Japanese plane bombing Shanghai in 1941

Godís promise was fulfilled

“The following events are true”

Sung’s Shirley Temple doll

Sung’s well-to-do upbringing

Blue-clad civilians with revolutionary zeal

“Volunteer labor” in Maoist China

The omnipotent gaze of “Big Brother”

Burning the church and humiliating the priests and nuns

Martial arts sequence

Burning down the Red Light District

Sexual molestation of Sung

“It happened a decade before China’s Great Cultural Revolution…”

Communist soldiers forcing the Sung family to leave home

Japanese invaders forcing the Sung family to leave home

Young people's admiration of Chairman Mao

Redeeming the woman
from Maoist China in
China Cry: A True Story

by Jing Yang 

The U.S. desire to contain the ideological other has often manifested itself in cinematic narratives about redeeming other women from their native land. In the 1950s and 1960s, filmic tales sometimes described Soviet or Chinese women who left their homeland because they had U.S. lovers or because they suffered dreadful persecution or because they came to have another vision of life, often through Christian conversion. The cultural assimilation found in narratives about such women effectively assuaged Western anxiety at the height of the Cold War confrontation.

In a film produced during the global decline of Communism in the 1990s, such a redemption narrative recurred, with some variation, in an independent movie made for a Christian broadcasting network, Trinity (TBN). This film—China Cry: A True Story (1990, henceforth China Cry)—was adapted from a dissident’s memoir China Cry: The Nora Lam Story (1980) that was written about a woman’s flight from China in the 1950s, almost a decade before the launching of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Thus the narrative itself spans decades of Chinese history and its interpretation in the United States. The film version of China Cry was produced and released amidst a certain climate in the United States in thinking about China, that is, the revival of U.S. Cold War memories of China’s evil regime as triggered by the Tian’anmen tragedy. Both the literary memoir and the film China Cry detail the protagonist Sung Nengyi’s disillusionment with the tyrannical government, her conversion to Christianity, and her miraculous escape. Taking up a smaller part of the memoir, the film features her suffering in Maoist China and eventual redemption in the West, rather than the narrative of her individual accomplishments in the United States, which the memoir also traces. For its endeavor to probe into rather serious subject matter at the risk of box-office failure, China Cry deserves critical attention. In addition, because it continues a long tradition of acceptable narratives about oppressed Christians, it has had a particular long life through Christian media outlets in the United States.

I argue that China Cry exemplifies residual Cold War thinking through the narrative’s symbolic redemption of the Chinese woman. Traumatized by the Chinese social system, Sung gets rehabilitated in the script through her conversion to Christianity. The description of Sung’s evolvement from a blind follower of Communism to a Christian believer in the memoir echoes the kind of redemption narrative traceable to the Cold War era, such as Whittaker Chambers’ Witness (1952) which detailed the author’s period as a Communist agent, his gradual disillusionment with Communist doctrines and eventual commitment to God and freedom. By situating the film and the book within the framework of the ever-popular redemption narrative and its specific relation to the U.S. discourses of Communist China, I will explore the importance of the way the filmic narrative deals with Sung Nengyi’s transformation.   

Conventional U.S. discourses of
Communist China

The founding of the People’s Republic of China played a large role in the U.S. Cold War. The end of World War II (WWII) resulted in a new and more insidious conflict between two ideological blocs led by the United States and the Soviet Union respectively. The expansion of Communism, such as the Soviet’s blockade of Berlin and the Communist takeover of Czecholslovakia and Hungary, was seen as a security risk to the “free world” led by the United States and its European allies. The United States adopted the policy of containment via multifaceted military, economic and diplomatic strategies to stall the spread of communism. Communist victory in China, therefore, appeared “peculiarly intolerable” to the U.S. public for violating some “law of history” (Goldman, 1960: 116). Considering the century-long U.S. endeavor to expand its influences in China and the growing U.S.-Sino trade volume, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, public resentment at the “loss” of China exhibited a certain frustration at the United States’ declining power in the Cold War confrontation. Talking about the U.S. position on China just before the communist takeover, Secretary of State Dean Acheson stated that “the implementation of our historic policy of friendship for China” would be “influenced by the degree to which the Chinese people come to recognize that the Communist regime serves not their interests but those of Soviet Russia” (August 5, 1949).

