Serving the People in the twenty-first century: Zhang Side and the revival of the Yan’an Spirit

In September 2004, Zhang Side, a black and white biopic about the life and death of a soldier stationed in the Communist base camp in Yan’an during World War Two, was premiered at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The premiere was held on the sixtieth anniversary of Mao Zedong’s famous “Serve the People” speech, given three days after Zhang’s death, which honoured the soldier as a symbol of self-sacrifice and devotion to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Revolution: Mao’s speech, and the slogan “Serve the People”, both acquired canonical status after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The film serves as an example of so-called “main-melody films” (zhuxuan lü dianying), that is uplifting films made within the state system in China that are designed to put across, in an easily digestible manner, a view that accords with currently acceptable official policies. The release of main melody films is customarily tied in with major anniversaries in the CCP pantheon and the films are subsequently honoured in lavish annual awards ceremonies. Aimed at a domestic audience, with funding coming from domestic sources, Zhang Side is an example of a particular type of Chinese film worthy of attention but unlikely to be shown abroad. [1]

The recounting of history matters in China. As Yingjin Zhang has noted, from the early years of the PRC the CCP “resorted to cinema to rewrite the history of modern China as a teleological process in which the Communists led the Chinese people from victory to victory”, a point backed up by Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar who have commented on the use of historical films as a means of assisting the transformation of China into a nation-state (Zhang Yingjin 2004, p. 193; Berry & Farquhar, p. 23). [2] Within this context, the great moments of Chinese revolutionary history have provided a fertile source of material. In particular, the Yan’an period (1935-1948), which incorporates the anti-Japanese War (1937-1945), is tied in with myths of the founding of the modern Chinese state in which Mao Zedong is the central figure and Zhang Side the embodiment of the ordinary soldier, the small cog in a big machine. In the words of Rana Mitter, Yan’an was placed at the centre of the “permitted narrative.” [3]

This desire to glorify the role of the CCP guaranteed a steady flow of films about Yan’an and the anti-Japanese War after 1949. Indeed, military and war films accounted for about half of the two hundred or so feature films produced in the first ten years of Communist Party rule, and one such film, Tunnel Warfare (Di Dao Zhan1965), is said to be the most watched film in the whole world, with 1.8 billion viewing times.[4] The immense size of the audience for these films is attributable to the large-scale mandatory organised viewings for factories and work units. Such viewings would often be introduced by party officials who would inform the audience of the film’s “Party-sanctioned meaning” (Chen, pp. 154-193).

Several critics have commented on the generally poor artistic quality of films made in this period. Meng Liye stressed poor cinematic technique, the inadequate reflection of the real world and a lack of profound literary content (Meng, pp. 372-378). Chris Berry referred to the avoidance of any features that might confuse an audience such as a non-linear narrative, unexpected twists in the plot and, especially, the use of flashback, while Paul Clark noted static camerawork and stagey presentation (Berry, pp. 87-88; Clark, p. 95).

To a certain extent, these deficiencies were irrelevant: what was important was the message and the methods employed to ensure that it was not missed. To give one example, The Urgent Letter (Jimao Xin 1953), a children’s film about a young boy who is asked by his father to take a letter behind enemy lines to a communist soldier informing him that the Japanese have left their blockhouse unguarded. The film, which pays only the most rudimentary attention to aesthetic values, uses both intertitles and a voiceover to cover areas where a young audience might not grasp the intended message: for example, when the young boy is working out how to proceed, the mellifluous feminine voice expresses his different options. This simplistic approach is indicative of what Zhang Yingjin has called typification, that is the use of typical characters in a typical setting (Zhang Yingjin 2002, p. 203.)

