous awards internationally. Interestingly, the film is still banned in China today.

The film manages to capture the toxic atmosphere under communist rule really well. It is striking how party ideology permeates every domain of society, including family life. Those who don’t bend, are punished. Tietou’s family live in a paranoid state that sucks the energy and zest out of people. No one is safe. The blue kite that Tietou receives from his father is a symbol of hope that, significantly, gets tangled in the branches of a tree.

The Legend of Tianyun Mountain – 天云山传奇 (1980)

  • Subtitles: –
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (standard Chinese)
  • IMDB Score: 7.4/10
  • Douban Score: 8.2/10

“The Legend of Tianyun Mountain” is a film directed by Xie Jin and probably one of the first Chinese movies to deal with the anti-Rightist campaign and the cultural revolution. It explores the transformation of a remote village during the cultural revolution by following the story of two friends – Song Wei and Feng Qinglan – from college who fall for the same man, a political commissar. Song Wei marries him, yet betrays her husband during the “anti-rightist” campaign. Feng Qinglan, who is more selfless, later marries the same man, although he has been marked as a rightist and is practically exiled. The film won a lot of awards during the first edition of the Golden Rooster Awards in China in 1981.

Evening Rain – 巴山夜雨 (1980)

  • Subtitles: –
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (dialect and standard Chinese)
  • IMDB Score: 7.4/10
  • Douban Score: 8.0/10

“Evening Rain” is a forgotten Chinese drama film by Wu Yonggang and Wu Yigong that is set in the late period of the cultural revolution. The poet Qiu Shi, who has been imprisoned for six years on trumped-up charges, is being escorted on a ship from Sichuan to Wuhan. During the slow journey, he and his escorts meet six fellow travelers. Before the end, the silent poet has to make a life or death decision. This movie won the first Golden Rooster Awards for the Best Picture in 1981 (a shared award with “The Legend of Tianyun Mountain”).

“Evening Rain” is somewhat of an odd one in terms of setting and story. Almost the entire film takes place on a ship sailing the Yangtze from Sichuan to Wuhan. The main character is rather silent, but the passengers he shares a cabin with are more colorful, as they at least share their personal stories.

The cultural revolution only ‘occurs’ in the form of the two guards who accompany Qiu Shi day and night. The passengers also look back on recent events that are partly related to the revolution, but that’s about it in terms of action. That the heyday of the revolution is over is evident from the fact that Qiu Shi’s two supervisors face quite a bit of criticism. This leads to both of them doubting their own attitude and mission.

For me, the film expresses a strong desire for reflection and a return to ‘normality’. The boat trip with its conversations and silent reflections symbolizes this transition. It is also not very surprising that the film has a positive ending that, although not very realistic, does feel good – especially at that time, I imagine.

Speaking of realism: this is not at all how I imagine a Chinese passenger ship on the Yangze in the 1970s. The pipe-smoking captains in their white suits? The order on board of the ship? The manners and way of speaking tend to have theatrical touch. On the other hand, all of this emphasizes the ‘artistic character’ of this film.

Like other movies from this period, it is a slow film that only gradually draws you into the story as a viewer. The landscape scenes are impressive, but I fear that most modern viewers will quickly lose interest. The film had to make an important statement about the cultural revolution in the early 1980s, but now – not entirely unjustly – it has been forgotten.

Hibiscus Town – 芙蓉镇 (1986)

  • Subtitles: all languages
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (standard Chinese)
  • IMDB Score: 7.7/10
  • Douban Score: 9.3/10

Xie Jin’s “Hibiscus Town” tells the story of a young woman named Hu Yuyin and her struggles for love and a better life during the cultural revolution. Hu Yuyin is a young, hardworking woman who, together with her husband, successfully sells a local specialty in the village of Furongzhen. Everything is going well. The young couple even manages to build a new house. However, her fate takes an ill turn with the arrival of Director Li. She has been assigned to hunt down capitalist elements in the context of the Four Cleanups Movement.

Hibiscus Town is a compelling drama that highlights many facets of the cultural revolution. For example, the typical mass gatherings, the slogans and the public humiliation of undesirables. It is striking that the film did not fall prey to censorship – at least not in the sense that the film could not be released. Perhaps this is due to the track record of director Xie Jin, who directed, among others, ‘The Red Detachment of Women’ (1961) and ‘Woman Basketball Player No. 5’ (1957)

Maybe even more important is the film’s conciliatory ending. This is expressed, for example, by Qin Shutian. He was branded as one of the 5 black categories and was forced to sweep the streets for years. Later he was even sent to a labor camp. When he is finally released after the revolution and rehabilitated, he merely utters a few kind words of advice for Director Li – who has been promoted – , as in “don’t forget the common people (老百姓, laobaixing)”. That’s a nice rounded ending for a film, but not very realistic from a human perspective.

Apart from this contrived ending, Hibiscus Town is a strong example of Chinese cinema that certainly contains critical notes, but stays within the lines and avoids overt criticism.

Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl – 天浴 (1998)

  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (dialect and standard Chinese)
  • IMDB Score: 7.2/10
  • Douban Score: ?

Set in the 1970s during the cultural revolution, ‘Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl’ portrays the tragic experiences of a city girl from Chengdu sent to a remote region for “re-education”. The young girl Xiu Xiu is assigned to keep horses in the remote grasslands together with the silent nomad Laojin. Although Laojin cares for the young woman, she gradually loses hope of ever seeing her parents and friends again. She resorts to increasingly desperate means – like sleeping with local party officials – to return to Chengdu.

