THE CULTURAL POLITICS
OF POSTWAR HOLOCAUST EPICS
For decades the classic films Far Away Love, Eight Thousand Miles of Clouds and Moon, and A Spring River Flows East have been thought of as "leftist" works fashioned by filmmakers who supposedly were under the control of the Communist Party. Critics close to the Nationalist Party accepted this view and, thus, questioned the credibility of the filmmakers and dismissed the films. They never attempted to explain the astounding popularity of the movies or, more important, to appreciate the extent to which the filmmakers had close links to the Nationalist state and party during and after the war. Critics close to the Communist Party accepted the view that the films were "leftist" and celebrated the "progressivism" of the artists, thereby claiming these important artifacts as their own.
In fact, the cultural politics of these holocaust narratives are not so clearcut. The political and cultural content of the films is neither as pro-Communist nor as anti-Nationalist as most observers would have us believe. The films have a highly critical tone, but the social criticism is consistent with perspectives associated with both the Nationalist and Communist Parties. Far Away Love was made by the Nationalists themselves in a state-run studio. All three movies were officially reviewed and approved by Nationalist state censors. In recent years, industry personalities familiar with these films have asserted that state censors had been bribed. But this is not a very convincing explanation of why they were passed by the censors. Daily advertising in local newspapers reveals that all three films had extremely long runs in Shanghai and other major cities. The state certainly had the means to shut down theaters that showed offensive films, but no serious effort was made to discourage repeated screenings of the three epics under review here.
Communist and Nationalist cultural historians have failed, each for their own reasons, to mention that Far Away Love, Eight Thousand Miles, and A Spring River were among the ten films made in 1947 that received the coveted Zhongzheng Culture Prize named in honor of Chiang Kai-shek himself. All recipients got a cash award and a handsome Oscar-like trophy. A Spring River, the most critical of the three films discussed here, was listed first among the ten "glorious" winners by Shen bao, hardly an antigovernment newspaper. Actress Bai Yang, who joined the Communist Party in 1958, won the first Chiang Kai-shek best actress award in 1947 for her performances in Eight Thousand Miles and A Spring River. For nearly fifty years the two sides in the civil war have been too embarrassed to acknowledge this unsettling fact.
Scholars in the People's Republic account for the production and public release of these films by emphasizing the ability of the filmmakers to outsmart Nationalist bureaucrats who were eager to crush works critical of wartime and postwar social disarray. Actually, the critical thrust of these movies was well known. There was no revolutionary conspiracy. Spectacular newspaper advertising that appeared long before the films were first shown was remarkably explicit. Ads for Far
The praise heaped on these films by the mainstream popular film press suggests that the community was acutely aware of the critical and controversial approach to the war taken by Chen Liting and other postwar directors. For instance, the April 1947 edition of the popular film magazine Dianying, a nonpolitical publication that normally concerned itself with the divorces of film stars, the number of kissing scenes in American movies, the shape of Bai Guang's legs, and the kinds of cosmetics used by Hollywood matinee idols, boldly asserted that Far Away Love, Eight Thousand Miles, and Heavenly Spring Dream (Tiantang chun meng, d. Tang Xiaodan, March 1947), another controversial warrelated film produced in a state-run studio, were fine examples of postwar films that "illustrated reality and gave voice to the people."
The Dianying article, which appeared before the release of A Spring River, asserted that these films were popular because the screenwriters were attuned to "the inner feelings" of the film audience. By contrast, many veteran screenwriters were said to be out of touch. They had the "connections" to get their stories made into films, but they were interested in cinema only as "a tool to make a fortune." They exploited the postwar demand for films, but their scripts were "terrible." The magazine called explicitly for more films like Eight Thousand Miles, which it claimed was the "first postwar Chinese film" purchased by foreign buyers for distribution in Europe. As for the moneygrubbers whose films failed to deal with the real concerns of the audience: "These scum who hurt the Chinese film industry should be sent to the gallows that has been set up by the people. They should be purged!"