In the film world, such typification stemmed from the Film Bureau’s call, in 1953, for filmmakers to implement Socialist Realism as “the highest standard in their creative work.” The need for an ideology based on class consciousness and the political correctness of the struggle against any non-Communist organisations, led rapidly to the emergence of stereotypes in the cinematic representation of Communists, Japanese and Nationalists. [5]  In terms of films made about the Anti-Japanese war, we find, on the negative side, weasly collaborators who try to help the Japanese army by guiding them through the local terrain, but are too stupid to do so effectively, and cruel Japanese soldiers, the piggy-faced officers usually wearing very strong glasses because they are so short-sighted. In contrast, the good side is stocked with wise old peasants, youthful enthusiasts, and women who are portrayed either as plucky nurturers or, in some instances, enthusiastic participants in the fighting. These good characters, furthermore, have an implausibly high level of understanding of the political situation: In Five Heroes of Mt Langya (Langyashan wu zhuangshi 1958), for example, the Chinese troops have time in the heat of the battle to cite the words of Chairman Mao, criticise the Nationalists (KMT) for their collaboration with the Japanese, and discuss building a communist society after the war. Through these means film became an important tool in inspiring support for the Communist programme.

It is tempting to look on the term main-melody as simply a new label for this sort of film that has been made throughout the period of communist rule in China. Support for the production of main-melody films can be traced back to 1987 when a call was issued, during the anti-bourgeois-liberalism campaign, to “Emphasise the keynote, persist with cultural diversity” (hongyang zhuxuanlü, jianchi duoyanghua). [6] Following the upheavals of 1989, considerable sums of state money were made available for the making of main melody films and, in 1994, Jiang Zemin, at that time the President of the PRC, called for them to be given greater priority (Braester, pp. 161-180). Major events such as the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC in 1999, and the sixtieth anniversary of the end of Second World War in 2005, were marked by the orchestrated release of a slew of apposite films. [7] Furthermore, as was the case in the 1950s and 60s, when state-produced films were required viewing, factories and work units again organized obligatory showings (Zhang Zhen, “Introduction”, p. 41).

Since 1989, the CCP has met the various challenges in different ways, notably through giving heightened attention to the prestigious award ceremonies, thus attracting directors who might previously have been wary of making propaganda films for the state: Yingjin Zhang has spoken of the increased dependency or complicity on the part of film artists, who have been largely institutionalised or professionalised within the system and who are being swept into, rather than marching toward, the centre (Zhang Yingjin, “Rebel”, pp. 49-80). Yin Li, the director of Zhang Side, is himself a member of the Fifth Generation, the first group to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 following its reopening in 1978 after the end of the Cultural Revolution. [8] The CCP’s wish to bring on board more accomplished directors was in itself a tacit acknowledgement that the cinema-going audience is no longer willing to tolerate poorly-made, stodgy, propaganda, not least because of the impact of the more challenging films that had been made in China in the 1980s and 90s.

The Fifth Generation filmmakers, influenced less by Soviet-Russia style Socialist Realism, than by the works of a wide range of European and American filmmakers, had greatly extended not only the range of subject matter but the approach to familiar topics: works such as Zhang Junzhao’s The One and The Eight (Yige he Bage 1983), Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (Huang tudi 1984), Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (Hong Gaoliang 1988) and Wu Ziniu’s Evening Bell (Wan zhong 1988) all addressed the Sino-Japanese War in a radically different way from films previously made in the PRC, challenging some of the most fundamental tenets of Communist China and presenting a much more complex picture of the war with Japan than the sanitised images seen in the films made in the 1950s and 60s. [9]  With domestic audiences familiar with these works and thus used to a more sophisticated recounting of historical events, main melody films not surprisingly acquired a reputation for being boring and preachy. This paper will examine the extent to which Zhang Side follows the models and standards established in the heyday of the Chinese propaganda film made between 1949 and 1966 as well as the ways in which it reflects the new realities of the twentieth-first century.

Zhang Side

The outline of Yin Li’s film is straightforward. Zhang Side (1915-1944) served in the Yan’an base camp in Shaanxi province in northwest China, initially as one of the soldiers guarding Mao Zedong and subsequently as part of a team making charcoal. He died following a sudden landslide which buried him alive inside a kiln, his demise providing an uncomplicated ending to the film’s story. The film’s ending is not in doubt. A Chinese audience knows that Zhang is going to die, and knows that his life and death were the inspiration behind Mao’s “Serve the People” speech: the interest lies in how the story is told. Zhang Side is one of several figures whose resolutely ordinary lives have been used during the years of CCP rule to serve as role models, the best-known example being Lei Feng a soldier who died in 1962 after being struck by a telegraph pole knocked down by an army truck that he was guiding. Lei Feng’s diary, which was discovered after his death, revealed a solider who was completely devoted to Mao Zedong. Since then he became the subject of a film made in 1964, recurring campaigns and even has a museum in his honour. In the case of both Zhang Side and Lei Feng, those biographical details which are wholly verifiable are scanty, allowing scope for copious embellishment and artistic license.

