Movie Review of China: A Century of Revolution Part 2, the Mao Years 1949 to 1976 (Directed by Sue Williams, Zeitgest Films, 1994)
China: A Century of Revolution, The Mao Years, is part two of a three part, six hour, documentary directed by Sue Williams in 1994. This documentary is in the class of Morning Sun (Carma Hinton, Richard Gordon and Geremie R. Barmé, 2003) and Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (with Philip Short, 2007). In fact, Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (2007) borrows much of its narrative structure, to the point of plagiarism, from this earlier documentary. The interviewees include many of same individuals in Morning Sun (2003) and the Philip Short documentary (2007). This class of documentary film is far superior to sensationalist and trashy ones such as Mao Declassified (2006), which has recently been broadcast on the “History” Channel. Like other films in the genre, the rare footage makes the film worth watching. This film has rare scenes of Red Guards, and a rare recording by Jiang Qing instructing that Liu Shaoqi should “die the death of 1,000 cuts.”
In the opening, the film touches on what it perceives as positive and ambiguous aspects in the immediate post-1949 period. 1949 was the year the People’s Republic as declared. Ge Yang, a Communist Party member, describes the immediate post-1949 period, “Communism meant political equality for everybody. The people would be masters of the country. That was the propaganda. People would have enough to eat and wear. Poverty would be a thing of the past.” Another quote, “Nearly half of all of China’s aridable land was distributed to poor peasants.. Our life became better.” “Now it was the people who were the masters. They really liked that. Land and houses were taken from the landlords and given to them. People saw that they benefited, so they supported the Communist Party.” The narrator states of the land reform period, “Officials encouraged peasants to humiliate and beat their landlords… across China, hundreds of thousands of land lords were killed.” The film’s ambiguous attitude toward land reform was captured in the story of Li Maoxui, son of a class enemy:
“It was fierce. The whole village, hundreds of people came, beating drums. They dragged me to the meeting ground and wanted to beat me. I said don’t hit me. I know my family has exploited the people for generations. I’ll give you my house, land, everything. After they discussed it, they labeled me an enlightened son of a landlord family. They let me keep my house. Although there wasn’t much left in it. But in fact, I did well. Many people died.”
Despite the impression left by the film, the land reform movement was one of the most liberating events in all of history. Nearly a quarter of the world’s population stood up and broke the chains of feudalism. Many were able to live with dignity for the first time. The feudal fetters on development were removed. The cycles of starvation were finally broken in China, saving countless lives. Health and sanitation practices were implemented, also, saving untold millions from disease. The violence that the masses inflicted upon class enemies pales in comparison to the violence that would have resulted had the old system continued.These important facts are mostly ignored.
To its credit, the film praises advances in gender relations. Li Xiuying reports, “Before liberation women had to do whatever they were told. They had no rights. There were three obedinces and four virtues: obedience to father before marriage, to husband after marriage, and to your son after your husband dies. You had no rights at all.” Also, Ge Yang, a Communist Party member reports, “Marriages arranged by parents or matchmakers were stopped. Women could marry the men they loved. So they were very happy.” The film comments that the first legislation after 1949 was to grant women equal political rights. A quarter of the world’s women went from feudal oppression to full citizenship, having democratic rights. Thus, the Chinese revolution should be seen as the single greatest feminist advance in history. However, the film goes downhill from here.
Like similar documentaries, China: A Century of Revolution’s (1994) casts a negative shadow on socialism overall. This negativity does not approach the level of “Mao’s China=hell on Earth.” The same criticisms of Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (2007) can be made of China: A Century of Revolution (1994). The film does not even attempt to understand the Mao years from the point of view of the Maoists. The conflicts of those years are not explained as struggles between antagonistic classes, proletarian and capitalist. The narrative does not explain events in terms of two different futures for China: a socialist one and its current capitalist one. Instead, according to the bourgeois narrative, the events of the Mao era are a result of Mao’s personal quest for power and his attempts to impose a utopian fantasy on the reluctant people of China. If there are any heroes in this bourgeois narrative, then they are Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, who try to rescue China from Mao’s whims. In the bourgeois narrative the leaders are above sociological forces. This film is yet another version of the great man theory of history. In this bourgeois narrative, history is not the result of contradictions and power struggles between sociological forces. Rather, in the film’s bourgeois account, explanation ends with great men, in this case, the top leaders in the Chinese Communist Party. In the film’s bourgeois narrative, why leaders act as they do is either a function of their psychology, or is a complete mystery. Contrary to the idealist view found in China: A Century of Revolution (1994), the scientific view of history is materialist. In the materialist approach social evolution is a result of contradictions between sociological forces. And, historical materialism is scientific because it provides greater predictive and explanatory power.
