Politics & Protest SinoBeat

‘Red culture’ adapts to new audiences ahead of 70th anniversary

Dressed in a blood-stained Chinese army uniform and a cap with a red star in the centre, Wang Huaifu and his comrades gesture with guns in front of a row of soldiers triumphantly waving torn scarlet flags.

Wang is the lead actor in the patriotic “Battle of Shanghai” acrobatics show, a visual recreation of 1949 battles between the Communists and the Nationalists for control of Shanghai.

“Today’s China and Shanghai did not come to be as it is easily. It was fought for,” said 35-year-old Wang, who stars as a commander.

From movie screens to theatre stages, China’s entertainment industry has turned red ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on Tuesday.

China’s film sector wields huge power and is expected to become the largest cinema market in the world by 2020 with strong box office growth and rising ticket prices, according to consultancy PwC.

Ever since it seized power in 1949, the ruling party has used media and entertainment as propaganda tools to spread patriotism which is rooted in the core of communism ideologies.

But experts say patriotic entertainment has had to adapt to appeal to China’s urbanised and cosmopolitan young adults who have become huge fans of Hollywood blockbusters.

People's Liberation Army Shanghai

People’s Liberation Army troops entered to Nanjing Road, Shanghai on May 25, 1949. Photo: CPC.

“We are not trying to proceed with the spoon-feeding, rigid type of education,” said Dong Zhengzhen, scriptwriter of “Battle of Shanghai”.

“We should let the young people feel and consciously absorb through the charm of art itself.”

The historical drama “My People, My Country” — based on seven memorial moments since 1949 — draws on “narrative and production techniques more commonly associated with Hollywood”, said Nicole Talmacs, China cinema scholar at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

The film “downplays the stiff didactic approaches to ‘history telling’ that previous anniversary films have resorted to,” Talmacs said.

The historical drama will roll out in almost 40 countries including the US, Canada and Australia the day after its debut in China — partly due to Chinese media moguls’ aggressive acquisition of cinema chains worldwide.

“Chinese patriotism is no longer a localised affair,” said Talmacs.

‘Inappropriate’ entertainment

While China’s entertainment industry tries to appeal to wider audiences, censors have recently whittled out and replaced shows with those that push the Communist cause.

In July the National Radio and Television Administration’s development research centre released a list of 86 TV programmes that “eulogise the motherland, the people and the heroes” for TV stations to play during the key political year.

It also banned costume serials and dramas that have “strong entertainment elements” during the run-up to the anniversary.

Costume dramas — such as the hugely popular series “Story of Yanxi Palace”, which drew 18 billion views — used to be abundant in China but are frowned on by the authorities for celebrating a lavish, scheming lifestyle under empirical rule.

And in June, the premiere of Chinese war epic “The Eight Hundred” was cancelled after an association of retired party cadres deemed it “inappropriate” because they said it glorified the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang.

The Eight Hundred

A poster and still from “The Eight Hundred”. Photo: Apple Daily.

Instead, a wave of stirring artistic offers are being rolled out to “firmly grasp the correct political direction, public opinion and value orientation,” the top media body said mid-September.

The China Film Producers’ Association has called on the cinema industry to use films to “vigorously promote patriotism as the core of the national spirit”.

‘Powerful tool’

Movies such as “Liberation”, “My People, My Country” and “Chairman Mao 1949” are filling Chinese movie theatres.

“The Bugle from Gutian”, a film reflecting events that established the principle of absolute leadership of the Communist Party over the army, hit the cinemas on Army Day in August.

“I was very touched,” said audience member Liu Hexin, after watching it in Beijing. “There had been so many predecessors shedding their blood for the beautiful life we have today.”

Since the young crew of “Battle of Shanghai” was not alive 70 years ago, Dong and other directors on the show arranged visits to cemeteries where soldiers from the Communist People’s Liberation Army are buried, as well as history classes.

“I think culture is the most powerful tool (for conveying messages) because literature and art works can cultivate roots and souls,” said the show’s chief director Li Chunyan.

As streets, subways, and screens across the country turn red ahead of the October 1 anniversary, Wang said he will celebrate the PRC’s 70th year on stage.

“I hope to spread the positive energy and spirit to more people… so that I can be worthy of playing such a hero like the commander,” he says.

'Red culture' adapts to new audiences ahead of 70th anniversary