天浴 means “Heavenly Bath” and was directed by Joan Chen (who played Puyi’s wife in ‘The Last Emperor’) in 1998 and adapted from Yan Geling’s short story of the same name. Not surprisingly, the film was banned in mainland China due to political reasons and erotic scenes. The film definitely manages to show the dark sides of the cultural revolution (it feels like a reckoning to me). Instead of the positive development of a young woman, the viewer witnesses arbitrariness and destruction that fundamentally calls into question the purpose of the communist re-education. Tragic story that should even make a hard-boiled socialist skeptical about political idealism and blind collectivism.

In The Heat Of The Sun – 阳光灿烂的日子 (1994)

  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (standard Chinese)
  • IMDB Score: 8.1/10
  • Douban Score: 8.9/10

A completely different representation of the cultural revolution offers Jiang Wen’s nostalgic film “In the Heat of the Sun”. It is set in Beijing in the 1970s as experienced by the 14-year old ‘Monkey’ and his friends who freely reign over the city, now that most adults have been driven to the provinces. The story mainly takes place during the extremely hot Beijing summer as the boys hang around and discover their interests in girls.

“In The Heat Of The Sun” shows a very different and more subjective take on the events of the cultural revolution that almost couldn’t be in greater contrast to most other films in this blog article. Why? Because the story takes us back to some of the director’s (?) sweetest childhood memories that all take place in exactly that period that so far primarily has been associated with human suffering. The film instead shows us bright and dreamlike scenes of being in love for the first time.

The film is not quite what you’d expect, but certainly (or therefore) a piece of art.

To Live – 活着 (1994)

  • Subtitles: –
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (standard Chinese)
  • IMDB Score: 8.3/10
  • Douban Score: 9.3/10

Anyone concerned with the cultural revolution in China cannot ignore this film. Probably no other film captures the ups and downs of 20th century Chinese history so iconically. Zhang Yimou’s “To Live” follows the story of a Chinese family as they try to make their way through the tumultuous years of the cultural revolution (and the decades before as well as after).

Although “To Live” doesn’t really explain the historical events – the protagonists are overcome by them – , I still think it’s one of the best starting points to start exploring the Chinese cultural revolution. One reason why is because it includes the war and post-war period that preceded the revolution, so you get the bigger picture as well.

“To Live” was denied a theatrical release in China – according to Wikipedia – due to its critical presentation of policies and campaigns. It’s definitely more raw and harsh than earlier movies about this period, but it’s hard to discover a political message, unless showing the ‘reality’ of the Mao era itself is a form of criticism.

If you’re a more advanced learner of Chinese, you might want to give the book a try.

Farewell My Concubine – 霸王别姬 (1993)

  • Subtitles: Chinese-English
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate / advanced (standard Chinese)
  • IMDB Score: 8.1/10
  • Douban Score: 9.6/10

“Farewell my concubine” tells the story of two Beijing opera singers and their rise to fame. The story that is based on a famous novel begins in the 1920s and ends shortly after the cultural revolution. The opera singers are condemned to each other because they play opposite roles as king and concubine.

Chen Kaige’s film is also a tribute to Beijing opera. It shows how the opera group manages to survive under the reign of terror of the Japanese, the nationalists and later the communists.

The climax of the film coincides with the cultural revolution that brings out the very worst in people and requires many sacrifices. In my opinion, the almost three-hour film openly shows the destructive power of the revolution that Mao unleashed, resulting in the death of the individual which is no longer allowed to express itself, but only the party-line.

As in “To Live,” the viewer goes through the various upheavals of twentieth-century Chinese history, giving you a sense of the larger timeline. It is a moving and, above all, very Chinese film, which takes the viewer to the inscrutable world of Beijing opera and is full of subtle details and motifs.

“Farewell My Concubine” did not pass the censors. Some scenes depicting the cultural revolution and others involving homosexuality were cut, although the film never was completely banned in China.

Coming Home – 归来 (2014)

  • Subtitles: Chinese-English (trailer only)
  • Difficulty: Upper intermediate (standard Chinese)
  • IMDB Score: 7.3/10
  • Douban Score: 8.1/10

“Coming Home” is a Chinese drama film by Zhang Yimou. At the time of the Chinese cultural revolution, an intellectual escapes from a labor camp and hides with his wife. When his daughter, an aspiring ballet dancer, betrays him to the police, he is convicted again and only returns home years later. While he tries to get through to his wife, who no longer recognizes him, he develops a closer bond with his daughter, whose career has failed.

It’s a heartbreaking story about loss, with which Zhang Yimou follows the style of earlier successes such as “Red Lantern”, but focuses more on memories, repression and longing. “Coming Home” is not so much a political statement, in fact, I’d go so far as to say that it uses the historical context of the cultural revolution primarily as a setting for human drama. An excellent film though.

That’s it. I hope you enjoyed this little journey through Chinese cinema and discover some new works of art. By listing these ten films, I think I can discern a few patterns. For example, some have a more conciliatory character, others are hard and raw and open old wounds. You typically can recognize the more critical films by the fact that they were not released in China or were released in censored form. Please let me know what your favorite film is or which work you are missing from this list. Cheers!

Further reading

Agents of disorder, Andrew G. Walder
Snow falling in spring, Moying Li.
Chinese revolutionary cinema, Jessica Ma Yee Chan.
The search for modern China, Jonathan D. Spence
Zhang Yimou Interviews, book

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