The eponymous hero of Yin Li’s film is very much in the Lei Feng mould. At the start of the film, although he has been in the army for eleven years, Zhang has never been promoted but nevertheless remains content to serve as an ordinary soldier striving for the good of the country: He belatedly takes his place in the chorus line just in time for the start of a concert, obliged due to his shortness to stand on a pair of bricks in order to match the height of his fellow chorus members. The camera then pans across the audience to the watching Mao Zedong who asks his companion who the “grubby-faced urchin” (lianba zanghuhu de xiao gui) is. The reply comes back that Side is an “outstanding” (xiang dangdang) soldier. During this brief conversation, which establishes all too clearly Zhang’s earnest, childlike character, we are informed that Zhang has been assigned to guard Mao Zedong.

Zhang Side is the selfless hero of Socialist Realism dreams: in the first half of the film, we see him standing on the back of Mao Zedong’s official car as he is transported round the base area, helping a mute, bed-ridden old soldier who is refusing to eat by giving him a pair of glasses which enables him to sew up his clothes, staying up to do good deeds when all the other soldiers are going off to sleep, and even diving into a surging river in pursuit of an old woman’s escaping pig. He is reticent in putting himself forward and admits that he has difficulty finding the right words to say. If anything, he is more at ease with children, as is shown through his developing relationship with Song Guangming, a young boy who, at the start of the film, has not spoken since his parents were killed by the Japanese. Guangming responds to the friendly Zhang Side who coaxes the boy out of his self-imposed silence into talking once more and comes to act as a surrogate father, as we see later when the boy starts crying during a viewing of a Soviet film at the Yan’an base camp and runs off to Zhang calling him father: it is only Zhang who can calm him down by cradling him and telling him that what they are watching is just a film and not reality.

At the same time, however, there are some ways in which Yin’s portrayal of a model soldier differs from the straightforward model typical of the 1950s. Having already witnessed his awkwardness in the presence of his friend’s girlfriend, Zhang is shown sitting next to an attractive young woman at a children’s show. At the end of the performance, she goes outside to speak to her boyfriend, leaving Zhang looking wistfully out of the window at the two of them embracing in the falling snow. Attempts to present a more rounded, less hagiographic, portrait also include a scene in which his fellow soldiers are exasperated with Zhang’s inability to hold a tune, and, more surprisingly, Zhang drinking too much at a banquet, and, when spoken to afterwards by a senior officer, lurching forward to vomit as the scene fades. Yin Li has cited the use of humour in Zhang Side as one of the ways in which he sought to make the film less stodgy: elsewhere we see Mao laughing, albeit in a friendly way, at Zhang having to stand on bricks to take his place in the chorus line (Zong Shan).

The film, of course, is not solely about Zhang Side. In many ways, he serves primarily as foil for Mao Zedong, whose dominant role is indicated from the onset with a brief pre-credit scene of him pensively writing out wei renmin fuwu (serve the people). His appearance on screen usually presaged by stirring music, Mao is portrayed as a figure with an unmistakable aura of authority who is at the same time affable and approachable. He allows the base camp’s nursery to use his car when he doesn’t need it, chats amicably with Yan’an market traders, and gives Zhang Side a pair of good quality shoes so that he will no longer have to go round bare-footed. This is a portrait of an awe-inspiring figure: a stall-holder is astonished to realise that he has just been speaking to the chairman, a badly wounded fellow soldier taken by Zhang to meet Mao only to find that he is not in his room, stands awestruck outside the room, quietly whispering “Mao Zhuxi” (Chairman Mao). The soldier passes away shortly afterwards, his dying moments eased by a visit from Mao himself. Even a moment of apparent lèse majesté turns out to be nothing of the sort: when Zhang Side earnestly tells Mao that he would like to tell him his greatest weakness, it is solely that the Chairman carries on working when everyone else has gone to sleep.

