Review of Morning Sun (2003, Carma Hinton, Richard Gordon and Geremie R. Barmé)
cultural-revolution-propaganda (available at

“You young people are full of vigor and vitality. You are full of life. You are like the morning sun. You are our hope.” — Mao Zedong

“When we saw the light of dawn, we felt as if this was the dawn of a new era for mankind. We felt we were about to embark on an unprecedented revolution. It would bring about a society that was truly egalitarian and democratic.” — ex-red guard Tang Rae

Morning Sun, directed by Carma Hinton, Richard Gordon and Geremie R. Barmé, is one of the few documentaries that examines China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in any detail or complexity. It contains amazing revolutionary footage:  of red guard rallies in Tiananmen, of Lin Biao, Chen Boda, Jiang Qing, Wang Li and Guan Feng. There is also footage from model operas and the mass movements. The film is a gem for this footage alone. The footage shows an image of revolution that challenges the caricature of socialism in by the mainstream, bourgeois media. It presents an image of socialism that is creative and dynamic, full of energy and fun. This image of socialism is a stark contrast to the grey world that is presented by the bourgeoisie.

The film mostly focuses on the official Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1969. However, it also covers the events leading up to the Cultural Revolution: Liu Shaoqi’s rise after the Great Leap, Lin Biao’s elevation of politics in command in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Jiang Qing’s work in the arts, the rise of new, proletarian culture, the growing frustration with bureaucratic privilege and problems in education. It covers  the revisionist, Liu Shaoqi’s counter-revolutionary, suppression of students, and the rise of the red guard and rebel worker movements. The campaign against the Four Olds that began in August of 1966 and the power seizures of 1967 are portrayed as a frenzy of violence. The mass movement power seizures ended and “consolidation” began as Mao took a rightist turn, shifted toward the cadres and against the mass movements late 1967 through 1968. The film covers the rise of the cult of personality. It covers rise of the PLA in politics and the PLA’s role at the Ninth Congress in April of 1969. The film briefly covers Lin Biao’s fall and death in 1971. Except for Lin Biao’s death, the film skips the years of the early 1970s, except to comment on Nixon’s visits and the changes in Chinese foreign policy influenced by Zhou Enlai. It covers the demonstration at Zhou Enlai’s memorial on April 5th of 1976. It briefly shows Jiang Qing at the trial of the “Lin Biao and Gang of Four anti-party cliques.” The film is a good history lesson for so-called “Maoists” who have the simplistic notion that the “Cultural Revolution decade” was a single event running from 1966 to 1976, as though red guards were running around seizing power in 1976. The glory days of the Cultural Revolution existed between 1966 and 1969 or 1971, at the latest. The many phases of this decade will be an eye-opener to some. However, those who know something about this history will feel that the struggles involved are only barely touched on in the film.

The film is clear that the rebel movements were genuine expressions of discontent. However, rather than taking the Maoist view that the Cultural Revolution was a real struggle between two classes, the film instead characterizes these struggles in bourgeois terms. The film compares rebel youth to The Gadfly, a Russian tale of “revolutionary idealism and romantic love” dubbed into Chinese with a score by Shostakovich. The title,  an allusion to Socrates, is a bit misleading. The protagonist of The Gadfly is a byronic hero, a scarred outlaw figure. He is contrasted by interviewees to the image of Lei Feng, the model PLA soldier and altruist, “the bolt that never rusts,” who serves the people. Lei Feng was promoted in Chinese propaganda of the time as a hero to emulate. Thus the film implies that most the young rebels of the Cultural Revolution were originally moved only by romantic notions of liberation and not moved by notions of altruism, equality, proletarian dedication and discipline. Thus, the film peddles the revisionist criticism that the socialist conception of human nature and socialist art of which Lei Feng is an example reduce life to stick figures. Yet the film reduces the Cultural Revolution to its own stick figure explanations: teen rebellion, mob violence, religious fanaticism and lack of bourgeois democracy. One example of the film’s bourgeois outlook is given by ex-red guard Zhu Xue Qin’s description of his rebellion: “this was part of a universal and timeless adolescent impulse. If I was emerged in religious thinking, perhaps I would have become one of the faith.” The film constantly downplays class struggle. Yet the film’s view, albeit bourgeois, is not entirely negative. The film implies that the act of rebellion is deeply human, but the humanistic side was lost to extremism and conformity in the late 1960s. While there is some truth to some aspects of the film’s criticisms, the film’s overall outlook is wrong.

