China’s forgotten Socialist cinema

As argued in my previous post, China’s cinema has long been marginalised by the West. In terms of cinematic history, this includes the golden age that I discussed in my previous post. Unsurprisingly, cinema of the Mao era has been equally as marginalised and also far more controversial. So, is it acceptable to write off an entire period of cinematic production due to its connection with the politics of the time? To put it bluntly, is all Mao era cinema simply propaganda?

Politics aside, cinema production of this period was certainly more advanced than seen before in China. The 1961 film of the ballet The Red Detachment of Women is a glossy epic. While the film certainly is pro-Maoist ideology, namely promoting the key role of women in the CCP’s success, it is a grand production. Perhaps we should be able to separate these two issues. For example, at a recent conference in London regarding the arts of the Cultural Revolution, Dr. Yawen Ludden discussed the artful composition and production of the films of the Eight Model Operas. I believe that we should remember that these were productions with all the effort and talent of any other work and that their value as Maoist propaganda does not change that.

In his 2012 book China and Orientalism, Vukovich argues that Orientalism contributes to the demonization of Maoism. While there is a lot of hard hitting evidence to encourage the demonization of Maoism, principally the widely accepted fact that his leadership strategies contributed to the deaths of millions, Vukovich’s argument is worth considering. That is, the West uses the events of the Mao era to assume a lack of autonomy on the part of the Chinese people, as well as subservience to authoritarianism. While the ideologically charged socialism of that period has now been largely replaced by a focus on market capitalism, Vukovich argues that imaginaries of authoritarianism and repression dominate Western imaginaries of China.

The ‘auto-ethnographic’ Orientalist films of the late 1980s and 1990s became some of the first to be awarded high praise in the West. Many have argued that these films succeeded in the West because they showed exotic difference in ways that satisfied the voyeuristic Western gaze. In this way, it could be argued that Mao-era cinema was too different and manifested a difference wasn’t palatable. That is, the Western demonization of Communism may have prevented any recognition of Mao era cinema.

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