There are several set pieces of Mao giving important speeches, scenes in which he is presented as firm but compassionate. On one occasion, for example, he talks of how it has been necessary to oppose not only the Japanese and the KMT but also both Rightist and Leftists operating within the Party. His language is notably restrained, the use of terms such as guizi (devils) for the Japanese being left to the ordinary soldiers.[10] Furthermore Mao is also seen in discussion with Zhou Enlai about Chiang Kai-Shek’s book China’s Destiny, commenting in a relaxed and supportive way, “Old Chiang’s book has sold very well.”[11]

These big speeches act as crucial punctuation points in the film, the techniques used by Yin Li removing any possibility of the message not being transmitted: shots of Mao stressing the need for hard work, for example, are intercut with footage of Zhang Side running several miles to get a replacement tyre for Mao’s official car.

Discussions between Mao and senior party figures take place regularly during the film, partly to provide the requisite background information, but also, of course, to guide the audience in the particular point of view that is being expressed.

The film’s opening credits over a sequence of Zhang Side running through the hills of northern Shaanxi, along with the black and white photography, immediately establish a retro feel: any viewer familiar with works such as The Urgent Letter and Five Heroes of Mt Langya would recognize the sweeping views of the beautiful north China landscape. As quickly becomes apparent, the difference with Zhang Side, compared with the films of the 1950s and 60s, is that a modern audience, not only at a much great temporal distance from the conflict, but also no longer brought up solely on a diet of propaganda, requires a certain amount of exposition. Thus, over the course of the film, the viewer is given considerable visual assistance by the inclusion of signifiers which remind the audience of the period: the camera pans slowly over a sign for the Yan’an market or the Lu Xun Academy and there is a brief backdrop of the iconic Yan’an pagoda.[12]  In an interview, Yin Li himself spoke of the film’s four most important features being Mao Zedong, Yan’an, the Eighth Route Army and the slogan “Serve the people” (Zong Shan).

The modern audience is also, of course, more accustomed to the way in which film narrative can tell a story so there is no need for the employment of that most common staple of 1950s films, the voiceover explaining to the audience that these events took place in the past and could not reoccur in New China. Thus the audience is informed, through a discussion between Mao and his aides, of the three great problems facing the Communists, namely the Japanese, the KMT and the harsh conditions of northwestern China.

Much of the filming is unquestionably clichéd, whether in the use of emotional music as background for a hackneyed montage of soldiers hard at work, weaving, training for battle, working in the fields and at play, wrestling, tug-of-war, basketball which ends with a line of soldiers heading off into the distance, or another slow-motion montage of Zhang Side playing with children, giving haircuts etc before a shot of him walking along a hillside against the setting sun. Similarly, on the outskirts of the town, we see groups of soldiers practising dancing or parading, as men on horseback fly past. The message is one of feverish earnest effort on the part of the men and women of the base camp preparing for war. These scenes, along with the concert at the start of the film and the communal watching of a war film again recall earlier films, which emphasise the importance of collective action.

However, the cinematic techniques are considerably more sophisticated than was the case in the films of the 1950s and 60s. Apart from the intercutting of shots cited above, there is also regular use of montage, jump cuts, tracking camera and crane shots primarily to show the hustle and bustle of life in the base camp area: market traders selling their wares, soldiers bringing supplies into the shops, or a range of activities inside the Lu Xun academy from life drawing to ballet, ballroom dancing to musical performance. There is also evidence of the substantial budgets awarded to films that glorify national heroes in the large crowd scenes as well as the attention to detail including, for example, the inscription on the side of Mao Zedong’s car stating that it was a gift from Song Qingling.

Furthermore, the black and white photography is of a very high standard, with one notable deep focus shot of Geng Yuqiu, the former fiancée of his close friend Liu Binzhong, in the left foreground with Zhang in the centre of the scene in the middle distance and a circular entrance in the background. The ending is surprisingly underplayed with no shot of the dying Zhang, the collapse of the hill followed merely by three brief shots, two of buildings in the base camp, and one close-up of leaves floating in water. Zhang’s fellow soldiers then line up to leave beside his body mementoes which serve as reminders of his life as it has unfolded in the course of the film, such as the mouth organ played by the absconding soldier, and the pair of plain sandals given to him by Mao Zedong. Finally, the old mute puts down a small pile of dates which turn red against the black and white background.[13] A blue wash is then used for the ensuing scene of Mao’s famous speech, before full colour appears for one last shot of Zhang running through the hills once more.