Nationalist authorities allowed the films to be screened in part because they were consistent with critical perspectives held within the Nationalist Party and government. Disillusioned elements within the Nationalist movement realized that the cultural and political messages of the films struck a responsive chord among the millions who had resided in enemy-occupied areas during the war. This was an audience that desperately wanted to "see," and thereby "experience,"
It is time to look at such works not solely in terms of the highly polarized politics of the civil war era and after, but also in terms of the complex relationship between commercial filmmakers working in the state and private sectors and their vast film audience. When the films are analyzed from this perspective, is it possible to see that the cultural politics of these epic narratives were far from radical or "progressive." They were decidedly conservative. All three films argue that certain core Chinese values, especially those governing social relations within the family, were broken down and forgotten during the long years of wartime separation and dislocation.
Without exception the positive characters in all the films (Yu Zhen, Lingyu, Libin, Sufen, Zhongmin, and even Zhongliang before his moral decline) were people who cherished "traditional" family values: respect for parents and devotion to spouse and children. Their patriotism and unselfish public-spiritedness were natural extensions of their old-fashioned, neo-Confucian cultural orientation. There is nothing left wing about the mores of these people.
The negative characters (Professor Xiao, Jiarong, Pang Haogong, Lizhen, Wenyan, and Zhongliang after his moral demise) are people who betrayed time-honored family values and adopted alien ways that make them decadent, irresponsible, and greedy. Their wartime behavior, according to the logic of these narratives, was also an extension of their immoral family relations. They are incapable of acting patriotically, it seems, because they do not accept "real" Chinese cultural values. Some are cowards, and some actually betray the nation, while others participate in the resistance only because they are motivated by personal gain.
The audience is being told that people who had been faithful to traditional Chinese family values sacrificed selflessly in the interior or suffered unjustly in the occupied territories. People who had abandoned old-style family values were hedonistic profiteers, shameless collaborators, or cowards. After viewing narratives of this sort, the audience, comprised essentially of ordinary people who suffered under the occupation, knew who to blame for their wartime and postwar miseries. The underlying argument of these films, one usually not associated with "leftists," is that the erosion of traditional family values during the war was a destructive phenomenon that weakened the entire society. Nowhere is the state or Nationalist Party blamed for the moral decline. Still, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that these films eroded public confidence in the postwar state nevertheless.
It is not enough, however, merely to point out that the family values embraced by the negative characters are simply "untraditional." They are foreign. Every effort
It is inadequate, however, simply to dismiss these characterizations as so much Marxist anticapitalism. There is something very Confucian and culturally conservative about the antimerchant thrust of these popular visualizations. When it comes to denouncing capitalism and the bourgeoisie, there is much that Chinese Marxism of the 1930s and 1940s shared in common with the neoconservative approaches that surfaced in urban China in the 1930s. In August 1948, ten months after the release of A Spring River, Jiang Jingguo himself blasted Shanghai's big-money interests: "Their wealth and their foreign-style homes are built on the skeletons of the people. How is their conduct any different from that of armed robbers?"
But what about the image of the collective family that emerges so prominently throughout Far Away Love and at the end of Eight Thousand Miles? Surely this a revolutionary vision of the new socialist society that awaited China. Surely it justifies the view that these films are the work of leftists. The problem is that while the image is definitely "collective," it is far from revolutionary. The "collective" or surrogate family espouses most of the old family values advocated by the positive and patriotic characters! The audience is told there is a need for drastic social change, but it should be a transformation that will restore real Chinese family values rather than reject them. It will be a change that eradicates the pernicious influence of the alien culture of greedy merchants.
Women appear in these films as remarkably strong and independent survivors of the holocaust experience. These images were undoubtedly welcomed by women viewers, said to comprise a majority of the audience for postwar Chinese films. Yu Zhen and Lingyu are "liberated" from oppressive families, and find happiness and fulfillment in wartime Nationalist collectives. But their liberation is from the unpatriotic, bourgeois, foreign-style family, not from patriarchal authority in general. The new surrogate families to which they bond allow for an active role for women, but they remain essentially patriarchal. Women who liberate themselves from alien bourgeois families have only one option: to resubmit to the "Chinese-style" patriarchal authority of the patriotic collectives. These collective groupings embrace what are viewed as essentialistic Chinese family values. They are values linked to the rural pasts of Yu Zhen, Lingyu, and Sufen.
China won the war. China defeated Japan. But the social consequences of the holocaust were most profound. When the war was over, victory felt like defeat, not only for many of those who joined the resistance, but especially for those millions