Home >Table of Contents >Chapter 12
First Previous Next Last

Cinema and Propaganda during the Great Leap Forward

Matthew D. Johnson


Figure 12.1

Pre-Leap visions of China’s abundant future. Depicted are a male iron worker and female rural laborer. In the foreground are depicted cotton and corn; in the background, steady processions of trucks and carts illustrate the economic links between urban and rural economies. Flags, factories, and other details add to the illustration of material progress. This image and others like it were circulated during the PRC’s first long-term, five-year economic plan.

Source: Wu Jingpo, Xiao Lin, Lou Shichang et al., 1956 nian dao 1967 nian quanguo nongye fazhan gangyao (cao’an) tujie. Beijing: Tongsu duwu chubanshe, 1956.

Figure 12.2

Just prior to the Great Leap Forward, and in the midst of China’s push toward rural collectivization, the Ming Tombs Reservoir project was trumpeted in film and other media as proof that massive, labor-intensive irrigation projects could widely improve living standards. While the plot of Song of the Reservoir was fictionalized the film was shot on-site, though with significant embellishments made to the backdrop. This sign reads, “We Will Definitely Complete Repairs to the Ming Tombs Reservoir!”

Source: Shuiku shang de gesheng [Song of the Reservoir]. Changchun Film Studio, 1958.

Figure 12.3

Labor heroine Gao Lanxiang shown addressing fellow workers in Song of the Reservoir. The red ribbon pinned to her chest is meant to symbolize her exemplary status. As Gao speaks in the film she is also, in a sense, speaking to the audience. Her praise for virtues such as hard work, diligence, and thrift indicates that transmitting such values was viewed as an important part of state filmmaking during the Mao Era.

Source: Shuiku shang de gesheng [Song of the Reservoir]. Changchun Film Studio, 1958.

Figure 12.4

Tractors and mechanized shuttle cars depicted amidst stages scenes of Ming Tombs Reservoir construction. As a symbol of modernity and progress, mechanization of labor was meant to indicate that China was progressing rapidly along the path of Soviet Russia. The machinery also represented an implicit promise that, in the future, labor would be less physically onerous.

Source: Shuiku shang de gesheng [Song of the Reservoir]. Changchun Film Studio, 1958.

Figure 12.5

Human and mechanical labor achieve the incredible in Song of the Reservoir. Here the signs read, “Study the Enthusiasm of the Ming Tombs Reservoir.”

Source: Shuiku shang de gesheng [Song of the Reservoir]. Changchun Film Studio, 1958.

Figure 12.6

Great Leap Forward economic policy promised to bring the city to the countryside in the form of factories and other urban amenities. Led by two rural technicians atop a tractor, and guided by a larger-than-life Mao Zedong, this parade of peasants armed with tools, weapons, and Mao’s writings advances toward an abundant future. The image is from a printed booklet intended to explain the advantages of collective, industrialized social organization in rural areas.

Source: Ji Hua, ed., Zenyang ban hao renmin gongshe [How to Run People’s Communes Well]. N.p.: Hubei renmin yishu chubanshe, n.d.

Figure 12.7

The real Mao Zedong shown greeting a group of tanned and smiling people’s commune members. Mao’s hat, suitable for field work, is meant to convey his close relationship with China’s peasantry. The individual in the foreground is depicted wearing a wristwatch and carrying what appear to be three fountain pens in his front pocket. During the late 1950s, watches and pens were depicted in official propaganda as symbols of nascent individual consumption amidst China’s mainly production-oriented process of economic industrialization. In real villages such a sight would have been unusual, and the photograph itself appears staged rather than natural.

Source: Zhonghua renmin gongheguo chengli shi zhounian jinian huace bianji weiyuanhui, Zhonghua renmin gongheguo chengli shi zhounian jinian huace, 1949-1959 [Photographs Commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1959], n.p., 1959. Available from Wikimedia Commons, [link], accessed March 10, 2014.

Figure 12.8

Great Leap Forward-era propaganda depicted the success of economic policies, particularly in rural areas, in terms of abundant food. This photo purports to depict an everyday scene of a people’s commune public canteen, in which dining – like labor – was collective and each commune member entitled to consume as much food as he or she wished. In theory, communal dining improved rural production by freeing up women’s household labor spent on cooking. In practice, the canteens and other commune inefficiencies contributed to waste and famine.

Source: Zhonghua renmin gongheguo chengli shi zhounian jinian huace bianji weiyuanhui, Zhonghua renmin gongheguo chengli shi zhounian jinian huace, 1949-1959 [Photographs Commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1959], n.p., 1959. Available from Wikimedia Commons, (link), March 10, 2014.

Figure 12.9

Here children are shown eating and being raised outside of the home. Like public canteens, public nurseries or crèches were intended to “liberate” women’s labor, raise productivity, and improve rural living conditions. However, they also represented a challenge to preexisting familial social structures and as such were not necessarily welcomed by villagers. As was typical, child subjects have been costumed (including with cosmetics) and posed, and the photograph re-touched to highlight the happy faces of the children in the foreground.