Mao’s portrayal as a god-like leader of men is linked with the film’s predominant message, the importance of father figures. After Zhang gives the glasses to the mute revolutionary veteran, the old man draws the character jia meaning family or home on the wall: Zhang Side then takes the piece of chalk, draws a circle round the jia and writes above it the characters for Yan’an above and below it the characters for son, saying that he is the son and the old man his father. Just as he is able to act as father to the orphaned Song Guangming, so he plays the role of son to an esteemed representative of the older generation. The unspoken message, of course, is that it is the avuncular Mao who is the number one father figure.

The film’s political message emerges in the scenes of discussion between Mao and the other senior party officials such as Zhou Enlai in which Mao states that the fate of the Chinese people lies at their own feet, neither in the hands of Chiang Kai-shek nor in his hands. The soldiers often talk of their frustration at being away from the frontline. This comes to a head just before Zhang’s death when he and the others discuss how to punish Bai Zixiu, a young soldier who was recaptured after absconding from the base camp because he was desperate to join those fighting the Japanese. While others call for execution, Zhang is more understanding, saying that he too wanted to go to the frontline but decided in the end that he would just consider wherever he was sent to be the frontline. Earlier we saw discussion among the fellow soldiers of the fact that Zhang has been involved in the revolutionary struggle since 1933, and is still not even a banzhang (squad leader), one of them going on to joke that he is just a mazhang (horseshoe).[14] Similarly his friend Liu Binzhong says that Zhang is too weak, too willing to do whatever he is asked to do, calling him an ox and a blockhead. Zhang Side turns these comments round. He is indeed happy to do what he is told, content to be seen as a simple horseshoe, if he can be of use to the revolutionary cause. The message is about knowing your place in the larger scheme: Zhang Side is the Lei Feng-like cog in the machine. In terms of the limited amount of narrative development offered by the film, Zhang is eventually given some responsibility as the leader of the charcoal team: in the brief period before his demise, he responds well to the challenge and the men under his leadership respond well to him. The tolerance shown by Zhang Side to Bai Zixiu matched an earlier incident when Liu Binzhong is caught up in the Rectification Campaign of 1942 and taken off to prison for dishonesty: Zhang sticks by his tarnished friend, visiting him in prison and trying to persuade Geng Yuqiu, who had disowned Binzhong following his arrest, to show some compassion by taking him back. [15]

Although the narrative of Zhang Side takes place during World War Two, the Japanese do not appear at any stage. Nevertheless, their menacing presence hangs over much of the action: In the opening concert scene, the soldiers perform a rousing song containing the kind of casually cruel lyrics typical of earlier films such as Land Mine Warfare (Dilei zhan 1962), children nodding their heads in time and happily singing along to the blood-curdling words. “Let’s cut off the devils’ heads with big knives.” [16] Later, during a brief scene when Zhang arrives with a fellow soldier at a field hospital at the same time as a new batch of casualties, his companion curses the “bastard Japanese devils” (gouri de Riben guizi). The focus is on the struggle that had to be won away from the frontline on the need for a close and harmonious relationship among the men, all of whom yearn to take part in front-line action but, thanks to the example of Zhang Side, come to realise that they need to serve the greater good by accepting whatever role they are allotted. Given the constraints under which the filmmakers were working, Zhang Side is a remarkably sober film, set in the middle of the brutal struggle against the Japanese, yet containing no battle scenes. This reflects the desire for a measured approach to the matter of relations between China and Japan which remain tense, thanks to a variety of controversial topics, from school textbooks to visits to war shrines, appearing and reappearing in the news.[17]

The appeal of the film’s retro feel, established by the black and white photography, taps in to the renewed interest within China for the films of the 1950s and 60s. Not only have many of them been repackaged in DVD form as “Red Classics”, but TV serials have been made of some of the best-known examples such as Railroad Guerillas (Tiedao Youjidui 1956) and Little Solider Zhang Ga (Xiao bing Zhang Ga 1962) (Barme, p. 118; Lewis, pp. 162-83). What is unclear is precisely how many people choose to see the main melody films: many cinemas in China have closed over the last twenty years or so and those that remain owe their survival largely to large-scale Chinese productions, like Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower, and American blockbusters. Furthermore, audience figures for the main melody films are undoubtedly bolstered by viewings arranged by state employers However, to suggest that a more knowledgeable and sophisticated audience no longer wishes to watch unadulterated propaganda is too simplistic and denies the still powerful attraction of the films of earlier eras.