The film relies heavily on anecdotes, mostly from those who were allegedly persecuted in some way during the Mao years. Rather than a scientific analysis of the events, the viewer is witness to a series of personal stories, mostly horrific recollections of violence during the Cultural Revolution or famine during the Great Leap Forward. The film estimates that 30 million died during the Great Leap Forward and 400,000 died during the Cultural Revolution. The figures used in the film are conjectures turned into imperialist propaganda. (1) (2) Nonetheless, the film presents them as facts. At the same time, the film ignores the indisputable advances made during the Mao years. For example, life expectancy doubled in the Mao years, reaching nearly Western levels. (3) Infant mortality dropped significantly. (4) Industrialization has always been a violent process. For example, modern capitalism in the United States was accompanied by industrial slavery in the South and a continental genocide. Massive man-made famines in Europe, especially Ireland, caused migration to North America, ensuring a cheap labor pool at the expense of human life. Whatever violence accompanied China’s democratic revolution and industrialization was, all and all, far less than that which accompanied the birth of Western capitalism. In addition, the figures for Cultural Revolution deaths, besides being made-up, is de-contextualized. The narrative paints a picture where the majority of the dead are “moderates” and those who opposed the Cultural Revolution. The image in the film is one where these victims die by the hands of Maoist mobs. This is a complete distortion of reality. Many of the deaths of the Cultural Revolution were not at the hands of Maoist mass movements as the film implies. Many deaths were a result of confrontations that involved the army or state apparatus being used against the mass movements. The mass movements were the ones on the receiving end of the violence more often then not. Rebel students and workers were often severely repressed. Massacres occurred, especially in the provinces where the PLA was not under Maoist control. (5) This context is lost in the film’s biased parade of anecdotes.
The film glosses over the line struggles within the Maoist left. Instead, loyal to the film’s unscientific approach, every twist and turn during the Cultural Revolution is presented merely as Mao’s whim or as a complete mystery. The only exception to this is the line struggle between Mao, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Chen Yi versus Lin Biao on foreign policy. The film correctly identifies this as one of the reasons for the conflict between Mao and Lin Biao. Mao and Zhou Enlai’s group favored opening up to the United States, Lin Biao opposed reconciliation. However, the film does a disservice by not addressing other conflicts leading to Lin Biao’s demise: the struggle over agricultural policy, the militarization of society, and, the continued conflict between Lin Biao versus Zhou Enlai and the Adverse Current, the right wing of the PLA. (6)
The film juxtaposes the leftist mass movements of 1967 and the counter-revolutionary demonstration against the Gang of Four on the 5th of April, 1976. On the Qingming festival to honor the dead, a memorial to Zhou Enlai turned into a political protest against the Maoist left. By 1976, the Maoists did not have a vibrant, spontaneous mass movement to challenge revisionism in the streets. Jiang Qing ordered the demonstration at Tiananmen square broken up by the militia. The film accurately captures the shift in public opinion that occurred between the height of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and the last years of Mao’s life in the 1970s. By the 1970s, the gains of the Cultural Revolution were threatened. Without a Maoist “street” movement from below and without the PLA under Lin Biao’s command at the center, in Maoist hands, there was little hope of a repetition of the kind of power seizures witnessed in 1967 and 1968. With little support, the remaining left had little chance of victory after Mao’s death. Unfortunately, this level of analysis is absent from the movie.
China: A Century of Revolution (1994) is one of the better bourgeois films portrayals of the Cultural Revolution. Yet it suffers from the standard problems of bourgeois historical analysis. Films like Morning Sun (2003), Mao’s Bloody Revolution Revealed (2007) and China: A Century of Revolution (1994), are the best that can be expected within the framework of bourgeois history. These films are informed by academic sensibilities, so they are more sophisticated than films such as Mao Declassified (2006) with its “Mao’s China=Hell on Earth” narrative.
1. Ball, Joseph. Did Mao really kill millions in the Great Leap Forward? http://www.re-evaluationmao.org/didmaokill.htm
2. MC5. Myths About Maoism. http://www.etext.org/Politics/MIM/wim/mythsofmao.html
4. MIM. World Bank on Infant and Child Mortality. http://www.etext.org/Politics/MIM/faq/infant.html
5. Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After. Free Press. USA: 1986.
6. Two Roads Defeated Part 2. Monkey Smashes Heaven. September 17, 2008. http://monkeysmashesheaven.wordpress.com/2008/09/17/two-roads-not-taken-part-2-of-3-still-under-revision/