According to the film, the world of the cultural revolutionaries lost all subtlety. Like a model opera, the world was stark, only black and white. Thus the film fails to understand the art and cultural of the period in its own terms. The starkness in socialist art of the time sought to draw out, to make visible, the underlying power dynamics that shape the world. People with pre-scientific and bourgeois outlooks fail to see the power struggles in the “everyday.” Rendering of the world in unequivocal terms, so the theory goes, provokes them into seeing through the bourgeois and pre-scientific matrix of the “ordinary” and “everyday.” In addition, the world itself can be a very stark place. What they fail to see is that the Cultural Revolution appeared to participants like a model opera because class struggle had become so acute. The film fails to connect how both socialist art and the phenomenology of the cultural revolutionaries traces back to the power struggles taking place around them. The film also fails to understand why socialist culture appeared so simple and cliche. Culture is social programming. Making revolution requires changing the social programming. However, reactionary culture developed over centuries. It is very difficult to replace all the reactionary culture with new culture overnight without the new culture beginning to look forced and cliche. The film fails to even attempt to understand these issues from the Leading Light communist point of view.

Ex-red guard Zhu Xue Yang remarks on what the film sees as a paradoxically romantic and violent time: “the zeal for revolutionary ideals was accompanied by an underlying fear. It was a time of the poet and executioner. The poet scattered roses everywhere and the executioner cast a long shadow of fear.” Chen Boda, nominal head of the Cultural Revolution Group that directed the Cultural Revolution, quotes Lenin’s comparison of Bolsheviks to Jacobins in his 1944 essay on Mao’s Hunan report. Mao’s Report was often alluded to during the height of the cultural revolution. “It’s excellent!” appeared in the Chinese press during period of red guard activism. Mass movement leaders often rejected calls for “moderation” and non-violence. This radical sentiment was expressed in a red guard leaflet, “We revolutionaries are monkey kings. We will turn the world upside down… the messier the better.” The film sees this mix of idealism, rebellion and violence as paradoxical because the film fails to grasp the Cultural Revolution as a life and death struggle between two classes and what this inevitably means in the real world. Revolutions are Jacobin ruptures. There is no revolution without poetry, or terror.

Song Binbin, famous for having pinned a red guard armband on Mao, regrets the role she played. She states that “violence spread out of control like a plague.” More time in the film is spent describing the red guard and rebel worker violence than either the systemic violence of capitalism, the violence of Liu Shaoqi’s revisionist white terror, or, later, the revisionist Adverse Current violence against the mass movements, or the violence of capitalism in today’s China. This leaves one with a skewed picture that the mass movement and its leaders were the main perpetrators of violence. The film spends a disproportionate time on the suppression of the counter-revolutionary demonstration at Zhou Enlai’s memorial in 1976. Zhou Enlai’s memorial was used as a protest against socialism. The Gang of Four put down the demonstration using the militia loyal to them. By then the Maoists lost the battle in the streets; there were no more mass movements. They lost the PLA when Lin Biao fell. And they had very little institutional power. They had to protect the left line through the use of police powers. A left that has to use the police as the main institution to advance or protect its programme is in trouble. By the last years of Mao’s life, Mao had shifted rightward and  the momentum was with the revisionists. The Gang of Four were quickly overthrown after Mao died that year. This emphasis on leftist violence is all out of proportion and is typical of narratives on the Cultural Revolution. Most of the interviewees are open rightists, revisionists or those who present themselves as onetime true believers who claim to now be disillusioned with socialism entirely. There is no reason to think that the interviewees have any special insight; anecdotal recollections are notoriously unreliable, they are not a scientific basis for summing up something as complex as the Cultural Revolution. Of all the interviewees, Liu Shaoqi’s wife, Wang Guangmei, probably has the most air time. We hear Wang Guangmei speak about having to wear a ping pong ball necklace and her “humiliation” by Kuai Dafu, but she says nothing of her role suppressing the students, the “white terror” at Qinghua, or how the trend she represents dismantled socialism fully under Deng Xiaoping. Even if every act of violence of the Cultural Revolution years could be placed at the doorstep of the Maoists, this blood would be a drop in the ocean compared to the horrors of capitalism inflicted on the Chinese people, a fifth of the world’s population, today.