Jiang Wen, whose first film In the Heat of the Sun (Yangguang canlan de rizi 1994) displayed such warm nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution, has on several occasions spoken enthusiastically of the films about the Sino-Japanese War that he grew up watching, while Wang Ban commented, “Contrary to popular assumptions, Chinese films made before the Cultural Revolution had a strong entertainment appeal” (Ban Wang, p. 125).


In terms of style, then, bar a few flourishes, Zhang Side upholds the uncomplicated tradition of the films made in the early years of the PRC, presenting a message of the need for ordinary people to act in unison to rid the Chinese nation of the Japanese menace. Despite his background, watching Yin Li’s film, with its 1950s like avoidance of any features that might confuse an audience such as a non-linear narrative, or unexpected plot twists, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Fifth Generation never happened. Though this may seem surprising given Yin’s background, it is worth noting that his 1994 film Story of Xinghua (Xinghua san yue tian), is uninspiring and highly derivative, almost Fifth Generation by numbers, made after the better-known directors had begun to move on to making films in more diverse styles.

Films about the Anti-Japanese War still matter in China, a fact underlined the host of supporting activities that accompanied the release of Zhang Side, Wang Jinyou, for example, writing in the People’s Daily, “The times may have changed, but the open door reform policy still needs the Zhang Side spirit and the spirit of serving the people” (Wang Jinyou, p. 4). The holding of the premiere in the Great Hall of the People was an additional unmistakable signal of the film’s significance and citings in official media outlets continued for some time afterwards: An overview from the People’s Daily in December 2005 of the films produced in that year, for example, singled out those that had been made to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War Two.[18]

The Zhang Side portrayed in Yin Li’s film is a much more touchy-feely character than would have been imaginable in the 1950s. A recent article in Newsweek discussing the latest rebranding of Lei Feng, cited a new book about his life which talks about his fashionable sweaters, leather jacket and wristwatch and contains some 300 never-before-published photos which reveal him, according to the Xinhua agency, to be “an obviously fun-loving young man who was hip with his times” (Liu).

All this can be seen as a response to a range of irreverent alternatives unimaginable even a few years ago, let alone in the 1950s, including suggestions, on a Falungong website, that at the time of his death Zhang Side was in reality engaged in the preparation of opium rather than charcoal, [19] to say nothing of recent works of fiction such as Yan Lianke‘s Cultural Revolution-set Serve the People, in which Liu Lian, the bored young wife of a high-ranking, elderly military officer persuades Wu Dawang, a young soldier, that his duty to serve the people in fact means that he should seduce her. [20]

By contrast, Zhang Side shows how seriously propaganda continues to be taken in present-day China and how the main melody film is used in the service of the state. The subtle changes from earlier eras in the film’s references to the KMT reflect the more conciliatory approach adopted by the CCP in recent years, a sign perhaps, as Parks M Coble has suggested, of the overarching desire of the Chinese government for unification with Taiwan, an eventuality which can only be assisted by the avoidance of outright vilification of the KMT as well as an emphasis on the importance of the United Front of Communists and Nationalist forces during the Sino-Japanese War (Coble, 394-410). The importance of the use of historical subject matter in the early years of Communist China is well documented. What films like Zhang Side show is the attention that continues to be paid in contemporary China to disseminating the approved message. Whether the films are categorised as main melody, or simply as propaganda, the intention remains the encouragement of an unswerving belief in a CCP-led Chinese nation state.

This paper was presented in a different form at the EACS Conference held in Ljubljana, Slovenia in September 2006. I would like to thank the Ljubljana audience and Screening the Past for their support, encouragement, and extremely helpful comments.