Source: Zhonghua renmin gongheguo chengli shi zhounian jinian huace bianji weiyuanhui, Zhonghua renmin gongheguo chengli shi zhounian jinian huace, 1949-1959 [Photographs Commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1959], n.p., 1959. Available from Wikimedia Commons, (link), March 10, 2014.

Figure 12.10

Visual evidence of new rural production records, or “satellites.” This image is taken from the set of Hubei’s Ten Thousand Catties, a documentary-style film intended to serve as proof that farmers in Hubei province had gained the capacity to produce massive amounts of grain by closely following Great Leap Forward policies, and improvising their own solutions to existing economic constraints. The circulation of such “behind the scenes” images also served to reinforce the impression that individuals appearing in feature-style documentaries were not actors, but rather ordinary people captured on film.

Source: Shang ying huabao [Shanghai Film Studio Pictorial], No. 10 (1958).

Figure 12.11

In this fanciful scene from the film Huang Baomei, the eponymous real-life model laborer Huang Baomei and her female co-workers are shown transformed into “celestial women” (xian nü) as they compete with a rival factory team to spin cotton. Films which incorporated both real and fictionalized elements could also be intended as popular entertainment, but also carried serious messages concerning the party-state’s expectation that each member of society would work as hard as possible to support national development goals.

Source: Huang Baomei, Tianma Film Studio, 1958. Available from Hongse jingdian kafeishi [Red Classics Café], http://blog.sina.com.cn/lijinyu97, accessed March 10, 2014.

Figure 12.12

Real-life model laborer and cinematic star Huang Baomei on the cover of Shanghai Film Studio Pictorial. Huang’s appearance in film was another sign that ordinary filmgoers were expected to emulate the achievements of workers whose near-superhuman exploits had won them public state approval. Huang’s charisma – her youth, vigor, and wholesome looks – was likewise intended to “sell” policy to audiences.

Source: Shang ying huabao [Shanghai Film Studio Pictorial], No. 8 (1958).

Figure 12.13

Everyone of working age was expected to contribute to the productivity of China’s socialist society – even artists. Here, Shanghai Film Studio actors are shown supporting the Great Leap Forward by performing skits for a rural audience. Such images may also have been intended to show that even during the Great Leap Forward, popular cultural needs were being met.

Source: Shang ying huabao [Shanghai Film Studio Pictorial], No. 10 (1958).

Figure 12.14

Film projection unit in Hebei shown in publication dated September 23, 1955. Outdoor screenings were the main way by which the party-state brought the motion picture to rural China. Some technologies would appear unfamiliar today, such as the two-way screen which allowed audience members to sit on either side, or the slide projector used to illustrate pre-film propaganda and news reports. In addition to the film’s soundtrack and dialogue, additional audio was provided by the projectionist, who explained key plot points to audience members by means of a microphone and speaker. This extra layer of state-provided meaning would be impossible to reconstruct based on re-viewing of the film alone, and serves to highlight how propaganda activities became a ubiquitous aspect of official culture.

Source: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture Image Archive, http://mclc.osu.edu/rc/imagearchive/image.htm, accessed March 10, 2014.

Figure 12.15

Reconstruction of a rural screening ground, Shaanxi Province. The public space in which film screenings took place was also social space. While the party-state sought to monopolize use of such space, and to maintain absolute control over the content of political messages, social actors did not necessarily internalize propaganda or suspend skepticism when confronted with obviously embellished official claims.

Source: Christian Hess, Sophia University, 2005. Used with permission.

Chapter Sample

What is propaganda? While the term connotes a pejorative meaning today, during the early-twentieth century it served mainly to denote a type of persuasion – images and words which imparted a political message. The rise of modern propaganda is closely associated with the rise of new technologies such as radio, film, and television which were viewed not only as sources of entertainment but also as potential tools of social education and control. Over the decades however, the term “propaganda” has become mainly associated in the U.S. with “totalitarian regimes and war efforts, [which were] perceived as threats to liberal democracies.”i Our negative usage of the word “propaganda,” in other words, has a history. In China as well, terms like propaganda and political education may today raise a certain degree of skepticism among the general populace. Yet it is undeniable that throughout much of the twentieth century the production of mass media for specific state purposes constituted a highly public and officially acknowledged function of government. By asking a few simple questions, this chapter attempts to dispel some of the mystery or unfamiliarity associated with cultural life in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during the “Mao years.” What was propaganda from the perspective of those who produced it? What messages did it contain? How was it disseminated to audiences? How was it viewed and received? Finally, how did it become a part of its recipients’ everyday lives? The medium and era upon which we will focus is film during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) – not only because propaganda images from this period were so vivid, as we shall see, but also because this was a key era when film’s influence, particularly its spread into the countryside, grew enormously. The Leap thus provides scholars of visual culture with pivotal moment for examining how state claims which now strike us as exaggerated, even hollow, were made “real” for audiences, and how they might have been received.

i Sheryl Tuttle Ross, “Understanding Propaganda: The Epistemic Merit Model and Its Application to Art,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 36, no. 1 (Spring 2002), 17. For a more general discussion of wartime propaganda and the cinema, see Nicholas Reeves, The Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality? (London: Cassell, 1999).