The overtly communist path taken by China disturbed the previous U.S. dream to have an impact in that country by means of democracy and Christianity (Spence, 1980; Gernet, 1985). Starting with Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, the Western desire to transform the populous eastern country dominated almost all cross-cultural encounters. Seeing China as the world’s most fertile land for Christian evangelism, churches and Christian organizations in the United States had supported missionaries in China for generations. Missionaries, often simultaneously intelligence agents for the U.S. government, helped create the image of China as a “protégé” of the United States through numerous publications and took the slogan “America Assists the East” as their mandate (Tuchman, 1972: 39; Anderson, 1990). Interventions ranged from the missionaries’ efforts to convert the Chinese population to the expansion of U.S.-sponsored colleges and charity organizations to U.S. participation in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949). In a statement delivered on December 16, 1945, President Truman condemned the “autonomous” communist army and promised to help build a “strong, united, and democratic China.” Since the end of WWII Washington had funneled $3 billion financial and military aid to the Nationalist government against the uprising Communists (Mann, 2002: 111); and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) made extensive use of the American missionaries working in China for intelligence collection and for organizing a resistant movement against Communist rule. Both the U.S. government and popular U.S. opinion assumed that the United States needed to assert a kind of parental guardianship to shape the future of China.

For example, between 1931 and 1949, many Americans were convinced that China was following the U.S. example to be a model nation for Asia (Jespersen, 1997), so that in Hollywood films like The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Oil for the Lamps of China (1935), The General Died at Dawn (1936), The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), scripts contrasted the benevolent Western missionary efforts, commercial ventures and military presence to villainous warlords and communists in China. The recurrent cinematic narrative of Westerners saving Chinese women and children from Japanese invaders, Communist oppression or dire poverty confirmed the belief of Western superiority over China. Believing a universal applicability of American modes of living and values, U.S. public institutions and popular opinion could not accept that China might choose an alternative way of life.

Both U.S. public policy and former missionary paternalism collided with a surge of Chinese nationalism when Mao Zedong declared to the world atop Tian’anmen Square, “[F]rom now on, the Chinese people stand up!” In the process of socialist transformation following the Soviet Pattern, Mao adopted a hegemonic strategy through state coercion and ideological self-study. State-controlled propaganda organs employed a multitude of thought transformation techniques including the enactment of a nationwide system of loudspeakers and the constant use of mass mobilization campaigns. The state maneuvered traditional Chinese collectivism into communist ideology and attempted to eliminate private space, to minimize family life and to discipline sexual desires (Gilmartin, 1994). By organizing various communal activities in which the members were often required to take part in self-criticism or criticism of their fellows, Chinese authorities obtained a means of social control which could easily turn into an abuse of power. Despite frequent eruptions of violence in purges of counterrevolutionaries, socialist modernization gained the broadest consent of the masses in a largely illiterate population. The Maoist utopian vision and the self-empowering dream of becoming the “center” of the world revolution appealed to the masses, especially the young. The idolization of Mao reached a new height in 1966 when millions of young Red Guards gathered in Tian’anmen Square and brandished the Little Red Book to worship Chairman Mao, the great helmsman creating a unified China free of foreign domination for the first time since the Opium Wars. When the Chinese government started to root out the “corrupt” Western imperial influences, eliminated U.S.-subsidized institutions and forced U.S. diplomats, businessmen and missionaries to leave the country in the early 1950s, many Americans grumbled about the ingratitude of the Chinese government for “biting the hands that had fed them these many years” (Isaacs, 1958: 153).

Haunted by the specter of a Soviet-Sino alliance to subvert the “free world,” in the next two decades the United States tried to destabilize China’s communist rule. Washington encouraged its allies to refrain entering into diplomatic relations with Beijing, prohibited Americans from visiting China, cut off trade and imposed an international embargo of China. When CIA took steps to exploit the potential for a “Third Force” against the Chinese mainland (Lilley, 2004), Washington constructed an offshore line of military alliances along China’s eastern and southern borders. Stationing significant number of troops in Japan and South Korea, the United States formed the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization in 1954 to contain further spread of Communist power in Asia. The international climate of fear and suspicion corresponded to the rise of Red Scare in the United States. In the early 1950s Senator Joseph McCarthy, in particular, exploited public dismay at the “loss” of China as he launched his demagogic anti-Communist campaign, and American people were ideologically swept up in a struggle to eliminate “communists” from public life. 