Works Cited

Geremie Barmé, In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.
Chris Berry, “Seeking Truth from Fiction: Feature Films as Historiography in Deng’s China”. Film History 7, 1995.
Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China on Screen: Cinema and Nation. New York: Columbia UP, 2006.
Yomi Braester, “Tracing the City’s Scars: Demolition and Limits of the documentary impulse in the new urban cinema” in Zhang Zhen, ed., The Urban Generation.
Tina Mai Chen, “Propagating the Propaganda Film: The Meaning of Film in Chinese Communist Party Writings, 1949-1965”. Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 15:2.
Paul Clark, Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics Since 1949. Cambridge UP, 1987.
Parks M. Coble, “China’s ‘New Remembering’ of the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance, 1937-1945”. China Quarterly vol. 190, June 2007.
Greg Lewis, “The History, Myth, and Memory of Maoist Chinese Cinema, 1949-1976”. Asian Cinema 16:1, Spring/Summer, 2005.
Melinda Liu, “Extreme Makeover: China refurbishes old Heroes”. Accessed 27/07/06.
Meng Liye, Xin Zhongguo Dianying yishu 1949-1959. Beijing: Zhongguo Dianying, 2002.
Ban Wang, The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China. Stanford University Press, 1997.
Wang Jinyou, “Sanbi Zhang Side” (Three points of comparison with Zhang Side). People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao)6 September 2004.
Yingjin Zhang, Screening China: Critical Interventions, Cinematic Reconfigurations, and the Transnational Imaginary in Contemporary Chinese Cinema. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 2002.
Yingjin Zhang, “Rebel without a cause: China’s New Urban Generation and Postsocialist filmmaking” in Zhang Zhen, Urban Generation.
Yingjin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Zhang Zhen, “Introduction”, in Zhang Zhen, ed., The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. Durham: Duke UP, 2007.
Zong Shan, “Zhang Side’s director Yin Li: Main melody just means mainstream not preaching”.


