China Cinematography – From the 1945 to Post-Maoism

The second postwar period and the foundation of a new regime

According to, fundamental events in the country’s history took place between 1945 and 1949, culminating in the proclamation, in Beijing, of the People’s Republic of China, led by Mao Zedong. A second golden age was envisaged in the cinema and the directors of some of the most significant films set the stories between the thirties and the mid-forties, in a real confrontation with the recent past: from the wide temporal scan of Yaoyuan de ai (1947, Love far) by Chen Liting to that of Songhua jiang shang (1947, Along the Sungari River) by Jin Shan, up to Shanghai at war narrated in the most famous title of the period, Yijiang chunshui xiang dong liu (1947, The spring river flows to the East) of Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli. To which were added the ‘moral’ comedies of Sang Hu, such as Taitai wansui (1947, Long live the lady!) And Taiping chun (1950, The Spring of Peace), made for Wenhua. Shortly before, in 1946, Cai Chusheng had been among the architects of the recovery of the Lianhua studios, forming in 1947 a larger group within the Kunlun company, producer of many famous films, including the one directed by Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli.

Quantitatively richer, Chinese cinema in the period of the People’s Republic was however increasingly marked by orthodoxy and – despite the theory of the ‘Hundred Flowers’, promoted in 1956 – by a rigid adherence to the canons of socialist realism. As early as the early 1950s, US films – which had exerted considerable influence – were banned, in place of which many Soviet films were released. This did not prevent possible references to Italian Neorealism (the harsh, picaresque San Mao liulang ji, San Mao, little vagabond, by Zhao Ming and Yan Gong, started moreover under the Guomindang and ended in 1949), although mostly they faced – and in a rhetorical way – fairytale or legendary events, albeit with an obvious emblematic nature. Conversely, a less obvious ‘moral’ we had with Bai mao nü (1950, The white-haired girl) by Wang Bin and Shui Hua, a reworking of a story linked to tradition, to which the folkloristic music also refers. It should not be forgotten, however, that the situation in the country was much less schematic and more complex than it might seem: the historical film Qing gong mishi (1948, Secret History of the Qing Court) by Zhu Shilin, set in a historical phase between the era of the widowed empress Cixi (1889) and the Boxer revolt, he was accused of treason and withdrawn from the screens upon its release in 1950 (apparently inspired by Mao himself), an accusation that was raised again later, during the cultural revolution (which began in 1966), by a critic-official close to Jiang Qing, wife of Mao. During the fifties and up to the early sixties, there was the rebirth of melodrama, for example. through Xie Jin’s films, and to the appearance of works celebrating Communist heroes or heroines of the anti-Japanese resistance, as in Sha Meng’s Zhao Yiman (1950). In 1947 Wu Xinzai founded the Wenhua company, composed largely of members of the Kugan theater group, directed by Huang Zuolin, director of highly successful plays.

Probably the paradigmatic example of the ostracism that the Maoist regime turned against courageous works – or not linked to new political, aesthetic and cultural imperatives – was constituted by the condemnation of a film by Sun Yu, Wu Xun zhuan (The life of Wu Xun, 1950, on a legendary figure at the time of the end of the Manchu dynasty). A few years later, in 1956, the year the Beijing Film Academy was founded, Mao himself, who had lashed out against this film, became the architect of the ‘One Hundred Flowers’ campaign, that is the ephemeral proposal to promote a free cultural debate in the country. The consequence was that intellectuals and artists welcomed the solicitation en masse, but the regime immediately contradicted it,

From the 1960s to post-Maoism

Elected president at the eighth congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1956 – with Deng Xiaoping general secretary – Mao left the presidency of the republic to Liu Shaoqi in 1959. But after years marked by economic and productive recovery, the conflict with India and the explosion of the first Chinese atomic bomb, 1966 marked a watershed date, with the start of the cultural revolution wanted by Mao and the parade of the Red Guards on Tian’anmen Square, a symbolic act of the Maoist clan for a strategy of destabilizing the party structure. Thus began a phase of conflicts and guerrillas, of forced exodus towards the countryside, which culminated in 1968 with the expulsion from the party of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping and, in 1969, with the appointment of Lin Biao as heir of Mao. On the cinematographic level, the consequences were not only of a censorious nature, but also of a strong limitation of production, up to the total inactivity of the two-year period 1967-1969. It was in the mid-sixties, in the midst of the cultural revolution, that the cinema suffered the greatest setbacks, especially at the hands of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, a famous actress of the thirties. The latter succeeded in imposing the cultural revolution in the arts, through the ‘renewal’ of the Opera – which was directed towards contemporary themes – of ballet and so-called revolutionary theater, which was to supplant cinema. It was Jiang Qing herself who decided to ban or even eliminate actors and directors who, at times, had worked with her, such as Xie Tian, ​​Tian Han or Zhou Yang.

1966 also marked the moment of formation of the ‘Fourth Generation’ of directors, including Teng Wenji, Xie Fei, Zhang Nuanxin, Wu Tianming, in fact active only many years later, i.e. in the debut phase of the ‘Fifth Generation’ directors.. Shortly after 1949, the so-called Third Generation of filmmakers had formed, whose main exponents were, with Xie Jin, Shui Hua (Liehuo zhong yongsheng, 1965, Immortals in the flames) and Xie Tieli (Zaochun eryue, 1963, Early Spring). Still during the cultural revolution, Bai mao nü was banned as a film, but also transformed into a regime ballet. Xie Jin, a very active director in the 1950s and 1960s, was able to sign blatant propaganda works such as Hongse niangzi jun (1961, Red Women’s Detachment) and masterpieces such as Wutai jiemei.

But on closer inspection, even in the early seventies there was no real production. The ‘films’ that came out were in reality only the filming of the five model works of the revolutionary theater wanted by Jiang Qing, including Hong deng ji (1970, The red lantern) by Cheng Yin and Bai mao nü (1972, The girl with the hair bianchi, the regime ballet that refers to the film of the same name in 1950) by Sang Hu, already author in 1956 of the color adaptation (Song Shijie, with the great actor Zhou Xinfang) of a famous show of the Peking Opera, whose theme is the corruption of the magistrates. Only after the fall of Lin Biao in 1971, the return of Deng Xiaoping – favored by Zhou Enlai – and the death of Mao (1976) did the production resume, so much so that 1978 marked the reopening of the Beijing Film Institute. who welcomed those who would later form the ‘Fifth Generation’, from Zhang Yimou to Chen Kaige, from Tian Zhuangzhuang to Ning Ying. Directors who were able to see many works of the history of Chinese cinema at the Beijing Film Library.

China Cinematography - From the 1945 to Post-Maoism