In a similar vein, the film criticizes lack of bourgeois legality and lack of bourgeois democracy during the Cultural Revolution. One interviewee says:

“The people in power had always suppressed the masses while taking good care of themselves. So, when Mao said to overthrow those taking the capitalist road, all those in authority were dumped. The masses couldn’t careless who was taking the capitalist road. Initially, it was liberating. But, without the rule of law, the mob mentality took over.”

Another says:

“The cultural revolution was the first time people had a chance to challenge the privilege of the Party, nobody had any legal protection..”

Li Rae, purged one time secretary of Mao:

“The real problem of unrestricted power was never really addressed.”

Liu Shaoqi’s daughter, Liu Tiang:

“The words of a single person, of Chairman Mao, could override Party policy, and Party policy could override the law.”

Instead of examining these struggles through the lenses of power analysis, the film opts for cliche bourgeois reflections about violence and lack of so-called “democracy.” Contrary to the bourgeois view, the struggle between two antagonistic classes could not have been anything other than violent. Revolution is not a dinner party. Rather than seeing social change as a function of power struggles by groups, the film takes a naive bourgeois outlook. Abandoning power analysis, the film seeks answers about the Cultural Revolution in an eternal so-called “human nature,” in Lord of the Flies youth behavior and, typically, even sexual repression.

The film shows the heights of Mao’s cult of personality. Ex-red guard Wang Lixiong compares the admiration of Mao to the admiration of rock stars. Clips of PLA soldiers allegedly curing deaf mutes through loyalty to Mao and the practice of acupuncture are shown to highlight the level the cult had reached as it filled the void after the end of the mass movements. This needs to be seen in perspective: Are not fraudulent claims of all kinds made even more often in the United States’ media?

Pre-science and religious thinking existed in China during the Cultural Revolution, just as it has in all societies. Capitalism is filled with cults of all kinds: religious cults, celebrity cults, political cults, cult pyramid schemes, sex cults. More pseudo-science and religious thinking exists in the United States today than existed in socialist China. In China under Mao, the masses were encouraged to see the world through the lenses of power struggle and revolutionary science. In the United States, with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, people spend their time wading through tomes of how birthdays and the planets relate to love lives. Significant numbers of the Chinese masses, emerging from feudalism, entered the matrix of Mao’s personality cult. However, from the standpoint of science, such is preferable to being in an American Idol matrix of western capitalism. Our bourgeois critics need to get a grip here and see this in perspective. Whatever errors were made in socialist China need to be seen in context and compared to conditions in the rest of the world.

Loyalty to Mao and practicing revolutionary science are not the same thing. This is something that is often confused, even by those calling themselves “Maoist.” Leading Light Communists face the truth about the successes and failures of the great social experiments in China from 1966 to 1976. Leading Lights are revolutionary scientists, not merely fans of Mao. Leading Lights don’t cherry-pick historical facts to soft-peddle errors by the Maoist camp in those years. Even among those calling themselves “Maoist” today, the cult of personality still casts a long shadow. The cult is a two-edged sword. It comes down to the issue of proletarian power. If the cult can be means toward that end, then it is not necessarily a bad thing. If it gets in the way of that end, it becomes a tool of reaction. The cult may have been necessary to dislodge Liu Shaoqi, but it also was turned against the left. Did not Hua Guofeng use the cult to suppress the leftists in 1976?