[1] Zhang Side, which was made by the August First Film Studio, owned by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), won awards for best feature film, best director and best lead actor (Wu Jun) for the 28th annual Hundred Flowers awards awarded by the film magazine Dazhong Dianying. See Yuan Yaping “Zhang Side deng huo Dazhong Dianying Baihua jiang” Renmin Ribao, 30/10/06, p. 2. For an account of the film’s premiere see: Accessed 25/08/06.
[2]  See also Chen Xiaoming, “The Mysterious Other: Postpolitics in Chinese Film”, Boundary 2, 24:3, 1997, who spoke of the revoluntionary myths of history which were established to serve as ‘the Communist panacea for the enlightenment and unification of the people’, pp. 123-141.
[3] Rana Mitter “Old Ghosts, New Memories: China’s Changing War History in the Era of Post-Mao Politics” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 38.1 (2003) 117-131, here 119. Paul Clark has suggested that the early years of Communist China saw the victory of a Yan’an clique over those filmmakers who came from the more cosmopolitan centre of Shanghai, thus further bolstering the centrality of the Yan’an experience. Paul Clark Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 56.
[4] By the late 1970s, this percentage was to drop to between 10 and 15%. Zhang Yingjin Screening China: Critical Interventions, Cinematic Reconfigurations, and the Transnational Imaginary in Contemporary Chinese Cinema (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 2002), pp. 182-3.
China Daily “Military movies with touch of reality” at: Accessed 28/08/07.
[5] For the introduction of Socialist Realism to Chinese cinema in the 1950s, see Zhang, Chinese National Cinema, pp. 202-205.
[6] For discussion of main melody films, see Wang Xiaoyu (2003), Zhongguo Dianying Shigang (Historical Outline of Chinese Cinema), (Shanghai, Guji), pp. 232-3 and Geremie Barme In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 389. The term is also translated as leitmotif. See for example, Hao Xiaoming, and Chen Yanru “The Chinese Cinema in the Reform Era” Journal of Popular Film and Television Spring, 2000. Accessed 27/09/07.
[7] Among the films released in 2005 for the latter anniversary were Qixia Temple 1937 (Qixia Si 1937), a Schindler’s List style story of a group of monks from a Nanjing temple who gave refuge to people fleeing the murderous Japanese, and In the Taihang Mountains (Taihang Shan Shang), a two and a half hour epic about a major battle for control of a vital mountain range west of Peking. The budget for the latter film was fifty million yuan, a very high figure for a film made solely with money from within China. See Anon., “Military movies with touch of reality” China Daily March 20 2006, p. 1. A further batch of main melody films was released to coincide with the National People’s Congress held in Beijing in October 2007. See Xiaomiao, “Zhuxuan lü zai women xintou jidong dianying” (Main melodies stir our hearts) Renmin Ribao 18/10/07, p. 7.
[8] There is not space here to go into the development of film in China in the 1980s and 1990s: for a clear and concise outline, see chapters 7 and 8 of Yingjin Zhang’s Chinese National Cinema.
[9] The trend was continued in the 1990s with Jiang Wen’s irreverent Devils on the Doorstep (1999), which dealt with the exceptionally sensitive subject of collaboration between the Chinese peasants and the Japanese army.
[10] This demarcation of language is also present in another recent film about the conflict. In Qixia Si 1937 it is the monks who use the neutral “Ribenren” to describe the Japanese, while the peasants use the term guizi or devils.
[11]  Jonathan Fenby notes that Chiang’s book, most of which was written by someone else, was priced at the very low price of ten cents in order to encourage sales. Jonathan Fenby Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China he lost (London: Free Press, 2003), p. 400. This more conciliatory approach is in line with that adopted by In the Taihang Mountains, referred to above, in which the KMT are shown as fighting bravely against the Japanese, even if unsurprisingly, the most important role in the conflict is given to the CCP.
[12] Lu Xun (1881-1936) was the foremost writer of the Chinese literary renaissance of the first half of the twentieth century.
[13] After the scene in which Zhang Side gave him the pair of glasses, the mute had responded with an offering of some dates.
[14] The punning use of banzhang and mazhang here is typical of what is a carefully constructed, well-written script: to give a further example, Side and Binzhong refer to each other as “country bumpkins” (tubaozi) in contrast to the “smart [ie foreign educated] Alecs” (yangbaozi), whose presence in Yan’an, is, in their eyes, all too visible.
[15] The Rectification Campaign of 1942 was aimed at addressing the serious problems of morale and social control facing the Communist Party. For details see Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China (London: Hutchinson, 1990), pp. 472-3.
[16]  A song in Land Mine Warfare, shown over images of bomb-making, has the following words:
The people are all great heroes,
Fearing no difficulty or hardship.
We’ll defeat the Japs and protect our homes,
The landmines are our good companions.
No iron for our mines so we’ll use rocks,
No dynamite so we’ll make it ourselves.
Rocks are blooming all over the hills,
We can blow up the Japs till their hearts shake with fear.
[17]  In the section of an official website titled “The Issues Remain” the topics include the Yasukuni Shrine, the Nanjing Massacre, Japanese Orphans in China, Forced Labour and Sex Slavery and Chemical and Biological Weapons. A Look Back at The Anti-Japanese War at: Accessed 06/06/07.
[18] At the film’s premiere in Beijing, Yin Li said, evidently without irony, “Chinese films cannot rely on government support, they should attract viewers by means of promotion, artistic quality and distribution.” See: Accessed 28/08/06. Mao Chun “Pandian 2005 nian guochan dianying” (A list of films produced in China in 2005) People’s Daily 28/12/2005 p. 7.
[19] For the suggestions about Zhang Side preparing opium, see Accessed 28/08/06.
[20] Yan Lianke, translated by Julia Lovell, Serve the People, London: Constable and Robinson, 2007. Yan’s novel makes considerable play of mocking the shibboleths of the Cultural Revolution, notably a wooden sign with the words “Serve the People” inscribed in bright red letters, which Liu Lian puts out in a prominent place place when she requires Wu Dawang to visit her in her bedroom. The novel was written in 2005.

Created on: Tuesday, 11 December 2007

About the Author

Julian Ward

About the Author

Julian Ward

Julian Ward is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Edinburgh, UK. He was Associate Editor of the Journal of Chinese Cinemas for the first ten years of publication from 2006 to 2016, and co-editor of the Chinese Cinema Book (London: BFI, 2011).View all posts by Julian Ward →