Further Reading

Chang, Julian. “The Mechanics of State Propaganda: The People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union in the 1950s.” In Timothy Cheek and Tony Saich, eds., New Perspectives on State Socialism in China. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.

Chen, Tina Mai. “Propagating the Propaganda Film: The Meaning of Film in CCP Writings, 1949-1965.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall 2003).

Chen, Tina Mai. “Textual Communities and Localized Practices of Film in Maoist China.” In Tina Mai Chen and David Churchill, eds., Film, History, and Cultural Citizenship: Sites of Production. London: Routledge, 2007.

Clark, Paul. Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Clark, Paul. “Closely watched viewers: A taxonomy of Chinese film audiences from 1949 to the Cultural Revolution seen from Hunan.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 5, 1 (Spring 2011), 73-89.

David-Fox, Michael. Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy & Western Visitors to the Soviet Union, 1921-1941. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Kraus, Richard Kurt. The Party and the Arty in China: The New Politics of Culture. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

  • Ch. 2: “The Waning Authority of the Chinese State as Patron of the Arts”

Leyda, Jay. Dianying/Electric Shadows: An Account of Film and the Film Audience in China. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1972.

Perry, Elizabeth J. Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

  • Ch. 5: “Constructing a Revolutionary Tradition”

Pickowicz, Paul G. China on Film: A Century of Exploration, Confrontation, and Controversy. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2013.

  • Ch. 8: “The Limits of Cultural Thaw: Chinese Cinema in the 1960s”

Stranahan, Patricia. “Labor Heroines of Yan’an.” Modern China, Vol. 9, No.2 (April 1983).

Zhang, Yingjin. Chinese National Cinema. London: Routledge, 2004.

Study Questions

These questions can be explored without outside reading:

1. This chapter makes an argument about the importance of propaganda in the context of political and economic mobilization. What does ‘mobilization’ mean? Can you think of other examples of mobilization drawn from China’s history or the history of other countries?

2. Many people, including the leaders of China’s Communist Party, have described the Great Leap Forward as a tragic and costly mistake. Why, then, did Mao Zedong and his supporters decide that such a far-fetched policy was plausible in 1958? Assume that the propaganda of the time provides some insight into how Mao and others imagined that the Leap might work: How could it have worked? What steps were required? What was its purpose? Why was this purpose significant? Or, imagine that you are making a case for the correctness of Great Leap Forward policies to a group of skeptics: What are you trying to accomplish, and what evidence suggests that you might be able to accomplish your goals?

3. The images of the Great Leap Forward drew on folk art, depictions of model workers, and socialist romanticism to ‘sell’ the Great Leap Forward to ordinary Chinese citizens. According to these same images, what was the reward for more enthusiastic participation in economic production? How, exactly, were lives supposed to change as a result? When this utopian imagery was abruptly discarded during post-Leap economic retrenchment, how might people have responded to the sudden change in message?

For these questions, consult the "Further Readings" section:

1. Readings on China’s film industry (Clark, Leyda, Zhang) tend to stress that the Great Leap Forward period was a time of both innovation and waste. Too many studios were built, and the artistic quality of the films produced was typically poor. At the same time, Chinese society during this era was becoming increasingly media-saturated. Can you think of similar transitions from in other times and places? Why might these examples help us to understand why media seemed like such a potentially powerful political tool in the context of late 1950s China? What clues concerning the answer to this question are provided by the scholars mentioned above?

2. What do scholars of Chinese Communist Party propaganda (Chang, Chen) and cultural policy (Kraus, Perry, Pickowicz) during this era argue about the importance of stirring images, and particularly models, to the CCP’s approach to mass politics? Are their arguments the same, or do you detect differences? What different uses of propaganda and culture can you list based on one or more of these readings and the examples given in Johnson’s chapter?

3. Patricia Shanahan’s insightful article delves deeper into the issue of models via a discussion of ‘labor heroines’ promoted by the CCP during its Yan’an phase. A newer work by Michael David-Fox also argues that model villages played a role in how the Soviet Union conducted managed its foreign relations. Finally, Julian Chang’s article makes a case for the powerful influence of Soviet experience on post-1949 CCP propaganda institutions. Was there a socialist ‘style’ to twentieth-century political culture? If so, how would you define it? In what ways were China and the Soviet similar in this respect, and in what ways were they different?

4. Like this chapter, articles by Tina Mai Chen and Paul Clark stress the importance of reception to our understanding of what propaganda and political culture meant in its historical context. Based on these readings, what are the strengths and limitations of histories which attempt to connect cultural artifacts with audience responses? What kinds of sources are most likely to be useful in this regard? And, where do their weaknesses lie?