The film correctly highlights the role of Lin Biao in the Cultural Revolution and Lin Biao’s role in promoting the cult. The film does  not look into the issue deeply. Different kinds of cults of personality exist. There is the cult of the father, the provider, or the relative: “Uncle Joe” or “Uncle Ho.” Stalin’s cult was of a very patriarchal type, for example. Che Guevara’s cult of the heroic guerrilla is another very patriarchal cult. It is James Dean mixed with the romantic, tragic hero. It is macho to boot. Both are images of the revolutionary that tend to push women to the side. The men are on the barricade and the women tend the wounds. The kind of cult that Lin Biao seemed to be pushing was a cult of the mastermind or genius. This kind of cult was seen around Lenin to an extent. The onetime “Shining Path” in Peru also pushed this image of their leader. As far as cults go, the cult pushed by Lin Biao was probably the better of the options. A cult of the mastermind or genius is more in line with the ultimate goals of communism than the alternatives.  People project their aspirations through the cult. The aspirations of intelligence and science are more in tune with elevating the masses, elevating them so that they are capable of ruling themselves without a state  so that they can  advance to communism. For one thing, such a cult is not as exclusionary toward women. It was certainly better than Mao-as-father-figure and provider pushed by Hua and, to a certain extent, the later revisionists. Lin Biao’s conception of the cult was one of the reasons he was deposed. The film highlights the demoralization that the masses faced following the end of the mass movements in late 1967 and 1968 and Lin Biao’s downfall in 1971. Liu Tiang says:

“Lin Biao was the one who attacked my father [Liu Shaoqi] most viciously. And, then, suddenly, Lin Biao was not chairman Mao’s successor. He had been plotting to assassinate the chairman? This had a profound effect on how the people saw the cultural revolution.”

The film does not weigh-in on the later frame up of Lin Biao.

If there is one theme in the film, it is that revolutions eat their own. Some of the first, early red guards, the sons and daughters of “red” backgrounds, were swept away as the tide turned against them when the Cultural Revolution Group refuted the red-lineage theory — the theory that people are born red. Ex-red guard Yu Luowen:

“What Jiang Qing said then really appealed to the common people. She criticized the saying ‘father a reactionary, son a bastard.’ She said, ‘that’s garbage.’ Her apparent outrage made us feel that she was our savior.”

Like the earlier red guards criticized by Jiang Qing, later red guards also ended up on the losing side in late 1967 and into 1968. One of the interviewees criticized the Cultural Revolution Group for taking no responsibility for the fires they had helped fan, even as Mao later sought to put out the fires in late 1967 and 1968. Many in the Group and their allies fell from power for the “excesses,” including Wang Li, Guan Feng, Qi Benyu, and later, Chen Boda and Lin Biao. As the tide turned in late 1967 and 1968 and purges swept through the mass movements and the left, one interviewee felt betrayed by Jiang Qing who, like Chen Boda and Lin Biao, had taken very militant stances in support of the mass movements but now changed her tune a bit. Opportunism was a big problem within the Maoist camp. Opportunism hurt the struggle for socialism and communism. Later, there is the trial of the “Lin Biao and Gang of Four anti-party cliques.” And, finally, even Mao falls posthumously as Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist counter-revolution runs its course. This is not a case of revolutions eating their own. Rather, this as the result of life-and-death struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the struggle between revolution and counter-revolution. In the real world, revolutions are messy affairs.

The film quotes Lin Biao that the spiritual atom bomb of Mao’s Thought is the most powerful weapon. It is a weapon that the imperialists are unable to wield. Ex-red guard Li Nayang:

“We were taught at a young age the purpose of life was not to seek happiness for yourself, that was embarrassingly vulgar. A glorious and fulfilling life can only be achieved by dedicating yourself to a great revolutionary cause.”

Even though this film has obvious flaws, it still has educational purposes for serious students of revolutionary science. The film ends ambiguously with a Leading Light Communist sentiment: “The specter of Mao is never far away. When people feel oppressed and powerless, when a system permits no legitimate protest or dissent, Mao emerges as a possibility, a champion of “it’s right to rebel!’”

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