Motion Pictures & the Chinese Propaganda State


A review of International and Wartime Origins of the Propaganda State: The Motion Picture in China, 1897-1955, by MATTHEW DAVID JOHNSON. 

Last autumn, the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China was marked not only by an elaborately choreographed parade, but also by an epic film, “The Founding of a Republic” (Jianguo daye). Funded by the state-owned China Film Group and featuring a gratuitously star-studded cast including Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, and Jackie Chan, “The Founding of a Republic” recounted for its domestic audience, yet again, the Civil War that brought the Chinese Communist Party to power. This cinematic event and countless similar examples beg the question: how have politics and cultural production become so closely and mutually intertwined throughout the history of modern China? In “International and Wartime Origins of the Propaganda State,” Matthew D. Johnson questions simplistic explanations of these trends as “socialist” or uniquely “Chinese,” moving beyond conventional framings to realize a compelling analysis of the roles of both the pre-1949 wartime context and international influence upon the emergence of the Chinese propaganda state.

Film first arrived in China in the late 19th century, at a moment of rapid social and political change. Johnson illustrates how subsequent developments in film were not only based in, but also contributed to, these changes. The first chapter, “Colonialism, War, and Cinema from the Late Qing to the Republic, 1897-1927” introduces the conundrum facing Chinese elites in the late Qing and early Republican era: while the new medium of film possessed the ability to reshape popular consciousness and to promote China’s image on the world stage, modern communications technologies were largely foreign-owned and frequently used in the colonizing degradation of China’s image. Although a Chinese-owned private film industry emerged in the first quarter of the twentieth century, this development resulted in a balancing act between private enterprise and state control, a tension which would remain for decades to come. As Johnson demonstrates in the second chapter, “Cinematic Partyfication and Internationalism: The Nationalist Revolution, 1924-1937,” elite admiration for the fully nationalized film industries of the Soviet Union and fascist Italy was tempered by the popularity of “vulgar” films from Shanghai and Hong Kong, as well as persistent technical and material constraints.

In Chapter Three, “Wartime Propaganda States, 1937-1945,” Johnson skillfully shows how cinema yielded to the omnipresent logic of wartime mobilization as the Nationalists, the Communists, and the Japanese state of Manchuria each used film to influence mass opinion and legitimate their political power. Driven by wartime mobilization, the Nationalists attempted to assimilate commercial modes of production under state control; yet a lack of resources left the Nationalist film industry unable to realize its hegemonic aspirations. The Communists, located in remote Yan’an and subject to frequent blockades and attacks, were not significantly more successful, failing to construct even basic film production facilities. At times, the Yan’an production stories recounted by Johnson read as tragicomic sagas: A Border Region Labor Hero, originally slated to be a major Yan’an production, lost scriptwriters, faced electric shortages and other technical difficulties, was repeatedly disrupted by battles, and was finally abandoned when the figure upon whom the story was based, Wu Manyou, was captured by the Nationalists and issued a public denunciation of the Communist Party. Japanese-occupied Manchuria, in the meantime, saw the emergence of an integrated ‘state-policy’ film industry which would serve as a model for later state film operations.

Chapter Four, “Propaganda, Disinformation, and Spectacles from the Civil War to National Inauguration, 1945-1949,” demonstrates how wartime experience and particularly the legacy of Manchurian state policy influenced subsequent developments in film. Nationalists hurried to take over Japanese studios upon their surrender, and subsequently oversaw a dramatic shift toward greater state control of film. Yet the Chinese Communist Party, using communications as a supplement to armed combat, eventually emerged victorious: Johnson observes how Communist films appropriated the imagery of popular sovereignty for self-legitimization, creating the now familiar spectacular tie between the Party and “the people.” Behind these romanticized images, Johnson observes, lay an exhaustive apparatus of internal directives, politically restrictive film “theory,” and multiple permits for filming and even screening.

In Chapter Five, “State Cinema in the New China, 1949-1955,” Johnson traces the final resolution of the conflict between private film production and state control, with the latter clearly emerging victorious in the Maoist era. For a state already convinced of the need for ideological uniformity, the Korean War provided justification for the implementation of a territorially expansive and ideologically centralized nation-building project that exercised absolute control in almost every facet of society, including film production. Yet in Chapter Six, “Cold War Culture Industry: National and International Contexts, 1949-1955,” Johnson further complicates this image, showing how this totalizing system was buttressed by a curious combination of embargoes and exchange. Although “Hollywood fare” quickly fell victim to the anti-imperialist fervor of the Korean War, high-level cadres and trusted filmmakers still studied international film magazines and Hollywood releases for insights. Propaganda films not only produced a particular vision of the state for domestic audiences, but also, through film festivals, for international audiences. The post-1949 film industry which emerges in Johnson’s analyses is thus a totalizing and censorial state industry which was nevertheless profoundly influenced by the broader international context.

Drawing upon extensive interviews and newly accessible archives, “International and Wartime Origins of the Propaganda State” not only provides a memorable history of elite attempts to grapple with the new medium of film, but also highlights previously overlooked factors in the emergence of the post-1949 cultural leviathan. By moving beyond conventional and reductive explanations of communism or Chineseness, Johnson’s emphasis upon wartime and international influence demonstrates the rich confluence of factors which produced the propaganda state as we know it today. In so doing, he has not only provided a more nuanced framework for understanding the development of Chinese film, but also for thinking about post-1949 culture and history in general.

Kevin Carrico
PhD. Candidate
Department of Anthropology
Cornell University


Dissertation Information

University of California, San Diego, 2008. 485 pp. Primary Advisors: Joseph W. Esherick and Paul G. Pickowicz.


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