China’s Pop Propaganda: Beginning of the Great Revival

Posted on June 21, 2011

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Last week, another “main theme” (zhuxuanlü) “big piece” hit Chinese theaters with the force comparable to a Hollywood blockbuster. Beginning of the Great Revival, a tribute to the forthcoming 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), opened in theaters across China on June 15.

It’s no secret that cultural production has been a favorite and an effective tool for the CPC to promote its legitimacy and mobilize the public throughout the years since its formation. In recent years, as China develops its market economy and opens up its cultural market, the CPC has not only embraced the Western model of cultural production and the emerging popular celebrity culture, but puts them to use. Beginning of the Great Revival, among others, is a perfect example of this effort. A companion production following The Founding of a Republic (2009), Beginning of the Great Revival depicts the historical events starting from the Nationalist Revolution in 1911 and leading to the founding of the CPC in 1921.

A Hong Kong-Mainland joint production, the movie is marketed at the same time as a “main theme” movie that praises the achievements of the CPC and its “leader” position in China, and a production that has a stunning stellar cast. It’s said that 173 movie stars and celebrities appeared in the movie, one for every 30 seconds. Among them, many are A-list stars in China such as Chou Yun Fat (Crouching Tiger), Ye Liu (Lan Yu), Zhao Benshan (Happy Times), Zhou Xun (Suzhou River), Fan Bingbing (Lost in Beijing), Leehom Wang (Lust, Caution), John Woo (Mission Impossible, director), and Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs). This cast is even more extravagant than that of its predecessor, The Founding of a Republic, which includes A-list actors such as Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger), Donnie Ye (Hero), Jakie Chan (Rush Hour), and Stephen Chow (Kong Fu Hustle).

And this star-gazing extravaganza type of marketing worked. In less than a week’s time after its opening, Beginning of the Great Revival already grossed about 150 million yuan ($24 million). The Legal Evening (Fazhi Wanbao) estimated that its total box office gross will surpass that of The Founding of a Republic, which grossed a total of a staggering 420 million yuan ($67.7 million).

Many microbloggers confessed on weibo.com, where Beginning of the Great Revival has been the most talked about topic for a week and stays no. 1 today, that they went to see the movie because of the cast. “Just came back from Beginning of the Great Revival. For illiterates of history, they go to [the movie] only to count stars,” weibo user 发发0924 writes. Indeed, it turns out that many young Chinese are perhaps more familiar with the movie stars and celebrities than the historical figures portrayed in the movie. As another weibo user VivickieM admits, “After seeing Beginning of the Great Revival – I know who were acting, but don’t know whom they played…  pretty scary…”

However, besides its all-star glory, the cast drew so much attention from the netizens also because of a list circulated before the release of the movie that supposedly exposed the nationalities of the main actors in the movie. According to the list (the poster below @米店lynne), the citizenships of most of the actors in the cast are of countries other than China, although most of them were born and have built their careers in China. On the poster, it says, “International friends take part in a revolutionary movie for China’s sake; what spirit is this?,” parodying Mao’s article commemorating the Canadian physician Henry Norman Bethune, who served Chinese people and die on duty in the 1930s. After a long list of the “international” actors, Wei Tang (Lust, Caution) is listed as “Chinese,” followed, however, by a note stating “the only Chinese, who has been cut after all.”

This list and some variations of it have been circulated online for quite some time, and stirred up much criticism and ridicule among netizens. “[This is a] Chinese characteristic. Chinese government officials should love the Party and the country best, but all of them have sent their offsprings overseas to hide away,” a microblogger, 真诚处世, writes. Others blame the hard life in China, “[This is] great irony. If I could, I’d leave too. These days it’s hard to love our country, when you have to pay to go to an educational base to get patriotic education,” 真诚处世 writes. “So many celebrities don’t want to be Chinese; what does this say [about China]?” writes 来自火星的小鱼.

However, after the opening of the movie, some netizens pointed out that many actors on the list did not appear in the movie. Nevertheless, the list is still being reposted by weibo users. (Wei Tang’s part has indeed been cut due to a ban on her in Mainland China because of her part in Lust, Caution.)

Perhaps what’s more of “Chinese characteristic” than anything else is how the movie is watched. This might sound strange to people outside China, but many Chinese “working units,” including both public and private sectors, organize movie watching events for their employees to watch this movie. Some employers arrange special screenings in theaters for their employees, some bought group tickets, and some have screenings on their own premises (perhaps using pirated DVDs). In fact, according to Shenzhen Evening (Shenzhen Wanbao), special screenings and group tickets for Beginning of the Great Revival counted for more than half of its gross in Shenzhen during the first weekend of its showing. Some netizens don’t care too much about special screenings or group viewings, such as 彼岸花annie, who writes.

My company out of blue organized a movie watching event for employees, Beginning of the Great Revival! I surprised myself by sitting through the two hours. To be honest, except for a few faces of stars, the movie really sucks ~~~ what’s reported in the news that it grossed several hundreds of millions, if it were not for companies’ and organizations’ group screenings and sponsoring, would have been a dream of Han Sanping (the producer).

Some even criticized that organizing special screenings or buying group tickets for civil servants is a questionable way for the government to spend tax payers’ money.

Others are amused that the pirated version of the movie is already available, free. Weibo user kpCheung found that the HD version of the movie is already available on her/his company’s intranet. “Wahahaha! [They gave us a] political task to reach 80 million box office gross? Go screw yourself ,” (s)he writes.

More netizens simply point out the irony of the movie. One of the most reposted weibos on this topic is a quote from the Associate Dean of the Law School of China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL), He Bing:

This is a ridiculous time: it encourages you to sing revolutionary songs, but doesn’t encourage you to start a revolution; it encourages you to watch Beginning of the Great Revival, but doesn’t encourage to found a political party.

The movie is titled The Founding of the Party in Chinese, and what He pointed out is the illegitimate one-party rule in China.

Many netizens compared today’s China to the China under Beiyang Gevernment’s rule before the Nationalist Revolution. “Now everybody’s saying that Beginning of the Great Revival has made us see the good side of Beiyang Government,” writes RoyGong, in reply to Liu小某‘s post, “em, turned out to be a historical analogy.”

Another weibo user, 芮成钢, writes:

After watching Beginning of the Great Revival, [I think] it was well made! Through vivid cinematography, captivating cases, heart-warming details, [the movie] depicts the Beiyang era: newspapers could be owned privately, news could criticize the government, universities could maintain intellectual independence, students could go out onto streets to protest, the mass could form organizations, the police couldn’t arrest people randomly, power had boundaries, laws were enforced, human rights were ensured, the poor had a way out, the youth had aspirations…

The history textbook version of Beiyong Government in China is a corrupted and oppressive government that the revolutionaries sought to overthrow. Comparing the China under the ruling of Beiyong Government to the China today, netizens found a way to express their dissatisfaction with the lack of civil rights, abuse of power, corruption, declining of culture, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor in today’s China.

Unsurprisingly, on the most popular movie review site in China, douban.com, the rating and reviewing options for Beginning of the Great Revival are turned off. About this, weibo user V时评 writes:

First on the profile of Beginning of the Great Revival on Douban, [they] got rid of the forum, then comments, and later, because about 90% of viewers gave it one star (out of 5), they even got rid of rating, making this movie the first one in Douban’s history that does not allow rating, commenting, reviewing, recommending, or marking as “seen” or “want to see.” About the content of this movie, [I] suggest a disclaimer: “Danger! Don’t imitate!”

Beginning of the Great Revival is scheduled to open on June 24 in the U.S.

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