Public condemnation of a monolithic and godless China circulated in popular media in the United States. Under the supervision of Henry Luce, son of China missionaries embittered by the Communists’ victory, Time and Life magazines played a key role in steering mass sentiment against China (Herzstein, 2005). In international radio, the Voice of America condemned China’s intervention in the Korean peninsula, and the United States Information Service (USIS) authorized mass distribution of printed materials to extol the virtues of capitalist society. Propaganda articles like “A Worker’s Life in a ‘Worker State’” and “Communist China’s Boast—Millions in Slavery” emphasized that the Chinese systems were built upon the backs of “slave labor.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] Tales of heroic Americans fighting against evil communists proliferated in Hollywood film. From the politically oriented Peking Express (1951), to the thriller Hell and High Water (1954) and TV series Soldier of Fortune (1955), to the melodrama Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (1955), The Seventh Sin (1957) and Five Gates to Hell (1959), communists from China appeared as demonic conspirators (Whitfield, 1991; Barson, 2001). In The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Satan Never Sleeps (1962), the Chinese regime was depicted as exploitative of its own people or as a threat to the American system. The description of the Anglo-American defense of Western legations against the Chinese Boxers in a historical epic 55 Days atPeking (1963) demonstrated an allegorical condemnation of the xenophobic communists. The archetypal Chinese villains of the 1930s—Fu Manchu and his vicious daughter—came back to the screens in the 1960s with their evil plan for world conquest. Strongly influenced by the depressing Orwellian view in the dystopian 1984 (1949), the Western imagination assumed that the totalitarian regime was an inevitable concomitant of Communism, as exemplified by the Hitler nightmare and the Stalinist horrors of Soviet Russia.

The dread of the state’s infiltration into individual life in China was consolidated by writings of Chinese dissidents. Eileen Chang, a prominent 1930s literary figure in China, felt intimidated by the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party’s) ideological campaigns and left for Hong Kong where the U.S. consulate watched China intensely through various monitoring and diagnostic programs. Before taking permanent residence in the United States, Chang wrote two novels in English under the sponsorship of the USIS (United States Information Service). In Rice Sprout Song (1955) and Naked Earth (1956), set against China’s land reform movement in the 1950s, she described the horrors of agricultural “communes” in which the peasants worked and slept together like a vast hive of worker bees. The depiction of the peasants’ desperate attempt to survive famine and governmental abuse made vivid the tyranny of the Maoist regime. The narrative carried extra potency due to Chang’s status as a reliable native informant. In some sense, Chang was a pioneer figure for Chinese women writers, whose accounts of persecution of the Maoist era proliferated in the West about thirty years later.

In 1989, the Tian’anmen tragedy once again raised concern in the United States about repression and lack of individual freedom in China. The event became the most visible in a long line of reminders of Communist China’s otherness. Despite the U.S.-Sino rapprochement and China’s economic decentralization in the late 1970s, China’s lack of personal freedom has always haunted Americans. For example, western journalistic accounts like China Alive in the Bitter Sea (1983), Behind the Forbidden Door: Travels in Unknown China (1985) and Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform (1988) continued to describe people’s difficulties in the post-Maoist era. In 1989, on the eve of a worldwide outburst of public indignation against Chinese corruption, inflation and the uneven distribution of social wealth, the veteran China reporter John Fairbank wondered about the survival of “Party dictatorship” as China switched from a command economy to a free market (1989).

Then when college students and unemployed workers gathered for demonstrations in Tian’anmen Square in the spring of 1989, the spectacle of turmoil thrilled the international media. Often not relating the demonstrators’ specific demands and the demands’ relation to the rapidly changing economic and political structure in China, the British Broadcasting Corporation and U.S.-owned Cable News Network reported on the event as the blossoming of the democratic seeds sown by the West.[2] Scenes of students’ erecting their own Statue of Liberty and quoting Abraham Lincoln in the political heart of China suggested to the media and to international television spectators that they were witnessing a primal, ideological confrontation between pro-democratic students and an unyielding communist government (Perlmutter, 1998: 61). The images of the students’ hunger strike, the report of the Tian’anmen “massacre” and the subsequent mass purge, replayed on TV screens with sinologists’ enumeration of Chinese despots from Mao to Emperor Qin, convinced many of the international public of the CCP’s forceful rejection of the American model of progress.

In the renewed moral outrage, U.S. Christian activists leveled criticism at the CCP regime. For example, Washington Post reported a new tide of religious persecution in China (Sun, 1991), and a Reader’s Digest article talked about the indefatigable underground Chinese Christians (Bordewich, 1991). It was in this context that the movie-tie-in book China Cry: The Nora Lam Story (1991) was published by a religious publishing house, Thomas Nelson. Compared to the book’s first edition in 1980, which received scant attention probably due to the relative improvement of U.S.-Sino relations at the time, the new version condemned the Chinese government and mentioned in particular the woman author’s evangelical crusades in China after the bloodshed in Tian’anmen Square (244).

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